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Islamic Historical Sources: Manuscripts and Online  

Amidu Olalekan Sanni

Of central interest here are the historical sources on Islam and Africa, the role and contributions of manuscripts to the narrative, and how the new cyber world has become a domain for those sources as instruments for the generation and utilization of knowledge. Africa came in contact with Islam right from the birth of the faith in the 7th century. Although Judeo-Christian, Late-Antique, and pre-Islamic materials provided the earliest historical sources on Islam and its people, the Qur’an, hadith (statements of the Prophet Muhammad), and the sira/maghāzī (biography/expeditions) were the first original sources on Islamic history on which later writings, including those from Africa, drew. The manuscript tradition in Islam is as old as the faith itself; it was one of the earliest material sources on Islamic sciences, and in the case of Africa, it provided a treasure trove of materials. At the beginning of the 21st century, the approach to scholarship and utilization of manuscripts changed radically, as digitization, creation of online databases, interconnected portals and links to universal portals, catalogs of manuscripts and published materials, among other innovations, redefined the ways knowledge of Islamic history is generated, accessed, and utilized.

Article

West African Manuscripts in Arabic and African Languages and Digital Preservation  

Fallou Ngom

West African manuscripts are numerous and varied in forms and contents. There are thousands of them across West Africa. A significant portion of them are documents written in Arabic and Ajami (African languages written in Arabic script). They deal with both religious and nonreligious subjects. The development of these manuscript traditions dates back to the early days of Islam in West Africa, in the 11th century. In addition to these Arabic and Ajami manuscripts, there have been others written in indigenous scripts. These include those in the Vai script invented in Liberia; Tifinagh, the traditional writing system of the Amazigh (Berber) people; and the N’KO script invented in Guinea for Mande languages. While the writings in indigenous scripts are rare less numerous and widespread, they nonetheless constitute an important component of West Africa’s written heritage. Though the efforts devoted to the preservation of West African manuscripts are limited compared to other world regions, interest in preserving them has increased. Some of the initial preservation efforts of West African manuscripts are the collections of colonial officers. Academics later supplemented these collections. These efforts resulted in important print and digital repositories of West African manuscripts in Africa, Europe, and America. Until recently, most of the cataloguing and digital preservation efforts of West African manuscripts have focused on those written in Arabic. However, there has been an increasing interest in West African manuscripts written in Ajami and indigenous scripts. Important West African manuscripts in Arabic, Ajami, and indigenous scripts have now been digitized and preserved, though the bulk remain uncatalogued and unknown beyond the communities of their owners.

Article

Slavery and the Making of West African Muslim Empires in the 19th Century  

Paul Naylor

The various Muslim theocratic states that emerged in West Africa over the 18th and 19th centuries (including Sokoto, Masina, and, later, the Umarian state) came to power in a series of conflicts, or jihads, against political systems in which slavery preexisted as the basic system of labor extraction and population control and in which slaves were the medium of exchange in wider Atlantic and trans-Saharan economic networks. The conflicts promised emancipation for Muslims enslaved in these systems but also involved the capture and enslavement of large numbers of people. The economic and political rationales for mass enslavement remained. However, for the first time they were framed within a written, Islamic discursive tradition, circulated by the leaders of the jihads. These texts enforced a new policy of enslavement that drew upon Islamic legal traditions but, for the most part, recycled preexisting arrangements of slave raiding in non-Muslim areas. Over time, what emerged were societies in which slavery was essential to the growth, functions, and reproduction of state power and in which slave labor of various kinds fueled the majority of economic, political, and social activity. Because of the multidimensional uses of slavery, the institution continued well into the European colonial period and continues to inform social dynamics in the early 21st century.

Article

Cory Library for Humanities Research  

Jeff Peires

Cory Library in Makhanda (Grahamstown), South Africa, was established on the basis of historical papers bequeathed by Sir George Cory, a professor of chemistry and enthusiastic amateur historian. Initially characterized by a strong settler and colonial bias, the Library was transformed by the deposit of records from black tertiary institutions threatened by the apartheid “Extension of Universities Education” Act of 1959. These included the valuable manuscripts of the Lovedale Press, which had been, for many years, the sole publisher of books in isiXhosa and other African languages. Civic organizations such as the Black Sash, the End Conscription Campaign, and the Surplus Peoples Project, which sprang up following the Soweto uprising of 1976, likewise deposited their records. The Cory Library thus became a valuable resource for all the peoples of the Eastern Cape, rather than only for its privileged sector. Its unique and comprehensive collection of books, maps, manuscripts, official documents, and visual representations across all disciplines of all things Xhosa and Eastern Cape make the Cory Library an essential resource for all researchers with interests in this area.

Article

Digital Sources for the History of the Horn of Africa  

Massimo Zaccaria

The Horn of Africa has an exceptional cultural heritage, starting with its manuscript sources, which are among the most important on the continent. It is a heritage that is rich but scattered throughout the region and not always easily accessible, prompting researchers to rely on cutting-edge technology. Since the 1970s, photography and microfilm have been key for preserving this especially valuable heritage. In the Horn of Africa, the “digital turn” has been the latest development in the close relationship between technology and research. For Ethiopian manuscript studies, the advent of digitization has meant more than simply improving old techniques. A new generation of projects is experimenting with innovative methods of research made possible by digital technology. The purpose is no longer just to provide digital copies of manuscripts but to explore the possibilities that computerization offers to study documents and other historical sources. Increasingly competitive prices and low operating costs have made the digital revolution attractive even for African institutions, which, in recent years, have sought answers to the pressing needs of preserving and enhancing their historical sources. These technological developments have significantly broadened the range of sources investigated. While important, manuscripts represent only a part of the documentary heritage of the Horn of Africa. Numerous archives and a long-overlooked print culture offer equally interesting access points for studying the region. The experience gained, though temporally circumscribed, has highlighted a number of more or less predictable problems. The projects to date, although they have often yielded only partial results, have highlighted the wealth of sources still present in the Horn of Africa and the way in which digital technology is making a valuable contribution to their preservation. Access remains perhaps the most critical issue. In the Horn of Africa, as in other African regions, digitization does not necessarily lead to Internet access.