A caravan sent by Darfur sultan, Ali Dinar, to Makkah in 1904. (Picture is taken from the Sultan Ali Dinar Museum in El Fashir, Darfur.)
Performing the pilgrimage to Makkah has captivated the minds of West African Muslims for centuries. Imbedded in history are the legendry pilgrimages of West African Muslim rulers such as Mansa Musa, the sultan of Mali, and the pilgrimage of Askia Muhammad, the ruler of Songhai. Ali Dinar, the last sultan of Darfur was famous for his annual caravan to the holy land that always included a kiswa, a covering for the Kabah.
West African pilgrimage routes were many including one through the Sahara, to Cairo and onward to Makkah. But another famous route was one through the Muslim “Sudanic belt,” which included the savannah areas that stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. An unknown fact about this pilgrimage route to many is the fact that West African Muslims in the past walked their way to Makkah.
Walking to Makkah
From the advent of Islam in West Africa in the fourteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, devout West African Muslims could be found traveling on foot to and from Makkah anywhere between Senegal and Sudan.
This, according to Professor Al-Amin Abu-Manga of the Institute of African and Asian Studies in Khartoum, was due to a prevalent understanding among many West African Muslims that the pilgrimage, hajj, should be performed with “difficulty” as to maximize the divine reward.
West African Muslim also held a romantic view of and spiritual attachment to “the east” as a place where the divine revelations were revealed in the cities of Makkah, Medina and Jerusalem.
This pilgrimage route took West African Muslims from places as far west as Shinqit, Timbuktu and Sokoto through the savannah grasslands to Darfur, and then to Sinnar or Shendi along the Nile in modern day Sudan. There, pilgrims split in route to the Red Sea ports of Sawakin or Massawa, and then to the port of Jeddah in Arabia, and finally to Makkah.
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Ten Years of Adventures!
The road to Makkah was not a safe one. Dr. Umar Ahmad Saeed of the International University of Africa in Khartoum explains that the long road to Makkah was filled with challenges and dangers such as bandits, slaver raiders, wild beasts, diseases and the threat of running out of water and food.
At times, some pilgrims would abandon their dream to reaching Makkah and return to their homelands heartbroken.
Such trips at best took several months. But for most, it took not less than two years to reach the holy land. Many pilgrims would temporary settle in towns and villages on the way to work and to generate income to aid them in their journey.
A trip to Makkah and back took an average of ten years. This is why at times a person going on the pilgrimage would offer his wife the option of divorce so she would not have to wait for his return.
“They worked as farmers, cattle herders, skilled craftsmen,” says Dr. Mahdi Sati of the International University of Africa in Khartoum.
“Many were also teachers of Qur’an and taught in khalwas (schools teaching Qur’an).”
Others, however, unable to continue, would end up settling permanently in newly adopted homes. Communities of West Africans, especially members of the Fulani, Hausa, and Takarur ethnic groups, can be found all along the route of the hajj road as far east as Sudan.
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Exchanging Cultures and Traditions
Villages, such as Mayerno, south of the city of Sinnar in central Sudan today, are mainly composed of West Africans who migrated from northern Nigeria on the path to Makkah.
In many of Sudan’s main cities, it is not uncommon to find neighborhoods made up of ethnic Fulanis and Hausa who eventually chose to settle in these towns.
These migrants brought with them their traditions, economic expertise and cultures. Thus, the road to Makkah had become a means of cultural and economic exchange between the peoples of the Sudanic belt.
The pilgrims that eventually returned to their original homelands, however, where greeted with elaborate celebrations. Pilgrimage to Makkah elevated one’s social status tremendously, who became known as “al-hajj.”
Today, this African pilgrimage route is no longer. By the 1950s, colonial borders, political tensions and airplanes had contributed to the demise of this once vibrant route.
But the legacy of this pilgrimage route remains in the cultural impact that many West Africans have left in the areas they eventually settled in, and more importantly, in the imagination of historians, poets and future pilgrimage goers.
-Abu-Manga, Al-Amin. “Hajj Voyages and their Social and Economic Impact in the Nile Valley Sudan.” 2008. (In Arabic).
-Saeed, Umar Ahmad. “Social and Cultural Exchange in Haj Voyages,” 2008. (In Arabic).