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Analyses et comptes rendus

Nobili Mauro. — Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith. Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tarikh al-Fattāsh, and the Islamic State in Africa

Ousmane Kane
p. 200-202
Référence(s) :

Nobili Mauro. — Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith. Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tarikh al-Fattāsh, and the Islamic State in Africa. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2020, 288 p., bibl., index, ill.

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1Among the most important sources for West African precolonial political history, three seventeenth-century Timbuktu chronicles figure prominently: the Tarīkh al-Sūdān, the Tarikh al-Fattāsh and the Tadhkirat al-Nisyān. They were discovered after the conquest of the ‘Umarian State and translated from Arabic to French at the beginning of 20th century. The author of Tadhkirat al-Nisyān is not known, and the attribution of Tarīkh al-Sūdān to Abderrahman al-Sa‘di has never been contested. The content and authorship of Tarīkh al-Fattāsh, translated into French by Houdas and Delafosse as La Chronique du Chercheur, however, have been the subject of a historiographical debate lasting more than a century. Prior to the publication of Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith, there was a large consensus that part of the manuscript translated by Houdas and Delafosse into French was forged to legitimize Aḥmad Lobo, but nobody ever questioned that it was one single document, and that it was composed in the 17th century. Nobili has established beyond doubt that La Chronique du Chercheur is not the translation of one document plus textual manipulations as has been assumed for well over a century, but the conflation of two documents. Furthermore, Nobili shows that the title of Tarīkh al-Fattāsh was not assigned in the 17th century but in the 19th century by Nūḥ Ben Tāhir. In the process, he sheds light on one of the most important yet misunderstood sources of West African history. This is a breakthrough!

2Through a fine analysis of the authorship, motivation, circulation and reception of Tarikh al-Fattāsh, Nobili undertakes a historical investigation on legitimate authority in 19th-century Muslim West Africa, centered on the characters of the Sultan Ahmad Lobbo, and Nūḥ Ben Tāhir. Tāhir was the trusted advisor of Ahmad Lobbo, who led a jihad and established a powerful state in the Middle Niger in the 19th century: the Caliphate of Hamdallahi. Although very learned, Lobbo came from a humble background, and his claims to authority were opposed by three important sets of actors: the old Fulani aristocracies, which he overthrew to establish his State, the prestigious and influential Kunta scholarly families of Arab origin who ranked among the most powerful religious and economic actors of the region, and finally the descendants of ‘Uthmān Dan Fodio, founder of the Sokoto Caliphate, who claimed that the Caliphate of Hamdallahi was part of the Sokoto Caliphate, a claim based on an earlier allegiance made by Ahmad Lobbo to Dan Fodio but withdrawn later. It is amid such claims that Nūḥ B. Tāhir produced the Tarīkh al-Fattāsh in the 19th century to establish the authority of Ahmed Lobbo. He did so by concocting a prophecy allegedly recounted to Songhay ruler Askiya Mohamed (1443-1538) during his pilgrimage to Mecca in the 15th century, and witnessed by his entourage, acknowledging Askiya Muhammad as a Caliph, and prophesizing the arrival of Lobbo both as an heir of some kind to Askiya’s authority and the Twelfth of the Caliphs of Islam.

3Nobili argues that this enterprise required first creating a reliable witness. Tāhir found in the Timbuktu scholar Mahmud Kati the perfect candidate because of Kati’s fame and passion for the past. The problem was that Mahmud Kati was born most likely between 1493 and 1538, and thus was not a contemporary of the Askiya in the first place. Thus, Nobili argues, Nūḥ Ben Tāhir set Kati’s birth in 1468 to transform him into a contemporary of Askiya Mohamed (1443-1538) and made him a member of the entourage of scholars who travelled with Askiya to Mecca and witnessed the recounting of the prophecy. In the Muslim Holy Lands, so the story goes, Mūlay al-Abbas, the king of Mecca turbaned the Askiya as Caliph of West Africa (p. 103). Once Askiya Muhammad has been transformed into an ideal West African ruler, Nūḥ Ben Tāhir attaches him to Ahmad Lobbo by invoking other prophecies, including by the North African Jurist ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Thalabī (d. 1479) reported to have said that: “At the end of time, there will be two caliphs from the Land of Takrur. The first will appear at the end of the ninth century, the second at the beginning of the thirteenth century (p. 105).” Also, Shamharush the Jinn told two scholars of the entourage of the Askiya in an oasis between Cairo and Alexandria that “The Caliphs are twelve, all from the Quraysh. I think that he [Askiya Mohamed] is one of them. Ten have arrived and two are left… The last will arrive in the thirteenth century” (pp. 106-107). The goal, according to Nobili, was to construct Lobbo’s legitimacy at three levels as a legitimate Sultan, the inheritor of a long line of West African rulers, and the 12th Imam under whom the Islamic community would thrive (p. 106). After establishing the authorship, date of composition and motivation for writing the Tarīkh al-Fattāsh, Nobili brilliantly analyzes the circulation and reception of the text throughout the 19th century, including the response of those groups that contested the authority of Lobbo. He also reviews the historiography of Tarikh al-Fattāsh extensively.

4Another myth shattered by recent research and discussed in this book is the Visigoth origins of Mahmud Kati, whose library was believed to have been established by ‘Ali b Zayd, originating from Toledo, Spain, who left Andalusia in 1467 to settle in West Africa. A marginal note found on a Timbuktu manuscript, and assumed to have been written in 1468, stated that the manuscript in question, was purchased by ‘Ali B. Zayd, al-Qūti (the Visigoth), believed to be the ancestor of Mahmud Kati (p. 62). Abdel Qadir Haidara, a descendant of Mahmud Kati and a Timbuktu historian, built a fascinating story about the Hispanic origins of his ancestors. Susanna Molins Lliteras, who submitted the manuscript to rigorous codicological scrutiny examining the paper, script, ink and decoration, concluded that the famous notes attributed to Ali b. Zayd, and assumed to have been written in the 15th century, could not have been written earlier than the 19th century, and most probably were added to the manuscript in the late 20th century (p. 63).

5In the last few decades, local Arabic sources, and especially the Timbuktu chronicles have proven useful in reconstructing the precolonial political and intellectual history of West Africa. This interest in Arabic sources, combined with a sense of pride for the African past, created a fertile ground for the manipulation of those sources. The story of the Hispanic origins of Mahmud Kati, is just one of the many stories long taken for granted. In the historiography of the Sokoto Caliphate, similar forgeries were found, made by scholars who, in the late 20th century, wrote texts and attributed them to Usman Dan Fodio. Those texts may have reflected the thinking of Dan Fodio, but careful analytical scrutiny however, revealed that they were forgeries.

6Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith is a major contribution to the study of West African history. One of its main lessons is that the Islamic library, which brings new important historical information, must be submitted to rigorous paleographic, chronological and codicological scrutiny.

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Ousmane Kane, « Nobili Mauro. — Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith. Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tarikh al-Fattāsh, and the Islamic State in Africa »Cahiers d’études africaines, 249 | 2023, 200-202.

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Ousmane Kane, « Nobili Mauro. — Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith. Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tarikh al-Fattāsh, and the Islamic State in Africa »Cahiers d’études africaines [En ligne], 249 | 2023, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2023, consulté le 29 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Ousmane Kane

Divinity School, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

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