Spread of Islam in Kanem and Bornu Empires By :- Sadiq Salawudeen

23-12-14_Kanem-and-Bornu-EmpireKanem and Bornu were two ancient Islamic empires mainly populated by the ethnic majority, the Kanuri. The empire was located in modern-day Nigeria, covering a vast expanse of areas including Lake Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Libya.

An area of more than 300,000 square miles. The empire was amalgamated and separated in different times but this never stopped its link to surrounding areas. Mai Idris Alawma (1570-1603) united and expanded the empire in the 16th century, and by the 18th century, Bornu established itself as the main power to Northern States, especially the Sudanic region.

To be more precise, the origins of Kanem can be traced back to the settlement of fertile lands of the Mega-Chad lakes. This historical proof suggests that in the first century BCE, there were two lakes.

The two lakes connected each other through an area known as the Jurab Depression. The landmarks of the two lakes lasted until 250 years ago when the Bahr al-Ghazal opening of Lake Chad became covered with residue and the water stopped to flow.

The fertile soil, probably loamy provided huge amounts of food for hunters and gatherers who created a tradition that was changed from Middle Stone Age to the New Stone Age.

After bringing together the disparate groups in the area, the Saifawa dynasty created a state east of Lake Chad with a capital at Njimi and began a process of imperial expansion.

Although the Saifawa dynasty lasted for such a long time, it was by no means a dictatorship. The Mais ruled through a royal council. Further, the empire was divided into provinces, with important administrative and commercial centers.
The mais mother, elder sister, and first wife enjoyed great privileges, and for the most part, the royal family remained in control of the political process and ensured the longevity of the dynasty. In the eleventh century, the ruling class in Kanem embraced Islam.

The empire can be described as a large medieval state in central Sudan, and spanning the bordered to the north by the Sahara Desert.

It was governed by nomads and straddling one of the main Trans-Saharan trade routes between Tunisia and Tripoli, and to the Hausa lands to its southwest.

Kanem traded slaves to Ifriqiya and Egypt. The state helped channel Islam to neighboring provinces. For 900 years, it was ruled by one or another faction of the Saifawa dynasty with a little interruptions during the time in terms of power placement.

Muslim rulers who controlled the state claimed origins to Yemen. This claim added advantages and caused propaganda to gain greater affinity within the Islamic world as a whole.

Towards the 13th century, Kanem expanded its control to areas south of Lake Chad, and entered a stage where there was internally conflicts among the ruling class and dynasty.

In the 14th century, Kanem’s military heads (the Mais) returned into eastern Hausa-land, and Kanem went into steep decline as its northern provinces were conquered by rival power, the Bulala.

All through the 16th century, Bornu extended its succession and power of the able Mai, the greatest of whom was Idris Alawma (c.1571-1603). He was able to consolidate the internal administration of the state and expanded its empire by trade leading to a more stabilized Bulala frontier.

He also supported the propagation of Islam. His successors in the 17th and 18th centuries continued in the policies of defending the heartland of Bornu from incursions by the Kwararafe from the south, the growing Hausa states in the west, the resistance of the indigenous Mandara and the Tuareg from the north.
These external threats were also accompanied with severe weather changes the Mais had no control over. There was drought and famines in the arid Sahel and parched savanna of central Sudan.

The going down of trans-Saharan trade during these time resulted in the loss of firearms, which had a great change in the balance of power in the al-Sudan. Immigration of the Fulani from the Hausa-land in the west was disturbing. More disturbing was the immigration of the Fulbe (Fulani) from Hausaland in the west. These pastoral nomads from western Africa eroded the state.


Towards the 19th century, the Fulanis who established the Sokoto caliphate around the neighboring Hausa-land began to impact the southern parts of Bornu. They were disliked and discriminated against in Bornu and demanded redress for their grievances against the Mai, his government, and his people.

Supported by Uthman Dan Fodio of Sokoto, the Bornu Fulani rebelled in 1805 and would have prevailed if the Mai had not called upon Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi, a Kanembu cleric, for assistance.

These Fulani war soldiers attacked Bornu with an aspiration and hope that it will fall under Sokoto’s control. The ruling king (Mai) required assistance from Kanem and forces of Muhammad al-Amin al-Kanemi responded to the forms of aggression thereby repelling the Fulani onslaught.

The fact of the matter at the time was that Kanem-Bornu was mainly populated by Muslims, the Fulanis insisted that the empire was involved in paganism and that they further persecuted Fulanis for their religious beliefs.

There were hostilities between the two factions, but this eventually subsided causing the Sokoto Caliphate control the western provinces while other areas remained in control of Bornu.

Source : http://www.onislam.net

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