Islamic Studies The Kunta of the Sahara
Ariela Marcus-Sells
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0248


Many kinship networks and lineages across contemporary West and North Africa, concentrated in the southern Sahara and Sahel, trace their descent to a common ancestor named Sidi Muhammad al-Kunti al-Kabir, who purportedly died at the turn of the 16th century. Generally, “the Kunta” (in Arabic, Kinata) refers collectively to people who claim this heritage. The label “the Kunta,” may also refer more specifically to the Sufi scholars and their descendants who rose to prominence in the Azawad (in what is now northern Mali) in the 18th century and who exerted considerable influence over the social and intellectual world of the southern Saharan desert until the French conquests in the mid-19th century. The key figures responsible for propelling this branch of the Kunta clan to prominence were Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (d. 1811) and his son, Sidi Muhammad al-Kunti (d. 1826) (known as “al-Khalifa” to distinguish him from his eponymous ancestor). These two figures controlled important trans-Saharan trading routes, established a large pedagogical network, and composed hundreds of manuscript texts in Arabic. Academic scholarship on the history of the Kunta kinship network relies heavily on two hagiographies composed by Sidi Muhammad al-Khalifa and on the work of colonial-era administrators and scholars. The historical narrative that emerges from these sources has remained largely unchanged in the academic literature up to the present day and would greatly benefit from a critical reevaluation. The end of the colonial period and the independence of the states bordering the Sahara has seen the publication of a small body of scholarship dedicated to the history of the Kunta lineage and kinship network. However, information about the Kunta is more likely to appear in scholarship dedicated to sets of interrelated concerns, including studies of precolonial Saharan social history, studies of Saharan economic history, and studies of West African Sufism. The frequency with which members of the Kunta network appear in works dedicated to these topics attests to their geographical spread and historic influence. Unfortunately, with one exception, there has been almost no scholarship related to the Kunta in the modern period.

Historical and Geographical Overviews

There are several works that situate the rise of the Kunta in the 18th century within larger historical frameworks. Of these, Abitbol 1979 and Saad 1983 provide complementary accounts. Abitbol’s work does not focus on the Kunta, who emerge only briefly at the end of his study, but rather treats the relationship between Morocco and Timbuktu from the Moroccan invasion of 1591 to the dominance of the Caliphate of Hamdullahi in 1833. The majority of this period saw the rule of Timbuktu by the Arma, the descendants of the Moroccan soldiers who invaded the city. Saad examines the same period but focuses on the city of Timbuktu and the intellectual community that formed the backbone of the city’s social institutions during the Arma Pashalik. While the research that informs Willis 1971 is outdated, the work provides one of the only historical surveys that situates the Kunta in relation to the polities of the West African interior. Various members of the Kunta network appear in Kane 2016, which provides a useful and up-to-date synthesis of scholarship on the history of the southern Sahara and Sahel.

  • Abitbol, Michel. Tombouctou et les Arma: De la conquête marocaine du Soudan nigérien en 1591 à l’hégémonie de l’empire Peulh du Macina en 1833. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1979.

    Does not directly discuss the Kunta, but provides a detailed overview of major historical movements in the region. This work also discusses the transregional and even international connections between Timbuktu, the southern Sahara, Morocco, European powers, and the Ottoman Caliphate.

  • Kane, Ousmane. Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674969377

    An accessible synthesis of the scholarship on the history of the southern Sahara and Sahel from the earliest reports by Arab explorers to the present day. Kane refers most frequently to the Kunta in chapter 3, which covers the rise of important clerical lineages in the region.

  • Saad, Elias N. Social History of Timbuktu: The Role of Muslim Scholars and Notables 1400–1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    A history of the city of Timbuktu from its origins to the French conquest in the mid-19th century. Saad argues that the social institution of scholarship produced a patrician class and provided continuity in the social structure of the city over a turbulent period in its history. This work provides some of the intellectual genealogy of the Kunta scholars, who acted as the protectors of the town prior to the French invasion.

  • Willis, John Ralph. “The Western Sudan from the Moroccan Invasion (1591) to the Death of al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1811).” In History of West Africa. Vol. 1. Edited by J. F. A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, 441–484. New York: Columbia University Press, 1971.

    Synthesizes colonial-era scholarship on the various peoples of West Africa. Although the sources that inform this work are outdated and require more scrutiny, this is still one of the only works to provide an overview of the career of Sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti in relation to the rise and fall of regional powers to the south, including the Pashalik rulers of Timbuktu, surrounding Tuareg groups, and the kingdoms of Kaarta and Segu.

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