Translating the African Past: The Islamic Heritage of Sub-Saharan Africa. (Special Report: International Education)

Article excerpt

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 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 long-time 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. …