The Chronicle of the Seeker

Mahmud Kati


We shall now relate some of what we have been able to discover about the history of the Mali-koy Kankan Musa.[1]

This Mali-koy was an upright, godly, and devout sultan.[2] His dominion stretched from the limits of Mali as far as Sibiridugu, and all the peoples in these lands, Songhay[3] and others, obeyed him. Among the signs of his virtue are that he used to emancipate a slave every day, that he made the pilgrimage to the sacred house of God,[4] and that in the course of his pilgrimage he built the great mosque of Timbuktu[5] as well as the mosques of Dukurey, Gundam, Direy, Wanko, and Bako.

His mother Kankan was a native woman, though some say she was of Arab origin. The cause of his pilgrimage was related to me as follows by the scholar Muhammad Quma, may God have mercy on him, who had memorized the traditions of the ancients. He said that the Mali-koy Kankan Musa had killed his mother, Nana Kankan, by mistake. For this he felt deep regret and remorse and feared retribution. In expiation he gave great sums of money in alms and resolved on a life-long fast.

He asked one of the ulama[6] of his time what he could do to expiate this terrible crime, and he replied, "You should seek refuge with the Prophet of God, may God bless and save him. Flee to him, place yourself under his protection, and ask him to intercede for you with God, and God will accept his intercession. That is my view.

Kankan Musa made up his mind that very day and began to collect the money and equipment needed for the journey. He sent proclamations to all parts of his realm asking for supplies and support and went to one of his shaykhs[7] and asked him to choose the day of his departure. "You should wait," said the shaykh, "for the Saturday which falls on the twelfth day of the month. Set forth on that day, and you will not die before you return safe and sound to your residence, please God."

He therefore delayed and waited until these two coincided, and it was not until nine months later that the twelfth of the month fell on a Saturday. He set forth when the head of his caravan had already reached Timbuktu, while he himself was still in his residence in Mali.

Since that time travelers of that people believe it is lucky to set out on a journey on a Saturday which falls on the twelfth of a month. It has become proverbial that when a traveler returns in a bad state, they say of him, "Here is one who did not set out on the Mali-koy's Saturday of departure!"

Kankan Musa set out in force, with much money and a numerous army. A scholar told me that he heard from our shaykh, the very learned qadi[8] Abul-Abbas Sidi Ahmad ibn Ahmad ibn Anda-ag-Muhammad, may God have mercy on him and be pleased with him, that on the day when the pasha[9] Ali ibn al-Qadir[10] left for Twat, announcing that he was going on the pilgrimage to Mecca, he asked how many persons were going with him and was told that the total number of armed men the pasha had with him was about eighty. "God is great! Praise be to God!," said the qadi. "Everything in the world grows less. When Kankan Musa left here to go on pilgrimage he had with him 8,000 men. The Askia Muhammad[11] made the pilgrimage later with 800 men, that is, one-tenth of that. Third after them came Ali ibn Abd al-Qadir, with 80 men, one-tenth of 800." And he added, "Praise be to God, other than Whom there is no God! Ali ibn Abd al-Qadir did not even achieve his purpose."

Kankan Musa went on his journey, about which there are many stories. Most of them are untrue and the mind refuses to accept them. One such story is that in every town where he stopped on Friday between here and Egypt he built a mosque on that very day. It is said that the mosques of Gundam and Dukurey were among those he built. Both at lunch and dinner, from when he left his residence until he returned, he ate fresh fish and fresh vegetables.

I was told that his wife, called Inari Konte, went with him, accompanied by 500 of her women and serving women.

