Transcript: 14. Souleymane Bachir Diagne on Islam in Africa

Peter speaks to Souleymane Bachir Diagne about Islamic scholars in West Africa.

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Maybe we should mention before we start that you're one of Chike's mentors and teachers because he studied with you at Northwestern!

I did have the pleasure of having Chike as my student at Northwestern University and also I was the co-sponsor of his wonderful dissertation. Yes.

Brilliant. And he is your first podcasting student! We're going to be talking about Islam in Africa and philosophical aspects of the history of Islam in Africa. Just to set out some historical context, can you sketch for us the history of when Islam came to Africa and how it spread to various regions within Africa?

Well, if you take the whole African continent, Islam came in very early, actually, the first encounter of Islam and the African continent took place in Abyssinia when the first companions of the prophet at one point came to seek refuge in Abyssinia to flee persecution in Mecca. So that first group of Muslims who came to Abyssinia came around the year 620, early in the seventh century. But then Islam came into the African continent after the passing of Prophet Muhammad. So it's in the eighth century that North Africa became Muslim. So did actually Southern Spain. And from there, there was a slow push towards the south, toward the southern part of the continent. For example, if I take the West African region, the Sahelian West African region, let me just remind our listeners that Sahel means actually the shore. So the word Sahel is the shore of the Sahara, the southern shore of the Sahara. So Islam became a Sahelian reality, had a Sahelian presence very early, starting in the ninth, tenth century, but it became a significant presence in that region of West Africa, Sahelian West Africa, really starting in the tenth century.

Okay. So speaking of that, one thing that I thought you might want to address is how sub-Saharan African authors relate to and use authors from other parts of the Islamic world, including the Maghreb. For example, do they cite and know about Ibn Khaldun? Do they cite and know about Averoes who are not that far away geographically, or even figures from further afield like Avicenna and Al-Ghazali? I mean, were the works of Avicenna read in the Sudan?

Well, one thing which is important is to remember that they were part of the Islamic world. You probably say this in an earlier podcast, but it is worth remembering and reminding that the Sahara has never been a wall separating two different worlds. So you had some kind of continuity with the Maghreb, which means that, of course, manuscripts and books were scarce. It was very difficult to find them. And many scholars of the region in Timbuktu, for example, complained about scarcity of books, and books were absolutely, I mean, were treasures. Ahmed Baba actually said that he borrowed many, many books from his mentor and teacher Baha'u'llah. And so that shows the value of books. That being said, they were eager to find books, which means that, yes, they were reading roughly the main authors coming from the rest of the Islamic world. Now, among the names you cited, the one prominent name, the one who was widely read by the scholars in West Africa was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, especially his Ihya Ulum al-Din. So I would say that, yes, you might find mention of these authors here and there, but the main author really that was cited among everybody that you quoted, all the names that you mentioned, was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. For one main reason that we might want to discuss, which is that the Ihiya Ulu Mudid was really a kind of treatise of Sufism. And we must mention that Islam in West Africa was very much Sufi Islam. So the Islamic, the philosophical reflection in West Africa was very much Sufi reflection as well. You had here some form of intertwining philosophy and Sufism. And al-Ghazali, obviously, especially his work on the revivification of Islamic sciences, which is the translation of Ihiya Ulu Mudid, was the main author known throughout the region.

I guess in a way Sufism is, you could think of it as the kind of end of one's scholarly itinerary. I mean, if you start from basic religious education and also logic as a kind of introductory science within philosophy, Sufism would be the kind of ultimate culmination of your journey towards wisdom, right?

Indeed, that is the case. And precisely speaking of logic, you mentioned logic as a preparatory discipline here. One important treatise to answer your earlier question about which Maghreb authors were being widely read, the book on logic by al-Akhdari was a very important one. Al-Akhdari was a scholar from the Maghreb who wrote a treatise in logic entitled al-Sulam al-Murawwanaq, literally translated the luminous ladder. And this notion of ladder actually carries, implies the idea of a tool, of a preparation. You need the ladder of logic in order to reach higher science and knowledge. So this was a very important book, which was a versification, putting into poetry the main aspect of classical Aristotelian logic, which was a feature in that region in the whole Islamic world, because we mentioned the scarcity of books. One way of knowing, memorizing even abstract disciplines would be to put them in verses and recite basically those verses. So you will be reciting the sulam of al-Akhdari in order to understand classical Aristotelian logic.

