By Rob Eep
In 1493, a usurper, whom we know as Askia al-ḥājj Muhammad Ture, captured the reins of power in imperial Songhai mow Mali by defeating an army led by Sunni Baru, the rightful heir to the throne of the great warrior king Sunni Ali Beer, who had died the year before under suspicious circumstances. After deposing Sunni Baru, Askia Muhammad established a new dynasty of ‘Askias’ who would rule imperial Songhay with different degrees of skill and success until the state’s destruction at the hands of an invading Moroccan army in 1591. In both the 17th century Arabic chronicles of Songhai history written in Timbuktu, and in much of the modern historiography of the Songhai Empire, Askia Muhammad is represented as a novel political figure because of the extent to which he sought to legitimize his rule on explicitly Islamic credentials. Askia Muhammad became a patron of Muslim scholars and holy men in commercial towns such as Timbuktu and he undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1496-7 soon after establishing himself in power. Upon his return to West Africa, he endeavored to put his rule on a sound Islamic footing by winning the approval of a prominent North African scholar named Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Maghīlī (d. 1504), who visited the Songhai capital of Gao in 1498. The written text which records Askia Muhammad’s questions and al-Maghīlī’s answers offers us a unique window onto medieval west African statecraft. Above all, it reveals an argument made by Askia Muhammad that his regime would respect the letter of Islamic law. This adherence to the law was contrasted with the behavior of his predecessor Sunni Ali Baru who, despite his claim to be a Muslim, was described as both unjust in his treatment of Muslims and insincere in his profession of Islam.
The Tarikh al-Fatash document.
*The Tarikh al-fattash is a West African chronicle re-written in Arabic in the second half of the 17th century. It provides an account of the Songhay Empire from the reign of
Sonni Ali (ruled 1464-1492) up to 1599 with a few references to events in the following century. The chronicle also mentions the earlier Mali Empire. It and the Tarikh al-Sudan, another 17th century chronicle giving a history of Songhay, are together known as the Timbuktu Chronicles.
Did the Ta’rikh al-Fattash document and the questions of Askiya Muhammad make different arguments for the legitimacy of Askiya Muhammad’s seizure of power in Songhai?
They are equally arguing for the same outcome. One finds both the Tar’rikh al-Fattash and the questions of Askiya Muhammad to Al-Maghili to be supportive of Askiya Muhammad’s legitimacy of seizure of power in Songhai, despite the coup being regarded by tradition as illegal. The documents offer praise of his image and great endorsement to his validity as king and champion of political reformation and transformation in the last days of Songhai empire.
In the Ta’rikh al-Fattash, the author seemed to chronicle the events that led to the times of Askiya Muhammad’s seizure of power. The documents largely describe and praise the unorthodox king as God-sent. It provides an explicit account of what went wrong with Askiya Mohamed predecessors especially their abhorrent tactics of brutality and tyranny towards subjects which in a way justified Muhammad’s enthronement. It degrades kings such as Sonni Ali and those before him as guilty of misconduct and abuse of power and transgressions towards the people of Songhai and that there was no way such bloodline could continue to rule.
The Ta’rikh al-Fattash does further provide a comprehensive and vivid narrative of Askiya’s style of rulership after seizing control of Songhai, particularly, after challenging and overthrowing Sonni Ali’s son. Askiya immediately implemented a leadership that was unconventional and revolutionary one that sought to implement Islamic law in contrast to his many various predecessors despite their legitimacy to the throne and direct descent from Sundiata Keita. Sonni Ali’s quality of rulership and reputation had been tainted by bloodshed and carnage to which Askiya pursued to change and introduce a new protocol and unorthodox administration that went by radical Islamic tradition and koranic teachings, largely in quest to implement justice and order in line of his self-view as messenger of Allah.
The Tar’rikh al-fattash painted Askiya Muhamad as highly honorable. In one translated passage, the observer writes. “It would be difficult to enumerate his [Askiya] many virtues and qualities such as his strong political skill, his goodwill towards his subjects and his concern for the poor”.
“It would be difficult to find his match from any ruler who came before him or after him”. He writes. “He had a warm regard for the Ulemas,…beyond the obligatory duties, he gave many alms and performed highest acts of devotion. He was a man of greatest intelligence and clairvoyance.” (Wise, 116)
The condemnation of Sonni Ali and his predecessors in the chronicles somehow elevates Asikiya Muhammad’s position and paints him as a good man. His greatness is alternatively heard about in question two to Algerian scholar Al-Maghili whereby, king Sonni Ali is continually described as a non-devout Muslim and an evil leader in the questions. Reference to his mother in the passage as an idol worshipper is stressed. Sunni Ali is described in relation to this practice which in Islamic doctrine is regarded as awful, Barbaric and backward. He is described to have trusted those idols in addition to worshipping ancestral spirits than consult the Islamic God of the Koran. In essence, he is defined as if he had not yet been civilized despite being Muslim. He is condemned in the four “questions” to have shunned the attendance of mosque on Fridays and refrained from praying with the common people but also his act of making lawful the shedding of blood and seizure of the property of Muslims. The passage goes on to explicitly spell the awful deeds by Sonni Ali and putting in context how incomparable this evil king was to the new king Askiya Muhammad who in many ways was defined as a man of Allah one who carried with him great courage and wisdom.
“He [Sonni Ali] put to death scholars, jurists and priests, women, infants and others…, he sold seized property and sold men free men to the extent that cannot be measured. Then after his death the Amir Askiya Muhammad ruled and possessed the land and brought people back from polytheism and the practice of evil”. (Question 2 to Al Maghili)
In a way, the unflattering definitions of Sonni Ali’s reputation were to help show to the world how Askiya Mohammed was justified in taking over the throne in contravention of Songhai cultural protocols. Question two largely deliberates on whether to posthumously punish Sonni Ali and the descendants of his general and condemn them to the eternal slavery as punishment for what they did to Islam and the people of the land.
In question four to Al-Maghili, however, Askiya Mohammad continued to cast questions that intended to legitimize his unconventional ascendance to power with regards to his coup d’etat.
“if there is a land in which there are Muslims and their sultan is oppressive or their chief seizes their property in an unjust and aggressive way, should I or should I not drive away that oppressor from them, even if this leads to his being killed? Similarly, if there is a sultan who levies [unlawful] taxes and does not restrain wrongdoers, is it for me to curb him through fighting and killing or not?” He Asked.
In this passage, analogies of scenarios are drawn making it clear that for the people to obtain justice, evil tyrant kings or Sultans must be put to death and replaced by any means as he did.
One learns in the last parts of the fourth question that both Askiya and scholar Al Maghili were applying the tact of dialogue in search for missing effective laws to introduce in the land. The moral aspect in the implementation of those laws was crucial to them.
“And what is the ruling concerning a man who buys [from the sultan] something he seized by force or like means from the property of orphans and others and does this to such an extent that we cannot distinguish his original property from what he purchased from the property [confiscated from other] people? Does everything which is in his possession go to the Public Treasury or not? . . .” (Question 4 to Al Maghili)
Wise, Christopher. The Timbuktu Chronicles, 1493-1599: Tarikh al-fattash. Trenton,
New Jersey: Africa World Press. 2011.
Askiya Muhammad’s Questions to Al Maghili: Songhay Sovereignty.pdf