The speech was given at the international scientific symposium organized by the Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema on the theme of “ The African Islamic Heritage: Memory and History” on 22-23-24 Rabi’ al-Awwal 1443 H, corresponding to 29-30-31 October 2021 in the Nigerian capital Abuja.
Africa south of the Sahara had been known to the Arab world before Islam, but more prominently after Islam was proclaimed in Arabia in the 7th C. Imam al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 204/820) in a poem refers to Takrūr, (Sudanic Africa) as a land flowing with gold. Yāqūt al-Hamawī (d. 626/1229) in his geographical dictionary gives a description of the ethnogenesis and location of the land and its people thus: “Takrur: a land belonging to a Sudanic tribal grouping, lying to the far southwest [of Sudanic Africa]; its people are more related to the black negroes”
التكرور:بلاد يُنسب الي قبيل من السودان في أقصي جنوب الغرب، وأهلها أشبه الناس بالزنوج.
(Takrūr: bilādun yunsab ilā qabīlin mina al-Sūdān fī aqṣā janūb al-gharb; wa-ahluhā ashbah al-nās bi-l-zunūj”- Mu‘jam al-buldān, 6 vols, Beirut: Dār Ṣādir, 1986, Vol 2/38).
A familiar trajectory in Euro-Arabocentric narratives on Sudanic Africa, wrongly designated as sub-Saharan Africa, range from outright denial of intellectual or historical legacy in prehistoric times to denigrating characteristics, even where evidence of availability abounds. Some prominent protagonists of the tendentious claim that Africa south of the Sahara had no documented history were Georg W. F. Hegel d. 1831  and Trevor-Roper 1969. The area is even portrayed as bereft of any tradition of literacy prior to colonialism (Olson and Torrance 2001), a false claim which found its most elaborate proponent in Jack Goody (d. 2015) who argued that the region was, until recently, “one of the main areas of the world where writing was totally absent” (Goody 2010: 122). This was far from the truth as can be established from Elizabeth C. Blackwell when she said: “.. . Islamic writers there [in Africa] were producing scholarly manuscripts while most of Europe was still stuck in the Middle Ages”.
Western writers on Vernacular Arabic (Ajami)
Writing at the beginning of the 20th century, Delafosse was, for the following reasons, very critical of Fulfulde-Hausa literatures that were written in the Arabic script:
- the absence of natural correspondence between a Semitic alphabet and non-Semitic sound systems.
- the difficulty of establishing a unified system of conventions where such a natural correspondence was lacking.
He goes further to say that the manuscripts of such materials were few, poor– in quality, and did not deserve the name of literature (Delafosse 1912, 1:377-80; Robinson 1982, 251).
Delafosse’s view on ajami literature, a value judgement as it were, is oblivious of the utilitarian importance of indigenous African literatures in general, and of the pedagogical and historical significance of native literatures written in modified Arabic script in particular. (Paden 1973). Delafosse was obviously oblivious, or rather dismissive of the fact that any script can of course be utilized to express any language insofar as there is no inevitable link between a language and the written form in which it is expressed (Macdonald 2009). Texts of “religious popularization” in Sudanic Africa which are intended to convey basic Islamic knowledge to those not literate in Arabic, texts and materials on theology, history, and panegyrics are known to have been written in local tongues using Arabic characters, the overwhelming use of the oral system of transmission notwithstanding. (Hunwick and Boye 2008; Hunwick 2003, 492). Moreover, the “Song of Bagauda”, the oldest source material on Kano rulers from the foundation of the city, assumed a more formal rendition once it was consigned into ajami, (Alagoa 1993) and this gave it a more permanent form. At the beginning of the 19th century, Cerno Samba Mombeiaa is reported to have used Fulfulde ajami in authoring religious literature (Salvaing 2004). Moreover, studies on local languages also drew on the ajami heritage. For example, Cerno Sadu Dalem [Sa‘d Ibrahim] from Futa Jalon (Guinea) wrote a versified grammar of Fulfulde in ajami, namely, Nahaw Fulfulde. (Robinson 1982, 252), and the popular chrestomathy on Arabic grammar, the Ajjrumiyya, was rendered into Hausa ajami and taught in the same medium accordingly (Hassane 2008 MoT, 117).
