Shihāb al-Dīn Abū al-‘Abbās Aḥmad b. Faḍl Allāh al-'Umarī (شهاب الدين أبو العبّاس أحمد بن فضل الله العمري), or simply al-‘Umarī, (1300 – 1349) was an Arab historian, born in Damascus. Born as a scion of a family of bureaucrats, al-ʿUmarī (as his name implies) traced his origin to Umar, the second Islamic caliph. His father held the important post of kātib as-sirr (head of the chancery) of the Mamluk Empire. During his life, his scholarly works and writings were used in the administration of the Mamluk Empire's dominions of Egypt and Syria, and later became standard sources for Mamluk history.[1]

Political career

Al-ʿUmarī began his tumultuous career working as an assistant to his father who was the head of the chancery of the Mamluk Empire. However, as he continued his career in civil service, he found that his temperament was ill-suited to the position and made many political enemies. Al-'Umarī soon realised that he was much too independent minded and politically active for a stable career in bureaucracy. In c. 1337 he was dismissed from office and imprisoned. However, after the death of his father in 1337, his brother was appointed as head of the chancery who showed favour to al-ʿUmarī. In 1339 al-ʿUmarī was released from prison and appointed to his father’s old post, but in 1342 he again was banished from office and replaced by another one of his brothers.[2]

Works and scholarship

During his life, al-Umari visited Cairo shortly after the Malian Mansa Kankan Musa I's pilgrimage to Mecca, and his writings are considered to be one of the primary sources for this legendary hajj. In particular, al-Umari recorded that the Mansa dispensed so much gold that its value fell in Egypt for a decade afterward, a story that is often repeated in describing the wealth of the Mali Empire. Al-Umari also recorded Kankan Musa's stories of the previous mansa; Kankan Musa claimed that the previous ruler had abdicated the throne to journey to a land across the ocean, leading contemporary Malian historian Gaoussou Diawara to theorise that Abubakari reached the Americas years before Christopher Columbus. Some of his work can be found in the Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History.

Its French translation by Gaudefroy-Demombynes says:[3]

"In the North of Mali there live white Berbers under their ruler. Their tribes are Antasar, Yantar'aras, Meddusa and Lemtuna ... I asked their ruler Sultan Musa Ibn Amir Hajib (who was in Egypt returning from the pilgrimage): "How had you become ruler?" He replied: "We belong to a family where the son succeeds the father in power. The ruler who preceded me did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth (meaning Atlantic), and wanted to reach to that (end) and obstinately persisted in the design. So he equipped two hundred boats full of men, as many others full of gold, water and victuals sufficient for several years. He ordered the chief (admiral) not to return until they had reached the extremity of the ocean, or if they had exhausted the provisions and the water. They set out. Their absence extended over a long period, and, at last, only one boat returned. On our questioning, the captain said: 'Prince, we have navigated for a long time, until we saw in the midst of the ocean as if a big river was flowing violently. My boat was the last one; others were ahead of me. As soon as any of them reached this place, it drowned in the whirlpool and never came out. I sailed backwards to escape this current.' But the Sultan would not believe him. He ordered two thousand boats to be equipped for him and for his men, and one thousand more for water and victuals. Then he conferred on me the regency during his absence, and departed with his men on the ocean trip, never to return nor to give a sign of life."

This, however, does not mention Mansa Akubakari.

His works also provide a basis for the Muslim side on the wars of Amda Seyon I against Ifat, Adal, and other regions.

Later years

Al-ʿUmarī spent many of his remaining years in the pursuit of scholarship to advance administrative practices. He wrote at-Taʾrīf bi-al-muṣṭalaḥ ash-sharīf, a comprehensive study of the principles of Mamluk administration, and Masālik al-abṣār fī mamālik al-amṣār, an encyclopedic compendium which also related to administrative practices.[4]


  1. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Al-ʿUmarī - SYRIAN SCHOLAR". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 8 November 2016. 
  2. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Al-ʿUmarī - SYRIAN SCHOLAR". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 8 November 2016. 
  3. ^ "Echos of What Lies Behind the 'Ocean of Fogs' in Muslim Historical Narratives". muslimheritage.com. Retrieved 27 June 2015. 
  4. ^ The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. "Al-ʿUmarī - SYRIAN SCHOLAR". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 8 November 2016. 

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