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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 January 2021

Mauro Nobili
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


Recent research points to a renewed scholarly interest in the West African Middle Ages and the Sahelian imperial tradition. However, in these works only tangential attention is paid to the role of Muslims, and especially to clerical communities. This essay tackles theoretical and historiographical insights on the role of African Muslims in the era of the medieval empires and argues that the study of Islam in this region during the Middle Ages still suffers from undertheorizing. On the contrary, by using a ‘discursive approach’ scholars can unravel access to fascinating aspects of the history of West African Muslims and in particular to the crucial role played by clerical communities, who represented one node of the web of diffused authority which is characteristic of precolonial West African social and political structures.

FORUM: The Imperial Tradition in the Sahel
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Reid, R., ‘Past and presentism: the “precolonial” and the foreshortening of African history’, The Journal of African History, 52:2 (2011), 147CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 The term ‘empire’ is here used, in accordance with the standards of the scholarship on West African Middle Ages, in spite of its problematic nature; for an analysis of the use of this term in Africanist literature, see Tymowski, M., ‘Use of the term “empire” in historical research on Africa: a comparative approach’, Africa Zamani, 11–12 (2003–4),18–26Google Scholar. See also Hadrien Collet's contribution to this forum, in which the very sequence Ghana-Mali-Songhay is questioned as a historiographic invention.

3 The Francophone academic world is more interested in the study of pre-1500 African history. For example, the journal Afriques: Débats, méthodes et terrains d'histoire ( has published several articles on medieval Africa, including some contributions in English. The recent works by Hadrien Collet that uncover new Arabic sources for the history of Medieval West Africa are particularly praiseworthy, see Collet, H., ‘Échos d'Arabie: le pèlerinage à la Mecque de Mansa Musa (724–725/1324–1325) d'après des nouvelles sources’, History in Africa, 46 (2019), 105–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Collet, H., ‘Royal pilgrims from Takrūr according to ʿAbdal-Qādir al-Jazīrī (12th–16th century)’, Islamic Africa, 10:1–2 (2019), 181203Google Scholar.

4 de Moraes Farias, P. F., Arabic Medieval Inscriptions from the Republic of Mali: Epigraphy, Chronicles and Songhay-Tuāreg History (Oxford, 2003)Google Scholar.

5 By ‘Timbuktu chronicles’, scholars mean the seventeenth-century Tārīkh al-Sūdān by al-Sa‘dī (d. after 1655–6) and the more problematic chronicle normally referred to as the Tārīkh al-fattāsh. The first work exists in a reliable edition and French translation, see O. Houdas (ed. and trans.), Tarikh es-Soudan par Abderrahman ben Abdallah ben ‘Imran ben ’Amir es-Sa'di, 2 Volumes (Paris, 1898–1900); most of its text is also translated into English in J. Hunwick (trans.), Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire: al-Saʻdī's Ta'rīkh al-Sūdān down to 1613 and other Contemporary Documents (Leiden, 2003). Often considered to be a sixteenth- or seventeenth-century work that was subjected to later textual manipulation, the Tārīkh al-fattāsh is in fact a nineteenth-century chronicle written by Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir (d. 1857–8), a Fulani scholar who served the Caliphate of Ḥamdallāhi (1818–62) and its founder, Aḥmad Lobbo; see M. Nobili, Sultan, Caliph, and Renewer of the Faith: Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tārīkh al-fattāsh, and the Making of an Islamic State in West Africa (Cambridge, 2020). The apocryphal ascription of the chronicle to the sixteenth-century scholar Maḥmūd Ka‘ti (d. 1593) is a nineteenth-century artifact, an attempt of the real author of the work to cover his forgery that has gone almost undetected by scholars, with the notable exception of Levtzion, N., ‘A seventeenth-century chronicle by Ibn al-Mukhtār: a critical study of ‘Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 34:3 (1971), 571–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir did not compose the Tārīkh al-fattāsh from scratch, but produced it by substantially modifying an older chronicle, which I have named the ‘Chronicle of Ibn al-Mukhtār’, after the name of the author who wrote it during the second half of the seventeenth century. The Chronicle of Ibn al-Mukhtār does not exist in a reliable edition and its text is conflated with the nineteenth-century forged Tārīkh al-fattāsh in O. Houdas and M. Delafosse (eds. and trans.), Tarikh el-fettach par Mahmoud Kati et l'un de ses petit fils ou Chronique du chercheur pour servir à l'histoire des villes, des armées et des principaux personnages du Tekrour (Paris, 1913). With the generous support of a Scholarly Editions and Translations grant from the National Endowment for Humanities, I am currently preparing with Ali H. Diakité (Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, Saint John's University) and Zachary Wright (Northwestern University in Qatar) a new critical edition and translation of the chronicle of Ibn al-Mukhtār and of the Tārīkh al-fattāsh.

