Al-’Umarī Writes a History of Africa

Syrian Islamic chronicler al-ՙUmarī produced a meticulous and detailed written account of medieval Africa, which serves as important primary material on Sudanic Africa in the fourteenth century.

Summary of Event

The writings of Ibn Faḍl Allāh al-ՙUmarī (best known as al-ՙUmarī) chronicled events of fourteenth century Africa. Al-ՙUmarī’s position as the sultan of Cairo’s official scribe in charge of correspondence—a high post in the Mamlūk Dynasty Mamlūk Dynasty[Mamluk Dynasty] court—gave him access to the royal archives and allowed his own work to be added to the collections in Cairo. [kw]Al-ՙUmarī Writes a History of Africa (1340)
[kw]Africa, Al-ՙUmarī Writes a History of (1340)
[kw]History of Africa, Al-ՙUmarī Writes a (1340)
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Africa;1340: Al-ՙUmarī Writes a History of Africa[2790]
Egypt;1340: Al-ՙUmarī Writes a History of Africa[2790]
Cultural and intellectual history;1340: Al-ՙUmarī Writes a History of Africa[2790]
Historiography;1340: Al-ՙUmarī Writes a History of Africa[2790]

Al-ՙUmarī composed a variety of works, the most important African history being Masālik al-abṣār fī Mamālik al-amṣār
Masālik al-abṣār fī Mamālik al-amṣār (al-ՙUmarī)[Masalik] (c. 1340; partial translation, 2000), which contains at least four descriptive chapters on the various territories in Africa. In this wide-ranging, thirty-two volume work, al-ՙUmarī gives accounts of Ethiopia, Kanem, Nubia, Mali, Aïr, Awdaghust, and Tadmekka. Al-ՙUmarī consulted many of the inhabitants of Cairo about their encounters and meetings with the kings of the Sudan who typically passed through Cairo on their pilgrimage to Mecca. The oral and written accounts of Cairo were obtained primarily from travelers, merchants, scholars, and political ambassadors whom al-ՙUmarī met in Cairo. On some occasions, al-ՙUmarī references the works of previous Arab scholars who wrote on African geography, but this is rare in comparison to the primary accounts he collected.

From his fourteenth century writings, which extract information from the earlier writings of Shaykh ՙUthmān al-Kanemi and ՙAbd Allāh al-Salalhi, one can learn a great deal about the Sefuwa Dynasty Sefuwa Dynasty . According to Masālik al-abṣār fī Mamālik al-amṣār, the Sefuwa Dynasty under Dunama bin Hummay Hummay, Dunama bin took control of the Lake Chad city of Kanem. Al-ՙUmarī gave an account of the rise to power of Sayf bin Dhī Yazan Sayf bin Dhī Yazan[Sayf bin Dhi Yazan] . According to al-ՙUmarī’s version, the Yazan were the ancestors of the Sefuwa dynastic authority who expelled the Zaghawa from power. Al-ՙUmarī indicates that Kanem was already familiar with Islamic beliefs before Sefuwa ascendance to power. Thus, according to al-ՙUmarī, the Sefuwa accession to power was more of a political shift than a religious change. Although the Sefuwa Dynasty under Hummay brought a more thorough conversion of the Kanem Kanem Empire population to Islamic Islam;Africa
Africa;Islam and practice, al-ՙUmarī writes that the Kanem king was not seen but spoke from behind a veiled covering, most likely a means of maintaining legitimacy through the Zaghawa and appeasing local Kanem beliefs in sacral Sudanic kingship. Al-ՙUmarī reported that in terms of trade in Kanem, cowrie shells, dende cloth, glass beads, copper, and some coins were viable currencies.

Some of the most important writings of al-ՙUmarī detail the history of Mali Mali and the capital at Niani Niani (Nyeni). The location of the old Mali Empire’s capital is made clear in al-ՙUmarī’s chronicle. He places Niani in the borderlands between Mali and Guinea on the Sankani River. Furthermore, al-ՙUmarī provides details on the role of the capital as a royal residence for the mansas (kings) and a seat of centralized power. Al-ՙUmarī describes Niani as a capital characterized by its conical clay residences and buildings. Al-ՙUmarī depicts even the details of how these structures were raised from foundation to ceiling. The royal residence was distinguished by the surrounding fortified walls.

Al-ՙUmarī focuses his Mali report on the reign of Mansa Sulaymān Sulaymān, Mansa , who ruled from 1337 to 1358. Sulaymān was in fact the brother of Mansa Mūsā Mūsā, Mansa . According to al-ՙUmarī, Mali had fourteen provinces, which included Takrur, Ghana, Banbughu, Bambuk, and Kaukau, as well as the Mauritanean Adrar, the region inhabited by the Lamtuna Berbers. The chronicle reveals that the Mali capital was at Niani on the river that basically encircled the royal center. The palace was a site for entertaining and contained a special stage (bembe) for such activities. The royal regalia included an umbrella for protection of the mansa, a yellow flag with a red background, and drums for ceremony.