Arab writers on Sudanic Africa
Arab writers on Africa, too, have equally been less than interested, when not outrightly dismissive of Sudanic Africa, in accordance with any serious attention to Sudanic African efforts until very recently. We have, however, now begun to see the articulation of a new thinking which seems to locate North Africa more properly and correctly within the African continent rather than as an appendage of the Middle East, the MENA mentality in the West and among its cohorts. A leading protagonist of the new thinking about the Arabic North Africa being part of Africa proper is Helmi Sharawy in his Al-Thaqāfah wa-l-muthaqqafūn fī Afrīqiyah, (Culture and the Cultured People in Africa), Vol I, Africana Series, Cairo: Al-Hay’at al-Miṣriyyah al- ‘āmmah li-l-kitāb, 2016.
In any case, there is an abundant pool of evidence showing that Africa is indeed “the cradle of writing and literacy”. In support may be cited the Egyptian hieroglyphics, the over two-thousand-year-old Tuareg Tifnag script, and the ancient Ethiopic script of the Axumite kingdom all of which have indubitably confirmed that writing had a long root in Africa. Furthermore, the Transatlantic slave trade (1600s-1800s) as well as the Portuguese economic foray into the West coast of Africa from the 15thcentury onward have thrown some lights onto the historicity of writing and literacy among the West Africans. (Cf.French 2021). From existing records, it is obvious that long before European colonialism in Africa, some of the West African traders on the coast were already able to read and write in a “trade language”, a type of hybrid language with a large English vocabulary and local syntax. For instance, one of such traders, Antera Duke, a leading Calabar (Nigeria) merchant, is reported to have kept a diary about his trading and social activities toward the end of the eighteenth century, written entirely in this “trade language”. Captain John Adams, a British merchant and adventurer who made voyages to the west coast between 1786 and 1800, notes that the presence of European traders along the coast had stimulated a desire for literacy among the natives long before the missionaries began to arrive. But evidence of literacy was not limited to the natives in their ancestral homes; Africans sold into slavery exhibited a similar competence in various degrees. The most well-known representative is Olaudah Equiano, otherwise known as Gustavus Vass. Sold into slavery in the Americas but ending up in Britain, Equiano’s Narrative published in English in 1789 is an autobiography in which the author reminisces about his childhood and village life in Africa, aside from advocating for abolition of slavery. This goes to reinforce the argument that literacy was a familiar phenomenon in Sudanic Africa before the European colonialism of the 18th/19th centuries. William B. Hodgson, the US Consul to Tunisia in the late 19th century who had travelled in West Africa and studied its local languages in relation to Arabic said in 1844 that “The Koran has introduced its letters, where it has been adopted, as the Bible from Rome. . . Let not the humanizing influence of the Koran upon fetishes, greegrees.. . be depreciated’.
Nevertheless, literacies in non-Roman scripts, and indeed in African vernacular languages had never attracted any due recognition in the Euro-American historical narratives. Some early 19thC Western writers and authors introduced an ideology of contempt for African writings in non-Roman scripts, indeed declaring them.
In this essay, I shall examine the historicity of the writing tradition in Sudanic Africa from the 11th century, specifically in Nigeria, from the attested history of manuscript in the Arabic medium. Also, the use of manuscript materials in Arabic as sources of knowledge and counter-knowledge as well as individual and institutional efforts at preserving, conserving, cataloguing, and more recently, digitising them will be highlighted as not worthy of being considered as literature at all. I have discussed this tendency in detail elsewhere.
Crux of the Presentation
It is worth mentioning that the manuscript in Arabic heritage in the context of the African material and non-material cultural identity of Sudanic Africa deserves to be approached from three platforms. These are: manuscripts in Arabic as found in the African territory, materials in situ; those in the Western world, that is, in the Americans and Europe; and lastly, those in the Bilād al-Brāzīl, to borrow from Ogunnaike (2021). I will also provide some insights into the mass of materials related to the three platforms and what may have become of them or rather, what we need to do with them in the new dispensation of ‘new normals’ and the digital turn in the cultural economy.
