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Catalog a First Step in Reshaping Discourse on Islam

January 29, 2008 | by Wendy Leopold
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University Library has just released a Web-based catalog of Arabic-script materials from West Africa that will increase awareness of its unique collection's rich holdings and — with their use — potentially reshape our understanding of Islam, Africa and African history.

"Making the collection better known is particularly important at a time when post 9/11 discussions of Islam and Muslim relations with the West are focused on the Middle East and viewed through the filter of terrorism," said Muhammed Sani Umar, director of Northwestern's Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA).

"Recent studies estimate that there are more than 200 million Muslims in Sub-Saharan Africa. With 50 million Muslims in Nigeria alone -- more than in Iraq or the entire Arabian Peninsula -- Africa must be fully incorporated in discussions of Islam," Umar added.

When ISITA was created in 2001, Northwestern Professor John Hunwick -- its first director and a pioneering scholar in African Islamic thought -- said he hoped the Institute's work would forever erase the stereotype of Africa as a continent of song and dance, where knowledge is transmitted only orally.

In fact, Africans have been writing in Arabic for centuries. The easily searchable Web-based catalog refers not only to works by scholars but also by poets, healers and Islamic mystics and thinkers close to the everyday lives and practices of people.

The collection contains original manuscripts and "market editions" (copies of handwritten and printed works that are sold in Africa's marketplaces). While most items were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries, the collection contains a copy of a handwritten work by a
Timbuktu jurist dictated to his Moroccan students in 1595 and other old materials. It is housed in Northwestern's world-famous Herskovits Library of African Studies.

The online catalog is a guide to four distinct collections gathered by Northwestern scholars John Paden, Ivor Wilks and Hunwick. Those academics were part of the first generation of English speaking scholars to dedicate their careers to preserving the Arabic primary source materials from Africa they came across.

The largest collection is the library of a Nigerian scholar and Islamic mystic and healer who died in 1962. With 3,000-plus items -- 90 percent of them original manuscripts -- it contains books and manuscripts on all aspects of Islamic learning, including science, theology, literature, jurisprudence, protective medicine and "asrar" (the secret arts).

"The online catalog is a giant leap forward for the study of African intellectual and social life prior to the 20th century," said University of Illinois Professor Emeritus Charles Stewart at an event celebrating the launch. A visiting scholar at ISITA, he is founder of the Arabic Manuscript Management System, a sister project to the Northwestern catalog.

Whether a researcher seeks work by classical philosophers or, say, on conflict resolution, marriage customs or education, the items now can be located. By virtue of its inclusion in the Arabic Manuscript Management System, Northwestern's catalog can be compared with more than 20,000 West African manuscripts in institutions in Africa, Europe and North America.

ISITA director Umar said he hopes that the catalog leads to new collaborations across the world that will broaden the frames of analysis and enrich current scholarly discourse on Islam beyond the Middle East.

The Web-based catalog at http://digital.library.northwestern.edu/arbmss was made possible by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It is a joint project of the Program of African Studies, Northwestern University Library and Academic Technologies.

It was launched last week at Northwestern University Library at a symposium on "Studying Islam and Africa at Northwestern" celebrating Northwestern's long tradition of studying Islam and Africa. In addition to ISITA project staff, the University Library, and Academic Technologies, attendees included University President Henry S. Bienen, Donald Waters from the Mellon Foundation, Northwestern faculty, staff and students, and scholars from other Chicago-area institutions.
Topics: University News