Yeah, actually, Avicenna wrote a poem about medicine, which was supposed to play the same role. So you could, it's easy to remember. So you recite the poem, you learn it by heart, and then you have at your fingertips some basic medical knowledge. Actually something I found quite frustrating reading up on this topic about the intellectual tradition of sub-Saharan Africa is that it's clear that there are many, many manuscripts about logic that still exist from Timbuktu and elsewhere. And as far as I know, there's hardly any study of this. So do you have any sense of whether there are works on logic that make creative suggestions within the logical tradition? Or are we really talking about mostly or exclusively kind of basic textbooks for kids, as it were, who are just learning their logical introductory ideas?

No, I mean, one thing that we must remember is that the manuscripts, the famous manuscripts of Timbuktu and elsewhere, actually Timbuktu has become the symbol of this tradition of written erudition in West Africa. But you do have places where you might even have many more manuscripts. Chinguetti in Mauritania would be one of those places. And so we need now to recover these manuscripts to actually make sure that we maybe digitalize them, but at least publish them and know what is in these manuscripts. For the time being, the manuscripts are more a topic of conversation than actually objects that are being disseminated and recirculated for discovery and scholarship. So we do not know what is in those manuscripts. Here and there we have scholars who have picked this or that and have published them in Arabic and also translated them in European languages. And this is something that happened to the Sulaam al-Murawwanaq of Al-Akhdari, for example. But a systematic study of manuscripts in logic would be very useful. A pioneer of the Arabic literature in West Africa, the Islamic literature in West Africa, such as John Hunwick, has published bibliographies looking at the different titles. He has just looked at titles. So from the titles published in his Arabic literature in Africa, which is the title of the many volumes he published, you could say and see that, indeed, logic was of great interest to many of these West African ulama, these West African scholars. There is in particular a title, which is a very intriguing title, about model logic published by one member of the Sokoto-Kalifei family, a nephew of Osman Dan Fodio, I believe. On necessity, impossibility, and possibility about attributes and essence of God. Obviously, this is both a work of logic and a work of metaphysics, which would be of great interest for scholars. And knowing that that title is there, I have always thought of that manuscript and hoping that somebody will be publishing that. But it is still an unknown continent. And the promise of these manuscripts is still to unfold and be discovered.

Yeah, there's a similar situation with post-classical philosophy in the Islamic world in the East, like in Iran or Central Asia. Although there, at least, there's quite a few manuscripts that have been looked at to see roughly what the contents are, like, you know, the kind of table of contents, what are the sections about, how are they structured. Whereas with African manuscripts, it seems like we haven't really even done that as a field yet. So there's a lot to discover here, obviously.

You're absolutely right. And I would say that it is probably even more urgent in Africa for one reason. Africa has been for so long associated with orality. I mean, it is the world that comes to mind because the dominant discipline for the study of thought in Africa had been ethnology, ethnography, anthropology. It is time to let that tradition of written erudition be known. So yes, it is really urgent to see that these manuscripts are published and translated. Yes.

We just mentioned that one of the major centres for intellectual activity, at least prior to the Moroccan invasion in 1591, was Timbuktu. And you've actually published a book or edited a book about Timbuktu and the intellectual traditions there. What sorts of scholarship were carried on in Timbuktu? And what was the institutional framework for that scholarship? Were there schools? Were there small universities? Or how was it practically arranged?

Oh, yes, indeed. One might speak of universities. The Sankore Mosque is also referred to sometimes as the University of Sankore. Just because the university model that was created actually in the Islamic world, we have always to remember that the first university in the modern sense was Al-Azhar in Egypt. But the model of what we call a university would be scholars teaching in mosques, coming at regular time, coming to their chair and delivering their lecture and taking questions from their disciples. So this was the model of teaching and learning in Timbuktu and in other places in the Biladu, Sudan, or West Africa. So from what we know, that was the case in Timbuktu as well. Ahmed Babak, who is probably the most known scholar of Timbuktu, who was captured after the invasion by the Moroccan army, refers to the teaching that he received from his own master. Unfortunately, we don't have anything from that master. We just have the testimony of Ahmed Babak, who referred to him as really the scholar of his time, the mushtahid of his time, even, which means the one who renewed somehow Islamic sciences. So he spoke very, very highly of his master. And from his testimony, we can see how learning was going there, because I mentioned earlier all the books that he could borrow from him and the kind of teaching he received from him, basically on the model of a master, a scholar, sitting on his chair in a mosque, being surrounded by disciples, giving a lecture and taking questions from them. Ahmed Babak himself, actually, when he was taken to Morocco after the invasion of Timbuktu, taught in Morocco, actually, according to the same kind of format, he would go to the mosque in Morocco and give lecture and take questions. And the story is that Moroccans were amazed by his knowledge because they thought of basically the place he was coming from, the Sunni Empire, as at the margins of the Islamic world and the Islamic intellectual centers. And they were discovering that actually Timbuktu was just another prominent Islamic center of knowledge, as all the kind of centers that you might find in the Islamic world in general.