The Western Narrative
John Rowlands (1841-1904 later John Stanley) titled his 1878 travelogue on Africa as: “Through the Dark Continent”. The large swathe of land below the Sahara has, in Eurocentric narratives, been described as the home of “backward peoples”. The Western mission civilisatrice “civilising mission” (15th-20th centuries) is often credited, inaccurately though, with bringing Africa to the cosmos of Enlightenment. Islam has a long history in Africa’s historical past. The first wave of migration in Islamic history was to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) between 615-616 CE. Africa has thus been connected to Islam and its literacy from the proclamation of the faith in the 7thC. Material and documentary pieces of evidence on the history of Islam here are to be found in Africa itself, essentially in epigraphic inscriptions and graffiti going back to over a millennium. For example, Paulo F. de Moraes Farias studied certain Arabic epigraphs and inscriptions from Mali which are datable to the period between 1013 and 1076 as an “early evidence for the history of Islam (emphasis added), and of writing in West Africa.” In fact, epigraphic writings continued for a long time as one of the earliest uses of Arabic, and this is further attested by Farias’s further illustrations from the 12th-15th centuries’ materials which were obtained from the eastern arc of the Niger bend. John Hunwick, quoting Farias, cites one of such items as found on the tombstone of one Abū ‘Abd Allāh b. ‘Abd Allāh b. Zaghi: “He died on Monday 1 Muḥarram at the beginning of the year 495/6 November 1100”.
Furthermore, Leo Africanus (c. 1494-1554 Ḥasan b. Muḥammad) noted in the 16th century that ‘it has been 900 years since Africans use Arabic characters’ (Delmas 2017). Epigraphic inscriptions from the 10th century Mali, manuscripts and designed amulets from the 12th century West Africa, the reported but lost 16thC written history of the Yoruba (Nigeria) in Yoruba language but in Arabic letters, local chronicles and bi-lingual documentation from the 16th century East African Kilwa sultanate and Portuguese commonwealth, all point in the direction of a cultured, well-organised, and progressive Sudanic African community south of the Sahara.
Literacy in the Arabic Tradition: The Atlantic World (18thC-)
In the Atlantic world, over 30% of slaves that were fetched into America between 1600 and 1800 were said to be Muslims and a considerable number of them were reported to have spoken and written Arabic (Diouf 1980). Nikolay Dobronravin (2014: 159-71.) shows how the Arabic script writing system in the Atlantic world betrays a hybrid or rather an amalgam of many languages, namely, Arabic, Eastern Fula, Mandinka, English/English based Caribbean Creole, and Hausa, thus illustrating the cosmopolitan nature of the West African literate commune outside the region. (Cf. Donaldson 2020). This should provoke a greater interest among avid explorers into the intellectual and literary practice of diasporic Sudanic Africans writing under the Arabic-Islamic influence. It is intriguing to note that evidence of the use and learning of ajami by folk healers and power accession vendors and diviners, regardless of religious affiliation has been reported, not only in the Atlantic world but also in the African Portuguese commonwealth, for instance in Madagascar where materials on divination have been documented in the Fallou-Ngom Boston Ms collection (Cf. Kananoja 2021).
African-Islamic Documentary Heritage in America
Omar Ibn Sai‘d (c. 1770-1864) remains the most celebrated example of African authors in Arabic during the slave trade longue durée. In his self-narrative, Omar indicated that he was 37 years old (1807?) when “infidels” (slave merchants) attacked his village, slaughtered many people and dragged him away to a slave ship that carried him across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship landed in Charleston, the nation’s busiest slave port. During the 56 years of captivity that followed, Omar wrote at least 15 surviving texts in Arabic, although nobody around him could read them. These include letters, Muslim and Christian verses, and the only known surviving autobiography written in formal Arabic by any enslaved African in America. Given that at least one in every five African captives brought to the U.S. was a Muslim, and perhaps a literate one at that, the rarity of such texts presupposes a great loss of an intellectual bequest searching for which may not after all be uneventful.