6 P. F. de Moraes Farias, ‘Intellectual innovation and the reinvention of the Sahel: the seventeenth-century chronicles of Timbuktu’, in S. Jeppie and S. Diagne (eds.), The Meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town, 2008), 95–109.

7 S. Nixon (ed.), Essouk-Tadmekka: An Early Islamic Trans-Saharan Market Town (Leiden, 2017); S. Takezawa and M. Cissé (eds.), Sur les traces des grands empires: Recherches archéologiques au Mali (Paris, 2017).

8 M. A. Gomez, African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa (Princeton, 2018). Gomez's book has, however, attracted a certain degree of criticism, mainly concerning the author's use of complex primary sources, such as the Timbuktu chronicles, and the face-value approach to oral narratives; see the reviews of African Dominion by S. Jeppie, American Historical Review, 124:2 (2019), 587–8; de Moraes Farias, P. F., American Historical Review, 124:2 (2019), 588–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and A. Syed, Islamic Africa, 10:1–2 (2019) 225–7.

9 K. Berzock (ed.), Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture, and Exchange Across Medieval Saharan Africa (Princeton, 2019). This volume is the publication of the itinerant exhibition by the same name, organized and first displayed at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, 26 Jan. to 21 July 2019; see A previous forum in this journal was devoted to scholarship on trans-Saharan Africa, see Lydon, G., ‘Saharan oceans and bridges, barriers and divides in Africa's historiographical landscape’, The Journal of African History, 56:1 (2015), 322CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Lecocq, B., ‘Distant shores: a historiographic view on trans-Saharan space’, The Journal of African History, 56:1 (2015), 2336CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 A. LaGamma (ed.), Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara (New York, 2020). This is also an exhibition volume. The original exhibit took place at the Metropolitan Art Museum, 30 Jan. to 26 Oct. 2020; see

11 See the previous forum in this journal ‘Islam in sub–Saharan Africa’, which includes J. Triaud, ‘Giving a name to Islam south of the Sahara: an adventure in taxonomy’, The Journal of African History, 55:1 (2014), 3–15; S. Reese, ‘Islam in Africa/Africans in Islam’, The Journal of African History, 55:1 (2014), 17–26; and B. Soares, ‘The historiography of Islam in West Africa: an anthropologist's view’, The Journal of African History, 55:1 (2014), 27–36.

12 S. Hanretta, ‘Muslim histories, African societies: the venture of Islamic studies in Africa’, The Journal of African History, 46:3 (2005), 49. Italics in original.

13 Translation in Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, 70; compare to the Arabic version in Houdas, Tarikh es-Soudan II, 48.

14 The honorific modibbo is a Fulfulde adaptation of the Arabic mu'addib and means ‘educated person’ or ‘teacher’. See Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, 104n14. A portrayal of Muḥammad al-Kābarī is in the Tārīkh al-Sūdān, see Houdas, Tarikh es-Soudan II, 47–50 (Arabic text); and Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, 68–72.

15 J. O. Hunwick (comp.), Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume IV: The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa (Leiden, 2003), 12, item 1. For an analysis of the Bustān, see Z. Wright, ‘The Islamic intellectual traditions of Sudanic Africa, with analysis of a fifteenth-century Timbuktu manuscript’, in F. Ngom, M. Kurfi, and T. Falola (eds.), Handbook of Islam in Africa (London, forthcoming). Rudolph Ware is currently working on a translation of this work; personal communication, 6 May 2019.

