This study will examine the information which D.T. Niane's Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali reveals to us about religious institutions, beliefs and their roles in medieval Sudan. The character Sundiata, based on the historical leader of medieval Sudan, is a man who seems to be walking a rather broad line between Islam and more primitive religious beliefs. As such, he can be seen as a bridge of sorts between the two religious outlooks. Sundiata, in both Niane's work and in the historical accounts of the man and the era of his leadership, appears to be far more concerned with the earthly results of his actions than with the religious aspects of life. His interest in religious or spiritual matters seems to have been focused on their impact on his acquisition and maintenance of land and power.
As we read in Robert W. July's A History of the African People,
Although the early Mandinka princes were said to be Muslims, it seems likely that Sundiata was a pagan, and it was on the traditional relationships within clans and lineage that he built his administration. Securing these relationships by force and persuasion . . . , Sundiata established his capital, possibly at his ancestral village of Niani, from where he and his ancestors ruled their extensive empire (July 59-60).
Sundiata's portrayal in the epic as recounted by Niane is of a leader who is willing to take advantage of whatever religious influence or power might help him in his heroic quest for power. As Niane writes, "Generally, in every village of old Mali there is a griot family which conserves historical tradition and teaches it" (Niane vii). In the actual story of Sundiata which follows the Preface in which those words appear, however, there is minimal reference to the Prophet or Islam as sources of spiritual sustenance with respect to Sundiata himself. This is certainly due in part as well to the nature of the griot's role in the African oral tradition. The story of Su...