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La mise en archive : des usages immédiats aux enjeux mémoriels

Land documents in Dār Fūr sultanate (Sudan, 1785–1875): Between memory and archives

Les documents fonciers dans le sultanat du Darfour (Soudan, 1785–1875), entre mémoire et archives
George Michael La Rue


Certaines sociétés sub-sahariennes ont livré des sources documentant les anciennes pratiques foncières. Pour ce qui est de l'étude du système ḥākūra dans le sultanat du Dār Fūr (Soudan), une combinaison exceptionnelle de documents écrits des xviiie et xixe siècles associés à la mémoire d'informateurs locaux permet une analyse historique détaillée. Les textes concernent des donations de terre émises par l'autorité du sultan, des décisions de justice et des lettres administratives, tandis que les informateurs pouvaient replacer ces informations dans leur contexte social en identifiant les personnes, en les plaçant dans leur lignage et leurs réseaux politiques. Les informations orale collectées montrent aussi que ces textes témoignent d'arbitrages sur des enjeux de pouvoirs et des conflits fonciers transgénérationnels. Les enquêtes de terrain permirent d'identifier les caractéristiques des terres concernées par ces enjeux fonciers. Grâce à ces informations multiples, les documents écrits peuvent être replacés dans un contexte large, incluant les stratégies du pouvoir sultanique, les conflits ethniques, la capacité d'agir des individus, les transactions commerciales et les variations climatiques, autant de variables à prendre en compte pour analyser et comprendre les enjeux fonciers. Les documents relatifs à la terre d'autres sociétés sub-sahariennes eurent, à n'en pas douter, de semblable contextes dans lesquels l'oralité offrait les informations nécessaires pour leur donner tout leur sens.

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  • 1  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 28.

To compare Dār Fūr practice directly with the usages of the Islamic heartlands risks missing the crucial intermediate step of internal development within the Sudanic belt.1

  • 2  For Arabic terms see the glossary at the end of the paper. I have generally avoided Arabic plurals (...)

1The formation of private collections of written documents pertaining to the acquisition and ownership of land in the Dār Fūr sultanate is both interesting in itself and as evidence of the creation and functioning of the ḥākūra2 system in Dār Fūr, 1785–1875. While the documents include sultanic land grants, court cases, and administrative letters written in Arabic and using terms from the Islamic heartland, it is erroneous to assume that Islamic Law was the sole determinant of their value, that the documents alone tell the entire story of land tenure in Dār Fūr, or even that the documents fully reveal the motives and strategies of those who benefitted from this documentation. Written documents recorded the outcomes at each stage of these struggles for control of land with the backing of Muslim officials and the sultanic court, in terms that reflected the culture to which the victors subscribed or aspired, rather than the consensus of all concerned.

  • 3  On oral sources and their complementarity with written documents, see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 33-49. F (...)

2The written land documents from Dār Fūr are in fact best understood in a context that has been preserved orally by the descendants of the land-owners and sultanic officials, and those they displaced. Fortunately, the memories of oral informants I interviewed complement these documents and help to place them in much fuller contexts.3 Oral informants (some of whom held the documents in question, and others descended from those displaced by the granting of sultanic estates) could often explicate the documents, identify the principal actors, recognize the neighbors and witnesses mentioned in passing, and provide much more information about key individuals. During site visits, oral informants not only indicated key topographic and social features of the land, but their contrasting accounts demonstrated that these documents recorded a series of graduated steps in multi-generational power struggles over the land. This can be best seen in a set of documents from Kubayh, which seem disparate and unconnected until they are linked by oral information connected to three personages: two trans-Saharan caravan leaders and a sultan’s daughter. Only when one understands that khabīr Muḥammad Kannūn b. ‘Alī and khabīr ‘Alī b. Ibrāhīm b. ‘Alī are uncle and nephew, as well as commercial patron and client, and that the mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays bint al-Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn eventually became khabīr ‘Alī ’s wife, can the bigger pattern of land acquisition and control near Kubayh, Dār Fūr’s principal trans-Saharan trading center, be seen. Without this additional oral information, the documents’ true importance cannot be seen. The specific documents and complementary oral information presented here pertain to Dār Fūr, but written land documents from other Sub-Saharan land must have once had similar oral contexts.

  • 4  Sudanic land documents can be used in the discussions over the relationships between orality and l (...)

3The patterns that scholars find in land documents from Sub-Saharan Africa can run along various paths depending on their scholarly training, the evidence available to them, the questions they ask, and the scale of their studies.4 For Dār Fūr, the land documents can be placed in multiple contexts of sultanic strategies, ethnic conflicts, personal agency, commercial development, and climatic variation. The documents were simultaneously evidence of (and tools used in) much larger struggles over land. The new administrative processes which generated them also created a new land-holding elite. The descendants of that elite preserved these documents carefully and had them re-confirmed by each successive sultan (and later Condominium and national governments), either directly or tangentially by invoking them in any legal transaction or court case. Typically, all documents recording familial claims to land were carefully preserved in family archives.

  • 5  Compare the various chapters in D. Crummey, 2003.

4Comparative studies of land tenure documents in Sub-Saharan Africa are particularly useful to prompt us to consider them in ways that are new to us, if not to others.5 To quote R.S. O’Fahey:

  • 6  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 13.

It is possible and to some degree necessary, to describe the estate system using the Arabic terminology employed in the documents. But it is misleading if milk, iqṭā‘, ṣadaqa and the like are understood solely by reference to their use in the Middle East or in the lawbooks.6

  • 7  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 334-351.
  • 8  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 335.
  • 9  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 336-337.

5While the seemingly familiar legal terminology may lull some into thinking that the ḥākūra system was simply a copy of the system of land tenure in the Islamic heartland, it was in fact a record of struggles over land at the growing edge of the Muslim world.7 O’Fahey has written on the connections between the terminology and practices of the central Islamic heartland and those of Dār Fūr. He emphasized that Dār Fūr and its parallel states—Bornu, Wadai and Sinnar—formed an Islamic frontier. These states in the Sudan and in the Lake Chad region had local African antecedents, to which were added Muslim influences, typically through the activities of Arabic-speaking nomads, long-distance merchants, and “peripatetic [Muslim] holy men (faqīh, pl. fuqarā‘).”8 The standard legal jargon (such as waqf, ṣadaqa, ḥaram, ḥawṭa, maḥram) was initially applied by outsiders to describe local realities shaped by indigenous practices and subject to the political decisions of powerful rulers, such as the sultan of Dār Fūr, whose actions were rarely constrained by abstract principles of law.9

6After an introductory look at the bigger picture, the broader processes will be illustrated by looking at four documents from Kubayh, Dār Fūr’s commercial capital and trans-Saharan terminus of the darb al-arbaˁīn. The four documents illustrate the hypothetical sequence of land documents and involve three key individuals: two caravan leaders (khabīrs) and a sultan’s daughter (mayram). Next, oral information shows the kinship and marriage relationships between these three key individuals, which would have been known to all the historical actors and would have shaped their perceptions, but missing from the land documents. Adding in this oral information reveals a broader, multi-generational pattern of land accumulation.

The big picture

  • 10  A comparison of the ḥākūra system to rest, gult, rim and zēgā in Ethiopian land tenure systems wou (...)
  • 11  On the founding of al-Fāshir, see G. La Rue, 2003, p. 24-44.

7In the period 1785 to 1875, a new set of principles for allocating land and labor came to dominate the economy and society of northern Dār Fūr. The pre-existing system of land tenure, based on communal holdings by the local sedentary groups, was gradually displaced by the ḥākūra system based on sultanic land grants.10 The spread of the ḥākūra system particularly in the area around Kubayh and al-Fāshir (the sultanate’s political capital) was paralleled by an increase in the local use of agricultural slaves. The most immediate reasons for this transformation were the establishment of a permanent capital at Rahad Tandalti and expansion of trade along the darb al-arbaˁīn, Dār Fūr’s trans-Saharan trade route which ran from Kubayh to Asyūt in Upper Egypt.11 Both of these developments followed hard on the conquest of Kordofan by Sulṭān Muḥammad Tayrāb in 1785–1786.

  • 12  On the holy men see R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 115-130. On the slaves see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 259-273, p (...)

8The establishment of a permanent political capital, al-Fāshir, in northern Dār Fūr permitted the next sultan, cAbd al-Raḥmān al-Rashīd (1786–1803), to consolidate his hold on Kordofan and to keep a watchful eye on the Zaghāwa, a powerful northern ethnic group which opposed his accession. From 1786, Dār Fūr surpassed Sinnār as an exporter of slaves to Egypt, and Kubayh, its commercial center, flourished. Al-Fāshir filled quickly with the sultan and his court; Kubayh also became an urban center, attracting jallāba traders from the northern riverain Sudan, Egypt, and beyond. Holy men came to instruct the children of the sultan, noblemen, and merchants; and slaves imported from the ‘pagan’ lands to the south drew water, hauled firewood, ground millet, and hoed the fields.12

9The presence of a large body of outsiders in a precolonial African society, whether as rulers, traders, holy men or slaves, caused a shift in the principles which that society had previously used for allocating resources and status. The Fūr sultans had been recognized earlier as rulers of northern Dār Fūr, but their permanent settlement in al-Fāshir required more practical accommodations. By their presence, the sultan and his court displaced some former residents, diminished the power of local ethnic leaders, and attracted new settlers. Similarly, in Kubayh the merchants needed a place to live and a reliable means of obtaining food.

  • 13  For one local ethnic group see L. Holy, 1974. Holy’s passages on land tenure are summarized in G.  (...)

10The ḥākūra system was a major element in the domestic policies of the Fūr sultans because estates could be granted to attract religious or mercantile immigrants, to reward followers, to co-opt opponents, to maintain royal relatives, or to make indigenous leaders of recently incorporated regions dependent on the sultans for their authority. The pre-existing system of land tenure in the northern Dār Fūr is nowhere fully described but appears to have been based on communal ownership of land by sedentary ethnic groups. Access to land was determined by ethnicity and lineage.13 The application of the new principles embodied in the ḥākūra system led to gradual but cumulative changes. The effect was to give the sultan authority over all the sultanate’s land.

