A “Jabri” madhhab of the early modern Sudan?

By Kristina L. Richardson

Given the centuries of exposure to northern African Islamic thought like Khārijism, Ibāḍism, and Mālikism, could sub-Saharan Muslims have established an indigenous, perhaps syncretic, Islamic legal school? 17th-century Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi claimed as much, though we may have to take his descriptions with a grain of salt.

Between August 1672 and April 1673, Çelebi and his retinue of guides and enslaved men traveled up the Nile from Cairo through Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti. Soon after crossing from Ottoman Nubia into the lands of the Funj Sultanate, the party arrived at an island in the Blue Nile, dominated by the stone fortress Qalʿat Jabriya.

Inside are 300 reed houses and a mud-brick Friday mosque without a minaret. There are 500 Berberis[1] residing here, but outside the walls are desert dwellers known as the tribes of Jabriya. They are not Mālikīs but belong to the Jabrī legal school. Still, they never miss one of the five daily prayers, performing all five at the muezzin’s call, the only difference being that we say Ḥayya ʿalāʾl-ṣalāh (‘Come to prayer’) and Ḥayya ʿalāʾl-falāḥ (‘Come to salvation’) twice while they say these phrases only once. Also, they are not strict as to time, but rather perform the five prayers at whatever times they like in the course of 24 hours. And sometimes they join the times together and pray all five at once. Their qamat (the muezzin’s call signalling the beginning of the prayer worship) is also not fixed. Such is the Jabriya sect.[2]

Caption: Funj Sultanate around 1700 Source: (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funj_Sultanate#/media/File:Funj_Sultanate_1700.png)

Çelebi’s fantastic descriptions of certain Funj cities and strange encounters with Funj rulers have come under question, but can we accept his claim that Black Muslims of the Funj Sultanate developed independent legal schools and religious customs?[3] He refers to this single group as a political confederation (“the tribes of Jabriya”), adherents to an Islamic legal philosophy (“the Jabri legal school”), and members of a separate branch of Islam (“the Jabriya sect”). In all likelihood, Jabri was not the real name for this group. To cast aspersions on a group thought heretical, Muslims have slandered others as jabrī, and it is likely that Evliya Çelebi intended the term as one of general dishonor to deny their identity as Muslims and smear their interpretations of Islamic law.[4] In fact, this usage persisted into the 20th century. In the Iranian province of Luristan, the British explorer Freya Stark (1893-1993) hired skeptical locals to exhume bodies from local burial grounds. Fearful that they were in fact violating Muslim graves, they asked her, “Are you sure that these are unbelievers’ [Gabri] graves, and not graves of the children of Adam?”[5]

Evliya encounters more jabrīs many days later in the city of ʿIdai.

The populace is a mixture of Mālikīs, who are true Muslims, and Jabris, who are not. They are a bunch of shameless people whom the Funj king has promoted. Their shaikh, Saʿid Jabri, is in charge of 40,000 Jabris and Jabbaris, all of them scoundrels and villains.[6]

After this passage, the translators note that “Jabbari is here a nonce term based on jabbar (‘tyrant’),” an explanation that corroborates my reading of jabri as a general descriptor. But what, after all, was the substance of their heterodoxy?

Çelebi acknowledges that these jabri maintained the Islamic ritual of five daily prayers and recited the adhān and the iqāma in Arabic, though their recitations depart substantively from known practice. In fact, it does seem to depart from all known Sunnī, Shīʿī, or Ibāḍī traditions. However, Shīʿīs allow the combination of two pairs of prayers following the dawn prayers, but most Sunnīs approve it only when necessary, say, during travel or in pressing circumstances.

After some days’ travel along the Blue Nile, Evliya Çelebi claims to have come upon the five-sided mud-brick fortress Qalʿat Hannaq.[7]

Inside are 700 Berberi reed houses and one Friday mosque of mud brick. Outside the fortress are desert dwellers, Mālikī Berberis mixed with those of the Jabri legal school, 100,000 black-visaged subjects.[8]

Still further down the Nile, Evliya Çelebi arrived at the Fortress of the Moat, where, as in the other fortifications, Berberis lived within the walls and jabrīs without.

Jabris are not allowed inside the fortress. They leave their hair to grow on either side of their heads but shave it from the forehead to the nape – that is how you know they are Jabris. Also, they are desert dwellers.[9]

Could a religious enclave of heterodox Black Muslims have lived in the desert, developed their own prayer customs, adopted new philosophies surrounding ritual time, sported unique hairstyles, and reinterpreted Islamic law? No contemporary sources attest to such a community, but let us not consign possibilities of African legal innovation to the realm of fantasy.

