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Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa

Beyond Timbuktu
  • Book Title:
 Beyond Timbuktu
  • Book Author:
Ousmane Oumar Kane
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If the University of Sankore had not been destroyed; if Professor Ahmad Baba, author of forty historical works, had not had his works and his university destroyed; if the University of Sankore as it was in 1591 had survived the ravages of foreign invasions; the academic and cultural history of Africa might have been different from what it is today.

In 1960, Senegal formally became independent from French colonial rule. As a young child, I have a vivid memory of people marching in the streets of Dakar chanting “Independence! Independence!”2 with the strong conviction that independence would be the solution to all their problems.

As opined by Ghana’s first president—“Seek ye first the political Kingdom, and all things shall be added unto you”3—the end of foreign rule created high expectations among the people that they not only would recover their dignity as citizens of an independent country but also that such political autonomy would usher in a bright future, a future of prosperity.

Another slogan I heard time and again when I was growing up was “Development!” Although many African countries possessed rich natural reserves and / or arable lands, they lagged behind in most indicators of development. Life expectancy was low, child and maternal mortality high, illiteracy appalling. The little health and educational infrastructure that was available was concentrated in a few urban areas and particularly in capital cities.

Rural areas, where more than 80 percent of the population lived, provided the bulk of the income of these countries, yet the development policies devised during and immediately after colonialism favored urban populations.

The elites that inherited the apparatus of the state from colonialism were educated in Western languages—in the case of Senegal, in French. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the first president of independent Senegal, had received the degree of aggrégation in French grammar in France. His knowledge of the French language was so outstanding that, after retiring from office in 1980, he was elected to the elite Académie française.

During colonial rule, many African Muslims resisted Western education because they feared—and rightly so—that it would acculturate their children to Western values and alienate them from much-cherished Islamic and African traditional values. Yet many others saw the tangible benefits of Western education and sent their children to the post-colonial modern schools.

Although quite a few French people were brought to the former colonies from France to staff the administration of the newly independent state, independence also allowed for the first time the appointment of Western-educated Africans to senior levels of administration of the state and the economy.

Like most African countries, Senegal had adopted state-led industrialization as a development policy and had created new industries, their management composed of Western-educated Senegalese. Given the linguistic pluralism of most coun- tries, imposing one African language as official could potentially frustrate other linguistic groups and fuel ethnic irredentism, so French was adopted as the language of the administration. The national radio broadcast essentially in French.

 The only newspaper of the country, Dakar Matin, was published entirely in French. Speaking French was a mark of distinction and education. Although the overwhelming majority of the Senegalese spoke no French, political leaders nonetheless typically addressed the country in French.

It therefore made sense for parents who wished to see their children achieve social mobility to enroll them in the very few schools that offered education in the French language. Named after the French statesman Georges Benjamin Clemenceau (1841–1929), the École Clemenceau was one such school, and the one to which I first went in October 1961. Like most kids, I woke up early in the morning and put on my new clothes and new shoes, excited to go to school. To enroll in school in those days, all a parent needed to do was show their child’s birth certificate. My mother and I queued to enroll. What a disappoint- ment when we were told that because I was only six, I was a year too young to enroll!

Yet this was not enough to discourage us. We spent most of the day begging the school principal to make an exception for me. At the time, a French couple—Monsieur Poisson, the school principal, and his wife and assistant, Madame Poisson—administered the school. By midday, virtually all non admitted kids had left. Tired of seeing me cry, Madam Poisson compassionately took my hand from my mother and asked me to say, “Merci, Madam Poisson.”

Although I spoke no French at all, I understood that she wanted me to thank her, and acquiesced. Madame Poisson took me to the class where the master was a Senegalese, Mr. Diagana. I was enrolled in the first of six grades in the primary school system. This was the beginning of a childhood with very little leisure and free time.

Three years earlier, when I barely knew how to speak in Wolof, my mother tongue, I had been enrolled in a school to learn Arabic and the Qur’an. As it turned out, the school had no classroom. Schooling took place in the yard of our family house in Dakar, and the teacher was none other than my own mother. Part of a clerical Muslim family, my mother started her own school as soon as she got married to my father and settled in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, in 1951. Between 1959 and 1961, I attended the Qur’anic school exclusively.

It operated five days a week; Wednesday afternoons, all day Thursday, and Friday mornings were times of rest. Thus, after I enrolled in the Clemenceau School in 1961, I had to commit to two systems of education. The French school was important because it led to the award of a degree and recognition, and the Qur’anic school because it shaped its students’ sense of belonging to a Muslim personality.

