Soninke Writer. Mahmoud al-Kati was the first West African scholar to write an important history of the Western Sudan, Tarikh al-Fattash (The Chronicle of the Seeker After Knowledge). Al-Kati was a member of the Soninke tribe who learned to read and write Arabic, the language of West African scholars in his time.
Travel to Mecca. As a member of the Soninke tribe, al-Kati was a descendant of the rulers of the ancient Empire of Ghana and shared this lineage with Askia Muhammad the Great, ruler of Songhai in 1493-1528. When al-Kati was twenty-five, he became a member of Askia Muhammad’s personal staff. In 1495 al-Kati went with the emperor on his hajj to Mecca. Askia Muhammad apparently stayed in Mecca and Cairo for two years, during which al-Kati observed and wrote about the events and people they encountered.
Scholar. After they returned from Mecca, al-Kati became a doctor of Islamic law at Sankore University in Timbuktu. He began writing Tarikh al-Fattash in 1519 when he was 51 years old. Though he is said to have lived to the age of 125, he did not complete the work. His sons and grandsons who were also scholars continued the work of recording the history of the Songhai Empire and Timbuktu to about 1665. No original manuscript of al-Kati’s history has survived, and in extant copies it is often difficult to distinguish his observations from commentary by other writers.
Tarikh al-Fattash. The word tarikh may be translated as “presenting oral traditions,” which is what al-Kati did. He did use some texts by contemporary Arabic scholars, but he also wrote much original work based on unwritten historical sources. Living through most of the sixteenth century— when the Songhai Empire was at its peak—al-Kati recorded the histories of the rulers and the powerful Empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, covering their geography, towns, and cultures over the centuries.
Basil Davidson, with F. K. Buah and the advice of Ajayi, A History of West Africa to the Nineteenth Century, revised edition (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor/Doubleday, 1966).
Nehemia Levtzion, Ancient Ghana and Mali (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).
Patricia and Frederick McKissack, The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali, and Songbay: Life in Medieval Africa (New York: Holt, 1994).
Mary Penick Motley, Africa, Its Empires, Nations, and People (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1969).