Reading the Past in the Present

Deep Sigh!

“A person must be informed, not disinformed. And if you have the feeling that you are being disinformed then it is your job to study the issues involved” — Marshall Meyer, WFAS Interview 1986, Marshall T. Meyer Papers, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University

لمنهج البحث التريخى أهمية بالغة، لدرجة أن البعض يرون في هذا المنهج الدلالة الكبرى على أهمية التريخ، بل إن البعض يرى إن التريخ ليس علماً فقط، وإنما هو منهج بمعنى إن المنهج هو أسلوب يطبق على مادة أى موضوع للكشف عن الحقيقة

لويس جوتشلك: كيف نفهم التاريخ مدخل إلى تطبيق المنهج التاريخي، ص٤٣

With my tripod and Sony camera at hand, I had a tripartite mission — to find, assemble and digitize:

(1) Arabic and Ajami manuscripts authored by scholars and historians from Central Sudanic Africa (the areas comprising Northern Nigeria, Southern Niger, Cameroon, and Western Chad) from the 17th century (the 1600s upwards)

(2) Arabic manuscripts authored in other parts of the Muslim world that made references to Central Sudanic Africa

(3) Colonial records and secondary literature in Arabic and English on Central Sudanic Africa and Bilād al-Sūdān in general.

My research started at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary Columbia University, Houghton Library at Harvard University, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University and Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. The research also took me to the Shaykh Sidiyya Boutilimit Library of Arabic Documents and Manuscripts at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign where I was hosted for 3 weeks at the residence of Professor Mauro Nobili. From Urbana-Champaign, I moved to the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University where I am currently a Visiting Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Islamic Thought in Africa and the Program of African Studies. I was also offered one of the offices of Late Professor John Hunwick (the scholar whose scholarly legacy had a deeply profound impact on me). More than 4000 pages of manuscripts on wide-ranging subjects from religion, jurisprudence, politics, philosophy, geography, astronomy, medicine, history, biographies, literature, and science written by scholars from Central Sudanic Africa were digitized during this adventure. I presented a preliminary reflection of my engagement with these manuscripts in a paper titled “From Lawḥ to Raqmiyyāt: The Ethics of Reading Nigeria’s Arabic and Islamic Manuscripts in ‘Devotional’ and ‘Didactic’ Libraries” at the University College London, Doha Campus, Qatar in March 2019.

At the end of the first phase of this research, I learned and unlearned, developed new critical questions, attempted a chronological reading of the region I call home. I was yearning to read and gain a firm grasp of the events that prompted the plethora of social, political, cultural and religious changes that took place in the region from the pre-colonial period (the 17th to 19th centuries) to the colonial and post-colonial periods (the 20th and 21st centuries). I was voraciously hankering to read chronicles, legal treatises, theological tracts, primary textual sources of the history of ideas, and the biographical dictionaries of thinkers and local scholars that shaped the region at each historical epoch. I was seeking to know the intellectual, social, and historical contexts that shaped the production of texts, specifically those on Islamic reform, and how to re-situate it in our present-day. I also had an interest in understanding how the development in Islamic thinking and practices is shaped by theological, legal, and Islamic political discourses. My thirst for knowledge was more than an academic preoccupation. It was also driven by an ideological disposition to know the many sides of history beyond what has been documented in the colonial archives and imperial canons.

The more manuscripts I read, the more questions I developed and the more phone calls I made to different scholars in Nigeria, Niger, Mali, Senegal, and Sudan. I would like to graciously appreciate all the teachers that spent long hours of calls with me and never got tired of the umpteen questions I submitted to them. My research would have been much more difficult without the pioneering works of scholars like Dr. Hamidu Bobboyi, Dr. Muhammad Sani Umar, Dr. Usman Bugaje, Mallam Ibraheem Suleiman, Dr. Fathi El-Masri, Professor Siraj Abdulkarim, Professor Abdullahi Smith, Professor Murray Last, Professor Mervyn Hiskett, and other scholars that established the institutional structures to study Islam in Africa. Special thanks to Shaykh Muhammad Shareef (Hei Xuanfeng) and my beloved and treasured teacher from whom I took my knowledge of Islam Shaykh ʿAbu ʿAsīm. Thank you for not turning away from me even when you know my Achilles’ heel.

