Fellow 2018-19

Mauro Nobili


Making Authority by Rewriting the Past in Islamic West Africa: The Seventeenth-century Tārīkh Ibn al-Mukhtār and the Nineteenth-century Tārīkh al-fattāsh

Scholars have misunderstood one of the most important internal Arabic sources for pre-colonial African history: the Tārīkh al-fattāsh (“The Chronicle of the Inquisitive Researcher”), allegedly written by a sixteenth-century scholar from Timbuktu, Maḥmūd Ka‘ti. Professor Nobili’s research proves that this ascription is apocryphal and that the chronicle is actually a nineteenth-century work written by Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir (d. 1857-8), a scholar of the Caliphate of Ḥamdallāhi (1818-1862). Professor Nobili also argues that the widely used 1913 edition of the text is substantially flawed. The edition conflates two chronicles: Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir’s nineteenth-century Tārīkh al-fattāsh; and an earlier, seventeenth century chronicle of the region that he calls Tārīkh Ibn al-Mukhtār (“The Chronicle of Ibn al-Mukhtār”) after the name of its author. This earlier chronicle was used by Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir as the basis for his work. These sources, accurately dated and contextualized by the forthcoming study, can—when correctly distinguished from one another—provide crucial knowledge on two important phases of West African history: the seventeenth century, which marks the end of the great West African empires; and the nineteenth century, characterized by the emergence of Islamic theocracies.

Professor Nobili’s current book project is titled Sultan, Caliph, and Renewer of the Faith: Aḥmad Lobbo, the Tārīkh al-fattāsh and the Making of an Islamic State in Nineteenth-Century West Africa (accepted for review by Cambridge University Press). The book explores the foundations of authority and the mechanisms of legitimation in the theocratic states that resulted from eighteenth– and nineteenth–century West African Islamic revolutions. This project has its counterpart in Professor Nobili’s forthcoming scholarly edition and translation of both the Tārīkh al-fattāsh and the Tārīkh Ibn al-Mukhtār.