Approaching the land documents

  • 14  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 31-49.
  • 15  Like many Africanists trained in the US, I was influenced by P. Curtin, 1975. Curtin had been insp (...)

11R. O’Fahey, who preceded me in the field, mentored me and facilitated my research in countless ways. I found, photographed, and translated land documents during my doctoral fieldwork in 1979–1980 in northern Dār Fūr. O’Fahey had already found many of them and used them as an Arabist, or classic medievalist, might, focusing on evidence internal to the documents. But I had different theoretical training as an economic and social historian, and I interviewed many individuals including descendants of estate holders, sultanic and local officials, and those displaced by the creation of ḥākūras. My methodology combined oral history, the use of local land documents, and the study of Dār Fūr’s trans-Saharan trade.14 The ultimate result was to fill in details of Dār Fūr’s topographic, social, and economic landscapes.15 In a sense, I started to learn what all the participants in the struggles over land already knew. The results are best seen in the interpretation of the documents from the Kubayh area.

  • 16  J. Ewald, 1988, p. 217-218; R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 347.

12In the Sudanic lands, holy men were more likely to be granted jāh (privilege or exemption from certain taxes and duties) or to be given sanctuary by being declared ḥaram (forbidden or, in this sense, protected by the sulṭān). Jāh was the most common term used for the early grants of land in Dār Fūr to holy men. Evidence from the kingdom of Tagali in Kordofan’s Nuba hills suggests that grants of jāh may originally have been issued orally, and later as written grants.16

  • 17  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 349.
  • 18  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 350.

13The granting of jāh was to give way to land grants in Dār Fūr. The creation of the ḥākūra system reflected a parallel trend and the creation of a new land-holding class. For O’Fahey, the grants of ḥākūras were the granting of “extensive fiefs or administrative estates with rights to limited revenue collection as a form of salary.”17 But the term ḥākūra is actually used in two senses in the sultanic documents from Dār Fūr. One which here will be clarified as administrative ḥākūra was sometimes termed an iqṭā‘ and granted to notables, “from which they could take the customary taxes, such as dam (‘blood money’), hukm (‘judicial fee’), and ‘uluq (‘forage tax’); the zakat and other state taxes, however, were collected directly by the sultan’s representative ....”18 The second sense of ḥākūra will here be called an agricultural ḥākūra and was explained by O’Fahey in the following way:

  • 19  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 350.

In both Darfur and Sinnar the more characteristic development was analogous to milk or rizq, namely the alienation of land as freehold regardless of the function or status of the grantee, whether prince or princess, merchant, notable, or holy man. To all the ruler conceded allodial property (iqṭā‘ al-tamlik) as “donation and gift” (ṣadaqa wa-hiba).19

14Allodial property was not subject to control by a higher political official. The essential message is that the terms jāh and ḥākūra were used in the central heartlands of Islam, but evolved in Dār Fūr both due to regional practices in the Sudanic region and to changing local conditions. The local connotations are not fully apparent from local written documents alone—other contextual evidence and local oral information must be used to fill in details known to all the original historical actors but not self-evident from the documents. As time passes, original understandings and contexts have sometimes been lost, and new interpretations favor some of descendants of the original historical actors and are disadvantageous to others.

  • 20  In more recent times, these administrative ḥākūras have been equated with ethnic dar or territorie (...)
  • 21  Classical Arabic maqdūm.

15In modern usage, the term ḥākūra in Dār Fūr has expanded beyond its original meanings in the 18th and 19th centuries as a sultanic grant of land to a loyal follower for agricultural purposes. The term was later extended to large administrative areas granted to key officials.20 Administrative ḥākūras were part of a political and territorial hierarchy. Of the four provinces of Dār Fūr, only the northern one, Dār al-Rīh, is considered here. The magdūm21 of the north was the sultan’s agent within this province, which contained both Kubayh and al-Fāshir. By Sulṭān Muḥammad Ḥusayn’s reign, the magdūm had 12 sharṭays under him, who each ruled a smaller geographical dār (called a sharṭaya) within Dār al-Rīh. The sharṭays were appointed by the sultan, who normally simply confirmed the hereditary successor to the position. The sharṭays were usually from the dominant ethnic group in their dārs, and in some cases they were the descendants of the pre-sultanate political rulers. Sharṭayas were (and are) often called ḥākūras but here will be called administrative ḥākūras for clarity.

  • 22  Classical Arabic sīd al-ḥākūra, pl. asyād al-hawākīr.

16Within each administrative ḥākūra were a large number of agricultural ḥākūras, estates granted by the sultan to individuals or lineage groups. Over 300 agricultural ḥākūras were reportedly in the largest administrative ḥākūra in Dār al-Rīh. These smaller agricultural ḥākūras, varying in size from 25 to 50 sq km down to less than 2 sq km, were often granted to outsiders not from the prevailing ethnic group of the dār in which they were located. The ḥākūra-holder22 had some political and judicial duties to perform and typically had several villages and their shaykhs under him. Such foreign ḥākūra-holders would not have had access to the land under the prior land tenure system, except by becoming a client to a local ethnic leader.

  • 23  Classical Arabic pl. fuqahā‘.

17Some immigrants, particularly faqīhs23 were initially granted jāh status, which was a guarantee of sultanic protection from the exactions of local and sultanic officials, including taxes and other forms of harassment. An individual faqīh and his followers and descendants might be declared to possess jāh and be issued a sultanic document. The key paragraph in one confirming an earlier grant of jāh by Sulṭān Muhammad Tayrāb (1752–1786) to the Tunjur fuqarā‘ of Khirībān (who moved from Jabal Ḥurayz to Kamala Kīrī) reads as follows:

  • 24 R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 47.

The said, divinely assisted, divinely approved and victorious sulṭān has confirmed for the faqīh Badawī his old and known privilege [jāh], the privilege of his father, the faqīhcAbdallāh Matlūq. He has presented to us a charter of Sulṭān Muḥammad Tayrāb in which he granted to the faqīhcAbdallāh the privilege [jāh] of God and his Prophet. We have confirmed for his son, the faqīh Badawī, the privilege of his father. [There is] not [due] from them dam, fisq, hāmil, nār, quwwār or the jibāya of the grain and cotton; they are free from all the customary taxes.24

  • 25  Briefly, the fines were collected by the sultan’s officials for homicide (dam), adultery (fisq), t (...)
  • 26  D. Crummey, 2006, p. 13.

18The fines (dam, fisq, hāmil, nār) and taxes (quwwār, jibāya) from which the jāh-holder was exempted were the mainstay of the sharṭays.25 The grant diminished the revenues of the sharṭay in that district. It also introduced outsiders into an area that had various local ethnic groups with a general claim to the land and local lineages which had specific claims to particular sections of land. These were the earliest sultanic grants; and although they often referred to a place and exempted the jāh-holders from taxes on agricultural activities, no specific boundaries are mentioned in the earliest documents. As time went on, some grants of jāh did describe the boundaries in more detail.26

19The granting of the early ḥākūras represented both a change in legal terminology and a reflection of the evolving social and economic situation in the sultanate. This was part of a gradual pattern of change: just as the first jāh grants did not end the earlier system of ethnically based land-holding, the early granting of ḥākūras (under Sulṭān cAbd al-Raḥmān, 1787–1803) did not stop the granting of jāh, which continued into the reign of Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn (1838–1873).

  • 27  R. O’Fahey, J. Spaulding, 1974, p. 169.
  • 28  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 213-225.

20In fact, one of the first known ḥākūras was granted to a Fallāta (the local term for an ethnic group from West Africa known elsewhere as Fulani, Fulbe, etc.) holy man, Mālikī b. cAlī al-Futāwī, who was the leader of a religious community at Kariu where the future sultan, cAbd al-Raḥmān b. al-Sulṭān Muḥammad Tayrāb, had lived before going to war in Kordofan.27 After Sulṭān Muḥammad Tayrāb’s death there, Sulṭān cAbd al-Raḥmān was chosen to succeed him but was opposed by his own nephew Isḥāq, backed by the Zaghāwa, a powerful ethnic group in the northwestern area of the sultanate. The grant at Kariu rewarded his teachers and fellow students and was part of his broader strategy of securing allies in northern Dār Fūr.28

21As the Dār Fūr sultans expanded their control of the sultanate, they sought to remove land from ethnic groups which claimed large regions as their ethnic dārs, previously subdivided into lineage territories, family lands, and household farms. Initially, land was removed by force for the benefit of the royal household, and by the proclamation of jāh, or privilege, for certain holy men. Initially simply an oral declaration backed by the threat of sultanic use of force, it eventually became common to issue jāh documents. The transition later to ḥākūra documents had legal and pragmatic aspects. It also reflected a broadening of the grantees to include sultanic officials, sultanic relatives, and long-distance merchants.

Four illustrative documents related to the merchant town of Kubayh

22In this section, four land documents from Kubayh will be used in two distinct ways. First, they will illustrate the logical administrative sequence of documentation for a particular piece of land. There were three basic steps in creating an estate, each of which could leave documentary traces behind. These can be called the survey of the land, the creation of the charter itself, and the confirmation. If ownership of the land was challenged, there could also be formal court cases which could produce a fourth type of document. The proceedings of these cases were recorded in sijills (summaries of court cases). While these four documents do not all pertain to the same ḥākūra, they illustrate the language and hypothetical sequence of the different types of documents.

23The second use of these four specific documents here is to introduce three personages (two caravan leaders and a royal daughter) with land holdings in Kubayh: khabīr Muḥammad al Kannūn, khabīr ‘Alī b. Ibrāhīm, and mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays. Their relationships (which are not evident in the written documents) were known to their contemporaries and emerged from my oral interviews. The combination of written and oral information will later permit a fuller discussion of these documents, the ḥākūras in question and the strategies of the three personages. But first, consider the documents and the hypothetical administrative sequence they illustrate.

Survey report

  • 29  R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 57-59.
  • 30  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 115-118.