Despite its historical importance, relatively few Americans have read Omar’s autobiography. The Library of Congress is reported to have bought it in 2017, digitized its pages and shared it with the world. There might be more of Omar Said, and indeed works by enslaved or freed Africans in the USA and dependent enclaves, lurking in public libraries, personal ‘archives’ etc. The recent historic effort by Jeffrey Einboden (2020) in which are exhibited some never-before-published Arabic writings by enslaved Africans may be a strong indicator towards a potential treasure trove awaiting discovery.
Thematic and Stylistics of Sudanic African Writings
The 11thC Almoravid incursion into West Africa marked the beginning of a continual Maghrebi-Andalusian-Sudanic African documentary literate tradition, a tradition which has found an eloquent articulation and illustration in what I have characterised as the “Hunwick phenomenon” in a separate study. namely, the monumental Arabic Literature of Africa series. (Sanni 2014, 2016. “Imagining John Hunwick through his ‘Valedictory’ Lecture and the Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA) Series”. What was initially proposed to be a single volume has so far generated some 5 volumes (1993-2016) and the project seems to be far from being over.
Vol 1. 1993- The Writings of Eastern Sudanic Africa to c. 1900, xv, 434pp.
Vol 2. 1995- The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa, xxvi, 732pp. (5 contributors)
Vol 3. 2002- The Writings of the Muslim Peoples of Northeastern Africa, xxii, 174pp.
Vol 4. 2003- The Writings of the Western Sudanic Africa, xxiv, 814pp. (5 assistants)
Vol 5. 2016- The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara, lx, 2054pp. (Charles Stewart and 5 assistants).
Total pages of the published volumes: 4355.
The volume on the East African Arabic Islamic heritage is still being awaited by 2022 or thereabout, according to the optimistic expression by Anne K. Bang in a recent private conversation. A translation of the entire series into Arabic, French, and German may be a useful and promotional idea in modern scholarship.
Whereas works by Sudanic African writers can be classified into the ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’, evidence of distinction between the two can be tenuous. Nevertheless, some differences in terms of thematic spectrum, styles, and targeted audiences are still demonstrable. Furthermore, manuscripts in Arabic exhibit particular idiosyncrasies at regional and personal levels. A number of writing styles are also identifiable in the West African Arabic script tradition. Thus we have the Sūdānī. Maghribī, Sūqī, Ṣaḥrāwī, Barnāwī, Kanāwī, Yurbāwī, Oriental naskhī, among others (See Brigaglia & Nobili 2013). Moreover, institutional and private domestication of manuscript collections has engendered issues in preservation, access, digitization (recently codicology, too), and appropriation of manuscript materials as sources of knowledge, counter-knowledge and decolonization.
Efforts at Cataloguing, Preservation, Digitisation
In a separate study, I discussed in some detail the historic efforts at preparing title lists and catalogues of the Nigerian manuscript holdings and the problems associated with the enterprise since the first half of the last century. (Sanni 2014). It is unfortunate that some of the brilliant and conscientious efforts at salvaging the Nigerian manuscript heritage in the last few years have failed to achieve the declared objectives. The Arewa House initiatives from 2007 to 2010 were inspired and encouraged by the American Embassy (specifically the Ambassador) in Nigeria with the active support of the Ford Foundation. I was put in charge of the digitization aspect of the Arewa Manuscript Project of which, as far as I can tell, nothing has come to my notice as having been done in this regard. But two major publications have amended by 2010 from the national and international conferences organised in support of the project. I think, this is where we need to take off in order to ensure that the current effort by the Muhammad VI Foundation and its Nigerian partners does not become another “Talk Show”. This is very important in view of the fact that similar efforts elsewhere have in fact made significant impacts not only in the African context but globally. For example, the Senegalese Fallou Ngom-led team undertook a project focusing on the writings and archives of Mandinka scholars of Casamance, Senegal. It was funded by the British Library. Fallou Ngom’s team digitized a little over 18,000 pages of Arabic, Arabic-Ajami bilingual texts, and Mandinka Ajami materials covering a variety of religious and non-religious subjects.
