Northwestern's Connection to Timbuktu

March 12, 2015

hands holding a small bookIn early 2013, several news sources reported that Islamist militants fleeing the French invasion of northern Mali had set fire to the largest manuscript library in Timbuktu, the Ahmad Baba Center. The news sent shock-waves through the African Studies and cultural heritage communities and prompted comparisons with the Taliban's destruction of the 6th century Buddha statues in Afghanistan. Fortunately, some reassuring correctives soon surfaced. The center had not been burned, according to Shamil Jeppie of the Cape Town-based Tombouctou Manuscript Project, whose website ( regularly posts reliable information. Moreover, the custodians of public and private libraries had "worked quietly throughout the rebel occupation of Timbuktu to ensure the safety of their materials" by hiding them or secretly transporting them to Bamako, Mali's capital. [1] While it appears that a limited number of manuscripts from the Ahmad Baba Center were damaged or stolen, no large-scale destruction occurred.

In the wake of the narrowly averted disaster, international experts moved quickly to adopt an $11 million action plan, under UNESCO's direction, designed to rebuild and safeguard Mali's cultural heritage, including the Timbuktu manuscripts. With the world's attention now focused on Timbuktu, it is an opportune moment to reflect on Northwestern's longstanding connection to the city and historic role in advancing understanding of Africa's Islamic intellectual tradition more broadly. Moving forward, we must also leverage Northwestern's unique strengths in Islamic Africa to complement renewed efforts to protect and make more accessible these precious sources.

Northwestern's name is well known in Timbuktu, thanks to the remarkable career of John Hunwick, professor emeritus of history at Northwestern, who first visited the city in the 1970s as part of a UNESCO delegation that established the Ahmad Baba Center. Hunwick remained engaged with Timbuktu's manuscript libraries over the ensuing decades, cataloging portions of collections and publishing translations of important texts. In 2000, Hunwick and his colleague R.S. O'Fahey (University of Bergen) founded the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) at Northwestern with generous support from the Ford Foundation. With this move, Hunwick institutionalized the study of Islam in Africa—a field marginalized within both African and Islamic studies—within a major university.

Northwestern forged another critical connection when Harlan Wallach, Media Architect at Northwestern's Media & Design, collaborated with ALUKA (an online digital library of resources about Africa) and SAVAMA-DCI (a consortium of private libraries in Timbuktu) on a Mellon Foundation funded project . Wallach and colleagues established a complete high-resolution digital photography studio and trained local project representatives on the equipment in four visits to Timbuktu between 2006 and 2008. Abdulkader Haidara, head of SAVAMA-DCI and his own family library, organized the participation of several private libraries. The Northwestern-trained Malian team digitized 300 manuscripts, now available for viewing at According to Wallach, the project leads are exploring how best to support the work begun with this project—both to continue the digitization and to see if the model established by this project can become part of a broader development effort.

As we consider ongoing and emerging African manuscript initiatives, several points are important to bear in mind. First, while Timbuktu holds much symbolic capital—deservedly so—it is only one site in a much larger terrain of Arabic manuscripts on the continent. Significant public and private collections exist in other sites in Mali (e.g., Djenne), Mauritania, Senegal, Ghana, Nigeria, Zanzibar, Kenya, Mozambique, and many other places. The focus on Timbuktu, as important as it is, should not come at the expense of attention to other equally valuable but less-known collections. Second, it is likely that the bulk of new resources will be used for storage, conservation, and digitization. Alongside this vital work, it is essential that we intensify activities (such as translation and analysis) that focus explicitly on the manuscripts’ contents. Without interpretation and contextualization, the manuscripts risk remaining isolated objects of curiosity rather than becoming useable sources, which inform and reshape how we think about African and Islamic history.

ISITA and Northwestern’s engagement with Arabic manuscripts from Africa has always been broader than Timbuktu. Indeed, it was in Kano, Nigeria, that John Hunwick first became intrigued by Arabic writing from Africa and he has worked tirelessly to document various Nigerian collections. He and his students cataloged the important collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa (mostly Nigeria) held in Northwestern’s Herskovits Library; a 2005 collaboration between ISITA, the Herskovits Library, Teaching & Learning Technologies, and Media & Design made that catalog searchable online and its contents accessible through international data portals (see ISITA produces the Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA) series of foundational reference works on African authors writing in Arabic, mapping centuries of intellectual production across large parts of Muslim Africa. Two new volumes in this series—on Mauritania’s voluminous scholarly and literary production (including poetry) and writings by members of the Tijaniyya Sufi order—will be published in 2013 as part of a Ford Foundation grant.

In addition to mapping and cataloging, ISITA provides a cross-disciplinary framework where interpretive activities can take place and broader questions about Islam in Africa engaged. Through conferences, visiting fellowships, and publications, ISITA has broached topics such as gender and Islam, Muslim youth, and Muslim-Christian relations. Translation is another emerging area of ISITA’s work, to make available the contents of the manuscripts and explore their relevance to the debates and challenges within contemporary Muslim societies. Under the Ford grant, faculty associated with ISITA are producing two new anthologies of translated and annotated texts from West Africa—one on Sufi literature from the Senegambia, and the other on Muslims responses to colonial rule—that will be suitable for undergraduate teaching as well as for scholarly work. To provide a platform for scholarly exchange in the burgeoning field of Islam and Africa, ISITA Director M. Sani Umar founded the journal Islamic Africa in 2010, in collaboration with Northwestern University Pres. Alongside peer reviewed articles, the journal’s “Sources” section publishes texts in Arabic and African languages in English translation and methodological discussions of sources. Under new Editor Scott Reese, the journal will make a special effort to address wider issues surrounding knowledge and cultural patrimony that are raised by the crisis in Mali and feature work from the excellent Tombouctou Manuscripts Project and the digital humanities project based at Michigan State on “Diversity and Tolerance in the Islam of West Africa.”

The publication by a university press of a journal devoted solely to Islam and Africa is a testament to how far the field of Islam and Africa has come since Hunwick began his career; Islamic Africa is arguably the fastest growing subfield within African Studies. More young Africanists are acquiring Arabic language skills and using Arabic sources. Northwestern has been a key participant in nurturing this growth. Significant work remains to be done, however, and the next few years are critical if Northwestern is to build on the momentum it now has and remain ahead of the curve in promoting the study of Islam in Africa.

[1] Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. “Timbuktu Update.” Tombouctou Manuscripts Project. 30 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2013.

Africa, Religion