24Once the sultan had decided to grant land, whether at the grantee’s request, through the intercession of a state official, or of his own volition, a standard procedure was followed. An envoy (called a muwajjah or falganāwī) was sent from the local sharṭay’s court to head a delegation which would include the grantee and the “people of the boundaries” (ahl al-ḥudūd or ahl al-arkān), who were the owners of adjacent land, to walk or ride the boundaries. Notes were taken en route or immediately after completing the circuit of the land in question.29 Later, the various “hills, trees, stony outcrops, river beds” and so on which marked the boundary of the land were recorded in a written report (nasab) sent to the sultan for inclusion in the land charter.30 It was standard practice to give the sultan’s messenger a gift called haqq al-nacal.

25Few of these original surveys have survived. Document A pertains to land granted to khabīr cAlī b. Ibrāhīm, one of Dār Fūr’s most important trans-Saharan merchants and caravan leaders at Kubayh, the sultanate’s commercial capital. This is the least formal of the series, containing only the sigillum (seal) of the royal official conducting the survey, the datum and locus, the dispositio, and the expositio. The seal is not that of the sultan but of the sultanic official Amin ‘Abdallah sent to ride the boundaries, along with a more local official, Ibrāhīm, sent by the malik ‘Abdallah Kūr. The place name—unvocalized in the text—is generally pronounced Ungorei. This description of its boundaries is quite detailed and is of interest not only to the ḥākūra-holders, but to historians who can use it to investigate the relations between khabīr cAlī and his neighbors. The land is along one of the khōrs which is a major tributary to wādī Kubayh, and therefore some of the area’s best-watered land. Numerous trees and large shrubs (many with medicinal uses) are mentioned as forming the boundaries, and their presence confirms the location along a seasonal riverbed. In the dry climate, the stumps persisted for many decades after the trees had died, making them effective landmarks.

Sultanic grant

  • 31  On the scribes see R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 22-25. On the paper see T. Walz, 1985, p. 29 (...)

26After the officials, the neighbors and the grantee had ridden the boundaries, the land document itself could be drawn up. The sultan’s scribes wrote the charters (ḥujja) using reed pens, locally made black ink, and imported paper.31 As more formal documents than the survey of the land, they had all the elements familiar to European medievalists: sigillum, invocatio, intitulatio, inscriptio, expositio, dispositio, sanctio, datum, and locus.

  • 32  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 35-37.

27They were stamped at the top with a large sultanic seal and stated in formal language that the sultan granted the land to the grantee and his descendants forever, giving the boundaries of the land (as noted in the muwajjah’s report) and occasionally the reasons for the grant. These reasons varied with the individual in question, but could be to recompense a faqīh for teaching the sultan’s sons to read the Qur‘an or for some other service such as serving as a messenger or as a general in one of the sultanate’s wars. Often the document was dated as well. In some cases it appears that the recipient of the grant may have been involved in the drafting of the charter. An example of this is the grant of a ḥubs (land given as a benefice to support a mosque) to the faqīh cAbdallāh b. Abu’l-Ḥasan of Jadīd al-Sayl, where the recipient was particularly well educated and the language of the document correspondingly flowery.32 Some scribes may have been immigrants who were unfamiliar with local terminology for topographic features, as seen in Document A in the variant spellings of the names of the trees along the boundaries for khabīr cAlī’s ḥākūra at Ungorei.

  • 33  A. Wion, 2012, p. 123-152.
  • 34  For a detailed discussion of another earlier court case that drew an even larger number of importa (...)

28From the Dār Fūr material, we know little about the presentation of the charter to the grantee, or the subsequent ceremonies among the grantees’ communities. But Ethiopian material suggests that the presentation of the grant was a formal event at the royal court, and one can imagine a suitable celebration among the recipient community back on the land, beginning with a reading of the charter and followed by a feast.33 Similarly, we know little about the circumstances of the more important court cases, but for some the list of witnesses suggests that they were important gatherings of local faqīhs, and in others, major political leaders of northern Dār Fūr.34

  • 35  Compare the phrase translated “jusqu'à la fin du temps” in A. Wion, 2006, p. 24.

29The ongoing strategies of defending and building up the landholdings of powerful families can be seen in some of the other documents that relate to Kubayh and the holdings of khabīr Muḥammad Kannūn, khabīr cAlī b. Ibrāhīm, and mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays. The land grants in Dār Fūr are said to last “until the end of time.”35 How long was it until the end of time? Part of the answer can be seen in the grant [Document B] by Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn of the ḥākūra called Nicama to his son in law al-ḥājj Aḥmad (husband of mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays). After the sultanic seal, a relatively short intitulatio, follows a standard inscriptio:

  • 36  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 101.

To all who encounter this decree, namely, the amīrs, wazīrs, maliks, sons of the sulṭāns, mayrams, ḥabbōbas, qāḍis, jabbāys, sharṭays, makk-s, dimlijs, and the rest of the people of this state who hold authority.36

30This intitulatio alone alerts a savvy reader that this document was not written in the Islamic heartlands, for it includes common Arabic titles and others that are specific to Dār Fūr such as sharṭays, dimlijs, habbōbas, jabbāys, as well as the term mayram, which is also common in other central Sudanic literature.

31The key paragraph in the expositio reads as follows:

  • 37  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 101, n. 9. The “her” is either an error in the original transcr (...)

 […] we bring to your honorable attention with regard to the estate (ḥākūra), Nicama, which was formerly in the hands of the malik Kartakayla as his possession, and then in the hands of the malikcAbdallāh Karqāsh as his possession, and then in the hands of the maqdumcAbd al-cAzīz as his possession, and then in the hands of our grandmother, the ḥābbōba, the mother of our late lord [Muḥammad al-Faḍl] as her possession. Now I have shown favour to and have given, bestowed and donated it to our son-in-law al-ḥājj Aḥmad b. cĪsā, with its slaves as a choice gift and have made it “her” property in absolute ownership.37

  • 38  On Umm Būṣa and the Beigo, see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 247-248, p. 262-263, p. 284-286.

32The ḥākūra Nicama was now on its fifth owner with a written sultanic document, without referring to its pre-sultanic ownership. The immediately previous owner, referred to obliquely in Document B as “the ḥābbōba, the mother of our late lord”, was Umm Būṣa, a Beigo slave woman who accompanied the future sultan cAbd al-Raḥmān to Kordofan and later gave birth to Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl. He favored her fellow Beigo in his administration and forbade the taking of Beigo slaves. The several estates that Umm Būṣa had received for her support apparently reverted to the sulṭān on her death.38 No reason is given for the transfer of the estate away from its previous owners. In this case the “end of time” seems to have come at regular intervals, sometimes reflecting a desire to switch one estate for another, and sometimes marking the end of the life of the grantee, or grantor.


  • 39  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 108-109.

33After a sultan died, those who already held a charter would wait a decent interval to see if the next sultan was really going to be able to hold the throne, and then come forward to have their rights and privileges reconfirmed. Similarly, after the death of a sīd al-ḥākūra, his descendants would often go to the sultan to get a reconfirmation of the grant to clarify their legal position. For example, the trans-Saharan merchant Muḥammad Kannūn had received another ḥākūra near Kubayh from Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl, and not long after the new sultan had come to power in 1838, he had it reconfirmed by Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn on 20 July 1840 in Document C. After the seal, and the intitulatio, the key paragraphs of the expositio note that the land had once belonged to Khayr Abū Khādimallāh and that it was a donation and gift for the khabīr.39 The standard terms from the central lands of Islam are used—gift and donation (hiba wa ṣadaqa)—yet the internal references suggest that the sultan could transfer these rights to several successive land-holders.

34This Document C is of interest for several reasons. First, as an example of a reconfirmation document, it shows how ḥākūra-holders presented their previous land-documents to the new sultan to get a new document with the new sultan’s seal. This reinforced the bond between the sultan and the ḥākūra-holders and extended the effective life of the grant. Second, it illustrates that this particular ḥākūra had also belonged to another individual: Khayr Abū Khādimallāh, a caravan leader and long-distance merchant (khabīr). This raises the question of why he no longer owned the estate. One can imagine many scenarios, but it does suggest, as did Document B, that estates could be transferred not just from one generation of a family to the next, but between unrelated individuals, in this case both khabīrs.

Resolving disputes

35The acceptable arena for the resolution of land disputes may have changed over time, paralleling the transformations of the legal basis on which a particular piece of land was held. The movement was from local ‘traditional’ forms of mediation to bureaucratic intervention to strict Islamic adjudication according to shari’a law. But the transformation was not uniform throughout the sultanate, and as elsewhere the ruler could impose his will if he saw fit to override other forms of justice. The notion of passing through a series of arenas of conflict resolution dates back to at least Sulṭān cAbd al-Rahmān’s reign. A traveler who visited the sultanate gave a brief and vivid account of how boundary disputes were settled at that time, based on his observations in Kubayh:

  • 40  W. Browne, 1806, p. 288.

 […] all difficulties and doubts about boundaries are usually settled by the oldest inhabitants. These are often women, who are more consistently resident on the spot than are the other sex. I have often been amused by the importance affixed to their adjudication. Their tedious narratives filled with the recapitulation of circumstances minute and local, their loquacity, their zeal and impetuosity, their self-importance, and, finally, the satisfaction and general acquiescence which their decree has produced. When their decision is not agreed to, or in defect of old inhabitants, the matter is referred to arbitration. Sometimes it reaches the cadi [qāḍī, i.e. judge] or faqui [faqīh], who as usual embroils the matter, and reaps the harvest, while the owners are disputing about the soil that should produce it. Very rarely, and, in the last instance, recourse is had to the monarch, whose decree should be conformable to law, but is arbitrary and irrevocable.40

  • 41  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 400.
  • 42  R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 103-104.

36Attempts would be made to settle any disputes informally and by discussion between the parties directly involved, and if necessary with lineage members and local officials present. Disputes witnessed during the period of my fieldwork in Dār Fūr in 1979–1980 included: boundaries between fields; the solution to a recurring problem of a goat wandering into fields not belonging to the goat’s owner to devour the crops; and nomad–sedentary disputes over herds grazing near villages.41 Evidence that similar issues were at the root of earlier disputes can be found in the list of fines to be paid to ḥākūra holders.42 Such disputes could draw the attention of higher authorities, including judges, maliks, and ultimately the sultan.