The al-ՙUmarī accounts give details about the soldiers in Mali and what types of equipment they typically used, and the author comments on the gold worn by the dignitaries. According to al-ՙUmarī, the mansa of Mali tolerated non-Muslims in the empire and employed them in gold mining because metalwork was viewed as requiring secret and magical rituals in which only non-Muslims could engage. Thus practitioners of African religions played a crucial role in the economy of the Malian state, which had adopted Islam as an official religion. Such accounts reveal some of the social relationships that existed among groups in medieval African societies.

Exploration and travel also figure prominently in al-ՙUmarī’s accounts. Travel by land;al-ՙUmarī[Umari, al] There is discussion of an unsuccessful fourteenth century Malian expedition in the western Atlantic, travels along the Spanish coast, and an Egypt-Mali trade route.

Masālik al-abṣār fī Mamālik al-amṣār carefully describes seven Muslim kings from Ethiopia. In addition, al-ՙUmarī details histories of the Christian kings of Ethiopia. Beyond the scope of political history, al-ՙUmarī describes the agricultural system practiced in regions of land cultivation and the social customs of the Ethiopian populations, and he gives regional depictions. Al-ՙUmarī depicts the urban center Aksum, which he transliterates in Arabic as Akshum, and he references the provinces of Amhara and Tigre.

Al-ՙUmarī’s chronicle of Ethiopia comes out of his interviews with Jamāl al-Dīn ՙAbd Allāh Jamāl al-Dīn ՙAbd Allāh from Zayla, a sheikh, who received a group of Muslim representatives from Ethiopia. The Muslims petitioned the Coptic patriarch in Cairo to intervene on their behalf with the emperor of Ethiopia, Hatsi, whose name al-ՙUmarī transliterates as al-Hati. The reception of the delegation took place some time in the mid-1330’, most likely between 1332 and 1338. This is known because a Christian delegation also arrived during this period and submitted a written report to the Coptic patriarch regarding the Muslims. There were other interviewees who relayed information on Ethiopia, including merchants who had traveled there.

Other regions and topics on Africa covered by al-ՙUmarī include the Zanj (black Africans) and information about a treaty written by al-Jāiẓ, an eighth-ninth century theologian and writer.


Al-ՙUmarī’s research and writings on Africa provide a window onto the past. Al-ՙUmarī details aspects of life in different parts of Africa and, in particular, provides economic and political data that is invaluable. In addition, the chronicler provides a sense of the common people’s daily life and habits. As an external source, al-ՙUmarī’s work is a tremendous contribution to the field of medieval African history, particularly regarding Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa and Mali and Kanem in the Sudan.

The written sources that come from Muslim chroniclers are extremely important resources on African history, particularly for the period between the eighth and fifteenth centuries. These sources are especially valuable and useful where there are no African writing systems or translatable scripts. In regions where written sources do exist, Arabic sources serve as helpful corroborating sources for attempts to reconstruct African histories. Some of the Arabic-script chronicles were recorded by Arabs from outside the region, while others came from Muslims living in Africa. The Arabic works include a wide variety of topics ranging from geography, political commentary, religious observations, and travelers reports to news. Al-ՙUmarī’s accounts in particular were highly detailed and have been of great use to modern-day historians and archaeologists.

Further Reading

  • Abun-Nasr, Jamil M. A History of the Maghrib in the Islamic Period. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990. Histories of the Maghreb under Berber, Arab, and Ottoman rulers. Includes brief references to Kanem and the Sefuwa Dynasty. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Elfasi, M., and I. Hrbek, eds. “The Chad Region as a Crossroads.” In Africa from the Seventh to the Twelfth Century. Vol. 4. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. Discusses selections of al-ՙUmarī’s written accounts.
  • Hopkins, J. F. P., trans. Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History. Edited and annotated by N. Levtzion and J. F. P. Hopkins. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2000. Provides a partial translation of al-ՙUmarī’s history of Africa, along with translations of other chronicles about West African history. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Hrbek, I., ed. Africa from the Seventh to the Eleventh Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. Contains a discussion of the Chad region as a crossroads. Illustrations, maps, bibliography.
  • Hunwick, J. O., and R. S. O’Fahey, eds. Arabic Literature of Africa. New York: E. J. Brill, 1994-2003. A multivolume collection of sources on writings of eastern, western, and central Sudanic Africa. Bibliography, index.
  • Ki-Zerbo, Joseph, and Djibril Tamsir Niane, eds. Africa from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Includes a chapter on the kingdoms and peoples of Chad. Illustrations, maps, bibliography.
  • Lewicki, Tadeusz. Arabic External Sources for the History of Africa to the South of the Sahara. London: Curzon Press, 1974. A description and excerpts from primary sources derived from North Africa and the Middle East regions between the eighth and the fifteenth centuries. Includes maps based on Arab sources and a bibliography.