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The Chronology of Sudanese Arabic Genealogical Tradition

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 May 2014

Jay Spaulding*
Kean University


Modern nationalisms first arose during the later eighteenth century around the wide periphery of the ancient heartland of western culture and gnawed their way inward during the course of the nineteenth century to the core, culminating in World War I, Each new nationalism generated an original “imagined community” of human beings, part of whose ideological cohesion derived from a sense of shared historical experience. Since the actual historical record would not necessarily satisfy this hunger, it was often found expedient to amend the past through acts of imagination aptly termed the “invention of tradition.”

One of the many new “imagined communities” of the long nineteenth century took shape in the northern Nile-valley Sudan between the final disintegration of the old kingdom of Sinnar (irredeemable after the death of the strongman Muhammad Abu Likaylik in 1775) and the publication of Harold MacMichael's A History of the Arabs in the Sudan in 1922. The new national community born of the collapse of Sinnar, strongly committed to Arabic speech and Islamic faith, was tested by fire through foreign conquest and revolution, by profound socio-economic transformation, and by the challenges attendant on participation in an extended sub-imperialism that earned it hegemony—first cultural, and ultimately political—over all the diverse peoples of the modern Sudan.

One important response of the nascent community to the trials of this difficult age was the invention of a new national historical tradition, according to which its members were descended via comparatively recent immigrants to the Sudan from eminent Arabs of Islamic antiquity.

Research Article
History in Africa , Volume 27 , January 2000 , pp. 325 - 337
Copyright © African Studies Association 2000

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1 Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York, 1991).Google Scholar The present study was prepared in conformity to the orthographical limitations of History in Africa and therefore does not obey the conventions observed elsewhere in the scholarly literature. The author will be happy to supply orthographically correct information to any reader who might desire it.

2 Hobsbawm, Eric J. and Ranger, Terence, eds., The Invention of Tradtion (Cambridge, 1992).Google Scholar

3 MacMichael, H.A., A History of the Arabs in the Sudan (Cambridge, 1922).Google Scholar Hereafter this is cited as M/HAS.

4 For an overview see Holt, P.M. and Daly, M.W., A History of the Sudan from the Coming of Islam to the Present Day (4th ed.: London, 1988).Google Scholar

5 For sources and a critique see Spaulding, Jay and Kapteijns, Lidwien, “The Orientalist Paradigm in the Historiography of the Late Precolonial Sudan” in O'Brien, Jay and Roseberry, William, eds., Golden Ages, Dark Ages: Imagining the Past in Anthropology and History (Berkeley, 1991), 139–51.Google Scholar

6 See Spaulding, Jay, “The End of Nubian Kingship in the Sudan, 1720-1762” in Daly, M. W., ed., Modernization in the Sudan (New York, 1985), 1728Google Scholar; and idem., “The Demographic Effect of the Arabs upon Lower Nubia before 1635: Linguistic Evidence,” Northeast African Studies 10(1988), 127-30.

7 7A scholarly introduction may he found in Hasan, Yusuf Fadl, The Arabs and the Sudan from the Seventh to the Early Sixteenth Century (Edinburgh, 1967).Google Scholar

8 For an introduction see Hollingsworth, T.H., Historical Demography (Ithaca, 1969).Google Scholar By the same scientific operations, I am a descendant of Charlemagne, and ask to be addressed as “Sire” by anyone who believes culturally meaningful traits to be transmitted biologically.

9 For an introduction to a possibly authentic genealogy preserved in a Sudanese manuscript, see al-Sheikh, Ahmad al-Muʿtasim and Salih, ʿAli Osman Muhamed, “An Abahsa Family Manuscript Collection,” Sudan Texts Bulletin 5(1983), 8182.Google Scholar One version of Item No. 1, the “Kitab al-Nibr al-ʿAbbasi,” describes the arrival in the Sudan of an immigrant from Upper Egypt in the middle or later seventeenth century and traces the fortunes of his ever-increasing generations of descendants thereafter. I believe this genealogy has a greater claim to authenticity than the works discussed in this study, largely because it differs in its pyramidal structure from conventional Sudanese genealogies and resembles in this respect the form of authentic genealogies found elsewhere. However, according to the authors cited above, it would seem that other versions of the “Kitab Nibr al-ʿAbbasi,” those now regarded as authoritative, have been amended to include a much more distant immigrant ancestor and an appropriate number of intervening generations.

