Ousmane Oumar Kane


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

Cover Interview of February 15, 2017

The wide angle

Among the contemporary debates to which this book seeks to contribute, African historiography and cosmopolitanism are paramount. In his Philosophy of History lectures, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friederich Hegel claimed that Africa “is no historical part of the World,” and described it as “Unhistorical” and an “Undeveloped Spirit.” He also separated North Africa because it was rather related to Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, much of Western scholarship in the past and present discourse echoes or has been informed by Hegel’s prejudiced perspective.

A huge body of literature on African history has refuted the Hegelian claim, and this book demonstrates how Africa was indeed a historical part of the world proven by its integration into world political economy for over a millennium, the great empires and civilizations that flourished in Africa before foreign invasions, and the higher rates of literacy and scholarship in West Africa at some periods than could be found in contemporary Europe. Yet most of postcolonial African historiography sought to write African history using colonial languages, oral tradition, and archeology. This book highlights another category of sources: writings in Arabic languages or in African languages written in the Arabic script. The history of Arabic writing in Africa spans a period of 800 years and West African Muslim scholars cite in their works authors from a variety of regions, including Turkey, India, North and West Africa, Persia, and Al-Andalus, which is evidence that they have for centuries participated in a global network of intellectual exchange. In addition, while Europeans since Hegel have long viewed the Sahara as a formidable barrier that makes North Africa more akin to the Middle East or Mediterranean Europe, the political, economic, and scholastic networks documented in this book are often centered around the Sahara and highlight how those living around the desert have for centuries used it as a bridge to form these large regional networks.

This leads to the other important debate to which this book seeks to contribute: cosmopolitanism. Black Africa has been represented in academia as well as in popular representations as a continent of warring tribes. One of the main challenges of nation building, so the story goes, was to create a sense of belonging among different tribes separated by colonial and post-colonial boundaries. This has been so well documented that it has become, if not the single story, at least the dominant narrative. This book argues that large sections of West African peoples have, in the past and the present, proven their ability to transcend parochial identities and differences in a common cause and have indeed claimed their independence of thought and common destiny. More than anything else, this is embodied in a long literary tradition that has been obscured by European colonial hegemonic discourses of the past century, which tended to represent black Africa essentially as a continent of orality and obscured its literary tradition.

Finally, this book is a bit autobiographical for me as my family and I are part of this proud tradition of Islamic and Arabic scholarship. I draw heavily from my personal experience growing up in the traditional Islamic educational system, my involvement with Arabophone education, and the schools run by my family that embrace both Islamic and modern, secular educational models. My own professional career has been the product of both Western, Europhone education and West African, Arabophone education, so it has been a pleasure documenting and presenting the latter side so the wider world can learn what it has to offer just as I have from my youth.