On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa

By Hanson, John H. | African Studies Review, December 2011 | Go to article overview

On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa


Hanson, John H., African Studies Review


Ghislaine Lydon. On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxviii + 486 pp. Maps. Bibliography. Index, Notes. $95.00. Cloth.

On Trans-Saharan Trails focuses on a commercial network operating between the southern Maghreb and West Africa. It eschews facile oppositions between northern and sub-Saharan Africa, offers insights into the organization of trans-Saharan trade, and seeks to understand the role of Islam in facilitating commerce in a decentralized political context. Lydon's research is prodigious: she consulted Arabic materials in more than thirtyfive public and private collections and conducted interviews with more tiian two hundred informants. In a sophisticated analysis of her sources, she notes that "orality is in all forms of evidence" (46), a perspective that leads to insightful readings across the grain of her texts.

The commercial network under study is based in the Wad Nun region of southern Morocco. Organized by the Tikna confederation of Hasaniya Arabic-speakers and their allies - others claiming Amazigh ("Berber") identities as well as Jewish merchants residing at the Wad Nun market town of Guelmim - the trading diaspora moved cloth, salt, slaves, tea, paper, and other commodities across the Sahara. The events of the tumultuous nineteenth century - including religious wars in West Africa and European imperialism on both sides of the desert - added to the challenges: Sanaran merchants innovated in response to these hazards, organizing smaller, more mobile caravans in place of the larger ones that crossed the Sahara in earlier centuries. Lydon also demonstrates that some Saharan women organized commercial operations at market towns, traded across the Sahara by proxy, managed the estates of their dead husbands, and, in a few cases, actually traveled with the caravans. The book also provides fascinating discussions of the links among commerce, Islamic revival, and cultural practices such as Muslim burials and tea-drinking.

Lydon argues that trust among Saharan merchants was bolstered through the writing of contracts and other Arabic documents.

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