So that actually sounds quite a bit like the institutional situation in the eastern part of the Islamic world, right? Where you have maybe madrasahs, mosques, and then there are circles of students gathered around individual masters. And they even have the same thing where the student will get a kind of written certificate saying I've studied such and such a text with such and such a master. And it's kind of like your diploma, right?

Yes, I think it's a universal model in the Islamic world. You would study from a master who would add when he thinks that you have understood his discipline and the books and the knowledge he wanted to transmit would give you an ijaza, which is the diploma you receive from him. Basically ijaza as the word itself, the meaning of the word indicates, is that you are yourself authorized to teach what you received to transmit it. Right.

This is sort of like when you authorized Chike to teach Africana philosophy by referring his PhD.

I did do that. And he authorized himself by his wonderful scholarship in the first place.

So speaking of authority, something else I'm wondering about is how the scholarly communities that we've just been describing interact with the political leadership of say a place like Timbuktu or of the Songhai Empire later on the Sokoto Caliphate. I mean, in the case of the Sokoto Caliphate, as we talked about in the previous episode, the scholars actually are the rulers to some extent. But even earlier than that, it seems like there's a really kind of hand in glove relationship between the ulama who are often advising the leaders and the caliph or the emir who is consulting and sometimes asking questions from these philosopher, scholar, religious experts. So I mean, is that in your mind a sign that there was a kind of philosophical ideology that legitimated political rule within sub-Saharan Islam?

Yes, you have mentioned in your question already different models. And it is important to emphasize that you had different models of relationship between, let's say, scholarship and political power. You have cases in which actually the rulers themselves are rulers precisely because of their scholarship. You mentioned the Sokoto Caliphate. Let me go further west and mention, for example, in the northern part of Senegal, the Kingdom of Tikrur and the so-called Toro de Revolucion. Here is a kingdom that was ruled by traditional dynasties, the dynasty of the Denianke as they were called. And the Denianke had as their religion traditional African religions. And there was a revolution when clerics, a group of clerics actually seized the power and organized the first, let's call it, Islamic state, that is to say, a state that would be ruled by scholars called Toro. And the kingdom became known as the Toro de Almamiyya. Almami is a local adaptation of the word imam, the imam. So it became ruled by imams. That's one model that you find in West Africa. The power is the power of the clerics or the scholars. Because of their knowledge, these clerics had authority to lead people. It was particularly true in jihad, of course, and also in wars led by the clerics against traditional powers in defence, actually, of people, because those traditional powers were enslaving people, selling them because of the demand of the Atlantic trade at one point. So these scholars, these clerics, were defending the populations against these predatory practices of traditional powers. That's one model. Now, you have, if we go back to the Songhai Empire, you had here also two different attitudes. You mentioned clerics from Timbuktu being advisors to the ruler. And one known situation is the way in which the ruler of one of the most famous rulers of the Songhai Empire, the askia, that askia was the title of the ruler, the askia Muhammad, was seeking advice from scholars. He mainly had as one of his advisors, Al-Mahili, who came from the Maghreb, from regions in today's Algeria, but he was also seeking advice from the scholars at Timbuktu. One of his predecessors, Soeni Ali, was known for his harsh treatment of those scholars. And the clerics in this case, on the contrary, were trying to live in some kind of retreat to protect themselves from political power and really tried to have nothing to do with political power. So here we have already three models, basically, that could be considered. One model of scholars and clerics ruling, a model of scholars and clerics advising, being advisors to princes, and another model of the clerical community trying to live in kind of retreat and just stay away from political power.

And this relates to something you mentioned before. I think you said that often the members of the ulama were also interested in Sufism, and it seems that their expertise in Sufism and even their claims of mystical experience or special direct insight, maybe even union with God, was bound up with their role in legitimating political authority or having a special kind of claim to be able to advise the rulers. So I don't know if you agree with that, but I think that maybe a lot of people might assume that there's kind of the Sufis who are these crazy mystics on the one hand, and then there would be these much more sober, rational ulama who are experts in, let's say, logic and law, and that these two would be very different groups. But my impression of the sub-Saharan situation, at least, is that the ulama and the Sufis are basically the same people, but writing in different registers. Is that right?

