Ep. 10 | Islamic Scholarship in Africa | Ousmane Kane and Ebrima Sall

Ousmane Kane Ebrima SallIn this episode, we discuss the new edited volume, Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts, with its editor, Professor Ousmane Kane, and his colleague, Dr. Ebrima Sall, who wrote the conclusion. This volume is the product of two conferences convened at Harvard by Professor Kane in 2017 on "Texts, Knowledge, and Practice: The Meaning of Scholarship in Muslim Africa" and "New Directions in the Study of Islamic Scholarship in Africa" that brought together scholars of diverse disciplines from around the world to explore the understudied tradition of Arabo-Islamic scholarship in Africa. Professor Kane and Dr. Sall talk about what led them to want to bridge the divides between different knowledge traditions and comment on the contributions of 19 scholars to this volume on themes that include Islamic scholarly networks, textuality and orality in Islamic scholarship, the transformation of Islamic education in Africa, and the role of 'Ajami and Sufism in the transmission of Islamic knowledge in the region. 

Ousmane Kane is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Professor of Islamic Religion and Society at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.

Ebrima Sall is the executive director of Trust Africa and former executive secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA). 

Credits

Episode 10
Release date: October 22, 2021
Hosts: Harry Bastermajian and Meryum Kazmi
Audio editing: Meryum Kazmi
Photo: Writing the Qur'an on a wooden writing board, Timbuktu, Mali via Alamy
Transcription: Otter

Transcript

 

Harry Bastermajian  00:08

Welcome to the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I'm Harry Bastermajian,

 

Meryum Kazmi  00:19

and I'm Meryum Kazmi. We're excited to be joined today by two esteemed guests. The first is our very own, Ousmane Kane, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society and Professor of African and African American Studies here at Harvard, to discuss his latest book, an edited volume entitled, Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts. We're also joined by Dr. Ebrima Sall, executive director of Trust Africa and former executive secretary of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, who wrote the conclusion of this volume and is joining us today from Senegal. Thank you both so much for joining us.

 

Ebrima Sall  01:01

Thank you for having us. Thank you.

 

Ousmane Kane  01:03

Thank you for the invitation.

 

Harry Bastermajian  01:05

So, Professor Kane, we will begin with you. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and what brought you to compile this specific volume on Islamic scholarship in Africa?

 

Ousmane Kane  01:17

I am a scholar of Islam in Africa and I was appointed at Harvard to the Alwaleed Professorship of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society in Africa to contribute to develop the field of Islam in Africa and, particularly, its intellectual history. So in the last several years, I have been working on this project and engaged in documenting this intellectual history, and my previous book, Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa, was a contribution to the field. And the reason why I convened the conference leading to this edited volume, is that we know the growth of literacy in Arabic in sub-Saharan Africa, was not at all disconnected from that of other centers of Islamic learning elsewhere in the Muslim world. And as will be obvious to the readers of this volume, African scholars, or more precisely, scholars from sub-Saharan Africa participated in the development of virtually every field of Islamic knowledge. And some of the essays featured in this volume constitute major contributions to astronomy, as in Chapter Two, political theory as in Chapter Five, philosophy, Chapter Six, jurisprudence, Chapter Seven. And, in addition, a glance at the curriculum in the writings of the scholars of sub-Saharan Africa, including those who have never traveled beyond their homeland, shows that many of them were extremely learned and also engaged in the work of authors from all over the Muslim world, proving that they had long been integrated in a global network of intellectual exchange. But for most of the 20th century, this literary tradition had remained unknown to the Western world and scholarship, outside a small circle of specialists. And at the turn of the 21st century, many commendable efforts have been made to document this tradition and dozens of doctoral dissertations have been produced on Islamic scholarship in Africa, and they have documented the rise of clerical lineages in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of these lineages in societal reform and state building from the 16th to the 19th century, and their intellectual production. Despite this huge scholarly endeavor, however, Islamic scholarship in black Africa had remained invisible in the large field of Islamic studies and African studies. It has remained invisible in the larger field of Islamic studies and African studies, but also in major debates of the social sciences. But between 2004 and 2016, the publication of three volumes of essays gave significant visibility to the study of Islamic erudition in Africa. The first is the Transmission of Learning in Muslim Africa, edited by Scott Reese. The second, The Meanings of Timbuktu, edited by Shamil Jeppie and Souleymane Bachir Diagne, and the third, edited by Robert Launay, is Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards. But since the publications of these books, the field has grown considerably and attracted younger, talented scholars whose work is transforming not just the large field of Islamic studies and African studies, but it also is beginning to inform debates in many disciplines in the social sciences. So dozens of articles and monographs have been produced, but not a recent state-of-the-art volume. So to take stock of these developments, I convened an international conference, entitled, "Texts, Knowledge, and Practice: The Meanings of Scholarship in Muslim Africa" at HDS in February 2017, and it brought 25 scholars from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States, and drawn from a variety of disciplines, including history, Islamic studies, anthropology, philosophy, and religious studies. These conference participants explored the literary cultures expressed in the Arabic language, or in African languages written with the Arabic script. Like the pioneers in the field, participants refuted the notion that Muslim societies in black Africa were essentially oral prior to the European colonial conquest at the turn of the 20th century. Their analysis of the movement of texts and ideas across and between West and North Africa through the Sahara, and between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, across the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, further confirmed that Muslims scholars south of the Sahara have never been isolated. On the contrary, they have long interacted and been integrated with other parts of the Muslim world. So in October 2017, I hosted a follow-up workshop at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard entitled, "New Directions in the Study of Islamic Scholarship in Africa," and it brought together a number of scholars who attended the first conference, but also others who joined us later, like Dr. Ebrima Sall, who wrote the conclusion. There we, in the second workshop, we addressed the achievement in the study of Islamic scholarship in Africa, the limitations in the emerging scholarship, and also charted new directions in the field.

