Good Book

Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa

by Ousmane Oumar Kane.

Short review By Alagi Yorro Jallow.

Fatoumatta: It is a perfect book worth reading for the rest of Ramadan and highly recommended in your home library: When it comes to the intellectual history of black Africa, the discourses seldom go beyond Timbuktu—in contrast, arguing that black African intellectuals have made enormous contributions to the Islamic intellectual history as their north African religionists. This book tries to bring out the precolonial history of knowledge in West Africa. Analyses its epistemic pedagogy and traces its evolution and persistence in post-colonial West Africa. It also takes on the impact and influence of the Arabic language and Islam in shaping the culture of West African Muslims.

The author made an outstanding, sweeping, and engaging argument that the Arabic language and Islamic religion have not just shaped West African intellectual traditions but that West African epistemologies, practices of writing, and op-eds were founded in Timbuktu in the 11th century by Tuareg nomads as a camp by the Niger River in Mali, West Africa, at the southern tip of the Sahara Desert, and quickly established itself as a rest stop for both north and south traveling camel caravans.

The first references to the “Tuaregs came from the Greek Historian Herodotus, around 450 B.C., who believed them to have originated in either Egypt or Libya many centuries before Christ. He referred to them as Canaanites, which translates roughly into “Purple people.”They are a Berber ethnic group whose numbers today approach one million. They are widely spread throughout Niger, Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Libya, with smaller numbers in Morocco. They are traditional nomads who owe allegiance to no particular country and consider the Sahara their true home. They have a different name for this dessert in each country and think it to be many separate deserts. Sahara is a term known only in the west.

Fatoumatta: For over two thousand years, they hauled gold, salt, and enslaved people across North Africa to the great port cities such as Mopti and Dakar. The term “Tuareg” is derived from the area in their assumed ancestral home in Libya called Fezzan Targa, combined with a misinterpretation of the Arabic root TRQ, having a colloquial meaning of “Abandoned by God,” a term they have applied to themselves after losing most of their traditional desert homelands over the centuries by foreign conquest. They refer to themselves most commonly as Kel Tamasheq, or “Those who speak Tamasheq,” their native tongue, and Kel Tagelmoust, or “Wearers of the veil.” In Mali, the majority also speak Arabic and French. Most people know them as the “Blue Men of the Sahara” because of their deep indigo turbans, tagelmoust, and robes.

The color is gleaned from sea urchins imported from the Mediterranean. The women dry in the sun and beat into a powder, after which it is worked by hand into the fabric, giving it a deep, rich color. Indigo is absorbed through the skin’s pores, and those who wear it often eventually take on a permanent blue tint, thus their name. There are countless stories about the origin of the name Timbuktuagogy, and native languages have influenced Islam from theology to law to literature.

Fatoumatta: In short – a fantastic book. The book leans toward serving specialists in the history of Islamic pedagogy or the history of West Africa, but that is only a fault if you do not mind feeling like an eavesdropper from time to time. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the experience of reading the work of a scholar that is meant for other scholars of this area first and generalists second. It is incredibly well-written and covers the intellectual history of educational practices of West Africa (broadly Mali, Mauritania, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal – probably leaving out a lot here) and how those practices were shaped by and shaped Islam, Arabic language, colonialism, and post-colonial forms of governance.

It turns out that higher education, in particular, has enormous influence over the events in the late 20th and early 21st century in West Africa. One of the book’s highlights – and I wish the author spent more time on it was the relationship of various technologies to pedagogy, such as ink and writing surfaces. The chapters on the changes in the paper were fascinating and how writing and curricular comportment of the western-theorized school challenged but did not account for the longstanding belief that one-on-one oral instruction over the years is where knowledge comes from.

Fatoumatta: Renowned for its madrassas and archives of rare Arabic manuscripts, Timbuktu is famous as a Muslim learning center from Islam’s Golden Age. However, Timbuktu was one among many scholarly centers in precolonial West Africa. Beyond Timbuktu charts the rise of Muslim learning in West Africa from the beginning of Islam to the present day, examining the shifting contexts that have influenced the production and dissemination of Islamic knowledge over the centuries. Ousmane Kane corrects lingering misconceptions that Africa’s Muslim heritage represents a minor thread in Islam’s larger tapestry. West African Muslims have never been isolated.

The Sahara was not an insuperable barrier but a bridge that allowed the Arabo-Berbers of the North to sustain relations with West African Muslims through trade, diplomacy, and intellectual and spiritual exchange. The tradition of Islamic learning in West Africa has grown in tandem with Arabic literacy, making Arabic the most widely spoken language in Africa today. In the post-colonial period, transformations in West African education, together with the rise of media technologies and the public roles of African Muslim intellectuals, continue to spread Islam’s knowledge throughout the continent.

Fatoumatta: I recommend everyone read this if you are interested in the relationship that Islam has in West African culture, mainly if you have only read this history from the view of French or English-language scholars. The book conclusively proves that the Arabic language tradition of analyzing history, literature, law, and other practices in these cultures and native language and non-written language traditions is far more influential than the Anglophone or Francophone historians account for even at their best.

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