Abū ʿUbayd ʿAbd Allâh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz al-Bakrī (1040-1094 CE) was a Muslim scholar born in Spain, but spent much of his life in Cordova, a principal city in Andalusia, then under the control of Islamic Iberia. A noted theologian and geographer, al-Bakrī’s account of north and west Africa is based on documentary sources, such as Muhammad bin Yusuf al-Warraq’s now lost work, and travelers and merchants who traveled to the Sahara and the Sudanic region, stretching from northwestern to northeastern Africa. Al-Bakrī never left Spain, much less travel to Africa. Nonetheless, his surviving account has become one of the most important sources on eleventh century north and West Africa, especially its description of the kingdom of Wagadu (“ancient Ghana”). As al-Bakrī notes below, “Ghana is a title the people give to their kings.” The name Wagadu comes from oral sources. The kingdom of Wagadu emerged around the fourth century CE, situated, as it were, between the southern Saharan desert and the savanna grasslands north of the West African forest. Wagadu was also located on major routes of the Trans-Saharan trade network, where it traded in gold, ivory, salt, kola, and cloth. Control of these routes were crucial to its expansion and success, especially once West African gold was in high demand throughout the Islamic world and beyond. An excerpt from Al-Bakrī’s account, translated from French but which was translated from the Arabic, follows the glossary below.
Glossary: imam (religious teacher in Islam); muezzins (chanters who call Muslims to prayer five times daily); dinar (standard gold coin used Islamic world, weighing 4.72 or one mithqal); mithqals (standard of weight equal to 4.72 grams); Malal (a Malinke kingdom that became the nucleus of the Mali Empire, which succeeded Wagadu); Kumbi-Saleh (capital of Wagadu); Sunna (the traditions of Islam)
Ghana is a title the people give to their kings; the name of the region is Awkar, and their king today, namely in the year 460 [1067-1068 CE], is Tenkamenin. He ascended the throne in 455 [1063 CE]. The name of his predecessor was Basi and he became their ruler at the age of 85. He led a praiseworthy life because of his love of justice and friendship for the Muslims. At the end of his life, he became blind, but he concealed this from his subjects and pretended that he could see. When something was put before him, he said, “This is good” or “This is bad.” His ministers deceived the people by indicating to the king in cryptic words what he should say, so that the commoners could not understand. Basi was a maternal uncle of Tenkamenin. This is their custom and their habit, that the kingship is inherited only by the son of the king’s sister. He has no doubt that his successor is a son of his sister, while he is not certain that his son is in fact his own, and he is not convinced of the genuineness of his relationship to him. This Tenkamenin is powerful, rules an enormous kingdom, and possesses great authority.
The city of Ghana [called Kumbi-Saleh] consists of two [separate walled] towns situated on a plain. One of these towns, which is inhabited by Muslims, is large and possesses twelve mosques, in one of which they assemble for the Friday prayer. There are salaried imams and muezzins, as well as jurists and scholars. In the environs are wells with sweet water, from which they drink and with which they grow vegetables. The king’s town is six miles distant from this one and bears the name of Al-Ghaba [i.e. forested area with sacred grove]. Between these two towns there are continuous habitations. The houses of the inhabitants are of stone and acacia wood. The king has a palace and a number of domed dwellings all surrounded with an enclosure like a city wall. In the king’s town, and not far from his court of justice, is a mosque where the Muslims who arrive at his court pray. Around the king’s town are domed buildings, groves, and thickets where the spiritualists of these people, men in charge of the religious practice, live. In them too are their sacred objects and the tombs of their kings. These woods are guarded and none may enter them and know what is there. In them also are the king’s prisons. If somebody is imprisoned, there no news of him is ever heard. The king’s interpreters, the official in charge of his treasury and the majority of his ministers are Muslims. Among the people who follow the king’s religion [i.e. indigenous spirituality of the Soninke], only he and his heir apparent (who is the son of his sister) may wear sewn clothes. All other people wear robes of cotton, silk, or brocade, according to their means. All of them shave their beards, and women shave their heads. The king adorns himself like a woman, wearing necklaces round his neck and bracelets on his forearms, and he puts on a high cap decorated with gold and wrapped in a turban of fine cotton. He sits in audience or to hear grievances against officials in a domed pavilion around which stand ten horses covered with gold-embroidered materials. Behind the king stand ten personal attendants holding shields and swords decorated with gold, and on his right are the sons of the subordinate kings of his country wearing splendid garments and their hair plaited with gold. The governor of the city sits on the ground before the king and around him are ministers seated likewise....