 

Meryum Kazmi  07:02

Dr. Sall, before we go on to the next question, would you like to also talk about your background and how you became involved with this volume?

 

Ebrima Sall  07:09

Yes, thank you. I mean, it's, for me, the continuation of a conversation that began many years ago with Ousmane in particular. We had a long engagement with CODESRIA, the social science council promoting scholarship in Africa, independent scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. And at one point when I was still a young program officer, Professor Kane and I knew each other when we were both doctoral students in Paris in the 80s of the last century, and then, when we found ourselves in Senegal, I was at CODESRIA, he was heading the Department of Political Science in Saint-Louis Gaston Berger University, he invited me to teach a course. And so, in the course of our conversations every time I went to teach this course in Saint-Lous, we'd be talking about the research that he is doing on manuscripts in libraries in Senegal, in particular, but also in the region. And he was speaking passionately about these manuscripts that are in huge numbers that are deteriorating very rapidly, expressing concern about what was happening. And then he had authored a book, actually a handlist of manuscripts in some libraries and selling them-- that was published in London. So going through that book, and in our conversations, it just occurred to me that there was a major shift, a gap between the kind of debates we were having in the social sciences around CODESRIA and these issues that he was raising about manuscripts and debates related to Islam and Islamic scholars in Africa. And so, just through that conversation we came to the conclusion that there was a need to connect to these debates somehow and one way of doing that was to not only be concerned about preserving the manuscripts, but also to develop a project that would get the scholars to engage with the manuscripts in a big way, and look into the content of the manuscripts and see what in the debates in these manuscripts, the Timbuktu manuscripts he mentioned and others, would actually shed a new light in debates in the social sciences, and in the study of Africa more generally. So this is how the conversation began and then it went on and subsequently, Professor Kane developed this document that was a kind of state-of-the-art review of the literature on the subject, that was later published as a book entitled, Non-Europhone Intellectuals. The French edition came out first, Intellectuels non-europhones, and that was to serve as the basis for launching research networks on the subject. So there was this realization that we were aiming to serve the same African intellectual community, and that it was very clear that you had some working in different languages and in different traditions, intellectual traditions, but there was a major disconnect between, broadly speaking, what Ousmane very appropriately called the Europhone and non-Europhone intellectuals and knowledges, borrowing an expression that Appiah also used in his book, In My Father’s House. So this is the origin of the connection, and then it went on. So when I had the chance to be at this conference at Harvard on his invitation, his kind invitation, I thought it was an excellent opportunity to see how the field has evolved, how the reflections had evolved. In the meantime, we have had all these developments that he mentioned, the publication of the English version of the book, Non-Europhone Intellectuals, but also other works, including the Timbuktu manuscripts, and his own book, Beyond Timbuktu, came much later afterwards. So it is that interest in making sure that we break the silos in African studies, we break the silos in this field of scholarship, we build a community of scholars that is inclusive of all the strands of scholarship on the continent. And we don't remain in this hierarchy of knowledge that has its origins in colonial encounter, basically, and that tended to consider anything related to Europe and the West as superior to what is non-Western, what is indigenous, or what is supposed to be local. And so this was an excellent opportunity to reconnect with the debate and then continue this conversation with all the new research that was going on, carried out by people who are at the cutting edge of all these problematics. This is basically how we got to the conference, and then the book, subsequently.