16 L. Sanneh, Beyond Jihad: The Pacifist Tradition in West African Islam (New York, 2016).

17 R. Ware, The Walking Qur'an: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa (Chapel Hill, NC, 2014), 77–110; Z. Wright, Living Knowledge in West African Islam: The Sufi Community of Ibrahim Niasse (Leiden, 2015), 32–76.

18 J. Trimingham, Islam in West Africa (Oxford, 1959); N. Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali (London, 1973); H. Fisher, ‘Conversion reconsidered: some historical aspects of religious conversion in Black Africa’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 43:1 (1973), 27–40; H. Fisher, ‘The juggernaut's apologia: conversion to Islam in Black Africa’, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 55:2 (1985), 153–73; Sanneh, Beyond Jihad, 2. Several scholars have recently pointed to the lasting influence in the field of this theory; see B. Hall, ‘Arguing for sovereignty in Songhay’, Afriques, 4 (2013), 7–8; R. Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa: A Historical Anthropology (Bloomington, 2013), 27; B. Peterson, Islamization from Below: The Making of Muslim Communities in Rural French Sudan, 1880–1960 (New Haven, 2011), 8; and D. Robinson, Muslim Societies in African History (Cambridge, 2011), 28.

19 R. Launay, Beyond the Stream: Islam and Society in a West African Town (Berkeley, 1992), 17.

20 Ware, Walking Qur'an, 86.

21 Gomez, African Dominion, 33, 212.

22 A full digression on the genesis of the idea that African Muslims practice a syncretic and degenerated version of Islam and a reflection on its persistence in contemporary discourses is outside the scope of this essay. It is sufficient to redirect the reader to the previous forum ‘Islam in sub-Saharan Africa’ and specifically to Triaud, ‘Giving a name to Islam’.

23 Ware, Walking Qur'an, 4.

24 A classic example of the use of ‘nominal’ Muslims is to be found in Levtzion's description of West African rulers in the Middle Ages who are described as ‘neither real Muslims nor complete pagans’. Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali, 190. Recent references to ‘nominal Muslims’ are to be found in Gomez's portrayal of Sunjata Keita, see Gomez, African Dominion, 155; and in Mohammed B. Salau's description of the rulers of the Hausa states before the establishment of the Sokoto state, see M. Salau, Plantation Slavery in the Sokoto Caliphate: A Historical and Comparative Study (Rochester, 2018), 2.

25 A. Grib, ‘In-between the “elite” and the “pagan”: Qur’ānic boards from West Africa’, Manuscripta Orientalia, 15:1 (2009), 22. On the importance and symbolic value of the wooden board in Islamic teaching, see A. Brigaglia, ‘Fī lawḥin maḥfūẓ: towards a phenomenological analysis of the Quranic tablet’, in A. Brigaglia and M. Nobili (eds.) The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Manuscript Cultures in Muslim Sub-Saharan Africa (Berlin, 2007), 69–102. The role of the Quranic tablet in Islamic education in sub-Saharan Africa is discussed in several contributions to R. Launay and R. Ware (eds.), Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards (Bloomington, 2016).

26 N. Levtzion, ‘Patterns of Islamization in West Africa’, in D. McCall and N. Bennet (eds.), Aspects of West African Islam (Boston, 1971), 39.

27 B. Soares, ‘Historiography of Islam in West Africa’, 33.

28 Peterson, Islamization from Below, 3.

29 J. O. Voll, ‘Pensée 3: reconceptualizing the “regions” in “area studies”’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 41:2 (2009), 196; Reese, ‘Islam in Africa’, 18.

30 S. Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton, 2016), 5.

31 Launay, Beyond the Stream, 6.

32 T. Asad, The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam (Washington, DC, 1986). For a discussion on Asad's approach, see O. Anjum, ‘Islam as a discursive tradition: Talal Asad and his interlocutors’, Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 27:3 (2007), 656–72.

33 Asad, Idea of an Anthropology of Islam, 14. Italics in original.

34 S. Reese, Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839–1937 (Edinburgh, 2018), 9; Ware, Walking Qur'an, 77.

