Trade, Islam and the West
(Meeting Pennsylvania Middle School Standards)
Western Historians traditionally ignored the African past; little importance
was given to its pre-colonial societies. It is only recently that State
Curriculum requirements include substantive discussion of pre-colonial
There are two reasons for this: first, Western civilization has historically
thought of Africans as inferior and unworthy of cultural consideration,
often denying Africa an indigenous history and assuming its history began
with the coming of the Europeans. Secondly, most ancient African societies
did not develop systems of writing. Western scholars traditionally belittled
the historical validity of archeological findings and oral traditions.
Yet these findings and oral histories combined with the written works
of Arab scholars expose a rich and complex African heritage.
My workshop is based on the premise that to understand the African past
it is necessary to examine African civilization before colonization.
The establishment of a network of trading cities along the north-south
trans-Saharan routes ultimately gave rise to the development of larger
political entities. It was the desire to control the wealth associated
with the trans-Saharan trade that probably stimulated the development
of the great medieval empires of West Africa.
By exploring the medieval kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay (the depth
depends on time made available for this program) other factors can be
identified: from geography to leadership. Ghana was a thriving center
of trade in the Western Sudan that boasted advanced technology and a
sophisticated social and political organization. The Mali Empire was
larger than Western Europe and controlled the trade of both gold and
salt. Sundiata, Mansa Musa and Abubakar were leaders who created strong
political states. Sonni Ali the Great led the rise of Songhay in the
fifteenth century. The spread of Islam intensifies trade between West
Africa and North Africa; while the expansion of trade, particularly gold,
fosters links between Africa and Europe.
This two-hour workshop could fit into your state guidelines by following
the study of ancient civilizations or be integrated with a study of the
Middle Ages, the rise of Islam or the development of long-distance trade.
The full day workshop would help identify teaching materials and address
historical thinking standards including – data from historical
maps, analyze multiple causation and interrogate historical data.
A separate workshop could be provided focused on the kingdoms of Ife
and Benin as well as the nature of Art, Culture and Religion among the
Yoruba people and compared with the description in Jane Rupert’s “African