Crossing Borders/Breaking Boundaries VI
The Arts and Artistic Legacies of the West African Civilizations, 700 - 1600 c.e.
July 17-25, 2006
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Lesson Title: Sacred Space: Religion and Society in the Islamic World, How was Islam absorbed and adapted in 14th – 16th century West African kingdoms?

Name: Cynthia Ann Magruder and Paula Russo

Discipline: History and Visual Arts, respectively

School: Mercy High School, Baltimore, MD

Grade Level/Content Focus: Ninth Grade/World Cultures, Social Studies

Time Required for Lesson: One 75-minute class period

Specific Objectives:

The students will be able to:

  • identify and describe seven basic elements that occur in any mosque.
  • describe the geography of West Africa.
  • predict and describe how geography and available resources shape architecture in the region.
  • approach an understanding of the core beliefs of Islam and the interaction between regional cultures and the universal culture of the Islamic faith.
  • understand that local and regional culture shapes the arts of a universal religion.


mihrab minbar minaret
sabil courtyard muqarnas
calligraphy inscription mecca
hatuname grapheme magic square
Afro-Eurasia hijrah zakat
salat qur’an Ghana
Mali Songhay Timbuktu
Sundiata Mansa Musa Abu Ishaq as-Sahil
Samarra Ibn Tulun arabesque
anthropomorphic Leo Africanus qiblah



  • Bloom, Jonathan. Islamic Arts. London: Phaidon Press, 1997.
  • Clévenot, Dominique. Splendors of Islam: Architecture, Decoration, and Design. New York: Vendome Press, 2000.
  • Diouf, Sylviane. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998.
  • Lunde, Paul. Islam. London: D.K. Publishers, 2002.
  • Morris, James. Butabu: Adobe Architecture of West Africa. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.
  • Necipoglu, Gülru. Architecture, Ceremonial, and Power: the Topkapi Palace in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1991.
  • Prussin, Labelle. Hatumere: Islamic Design in West Africa. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

Web Resources:

Other Resources:

For teacher: For student:
-- computer
-- digital projector
-- handouts with model Kufic inscriptions
-- an assignment sheet that explains the specific requirements of the oral presentation and poster or PowerPoint presentation
-- plain white and tracing paper for sketch
-- colored pencils
-- poster-making materials and/or PowerPoint presentation

Lesson Abstract:

This lesson forms part of a larger unit on Islam and builds upon the themes of human-environment interaction and cultural diffusion. These themes are introduced at the start of the course. We continue to explore and elaborate these themes through the remainder of the year in other historical and cultural contexts.

Before they start this lesson, students will have already learned the geography of Africa and the history of the growth and spread of Islam in Africa between the 8th and 16th centuries. They also will have studied the Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay, as well as the Sundiata Epic and Mansa Musa.

This lesson builds upon a unit on Islamic Architecture (see 2005 lesson plan at, which asks students to identify seven basic elements of mosque architecture, and by doing so, to contextualize their understanding of Islam by integrating the study of the central tenets of the faith with the role that Islam plays in society.

In this lesson, students apply their knowledge of Islam and Islamic architecture to an examination of the specific architectural styles of West African mosques. Students will note that the elements of the mosque are created with local materials, and decorated in a style that is strongly influenced by pre Islamic West African culture. Because West African mosques are not extensively decorated, students will examine other structures and several objects to explore the ways in which Islamic and African art were synthesized in a variety of media.

In order to integrate the art of West Africa into the larger unit on Afro-Eurasia, students will create a decorative panel similar to those extant in areas of West Africa, which were influenced by Kufic Qur'anic inscriptions, magic squares and graphemes of North Africa.
At the conclusion of the larger unit, each student will be asked to research a specific mosque and present the seven thematic elements of the mosque as the basis for her own oral presentation to the class. Some students may choose to study and present a mosque from West Africa

Lesson Components:


  • Review the physical geography of Africa
  • Ask students to identify what materials would be available to builders in the region.
  • Ask students to guess what buildings in the regions might look like, and why they might be designed in that way.
  • Ask students to draw a sketch of a building that they think would be appropriate for a certain area in West Africa


  • Present a brief version of the '05 PowerPoint demonstration which reviews the seven elements of a mosque: dome, minaret, minbar, mihrab, courtyard, sabil, and decorative elements.
  • Present "Islamic Architecture in Africa" PowerPoint, which introduces:
    • elements of North African mosque design and decoration
    • Kufic inscriptions, magic squares and graphemes
    • West African design motifs, both Islamic and non-Islamic
    • Various West African structures, sacred and secular
    • Selected West African mosques
  • Ask students to identify the basic elements of the mosques shown.
  • Ask students to identify design and decorative influences native to West Africa in the structures.

Guided Practice:

  • Tell students they will create a decorative panel similar to those found in Niger mosques.
  • Distribute worksheets with Kufic Inscriptions, magic squares, and graphemes.
  • Distribute tracing paper and colored pencils.
  • Instruct students to create and sketch their own designs based on the examples on the worksheets.

Independent Practice:

  • Students will create a three dimensional or bas relief decorative panel using media of their own choice. Students will be encouraged to use materials similar to those available in the region.
  • Students will present their panels to the class and explain how their design relates to both Islamic and regional artistic styles, as well as to African culture and geography.


At the end of the larger unit, students will present the results of their mosque research as described in the '05 lesson. Because each presentation includes discussion of a decorative element, teachers will be able to assess the degree to which they understood how cultures absorb and adapt to new cultural and religious influences.

Project Extension:

Have students make historical maps of the Islamic World. Possible map topics include:

  • Trans Saharan Trade Routes, 700 – 1500
  • Ibn Batuta's Travels in Africa (with descriptions of his observations)
  • Mansa Musa's Pilgrimage to Mecca
  • City of Timbuktu
  • Physical Geography of West Africa
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Sponsored by
the Center for Renaissance & Baroque Studies
and the Maryland State Department of Education