 

Meryum Kazmi  12:23

Thank you. So it would be great to hear more about these knowledge divides that you were talking about. This is something that both of you discuss in the book, these divides between the so-called endogenous African knowledge, the Arabo-Islamic tradition, and also the Western social sciences and humanities. So can you tell us a bit more about these knowledge divides? And what are some of the challenges that they pose, particularly for the study of Islam in Africa? And maybe Dr. Sall, we can start with you.

 

Ebrima Sall  12:55

Yes, first of all, I think it's important to notice that these devices are sort of global, right? That is, not only specific to this problem of connections between Europhone and non-Europhone. There's a whole volume of the World Social Science Report, actually the first issue of the World Social Science Report published by the International Social Science Council, or what was then the International Social Science Council, affiliated to UNESCO and UNESCO published in 2010. Well, before that is the social science report on the theme of knowledge divides, just showing that there are a lot of fractures, there are a lot of hierarchies and asymmetries in the knowledge production field and that there are the issues that sort of do not favor maybe in the understanding of, relative understanding of, a number of phenomena because of this segmentation, because of these divides, that are actually mirroring, in a sense, some of the divides out there in the world around us, that are of a north-south nature, that are of a different kind of nature but that reflect power dynamics at the global level and that have historical roots, that are also driven by a phenomenon that is global, is economic, is of different kinds. And secondly, when it comes more specifically to the ones that we are discussing in this book, is that, I think there are several of them. The most obvious one is the one we've been talking about now, the divide between the Europhone intellectuals and knowledges, and the non-Europhone intellectuals and knowledges, and that has its roots in what happened with the European Renaissance, and the European Enlightenment, and the spread of particular modes of learning, models of institutions, that are modern, coming from the West, mainly, and spread around the world in ways that wasn't respectful of the other kinds of knowledge that existed. On the contrary, it was a tendency to sort of dominate and sideline, whatever else there was and raise the models in the West as the main models of reference. To a certain extent, it was sort of the civilizing mission of colonialism at one point in time. So you have that major divide between European institutions or institutions modeled on European kind of institutions of universities and scholarship. Africa had institutions that are of a university type that are very, very old, you can still-- in the book there's a discussion of, several mentions of al-Azhar University in Cairo, there are already institutions in Morocco and elsewhere that are actually among the oldest degree-granting institutions in the world until today. So these ones preceded the European type of institutions, but they sort of lost their ground, they lost-- they were sidelined with the spread of the European models. And so therefore, there was a way in which everything that came from the West was taken to be the reference in the realm of, the model, in terms of knowledge. Science was science as used and practiced in the West. What knowledges were said to be non-scientific, indigenous knowledge, they are superstitions, or they are of a local type, and they couldn't be systematized, and so on and so forth. So that divide was there. And what we have seen with the work now that has been done, is that actually that divide was not an innocent sort of, so to say, divide. It was part of the way in which these knowledges were ordered, in a sense, the way in which there was a hierarchy of languages as well, and European languages being the ones that were the main languages of both scholarship, and of politics, and of global relations, and of commerce. It's English and French and Portuguese and Spanish and so on, and the rest being languages that are said to be indigenous, local ‘vernacular,’ and so on, and so forth. So the same thing happened with religions as well. Islam was among the religions that had actually to be taken as targets for the civilizing mission. Islam had to be confined to particular spaces if people in the region couldn't be converted to the main religions, as well. So there is a whole set of movements that was there, and that big divide, actually, found its way into scholarship, as well. And that disengagement between the Europhone and non-Europhone intellectuals has its roots in that particular sort of context. And beyond that, then you have other-- the fact that we also have African studies, which is part of area studies, and one of the defining features of area studies is the fragmentation and segmentation. The world is divided into regions and corners, and you have Asia studies, African studies, and then Middle Eastern studies. And Africa itself is divided in a way that wasn't very helpful, very artificial. In fact, that doesn't correspond to historical realities, because North Africa was detached from the rest of the continent. And the tendency is to look at the Middle East and North Africa, the MENA region, and then sub-Saharan Africa. And the Sahara was taken to be a barrier across which nothing much was happening. Now that is, obviously, not corresponding to any kind of historical reality because what this book is showing, what the studies in this book are showing, is the intensity of the relationships and the exchanges that were going on across the Sahara. Scholars moved in both directions, texts were moving, ideas were circulating. Scholars from the south were moving towards the other side of the Sahara, teaching in institutions in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, participating actually in the shaping of what actually became major forces in the end. So that whole reality was kind of masked by some kind of artificial division that, in essence, became a kind of epistemological obstacle because it prevented the connection of these different kinds of knowledges and the practice of scholarship across the whole region. Thirdly, you do also have other kinds of issues because, within Africa itself, there are sub-regions, with some historians specializing in the study of the Horn of Africa, or just the Sahel, or the study of particular languages, you have Mande studies association, the Swahili studies association. So these studies didn't-- this kind of segmentation and fragmentation of the study of Africa, in addition to the big divide between what was said to be modern social sciences and humanities, and the non-Europhone or the indigenous, and the local knowledges and forms of scholarship that existed, created a situation in which you couldn't get a proper and comprehensive understanding of a lot of phenomena. People were looking at their own realities with these concepts, that within the appropriately called-- Mudimbe, a Congolese scholar, who taught for many years at Duke in the US, Mudimbe talked about the colonial library, the whole set of concepts and paradigms that were used to study the rest of the world. Africa was an invention. He has written a book entitled The Invention of Africa, a little bit like Edward Said wrote about Orientalism and the East and the Orient, how it was all fashioned, what Enrique Dussel called the invention of the Americas. And so I think that there has been an obstacle and therefore, you couldn't possibly imagine Islamic studies flourishing, or to be in a context like that one. And so what institutions like CODESRIA tried to do from the beginning was to say, look, we need to make sure that these divides don't become too much of an epistemological obstacle. Because in addition to all that, you also have the fact that Africa itself is divided into 50-something states, speaking and using different languages, European languages being the languages of instruction and of scholarship, and leaving out populations that are very erudite and very knowledgeable, using the Arabic language or working in 'Ajami. And so there was a desire to overcome all this, transcend all those barriers, and breach the divides. And I think this book has been a major contribution in that particular effort.

