Ousmane Oumar Kane


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

Cover Interview of February 14, 2017

A close-up

I hope that a just browsing reader would read all the epigraphs of the prologue, the nine chapters of the books, and the epilogue because they either illustrate a main argument of a chapter or a major misconception about Africa that I seek to correct. My main claim is that Africa has a long intellectual tradition in Arabic or African languages in the Arabic script. But racial stereotypes and colonial hegemonic discourses obscured that tradition.

For example in the epigraph of the prologue, I cite African former Ghanaian Head of State Kwame Nkrumah who, in his installation address as the Chancellor of the University of Ghana in 1961 lamented the destruction of West African centers of learning by foreign invaders. Indeed in 1591, a Moroccan expedition of thousands of heavily armed troops attacked the Songhay Empire, of which Timbuktu was a part, precipitating its collapse. They confiscated thousands of books and manuscripts. Three centuries afterward, the French troops led by Commander Archinard conquered the Islamic State founded by Umar Tall in 1889. They then confiscated thousands of manuscripts and moved them to the French Bibliothèque nationale where they are still preserved. In 2013, during the French counteroffensive to liberate Northern Mali occupied by Islamists, the latter burnt or stole thousands of manuscripts.

I also hope that browsing readers would read pages 1 to 6 of the book, which are largely autobiographical. I believe that my own personal and family history, which prompted me to write this book, reflects to a large extent the transformations that the Islamic scholarly tradition underwent in Africa since the colonial encounter.