Askia Muhammad Ture (ca. 1443-1538) founded the Askia dynasty of the West African Songhay empire. He extended the conquests of Sunni Ali, promoted commerce, and increased the political influence of Islam in his state.
Muhammad's father was a Soninke from the Futa Toro region of modern Senegal. Although his mother was a Songhay, who may have been the sister of Sunni Ali himself, Muhammad was later to be thought of as a "foreign" usurper because of his father's ancestry. Little is known about his early life before his career as a general in Ali's army, but his reign is one of the best-documented in early West African history.
Accession to the Throne
Sunni Ali died in November 1492 and was succeeded by his son, Sunni Baru. Baru, unlike his father, tried completely to ignore Moslem interests when he came to power and thus committed a mistake which threw Moslem support behind Muhammad, then a popular general. Muhammad coalesced his support and met and defeated Baru in April 1493. He declared himself king and took the title of Askia. During the next decade he vigorously eliminated all the survivors of the Sunni line and of its predecessor, the Za. Muhammad was aware of his equivocal position as a usurper, and he sought a new basis of legitimacy in Islam. He assiduously cultivated Moslem support, and within 2 years his throne was so secure that he felt he could risk a long absence from the Sudan.
Muhammad knew that by undertaking a holy pilgrimage to Mecca he would make a clean break with the "magician-king" tradition of the past and thus further buttress his support among the growing number of Songhay Moslems. He used the accumulated wealth of Ali's reign to put together an entourage which surely rivaled that of the famous 14th-century Mali king, Mansa Musa. By the time of Muhammad's hajj, however, his arrival in the Near East was not such a novelty, and he failed to make a similar sensation, although he spent and gave out 300,000 pieces of gold.
Completion of the pilgrimage automatically gave Muhammad the honored title of al-Hajj, but he succeeded in obtaining an additional title from the sharif of Mecca, who named him the Caliph of the Western Sudan. This was strictly an honorific title, but it further added to his authority in Songhay.
Upon his return to Gao in 1497, the main task facing Muhammad was that of consolidating the vast but tenuous empire left by Sunni Ali. He in fact had to renew many of Ali's conquests militarily. In 1498 he led a force to the west, annexing portions of the Mali empire, and he eventually expanded almost to the Atlantic coast. In the east he started by gaining control of the important trade route to Air in 1501 and finished by conquering for the first time much of Hausaland by 1512. Songhay control of the most distant areas was not, however, longlived. Nevertheless, by about 1516 Muhammad had imposed permanent control over much of what is now the Republic of Mali and the western portion of the Republic of Niger.
During these 2 decades of military campaigns he advanced the professionalization of the army that had been started by Ali and built a stronger navy. The loss of great numbers of men in the campaigns against Mali encouraged him to incorporate even more conquered peoples into his armies in order to reduce the need for levies on his own people, thus allowing agriculture to develop.
Despite his military prowess Muhammad's most important achievements were political. He gave the empire an administration based upon a pyramidal ranking of territories.
Gao was administered directly, but most of the rest of the empire was ruled under four great provinces, each governed by members, or favorites, of the ruling family. Few vassal kings remained in power as they had under Ali, and unity was achieved through the royal family itself. The widely respected military lent stability to this system. Muhammad also introduced a unified system of weights and measures and appointed commerce inspectors, which led to a new era of prosperity within the empire.
Even though Muhammad may have closely embraced Islam for political reasons, he was genuinely interested in Islamic theology, and he generously supported Moslem scholars. He frequently corresponded with North African scholars for legal advice. Nevertheless, he made no attempt to model his government on purely Islamic lines and did not promote any mass conversions. He continued to retain many non-Islamic elements in his court practices, and the mass of rural Songhay people remained non-Moslem.
His Last Years
A general weakness of the Songhay state, as well as many other African states, was the absence of an orderly system of political succession. Muhammad himself was deposed by three of his sons in 1528, when he was old and blind. The eldest of these sons, Musa, took the throne and tried to secure his position by killing his brothers. Muhammad was probably too infirm by this time to pose any threat himself because he was allowed to stay on in his Gao palace. The other brothers were unhappy with the new turn of events, and they deposed Musa in 1531 in favor of a nephew of Muhammad, Muhammad Bengan. This new king promptly exiled his uncle to an island on the Niger River, where he remained until 1537, when another son, Ismail, gained the throne and recalled him. By then Askia Muhammad was ill, and he died the next year. The solid foundations which he had laid for the empire allowed it to survive numerous dynastic struggles for the remainder of the century, only to fall finally to a Moroccan invasion in 1591, which saw the introduction of firearms to the Western Sudan.
Further Reading on Askia Muhammad Ture
There is no full-length biography of Muhammad, but short sketches may be found in Sir Rex Niven, Nine Great Africans (1964); Lavinia Dobler and William A. Brown, Great Rulers of the African Past (1965); and A.A. Boahen, Topics in West African History (1966). Among the general sources are E.W. Bovill, The Golden Trade of the Moors (1958; 2d ed. 1968); J. Spencer Trimingham, A History of Islam in West Africa (1962); K.M. Panikkar, The Serpent and the Crescent: A History of the Negro Empires of Western Africa (1963); and J. O. Hunwick, "Religion and State in the Songhay Empire, 1464-1591," in I. M. Lewis, ed., Islam in Tropical Africa (1966).