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Translating the African Past: The Islamic Heritage of Sub-Saharan Africa

Translating the African Past: The Islamic Heritage of Sub-Saharan Africa

On a recent trip to the West African nation of Mali, Dr. John O. Hunwick encountered in Timbuktu signs of its legacy being resurrected in the form of new libraries. To this scholar of African history and frequent visitor to the dusty, desert city near the Niger River, the construction of libraries represented a most welcome addition to a place whose historic reputation was built on scholarship and book trading. 
“There were two new libraries I hadn’t seen before,” exclaimed Hunwick shortly after returning to the United States in early April.
 Timbuktu occupies a significant place in the worldview of African history scholars. For centuries long before European colonizers appeared there, Timbuktu reigned as the most prosperous city in sub-Saharan Africa because its accessibility to Arab traders crossing the Sahara desert helped establish the city as a premier center of trade and scholarship. And like Timbuktu, other sub-Saharan venues would experience the growth of their own intellectual and literary traditions by adopting classical Arabic.
Hunwick, a British-born historian who directs Northwestern University’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), stands at the center of a global academic enterprise to identify, collect, translate and interpret the rich store of Arabic language texts spread throughout the northernmost region of sub-Saharan Africa, known as the Sahel. The Sahel is spread across the countries that either intersect or border the Sahara desert’s southern boundaries.
Culturally, the region is described as “Sudanic” Africa, representing the states that experienced the religious, cultural and political influence of Arabs in the aftermath of the founding of Islam in the seventh century. As traders, Arabs from North Africa and the Middle East brought Islam and an Arabic language tradition to sub-Saharan Africa. This tradition took root with generations of Black Africans becoming proficient in speaking, reading and writing Arabic, and it even would enable the writing of native African languages in Arabic script. 
“We’re dealing with a vibrant tradition,” says Dr. Charles Stewart, a historian and executive associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
For at least four decades, the “discovery,” or finding, of Arabic language texts in Sudanic Africa by scholars has added new volumes to the historical record of Africa. It also has decisively put to rest the notion spread by Westerners that sub-Saharan Africa lacked a tradition of literacy prior to the era of European colonization.
Although veteran scholars, such as Hunwick, have been working on Sudanic texts since the 1960s, they characterize the task of collecting and translating the bulk of pre-colonial Arabic texts in sub-Saharan Africa as a task that has just gotten underway.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface,” says Dr. Rex Sean O’Fahey, co-director of ISITA and longtime colleague of Hunwick.
O’Fahey, a British citizen who grew up in Kenya, reports that thousands of Arabic language texts currently unknown to scholars may rest in the private collections of families from West to East Africa. As scholars leading ISITA, Hunwick and O’Fahey have recognized that the emerging field will require a cohort of scholars from Africa and outside the continent with fluency in classical Arabic and native African languages, and specialization in sub-Saharan African history.
“The recruitment of young people to this work is a high priority,” says O’Fahey, who in addition to ISITA holds a faculty position at the University of Bergen in Norway.

The Role of ISITA
For much of his career, Hunwick has focused on translating and interpreting Arabic language texts to write histories and compile bibliographies on Sudanic Africa. That focus has expanded in the aftermath of a major finding in 1999 in Timbuktu. Invited to the home of a Malian family while in Timbuktu in August 1999, Hunwick was shown a collection of 3,000 documents, many of which dated back to the 16th century. The collection has turned out to be the oldest known set of Arabic language documents discovered in West Africa. The finding, which included letters, books, and book fragments on theology, jurisprudence and history, would make worldwide news.
“The documents I was shown were much older than I had expected them to be,” Hunwick says.
One of the major finds in 1999 by Hunwick was a book by Mahmud al-Kati, an African historian who lived during the 16th century. Ismail Haidara, a descendant of al-Kati and author of three studies on Timbuktu published in Morocco, showed Hunwick the collection.
 Although Hunwick has long been involved with the preservation of Sudanic texts, the Ford Foundation’s grant of $1 million in 2000 to establish the ISITA has given the British historian a more prominent role in preservation efforts. ISITA also has taken on the task of hosting and training African scholars who are expected to preserve and make use of the Arabic language texts in their work.
“It’s important to help young African scholars study their own heritage,” O’Fahey says.
Though Sudanic literature archives exist in sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, Europe and the United States, scholars believe many more documents still rest in private collections across West and East Africa. O’Fahey and Hunwick have estimated that in and around Timbuktu, some 60 to 70 private collections may hold about 100,000 documents. Another 100,000 documents are believed to be in Mauritania. Other regions and countries known to have uncatalogued Arabic language texts relating to sub-Saharan African history include Senegal, northern Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan, Somalia and Kenya.
“There are many sources of Arabic materials for African history that historians have only begun to tap. I have worked in Arabic materials for Senegalese and Malian history at the Archives Nationales de Paris and the Archives Nationales de Senegal as well as private Malian collections,” says Dr. John Hanson, a professor of history and director of the African Studies program at Indiana University.
Though active in preservation efforts of the fragile paper documents, research centers, such as ISITA, and African studies departments in the United States and Europe have aimed their focus largely on Sudanic literature scholarship. The prevailing consensus is for Africans to remain as the primary custodians of the Sudanic documents while researchers from around the world work alongside African scholars to translate and interpret them. Foreign researchers also are interested in having the Sudanic literature recorded electronically so that there’s Internet and computer access to the texts.