 

Meryum Kazmi  21:49

Professor Kane, would you like to add to that?

 

 

Ousmane Kane  21:53

What I wanted to add to what Ebrima just said is that, before the early 19th century, the Arabic language was the language of erudition, and even administration, in many of the Islamic polities that existed in Africa. The first school offering instruction in a European language, Fourah Bay College, was created in the 1820s. At that time, it was an island in an ocean of institutions of higher learning using Arabic as a medium of instruction. But one century after, after the establishment of colonial rule, and an educational system based on European languages, this Arabo-Islamic intellectual tradition, was relegated to the background and, of course, for a long time, it remained unknown outside the circles of scholarship. But a lot of research has been done recently to make it further known.  And if you allow me now to answer the question, why the book is divided into four parts. When we hosted the workshop, "New Directions in the Study of Islamic Scholarship in Africa," at the Radcliffe Institute, the goal was to continue the conversation about Islamic erudition in Africa. What are the main achievements? What are the limitations? What new directions need to be charted for the field? We know that Africans have contributed to Islamic knowledge and have traveled widely in the Muslim world, but there was an implicit assumption that they were junior partners in their relationship with the Arabs or that their contribution was not really major in the production of Islamic knowledge. That's one thing that the workshop challenged and there are many contributions in the volume of luminaries, people who studied in Africa, but then they went to teach in Mecca, like al-Kashinawī or people who made major contribution to philosophy, like in the Sokoto Caliphate, the Chapter Six, by Dan Tafa, and many others. So we wanted to establish that Africans were not junior partners, but they were equal partners even with regard to the Sufi orders like the Tijaniyya and the Qadiriyya. Most of those Sufi orders were believed to be born in the Arab world and then later exported to Africa, but the chapter by Zachary Wright and his introduction, entitled, "The African Roots of the Islamic Revival of the 18th Century," establishes that they have been engaged-- African scholars-- in conversation, in the entire Muslim world, and they have been involved in articulating the major ingredients of the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, which inspired other Sufi orders. In other words, to look at the spread of Sufi orders from North Africa to sub-Saharan Africa, as unidirectional, would be very wrong, if we look at really what was happening, and at the intellectual exchanges, one sees that they have no doubt made a major contribution. And that is something that we wanted to document in this workshop. Another thing that we wanted to document-- and this leads me to the second part of the volume, textuality and orality-- many scholars who were active in the field of Islamic scholarship in Africa, they endeavor to prove that Africa was not an exclusively oral continent, a continent of orality, that it also had a written tradition. But in the process, they failed to really clarify the relationship between textuality and orality and also the importance of orality, because orality and textuality have never been completely dissociated, and African scholars have used both modalities in order to write, to produce knowledge, and to transmit knowledge. So we wanted to make sure that this is clarified. And also, there are sophisticated knowledges that are transmitted without leaving traces. So the fact that they have not left written traces doesn't mean that these knowledges haven't been transmitted, and especially with regard to the philosophical Sufism in the Sokoto Caliphate. Oludamini Ogunnaike shows that many of the scholars transmitted knowledge orally because these words assumed to be very sensitive knowledge. Of course, there are texts also on philosophy, but there were also major, very important knowledges that did not leave written traces. So that's why we wanted to clarify the relationship between textuality and orality. The third is 'Ajami, or writings of African or other languages with the Arabic script by Muslim peoples of those regions. It was known that 'Ajami served to transmit knowledge, but many believe that it was just used in order to transmit basic knowledge to people who did not know Arabic. But more recent works on 'Ajami writings prove that there is a sophisticated body of 'Ajami writings of poetry. And there are three chapters in this volume on 'Ajami dealing with that, showing that actually, 'Ajami did not just serve to transmit basic knowledge, but also sophisticated knowledge. And African scholars wrote both in Arabic and in 'Ajami, and I give the example of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse at the beginning of the volume, saying that he taught the exegesis of the Quran in Arabic, but also in Wolof. He taught it in Arabic to his Arabic-speaking disciples who were coming to study with him, but he taught also in Wolof, and now we have the transcription of both of them. And by no means the exegesis in Arabic is more sophisticated than the other. So we wanted to also prove that there is no language hierarchy, as I just said, that African languages were as important as Arabic in this process of knowledge transmission.