37To give one example from the Kubayh region, in 1846 there was a court case about Muḥammad Kannūn’s land at Kubayh [Document D]. The essence of the court case was whether cAbdallāh wad Dānī’s farm was within Muḥammad Kannūn’s ḥākūra. After perhaps years of local attempts to resolve the dispute, the case was passed to a high government official, who consulted with the ‘ulama’ and indeed cited Mālikī law to refute cAbdallāh’s case. The quote from the traveler Brown suggests that there would have been informal attempts to mediate the dispute, which would precede the documented one, and there was at least the theoretical possibility of a hearing before a higher official such as the magdūm, or the sultan. As with many court cases from Dār Fūr, the witnesses included many of the faqīhs, but this one also included five maliks, and at least two members of the royal family. This suggests that the case was of considerable political importance.

38From the available evidence, it appears that at the core of the sultanate from about 1835 a new type of legal dispute arose. Before 1835, disputes were between those with sultanic backing and those without it. They arose between those with jāh or ḥākūra documents and the earlier residents. Such disputes were often inter-ethnic and were over the fundamental issue of who owned the land, or precisely how much land had been transferred by the sultan through a grant of jāh or of a ḥākūra. One could think of these as being between those with sultanic land documents and those without them. After 1835, the new struggles were between those with sultanic land documents. They could be between those who held land on the basis of jāh and those who held ḥākūras, or over the boundaries of adjacent ḥākūras, or among the group of relatives which jointly held a specific ḥākūra but had differences over the nature and practical implications of joint ownership. Although both types of disputes can be found in the remainder of the 19th century, the second is evident only after land has become legally a commodity. Within each collection of documents which pertains to a particular piece of land, the order in which the two types of disputes occur is nearly invariant. The dispute between Muḥammad Kannūn and cAbdallāh wad Dānī is of the second type, since both parties claim to have land documents. The role of witnesses was still important. cAbdallāh wad Dānī, from one of the jallāba families (immigrant merchants) introduced a land document that was irrelevant to the case, for unclear reasons. Perhaps he hoped to bluff his way through the hearing? Or perhaps he could not read it himself? In any case, his failure to produce witnesses sealed his fate. Even in the seemingly literary world of land cases, oral witnesses mattered at the moment of demarcating the land, and at the moment of adjudicating disputes, whether informally, or in a hearing which followed Muslim legal precedents.

Jāh and ḥākūra

  • 43  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 405-406.

39Although the earlier jāh grants cannot be discussed in detail here, some brief remarks will serve to indicate why ḥākūra grants came to be preferred by recipients, and some of the legal and practical implications of that shift. Generally, jāh grants had been made to faqīhs, their families, and followers. The relative strength of claims to land based on jāh and those based on ḥākūra documents were tested in court. At Kamala Kīrī, one such case was between related individuals. Both Ādam (representing the plaintiffs) and Muḥammadayn (for the defendants) shared in land on the basis of an earlier jāh document.43 But Muḥammadayn successfully claimed because his father had been granted the land as a ḥākūra, and it was now his, as his father’s son and heir. The key passage of the court case is as follows:

  • 44  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 73. Discussed more thoroughly in G. La Rue, 1989, p. 405-406.

We took counsel with the culamā’: they agreed with our opinion. We examined the Book of God and found that Ādam was claimant (muddaci) to [the right of] cultivation (al-iḥyā’) and Muḥammadayn was claimant to the estate (al-iqṭāc). [However, rights of] estate take precedence over [rights of] cultivation; as the Author [al-muṣannif] says: “Cultivated land [in the territory conquered] by force may also be assigned by the imām, cAbd al-Bāqī.” Following this, we rejected the suit of Ādam and his above mentioned associates; we have given judgment to faqīh Muḥammadayn over his land and have confirmed for him our lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn’s charter.44

  • 45  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 73-75.

40This case culminated a long process of consolidation of control over land in the hands of successively smaller and smaller groups. Torn away from its earlier ethnic associations, then passed to a single lineage, the land was finally given to an individual as a ḥākūra. It had been transformed from a collective to a private good and could potentially become a full commodity through its sale to an unrelated person. But the process could be stayed by the sultan if he did not like the outcome of a particular case. In another case involving the same Muḥammadayn as a jāh-holder challenged by Muḥammad Hūd b. al-Sulṭān Muḥammad Faḍl as a ḥākūra-holder, the judge deferred to the opinion of the sultan, who ordered Muḥammad Hūd off the land.45 The importance of Muslim legal decisions could still be outweighed by the actions of the sultan of Dār Fūr.

  • 46  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 385. Compare the vagueness of boundaries in some Ethiopian cases, D. Crummey, (...)
  • 47  J. Spaulding, 1982, p. 5, p. 7.

41From a practical point of view, the specification of boundaries in a ḥākūra charter made it quite different from a grant of jāh. As seen in Document A, the boundaries are rather specific, mentioning topographic features and naming the owners or occupants of neighboring land. This wealth of detail is obviously quite different from the earlier grants of jāh, which often had no reference to any place.46 In at least one recorded instance, a grant of jāh was transferred from the Nile to Dār Fūr, a distance of over 700 km. Because the principal benefit of jāh was exemption from taxes and control of land was only an implicit feature, there was no incentive for any of the beneficiaries to seek to exclude the others. Thus land held through jāh was not divided among the heirs at the death of the original jāh-holder. This practice was apparently carried over to the holding of land as ḥākūras, thus avoiding the fragmentation of holdings as occurred on the Nile to a nearly ludicrous degree.47

  • 48  For the right to buy and sell, see R. O’Fahey, 1979, p. 200; R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 19 (...)

42The change in terminology from jāh to ḥākūra reflected a change of emphasis. Jāh was a grant of tax exemption which was commonly exercised in a specific but unspecified locale. The grant of a ḥākūra was the right to exercise certain specific rights within a very defined area. By the 1840s the right to buy and sell the land was listed in some ḥākūra documents.48 The ḥākūras were kept undivided, and a single individual was appointed as the sīd al-ḥākūra, who was the legal head of the partnership. The management of the estate might be left to a wakīl, residing on or near the ḥākūra, who managed the practical matters of cultivation and control of the various tenants, the slaves, and the asyād al-fisān. The land was kept intact, and its output was divided among the heirs of the earlier owner. The principles used to divide the output are not known, nor is the actual distribution of shares recorded for any given case. Unlike jāh, where the benefits of tax exemption could be extended to a large number of heirs without reducing the benefits of the others, the income from a ḥākūra was finite, and its division was a zero-sum game. Those who were not powerful, or were far away, might not receive their share. In the transition from jāh status to ḥākūra-holder, there was the possibility of redefining and narrowing the beneficiaries of the grant as seen in the case of Kamala Kīrī.

43Three different interpretations of this change in terminology will be considered here, and it should be noted that particular individuals might subscribe to several of these depending on the exigencies of the moment. First, the sultanic interpretation was that no one held land except by permission of the sultan. This view was tempered only by the sultan’s (or more properly the court’s) recognition of the limits of sultanic power. The shift from jāh to ḥākūra marked an increase in sultanic power. A second interpretation was that of the old sedentary populations who considered their ethnic dār to be their own land, but made concessions initially first to the sultans’ military power, and later to avoid unfavorable judicial decisions if their land rights were challenged. These earlier inhabitants might give up a bit of land to a sultanic relative, or a Muslim holy man; later their leaders might seek to have their earlier access to the land bolstered by converting it to a ḥākūra. Thus they met the threat to their earlier land rights by joining in the system as ḥākūra-holders. For the indigenous population, the granting of lineage lands to the lineage head as a ḥākūra might initially bring little change in their daily lives. But as private ownership of land increased within a region, it is very likely that the possession of a ḥākūra altered the relations between the lineage head and the rest of the lineage.

  • 49  On the theory see J. Wakin, 1972, p. 4-5. On the practice in Dār Fūr, R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 19 (...)
  • 50  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 388-395.

44In contrast to these is the third interpretation. The immigrants’ view was that no one had land unless they had proof which would stand up in a Muslim court. Ideally this was a set of worthy witnesses, but in practice a sultanic land charter was even more useful, because witnesses could die. A document preserved in a family archive might last for many generations.49 From the immigrants’ point of view the ḥākūra documents were better than jāh documents. They were more specific about boundaries, about the rights being transferred, and to whom these rights belonged. The private ownership of land was recognized in Egypt, and in the northern Sudan after 1820, and the jallāba communities must have known the land tenure practices there, and were open to extending those practices to Dār Fūr.50 The language of some of the ḥākūra documents is very clear (from Document B):

  • 51  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 101. Emphasis added.

He has disposal over it and its slaves [just as] an owner has disposal of his property, [with rights of] cultivation, causing to be cultivated, sale, demolition, building, alms and purchase; it is for him and his descendants after him. Let no sulṭān after me alter or change it.51

45This clear language was from the document granting the estate Nicama to al-ḥājj Aḥmad b. cĪsā.

  • 52  R. O’Fahey, 1991, p. 81, p. 91-93. Compare G. La Rue, 1989, p. 386-396.
  • 53  O’Fahey has been at pains to refute even the possibility of land sale in Dār Fūr. He has chosen to (...)

46For me the written evidence shows that the sale of land was known in Dār Fūr, that it was known to legal scholars from Muslim law books, and known experientially by the immigrants to Dār Fūr from Egypt and the riverain Sudan, and the long-distance merchants who traded to those regions. The references in Document D to the business dealings of Arqā and Labbād, and references to the sale of fields in Shōba by the jallāba family, the Awlād Zaydān, prove that fields were sold in Dār Fūr.52 Whether this occurred at the scale of agricultural ḥākūras cannot be proven yet through written documentation. It is clear that land was transferred from one official to another (as in Document B) with the sultan’s approval, or from one sultanic relative to another (as in the earlier grant referred to in Document C); and furthermore, the transfer of land, which had been granted “until the end of time”, from one merchant to another raises the possibility of a sale, with the financial transaction out of view. The sultan’s actions appear as a granting of the estate, but may have been little more than a recording of the transfer of a deed.53 Indeed, oral sources reported that an estate at Kubayh was “bought” by khabīr ‘Alī .

