ISITA celebrates research milestone with publication of Arabic Literature of Africa Volume V

March 29, 2016

Arabic Literature of Africa Volume V: Mauritania and the Western SaharaAt the end of 2015, the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) celebrated a major research milestone with the publication of the fifth volume of its Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA) series. Arabic Literature of Africa Volume V: Mauritania and the Western Sahara (Brill 2015), a collection of manuscripts compiled by ISITA-affiliated scholars, completes the geographic sweep for the ALA book series launched by the late Northwestern professor John O. Hunwick and historian Rex Sean O’Fahey in 1994. Developed at Northwestern over the last two decades, the five ALA volumes each contain biographical entries on the major authors’ writing in Arabic in a particular African region and a list of their writings. This comprehensive and groundbreaking body of work by ISITA scholars is the foundation upon which a whole new field of study has been built.

Source manuscript from ALA Volume VAs the largest publication in the series, ALA Volume V draws from more than 1,800 authors of more than 10,000 titles covering 350 years of scholarship. Its compilation was a six-year project under the direction of ISITA visiting scholar Charles C. Stewart and was supported by ISITA’s Ford Foundation grant, “Constituting Bodies of Islamic Knowledge.” It’s also the result of substantial international and interdisciplinary collaboration:   the six contributing scholars of ALA Volume V are based on four different continents and include faculty members from Northwestern, University of Illinois at Chicago, DePaul, and Duke University.

Although almost a third of the world’s Muslims call Africa home, the Middle East is still perceived as the heartland of Islam and Islamic scholarship, with North Africa also playing a secondary role. For centuries, sub-Saharan Africa was marginalized in academic discussions on Africa and Islam because it was assumed the region lacked written scholarly records. Through the recent work of ISITA scholars like Hunwick and the publication of the ALA series, Islamic scholarship in sub-Saharan and West Africa has become recognized globally for its significant intellectual outputs and historic contributions to both Islamic and African studies.

Dispelling the myth of the Islamic manuscripts of Timbuktu 

ALA Volume V also addresses the long-held belief that Timbuktu, famous center of trade and home to a large number of precious Islamic manuscripts, was historically the only hub for African Islamic intellectual activity outside of North Africa. The volume contains documents from nomadic schools in Mauritania and the Western Sahara region that continued and expanded upon Timbuktu’s academic legacy, challenging assumptions that people in this region had nothing new to add to the discourse on Islam. During his March 9 lecture at Northwestern on the texts found in ALA Volume V, Charles Stewart argued that “both the libraries and the literary output in the Timbuktu region do not compare to what is found in the nomadic societies [in Mauritania and the Western Sahara]. The highly-vaunted reputation of Timbuktu as a center of Islamic learning may be misplaced.”

ISITA will continue to lead the discussion on Islamic scholarship in Mauritania and the Western Sahara at its upcoming symposium April 21-22. “Sacred Word: The Changing Meanings in Textual Cultures of Islamic Africa” will be dedicated to the memory of ISITA cofounder and professor John Hunwick, who passed away in April 2015. ISITA, the Program of African Studies, and the Buffett Institute will cosponsor the symposium with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center for African Studies. The event is the first in a series of collaborative programs on Islam in Africa organized under the newly established UIUC-Northwestern Consortium for African Studies, which is funded by a US Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant.

To learn more about ISITA, visit their website.

Africa, Religion