Mansa Musa Revisited: what else can we as Black men learn

The famous 17th century West African chronicle, the Ta'rikh al-fattash, has this interesting passage:

As for [Mansa Musa's] Pilgrimage, the reason for it was told to me by the student and keeper of the traditions of the ancestors, Muhammad Quma ... [who] mentioned that Mali-koi ["king of Mali"] Kankan Musa is the one who accidentally killed his mother Nana Kankan. This happened sometime before his ascent to the thrown. Mansa Musa was sorrowful about this and regretted it, and feared retribution for it, so he gave large amounts of wealth as alms, and resolved to fast the rest of his life. He asked some of the 'ulama' ["learned ones, scholars"] of his time what he should do to be forgiven for this great offense. One of them said to him, "It is my opinion that you should seek asylum with the Messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace ..." That very day he resolutely made up his mind, and began to gather wealth and provisions for the journey, calling upon his kingdom on every side in demanding supplies and assistance.

It’s not clear if this woman was his actual mother, his grandmother or a half-sibling’s mother. But regardless, matricide, even accidental, would have been a huge deal, especially within the royal family.

Since this story only appears in the Ta'rikh al-fattash, it can't be corroborated with other texts. But it would be consistent with some other odd facts about Mansa Musa.

First is the fact that his mother's name, "Kanku", is systematically appended to his own, Mansa Kanku (or Kankan) Musa, meaning "King Musa, son of Kanku". This is not a common naming scheme for the other monarchs of Mali. His very name may show that his attempts to appease royal family members and others (by giving alms and fasting) fell on deaf ears, and that his crime was never forgotten or forgiven.

Another element is that the Ta'rikh al-fattash praises him as "virtuous, God-fearing, and a worshiper", listing his accomplishments before bringing up this detail, as if to mitigate the horrendous nature of the act. Mansa Musa is consistently portrayed in Islamic sources as a model of piety, listing all his virtues and his exemplary acts of devotion like the mosques he built and his liberation of Muslim slaves, etc. So why would the Ta'rikh al-fattash, invested in the good name of this king, mention the matricide unless the writer was certain of its verity?

Very importantly, the oral traditions are deafeningly silent about Mansa Musa, arguably one of the greatest Malian mansas (kings). They never mention him once. This silence could be simply because he is eclipsed, like many other subsequent kings, by Sundiata, the legendary hero of Manding oral tradition who founded the empire of Mali. But the oral histories do mention some other kings, like Mansa Sakura (who may or may not be fictional, a way to tell and critique Mansa Musa's story without actually mentioning or angering him. The two mansas’ stories have some major similarities). So the griots (oral historians) could have deliberately censored Mansa Musa out of their histories because of this great offense and shame he brought on himself and his people. The fact this story resurfaces centuries later and despite the oral tradition's silence, shows that it was still well remembered within West Africa.

Last but not least, Mansa Musa clearly was very pleasing to the Muslims within and without his lands: Building mosques, encouraging the study of Islam, building centers of Islamic learning and welcoming Muslim scholars, being so extravagant in his Hajj... all these things could be motivated in part because of his guilt and fear of retribution from God, but it could also be because of internal intrigue following his matricide: maybe he needed outside support to be able to stay in power and currying favor from the Islamic world would certainly have helped.




Houdas, O & Delafosse, M. (eds. and trans.) (1913). Ta’rikh al-fattash by Mahmud Ka’ti and Ibn al-Mukhtar. Paris, France: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient Adrien-Maisonneuve.

Gomez, M. (2018). African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa, pp. 108–111. USA: Princeton University Press.
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