10 “The line of cleavage between the two great Arab groups of descendants of Kahtan on the one hand and of Ismaʿil and ʿAdnan on the other has not been obscured by the lapse of ages, nor by the tremendous unifying force of a common religion, nor by continuous intermarriage, nor by migration to distant lands. The distinction [is]… clearly traceable in the Sudan at the present day.” (MHAS 2:3).

11 Representative studies of recent times include the large compendium of al-Sharif Qasim, ʿAwn, Mawsuʿat al-qaba'il wa'l-ansab fi'l-Sudan (Khartoum, 1996)Google Scholar; Ahmad ʿAbd al-Rahim Nasr, Hadha Jamiʿnasab al-Jaʿaliyyin (Khartoum, 1981) and al-Tahir, al-Fiki al-Fahl, Ta'rikh wa-usul al-ʿArab bi'l-Sudan (Khartoum, 1979).Google Scholar Title to the contrary, no serious critique of MacMichael's scholarship may be found in Ibrahim, Abdullahi Ali, “Breaking the Pen of Harold MacMichael: The Jaʿaliyyin Identity Reconsidered,” IJAHS 21(1988), 217–31.Google Scholar The elderly shaykh whose comment inspired the title was expressing the cultural nationalist viewpoint that MacMichael, as an alien, had no right to any opinion at all. The author supports this position in the postmodernist/deconstructionist idiom recently fashionable in literary circles. For a genealogically-based interpretation of European history comparable in historiographical method and general validity to MacMichael's work on the Sudan, see Gardner, Laurence, Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed (Shaftesbury, 1966).Google Scholar

12 “One of the first steps which anyone desirous of studying the history of a people naturally takes is to consult such native records as may be extant and appraise their importance as evidence.” (MHAS l:v).

13 MHAS 1:196.

14 “An original author's manuscript a century or more old I have never seen, though such may possibly exist.” (MHAS 1:vi).

15 By a liberal interpretation of the colophon of the document MacMichael published as D1 (MHAS 2:201), a copy of the manuscript may have existed as early as 1151/1738-39; however, see note 19 below.

16 MacMichael himself realized this (MHAS 2:3), hut incorrectly assumed it would lead to empirical rigor rather than imaginative license in the formulation of ancestries. For representative examples from the literature see MHAS 2:16-17, 62, 101, 103, 111, 115, 118, 119, 121, 124, 127, 139, 154, 157, 159, 163, 166, 168, 176, and 182.

17 For recurrences of this difficulty elsewhere in nineteenth-century Sudanese historiography see Spaulding, Jay, “Sufi Hagiography,” JAH 32(1991), 347–4CrossRefGoogle Scholar and idem., “Shayqiyya Sufism,” JAH 34(1993), 332-33.

18 For contemporary documentary references to Muhammad walad Dolib, see Spaulding, Jay and Salim, Muhammad Ibrahim Abu, Public Documents from Sinnar (East Lansing, 1989)Google Scholar, documents 29, 50, 51, and 58.

19 MHAS 2:200-01.

20 For biographical information see Hasan, Yusuf Fadl, ed. Kitab al-tabaqat … ta'lif Muhammad al-Nur b. Dayf Allah (Khartoum, 1971), 313Google Scholar, and Salim, Muhammad Ibrahim Abu, ed., Tabaqat wad Dayf Allah: al-Dhayl wa'l-takmila (Khartoum, 1982), 101.Google Scholar For examples of his wisdom, see al-Tayyib, al-Tayyib Muhammad, Farah wad Taktuk: Halal al-Mashbuk (Khartoum, 1977)Google Scholar, and Hillelson, Samuel, Sudan Arabic Texts (Cambridge, 1935), 156–71.Google Scholar

21 Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York, 1978).Google Scholar

22 MHAS 2:3-4.

23 Spaulding, Jay, The Heroic Age in Sinnar (East Lansing, 1985), 215–21.Google Scholar

24 MHAS 2:4.

25 Ibid., 2:6.

26 Ibid., 2:7.

27 Ibid., 1:v.

28 Ibid., 2:7-8.

29 The imaginary imam won an entry in the coloninl Sudanese Who's Who: see Hill, Richard, A Biographical Dictionary of the Sudan (2d. ed.: London, 1967), 331.Google Scholar

30 Attar, Farid al-Din, The Conference of the Birds (New York, 1984).Google Scholar

31 This material is preserved in the National Records Office (hereafter NRO) in Khartoum, Dakhlia series 112. For the political background to this effort, see Daly, M.W., Empire on the Nile: The Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1898-1934 (Cambridge, 1986), 360–79.Google Scholar

32 In addition to many independent efforts, some cited in various contexts here, special credit belongs to the Institute of African and Asian Studies of the University of Khartoum for issuing many volumes of lightly-edited sources in its “popular legacy” (al-turath al-shaʿabi) series.