 

Meryum Kazmi  28:59

Yeah, maybe we can delve more into some of these sections in the book. The first one is about history and movement and Islamic scholarship. So can you tell us a bit more about some of the networks that connected African Muslim scholars to scholars in the broader Muslim world? And Professor Kane, you wrote specifically about the role of pilgrimage? So can you tell us a bit more about that?

 

Ousmane Kane  29:21

Sure. Before the erection of colonial boundaries, scholars circulated widely in the Muslim world, they traveled freely. And as Ebrima said, also, books traveled freely. Many scholars from other parts of the Muslim world came to Africa. And the reason is that Africa was extremely wealthy. It was one of the world's major producers of gold for centuries. And that's one of the reasons of the attraction that many people would go there. But pilgrimage also was important. And the pilgrimage tradition in West Africa spans a period of 1000 years, we know that for 1000 years, Africans have been making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Of course, the most famous such pilgrimage is that of King Mansa Musa of Mali, who traveled with retinue of 1000s of people and distributed gold lavishly, so much so that the price of gold fell, and this was documented by Arab scholars, but also by European cartographers. Then, they used to go to the pilgrimage, to perform the pilgrimage, and to engage in intellectual exchanges in the Haramayn, with intellectuals coming from other parts of the world, and also were going back home and bringing books. Cairo was an important transit point. And the pre-colonial pilgrimage, scholars were largely represented in that pilgrimage. Unlike the current pilgrimage, where you go there, perform the pilgrimage, and go back home, the pilgrimage was also a way for them to search [for] knowledge, just like Ibn Batuta. He left his country, Morocco. to go to perform pilgrimage, but also to learn. So these people engaged in intellectual exchanges with other people from all over the world, and they brought back home books and ideas. And they taught them so that people in Africa were at the cutting edge at any given time in history. For example the scholar, al-Suyuti, Abd al-Rahman al-Suyuti, of the 16th century, who is the author of the Exegesis of the Two Jalals, Tafsir al-Jalalayn, his work was taught in Africa during his lifetime, not just Tafsir al-Jalayn, but also other works. So pilgrimage played an important role. And I want to add also that in al-Azhar, they were very well represented. There existed in the 18th century 25 residences of Muslim students, and three of them were residences of students from sub-Saharan Africa and the Maghrib had only one. And the first such residence for Muslim students was created in the mid-13th century, which is the Riwaq al-Burnawi, just to tell you that Africans have been long involved in scholarly networks all over the Muslim world and they have also been participating in intellectual exchanges.

 

Meryum Kazmi  32:38

Thank you. Can you also tell us a bit more-- you started talking about textuality versus orality-- so can you tell us more about some of these binaries that are commonly perpetuated about knowledge and its production in Africa, and how the authors of this volume are challenging those perceptions?

 

Ousmane Kane  32:58

Sure. So in the pre-modern period, one of the most reliable means of knowledge transmission, if not the most reliable, was oral transmission, the master teaching the text to students, instead of just ordering their books and reading them on their own. So there are many texts that we call books and actually that were even not really books in the sense that we understand that today. Let us take, for example, the Muwatta' of Imam Malik. These were notes that students took from his lectures that he was giving. They took the notes, and then it became Muwatta'. But you can see variations of these manuscripts of this text, on [the] one hand, because they were taught over a long period of time, and Imam Malik himself has been changing the content of his teaching, as time went on. That's one, and students also who took the notes, they may have taken different notes or may have different understandings. So therefore, just to say that orality was very important in this system, by no means was dissociated from textuality. And as I said, there were also important initiatic knowledge that people didn't want to write in paper because they wanted to, or-- they would write part of it, but there are other parts that they wouldn't write, but they will just transmit orally to students. And some of the poets also wrote-- they composed poetry in writing, but some also just composed it and were sharing it orally.