That would be right, and that would explain why you would have two different attitudes of the Sufis. One representation of the Sufi is this mystical person who lives in retreat, who is retiring from the world and just living in devotion to the Lord. But in this case, yes, indeed, sometimes the rulers themselves would be the Sufis, or even the leaders of a certain number of jihadists that had been witnessed by the region. You mentioned Sokoto Caliphate being born out of the jihad of Uthman Dan Fodio. Later on in the middle of the 19th century, you had the jihad led by Elash Umartal, who was also a Sufi, a member of the Tijani Brotherhood, the Tijani Path, the Sufi Path, who at the same time wrote a book about Sufism, nonviolence, pluralism, tolerance, but also fought a jihad, both against the French and also against the local powers. And he even had to fight a war against another Muslim empire in the Masinah. So yes, in this case, we should not have the simplistic view of the Sufi trying to be as far away from political power as possible, but Sufis who consider themselves really leaders and responsible for the populations among which they lived and who took very different political role historically, depending on the circumstances, which bring us back to one of the Sufi proverb, which say that the Sufi is the child of the moment, the child of the circumstances. They have also to understand what the circumstances are and behave accordingly, even though the metaphysics of Sufism, which is something that was taught throughout West Africa and which brings us back to the importance of a book such as Ghazali's Ihya Ulum al-Din, that metaphysics of pluralism and tolerance is really fundamental in understanding Sufism in general, Sufism in West Africa in particular.

Right. So the history of these intellectual traditions in Sub-Saharan Africa is really part of the history of all of the intellectual traditions of Islam, philosophy, logic, kalam, Sufism, also jurisprudence. So just before we finish, let me ask you one last thing. We in the past couple of episodes and in our conversation, we've really been talking about, I guess what you might describe as pre-modern developments in Islamic Africa, or at least we went up to the 19th century with the Sokoto Caliphate. But what kind of resonance do the figures we've been talking about have today? Are people like Ahmed Baba and Uthman Dan Fodio widely known by Muslims who live in Africa? Are they quoted? Are they seen as heroes, cultural heroes and icons? Or are they forgotten there just like they're forgotten in Europe and North America?

Well, if I take the two examples that you mentioned, Dhanfodiyo on the one hand, Ahmed Baba on the other hand, we have to realize that Ahmed Baba is basically unknown. I mean, his name might be known to a few people who associate him with this tradition of written erudition, but he's unknown. It's different from Uthman Dan Fodio, because basically he founded the Caliphate of Sokoto, and the Caliphate of Sokoto has still some importance in present-day Nigeria, in northern part of Nigeria. Something of the Caliphate of Sokoto is still alive. So it looks like the political action of these ulama is enduring while their intellectual significance has been somehow forgotten by the majority. And this indicates what the task now is. The history, the intellectual history of West Africa needs to be written for not just for historical purposes, for the purpose of knowing that history, but also because it is important today when Muslims, who are the majority of the population in many countries in West Africa, are sort of revisiting their own intellectual and spiritual tradition to respond to the challenges of the present. So it would be unfortunate that these ulama would be remembered only because they also had a political action, but their scholarship is something that we need to reconnect with in order to reconstruct and teach the intellectual history of West Africa.

It's actually like their achievement was a kind of fusion of politics and scholarship, and there we really need to make sure that their names are remembered with respect to both, right? And it's not just a kind of political story or a story of successful or unsuccessful jihad. It's also a story about their intellectual interests and how those were connected to the rest of the Islamic world.

Absolutely. That's it. Okay, so that's a pretty good note to end on. We are going to be moving on next to look at something that Professor Jiang mentioned, which is oral traditions in Africa, which as we're going to be seeing is a controversial subject. To what extent can we kind of extract philosophical views out of reports about oral traditions? What does it mean to think about philosophy in an oral context where ideas are not transmitted through texts, but through stories or poetry that's not been written down? That's what we're going to be moving on to look at next. But for now, I would like to thank Professor Jiang very much for coming on the podcast.

Thank you very much for having me.

And please join me and Chike next time as we start to look at oral traditions of philosophy in Africa here on the history of Africana philosophy.


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