Funj Sultanate

Dafato Team | Dec 18, 2022

Table of Content


In the course of Africa's pre-colonial history, the Fūnǧ Sultanate, founded in the early 16th century by a king named 'Amāra Dunqas, is, together with Dārfūr, one of the late kingdoms that emerged successively in the southern Sahara in the Sahelian area stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

The inhabitants were dark-skinned and apparently neither Arab nor Muslim in origin, although they claimed to be descendants of the Umayyads. Their dynasty was known in Sudanese tradition as the Black Sultanate.

The origins of this dynasty cannot be established with certainty. Three hypotheses have been advanced as to the origin of this group of shepherds. The first hypothesis put forward by Crawford and al-Šāṭir Buṣaylī states that the Fūnǧ dynasty originated in Abyssinia.

The second hypothesis, put forward by the 18th-century Scottish traveller James Bruce, who visited Sinnār in 1772, attributes the origin of the Fūnǧ inhabitants to a group of Shilluk warriors who had their homeland in the tribes along the White Nile.

According to the third hypothesis put forward by A.J. Arkell, the origin of the dynasty is linked to the name of 'Uṯmān b. Kaday, a sultan of the kingdom of Bornu who was defeated by a rival of his and driven from his native lands, made his way to the Nile Valley where he or one of his descendants came to dominate those of the kingdom of Shilluk, and then to rule the ancient Nubian kingdom of Sūbā. There is no evidence in the original sources from the Nilotic Sudan to support the hypothesis of the Bornu origin of the dynasty. Arkell bases his argument on material from the central and western territory called Bilād as-Sūdān, translated and annotated by H.R. Palmer.

Current sources providing information on the origins of the Fūnǧ inhabitants are few in number, many of them late and difficult to analyse. They are grouped chronologically as follows

The account of the Jewish traveler, David Reubeni, who passed through the territory ruled by a king named 'Amāra in 1523

The Umayyad genealogy of the Fūnǧ dynasty; Al-Šāṭir Buṣaylī publishes a document on the Umayyad lineage of the Fūnǧ dating from the 17th century. H.A. MacMichael gives other versions in A History of the Arabs in the Sudan from manuscripts dating only from the 19th and 20th centuries, although he claims that they come from original documents from the 18th, 17th and even 16th centuries.

The account of the Scottish traveller James Bruce visiting the kingdom of Fūnǧ in 1772, gathering information from several people, notably Aḥmad Sīd al-Qawm, a high-ranking officer at the court of Sinnār

Fūnǧ Chronicle

There are several revised editions, one of which is particularly important, consisting of manuscripts now in the National Library of Vienna and the University of Nottingham Library.

The history and customs of the Fūnǧ people when they were still a migratory people from the Blue Nile region are presented in the review of the Fūnǧ Chronicle. While they were living in Jaylī , a stranger appeared to them from below the Nile who began to live among them and care for them. Whenever they got food, he would keep it until they all gathered. He would then get up and divide it among them and it would remain with them, and he was a blessing (baraka) to them and they wondered why he would leave them so they united him with the daughter of their king and she gave birth to a son. When he became a man, his grandfather died and they agreed to make him king in his place and they all followed him. They were therefore given the name Unsāb. They then settled in Ǧabal Mūya. When they appointed another king, they united him with one of the descendants of that woman and called her bint 'ayn aš-šams ( the daughter of the eye of the sun). These were cattle breeders. Tradition tells of the ox from their herd that would end up in the forest of Sinnār where there was no settlement. The future town was to be named after a slave named Sinnār who is said to have stood by the river. Then the ox would go grazing in the forest and return to the camp the same night, and one day the men followed him and saw where the girl lived and came down from Mount Mūya.

The homeland of the Fūnǧ would have been in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, but they gradually began to migrate downstream until they established their settlement in a forest in Sinnār.

By 1600, they had converted to Islam, lived in fortresses concentrated around the capital Sinnār on the banks of the Blue Nile, with numerous herds of cattle. The standing army, with a not very large but efficient force, was charged with collecting tribute levied on Nubian farmers living along the river who had their own rulers. Based in a series of forts throughout the territory, the Fūnǧ army relied on heavy cavalry, recruited from the nobility, who wore armour made of greaves and staves. The infantry also carried armour and swords. After their disputed hegemony, the last Christian Nubian kingdom, 'Alwa, was replaced by the Fūnǧ sultanate. At the beginning of the 17th century, the Fūnǧ Sultanate extended northwards to the Third Cataract. In the north, Ottoman Egypt invades Nubia in the mid-16th century and builds a chain of fortifications around the second cataract.