Manuscripts are priceless treasures of African history. They constitute an important source of knowledge. Beyond the fascination with aesthetics, my interest was fixated on the excavation of the contents of these manuscripts with the hope of using the knowledge generated to create a dialogue between the past and present. The American Novelist William Faulkner once said, “The past is not dead, it is not even past.” If indeed the knowledge of the past is essential to the understanding of the present, then it means that the study of history is not something that comes to an end at some date in the past, but has a continuing life in the present. To decipher how contemporary forces actively hide the continuing life of the past in the present, I proceeded with three thematic questions: When was the past, how is the now, and what will the future be? The inspiration for these questions came from the work of Shaykh Muḥammad b. Abī Bakr aṣ-Ṣiddīq b. ʿAbd Allāh b. Muḥammad b. aṭ-Ṭālib ʿAli Bannān al-Bārtaylī فتح الشكور في معرفة أعيان علماء تكرور, the painting of the French artist Paul Gauguin D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous and the interdisciplinary study of time by Professor Julius Thomas Fraser.

WHEN WAS THE PAST

Where exactly are we coming from? Who are we? Did we define ourselves or were we defined by others? How did we become Nigerians? Can decolonization truly take place if our identity is still framed by colonial appellation? Is our self-definition as “Nigerians” consistent with our historical reality? Whose version of history is licensed or silenced? Is it the historical account of white explorers and colonial writers like Herbert Richmond Palmer, Heinrich Barth, William George Arthur Ormsby-Gore, Frederick Lugard, Hesketh Bell, Wyndham Dunstan, Charles Lindsay Temple, Charles Rhys, Henry F G Webster, Francis Rodd, Henry Galway, Harry Johnston, John Downie Falconer, Hans Vischer or the often neglected historical account of Muslim historians like Muḥammad b. Masanih b. ʿUmar b. Muḥammad b. ʿAbd ʿAllāh b. Nūḥ al-Barnāwī al-Kashnāwī, Aḥmad b. Furṭuwa, Muḥammad b. al-Ṣabāgh b. Muḥammad al-Ḥājj al-Kashnāwī al-ʿArabī (Dan Marīna), Muḥammad al-Wālī b. Sulaymān b. Abī Muḥammad al-Wālī, Jibrīl b. ʿUmar al-Aqdasī Abū ʿl-Amāna, Muḥammad Bello, Waziri Junayd b. Muḥammad al-Bukhārī?

What happened at the Battle of Santolo in 1349? What were the underlying ideational influences that shaped the battle between King Ali Yaji Dan Tsamiya of Kano and the animist cult of Tsumbubura? Is Islam in Central Sudanic Africa a “Colonial Religion”? The Islamophobic literature on Pan-Africanism suggests it is even though judging by the Intellectual History of Central Bilād al-Sūdān, neither Islam nor Arabic fit the description of a “Colonial Religion and Language”. From the 14th century, Islam had become the mainstream religion in the region. Kano, Katsina, and Bornu all had active centers of Arabic and Islamic learning and the cities attracted scholars from Walata, Timbuktu, Tripoli, Fezzan, Anu Samman, and Agadez. Muḥammad b. `Abd al-Karim al-Maghīlī al-Tilimsāni wrote his رسالة الي سلطان كانو to Sultan Muhammad Rumfa during his visit to Kano in the mid-15th century. Muḥammad al-Wālī’s treatise on tawḥīd منهج الفريد في معرفة علم التوحيد was written in the mid-17th century and it was widely studied across Central Sudanic Africa. From Bornu to Katsina, the entire region had witnessed an upsurge in the population of those who proclaimed themselves as Muslims. Yet, the prevailing tradition of Muslims blending Islamic practices with perceived traditional beliefs and the failure to govern by the sharīʿa birthed the intellectual geographies of the ideas of Islamic reform, a renewed wave of jihād, and the successful establishment of the caliphate.