35 Loimeier, Muslim Societies in Africa, 19.

36 Reese, ‘Islam in Africa’, 23.

37 S. Reese (ed.), The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa (Leiden, 2004). Reese's book is a manifesto for this new approach to the study of African Muslim societies.

38 Ware, Walking Qur'an, 22.

39 Sanneh, Beyond Jihad, 2.

40 P. F. de Moraes Farias, ‘Islam in the West African Sahel’, in LaGamma, Sahel, 111.

41 As Anjum writes: ‘Rather than the “thick descriptions” of theatrical subjects who simply “behave” in accordance with the roles determined for them by either their material structure or culture, it is the arguments and discourses of the thinking subjects with their specific styles of reasoning couched in their historical and material context that become the focus of this analysis.’ Anjum, ‘Islam as a discursive tradition’, 662. Italics in original.

42 The title of this section makes explicit reference to the classic study on the topic published in this journal by L. Sanneh, ‘The origins of clericalism in West African Islam’, The Journal of African History, 17:1 (1976), 49–72.

43 N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins (eds.), Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History before 1500 (Cambridge, 1981), 80. Nowhere is there any indication that these clerics were foreigners; see Ware, Walking Qur'an, 86.

44 Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus, 133.

45 Ibid. 153.


46 Ibid. 287. Another location, Zāgharī, most likely also located in the Middle Niger but north of Dia and Kābara, is mentioned by Ibn Baṭṭūta as inhabited by Ibāḍī Muslims. No further evidence is available on this center.


47 Ware, Walking Qur'an, 84.

48 Ivor Wilks is another scholar who substantially contributed to the study of the Dikhanke diaspora. Of his vast scholarly production on the topic, see I. Wilks, ‘The Juula and the expansion of Islam into the forest’, in N. Levtzion and R. Pouwels (eds.), The History of Islam in Africa (Athens, 2000), 93–115; and the autobiographical article, I. Wilks, ‘Al-Hajj Salim Suware and the Suwarians: a search for sources’, Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, 13 (2011), 1–79. Concerning the dates of al-ḥājj Sālim Suware, Wilks and Sanneh substantially disagree.

49 Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, 69.

50 Houdas and Delafosse, Tarikh el-fettach, 60. On the chronicle of Ibn al-Mukhtār, see note 5 above.

51 Ibid. 56.


52 These families are extensively discussed in E. Saad, Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables, 1400–1900 (Cambridge,1983).

53 Alternatively, Houdas and Delafosse suggest that Mori Koyra might be located near Gao; see Houdas and Delafosse, Tarikh el-fettach, 15n5. Gomez pays special attention to this lineage, see Gomez, African Dominion, 212–15, 258–63. However, the bulk of the information on this clerical lineage also comes from the work of Ibn al-Mukhtār and as such is available to scholars only in a problematic fashion. For example, the scholar Ṣāliḥ Jawara figures prominently in Gomez's work; Gomez, African Dominion, 202, 229–36, 260, 277, 286–8, 388. However, Ṣāliḥ Jawara is mainly a nineteenth-century invention. Apart from scanty information contained in the Tārīkh al-Sūdān, he only appears in the chronicle of Ibn al-Mukhtār in one instance, as a scholar who died at the time of Askiya Muḥammad. Houdas and Delafosse, Tarikh el-fettach, 154.

54 The renowned emperor of Songhay Askiyà Muḥammad (d. 1538) even issued a chart of privilege to the descendants of Mori Hawgāro. Hunwick, J., ‘Studies in the Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh, II: an alleged charter of privilege issued by Askiya al-Ḥājj Muḥammad to the descendants of Mori Hawgāro’, Sudanic Africa, 3 (1992), 133–4Google Scholar.