Our shaykh, the Mori Bukar ibn Salih,...may God have mercy on him, told me that Kankan Musa took forty mule-loads of gold with him when he went on his pilgrimage and visited the tomb of the Prophet.[12]

It is said that he asked the Shaykh of the noble and holy city of Mecca, may Almighty God protect it, to give him two, three, or four sharifs[13] of the kin of the Prophet of God, may God bless him and save him, to go with him to his country, so that the people of these parts might be blessed by the sight of them and by the blessing of their footsteps in these lands. But the shaykh refused, it being generally agreed that such things should be prevented and refused out of respect and regard for the noble blood of the sharifs and for fear lest one of them fall into the hands of the infidels and be lost or go astray. But he persisted in his request and urged them very strongly, until the shaykh said, "I will not do it, but I will neither command nor forbid it. If anyone wishes, let him follow you. His fate is in his own hands, I am not responsible."

The Mali-koy then sent a crier to the mosques to say, "Whoever wishes to have a thousand mithqals[14] of gold, let him follow me to my country, and the thousand is ready for him." Four men of the tribe of Quraysh[15] came to him, but it is claimed that they were freedmen[16] of Quraysh and not real Qurayshis. He gave them 4,000, 1,000 each,[17] and they followed him, with their families, when he returned to his country.

When the Mali-koy reached Timbuktu on his way back, he collected ships and small boats on which he transported their families and luggage, together with his own women, as far as his country, for the riding animals were too exhausted to use. When the ships, carrying the sharifs from Mecca, reached the town of Kami, the Diennekoy[18]...attacked the ships and plundered all that they contained. They took the sharifs ashore and revolted against the Mali-koy. But when the people of the ships told them about the sharifs and informed them of their high station, they attended them, and installed them in a nearby place called Shinshin. It is said that the sharifs of the town of Kay are descended from them.

This is the end of the story of the pilgrimage of the Mali-koy Kankan Musa....

As for Mali, it is a vast region and an immense country, containing many towns and villages. The authority of the Sultan of Mali extends over all with force and might. We have heard the common people of our time say that there are four sultans in the world, not counting the supreme sultan,[19] and they are the Sultan of Baghdad,[20] the Sultan of Egypt, the Sultan of Bornu,[21] and the Sultan of Mali.


[1] Titles meaning "King of Mali, Lord Musa."
[2] An Arabic term meaning "one who wields authority."
[3] Songhay lay to the east of Mali and centered on the trading city of Gao. Mansa Musa's armies conquered Gao around 1325, and Mali maintained control over Songhay until about 1375. By the late fifteenth century Songhay had replaced Mali as West Africa's major sub-Saharan trading kingdom and held this position of primacy until it was conquered in 1591 by invaders from Morocco.
[4] The Kaaba in Mecca, Islam's holiest site. See sources 57 and 58.
[5] Timbuktu was the major trading city of the kingdom of Mali from 1325 to 1433. Its mosque school became the chief center of Islamic learning in sub-Saharan West Africa.
[6] A term that means "the Learned." Islam has no priests but, very much like Rabbinical Judaism, its religious authorities attain and hold their position by virtue of their learning.
[7] An Arabic title of respect meaning "elder."
[8] An Islamic judge who interprets and administers Sharia.
[9] A Turkish title meaning "chief."
[10] Governor of Timbuktu, 1628-1632.
[11] Askia (Emperor) Muhammad Ture the Great (r. 1492-1528), Lord of Songhay. The askia undertook his pilgrimage in 1495-1496, accompanied by Mahmud Kati, who was one of his chief advisors.
[12] The Prophet's tomb is in Medina.
[13] An Arabic title meaning "exalted one."
[14] A weight of precious metal that varied by region.
[15] The tribe of the Prophet.
[16] Freed former slaves, therefore Qurayshis by adoption, not birth.
[17] He gave each of four men 1,000 mithqals of gold.
[18] The lord of Dienne, technically one of Mansa Musa's vassals.
[19] The Ottoman sultan of Constantinople.
[20] The last Abbasid caliph of Baghdad died in 1258.
[21] A West African trading rival of Songhay located in the region of Lake Chad, along the border of modern Chad and Nigeria.


Credits: Bernard Lewis, ed. and trans., Islam from Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Vol. I, Politics and War, Translation copyright (c) 1987 by Bernard Lewis.  Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.