Current state of Nigerian Mss
A graphic description of the state of affairs in both the public and private manuscript depositories in Nigeria is best captured by the following:
Presently, over one thousand titles of Arabic manuscripts on microfilm, most of which are duplicates of the original copies in the [University of Ibadan] library is COMPLETELY DAMAGED [emphasis mine], and none of the microfilm readers there is functioning. . . while few of the manuscripts [at the Centre for Arabic Documentation] are damaged, some are at the advanced stage of deterioration.” (Jimoh 2007: 8-9. Cf. Alegbeleye 2009, 2007).
Yet another evaluation of the situation from the northern part of the country is the one given below by the late Professor A. A. Gwandu when he said:
You cannot imagine my grief when, in the course of an assignment in… Salame sometime in February 2008, we found a number of files containing valuable manuscripts but on inspection we discovered that many of the manuscripts had been rendered illegible by insects and damp [sic]. Some sheets of the manuscripts got glued to others in a way [that] it was not possible to separate them. The damp completely obliterated the writing in many places, while whole manuscripts were rotten. (Gwandu 2009; Cf. Biddle 2008: 11).
The existing manuscript holdings are under threat and an as yet unknown number of manuscripts remains undiscovered and uncatalogued. All these stand a greater danger of total extinction. I have personally come across some private collections from Epe town (Lagos State, Nigeria), and it is hoped that some cataloguing and digitisation may be done in future in respect of these and others. In other words, the advantages afforded by the new resources of digitization and e-books can hardly be fully appropriated by our local researchers and explorers in the production and utilisation of knowledge in which manuscripts and archival resources are key components, at least in our local environments. The main objective of digitization in Africa as elsewhere is to preserve materials and make them lastingly accessible to a larger community of users not only in Africa, but across the globe. (Cf. Asogwa 2011). But given the fundamental obstacles with which we still contend here, whatever modest progress made in this enterprise is hardly sustainable and is likely to be frittered away soonest.
From the foregoing, it can be argued that the future of African studies in the context of new media technological facilities and techniques lies in extending a hand of fellowship to African researchers in the form of human and institutional capacity building in the model of the post-World War II Marshall plan. First, there is the need to address infrastructural decay and inadequate logistic and technical facilities in most African public libraries, archives, and manuscript depositories. Digitization culture has now been widely accepted as highly desirable in the Arabic manuscript enterprise, and a confirmation of this is best expressed in the following:
In fact, complete digitization and indeed database catalogues not only allow for studying specific manuscripts or copies of specific work online, it becomes a desideratum when fragments of a formerly complete manuscript are spread over several locations.” (Brinkmann & Wiesmȕller 2009: 25. Cf. Smith 1999; MATRIX 2001).
The surviving copies of the rare Nigerian Arabic manuscripts in North-western University (USA), and Bayreuth (Germany) to mention two of the most important repositories in the West stand a better chance of being digitized, given the facilities available over there, and the commitment and passion of those who were responsible for getting them into those foreign homes in the first place. But providing digitizing instruments would still have to be backed up with “working” accessories, aside from sustainable training and maintenance facilities. I mentioned a while ago about the need in language training for i-interactors with Arabic manuscripts. A relevant insight can be appropriated from the tradition in pre-Modern Europe. Many primary and secondary sources prior to the eighteenth century were written in Latin as demonstrable with the archives of the Registers of Merton College, University of Oxford, hence Latin was compulsory in archive training courses in the United Kingdom. The situation is somewhat different today; fewer and fewer historians and archivists are educated in classical languages. (Cf. Feingold 2010).
