Ousmane Oumar Kane


On his book Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa

Cover Interview of February 14, 2017

In a nutshell

Beyond Timbuktu is about the literary cultures of West Africa. The old West African city of Timbuktu is famous as a great center of Muslim learning from Islam’s Golden Age. It is renowned for its madrassas and archives of rare Arabic manuscripts. Yet Timbuktu is not unique. It was one among many scholarly centers to exist 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—and shaped the sometime conflicting interpretations of Muslim intellectuals—over the course of centuries.

Highlighting the significant breadth and versatility of the Muslim intellectual tradition in sub-Saharan Africa, Beyond Timbuktu corrects lingering misconceptions in both the West and the Middle East that Sub-Saharan Africa’s Muslim heritage represents a minor thread in Islam’s larger tapestry. West African Muslims have never been isolated. To the contrary, their connection with Muslims worldwide is robust and longstanding. The Sahara was not an insurmountable 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 West African tradition of Islamic learning has grown in tandem with the spread of Arabic literacy, making Arabic the most widely spoken language in Africa today. In the postcolonial period, dramatic transformations in West African education, together with the rise of media technologies and the ever-evolving public roles of African Muslim intellectuals, continue to spread knowledge of Islam throughout the continent.

Unfortunately, the Western public and academy have been largely ignorant of this vibrant intellectual and religious tradition. Beyond Timbuktu provides an accessible account of the development of this tradition from the earliest stages through its complex interactions with colonialism and present fascinating engagements with modernity. I hope Western readers will enjoy discovering a rich scholarly tradition that is likely to be new to them, and that those who are already familiar with the tradition will appreciate the historical perspective and analysis of the various dynamics that have shaped West Africa’s impressive Islamic tradition.