Government and Religion

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Government and Religion


The Fusion of Religious and Political Power. The practice of separating governmental power and religious authority was not a feature of politics in ancient West Africa. Political and religious leadership roles were frequently fused in one person. Ritual beliefs, myths, and dogmas were central to the exercise of power. The king was accountable both to the living and to the ancestors. As part of his responsibilities, he served as a mediator between his domain and the realm of the deceased, and the extent to which he maintained harmony between the temporal world of the living and the supernatural world of the ancestors was a measure of his success as a ruler. He was responsible for good order in society, which was partially created through harmony between its secular and nonsecular components. The king’s powers were held in check by religious, as well as institutionalized, sanctions. He had a duty to serve the living and the dead. Both the king and the people believed that a ruler’s transgressions could be punished by the ancestors. This notion that the ruler was answerable to the ancestors as well as the living was an important principle of governance, serving as a powerful check on the propensity to abuse power.

Islam. The introduction of Islam into West Africa during the eighth century had a profound impact on the political, economic, and religious life in some parts of the region. In some communities Islam modified the indigenous political system. For instance, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence increasingly became important elements in the administration of law and justice. With the introduction of Islam, political power in several parts of West Africa became organized on the basis of Islamic religious precepts. For example, matrilineal descent systems in societies converted to Islam were changed into patrilineal systems—a transformation that had a profound impact on the succession of rulers. Many West Africans in the Islamic empires were exposed to Arabic culture and Islamic scholarship. Islam was also a key component in the development of diplomatic and cultural ties between West Africa and the Middle East. In religious terms, however, the impact of Islam was not monumental. For a long time West African converts to Islam continued to practice their indigenous African religions as well. Rulers such as Sundiata skillfully combined Islamic faith with the worship of indigenous African gods. In Mali, Ghana, and several other West African kingdoms, Islam was practiced in the royal courts, but traditional African religions were dominant outside the palaces.

Muslim “Crusaders.” Islam also changed the fundamental purpose and character of warfare in West Africa. In the early phase of its introduction to West Africa, Islam was propagated through peaceful means by Muslim

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merchants. In its later phase it was imposed largely by force of arms. For the first time bloody wars of religious conversion were waged. Many North African invaders saw themselves as warriors for Allah in a region dominated by “nonbelievers.” The Almoravids, Muslim militants from North Africa, believed in the doctrine of Islamic purity. They used military conquest to spread Islam in West Africa. In many places, people put up stiff resistance against the imposition of Islam, particularly in the gold-producing regions, where resistance to Islam was manifested through the refusal of the people to mine the desired quantities of gold for Muslim merchants and rulers.


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Government and Religion