Historically, African Muslims have advanced and embraced reinterpretations of Islamic law. When Moroccan forces laid siege to Timbuktu in 1591, the Mālikī jurist Aḥmad Bābā al-Timbuktī (1556-1627) was taken to Marrakesh and imprisoned. There, he observed that North Africans did not consider Black Muslims their spiritual brethren. They were effectively non-Muslims who could be enslaved. After spending 15 years in Marrakesh, Aḥmad Bābā was released and returned to Timbuktu. There, in 1615, he composed a treatise in Arabic, addressed to a Maghribī audience, in which he argued that Blackness and slavery were not coextensive statuses. “The judgement is such: Non-belief is not confined to the descendants of Ham. Any kafir, whether from the children of Ham or others, can be owned if he kept his original non-belief. In this respect, there is no difference between races.”[10] Many scholars, like Rudolph Ware and Ali Shariati, have identified Aḥmad Bābā’s writing as a key example of the emancipatory potential in Islamic law.[11]

Saharan and Sahelian Muslims also establised new Sūfī brotherhoods, like the Tijaniyya and the Sanusiyya. Some, like the Muridiyya, offered novel interpretations of Islamic law and even a new theory of rulership. The Senegalese mystic Aḥmad Bamba (1853-1927) created the Muridiyya brotherhood, proclaimed himself the first Mouride Caliph, and his male descendants have successively assumed the Caliphate. He also founded the holy city of Touba, Senegal, and advocated new axes of Muslim devotion: prayer and industrious labor. The Mouride maxim “Pray as though you’ll die tomorrow; work as though you’ll live forever” has inspired the formation of labor co-operatives in Senegal and an international network of street merchants. They are visible on the streets of European and North and South American cities. These Mourides sell scarves, purses, gloves, and sunglasses on sidewalks and in squares. Let them serve as constant reminders of the dynamism, the reach, and the varieties of Saharan and Sahelian Islamic legal interpretations since the 16th century.


[1] The term Berber has historically designed both indigenous northern Africans and East Africans. See Ramzi Rouighi, Inventing the Berbers: History and Ideology in the Maghrib (Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019), 15-43.

[2] Ottoman Explorations of the Nile: Evliya Çelebi’s ‘Matchless Pearl These Reports of the Nile’ map and his accounts of the Nile and the Horn of Africa in The Book of Travels, eds. Robert Dankoff, Nuran Tezcan, and Michael D. Sheridan (London: Gingko Library, 2018), 266-67.

[3] Maria Theresa Petti Suma, “Il viaggio in Sudan di Evliya Celebi,” Annali dell’Istituto Orientale di Napoli 14 (1964): 433-52; A.C.S. Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj Sultanate in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” BSOAS 75.1 (2012): 103-05

[4] William Montgomery Watt, “Djabriyya,” in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd edition, II, 365a.

[5] Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels (New York: The Modern Library, 2001), 96.

[6] Ottoman Explorations, 274.

[7] This is probably Ḥannik, the site of a 1585 battle where the Funj defeated the Ottomans. See Peacock, “The Ottomans and the Funj Sultanate in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” 105

[8] Ottoman Explorations, 267.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Bernard Barbour and Michelle Jacobs, “The Miʿraj: A Legal Treatise on Slavery by Ahmad Baba,” in Slaves and Slavery in Africa: Volume One: Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement, ed. John Ralph Willis (London: Frank Cass, 1985), 134. A digitized manuscript of Miʿraj al-ṣuʿūd ilā nayl ḥukm majlūb al-sūd (The ladder of ascent towards grasping the law concerning transported Blacks) from the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu, Mali, is available here: https://www.wdl.org/en/item/9661/ .

[11] For a historical survey of emancipation in Islamic law, see Jonathan A. C. Brown, Slavery & Islam (Oxford: OneWorld Academic, 2019), 205-12.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Kristina L. Richardson, A “Jabri” madhhab of the early modern Sudan?, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 25, 2021), https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/03/25/a-jabri-madhhab-of-the-early-modern-sudan/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Kristina L. Richardson, “A ‘Jabri’ madhhab of the early modern Sudan?,” Islamic Law Blog, March 25, 2021, https://islamiclaw.blog/2021/03/25/a-jabri-madhhab-of-the-early-modern-sudan/)

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