Like my siblings, I pursued Islamic and Western education simultaneously. I woke up around 6 a.m. to perform the first of the five daily Muslim prayers and then to study a set of verses of the Qur’an at home; at 7:45 a.m. it was time to walk to École Clemenceau. At noon, the beginning of the break at Clemenceau, I returned home to resume Qur’anic studies and have a brief lunch. At 2.45 p.m. it was time to walk back to Clemenceau. The school day at Clemenceau ended at 5 p.m. But at 5:15 p.m., when I arrived home from Clemenceau, I would right away resume Qur’anic studies until the Muslim prayer of the Maghreb, or sunset, around 7 p.m.

Right after the prayer, I would do my public school home- work with the help of my older siblings. I would have a short fifteen-minute break for dinner and would go to bed between 10 and 11 p.m. after completing my homework. On Saturdays and Sundays and during the other school holidays such as Christmas and Easter (two weeks each), and over summer break (three months), I studied the Qur’an full time.

When did I rest? Only at night! There was no other time to rest. My greatest childhood regret is never having learned to play soccer, a very popular sport in urban Senegal in the 1960s. There were the few well-designed stadiums for professional soccer, but kids of my and subsequent generations improvised soccer fields in most neighborhoods. When they returned from school around 5 p.m., most would join their team in playing soccer. Good players had fans.

Neither I nor any of my siblings ever had the time to learn how to play soccer, but we have all learned the Qur’an. Adults in my family taught us that learning soccer was the fastest way to perdition. They disparaged leisure and rest. One had to choose as a young person between the path of suffering and privation and therefore being successful in this world and the next and having leisure, knowing how to play soccer, and consequently failing in life.

I spent most summer vacations ( July, August, and September) in Madina Kaolack, 192 kilometers from Dakar, where my mother’s family resided. But once there, it was business as usual, meaning continued Qur’anic studies. In my mother’s family, men and women were educated in Arabic and Islamic studies. According to his biographer, Ruediger Seeseman, my maternal grandfather, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (1900–1975), “can be counted among the most influen- tial and versatile Sufi authors of the twentieth century.”4 His followers num- bered in the millions and lived in areas from Senegal, as far west as one can get in Africa, to the Republic of Sudan in East Africa.

Historian Mervyn Hiskett argued further that there is little doubt that Shaykh Niasse headed the single largest Muslim organization in West Africa by the end of European colonial rule.5 More recent research on Niasse’s community reveals that it has been expanding significantly in the past fifty years.6

Shaykh Ibrahim was taught in Senegal by his father, Abdoulaye Niasse (d. 1922), another central Muslim figure of late nineteenth and early twentieth- century Senegal. Unlike their father, who received his entire education in Senegal, many sons and disciples of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse, after completing their traditional Islamic education in their home country, received higher education leading to the granting of formal degrees in North Africa and the Middle East.

The majority of them graduated from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, but many studied in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, the Sudan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

All my mother’s sisters received Islamic education. Quite a few were mar- ried to disciples of my grandfather, men who were based in various countries of West Africa, though the majority were Arab-Berbers from Mauritania; Hausa, Fulani, or Yoruba from Nigeria; Zarma from Niger; or Bambara from Mali. Madina Kaolack, the city founded by my grandfather in the late 1920s, is the spiritual capital of Jama‘at al-Fayda al-Tijaniyya (The Community of Grace), the revivalist movement within the Tijaniyya that he initiated.

During his life- time, thousands of people from all over West Africa visited to study Arabic and Islam or to receive spiritual initiation and to seek blessing. Among his disciples, intermarriage was very frequent, particularly between Arab-Berbers and other African groups. As a result, I have cousins, nephews, and nieces in most West African countries.

Madina Kaolack is a microcosm of West African integra- tion, which tells a different story of ethnic and racial politics than does the dominant academic discourse of an ethnically and racially fragmented West Africa. The glue holding these different communities together was of course the faith in Islam and in the Tijaniyya tariqa founded by Shaykh Ahmed al-Tijani (1735–1815). My grandfather claimed and was believed by all these people to be the spiritual heir of Al-Tijani.

It was not just in Kaolack that I experienced West African cosmopolitanism. Many members of my grandfather’s large spiritual community that visited Senegal stayed at our huge family house that accommodated dozens of people, in Dakar where the only airport close to Madina Kaolack was located. Often, non-Senegalese guests and temporary residents in our house outnumbered family members. On the one hand, this meant that I grew up navigating easily between ethnic, racial, cultural, and epistemological boundaries.