The founder of Sinnār and the Fūnǧ dynasty was 'Amāra Dunqas. The Jewish adventurer, David Reubeni, who claimed to have been passing through the Nilotic Sudan in 1522-3 describes 'Amāra as a black monarch ruling over blacks and whites, and describes the court as barbarians. The white subjects were probably the lighter-skinned Arabs. Reubeni stresses in his testimonies the importance of Sinnār, but says that the king's residence called Lam'ul or La'ul was a little further south. Bruce and the Fūnǧ Chronicle present various traditions concerning early relations between the Arabs and the Fūnǧ inhabitants. Bruce claims that in 1504 the Fūnǧ dynasty invaded the Arab provinces, and in a battle near 'Arbaǧī in Ǧazīra they defeated the Arab commander whom Bruce calls Wed Ageeb ( Wad 'Aǧīb), forcing him to surrender. In the earliest revised editions of the Fūnǧ Chronicle, 'Amāra joins an Arab commander named 'Abdallāh al-Quraynātī al-Qāsimī in fighting the natives of the Sūbā region called 'Anaj and appoints him sheikh in Qarrī.

Traditions depict two nomadic peoples fighting over grazing lands following the collapse of the 'Alwa kingdom and with it, central authority. Although the Fūnǧ Chronicle does not mention the battle of 'Arbaǧī between the Fūnǧi and the Arabs, the superior status of the ruler in the Fūnǧi camp is highlighted. The year 1504 mentioned by Bruce corresponds to the year of the conquest of the Nubian land and the founding of Sinnār by Dunqas. The name given by Bruce to the Arab commander, that of Wed Ageeb, Wad or Walad, 'Aǧīb, is anachronistic. 'Aǧīb, son of 'Abdallāh, was the second sheikh of Qarrī, and his descendants were known by the patronymic name of Wad 'Aǧīb, son of 'Aǧīb. This ruling tribe was also called 'Abdallāb. 'Abdallāh is himself a semi-legendary figure. He is often called 'Abdallāh Jammā' (Ǧammā'), the one who gathers the tribes for his campaigns in this context. He fights in the name of Islam, defeating the Christians of the kingdom of 'Alwa, called 'Anaj, and even conquering Sūbā. Although the Arabs and inhabitants of Fūnǧ were originally nomadic, the ruling families were soon to settle in permanent settlements. The capital of the Fūnǧ sultanate was at Sinnār as early as the time of King Rubāṭ who ruled from 1616-17 until 1644-5.

The royal residence of the 'Abdallāb tribe was moved from Qarrī to Ḥalfāya, probably in the mid-18th century. From these small urban centres they exercised control over the farmers on the riverbanks and islands, but also over the nomads of al-Ǧazīra and Bhutan as far east as the Nile. The horsemen of the 'Abdallāb tribe and the Fūnǧs held the nomads in check during the annual transhumance and exacted tribute in camels, cattle, gold and slaves. Little is known of the ten kings of the Fūnǧ dynasty who succeeded King Dunqas to the throne. Much is known, however, about the great ruler 'Abdallābī, sheikh 'Aǧīb al-Kāfūta, son of 'Abdallāh Jammā' who held the title of mānǧilak. On his father's death he was appointed viceroy of the north by 'Amāra II 'Abū Sikaykīn who reigned between 1557-8 and 1568-9. 'Aǧīb is described as a ruler concerned with the Islamization of the territories, who appointed cadi to his territory, made land donations to the ulema and waged holy war. Around the early 17th century, disagreements arose between the Fūnǧ rulers, the rulers of 'Abdallābī and Susenyos, emperor of Ethiopia, with their capital at Gondar which stretched not far from their border with the Fūnǧ kingdom. A trade route linked the capital to Sinnār and Egypt.

