Untangling a centuries-old deception

Professor uncovers the manipulated historical account of a 19th century ruler
Mauro Nobili, left, and Mohamed Diagayete
Mauro Nobili, left, professor of history at Illinois, and Mohamed Diagayete, director of the Institut des hautes études et des recherches islamiques Ahmed-Baba de Tombouctou, conduct research for Nobili's book in Cote D'Ivoire. (Photo courtesy of Mauro Nobili.)

Mauro Nobili has been studying the pre-colonial and early colonial history of West Africa for more than a decade.

Through the years, Nobili, a professor of history, has pieced together evidence that shows the Tarikh al-fattash, a West African chronicle written in Arabic that is widely believed to have been produced in the 17th century, was in fact written by someone else entirely in the 19th century.

Nobili discovered that a scholar named Nuh b. al-Tahir wrote the chronicle, changing pre-existing historical works to legitimize Ahmad Lobbo as the ruler of the 19th century Caliphate of Hamdallahi.

According to Nobili, his work shows how European historians have traditionally looked down on African scholars, and that the Tarikh al-fattash’s alterations reveal just how complex and high-level West African politics have been for hundreds of years.

In a culmination of his work, which has made waves in the historical community, Nobili will publish a book detailing his findings in the spring via the Cambridge University Press.

“There is always an agenda behind writing,” Nobili said. “Writing is always a political act. But because of the stereotypes about the inferiority of (historical) actors in West Africa, people always neglected that, like us, they did have their own agendas.”

The book, titled “Sultan, Caliph, and the Renewer of the Faith: Ahmad Lobbo, the Tarikh al-fattash and the making of an Islamic State in West Africa,” breaks down the historical knowledge of the chronicle, the problematic and altered aspects that have been historically misinterpreted, and how it is an important piece in the evolution of Arabic historical literature in the region.

In it, Nobili explains Ahmad Lobbo established the Caliphate of Hamdallahi after leading a successful revolution in 1818. As a new ruler who did not belong to a noble family, Ahmad Lobbo faced challenges to his throne from dissenters and regional rivals alike.

So he turned to Nuh b.al-Tahir, who weaved a tale about how 15th-century West African king Askiya Muhammad I, who led the Songhai Empire, was told several times while journeying to and from Mecca that his ‘inheritor’, Ahmad Lobbo, would come to power in the 19th century.

“What happens is that (Ahmad Lobbo) manipulates historical documents to provide himself with a sort of pedigree that he actually did not have,” Nobili said. “He does it by having one of his most important intellectuals (Nuh b. al-Tahir) producing a chronicle, the Tarikh al-fattash, in which a series of events are embedded in real history.”

“Askiya Muhammad is a historical king and the link gives Ahmad Lobbo a sort of genealogy, not as nobody, but actually as the inheritor of the most illustrious Muslim king of West Africa,” he continued. “My book deals with two stories, the story of the state and the story of the book.”

Nobili hopes that his findings will spur other historians into action and will raise the issue of how African scholarship has not been met with the same respect that European scholarship has. Ultimately, he wants it to be the catalyst for even more research.

“I hope to show how a single document in a series of satellite documents around the chronicle can open very different windows on African and Islamic history,” Nobili said. “I hope the case study of this particular chronicle in this particular political context can be a good example that will push other people to use these documents to produce more internal views on African history.”

In the summer of 2018, Nobili was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for Humanities: Scholarly editions and Translations to create an updated English translation of the 19th century chronicle and the 17th-century text that was altered to produce the Tarikh al-fattash.

Working with Malian colleague Ali Diakite from the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and Northwestern professor Zachary Wright, Nobili is nearing the completion of those texts as well.

Looking back at how far he has come, Nobili attributes some of his success to plain luck in managing to find so many of the manuscripts.

“I was honestly lucky enough to stumble on this document, the one with the real name of the real author,” Nobili said. “But also, while working with the manuscripts from Timbuktu, both in Mali and when I was in South Africa, I found one of the versions of the chronicle in a manuscript format that dated to before the French edition.”

Since he was a doctoral candidate at the University of Naples in 2008, Nobili has been seriously interested in African history. But he didn’t get into hunting down the manuscripts of the Tarikh al-fattash until he was working as a postdoc in South Africa.

Nobili left South Africa for his position at Illinois in 2014. Despite moving halfway across the world, Nobili still itched to get to the bottom of the obscurities of the Tarikh al-fattash.

He continued his research when he could and was eventually rewarded for his persistence. After some time, Nobili was able to access and translate previously unpublished Arabic manuscripts, which show that Nuh b. al-Tahir wrote the chronicle to make it seem as if it was the collective work of multiple scholars from the early 16th century through the 19th century.

“The standard version of the stories of the chronicle was initiated by Maḥmud Ka‘ti in the 16th century,” Nobili said. “It was updated by his descendants until one guy, known as Ibn al-Mukhtar, completed it in the 17th century. Then, (Lobbo and al-Tahir) manipulated the chronicle in the 19th century.”

Nobili concludes the book with an analysis of how the Tarikh al-fattash relates to the political project that Ahmad Lobbo began.

It’s actually a rather short bit of history, but Nobili’s findings help illuminate and make understandable the political case for power made by Ahmad Lobbo. The Caliphate of Hamdallahi only lasted from 1818 to 1862, when another Muslim reformer from Senegal conquered the land, after Ahmad Lobbo had died in 1845.

Like countless other civilizations, much of the legacy of these West African civilizations lies in a significant shroud of mystery. Steadily, though, thanks to the efforts of Nobili and other historians, the world is gaining a better understanding of the history of pre-colonial and early colonial West Africa.

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Gavin Good