 

Harry Bastermajian  34:57

So, moving on to the part four of the volume on Islamic education, and this question is for the both of you. What are some of the modes of Islamic knowledge transmission and institutions? So thinking about sort of formal versus informal knowledge transmission as well as institutions, modern versus traditional, right? As well as sort of state-sponsored or government-sponsored schools versus madrasas that are in religious endowments, these various modes of Islamic knowledge and transmission, and their institutions, and specifically, what has been their role in contemporary sub-Saharan African society? Dr. Sall, perhaps you have some thoughts on this.

 

Ebrima Sall  35:58

Yeah, let me just, one minute back to this point about orality, that Professor Kane was speaking about, and just how the modern technologies have helped in actually making that issue much more complex. I think one of the contributions just shows how people are using the technology in incredibly creative ways, moving from text to orality and so on. So that's just one thing to add to the point about orality. It's become much more complex in the sense that with the technologies now people are doing incredible things with recordings, voice, and WhatsApp and Facebook and so on. Now, coming to the question about modern versus traditional institutions, state schools, and madrasas, I think the so-called traditional institutions preceded the modern schools. Modern schools are a recent phenomenon in the context of Africa in particular, generalized with the colonial experience; basically with missions first and then the formal intellectual colonialism. I think that's what happened. And then the modern institutions of learning and ways of transmitting knowledge were taken to be the norms that have been pushed with state policies, promoting them vigorously. The issue though now is that the situation is a lot more complex, that there's an evolution of the so-called traditional institutions as well. The madrasas have been modernized, and there's a whole movement of modernizing the daaras, as they call them, in some parts of the continent, in Senegal, in particular, the madrasas, and there's an interesting chapter on the madrasas in Senegal, in particular. So there's an attempt to regulate them further to make sure that they function according to norms that are more and more similar to the ones that are found in modern schools, and one sees that that all across-- I think, Professor Kane's book, Beyond Timbuktu, shows very clearly how, up to the university level, one sees a kind of rapprochement, the institutions are evolving, and there's a kind of convergence, general trend towards convergence. Part of this has to do with a lot of movements, including movements of advocacy for changes. And at one level protesting about the practices, so many practices that are associated with traditional institutions, including the fact that students at the traditional institutions in a number of instances are found in the streets engaging in practices that are not supposed to be practices that children going to schools should be engaged in, begging and so on. So that's one thing. So there is an attempt to modernize the traditional institutions as well. And I think this seems to be a trend that will continue, I would say. And it also goes with the systemization in terms of the curricular, and in terms of the qualifications that are obtained in these institutions as a way in which certificates tend to be aligned with what exists in formal institutions, including in the Arab world, in particular.

 

Harry Bastermajian  39:40

Islamic education in many states, I'm thinking-- I'm an expert on the Middle East, so I apologize about my lack of knowledge about West Africa, but I mean, there is this tension that exists in other states, other Muslim societies, between-- depending on the state-- tension does exist between these modes of education that exist, whether it's a state institution, or a state backed institution versus the, I guess [what] we would call sort of traditional education, Islamic education, and there's, in fact, there's even a chapter in the section entitled, "What Does Traditional Islamic Education Mean?" And I guess what I am curious about is, how does what people might think of as a traditional Islamic education, how does that play a role in contemporary society and 21st century African Islamic society?

 

Ousmane Kane  40:48

I think it is indeed playing an important role, it's very important for many people. With colonialism, Islamic education was separated from so-called education leading to the award of degrees so that many people train to become an engineer or to become a teacher in other fields, but then realized that they lacked Islamic education and started to return to study with the shuyukh. And there are also other students who left the village to go to study in a modern school, but who, via Skype, are in contact with their shaykh and continue to take classes with the shaykh from their village, which means that the two now really are not separated, so-called traditional knowledge, and traditional Islamic knowledge, is still very important and many seek to acquire that knowledge. But if I may add something about this volume. Part four was entitled "Islamic Education," but I think we could have been more precise and said, "Transformation of Islamic Education," because it's dealing with the modern schools. And one of the chapters is dealing with a new type of Islamic school, created in response to the demands of Muslim migrants based in the United States, who wanted to send their kids to go and study Islam in Africa, but also to be prepared, so that they can come back and work in the United States. So we have in a country like Senegal, which is a French-speaking country, we have now Islamic schools that offer education in Arabic, in English, and in French, so that graduates from those schools could come back and join college in the United States and study here, which means that Islamic education is being radically transformed. New types of schools are emerging, and also new universities. In 1982, there was only one Islamic University in the modern sense of the word in sub-Saharan Africa, which is the University of Umdurman. But now there are dozens of such universities that are granting degrees, and they're still different from the older seminaries, which means that Islamic education is really being transformed in many, in very many fundamental ways. And traditional Islamic knowledge remains still important and is still attracting people who graduated from other schools, are professionals, but then who need Islamic knowledge and then who returned to school in order to study with a shaykh in order to acquire that knowledge.