 On the other hand, I heard time and again in school or read in books the narrative of Arabs enslaving and looking down upon blacks, of Africa being torn by ethnic war- fare, and of the civilizing impact of Western colonialism, which introduced literacy to hitherto exclusively oral African societies. This colonial narrative contrasted with what I experienced in everyday life. Growing up, I often heard stories about my ancestors and the many clerical communities they created in central Senegal.

 In the many religious lectures and festivals that I attended— not just in Senegal but also in other West African countries—I heard testimo- nies of their erudition and also the devotional poetry that they wrote and that was chanted by the masses of disciples during the religious festivals organized throughout the year. Yet most of my Western-educated schoolmates believed more narrowly that literacy meant literacy in European languages.

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, the Church Missionary Society created the Fourah Bay College in 1827 as the first college to offer instruction in a European language in West Africa. At that time, several Islamic centers of higher learning already existed in West Africa. One of the oldest is Sankoré, which had been in Timbuktu since the fourteenth century.

Sankoré compared favorably with the best centers of Islamic learning in the Muslim world in the sixteenth century and attracted students and scholars from West Africa, the Maghreb, and beyond.7 The rise of spiritual and intellectual centers such as Sankoré rested largely on the economic prosperity of the Niger Bend region.

Though Mali is today one of the poorest countries on earth, the predecessor empire whose name it adopted was a global supplier of gold. When Sankoré was established two centuries after the creation of Timbuktu, an estimated two-thirds of the world’s gold came from West Africa, a large part of which passed through Timbuktu.8 I hasten to add that historians are unsure of exactly how much gold was exported from sub-Saharan Africa to the north. According to the best estimates, it was slightly above one ton a year between the ninth and fifteenth centuries.9

But, as Ralph Austen notes, although this may look insignificant compared with the amount of gold produced with the support of modern extracting technologies, medieval mining techniques limited the quantity of gold that could be obtained anywhere in the world, and limited geographical knowledge kept the gold of the New World outside global markets.10

The emergence of the Portuguese as a naval power and the discovery of gold in the Americas somewhat shifted the center of gravity of regional trade and led to a reduction in Timbuktu’s prominence over the course of the sixteenth century, but Timbuktu remained an important regional commercial and intel- lectual  hub  until  the  Moroccan  invasion, which  precipitated  the  decline  of Songhay.

The Moroccan expeditionary force was composed of Spanish, Arab, and Berber soldiers called Arma, from the Arabic word rumat, or musketeers. Subsequently, the Arma  settled  in  the  region, declared  their  independence from the Saadian monarchy, and intermarried with the local elites. The 1591 expedition precipitated the collapse of the last and most prosperous and pow- erful medieval West African state, undermining its economic prosperity, which supported a vibrant intellectual life.

 This in turn led to the decline of intellec- tual centers that had flourished in West Africa prior to the invasion, including Timbuktu in the sixteenth century.11  Moroccan vassal rule did not last long in the Songhay state. Though the Arma expeditionary force quickly declared its  independence  from  the  Saadian  dynasty,  relations  between  Muslims  in North  and  West  Africa  survived  Arma  secession  and  indeed  persist  in  the twenty-first century.

Throughout the second millennium, black Africans, Berbers, and Arabs maintained close contacts. As shown by the Moroccan invasion lamented by Nkrumah in his Flower of Learning address cited above, and the no-less- infamous Oriental slave trade, their relations at times have been violent. But as shown by my own family history, they have also been mutually beneficial through intermarriage, trade, diplomacy, and above all spiritual and intellectual exchange.12 Yet those intellectual exchanges so far have been the least studied aspect of North African / sub-Saharan relations, due to the ways the Western academy has invented and studied Africa.

Western universities nowadays typically divide academic study of Africa so that North Africa (Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Egypt) falls within the realm of Middle Eastern studies, whereas the area south of the Sahara, considered Africa proper, is studied within the field of African studies. Such a division and its underlying assumptions overlook the fact that the Arabic language, as the language of Islamic learning and liturgy, was the glue holding together large populations of the Maghreb, the Sahara, and sub-Saharan Africa.

During the second millennium, the Arabic language played a transformative role in West African history. Some Islamized people in the Sahara gradu- ally deserted their linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identities to claim exclusive Arab identities. Others have retained their African languages but have used the Arabic script to transcribe them, to compose scholarly treatises, to chronicle history, and to write poetry. Arabic as a linguistic vehicle of knowledge trans- mission was as important in the history of Muslim peoples as Latin was in Europe. Non-Arabs wrote much of what was written in Arabic in the formative period of Islamic civilization (eighth to fifteenth centuries).13

 As more people converted to Islam in subsequent centuries, Arabic became a language of learning for even more people, including in West Africa. Arabic (and to a lesser extent Ajami, African languages transcribed with the Arabic script) was a major medium of instruction for Muslims until the rise of Western hegemony.