Arabic as the Latin of Africa
Early in his career as a faculty member at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, Hunwick persuaded officials there to establish a department of Arabic studies. Seeing that the school’s classics department taught Latin, “I convinced the dean to establish one on the argument that Arabic was the Latin of Africa,” Hunwick has said.
Prior to his academic career, Hunwick served in the British Army where he was stationed in Somalia. There, impressed with the people and its culture, he began learning Arabic. Several years later, in the early 1960s, he returned to Africa as a scholar in Arab culture and Arabic. The perspective he took to West Africa on Arabic being the Latin of Africa would put him on a path similar to a handful of Western scholars who began to collect and translate Arabic language texts from sub-Saharan Africa. O’Fahey says Western scholars were slow to recognize that there existed a vast store of Arabic language documents in the possession of Africans that could be a source of historic information. He says that until the 1960s and 1970s Africanists had tended to rely largely upon oral history accounts to write sub-Saharan history.
“We were very influenced by anthropology. There was an intellectual primacy given to the oral tradition,” O’Fahey says.
That changed with researchers, including Illinois’ Stewart, Hunwick, O’Fahey and Dr. David Robinson of Michigan State University, beginning to collect and translate documents, and pushing for the establishment of archive libraries.
Even after four decades of work, scholars contend there’s still much work to be done in Sudanic studies. “I think we are at the very beginning stages of research,” says Dr. Saadi Simawe, associate professor of English and African American literature at Grinnell College in Iowa.
Building the Enterprise
This spring, ISITA has brought to Northwestern for the first time a cohort of junior fellows to conduct research and present papers at the institute’s annual colloquium. The junior fellows program, which selects young African scholars who are studying or planning to study Islamic culture and influence in sub-Saharan Africa as graduate students, represents one of the ways that ISITA fosters scholarship on Islamic thought in Sudanic Africa.
Iddrisu Abdulai, a native of Ghana, wants to pursue a doctorate in African history in graduate school, and has been studying classical Arabic privately because he believes his scholarship will require mastery of it. “It will strengthen my ability to do research,” Abdulai says.
Currently on leave from a university teaching job in Ghana, Abdulai adds that he is applying to graduate schools in Australia, Norway, the United States and Ghana. Although his fellowship is limited to three months, the young Ghanaian says exposure to Northwestern’s famed Melville J. Heskovits Library of Africana has been invaluable to him. The library has 3,400 Arabic manuscripts and pamphlets, according to officials.
Like Abdulai, Hassan Mwakimako of Kenya arrived in the United States in early April to fine tune a paper he will be presenting at ISITA’s colloquium in May. Mwakimako’s paper examines the status of Muslims in Kenya during British colonial rule from 1898 to 1965. The Kenyan graduate student, who is pursuing a doctorate in the history of Islam in East Africa at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, has high praise for Northwestern’s Library of Africana.
 “I’ve been using the library and there’s more original source material here than I have seen at the University of Cape Town and the University of Nairobi,” Mwakimako says.
 O’Fahey says there’s an abundance of young Black Africans, many of whom are Muslim, interested in developing the language skills necessary to make use of Arabic language documents in research on sub-Saharan Africa.  
“The enthusiasm and interest are there. The problem is one of resources. Will their (home) campuses and foreign universities be able to provide the opportunities for these students to develop fluency in Arabic and other languages?” O’Fahey asks.
In contrast, Americans have considerable access to the institutions and the resources to develop scholars of Sudanic studies, but the numbers of students in African studies remain low in comparison to students interested in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Another barrier in attracting Americans to Sudanic studies is the fact that African studies departments at most colleges and universities are separated from the departments of North African and Middle Eastern studies, according to a number of scholars. This separation of departments works against maximizing the number of students who develop proficiency in both sub-Saharan Africa history and in Arabic, scholars say.
“Ph.D. programs in the U.S. are structured in such a way that it’s difficult for students not in Middle Eastern studies to pursue Arabic language courses,” O’Fahey notes.
O’Fahey says that among Americans who pursue graduate-level African studies many of them do so only because they have had personal experiences, such as a stint in the Peace Corps, that have acquainted them with African peoples and cultures. He believes the publicity generated by ISITA and its work may be fruitful in helping Americans see the connection between Islam and sub-Saharan Africa. In recent years, the public television documentary series by Harvard’s Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., “Wonders of the African World,” and Dr. Ali Mazrui, “The Africans: A Triple Heritage Series,” have highlighted the Islamic heritage of sub-Saharan Africa.
A number of scholars in African American studies have examined the connection between Islam and the African slaves who were brought to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade. There are varying estimates, but scholars say that from 5 percent to 20 percent of the West Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims, and that many of them could read and write Arabic. A number of the American slave narratives preserved from the 18th and 19th centuries were written originally in Arabic, according to scholars.
African slaves, who attempted to keep their Islamic practices alive in the Americas, often came from the ranks of West Africa’s ruling class. Their religious and ethnic backgrounds could be traced to the Black Muslim empires of Mali and Ghana.