Adding oral context to the Kubayh documents

47Using a combination of written evidence from travelers’ accounts, archival sources, written land documents, and oral information gathered during my doctoral fieldwork in Dār Fūr in 1979–1980, I have written on the biography of khabīr ‘Alī b. Ibrāhīm. Oral informants provided the key details of his genealogy, his marriages, and his landholdings which complemented and linked together seemingly disparate documents from Kubayh, including documents A, B, C, and D used above.

  • 54  G. La Rue, 1984, p. 56-83. See also G. La Rue, 2011.

48Kubayh, a booming commercial town between 1785 and 1875, was visited not only by caravans from Egypt and Dongola, but also by foreign travelers, who described the town and its hinterland at several points. Much of this information has already been published, but here I want to show how key pieces of oral information greatly enhance our understanding of the land documents from Kubayh.54

  • 55  Oral interview by the author/ joint Ṭirayfi interview/ 11 December 1979.

49Khabīr cAlī b. Ibrāhīm became Dār Fūr’s leading trans-Saharan merchant and caravan leader and lived a long life until 1908. He also was very involved in land ownership in Kubayh, having a hand in at least three estates very near the center of this booming commercial town. He was probably born in the early 1820s. His father Ibrāhīm b. cAlī was one of the Ṭirayfiyya, born in Kordofan and an immigrant to Kubayh, perhaps arriving in the train of Muḥammad Tayrāb’s victorious army in 1785–1786, or at a later time. In Kubayh, most of the Ṭirayfiyya were merchants, and cAlī b. Ibrāhīm was certainly exposed to the merchant life early. By 1838, cAlī b. Ibrāhīm was in Egypt when he heard of the death of the Dār Fūr sulṭān, Muḥammad al-Faḍl, allegedly from Muḥammad cAlī Pasha. cAlī b. Ibrāhīm had made the trip to Egypt along the darb al-arbaˁīn, which led from Kubayh to Asyūt in upper Egypt. The large trans-Saharan caravans were commonly led by khabīrs, which in Dār Fūr meant the caravan leaders, not simply the trail guides. Trans-Saharan khabīrs among the Ṭirayfiyya included cĪsā Harish, and Muḥammad Kannūn, cAlī b. Ibrāhīm’s paternal uncle.55

50Muḥammad Kannūn mentored his nephew and trained him to be his commercial heir. He also gave him one of his daughters, cAīsha bint Muḥammad Kannūn, to marry. Though even the approximate dates of five of his six known marriages remain unknown, it is likely that cAlī b. Ibrāhīm married his paternal cousin during his uncle’s lifetime, in the preferred pattern of cross-cousin marriage, fulfilling the expectations of the family. This enabled young cAlī to solidify his ties to his wealthy and influential uncle, one of the most important merchants in Kubayh and an estate-holder. Adding these details from oral sources helps to fill in the gaps around the land documents.

51Muḥammad Kannūn had apparently received the ḥākūra from Muḥammad al-Faḍl in a document which was alluded to in the confirmation [Document C] by his successor Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn, dated 20 Jumad al Awwal 1256 AH/ 20 July 1840. That land, located southeast of Kubayh, had formerly belonged to Khayr Abu Khadimallah. The sijill [Document D] of the court case brought by cAbdallāh wad Dānī reveals that the legal issue was whether or not the latter’s farm lay within the khabīr’s ḥākūra. Muḥammad Kannūn won the case by producing the above-mentioned charter and nine witnesses to support his claim. In his testimony, the khabīr Muḥammad Kannūn suggests that the granting of his ḥākūra had been preceded by a survey and boundary report. Further, he reported that Dānī, cAbdallāh’s father, had some dealings with the sons of Labbād and Arqā, perhaps to conceal the fact that their farms had been within the previous estate, and should therefore have come under the new one as well. Muḥammad Kannūn had complained about this problem to the reigning Sulṭān Muḥammad Faḍl, “but he was overtaken by fate.” In other words, the sulṭān died before he could address the issue. Muḥammad Faḍl died in 1838, while young cAlī b. Ibrāhīm was in Egypt.

  • 56  His accession date was in 1254 AD, and one of his seals gives the date as 22 Safar al Khayr 1254/ (...)

52The common practice was to wait a while after a new sultan came into power, and the date (July 1840) of the confirmation of this estate to Kannūn reflects this practice.56cAbdallāh wad Dānī’s formal challenge to Muḥammad Kannūn’s control of Dānī’s farm came in 1846, but Muḥammad Kannūn had been aware of a potential problem for at least eight years. In the interval there may have been several less formal attempts at resolving the issue, and perhaps the death of Dānī (who is not mentioned as a party in the court case in Document D and can therefore be presumed dead) left cAbdallāh wad Dānī to fight for his land rights. We can assume that in this interval between 1838 and 1846, cAlī b. Ibrāhīm became aware of this land issue, particularly as it is likely that he was already married to cAīsha bint Muḥammad Kannūn.

  • 57 R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 113.

53In Dār Fūr, women were not excluded from owning land, nor did they receive only half the inheritance of a male sibling. Women could and did inherit a full share in their fathers’ estates. This local custom, of course, differed from legal practice in the Islamic heartlands. cAīsha stood to inherit land from her father, but cAlī b. Ibrāhīm was the one who was most likely to be the effective sīd al-ḥākūra. He was older than Muḥammad Kannūn’s oldest son and would soon outshine all his cousins as his uncle’s commercial successor. After the death of Muḥammad Kannūn, his senior children went to Sulṭān Muḥammad Ḥusayn and asked that his ḥākūra might be confirmed for them. Although cAīsha is not mentioned by name in this document dealing with Muḥammad Kannūn’s land, she was certainly among the unnamed sons and daughters to whom it alluded as beneficiaries. This clarifies one advantage which cAlī b. Ibrāhīm gained by marrying his cousin cAīsha and gives the approximate date of his uncle’s death. The reconfirmation [Document C] is dated only with the year 1267AH/ 1850–1851.57 Here then is one meaning of the phrase “until the end of time”: until either the grantor (the sultan) or the grantee (in this case Muḥammad Kannūn) died. But clearly in this case both intended the grant to be honored by their heirs, who took the care to have the grant reconfirmed after each of the original parties died, and “until the end of time” was explicitly extended for another generation of grantors and grantees.

  • 58  G. La Rue, 1986, p. 646-655.

54Oral sources state that after an illness, khabīr Muḥammad Kannūn died while with a caravan in Egypt. Prior to his death he had chosen cAlī b. Ibrāhīm to serve as khabīr for the return trip. Khabīr cAlī took up his post before 1267/1850–1851 (the date Document C reconfirming the estate for his uncle’s children was written), and he was probably already married to his cousin cAīsha bint Muḥammad Kannūn by this time. He was a very successful khabīr, and several sources note that Dār Fūr’s trade with Egypt became more profitable, more frequent, and more voluminous from about 1850.58

  • 59  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 336-341.
  • 60  Compare R. O’Fahey and M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 100, p. 107.
  • 61  Oral interview by the author: Shayhu Salih Jalis (for details of all oral interviews see G. La Rue(...)
  • 62 El-Tounsy, 1845, p. 115; W. Browne, 1806, p. 339-340; R. O’Fahey and Spaulding, 1974, p. 150-151.

55As the new khabīr, possibly a creator and definitely a beneficiary of Dār Fūr’s new commercial boom, khabīr cAlī b. Ibrāhīm began to develop his own reputation as a successful man. This is best illustrated by his next important marriage—to a mayram, the daughter of the current sultan, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. Dār Fūr’s ruling elite had long made strategic marriages to seal political alliances.59 Some mayrams had married holy men, but khabīr cAlī was the first merchant known to have married a royal woman in Dār Fūr.60 Marriage to a mayram was clearly a great honor and could lead to wealth and fame, but was not without its risks. The sultan often granted land to his sisters and daughters on the occasion of their marriages, and he could readily grant other presents as well. A mayram’s estate was technically given to her husband, but would return to her in cases of divorce or her husband’s death.61 For the husband, the advantages were clear: access to the royal ear, entrée to the elite circles of power and wealth at court, contact with all the elite of Dār Fūr, and opportunities to gain status, wealth, and followers. But there were also perils: the mayrams were the freest women in Dār Fūr, they rode horses astride, they had a high divorce rate, and there were always rumors of their lovers. Beyond that, they remained more loyal to their royal kin than to their husbands and could report on any of his actions to the ruler.62

Key Genealogical, Marriage and Lineage Relationships among Landowners near Kubayh

Key Genealogical, Marriage and Lineage Relationships among Landowners near Kubayh

George Michael La Rue

  • 63  Oral interview by the author: Ṭirayfi interview, 11 December 1979.

56From oral sources, it is known that khabīr cAlī b. Ibrāhīm actually married two different mayrams. The first was mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays bint al-sulṭān Muḥammad Ḥusayn.63 Logic suggests that this marriage occurred after 1850 when he became khabīr. But there are complicating factors, notably that she had a previous marriage. By combining oral information with additional land documents, it is possible to sort out at least the broad outlines of the events.

  • 64  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 102-104.

57The mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays’s earlier marriage to ḥājj Aḥmad b. cĪsā is signaled by the grant of the ḥākūra called Nicama in 1263AH/ 1846–1847 [Document B]. As we have seen, this ḥākūra was not a new one but had already had a series of owners, including various high officials, including the magdūmcAbd al-‘Azīz and the mother of Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl. Details of their ownership are not known, but at least in the case of the sultan’s mother it is likely that she owned it until her death. The sultan’s gift of the estate was made in honor of the marriage of mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays and ḥājj Aḥmad b. cĪsā. Further documentation (not appended here) suggests that they had a daughter Zahra in 1268/1851–1852.64

  • 65  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 115-118 for the actual grant. For the vocalization “Ungorei” se (...)
  • 66  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 102.
  • 67  W. Browne, 1806, p. 339-340.
  • 68  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 104-106.