 

Ebrima Sall  44:03

To just add to the way in which there's almost a professionalization of these Islamic schools, and the new types of daaras that I'm connected to, I think the big shift is between the time when you had maybe a master and students surrounding the person in the most informal of ways, they go to the farms, they fend for themselves, they go back to the structuring of the whole system into schools, with stages, and people going through classes, and then graduating at a particular point with degrees. And now there is a deliberate attempt to make sure that, as all these schools are connected with agricultural work, that students leave the schools with some skills, they are having to do with agriculture very often, but also with other skills, including language skills, as you rightly said, Professor Kane. Some of them are bilingual, to enable them to have great opportunities. Because one of the challenges has been, for people who have not only gone through the Islamic schools in Africa, or in West Africa, but even those who went to study in the Arab world, the opportunities for getting employment in the formal sector were limited to maybe teaching for a very long time, there was a limitation as to what the possibilities were until it became very clear that people could learn professions also. You're not going to Egypt, for example, only to study about Islam, but also to learn other things like to study journalism, to study the professions, and come back and work. So there's an attempt to professionalize the schools or to connect them to the environment and to prepare the students to be able to exercise professions. And I think that's, in a way, something that gets them to be closer in the way they function to the modern schools as well.

 

Meryum Kazmi  45:55

Thank you. So the final section is called "'Ajami Knowledge Transmission and Spirituality." So can you tell us a bit about 'Ajami, and what its role has been in Islamic scholarship in Africa?

 

Ousmane Kane  46:09

Okay, 'Ajami consists of using the Arabic script in order to write the languages of other non-Muslim-- other Muslim people, sorry. And 'Ajami is widely used in the Muslim world. It was used in in the Ottoman Empire until the successor state, Turkey, reformed the orthography of Turkish to use the Latin script. It was used in Iran, in India in, in Spain. In Africa itself there is attested usage of 'Ajami in 80 African languages and in West Africa only in 29 African languages there are texts in 'Ajami, which means that this is a very huge body of literature, which as I said earlier, did not just consist of basic knowledge written for an audience who didn't know Arabic, but it was sophisticated knowledge and the strength of Muslim scholars compared to those who train in Western languages is that they acquired Arabic, used Arabic, they had good mastery of Arabic language without abandoning their own African language, whereas, most of us who were trained in modern schools in Western languages, the use of African languages, speaking in African languages, was even forbidden in those schools. So, therefore, we wanted to contribute, especially in this section to the sophisticated 'Ajami writings by African scholars, and most of them are volumes of poetry, texts of poetry, in 'Ajami.

 

Ebrima Sall  48:15

Helmi Sharawy is an Egyptian scholar, very active in CODESRIA, one of the founders actually, Helmi Sharawy actually found texts, 'Ajami with Afrikaans, Afrikaans written using 'Ajami, and Afrikaans, is the language of the Boers in South Africa. But he doesn't tell us whether they were Muslims, Muslim Afrikans who were writing using Arabic script, utilizing Africans languages, or not, but the fact of the matter is, he found 'Ajami texts in South Africa, that were written using the-- I mean, Afrikaans written using the Arabic script. Just to make the point, I mean, to support the point that you were making, Professor Kane, about the extent to which 'Ajami is widespread on the continent. I think the main thing to add is that it wasn't only a discussion of religious issues, there are issues having to do with the law, society, economy and so on that are covered by the texts in 'Ajami. It's much broader than only religious doctrines. I think that's the other thing to add to the point that you were raising.

 

Ousmane Kane  49:32

Indeed, indeed.

 

Harry Bastermajian  49:34

So, I guess to wrap us up here, what is next in your research? And I guess maybe a little bit more broadly too, thinking, sort of the bird's eye view here, what new paths or avenues for research do you see for Islamic studies in Africa?

