Old times African pilgrims journeying to and back from Mecca have left an impact very remarkable, often inerasable, on the demography and culture of African regions they crossed around the African Continent.
The roads leading to the Holy Land had united a lot of tribes along the hajj (pilgrimage) routes, with some ethnic groups preferring to settle down on these avenues, creating a rich cultural and social impact.
"Pilgrims from around the Continent had had exemplary opportunities to come in direct contact with other Moslems and know about them and their conditions. These opportunities were a true demonstration of the Koran revelation that: "We pointed the site to Abraham, of the sacred House, saying: "Associate nothing in worship with Me; and sanctify (wash clean) My House for those who compass it round, or standing up, or bowing. Or prostrate (therein) in prayer (26: Surat Al-Hajj)". And the other Koran revelation (also to Abraham) that: "And proclaim pilgrimage among people: They will come to thee, lean on foot and mounted on every camel through the deep and distant highways (27: Surat Al-Hajj)."
According to the Moslem tradition the Ka'ba (or Allah's House in Mecca) was built by the angels since times immemorial. The Koran has revealed that it was Abraham who had rebuilt it after ages of neglect with the help of His Son Ismail, as could be understood from the above and other Koran verses.
Dr. Yousif Khamees Aburaffas, chair of the African Studies and Research Section at the International Africa University says that: " Africa's roads to Al-Hajj are too many, including three major roadways:
The first roadway crosses North Africa in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and then into Arabia.
The second road passes from Senegal, Nigeria and Mali in West Africa across Sudan to the Port of Eithab (in today's Eritrea) and Suakin (in today's Sudan) and then to Mecca across the Red Sea.
The third route is the East African route that crosses through Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia to the Red Sea and then across Yemen to Mecca.
The most important of these routes was the one that crosses Sudan, because the majority of West African pilgrims had used to cross through Sudan on their way to the Holy Land. What gave this route this success was that it passed all along across Moslem kingdoms and sultanates where the pilgrim passes peacefully from one Moslem territory to another until he reaches the Red Sea. This wide presence of Moslem rule was a guarantor of safety, food and places of rest for the pilgrims.
Tokar city in east Sudan
The Kingdom of Kano in Nigeria, the kingdom of the Bornu in Chad and Niger, the Kingdom of Timbuktu in Mali, the Kingdom of Ghana, the Kingdom of Sokoto (established by Osman Dan Fodio in West Africa), the Kingdom of Wadai (around Lake Chad), the Fur Sultanate (in today's Darfur), the Musabbaat Kingdom (in today's North Kordofan, Sudan), the Kingdom of Tagali ( in today's Southern Kordofan, Sudan) and the Sinnar sultanate (in today's central Sudan), are some of the examples of Moslem governments that could be mentioned along this route.
Adds Dr. Aburaffas: "This route had left big economic, ethnic, social and political impacts. That is because the pilgrim had used to move from West Africa toward Mecca in a journey that may take a lot of time. In some cases the pilgrim may take ten or twenty or thirty years before he would return to his homeland. He may even never return to his place of origin and prefer to settle down in the Holy Land or any place he crosses on his way back home. This tendency has caused a lot of changes across this route, demographic, cultural ... etc".
The hajj journeys are of three types, says Dr. Aburaffas: The hajj of Sultans and Kings, the hajj of scholars and the hajj of the common men.
The hajj of the kings and sultans was characterized with trading. The Kings and sultans had used to carry with them a lot of merchandize. King Mensi Musa of the Kingdom of Mali, for instance, had used to move towards al-hajj in a caravan of 1500 camels laden with goods.
The journey of the scholars was one for knowledge: As they moved on, the scholars and the other clergy had used to take long stops to preach and teach the Koran, religious jurisprudence and Arabic.
The journey of the common men was the most influential, as the common man had used to move alone, have a halt every now and then to work in farming, herding, carpentry or any craft he may know. He may also speculate with the little money he may have in trading.
The Sudanese agricultural schemes of the Gezira, Tokar Delta and al-Gash stand as an indication of the influence of the hajj of the common man in Sudan. West African common men on their way to and back from Mecca had used to seek work in these ventures, often preferring to stay and work as farm hands. Over the years they became Sudanese nationals, thanks to their contribution to the economy of the country.