58Soon after the birth, it appears that the mayram divorced ḥājj Aḥmad and married khabīr cAlī. On 8 dhu-l-hijja 1268/ 8 September 1852, not long after cAlī b. Ibrāhīm had become khabīr following his uncle’s death, Sulṭān Muḥammad Ḥusayn granted khabīr cAlī the estate called n.q.r (Ungorei) [Document A] which is south-southeast of Kubayh on one of the shortcut routes to al-Fāshir. This ḥākūra adjoined land owned by the mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays. This could have been part of the mayram’s dowry, or a gift in anticipation of their marriage.65 On 7 Sha‘bān 1269/ 15 May 1853, Sulṭān Ḥusayn confirmed ḥājj Aḥmad’s gift of the ḥākūra Ni’ama to mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays.66 This matches nicely with the reports from Browne that on divorcing a mayram one had to return “all the valuables […] received in consequence of the honourable alliance.”67 Al-ḥājj Aḥmad may have “voluntarily” returned her father’s gift to the mayram. One potential problem is that there is a document dated 7 Sha‘bān 1269/ 15 May 1853 in which ḥājj Aḥmad and mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays are referred to as husband and wife. By 1857 no mention of any husband of mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays is made in yet another sultanic land charter granting her land at Dōr.68 Only additional oral or documentary evidence will unravel the remaining kinks in this narrative.

  • 69  G. La Rue, 1984, p. 67.

59Khabīr cAlī married a second royal woman at an unknown but later date. She was the mayram ‘Arafa bint Sulṭān Muḥammad Ḥusayn. No record or memory of her land holdings has been found. She was to accompany the khabīr across the Sahara, perhaps with the intention of making the pilgrimage to Mecca from there. It was not at all uncommon for women and children to cross the desert, and other royal women made the pilgrimage in the 1850s. She had already left Kubayh with khabīr cAlī to go to the nearby village of Tōma, the actual departure point of the trans-Saharan caravans, but she became ill and died there. Her father, the reigning sulṭān Muḥammad Ḥusayn, insisted that khabīr proceed to Egypt, and he went. It is unclear whether it was on this occasion that khabīr cAlī performed the ḥājj.69

60From the land documents and the oral sources which link him to two other ḥākūra-holders, his uncle khabīr Muḥammad Kannūn and the mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays, one can not only construct a chronology of khabīr cAlī b. Ibrāhīm’s life from about 1850 to1873, but one can also link together seemingly disparate land documents into a broader narrative which illustrates a strategy of land acquisition in Kubayh by an influential merchant family in alliance with the sultan.

  • 70  Oral interview by the author: Ibrāhīm Aḥmad Khabir ‘Alī, 13 October 1980; Muḥammad Khadr, 5 May 19 (...)

61To recapitulate, khabīr ‘Alī used his family ties to Muḥammad Kannūn to become khabīr, leader of Dār Fūr’s trans-Saharan caravan. By marrying his cousin ‘Aīsha bint Muḥammad Kannūn, while surpassing his male cousins first with his commercial success and later through royal marriages he gained an effective if not legal claim to part of Muḥammad Kannūn’s ḥākūra at Kubayh. His position as khabīr made him a suitable marriage partner to royal women. He was granted the ḥākūra Ungorei (n.q.r.) in his own right, and he may have also benefited from access to mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays’ ḥākūra Ni‘ama adjoining that of Muḥammad Kannūn. He later bought another ḥākūra, Nabaru, immediately north of Kubayh.70

62Khabīr cAlī was central to the economy of Kubayh and Dār Fūr. His position as a caravan leader was unsurpassed. His ability to convert his commercial success into more permanent forms of social status, access to political power, and control over land was remarkable. He was the most powerful man in Kubayh and its most important land owner. The land documents tell part of the story, but the full extent of his power and influence can be seen only when one learns from oral sources that he had gained access to more land through strategic marriages. His first marriage reinforced his commercial ties to his uncle and gave him a role in the control of his uncle’s ḥākūra. His marriage to mayram Fāṭima Umm Dirays strengthened his ties to the reigning sulṭān and reinforced the family claim to Muḥammad Kannūn’s ḥākūra at Kubayh, since the mayram held an adjacent ḥākūra. A second marriage to a daughter of the reigning sultan made him the sultan’s son-in-law and may have led to an additional land grant. He did later buy and own Nabaru. These relationships can be seen from many angles, but certainly solidified the position of khabīr cAlī as a land owner and trans-Saharan merchant. The relationships between the two khabīrs and the sultans also reinforced sultanic control of key land and their control over the trans-Saharan trade of the sultanate.

  • 71  R. O’Fahey and M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 23-24, p. 28-29.

63Khabīr ‘Alī assembled his marriage alliances and his landholdings very carefully. In this he was undoubtedly following the example of his commercial mentor and father-in-law Muḥammad Kannūn, who had been very interested in the acquisition of land and commercial wealth. The older man had been present as the sultan’s muwajjah and a representative from the local malik rode the boundaries of the estate with the neighboring landowners. Khabīr ‘Alī was careful to preserve all of the documents pertaining to that land as well as the other estates that he had an interest in either directly or by marriage. The documents were his proof of ownership, and he sought reconfirmation by the current ruler of Dār Fūr, as necessary. This strategy worked and helped him to maintain ownership for his entire life, through several sultans, the Mahdiyya (1882–1898), and under the restoration of Dār Fūr by Sulṭān ‘Alī Dīnār (1898–1916). The descendants of khabīr ‘Alī inherited the lands and preserved the relevant land documents in the family archives. It is unclear whether there was a central chancellery in Dār Fūr before 1898, though there is some evidence to suggest that possibility.71


64The known ḥākūra documents have generally been preserved by the descendants of the estate holders, with only a few recorded by travelers or scholars. These documents are tangible artifacts of an earlier time, but neglecting the complementary oral information would distort the historical picture in multiple ways. In Dār Fūr, control of land was initially transferred to faqihs through oral grants of jāh, some of which were later committed to writing. Adjudication of land disputes was an informal process at first, and even major disputes were later handled in oral hearings, in the presence of holy men and important officials, indicating their political as well as legal significance.

65Using the complementary oral information helps to restore all of the oral and local context to the broader narrative. It re-emphasizes that even in cases where land documentation became the norm, land was often divided, apportioned, struggled over, and defended orally before being documented, and that a more extensive oral context went along with the written document. While the vague boundaries of jāh documents cried out for oral supplementation to recall traditional boundaries, the written boundaries of later ḥākūra documents also had their oral contexts, starting with those who rode the boundaries and continuing with those who maintained them. In some cases, as the documents narrowed the ownership of pieces of land from lineages to specific individuals, the legal language appears to have changed a sultanic gift to a full commodity. But the communal oral memory may have been slower to shift, and this ambiguity and tension between the oral and written, or the collective and individual memories, may have been useful to those who retained the documents over several generations, slowly tightening their narrower claims to the land.

66Looking narrowly at land documents from Dār Fūr (and very likely from other sub-Saharan states), scholars could overlook information which was common knowledge when they were written. Oral informants can fill in vital material such as lineage connections, marriage alliances, or how a particular piece of land fit into the strategies of those acquiring land under the sultans. As time passes, the oral information may fade away, and with it the full context of the written documents may be lost. Together, the written and oral information can provide a more detailed narrative, not just of individual landholdings, but the broader strategies of land acquisition by specific families and individuals over several generations and through changing historical and legal contexts.

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Unless otherwise noted, all terms are defined as used in Dār Fūr documents and by oral informants in Dār Fūr. Standard Arabic definitions can be found in a dictionary for comparison and etymology. Additional terms can be found in R. O’Fahey, M. Abu Salim, 1983, p. 151-159, and G. La Rue, 1989, p. 513-516.

- ahl al-ḥudūd (or ahl al arkān) : those people with land neighboring an estate, often mentioned in the document granting the estate

- asyād al-fisān : the owners of the subdivision of a ḥākūra

- bāsī : honorific for a male member of the royal family

- dam : blood money, paid as a consequence of a killing

- dār : territory

- darb al-arbaˁīn : the Forty-Day route, the trans-Saharan route between Kubayh [Kobbei] in Dār Fūr and Asyūt in Upper Egypt, so-called because it took about 40 days to travel on foot and by camel

- falganāwī : messenger

- faqīh : Muslim holy man

- ḥābbōba : older royal women in Dār Fūr

- ḥākūra : in Dār Fūr, an estate granted by the sultan, or an official acting on his behalf

- ḥarām : forbidden, protected

- ḥawṭa : sacred enclave

- ḥubs : religious bequest, here endowment for a mosque

- ḥujja : deed

- iḥyā’ : cultivation

- iqṭā’ : concession of public domain by the ruler (classical Arabic)

- jabbāyin : tax collectors

- jāh: privileged status granted by the ruler, giving tax exemption but not specific rights to agricultural land

- jallāba : a traveling merchant, including those who crossed the Sahara to trade

- khabīr : in Dār Fūr, the appointed or elected leader of a caravan, especially the trans-Saharan caravan along the darb al-arbaˁīn responsible for the safety and profitability of the caravan, and in charge of all aspects of the journey

- khōr : seasonal stream

- magdūm : governor of one of the four major provinces of Dār Fūr

- maḥram : in Bornu, a charter of privileges and immunities from taxation granted to Muslim holy men

- malik : an honorific indicating leadership status, used for leaders of ethnic groups, and certain high officials (such as sharṭays) appointed by the sultan.

