Accepted paper:

Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir's Risāla fī ẓuhūr al-khaliīfa al-thānī 'ashar: construction of legitimization in the Masina Caliphate (1818-62)


Mauro Nobili (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Paper short abstract:

A letter addressed to different “kings” and “tribes” written by Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir sheds light on the Ta’rīkh al-Fattāsh. Between narrative and non-narrative sources, this paper analyses the process of construction of political legitimization of the West African Caliphate of Masina (1818-62).

Paper long abstract:

Most of the historical knowledge on pre-colonial West African history is based on the famous Timbuktu chronicles known as the Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh (Houdas & Delafosse 1913-14). According to the scholars, the chronicle has a complex history of its own, characterized by a number of layers of writing and forgeries (Brun 1914; Hunwick 1967; Levtzion 1971; Ly 1972; Hunwick 1992). However, all the researches devoted to the Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh neglect a crucial document that sheds light on the process of writing of the chronicle. It is a letter sent by the Fulani scholar Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir who, in the early 19th century, manipulated the chronicle in order to provide political and spiritual legitimation to the newly established Caliphate of Masina (1818-62). The letter, addressed to different Muslim "kings" and "tribes", sheds light on a crucial phase in the process of writing of Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh, linking the chronicle to the events of the 19th century - instead of those of the 15th-16th as usually perceived by the scholars. This paper analyses Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir's letter, extant in multiple copies in African and European manuscript collections. The study of this important document leads to a radical re-thinking of the chronicle itself, its authorship, its date, its title, as well as in solving all the contradiction that characterize the edited version of the Ta'rīkh al-Fattāsh. Furthermore, a combined reading of the letter and the chronicle allows scholars in understanding a peculiar propaganda which provides a good example of construction of political legitimization in pre-colonial Africa.

panel P152
Administrative and legal documentation in pre-colonial Africa and beyond