In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Muslim Pilgrimage Traditions in West Africa

  • Introduction
  • General
  • Royal Pilgrimages
  • The Hajj and Networking
  • Connections with the Maghrib

Islamic Studies Muslim Pilgrimage Traditions in West Africa
Nougoutna Norbert Litoing
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0279


The hajj, or greater pilgrimage to Mecca, is required of every able-bodied and financially capable Muslim at least once in their lifetime. As such, it comes as no surprise that wherever Islam spreads, a pilgrimage tradition also emerges. In line with this reality, records of the first West African conversions to Islam contain indications about their pilgrimage journeys. Early Arab sources about pilgrims to Mecca notably contain references to al-Barnawi and al-Takruri, pilgrims from the Kingdoms of Borno and Takrur (11th century). It is, however, important to note that, because of the generic use of the appellation “Takarir” in these early sources to refer to pilgrims of West African origin, it is not always possible to ascertain their exact provenance. Royal pilgrims from the kingdoms of Borno and Takrur, as well as from the Kingdom of Mali, feature prominently in the existing literature on West African pilgrims to Mecca. Up to the end of the 19th century, pilgrimages were undertaken for three main interwoven reasons: piety, trade, and the search for knowledge. One could add for diplomatic reasons, particularly in the case of royal pilgrimages, as well as credentialing reasons for scholars seeking to establish their credibility. At the turn of the 20th century, the advent of the colonial state and technological innovations led to major changes in this pilgrimage tradition. A journey hitherto done on foot or camelback could now be undertaken by steamboat and, subsequently, by plane. In addition, technological innovations brought about the democratization of sources of knowledge, making the search for knowledge a far less salient objective of pilgrims to Mecca. The advent of the colonial state also brought about a structure (control) over the organization of pilgrimages hitherto absent. Requiring a travel document and having specific health requirements (immunization) led to a limitation on the number of those who could undertake the journey any given year. This limitation would later be a contributing factor in the rise to prominence of local pilgrimage (ziyara) practices. Toward the end of the 19th century, several charismatic Sufi figures emerged in West Africa. Today, their mausoleums have become important Sufi shrines, engendering a rich tradition of pious visitation or ziyara. Some of the most prominent of these “pious visitations” take place in present-day Senegal and in northern Nigeria, bringing together millions of pilgrims from the subregion and the diaspora. As such, paying attention to Islamic pilgrimage traditions in West Africa, both hajj and ziyara, can yield germane insights into some of the forces shaping the practice of Islam in the region.


Considering that Takruris were the first West Africans to convert to Islam, it comes as no surprise that early Arabic sources identify them among the first pilgrims from this region to Mecca. Ibn Taghri Birdi 1930–1942 underscores some of their tribulations. Royal pilgrims feature prominently in the existing literature on Islamic pilgrimage traditions in West Africa. Ibn Battuta 1858 offers an account of these pilgrimages, notably those undertaken by the kings of Mali. Naqar 1972 is a classic and, undoubtedly, one of the most comprehensive treatments of the pilgrimage to Mecca from West Africa in the 19th century. I highly recommend beginning with this last source because it masterfully brings together a vast array of sources, notably in Arabic, into a coherent scholarly narrative. As such, it will introduce the reader to these sources.

  • Ibn Battuta, Shams al-Din Abu ‘Abd Allah. Voyages d’Ibn Batoutah. Vol. 4, Tuḥfat an-Nuẓẓār fī Gharāʾib al-Amṣār wa ʿAjāʾib al-Asfār. Edited by C. Defremery and B. R. Sanguinetti. Paris, 1858.

    Contains some of the most extensive accounts of the history of the region and royal pilgrimages, notably from the kingdom of Mali, which the author visited. Volume 1 notably contains an elaborate account of the pilgrimage to Mecca.

  • Ibn Taghri Birdi, Abu al-Mahasin. Hawadith al-duhur fi mada al-ayyam wa-al-shuhur. Edited by W. Popper. Publications in Semitic Philology 8. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California, 1930–1942.

    Indicates the tribulations suffered by Takrur pilgrims in 1455 CE: floods, deaths of camels, and brigandry. The entire caravan of the Takruris is reported to have been rampaged, some pilgrims killed, and others captured. The following year, none of the Maghribis or Takruris made the pilgrimage because of the looting and imprisonment suffered the previous year.

  • Naqar, ʻUmar ʻAbd al-Razzāq. The Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa: An Historical Study with Special Reference to the Nineteenth Century. Khartoum, Sudan: Khartoum University Press, 1972.

    A classic when it comes to the study of Islamic pilgrimage practices in West Africa. Mainly about the hajj, not umrah nor ziyara. Notably looks at early records; highlights the influence of the Hijra doctrine and different attitudes toward the hajj.

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