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Workshop Emphasizes Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Manuscript Studies

A November 16 to 18, 2023 workshop at the University of Hamburg marked another stage in the ongoing collaboration between ISITA, the Herskovits Library of African Studies, and the Cluster of Excellence, Understanding Written Artefacts based at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, University of Hamburg. The collaboration aims to advance understanding of the written heritage of Arabic and Ajami manuscripts from Africa by strategically connecting the scholarly, library, and laboratory resources of Northwestern and the University of Hamburg.   

The workshop, titled “Touching, Seeing, Hearing, Reading:  Voyage into Islamic Manuscripts of West Africa,” approached the study of manuscripts from a holistic perspective as both containers and content, artefacts and texts. Hamburg-based organizers Dmitry Bondarev, Darya Ogorodnikova, and Mauro Nobili brought together scholars from three continents who specialized in different aspects of manuscript studies.  

In the first session, “Manuscripts as Objects,” scholars offered new perspectives on the material aspects of West African manuscripts. Topics included the following: copying as a generative, rather than derivative, practice (Susana Molins Lliteras); the connection between Italian paper production and African paper usage through the trans-Saharan trade (Michaelle Biddle); the function of certain codicological features of West African Islamic manuscripts (Dmitry Bondarev); a proposed new taxonomy and periodization of West African script styles (Mauro Nobili); and a reconsideration of a nineteenth-century corpus of commercial letters from Timbuktu as a relatively recent innovation, rather than surviving fragments of an older practice (Bruce Hall).   

The second session, “Content of Manuscripts,” included presentations on the methodology and findings emerging from the large-scale cataloging of West African manuscripts underway at the Hill Museum in Minnesota (Ali Diakite); manuscripts on logic from the southwestern Sahara and the intellectual contributions of Ghadīja Mint al-‘Āqil al-Daymānīya, an important nineteenth-century female logician (David K. Owen); debates between scholars on the permissibility of practicing the "sciences of the unseen” (Ariela Marcus-Sells); and the legal? commercial? agreements of Ibadi communities in Mzab, Algeria (Yacine Daddi Addoun).  

The third session, “Languages of Manuscripts,” explored the many facets and functions of Ajami (the phenomenon of writing of African languages in Arabic script), reflecting the CSMC’s ongoing, pioneering research in this area. A team of Malian scholars presented findings from research in Timbuktu and Djenne on the relationship between Ajami types, languages, and topics across multiple collections (Ismaila Zangou Barazi, Hamadou Boly, Sambi Khalil Magassouba, Aguibou Sako, Misbaho Traoré, and Abdulkarim Touré).  Additional papers explored how Ajami--in this case, “Old Kanembu”-- functioned as a teaching tool to impart the meaning of the Qur’an in ancient Kanem (Dmitry Bondarev); how manuscripts containing Songhay Ajami help us understand how the language’s sound has changed over time (Lamin Souag); and the potential and challenges of translating Ajami texts into English for a broad audience (Mustapha Hashim Kurfi). 

An exemplar of the interdisciplinary, holistic approach to manuscript studies was the case study presented by Jannis Kostelnik, Darya Ogorodnikova, and Khaoula Trad (all of University of Hamburg). These scholars analyzed one manuscript from the University of Hamburg’s library (Cod. in Scrin. 227a): a nineteenth-century manuscript from Futa Jallon. Written in Arabic and local languages, it contains one family's collection of prayers and healing and protective recipes. Study of the colophons yielded a wealth of details on the manuscript’s owners, origin, contexts and circumstances of production and use. This case study demonstrated how examining both content and paracontent of a single written artefact can offer fascinating insights into the manuscript tradition, healing and talismanic practices, and multilingualism (extending to the realm of writing) in a given context. 

A highlight of the workshop was the session featuring analysis of a manuscript from Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies: Paden 417, a copy of the “Mukhtasar of Khalil b. Ishaq b. Musa al-Jundi, a fourteenth-century handbook of Maliki legal principles, copies of which are commonly found in West African libraries. Herskovits Curator Esmeralda Kale brought the manuscript to Hamburg for analysis at the Center’s laboratory because it presented a research question with the potential to be advanced through interdisciplinary methods. This manuscript contains paper with a 1551 watermark. It also has annotations in Hausa. The earliest known writing in Hausa Ajami, however, dates to the early nineteenth century.  The question thus arises: Could the manuscript be a much earlier example of writing in Hausa Ajami? What can material analysis of the manuscript’s ink, combined with contextual knowledge of writing and pedagogical practices, along with linguistic analysis, reveal about when the Hausa annotations were written on this manuscript? While the Center’s laboratory team presented preliminary findings at the workshop from a series of non-destructive tests involving infrared, x-ray, and chemical analysis, sharing of the full findings awaits completion of data analysis. 

The keynote lecture by Charles Stewart (emeritus, University of Illinois and former ISITA director of programming) was a rare opportunity to hear a senior scholar reflect candidly on the past and future of the academic field he helped build. Titled “If 2023 were 1963: Mapping my research agenda. Reflections on manuscripts and Arabic script writing in Africa,” Stewart identified promising avenues for research emerging from the quantitative analysis now possible through the West African Arabic Manuscript Database.  By revisiting the “Core Curriculum” concept (first articulated in a 2011 essay co-authored with Bruce Hall) with a much-expanded dataset, Stewart has identified the 317 titles and 201 authors at the core of West Africa’s manuscript culture. This robust literary tradition was “locally generated, ministering to diverse individual and community needs” and emerged in the nineteenth century. Stewart urged the next generation of scholars to articulate research questions centered on this nineteenth century tradition, which in fact is comprised of several interlocked manuscript cultures (geographic, chronological, and thematic). It is here, he argued, rather than in revisiting the overly romanticized Timbuktu manuscripts in search of a much earlier classical tradition, that the future of the field lies.   

Stewart concluded by observing that his generation, in their enthusiasm for substantiating that West Africa had written traditions, looked at West Africa’s manuscript culture largely in isolation from the oral societies from which it grew. Contemplating how the primarily oral culture of West Africa has influenced how Arabic and Ajami literacy developed, Stewart laid several promising dissertation topics on the table. The torch was passed to the next generation.