On Wednesday 6th March 2013,
Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation organised a public lecture titled “The
Manuscripts of Timbuktu and Islamic Writing in West Africa: from the veneration
of objects to the object of their veneration”, delivered by Charles Stewart,
Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
and a Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University’s Institute for the Study of
Islamic Thought in Africa.
After the reception and the
opening words, Mr. Sharaf Yamani, member of the Al-Furqān Board of Directors,
gave a short brief on “The African Manuscripts and Al-Furqān’s Work in This
Field”. He highlighted the fact that Al-Furqān has so far published 16 catalogues
in 33 volumes, recording approximately 30,215 Islamic manuscripts in Africa.
Also, the Foundation has organised 3 training courses on cataloguing and 3
training courses on editing, aimed at young scholars, university graduates and
librarians from different African countries who have not been specifically
trained in handling and editing manuscripts.
Mr Sharaf Yamani, member of Board of Directors highlighted the fact that Al-Furqan has published so far 16 catalogues in 33 volumes in Africa alone.
The keynote speaker at this
public event was Professor Charles Stewart, professor emeritus of history at
the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a visiting scholar at
Northwestern University’s Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa.
His lecture on “The Manuscripts of Timbuktu and Islamic Writing in West Africa;
from the veneration of objects to the object of their veneration” was very well
received. He gave an insightful view on the long tradition of Islamic learning
and writing in West Africa that is subsumed (and sometimes lost) in the fabled
name of the northern Malian city, Timbuktu, as well as the much larger
manuscript repositories of this literary tradition in Mauritania, and the
equally-important collections in Niger and Nigeria. According to him, these
many manuscript collections, separated by multiple national borders, represent
a single Islamic scholarly heritage (that is, in part, linked to Timbuktu). By
examining the most commonly-found teaching texts found in manuscript
collections across West Africa, he concluded that there is a ‹core curriculum›
and a homogeneous Islamic scholarship across that region, based, on a common
set of classical authorities used during the last 300 years. The outlines of an
autonomous West African body of scholarship emerged in the 19th century. What
was taught there and commented upon varied little from contemporary teaching in
Fes or Cairo. The “Timbuktu manuscripts” valuable as they are as artifacts of
pre-19th century scholarship, are not nearly as significant as is the
peripheral information they contain or that accompanies them, collateral to the
scholarly texts, that tell us about the special interests of their writers,
their legal reasoning, and their literary compositions.
Professor Charles Stewart gave an insightful view on the long tradition of Islamic learning and writing in West Africa
At the end of his lecture,
Professor Stewart gave some information on how and in what way our efforts to
preserve the legacy of that literary tradition can best be accomplished:
- First, there remain a large
number of small, private libraries, scattered across the Sahel, that ought to
- Second, collections need to be
digitised to preserve them from unforeseen dangers, and the digitised
collections need to be made ‘open-access’ and easily accessible online.
- Third, a union catalogue of
manuscripts with electronic links to digital copies would be an important step.
- Finally, this West African
manuscript culture needs to be tied into other, North African and Middle
Eastern manuscript data bases. Only by doing this will the unique be
distinguishable from the ordinary, and the original be appreciated for the
genius it represents.
According to Professor Stewart,
this is the formula for moving from venerating these manuscripts as objects, to
understanding the reasons for, or the object of their veneration.
Part of the audience
* Charles Stewart is Professor
Emeritus of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a
Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University›s Institute for the Study of
Islamic Thought in Africa. Professor Stewart has written widely on Islam in
West Africa in the 18th through 20th centuries. He is the author of Islam and
Social Order in Mauritania: A Case Study from the Nineteenth Century and the founder
of the Arabic Manuscript Management System, a bilingual database of over 20,000
Arabic manuscripts from West Africa.