Dr. Riyad Badawi Abdelsamee' (African Research & Studies Institute, University of Cairo) says the number of West Africans coming to Sudan from the French colonies had jumped in Kasala (Eastern Sudan) from 2500 in 1924 to 7-10 thousands in 1934. In the Gezira (central Sudan) the number of this category had jumped from 4-10 thousands in the 1920s to 65 thousands in 1950.
This journey was not without ethnic dimensions. It had caused a big effect on the demography of Sudan. It was believed that 30% of the population of Sudan was of West African origin at a certain time. These West Africans had used to settle down in certain areas, raise families and, accordingly, influence the demography of the area. Some areas in Sudan carry their names from this category. For instance the locality of Dar Mali (near Atbara-Nahr al-Neel State) is believed to have derived its name from the ethnic group that settled in it that belonged to the West African nation of Mali.
The demographic change had also entailed a linguistic change: The West African Hausa and Bornu languages, that never existed in the old Sudan, are spoken by their respective communities here and there in the country.
Adds Dr. Aburaffas: "All along the road from West Darfur to the Red Sea we find the traces of immigrants. I remember one of my university students had told me he was visiting his grandmother in Hasaheesa (central Sudan). He (the student) had told me that his grandmother had settled in that town on her return from al-hajj. Many of our West African students in the International Africa University have relatives in Sudan. The bonds of these immigrants with their relatives back home seem to have continued over the years. One of my Chadian students had told me his uncle lives in al-Obied (Kordofan). He said their families are in touch and know about the news of each other."
The successive Sudanese and West African governments had known this fact very well. They had used to emphasize this factor in the relations with West African countries. Nigeria for instance, that has a big community in Sudan, often chooses its ambassadors and general consuls to Sudan from its diplomats with relatives in Sudan. Sudan does likewise.
It is not always true that all West Africans living in Sudan had come to the country on their way to and back from Mecca. But most of them had come this way, says Dr. Aburaffas. "I remember to have been told that the entire population of a West African village had closed their home doors and moved to al-hajj and on their way back they settled in Sudan, some of them in Saudi Arabia, and some in al-Quds (Jerusalem)," said Dr. Aburaffas.
During the crusades the North African hajj route tended to go down to Eithab and Suakin and then across the Red Sea to Mecca, to avoid the belligerency.
Due to the changing political circumstances and the emergence of the nation states introduced by the colonial powers, the traditional hajj journeys have come to end. Borders have been drawn and guarded with armies. Now we have nationality certificates, passports, customs and check points. The colonial powers are thought to have created borderlines to obstruct the unity of Moslems, according to Dr. Aburaffas. " This issue was very clear in the reports of Western travelers who toured the Moslem world under Arab names and who warned the Western powers against the pilgrimage journeys as an element for unifying Moslems," he said.
"But travel is now by airplanes and even travel by automobiles has become difficult due to the security hazards posed by the Boko Haram and the Darfur rebels," says Dr. Aburaffas.
Dr. Hatim al-Siddiq Ali, Head Department of History at the al-Azhari University, has said the area between the Nile Valley and West Africa had seen a lot of human exodus from West Africa throughout history. These groups that cross into Sudan through Darfur, kordofan and the Blue Nile districts, travel for about 30,000 to reach Mecca. "This indeed is the longest journey the peoples of Africa had made," he said.
Dr. Ali is of the view that the existence of the Darfur sultanate had encouraged West Africans to take this route to Mecca. In addition, great numbers of Africans had entered through Sinnar (Central Sudan) and Darfur (in the West) on their way to Mecca or in search of education. Many of the groups that could not make it to Mecca had settled in Sudan. One of the most famous of such journeys across this hajj route was that made by Sheikh Omar Saeed al-Footi who crossed into Sudan during 1827-1830. During the rule of the Sinnar Sultanate vast numbers of such immigrants had moved into Sudan, because the Sinnar Sultanate was a source of civilization and religious enlightenment. At one point the Koran khalwa (school) of Sheikh Arbab al-Agayid in Khartoum had accommodated about a thousand West African learners. Similar numbers were enrolled in the Khalwa of Sheikh al-Gaddal.
Many West African students had liked their stay in Sudan, encouraged in this choice by the religious and social bonds that existed between the peoples of the Nile Valley and those of West Africa. The tolerant Sudanese personality had had its say in this.
The inception of the major agricultural schemes had encouraged these groups to stay in Sudan and eke out a living. By the result we could see certain towns, such as the Gallabat in Eastern Sudan, that became magnets for such groups.