33 Henige, David P., The Chronology of Oral Tradition: Quest for a Chimera (Oxford, 1974).Google Scholar The contemporary written sources bearing fixed dates include numerous private legal documents, largely unpublished; this study cites items preserved in the NRO Miscellaneous series. A second major source of chronological precision are the government documents of the kingdom of Sinnar, notably the witness rosters of land charters; in addition to Spaulding/Abu Salim, Public Documents, see Bjørkelo, Anders and Shouk, Ahmad Ibrahim Abu, “A Sultanic Charter from Sinnar,” Sudanic Africa 3(1992), 2940.Google Scholar Additional fixed points of reference may be found in the “Funj Chronicle;” see al-Jalil, al-Shatir Busayli ʿAlid, Makhtutat katib al-shuna fi ta'rikh al-sultana al-Sinnariyya wa'l-idara al-Misriyya (Cairo, 1961)Google Scholar and the contemporary hagiography; see Yusuf Fadl Hasan, Tabaqat, and Muhammad Ibrahim Abu Salim, Tabaqat. In some instances travelers' accounts could prove useful.

34 NRO Dakhlia 112/3/10.

35 Spaulding/Abu Salim, Public Documents, document 10.

36 Ibid., document 20.

37 Ibid., document 19.

38 NRO Miscellaneous 1/10/79, Pieces 5, 6.

39 Spaulding/Abu Salim. Public Documents, document 52; Spaulding, , Heroic Age, 399400.Google Scholar

40 Spaulding, Abu Salim, Public Documents, document 53.

41 Ibid., documents 56, 58, 59, 60.

42 Busayli, al-Shatir, Makhtuta, 88.Google Scholar

43 See Spaulding, Heroic Age, Part III.

44 NRO Dakhlia 112/5/51; see also Tame, G.B., “Legends of the Halawin of Blue Nile Province,” Sudan Notes and Records 17(1934), 201–16.Google Scholar

45 Spaulding/Abu Salim, Public Documents, document 62.

46 Spaudling, , Heroic Age, 439–51.Google Scholar

47 NRO Dakhlia 112/3/17 and 112/6/35; see also Hillelson, S., “Historical Poems and Traditions of the Shukria,” Sudan Notes and Records 3(1920), 3375.Google Scholar

48 NRO Dakhlia 112/3/17.

49 Spaudling, , Heroic Age, 334–35.Google Scholar

50 For a discussion and sources see ibid., 381-411.

51 O'Fahey, R.S. and Spaulding, J.L., Kingdoms of the Sudan (London, 1974), 2829.Google Scholar

52 For the ʿAbdallab see NRO Dakhlia 112/4/24; portions of this file were published by Penn, A.E.D. as “Traditional Stories of the Abdallab Tribe,” Sudan Notes and Records 17(1934), 5982Google Scholar; Nasr, ʿAhmad 'Abd al-Rahim, Ta'rikh al-ʿAbdallab min khilal ruwayatihim al-simaʿiyya (Khartoum, 1969)Google Scholar and al-Din, Muhammad Salih Muhyi, Mashaykhat al-ʿAbdallab wa-atharuha fi hayat al-Sudan al-siyasiyya (Khartoum, 1972).Google Scholar For the Musabba'at and Ghudiyat see O'Fahey, R.S. and Spaulding, Jay L., “Hashim and the Musabbaʿat,” BSOAS 35(1972), 316–33CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and the sources cited there. For the Beni ʿAmr see Nadel, S.F., “Notes on Beni Amr Society,” Sudan Notes and Records 26(1945), 5159Google Scholar, and the sources cited there. For Qubba see NRO Dakhlia 112/16/104, and Garretson, Peter P., “Shaykh Hamdan Abu Shok and the Administration of Gubba, 1898-1937” in Tubiana, Joseph, ed. Modern Ethiopia from the Accession of Menilck II to the Present (Rotterdam, 1980).Google Scholar For Taqali see Ewald, Janet J., Soldiers, Traders and Slaves: State Formation and Economic Transformation in the Greater Nile Valley, 1700-1885 (Madison, 1990) and the sources cited there.Google Scholar

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