The Twareg Malaise, M. Frindéthié

The origin of the Twareg rebellion in Mali is in great part religious; and it traces back to the 14th Century.  Indeed, when, in 1352, Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta first entered Walata, the city of  the Old Mali Empire, which he called “the first district of the Blacks,” the conservative Muslim was shocked by what he qualified as the “strange and outlandish manners” of its inhabitants. Though Muslim, the inhabitants of Old Mali had very loose interpretation of the guidelines of the Holy Book. Ibn Battuta recalled that, like unbelievers, men did not get their genealogy from their fathers, but rather from their maternal uncles; sons did not inherit from their fathers, but from their mothers’ brothers; women lacked modesty, did not veil their faces, and were not required to follow their husbands in their trips; women could have male companions without their husbands showing any jealousy, and men could, likewise, have female companions without stirring any suspicion in their wives. Ibn Battuta offered an impressive anecdote of what he perceived as the Blacks’ immoral lifestyle.

One day I entered upon Abu Muhammad Yandakan…. I found him sitting on a mat and in the middle of his house was a bed with a canopy. On it was a woman and with her a man was sitting, and the two were conversing. I said to him, “Who is this woman?” He said, “She is my wife.” I said, “What is [the relationship of ] the man with her to her?” He said, “He is her companion.” I said, “Do you accept this when you have lived in our country [with the Arabs] and have known the matters of the shar [divine law]?” He said to me, “Women’s companionship with men in our country is honourable and takes place in good way: There is no suspicion about it. They are not like the women in your country.” I was astonished at his thoughtless answer and I went away from him and did not go to him after this. Though he invited me many times, I did not respond.6

This bigoted impression about matriarchal black Muslim societies by fundamentalist Almoravids from North Africa is at the source of the Twareg rebellion in today’s Mali. The Twareg’s main claim is a religious fundamentalist claim: the creation of an Islamic State governed by Charia. The Twaregs’ capture of Northern Mali today, in 2012, is the completion of an enterprise that started centuries ago in the Old Mali Empire. 

Ibn Battuta’s Mali was not modern-day Mali, with its capital in Bamako. It was an ancient empire that existed between 800 and 1550 C.E. Its original founders were Mande-speaking people (Bamana, Senoufo, Dogon), ethnic groups that are present in almost every country in West Africa today. At its peak (1200–1300 C.E.), the Mali Empire covered most of today’s Mali as well as western Mauritania and Senegal. However, it did not have categorically defined boundaries by Western standards. The Mali Empire conformed instead to the pre-colonial African notion of a state as a political organization of people whose cohesion was based less on the boundaries within which they lived than on the languages they spoke, the cultural rituals and the economic activities they practiced, and the sovereign to whom they pledged allegiance, paid excises, and from whom they consequently expected protection. The Mali Empire rose to prominence as a consequence of the fall of another great African state, Wagadu (or Ghana as it is often referred to by historians).

One hundred years before the birth of Mali, in 700 C.E., the Wagadu or Ghana Empire, located more than 1000 miles north of today’s Ghana, was the most important state in Sub-Saharan Africa. Arab travelers who wrote about the empire referred to it as the land of gold. Yet, the precious metal was not mined in the land of Old Ghana, but in a territory southwest of the empire. The people of Old Ghana were farmers, fishermen, herdsmen, and warriors; but they were mainly dealers who traded salt brought from up North against gold from the South. The well-traveled Moroccan legal scholar, Ibn Battuta, noticed during his 1352 trip to West Africa that salt was as expensive in the south as gold was costly in the North. He reported that “[A] camel load of [salt] was sold in Iwalatan [Walata] for from eight to ten mithquals, and in the town of Malli from twenty to thirty mithquals, perhaps the price reaches up to forty [mithquals].” People who were fortunate to have salt would even cut it in pieces and use the pieces as currency. On the other hand, gold was so abundant in the south that traders would often give equal weight in gold for the salt they obtained. Other products traded against gold were copper, dried fruits, cowry shells, and cloth.

 After several raids on Ghana, whose people the light-skinned North African saw as too liberal on the precepts of the Koran, the Moroccan Almoravids succeeded in submitting Ghana in 1076. Though short, the Almoravids’ reign in Ghana heavily taxed the empire, weakened it cohesion, and disbanded its army. Frail, Ghana fell under the influence of King Sumanguru Kante from the neighboring Susu Empire, who had been coveting the riches of Ghana for many years. Later, around 1250 C.E., Sumanguru was himself defeated and executed by Sundiata, the King of Old Mali.

With the collapse of Ghana, Mali Empire progressively asserted itself as the major power in the Niger Delta region. By incorporating the territories of former Ghana and Susu into the provinces under its administration, Mali also grew in size and population, and it diversified its exchange commodities. Around the 14th century, the population of Mali was said to be between 40 and 50 million people living on 439,400 square miles of land. Not only did traders in Mali pick up the commercial exchanges of salt and gold as they were practiced in the former Ghana Empire, but also, the highly itinerant trading actors, by traveling southward, mixed with populations of the coastal rain forests. They expanded the trade of kola nuts, shea butter, textile, while converting a few communities to the Muslim religion brought to them by the Almoravid invasion; and they disseminated products of the forest to the northern parts of the empire, and even beyond.

The reign of Sundiata Keita, which, from Old Mali to modern-day Mali established the preeminence of Blacks in politics and strengthened the practice of a form of Islam born out of the syncretism of imported Muslim beliefs and traditional African pagan values, did not, nevertheless, erase the desire of light-skinned fundamentalist from North Africa—now integrals of the Malian populations since the Almoravid invasion—who dreamt of the return to a pure form of Islam until the final assaults on Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao this past month. Correcting what Battuta saw as anomalies of faith, the fundamentalists in Northern Mali have now ordered the veil for women, the replacement of all imams (judged too moderate on religious precepts), the prohibition of alcohol and amusement spaces; in a word, the instauration of an Islamist state ruled by the Charia.      

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