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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

06/2012 manuscript  of the month

A Propaganda Pamphlet in Support
of a 19th-century West African Ruler

“Under the title of Fettassi, Koti edited a history of the kingdoms of Ganata, Songhoi, and Timbuctoo, from their origins until 1554 (950 of Hegira). In spite of the most persistent research, I have not been able to procure more than fragments of this important work. Everyone knows all about it, but no one possesses it; it is the phantom book of the Sudan”. With these words Félix Dubois, a journalist of the French newspaper Le Figaro, refers in 1896 to a chronicle written in Timbuktu, Mali. The work, generally acknowledged as having been commenced by Maḥmūd Ka‘ti b. al-ḥājj al-Mutawakkil Ka‘ti (d. 1593) and completed by one of his nephews, known only as Ibn al-Mukhtār Gombélé (fl. 17th century), is commonly known as the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh (“The chronicle of the seeker”). While the chronicle was edited in 1913-14 by Octave V. Houdas and Maurice Delafosse, those fragments referred to by Dubois attracted little scholarly attention. Were they just isolated sections of the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh or not? And why did they circulate apart from the chronicle?

Institut de France,
Fonds de Gironcourt,
ms. 2410 (174), f. 116b

Dubois explains that these fragments were a propaganda pamphlet containing a prophecy that legitimizes the authority of AḥmadLobbo (d. 1845), the ruler of the Masinaempire (1818-1862), an Islamic state in central Mali. Some of these fragments are today included in different collections in France, Mali and Niger. The manuscript presented here is one of these pamphlets, included in the collection of West African Arabic manuscripts donated by the French explorer Georges de Gironcourt (1878-1960) to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres in Paris and hosted at the Library of the Institut de France. It is part of a composite volume, i.e. a book made up of formerly independent books or booklets. The manuscript was produced on de Gironcourt’s request on the 4th of June, 1912, in Sinder, today’s western Niger Republic.

The author of the pamphlet is a well-known 19th-century Muslim scholar, Nūḥ b. al-Ṭāhir al-Fullānī (d. 1860), working at the court of Aḥmad Lobbo. The text addresses two crucial topics of Aḥmad Lobbo’s propaganda. The first seeks to legitimize Aḥmad Lobbo’s authority by referring to an alleged 15th-century prophecy foreseeing his arrival. Moreover, the prophecy identifies Aḥmad Lobbo as the last of twelve caliphs mentioned by the Prophet of Islam, Muḥammad, in a famous prophetic saying (ḥadīth). The second issue addressed in the pamphlet is Aḥmad Lobbo’s attempt to impose a servile status on the occupational groups. Traditionally, occupational groups were free in West Africa, but subordinate and inferior to freemen. However, the pamphlet, which contains several passages that enforce the status of slaves of the crown on these occupational groups, explicitly legitimizes Aḥmad Lobbo’s claim of ownership on them.

Institut de France,
Fonds de Gironcourt,
ms. 2410 (174), f. 116a

Eventually, the text of the pamphlet was included in the first chapter of the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh. This cannot be claimed with certainty, since no original of the first chapter has been preserved. During the years of Aḥmad Lobbo’s reign, all copies of the chronicle were mutilated of the first chapter and a version showing a new forged chapter that includes the text of the pamphlet was circulated. The text published is an edition of the 19th-century version of the chronicle including most of the text of the pamphlet described here.

Finally, the beginning of the text of the pamphlet, as it is displayed in the manuscript of de Gironcourt 2410 (176), casts a doubt on the originality of the title of the Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh. Our manuscript explicitly attributes the title of the chronicle to the Nūḥ b. Ṭāhir al- Fullānī – and not to the 16th-17th centuries’ Maḥmūd Ka‘ti and Ibn al-Mukhtār Gombélé. Does the title “Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh” only belong to the later pamphlet which eventually found its way into the edited version of the work? The complete title of the Chronicle, i.e. “The chronicle of the seekers into the history of the countries, the armies, and the main personalities, and the mention of the events of al-Takrūr and its major happenings, as well as the distinction between the lineages of the slaves and the freemen” supports this hypothesis. This title, in fact, evokes the two main concerns of Aḥmad Lobbo’s propaganda: the prophecy of his advent – listed as one of the prominent events in the history of the Takrūr, i.e. West Africa – and the servile status of the occupational groups Aḥmad tried to implement.

BA, A. H. – DAGET, J. (1962): L’empire peul du Macina, 1818-1853. Paris – La Haye: Mouton & Co.
DUBOIS, F. (1896): Timbuctoo the mysterious, White, D. trans. New York: Longmans.
HOUDAS, O. – DELAFOSSE, M. eds. and trans. (1912-1913): Tarikh el-fettach par MahmoūdKātiet l'un de ses petit fils, 2 vols. Paris: Ernest Leroux.
HUNWICK, J. O. et al. (2003): The Arabic Literature of Arica. Vol. 4. The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa. Leiden: Brill.
LEVTZION, N. (1971): “A seventeenth-century chronicle by Ibn al-Mukhtār: A critical study of "Ta’rīkh al-fattāsh”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 34, pp. 571–593.
NOBILI, M. (2008-2009):“ ‘Rediscovering’ the de Gironcourt Manuscript Collection”,Annual Review of Islam in Africa 10: pp. 62-66.
NOBILI, M. (2011): “Arabic Scripts in West African Manuscripts: A Tentative Classification from the de Gironcourt Manuscript Collection”, Islamic Africa Journal 2/1: pp. 105-133.

Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Fonds de Gironcourt, ms. 2410 (174).
Two bifolia.
Dimension: 220×160 mm.
Writing surface:160×100 mm.
Ink: dark/brown ink.
Lines per page: 17/19.
Copyist: Aruna.
Script: Polished “Central Sudanic Cursive Hand”.

Text by Mauro Nobili
©: Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France, Fonds de Gironcourt, Paris, ms. 2410 (174).