The epic tale of Sundiata provides an excellent example of the tension between the traditional religious role of West African kings and the growing influence of Islam in the savannah. After the decline of Ghana in the thirteenth century, something of a political vacuum developed in the savannah. All of the building blocks for a state were still present-population, agriculture, technology, and trade-and the only question was who was going to put them together. One candidate for the position was Soumaoro, king of the Soso. Another was Sundiata, a chief of the Malinke. The oral epic of their contest for power was handed down by generations of griots (oral historians) before being transcribed and translated for readers everywhere. Throughout the epic, Sundiata is represented as the "good" king and Soumaoro as the "evil" king. Clearly, the epic is biased in that it was authored by the winner's side, sometime after Sundiata's forces defeated Soumaoro at the battle of Krina in 1230. Likely, it also reflects the changing views of the regional audience. As the region became more Muslim, so did the portrayal of Sundiata.
In the epic, Soumaoro is portrayed as evil because he relied on "witchcraft" for his power. Sundiata is portrayed as good in part because he embraced Islam, at least when it was appropriate to do so.
Excerpt from Africa in World History: From Prehistory to the Present by Erik Gilbert and Jonathan T. Reynolds