When people who profess the same religion as the king approach him they fall on their knees and sprinkle dust on their heads, for this is their way of greeting him. As for the Muslims, they greet him only by clapping their hands. Their religion is that of the Soninke people and involves the veneration of sacred objects. When their king dies, they construct over the place where his tomb will be an enormous dome of wood. Then they bring him on a bed covered with a few carpets and cushions and place him beside the dome. At his side they place his ornaments, his weapons, and the vessels from which he used to eat and drink, filled with various kinds of food and beverages. They place there too the men who used to serve his meals. They close the door of the dome and cover it with mats and furnishings. Then the people assemble, whom heap earth upon it until it becomes like a big hillock and dig a ditch around it until the mound can be reached at only one place. They make sacrifices to their dead and make offerings of intoxicating drinks.
On every donkey-load of salt when it is brought into the country, their king levies one golden dinar, and two dinars when it is sent out. From a load of copper the king’s due is five mithqals, and from a load of other goods ten mithqals. The best gold found in his land comes from the town of Ghiyaru, which is eighteen days’ traveling distant from the king’s town over a country inhabited by peoples of the Sudan whose dwellings are continuous. The nuggets found in all the mines of his country are reserved for the king, only this gold dust being left for the people. But for this the people would accumulate gold until it lost its value. The nuggets may weigh from an ounce to a pound. It is related that the king owns a nugget as large as a big stone....
On the opposite bank of the [Niger River] is another great kingdom, stretching a distance of more than eight days’ marching, the king of which has the title of Daw. The inhabitants of this region use arrows when fighting. Beyond this country lies another called Malal, the king of which is known as al-musulmani [i.e. “the Muslims”].He is thus called because his country became afflicted with drought one year following another; the inhabitants prayed for rain, sacrificing cattle till they had exterminated almost all of them, but the drought and the misery only increased. The king had as his guest a Muslim who used to read the Quran and was acquainted with the Sunna [i.e. the traditions of Islam]. To this man the king complained of the calamities that assailed him and his people. The man said: “O King, if you believed in the Islamic God (who is exalted) and testified that He is One, and testified as to the prophetic mission of Muhammad (God bless him and give him peace) and if you accepted all the religious laws of Islam, I would pray for your deliverance from your plight and that God’s mercy would envelop all the people of your country and that your enemies and adversaries might envy you on that account.” Thus, he continued to press the king until the latter accepted Islam and became a sincere Muslim. The man made him recite from the book of the Islamic God (the Quran) some easy passages and taught him religious obligations and practices which no one may be excused from knowing. Then the Muslim made him wait until the eve of the following Friday [i.e. beginning of Islamic day of rest and communal meeting], when he ordered him to purify himself by a complete ablution, and clothed him in a cotton garment which he had. The two of them came out towards a mound of earth, and there the Muslim stood praying while the king, standing at his right side, imitated him. Thus, they prayed for a part of the night, the Muslim reciting invocations and the king saying amen! The dawn had just started to break when God caused abundant rain to descend upon them. So the king ordered the sacred objects to be broken and expelled the spiritualists from his country. He and his descendants after him as well as his nobles were sincerely attached to Islam, while the common people of his kingdom remained non-Islamic [i.e. practitioners of indigenous spirituality]. Since then their rulers have been given the title of al-musulmani.
Sources: ʿAbd Allâh ibn ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz Abū ʿUbayd al-Bakrī Description de l'Afrique septentrionale par El-Bekri, trans. William MacGuckin de Slane (Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1859), 381-89; J. F. P. Hopkins and N. Levtzion, eds. And trans., Corpus of early Arabic sources for West African history (Princeton: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1981), 79-83.