West African Christianity before 1400

West African Christians in the 1200s and 1300s?
Yes.  Did you not know?

Ibn al-Dawādārī (flourished in the 1300s) was an important Muslim historian/chronicler from Egypt, though ethnically he was a Qïpchaq Turk. (His full name is Abū Bakr b. ʿAbdallāh b. Aybak al-Dawādārī.) In one of his works, Kanz al-durar wa-jāmiʻ al-ghurar (written in Arabic, of course), Ibn al-Dawādārī speaks of the Christian community living in Takrur (ʾāl-Takrwur), an area on the coast of West Africa along the border of what are now Senegal 🇸🇳 and Mauritania 🇲🇷, extending inland along the Senegal River.
As a state, Takrur was an independent kingdom from c. 800 – c. 1285. Cotton was probably first cultivated in Takrur. Sometime in the 1280s, it was incorporated into the Mali Empire. Thereafter, sometimes Arabic writings use the name Takrur to refer to its original region and sometimes the name came to be used as a synonym for West Africa generally.
This Christian community was in existence during the reign of the great Mansa Musa (lived c. 1312 – c. 1337; reigned c. 1312 – c. 1337) of the Mali Empire in West Africa, but had certainly been established at an earlier time.
Here is an excerpt of Ibn al-Dawādārī’s text:
I heard the magistrate Fakhr al-Din, Inspector of the victorious army, say: “I asked the king of the Takrur (ʾāl-Takrwur): ‘What is the source like where the gold grows among them?’ Then he said: ‘It is not in our land which is the property of the Muslims; rather, it is in the land that is the property of the Christians of Takrur (ʾāl-Naṣʾārīy min ʾāl-Takrwur). We send to take from them a collection that is due to us and is required of them. These are special lands that produce gold in this way: they are small pieces of various textures, some are like small rings, some are like carob seeds, and so on.’” The magistrate Fakhr al-Din replied, saying: ‘Why don’t you conquer the land by force?’ He said: ‘If we conquer them and take it, it does not produce anything. We have done this in various ways, but we have not seen anything in it. But when it returns to them, it produces according to its average. This is a fascinating dynamic, and this is perhaps an increase in the dominance (ṭuğīyʾān) of the Christians.’”
— Ibn al-Dawādārī, Kanz al-durar wa-jāmiʻ al-ghurar; translated by Professor Vince Bantu


I thank both Prof. Bantu for translating this and to my friend Van Harris for making the translation available to me.  Prof. Bantu is currently working on the first-ever English translation of important Arabic language texts about Christianity in West Africa in this time period.

Note that a Muslim historian and contemporary chronicler is speaking of the dominance of the Christian community in this area in this time period, even though the Christians were forced to pay tribute to Muslim rulers.
Also note that Ibn al-Dawādārī refers to Christians by the exonym ʾāl-Naṣʾārīy (نصارى; sometimes transliterated as Naṣārā); the singular form (نصراني) is often transliterated into English as Naṣrānī or even just Nasrani.
For more, other than waiting for the publication of Prof. Bantu’s next book, see:
Joseph Kenny’s The Catholic Church in Tropical Africa 1445–1850 (Ibadan, Nigeria: Ibadan University Press, 1983) which mentions various other evidences of Christians in West Africa before 1500.
(That book is admittedly a bit hard to access — though naturally we have a copy).
Readers may also be interested in these books:
  • Vince L. Bantu, A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity, Missiological Engagements (IVP Academic, 2020)
  • Vince L. Bantu, ed., Gospel Haymanot: A Constructive Theology and Critical Reflection on African and Diasporic Christianity (UMI, 2020)
If you are interested in a deep dive in African Christianity, start with this:
  • Shaw, Mark and Wanjiru M. Gitau, The Kingdom of God in Africa:  A History of African Christianity, revised and updated edition (Langham Global Library, 2020).

For more resources, check out my Histories of African Christianity bibliography.  Members of the African Christian Theology group on Facebook can find an html version here; a PDF version is available on my (Joshua’s) academia.edu page here.