The Songhai Empire ruled about two thirds of West Africa, including the lands now called Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal, Gambia, Northern Nigeria and Niger. When the Empire collapsed, due to an Arab and European invasion in 1591 AD, its intelligentsia were arrested by the conquerors and dragged in chains across the Sahara. One of these scholars was Professor Ahmed Baba. The author of 60 books, Professor Baba enjoyed a very high reputation. Amongst the Songhai, he was known as “The Unique Pearl of his Time”. In a Moroccan text from the period, the praise for him was even more gushing. He is described as “the imam, the erudite, the high-minded, the eminent among scholars, Abu l-Abbas Ahmed Baba.”
In Morocco, the Arab scholars petitioned to have him released from jail. He was released a year after his arrival on 9 May 1596. Major Dubois, a French author, narrates that: “All the believers were greatly pleased with his release, and he was conducted in triumph from his prison to the principal mosque of Marrakech. A great many of the learned men urged him to open a course of instruction. His first thought was to refuse, but overcome by their persistence he accepted a post in the Mosque of the Kerifs and taught rhetoric, law, and theology. An extraordinary number of pupils attended his lectures, and questions of the gravest importance were submitted to him by the magristracy, his decision always being treated as final.”
Despite this adulation, Baba was careful to credit his learning to the Almighty and thus maintained his modesty. A Moroccan source tells of an audience he obtained with Al Mansur. It appears that the scholar gave the sultan something of a dressing down. Baba complained about the sultan’s lack of manners, his ill treatment received during his original arrest, the sacking of his private library of 1600 books, and the destruction of the Songhai Empire. We are told by the Moroccan author that Al Mansur “being unable to reply to [any of] this, put an end to the audience.”
The professor was detained in Morocco for a total of 12 years. Eventually he received permission from Al Mansur’s successor to return to Songhai. Just before his departure across the desert, he vowed in the presence of the leading scholars of Marrakesh who had gathered to give him a send off, “May God never bring me back to this meeting, nor make me return to this country!” He returned to a devastated Timbuktu and died there in 1627.
All of this information is extracted from the Book ‘When We Ruled’.
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It was from one of Mali’s former conquests, the kingdom of Gao, that the last major empire of the western Sudan emerged. Although the city of Gao had been occupied by a Songhai dynasty prior to being conquered by Mansa Musa’s forces in 1325, it was not until much later that the Songhai empire emerged. It began to rise in 1464 when Sonni ‘Ali Ber came to power. Sonni ‘Ali conquered much of the weakening Mali empire’s territory as well as Timbuktu, famous for its Islamic universities and the pivotal trading city of Jenne. Following Sonni ‘Ali’s death, Muslim factions rebelled against his successor and installed Askia Muhammad (formerly Muhammad Ture) as the first ruler of the Askia dynasty (1492–1592). Under the Askias, the Songhai empire reached its zenith, Timbuktu and Jenne flourished as centers of Islamic learning, and Islam was actively promoted.
Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art