In November 1606, the king of the Fūnǧ dynasty, 'Abd al-Qādir II was ousted from the throne after a short reign of less than three years. According to 'Abdallābī tradition, he was ousted by 'Aǧīb because of his religious innovations. It seems that he had accepted the suzerainty of the Ethiopian emperor, and after being deposed he took refuge at Chelga, an enclave on the caravan route linking Sinnārul to Gondar. The power of the Fūnǧ dynasty was reborn under the reign of 'Adlān I, brother and successor of 'Abd al-Qādir II, who defeated and killed 'Aǧīb at the Battle of Karkuj, probably around 1611-12. The sons of 'Aǧīb take refuge in the province of Dunqulā. The one who tries to restore peace between the former allies is Sheikh 'Idrīs Muḥammad al-'Arbāb, the maternal cousin of the 'Abdallābī princes, one of whom was to be appointed viceroy of the north.

Despite his victorious campaign, 'Adlān was ousted from power by 'Abd al-Qādir's son. The new king, Bādī I Sīd al-Qawm did not recognise the Ethiopian suzerainty, attracting to his side Sheikh 'Abdallābī who undertook incursions across the border so that relations between the two rulers deteriorated. Susenyos succeeded in bringing the 'Abdallāb lineage out from under the dependence of the Fūnǧ dynasty. Bādī died in 1616-17 before the first hostilities broke out at the beginning of the reign of his successor, Rubāṭ. From the summer of 1618 until the following summer, the Ethiopians allied with Sheikh 'Abdallābī undertake incursions along the Fāzūglī frontier from west of the Blue Nile to al-Tākā, in the region of present-day Kasalā province, between 'Aṭbara and Gash (al-Qāš), then the fighting seems to have stopped, the frontier line remaining almost unchanged. At stake may have been, it was claimed, not the expansion of territory but control of an important trade route.

Reign of King Bādī II 'Abū Daqn (1644

In 1704-5 a revolt of factions within the Fūnǧ nobility against Sultan Bādī III al-'Aḥmar marked the beginning of a turbulent century. Although the first was unsuccessful, the second uprising of 1717-18 saw Ūnsā III removed from power and with it the Ūnsāb dynasty.

Victory was due to Nūl who established the Islamic Nūl dynasty of the Fūnǧ, relinquishing power in 1724 to his son, Bādī IV, who ruled until 1762.

Amid this dynastic change, Islam became the only source of legitimation and the old court ritual was abandoned. The new dynasty sought the support of the ulema whose political and social influence therefore continued to grow. New religious disciplines such as Qur'an memorization, fiqh, ḥadīṯ, sīra, were cultivated, leading to the Arabization of the empire. During the reign of King Bādī IV, fratricide, the customary practice of the time in which the brothers of the new ruler were killed, was abandoned.

Each ruler of the Ūnsāb dynasty was obliged to choose his partner from among the descendants of the Bint 'ayn aš-šams. The tradition of matrilineal descent was replaced by that of patrilineal descent.

The 18th century was dominated by Bādī IV 'Abū Šulūḫ and Muḥammad 'Abū Likaylik. Both faced the crisis after the fall of the Unsāb dynasty. For several years, Bādī left the affairs of the state in the hands of the vizier Dōka, described in the Fūnǧ Chronicle as just and wise. He was killed in 1729-30 and succeeded by Ismā'īl, probably Bādī's maternal cousin, who in turn was executed in 1743-44, after which the king took over. He began by killing members of the Unsāb dynasty and dispossessing the nobles of their lands, which he then offered to his neighbours in Nūba, and made sheikhs over the Fūr people from the line of Ḫamīs walad Ǧanqal, gaining their support against the family of the previous kings. It is said that the victory over the invading forces led by the Ethiopian king Iyāsū II led to the consolidation of King Bādī's position, which would not have succeeded, however, without the help of Ḫamīs, the leader of a faction that had joined the Sinnār rulers and received land near the capital in the fertile region between the Blue Nile and Dinder. The king increasingly relied on military support from allies in the western territories and on the southern border who received land in the vicinity of Sinnār in return. One of these clients was Muḥammad 'Abū Likaylik.