55 On the Baghayogho, see Hunwick, J., ‘A contribution to the study of Islamic teaching traditions in West Africa: the career of Muhammd Baghayogho, 930/1523–4–1002/1594’, Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara, 4 (1990), 149–63Google Scholar; and Massing, A., ‘Baghayogho: a Soninke Muslim diaspora in the Mande world’, Cahiers d’études Africaines, 44:176 (2004), 887922CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

56 Hunwick, Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire, lvii; Gomez, African Dominion, 212.

57 M. Nobili, ‘The written word: Islamic literacy and Arabic manuscripts in West Africa’, in Berzock, Caravans of Gold, 248.

58 For instance, none of the more than twenty works that are ascribed to members of the Baghayogho family dating back to the Songhay's period have been studied so far; on these works see Hunwick, Arabic Literature of Africa IV, 31–5.

59 Most notably, Kaba, L., ‘The pen, the sword, and the crown: Islam and revolution in Songhay reconsidered, 1464–1493’, The Journal of African History, 25:3 (1984), 241–56CrossRefGoogle Scholar; J. Hunwick, Sharī‘a in Songhay: The Replies of al-Maghīlī to the Questions of Askia al-Ḥājj Muḥammad (London, 1985); Blum, C. and Fisher, H. J., ‘Love for three oranges, or the Askiya's dilemma: the Askiya, al-Maghīlī and Timbuktu, c. 1500 A.D.’, The Journal of African History, 34:1 (1993), 6591CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hall, ‘Arguing for sovereignty’.

60 I borrow from the historiography in that I am employing the dichotomy ‘religious vs. secular’, conscious of the anachronistic use of the concept of the ‘secular’, which is ‘the product of a unique post-Reformation history’. Asad, T., Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (Baltimore, 1993), 28Google Scholar. For a more complete discussion on the applicability of these terms to precolonial Islamic West Africa, see Nobili, Sultan, Caliph, and Renewer of the Faith, 16–19.

61 Gomez, M., ‘Timbuktu under imperial Songhay: a reconsideration of autonomy’, The Journal of African History, 31:1 (1990), 524CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hunwick, J., ‘Secular power and religious authority in Muslim society: the case of Songhay’, The Journal of African History, 37:2 (1996), 175–94CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Gomez, ‘Timbuktu under imperial Songhay’, 24.

63 Hunwick, ‘Secular power and religious authority’, 193.

64 Wright, Living Knowledge, 64.

65 See Tamari's excellent study on the topic. T. Tamari, Les castes de l'Afrique occidentale: Artisans et musiciens endogames (Nanterre, France, 1998).

66 Tamari, T., ‘The development of caste systems in West Africa’, The Journal of African History, 32:2 (1991), 223CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 Ware, Walking Qur'an, 83.

68 Tamari, ‘Development of caste systems’, 237.

69 Ware, Walking Qur'an, 82.

70 See Stewart, C., ‘Southern Saharan scholarship and the Bilad al-Sudan’, The Journal of African History, 17:1 (1976), 7393CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 Sanneh, Beyond Jihad, 8.

72 Saul, M., ‘Islam and West African anthropology’, Africa Today, 53:1 (2006), 20CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 C. Crumley, ‘Heterarchy and the analysis of complex society’, in R. Ehrenreich, C. Crumley, and J. Levy (eds.), Heterarchy and the Analysis of Complex Societies (Washington, DC, 1995); cited in R. J. McIntosh, The Peoples of the Middle Niger (Malden, MA, 1998), 9n11.

74 Saul, ‘Islam and West African anthropology’, 20.

75 Ibid.


76 Ibid. 21.


77 McIntosh, The Peoples of the Middle Niger, 7.

78 McIntosh, S. (ed.), Beyond Chiefdoms: Pathways to Complexity in Africa (Cambridge, 2005), 15Google Scholar.

79 Alidou, O., Engaging Modernity: Muslim Women and the Politics of Agency in Postcolonial Niger (Madison, 2005)Google Scholar; Cooper, B., Marriage in Maradi: Gender and Culture in a Hausa Society in Niger, 1900–1989 (Portsmouth, NH, 1997)Google Scholar; Hill, J., Wrapping Authority: Women Islamic Leaders in a Sufi Movement in Dakar, Senegal (Toronto, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Masquelier, A., Women and Islamic Revival in a West African Town (Bloomington, IN, 2009)Google Scholar.

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