By the eighteenth century, several clerical communities flourished in West Africa. We know this not just from the Arabic sources, but also from testimonies of European travelers.

The governor of Senegal, Baron Roger, wrote that there were in Senegal “more negroes who could read and write in Arabic in 1828 than French peasants who could read and write French.”14 Francis Moore, an employee of the Royal African Company of England, a chartered company established in England and active in Senegambia, wrote in his travel narratives that in “every Kingdom and Country on each side of the River of Gambia,” Pulaar-speaking communities spoke Arabic and that they were “generally more learned in the Arabick, than the people of Europe are in Latin, for they can most of them speak it, tho’ they have a vulgar tongue besides, call’d Pholey.”15

Several other explorers before and after Moore, including Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century, Leo Africanus in the fifteenth century, the European explorer Mungo Park in the eighteenth century, and others in the nineteenth century testified to Islamic erudition in West Africa long before the colonial scramble of the late nine- teenth century. The French explorer René Caillié, who visited Timbuktu in the early nineteenth century, stated that “all the negroes of Timbuktu are able to read the Qur’an and even know it by heart.”16

Timbuktu was conquered by the French three centuries after the Moroccan invasion of 1591. European colonial rule paved the way for the spread of modern colleges in West Africa. In the late nineteenth century, Fourah Bay College was one such island of Western higher education in an ocean of Arabic-speaking colleges in West Africa. In the late twentieth century, the impact of European colonialism had reversed this, and French, English, and Portuguese had become the official languages of schooling and administration in the whole of West Africa.

 Of the hundreds of modern colleges and universities created in West Africa at the beginning of the second decade of the twenty-first century, less than 5 percent offer instruction in Arabic,17 and the oldest among them is the Université islamique de Say (Islamic University of Say), inaugurated in Niger in 1987. Between the building of the mosque / college of Sankoré in the fourteenth century and the inauguration of the Université islamique de Say in 1987, higher Islamic studies waxed and waned in West Africa, but the Arabic lan- guage itself has remained central to the social and intellectual life of Muslim communities.

By 2009, Arabic had become the language in which 241 million Muslims said their daily prayers in sub-Saharan Africa, and they represent fifteen percent of the global Muslim population.18 They share this language and many aspects of Islamicate culture with North Africa. However, as a language of administration and scholarly production, Arabic had been displaced by the rise to prominence of intellectuals educated in European languages. Philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah called these the “Europhone” intellectuals.19

 Through education in the colonial language, colonialism produced the intellectual ingredients through which colonial subjects educated in European languages under- stood their own universe.

In 1912, French scholar and colonial administrator Maurice Delafosse pro- duced a magisterial socio-anthropological work on the French colony of Upper Senegal and Niger that had been created in 1904. This book provided a detailed historical ethnography of the people, cultures, and religions of what would become a central part of Francophone Africa. Following the steps of Delafosse, colonial scholars in charge of Muslim affairs wrote abundantly about Muslim communities. The most prolific of them was Paul Marty, director of the Office of Muslim Affairs, who authored six studies on Islam and Muslims totaling thousands of pages.20 Colonial writings produced analytical categories to make sense of the social organization of the people.

 Borrowing from French social theorist Michel Foucault, Congolese philosopher Valentin Mudimbe called this documentary field “the colonial library”21—that is, a body of writing by colonial scholars that creates a system of representation of African societies.

This colonial library produced an intellectual framework to make sense of Africa, and that framework informed writings in European languages about Africa, including some by Africans. Linguistic dependence implied for African intellectuals writing in a Western language the adoption of Western analytical categories and thus an epistemological dependence on the colonial library.

As more and more Africans and others wrote in European languages, the library expanded. According to Mudimbe, the “expanded library” operates in the same Western epistemological order as the colonial library that provided its concep- tual categories.

Yet Mudimbe tells only one part of the complex story of higher learning in West Africa. Throughout the post-colonial period, debates on the production of knowledge in and about Africa in English and French were conducted with little mention of Sankoré and similar centers of learning. As I will show in this book, the breadth and depth of this intellectual tradition and its vitality and versatility are still something of which very few Europhone intellectuals, both African and Western, are aware.

The history of African literacy did not begin with the colonial encounter. A discussion of the African library or intellectual history does little justice to the vibrant intellectual life between the formation of Sankoré and the creation of the Fourah Bay College if it begins with the colonial period. The dominant epistemological framework of this long period could not possibly have been Western for the simple reason that the West or modern civilization did not yet exist or was still in its infancy when the Islamic scholarly tradition was already flourishing in West Africa.