The two classes under the Sultan's rule, the mercenaries from beyond the Sultanate's borders and the slaves, did not suffer from the increasingly repressive measures initiated by the Sultan, but the subjects were unhappy with the increased tribute for military activities. Irony caused Muḥammad 'Abū Likaylik, the king's client, along with other commanders to turn against the sultan. Advancing with his army to Sinnār, 'Abū Likaylik drove Bādī from the throne, putting Nāṣir, his son, in his place (in 1762).

From then on, Sheikh 'Abū Likaylik and his successors who had adopted the title of viziri became the rulers of the dynasty so that the Fūnǧ sultans were no more than puppets in the hands of the Hamaǧ rulers, a term that designated the Sudanese Arabs of the ancient peoples of Ǧazīra, being neither Fūnǧs nor Arabs.

After the death of 'Abū Likaylik in 1776


  1. Funj Sultanate
  2. Sultanatul Fūnǧ
  3. ^ "It is astounding how long the Christian faith managed to maintain itself beyond the collapse of the Christian realms, even though gradually weakened and drained."[101] Already in 1500 a traveller who visited Nubia stated that the Nubians regarded themselves as Christians, but were so lacking in Christian instruction they had no knowledge of the faith.[102] In 1520 Nubian ambassadors reached Ethiopia and petitioned the emperor for priests. They claimed that no more priests could reach Nubia because of the wars between Muslims, leading to a decline of Christianity in their land.[103]
  4. ^ "The story of the Ethiopian monk Takla Alfa, who died in Dongola in 1596 (...) clearly shows that there were virtually no Christians left in Dongola."[105] Theodor Krump claims that the people of Dongola, where he was detained in February 1701, told him that just 100 years ago their ancestors were still Christians.[106]
  5. ^ In 1918 it has been recorded that several practices clearly of Christian origin were "common, though of course not universal, in Omdurman, the Gezira and Kordofan". These practices involved the marking of crosses on foreheads of newborns or on stomachs of sick boys as well as putting straw crosses on bowls of milk.[113] In 1927 it is written that along the White Nile, crosses were pointed on bowls filled with wheat.[114] In 1930 it was not only recorded that youths in the Gezira would be painted with crosses, but also that coins with crosses were worn in order to provide assistance against illnesses.[115] A very similar custom was known from Lower Nubia, where women wore such coins on special holidays. It seems likely that this was a living memory of the Jizya tax, which was enforced on Christians who refused to convert to Islam.[116] Customs of Christian origin were also extensively practiced in the Dongola region as well as the Nuba mountains.[117]
  6. ^ a b Grandin, Nicole. Le Soudan nilotique et l’administration britannique(1898-1956).Eléments d’interprétation socio-historique d’une expérience coloniale, Etudes sociales, économiques et politiques du Moyen Orient, Leiden:Brill, 1982, p.27
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Holt, P.M. Studies in the History of the Near East, London:Frank Cass& Co. limited,1973, pp.67-69, 75-76
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Holt, P.M. Chapter 1:Egypt, the Funj and Darfur, "The Cambridge history of Africa, Vol.4:from c.1600 to c.1790", Cambridge:Cambridge University Press,1975,pp. 41-43
  9. ^ Stapleton, Timothy J.A Military History of Africa- The Precolonial Period:From Ancient Egypt to the Zulu Kingdom(Earliest Times to ca. 1870), Vol.1, 2013, p.28
  10. ^ a b c d e f McHugh, Neil. Holymen of the Blue Nile:The Making of an Arab-Islamic Community in the Nilotic Sudan,1500-1850,Evanston:Northwestern University Press, 1994, pp.51-55
  11. Ogot 1999, p. 91
  12. Loimeier, 2013, p. 141.
  13. 1 2 Alan Moorehead, The Blue Nile, revised edition (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 215
  14. 1 2 Grajetzki, 2009, p. 117.
  15. Werner, 2013, pp. 143–146.
  16. McHugh, Neil (1994). Holymen of the Blue Nile: The Making of an Arab-Islamic Community in the Nilotic Sudan, 1500–1850. Col: Series in Islam and Society in Africa. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. p. 9. ISBN 978-0-8101-1069-4
  17. Trimingham, J. Spencer (1996). The Last Great Muslim Empires. Col: History of the Muslim World, 3. Abbreviated and adapted by F. R. C. Bagley 2ª ed. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers. p. 167. ISBN 978-1-55876-112-4

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