- mayrām : younger royal women from the ruler family (of marriageable age)

- milk : freehold property

- muwajjah : official appointed for a specific task (such as demarcating an estate’s boundaries), commissioner

- nasab : report (on boundaries of a ḥākūra)

- qāḍī : judge

- quwwār : market dues paid to chief or estate holder in Sudan

- riwāq : a hostel for students, as at al-Azhar in Cairo

- rizq : maintenance allowance, income

- ṣadāqa : donation

- sharṭay : chief in charge of a district

- sharṭaya : the district governed by a sharṭay

- sīd al-ḥākūra : the leader of the ḥākūra-holding group

- sijill : a summary transcript of a court case

- ‘ulamā’ : Muslim religious scholars

- wādī : seasonal river

- waqf : inalienable religious endowment, here in the form of land/property


- Document A

Excerpted from R. O’Fahey, M. Abu Salim, 1983, p. 115-117

Seal: Property of the amīn cAbdallāh, 1268

Whereas it was on Thursday in the month of God Dhu’l-ḥijja, the daytime of the eighth day, the year 1268.

The Commander of the Faithful, our lord, has shown favour to the khabīr cAlī and has given him the village of n.q.r. with its fields both fallow and cultivated. He sent to him from himself a commissioner, amīn cAbdallāh, to deliver the place into his possession. The other commissioner was a person (zōl) [from the entourage of] amīn, malik cAbdallāh Kūr [or Kawr], Ibrāhīm.

They were present on the said day and that place and the people of the boundaries [i.e., the neighbours] and khabīr cAlī assembled. There were with him two men whom we did not know; they swore upon the Book of God and we set off and encircled this place with them.

First, the boundary begins at Jabal n.q.r al-kabīr [“the big n.q.r hill”] and runs towards the pebbly area (al-zalṭaya) known as Tawraq, and runs to the water course (khōr), and towards the qafal tree and towards the sayyāl tree which is inside the riverbed, and towards the nabaq tree, and meets the path there; and then towards the hijlīj [written hijlid] tree which is in the torrent bed (al-sayl), and then runs along the path to the pebbly area, ending on the western side at [the land of] the people of the bayt al-jibāya and on the eastern side at [the land of] the khabīr cAlī.

From the southern side, [the boundary] runs eastwards along the path which [goes] between the two pebbly areas, and towards the crooked ṭunṭub tree which is in the rain-pool, and towards the lake which is known as the lake of Fūrū, and towards the stump of the hijlīj [written hijliyya] tree, and towards the nabaq tree, and to the ṭunṭub tree which is inside the household compound (al-zarība); and [the boundary] runs to the inḍirāb tree, and towards the stump of the arāz tree, and to the mukhīṭ tree, and it runs along the old path which traverses the household compounds; and it runs along the path which comes from Uzbān, and towards the twin hijlīj [written hijliyya] trees, and ending [there] in respect to the south; the southern [land belongs] to the people of the bayt al-jibāya and the northern to khabīr cAlī.

Then it runs eastwards with [the land of] the Awlād Bās[ī], towards the anthills (al-qanṭūr), and runs to the hijlīij [hijliyya] tree which is inside the torrent-bed, and towards the ṭunṭub which is in marshy ground [al-naqaca] and towards the tall ṭunṭub tree which is in the marshy ground and towards the nabaq tree of the nomads (nabaqāyyat al-carab) which is inside the household compound of Timm; and the boundary runs to the waterholes of Umm Sayyāla, and towards the nabaq tree which is in the river bed, the meeting place of the boundaries, ending with [the land of] the Awlād Bāsī; the western [land belongs] to khabīr cAlī and the eastern to the Awlād Bāsī, and lying on the northern side [is the land of] mayram Fāṭim[a] Umm Dirays, from the qaraḍ tree which is in the riverbed, and towards the nabaq tree which is inside the household compound of the elder Muṣṭafā, and towards the hijlīj (hijliyya) tree, and towards the nabaq tree which is at the junction of the two riverbeds, a nabaq tree, and towards the ṭunṭub tree which is inside the household compound. Then it runs to the kolkol tree, and towards the ṭunṭub tree which is inside Ḥāmid’s compound; and it runs to the qaraḍ tree which is in Yāsīn w. Ḥimār’s compound, and towards the stump (jidal) of the qaraḍ tree which is by Rahm’s compound, and towards the stump (jidal) of the qaraḍ which . . . and towards the ṭunṭub tree which is by Muḥammad Dardūq’s fields; and it runs towards the anthills, and towards the crooked sayyāl tree, and towards the nabaq tree which is by cUthmān’s compound, and towards the nabaq tree which is in the old open sandy area [al-fardl]; and it runs towards the qaraḍ tree and towards the mukhīṭ tree; and it comes up to the big rock. The boundary comes back to the pebbly area known as Tawraq.

This brings to an end the boundaries of this locality called n.q.r. The northern [land belongs] to the mayram Umm Dirays and the southern to khabīr cAlī, [namely] the two villages of n.q.r.

- Document B

From R. O’Fahey, M. Abu Salim, 1983, p. 101.

[Initial paragraph quoted in extenso in the article itself]

Then I sent Ibrāhīm the official (al-maqām) from the amīn Ṣāliḥ’s entourage, to assign possession of it, and ordered the maqdūm cAbd al-cAzīz to send someone to him [Ibrāhīm] from his entourage to go with him. He sent the malik Ḥārūn b. al-faqīh cAbdallāh who went to this estate. They went around it in all directions and demarcated . . . and this land which is enclosed by these boundaries, I have assigned to our son-in-law, al-ḥājj Aḥmad b. al-ḥājj cĪsā as an allodial concession, have given “her” absolute possession and have made over to “her” as a property in full ownership with its slaves who number fifty.

- Document C

From R. O’Fahey, M. Abu Salim, 1983, p. 108-109

… the khabīr Muḥammad Kannūna [sic] presented to me a charter from my father, the late Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl, [which] promulgated [the grant] as a present and estate to him [of] the locality [formerly belonging to] Khayr Abū Khādimallāh which is in the district of Kubayh. He [Muḥammad al-Faḍl] sent al-ḥājj Arbāb from the amīn Ādam’s entourage [and] he demarcated this locality.

[Then the description of the boundaries follows.]

I examined [the charter] and found it [to be] an authentic estate, acceptable in Law as a donation and gift for him and his descendants after him; [there had been] relinquished to him all the Sharī’a and customary revenues. Accordingly I, the aforesaid sulṭān, have confirmed for him that which my father had enacted. It is established as a donation and gift for him and his descendants after him (...)

- Document D

From R. O’Fahey, M. Abu Salim, 1983, p. 110-112

Seal : The amin Ādam Bosh, 1259

It has been established and confirmed in a legal judgment enacted by the one so-authorized, the Grand Vizier, the amin Ādam Bosh, may the Most High God show him benevolence, Amen; acting for our lord the Commander of the Faithful, Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn, may the Most High God cause him to prosper, Amen; concerning [a dispute] which arose between two sane, mature and orthodox men, both [being] of sound body and sane mind, and both free of any legal impediment, and both willing that the judgment be enacted and completed. Pleas were made by both cAbdallāh wad Dānī and the khabīr Muḥammad Kannūna.

Plea by the plaintiff

First cAbdallāh w. Dānī made his plea, “The khabīr Kannūna has usurped my farm. I seek justice from [him].” Thus his plea was concluded after examination [by the judge].

Plea by the defendant

We requested the khabīr Kannūna [to answer]. He answered, “I know nothing about any farm other than [those] which our lord, the late Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl gave me, [namely] the khabīr Khayr’s land which is near to Kubayh and includes the farm of the sons of Labbād and the farm of Arqā. [The sulṭān] sent a commissioner to me who went there and demarcated it for me. Then [the commissioner] presented [his report on the boundaries] to our lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl who confirmed and ratified it for me as our property. And I took possession of it. Some days afterwards, it became clear to me that Dānī, the aforementioned cAbdallāh’s father had business dealings with the sons of Labbād and Arqā; they had concealed from me [the fact that] their farms fell within that which had been possessed by khabīr Khayr. So I complained to my lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl and he agreed to send a commissioner to me to confirm my possession of this farm. But he was overtaken by fate. So I referred my affair to my lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Ḥusayn. He sent me al-ḥājj Muḥammad Faraḥ from the wazir Ādam’s entourage. He went to this place and assembled the owners of the farms and their neighbours. They took the oath upon the Book of the Most High God and delimited the boundary of the khabīr Khayr’s [property], including this aforesaid farm, according to its boundaries as shall be mentioned. I presented [the report of the commissioner] to [the sulṭān]. He ratified and confirmed it for me as our property and I took possession and enjoyed full disposal of it. I am not aware that cAbdallāh w. Dānī has any part in this farm.” Thus was concluded his plea after examination [by the judge].

Examination by the judge

Then we directed our examination towards cAbdallāh w. Dānī. “Have you any charter from our lords the sulṭāns [that can serve] as evidence for you in any way?” Accordingly, he produced a charter of our lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl. We scrutinized it and found that it made no reference to this farm, but instead referred to some widely scattered lands, some being there, some in Barr Boja and some in the south. So we rejected it and demanded proof (bayyina), but he could not come with anyone who could testify for him in any way about this farm. We granted him a delay several times, but he came with no witnesses. So he disqualified himself.

Then we requested khabīr Kannūna [to produce] our lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl’s charter and that of our lord Sulṭān Ḥusayn. He showed us both of them. We found that our lord Sulṭān Muḥammad al-Faḍl’s charter promulgated to him as a gift [of the property] possessed by khabīr Khayr including this farm and that our lord Sulṭān Ḥusayn’s charter recorded that it accorded to him the power (tamkīn) to become the possessor of this right of possession (tamlīk tilka’l-hiyāza) in the same way as it had been accorded to khabīr Khayr.

Then cAbdallāh said to khabīr Kannūna, “What evidence (bayyina) have you that will testify for you in support of your claim that this aforesaid farm falls within that which had been possessed by khabīr Khayr?” [Kannūna] then came with nine men who testified for him in support of his claim. Then [cAbdallāh] said to khabīr Kannūna, “Swear on oath that [your witnesses] are not in any way related to you and that you have not hired them!” And he swore to this.