“The West” or “modern civilization,” as Hall and others note, refers to a civilization built on the ruins of feudal Europe. Its formation involved several interrelated processes that affected the economy, politics, society, and culture over several centuries. But it was during the nineteenth century that it attained the maturity and the technological supremacy that enabled Europeans to dominate the whole world.22 Europe is just one of the many regions of the world.

Yet it has been central in the geographic representation of the world as shown by the Mercator projection, a cylindrical and thus distorted mapping of the world, and as omnipresent in the historical reconstructions in European languages of the other parts of the world.

To fully appreciate the African library in the longue durée, I propose to turn the discussion of the African library on its head and start with Sankoré as a paradigm for knowledge production and transmission. Then I will address how only much later the rise of colonial hege- mony displaced this paradigm and placed Europhone intellectuals at the center of West African public life.

The Precolonial Paradigm of Knowledge Transmission in West Africa

Islamic education in West Africa started at the beginning of Islamization during the first millennium. Among the eyewitness accounts of this scholarly tradition is, notably, the globetrotter Ibn Battuta, who wrote the following about the people of Mali a century after the creation of Sankoré:

They are very zealous in their attempts to learn the holy Qur’an by heart. In the event that their children are negligent in this respect, fetters are placed on the children’s feet and are left until the children can recite the Qur’an from memory. On a holiday, I went to see the judge, and seeing his children in chains, I asked him, “Aren’t you going to let them go”? He answered, “I won’t let them go until they know the Qur’an by heart.” Another day I passed a young Negro with a handsome face who was wearing superb [clothes] . . . and carrying a heavy chain around his feet. I asked the person who was with me, “What did that boy do? Did he murder someone?”

 The young negro heard my question and began to laugh. My colleague told me, “he has been chained up only to force him to commit the Qur’an to memory.”23

An important element of Sankoré epistemology that transpires from this testimony is the centrality of memorization of the Qur’an, if necessary through harsh punishment inflicted on the body. Memorization was valued in the classical period of Islamic scholarship and beyond.24

Islamic studies in West Africa started at the Qur’anic school, where pupils as young as four were admitted and taught to memorize the Qur’an and write in the Arabic script. Students, including native speakers of Arabic, could not understand a text such as the Qur’an at the beginning of their education. Successful completion of Qur’anic studies paved the way to what we call higher Islamic studies, in which advanced students were taught a wide variety of subjects.

 Unlike beginners, who learned mostly by memorization, higher Islamic studies students developed the linguistic proficiency required to understand the Qur’an and other religious texts and to speak Arabic. They learned the science of the exegesis of the Qur’an to understand the text; Islamic jurisprudence to know what is allowed, forbidden, recommended or neutral; the scientific study of the Arabic language; and even some Greek philosophy.

But at this stage of higher education too, memorization remained important in the pedagogy of Islamic studies. This was not due to the rarity of books and the relatively high cost of paper, but rather to the fact that committing a text to memory was a mark of scholarly distinction. Illustrative of this approach to learning are the following statements of Ibn Najjar (d. 643 / 1245):

Idha lam takun hafizan wa‘iyan, If retentive memory is not what you possess, Fa-jam‘uka li l-kutubi la yanfa‘u, Your collecting of books is quite useless, A-tantuqu bi- l-jahli fi majlisin, Would you dare, in company, nonsense say, Wa-‘ilmuka fil-bayti mustawda‘u? When your learning at home is stored away?25

Ibn Battuta’s testimony validates the notion that harsh physical punishment was an element of Islamic schooling pedagogy. The goal of religious education was to create a virtuous Muslim subject. Achieving such a noble goal for Muslims justifies inflicting substantial physical pain on others or the self.

When speakers of Wolof, a predominant language in Senegambia, describe a person as a walking Qur’an (al-xuraan buy dokh), they mean that he was transformed through education to become a virtuous Muslim, someone who throughout his life follows the teachings of the Qur’an and refrains from its prohibitions.26

Michel Foucault, Talal Asad, and others note that the cultivation of technologies of the self were known in ancient societies, including in Ancient Greece and during early and medieval Christianity.27 Foucault argued that those technologies “permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality.”28

In certain circles, this rigorous tradition of Qur’anic education was never abandoned. The majority of Muslim families continued to invest in the Islamic education of their children, even if they also attended schools offering educa- tion in Western languages, as I did. This is because schooling was not just about..

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