 

Ousmane Kane  49:59

Okay, let me first answer the question with regard to the work that we have been doing here at Harvard in the last several years and the Alwaleed Program has been sponsor. I said that we organized the first two conferences. The first was "Texts, Knowledge, and Practice: The Meaning of Scholarship in Muslim Africa" and the second one, "New Directions in the Study of Islamic Scholarship in Africa." And this volume is a product of these two first conferences. And I just want to add that it's not just published in English, but it's also simultaneously published in French as Érudition islamique en Afrique: Nouvelles pistes de recherche et contextes mondial, and it's also published in Africa in local paperback edition, so that Africans can also read it. So we want this work to have really the greatest impact possible, in more than one language, and also to be available in Africa. So as you remember, we also organized a third conference on "West Africa and the Maghreb," the third Islam in Africa conference, and a fourth conference, "Africa, Globalization, and the Muslim Worlds." So select papers from these two conferences are coming out as a special issue of the journal, Religions, entitled, "Africa, Globalization, and the Muslim Worlds." And we will also have them translated into French and published in Africa so that they come out in two languages, but also available in Africa. For example, this volume costs $130-- does it make sense to produce a book about Africa that Africans will never be able to read? It doesn't make sense. So our endeavor was that it should be available in Africa also, paperback edition, 20-something dollars, and it's already available there. I'm talking about the first volume. Now, in April, we organized the fifth conference-- and all of them have been sponsored, co-sponsored, by the Alwaleed Program-- entitled, "The Fayda Tijanyya in the 21st Century: A Major Articulation of Global Islam," which is about the Sufi order, which has millions of followers all over the world. And it was well attended and we had very, very good papers, and I am now in the process of editing them. And they will also come out in French and English in 2023. So we continue the work, we are now planning the sixth Islam in Africa conference, which is, "Love Poems for the Prophet and Muslim Saints in Africa" and its diaspora, composition, performance and reception. So this is the sixth conference that we are planning. So we try to contribute to this field, through conferences, but also through lecture series, as you know, Harry, because every year, we bring authors of new books to present their work, as well as students who have almost completed their work. So the agenda is ready and will be shared with you soon. So this is what we have been doing. And we are still planning ahead to make sure that we continue to be very dynamic in the field of Islamic studies and to show that Islam in Africa is an important part of Islamic studies, and should be recognized as such.

 

Ebrima Sall  53:54

For me this has been a great experience, I mean, being in this conference. Islamic studies isn't my main field of research, but being in the social sciences and humanities, it was a discovery to see actually how important it has been as a field and one of the things we tried to do when I was at CODESRIA was to bring it actually as a mainstream social science issue as well, to not only connect the fields, but make sure that it is taken up as a serious field of study by African scholars and not seen as something marginal, or of importance to only some scholars. And secondly, I think the issues that have been raised in this book, and the subsequent conferences, point to the need for Islam and Islamic scholars to exercise their minds on some of the issues that are really high on the global agenda today. So one of the conferences was on global issues and Islam, as has been explained, but I think there are a number of issues where there are responses that could be from Islam and Islamic studies, talking about globalization, talking about climate change, talking about the whole issue of inequality, talking about serious, really serious, contemporary issues that the whole world is trying to find answers for. And then there are values that are ways in which, I think, the whole issue of humanism and how it needs to be rethought and brought back to the fore. We've seen it in the context of COVID we are in, which we are facing now. What kind of responses to bring? What kind of values need to be put forward more? It's a time when I think the world needs responses. And I think there's a significant contribution that can come from this research. And you're seeing some of it through the work that has been done already. So I think there's huge potential for more to be done and for greater contributions, which is why these works ought to be read widely, and it's good that we have Professor Kane who has not only taken the lead in organizing the conferences and editing the volumes, but also engaging in the translation himself, much of it is his own doing, actually, taking the lead in making sure that the volumes are available in French in particular, and available in affordable formats on the African continent. So thank you for the opportunity for being part of this conversation.

 

Harry Bastermajian  56:35

Thank you, thank you for joining us. This has been very interesting, and we are excited to be part of these past conferences and future ones as well. And we look forward to the upcoming volumes, edited volumes. Thank you very much.

 

Meryum Kazmi  57:05

That was our conversation with Professor Ousmane Kane and Dr. Ebrima Sall on the new volume, Islamic Scholarship in Africa: New Directions and Global Contexts, edited by Professor Kane. We hope you’ll check out the volume and keep an eye out for the next one on “Africa, Globalization, and the Muslim Worlds,” which is scheduled for release in 2022. Please remember to subscribe and join us for future episodes of the Harvard Islamica Podcast. I’m Meryum Kazmi, thanks for listening.