The success of the caliphate was stalled by the advent of European colonial conquest. Muslims began to lose their power as the main drivers of social, political, and religious changes in the region. Jihād al-ṭalab became jihād al-dafʾ until Sokoto fell into the hands of Lugard. The changing power relations also dictated that the hermeneutics of Islamic tradition and theological canons that defined the political order and social relations under Dār al-Islām had to be subjected to newer forms of negotiation, contestation, and re-interpretation. For the first time in Hausaland and Bornu, Muslims now had to learn to live within the boundaries of secular nation-states as earlier forms of political units such as caliphates and emirates were gradually stripped off their political and religious germaneness. Not only do the Muslims in the new territory, now labeled the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria by the colonizers, had to compete with the minority Christian population in Hausaland and Borno, they also now had to compete with the mainly Christian population in the Protectorate of Southern Nigeria.

HOW IS THE NOW

What went wrong? The early Muslim scholars in the region were the polymaths of their generation. They wrote intellectual works in virtually all fields of knowledge including the humanities, social sciences, and sciences. They had manuscripts on cartography, arithmetic, logic, medicine, ophthalmology, etc. With the wealth of knowledge and plethora of intellectual works produced in the region from the time of Abū Isḥāq Ibrāhīm al-Kānemī (fl. 1200), It is abstruse for me to grasp how the region earned the monikers associated with illiteracy and ignorance. Wait! There was an event that took place on 29 October 1902. On that day, Lugard (with the help of Dr. Walter Richard Samuel Miller) orchestrated linguistic colonialism by substituting the Arabic/Ajami script into the Roman script of writing. That event sowed the seed of the generational detachment from the intellectual heritage bequeathed upon the sons of the region through the centuries-old writings of Muslim scholars. Today, not only are the intellectual works of the scholars gradually going into extinction, but their names are less known and even appear foreign especially to the younger generation.

Once the British handed over power to the Muslim political elites, the new class of local elites acquired the residual prestige of colonial privileges and attachment to symbols of colonial authorities and were soon confronted with the similar imperatives that shaped British colonial policies towards the Muslim population. Revolutionary Muslims who want a ‘restoration’ of Islamic civilization to its pristine form as they imagined Islam to have been before the European colonialism do not see any difference between the state governed by Sir Ahmadu Bello (the first premier of Northern Nigeria) or Frederick Lugard (the first British Colonial Administrator of the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria). For the revolutionary Muslims, the Islamic political order decimated through the terror orchestrated by the British forces is yet to be restored and governance based on the dictates of the sharīʿa is yet to be enforced in totality. The region has survived the breakdown of central caliphal control but it will hardly survive the transition from an Islamicate society to neo-colonial modernity. The configuration and tension in the ongoing interaction between the secular and the sacred will continue to pose complex historical and contemporary challenges.

WHAT WILL THE FUTURE BE

What is the prognosis for this society? Where exactly are we heading? Globalization and the effect of the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency have made the society to become porous and susceptible to foreign-driven influences from the Global North. The influx of new ideas, products, and people is gradually transforming the place and forms of Islamic thought, everyday lived Islam as well as the migration of previously-held interpretations of concepts, texts, and Islamic practices. Today, the mainstream Ulama have departed from their previous interpretations of western political concepts such as democracy, secularism, nation-state. They hide under the banner of Maslaḥa to do istiḥlāl of what they had once interpreted to be ḥarām or makrūh. The Gulf funding for Islamic activities is depreciating because the countries previously providing the funds are also going through their own aggressive pace of “liberalism”.

Through funding for NGOs, development agencies, and CVE programs, the soft powers of the global North are beginning to yield their results except for the members of IMN who remained glued to the compass of the Iranian state. Poverty and hunger have made almost everybody susceptible. The transposition of global mass culture into the region is rapid and most youths lack the cultural agency and religious filter to distinguish between the good, the bad, and the ugly. Gone were the days when MSSN, FOMWAN, MSO, MCAN, NACOMYO provided the religious grip. Today, virtually all the youth-oriented Islamic organizations are gasping for survival. Although the future is bleak, the society is going through a crisis point similar to other crisis points in history. The trajectory and the direction the society will follow after the ongoing crisis point remains unclear. However, I hope the historical lessons from these manuscripts can bring to light the obscurity that hides the past in the present.

Islam and Africana Studies. Ph.D. Candidate @RiceUniversity . Visiting Doctoral Fellow Northwestern University @NU_PAS @IslamAfricaNU