Thereupon, we took counsel with the culamā’ of the [Mālikī] School; they were in complete agreement with our opinion and with our rendering null and void the claim of /cAbdallāh/ wad Dānī and with our dismissal of his suit. I have given judgment in favour of khabīr Muḥammad Kannūna over his land [namely that] demarcated as having been possessed by khabīr Khayr, including the farm of the sons of Labbād and the farm of Arqā, in accordance as the Law has given judgment to him. We have dismissed cAbdallāh w. Dānī’s suit over the farm and have denied him [the right] to appeal again. As Shaykh Khalil says, “[the judge] shall reject [the suit of the party who fails in the period of delay to produce counter testimony] except in [cases involving] bloodshed.”

Thereafter, the farm’s boundaries; the boundary begins from the direction [of the land] of the sons of Labbad alongside [the land of] Muḥammad Dānī. [The boundary is made up of the following trees] kolkol, hashāb, a big sayyāl, two hashāb, kolkol, siriḥ, hijlīj, three hashāb, mukhīṭ, hijlīj, siriḥ, mukhīṭ, nabaq, hashāb, mukhīṭ, hashāb, a big twin hijlīj, nine [growing] hashāb, mukhīṭ, hashāb and sirih—this is the boundary of the farm of the sons of Labbād. And running from the east alongside [the land of] al-ḥājj Aḥmad—these are the boundaries of the farm under dispute there.

There were present as witness to our judgment, naqīb Barakāt, faqīh Ismācil b. al-faqīh Aḥmad al-Ḍawī, faqīh Ḥusayn b. al-faqīh Izayriq Birtāwī, faqīh Aḥmad Qandā, faqīh ‘Abd al-Qādir, malik Muḥammad Thānī, malik Abb(a), malik cAlī w.Ḥabīb, “the son of the sulṭān” Aḥmad Tūtū, faqīh Abu Bakr w. Kabbāshī, faqīh Ḥārūn, Aḥmad Kūnū, faqīh Ibn w. al-Khatīb, al-ḥājj al-Shafī’, al-ḥājj Muḥammad Ṣālih w. Tharwa, Shāibū grandson of bāsi Nūr al-Din, faqīh Madanī, malik ‘Aṭiyyah Allah, malik Aḥmad b. al-faqīh Ahmad w. al-Tahāwi and his brother cAbdallāh, faqīh Jalāl al-Dīn and the gathering was numerous. And God is the Best of Witnesses.

Written on Saturday the blessed, 18 Rabīca II, 1262. [15 April 1846]

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1  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 28.

2  For Arabic terms see the glossary at the end of the paper. I have generally avoided Arabic plurals, to facilitate comprehension by non-specialists.

3  On oral sources and their complementarity with written documents, see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 33-49. For a specific example see G. La Rue, 1984, p. 56-83. Compare Kapteijns’ use of oral sources: L. Kapteijns, 1985, p. 331-333.

4  Sudanic land documents can be used in the discussions over the relationships between orality and literacy. It is important to remain open to the idea that in law ambiguity has always been fertile ground for the politically astute to advance their causes by pushing for a legal interpretation which favors their interests. C. Barnes, T. Carmichael, 2006, p. 1-8.

5  Compare the various chapters in D. Crummey, 2003.

6  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 13.

7  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 334-351.

8  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 335.

9  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 336-337.

10  A comparison of the ḥākūra system to rest, gult, rim and zēgā in Ethiopian land tenure systems would be very instructive. For a recent review and analysis of these terms, see HabtamuMengestie, 2009, p. 89-106.

11  On the founding of al-Fāshir, see G. La Rue, 2003, p. 24-44.

12  On the holy men see R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 115-130. On the slaves see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 259-273, p. 425-426; G. La Rue, 1986, p. 636-668; R. O’Fahey, 1973, p. 29-43; see also L. Kapteijns, 1985, p. 60-75 for a description of slavery in a neighboring Sudanic state.

13  For one local ethnic group see L. Holy, 1974. Holy’s passages on land tenure are summarized in G. La Rue, 1989, p. 184-189.

14  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 31-49.

15  Like many Africanists trained in the US, I was influenced by P. Curtin, 1975. Curtin had been inspired by the Annales School, especially by F. Braudel, 1949.

16  J. Ewald, 1988, p. 217-218; R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 347.

17  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 349.

18  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 350.

19  R. O’Fahey, 1997, p. 350.

20  In more recent times, these administrative ḥākūras have been equated with ethnic dar or territories, perhaps reflecting their origins as conquered ethnic polities which had originally been under local rulers.

21  Classical Arabic maqdūm.

22  Classical Arabic sīd al-ḥākūra, pl. asyād al-hawākīr.

23  Classical Arabic pl. fuqahā‘.

24 R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 47.

25  Briefly, the fines were collected by the sultan’s officials for homicide (dam), adultery (fisq), the sale of stray animals or slaves (hāmil), and bushfires (nār). The taxes were collected by other officials. The quwwār were market dues paid to a village shaykh or estate-holder. The jibāya generically translated as revenue was actually a tax on grain (millet or sorghum) or cotton, collected by the jabbāyyin who are specifically mentioned in land documents. R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 6-9 for the fines and taxes. For details see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 343-358, p. 505-512.

26  D. Crummey, 2006, p. 13.

27  R. O’Fahey, J. Spaulding, 1974, p. 169.

28  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 213-225.

29  R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 57-59.

30  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 115-118.

31  On the scribes see R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 22-25. On the paper see T. Walz, 1985, p. 29-49; T. Walz, 2011, p. 73-107. On the pens and ink, G. La Rue, 1989, p. 227.

32  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 35-37.

33  A. Wion, 2012, p. 123-152.

34  For a detailed discussion of another earlier court case that drew an even larger number of important officials as witnesses, see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 277-281.

35  Compare the phrase translated “jusqu'à la fin du temps” in A. Wion, 2006, p. 24.

36  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 101.

37  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 101, n. 9. The “her” is either an error in the original transcription or a reminder that the true owner was the mayram, a royal woman.

38  On Umm Būṣa and the Beigo, see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 247-248, p. 262-263, p. 284-286.

39  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 108-109.

40  W. Browne, 1806, p. 288.

41  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 400.

42  R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 103-104.

43  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 405-406.

44  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 73. Discussed more thoroughly in G. La Rue, 1989, p. 405-406.

45  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 73-75.

46  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 385. Compare the vagueness of boundaries in some Ethiopian cases, D. Crummey, 2006, p. 13.

47  J. Spaulding, 1982, p. 5, p. 7.

48  For the right to buy and sell, see R. O’Fahey, 1979, p. 200; R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 19. The date is based on a review of the documents in chronological order. For examples of the right to buy and sell, see R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 42-44, p. 101-102. Both documents are dated 1263/1846–1847.

49  On the theory see J. Wakin, 1972, p. 4-5. On the practice in Dār Fūr, R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 9: “The transcripts make it clear that the production of charters, provided they were accepted as authentic by the judge, was invariably decisive without the need for their authenticity to be established by oath.” Yet in Document D, there was at least the possibility that in court a document could be overturned by the testimony of witnesses. This suggests that in a struggle between orality and literacy, the oral testimony of eye-witnesses might prevail, but over a longer time period, the relative durability of written documents would win out.

50  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 388-395.

51  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 101. Emphasis added.

52  R. O’Fahey, 1991, p. 81, p. 91-93. Compare G. La Rue, 1989, p. 386-396.

53  O’Fahey has been at pains to refute even the possibility of land sale in Dār Fūr. He has chosen to ignore my extended argument that at least the immigrants in Dār Fūr knew of and had experience with land sales in their homelands in Egypt and Sinnar, that the hujja themselves listed sale as one of the rights of the ḥākūra-holders, and that he himself published evidence of the sale of fields in Dār Fūr. R. O’Fahey, 2008, p. 153.

54  G. La Rue, 1984, p. 56-83. See also G. La Rue, 2011.

55  Oral interview by the author/ joint Ṭirayfi interview/ 11 December 1979.

56  His accession date was in 1254 AD, and one of his seals gives the date as 22 Safar al Khayr 1254/ 17 May 1838. But the seals themselves were made in Egypt, and it must have taken some time for them to be ordered and returned to Dār Fūr. On the seal: R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 29.

57 R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 113.

58  G. La Rue, 1986, p. 646-655.

59  G. La Rue, 1989, p. 336-341.

60  Compare R. O’Fahey and M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 100, p. 107.

61  Oral interview by the author: Shayhu Salih Jalis (for details of all oral interviews see G. La Rue, 1989, p. 517-530); W. Browne, 1806, p. 339-340.

62 El-Tounsy, 1845, p. 115; W. Browne, 1806, p. 339-340; R. O’Fahey and Spaulding, 1974, p. 150-151.

63  Oral interview by the author: Ṭirayfi interview, 11 December 1979.

64  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 102-104.

65  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 115-118 for the actual grant. For the vocalization “Ungorei” see R. O’Fahey, 1980, p. 142. Nachtigal, who visited the sultanate in the 1870s, wrote “Ngure”: G. Nachtigal, 1971, vol. 4, p. 257. The location given is based on my understanding of Nachtigal.

66  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 102.

67  W. Browne, 1806, p. 339-340.

68  R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 104-106.

69  G. La Rue, 1984, p. 67.

70  Oral interview by the author: Ibrāhīm Aḥmad Khabir ‘Alī, 13 October 1980; Muḥammad Khadr, 5 May 1980.See also R. O’Fahey, M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 106: “And apart from the formal granting of land, there appears to have been a market for land as well; thus ‘Alī Bey Ibrāhīm is said to have bought land in the region.”

71  R. O’Fahey and M. Abū Salīm, 1983, p. 23-24, p. 28-29.

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Titre Key Genealogical, Marriage and Lineage Relationships among Landowners near Kubayh
Crédits George Michael La Rue
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Référence électronique

George Michael La Rue, « Land documents in Dār Fūr sultanate (Sudan, 1785–1875): Between memory and archives », Afriques [En ligne], 07 | 2016, mis en ligne le 12 décembre 2016, consulté le 23 février 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/afriques.1896

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George Michael La Rue

Clarion University

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