Exploring Race and Ethnicity
Some scholars interested in Black Africa’s Islamic legacy have found themselves drawn to exploring the interactions between Black Africans and fair-skinned North Africans and Middle Easterners over the centuries. Dr. Eve Powell, a history professor at the University of Georgia, says her specialization in the Middle East and North Africa grew out of her travels to Egypt after graduating from college and witnessing the interactions between dark-skinned Africans and light-skinned North Africans. The experience of seeing a dark-skinned friend from the Sudan harassed with racial slurs by Egyptians drove home the stark reality that the Islamic world had racial issues not unlike that of the United States.
“I came away from my experiences with an intellectual interest in race and ethnicity in North Africa and the Middle East,” says Powell, who is African American.
Since earning her doctorate in history, Powell has been researching and writing on Black slavery in the Middle East and colonial history in Egypt and the Sudan. Like any scholar who specializes in North Africa and the Middle East, Powell has had to master classical and modern Arabic. Though she doesn’t have an official affiliation with the African studies program at the University of Georgia, Powell hopes to draw undergraduates who take African studies courses into her courses so that they can learn about the connections between Black Africa and the Arab world. 
The willingness to write about race and ethnicity in the Middle East has generated some controversy between Powell and her colleagues in Middle Eastern studies, according to Powell. “I’ve gotten angry reactions from Arab scholars because they say I am wrongly imposing my view on race in my work,” she says.
Grinnell College’s Simawe says dialogue on race and slavery’s legacy in the Arab world has yet to flourish in the Middle East. “People don’t like to talk about (Muslim slavery). It’s the same here where Americans don’t like to talk about slavery in this country,” he says.
However, Simawe notes that in addition to scholars affiliated with American and European institutions North African scholars in Tunisia and Morocco have taken a highly active role in translating and interpreting Arabic language documents from sub-Saharan Africa. For his part, the Iraqi-born scholar, who has helped Hunwick translate Sudanic documents, is writing a book that compares the characterizations of Blacks in Arabic literature from the Middle East and Africa Sudan to characterizations of Blacks in American literature. As he sees it, the work of people, such as Hunwick, has inspired scholars like himself to cross cultural boundaries and interpret Africa with new insights.

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