The oldest university in Nigeria had just one functional scanner in 2014 to service the Central Library which anyway has no senior official or expert in Arabic manuscript. It is therefore understandable that Arabic manuscript materials may never elicit any significant attention in the digitisation scheme, as ‘comprehensible’ materials in the Latin script are likely to be the ones in the front burner of the scheme. Incidentally, of the few textual holdings so far digitized here is the first PhD thesis by an African, N.A. Fadipe’s, The Sociology of the Yoruba, a work completed in 1939 at the University of London. (It has been published by Francis Olu Okedeji & Oladejo O. Okedeji (Ibadan, Ibadan Univ. Press: 1970). The work was digitized in 2011 along with some historical missives by local missionaries, for example, the ones by Rev. Akinyele, and the diary of Ransome-Kuti.
Indexing and cataloguing of existing manuscript materials remain a key requirement in the onerous task of preserving and conserving textual and archival heritage materials in Sudanic Africa. Incidentally, some of these are still in wooden slates, parchments, and local utensils. The case with Arabic manuscripts is even more problematic, but luckily enough there is at the moment a thriving initiative for cataloguing Arabic manuscripts in Italy. Moreover, there is the need for training of local conservators, archivists, and librarians, not only in new techniques and procedures, but also in Arabic language. Language competency has significantly been helpful for local i-interactors in Timbuktu, but this will need to be replicated in other West African communities in a more sustained manner. The creation of a database for the West African manuscript heritage will doubtless provide a one-stop access to narratives on efforts by various institutions and individuals in Europe, America, the Arab world and Africa.
These can be itemised as follows:
- Creation of national and regional catalogues of available manuscripts at local, regional, and continental level, preferably through a digital networking project.
- Complete Translation of Hunwick’s Arabic Literature of Africa series into Arabic.
- Establishment of King Mohammed VI Arabic Manuscript study and research Centre at Fountain University, Osogbo, a project for which the University has offered land among other facilities.
- Institution of a Recovery Plan for manuscript repositories, for example, Centre for Arabic Documentation at the University of Ibadan Institute of African Studies. Most of the classical manuscript and rare items here have been destroyed. Whatever remains needs to be salvaged and made available online for purposes of research, study, and knowledge generation.
- Enhancement of curriculum in manuscriptology at universities and training of personnel in all technical aspects of manuscript phenomenon, including repair, preservation, conservation, and digitisation, among others, Professor Michaele Biddle of the Wesleyan University Library Middletown, CT. U.S.A will be helpful in this regard.
- Institution of a Technical Committee on Arabic manuscript materials by African authors in the diaspora, that is, in Bilad Brazil and the USA.
- Partnership with Universities and Research Centres, for example, Bayreuth, University-Germany, Northwestern University, Boston University, the British Library, among others in respect of original African Arabic manuscripts that have found their way to those centres.
- Establishment of a scientific journal/newsletter and academic and practical seminars, workshops, and training.
In this presentation, I have tried to show that Africa was not after all a “Dark Continent”l; it had demonstrated a millennium-long tradition of literacy and scholarship which even predated the European 18th century Enlightenment (1715-1789). The manuscript tradition in Sudanic Africa has revealed the level of African intellectual sophistication, artistry, and the richness of the written materials in formal Arabic and in the local languages using the resource of the Arabic alphabet. I have also made some references, perhaps, en passant, to the various public and private repositories (Sanni 2014; 2018) and the recurring problems of failure to follow up on concrete initiatives over the last decade, from the Arewa House (Kaduna-Nigeria) 2007 American Embassy/Ford Foundation intervention to the Institute of African Studies Centre for Arabic Documentation (University of Ibadan) 2012-2021 workshops and Round-table programmes all of which were geared towards salvaging the dying Arabic manuscript holding of the oldest University in Nigeria. It is ironic that I have been involved in all the enterprises at the top level but the system has not favoured a conscientious implementation of many of the plans put in place. It is to be hoped that the current Pan-African effort spearheaded by the MOHAMMED VI FOUNDATION OF AFRICAN OULEMA which draws on the goodwill and commitment of several African scholars with attested track record of cutting-edge impactful scholarship and contribution to knowledge will make a lasting and sustainable difference this time around in the interest of our collective survival, identity and intellectual profile for the next generation, and indeed for the world.
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