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African Diaspora Newsletter No.9

   Graduate Students Reports

Ismael Musah Montana - Symposium Report

Early this November, Ph.D. candidate Ismael Musah Montana attended a symposium at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY (November 7-9, 2002) on Africa's Intellectual Caravans: Bilad as-Sudan and al-Maghaarib.

This three day, highly specialized symposium was hosted by the Founding Committee of the Sudanic/Maghaaribi Studies Unit, (SMSU) and the Africana Studies department Vassar College around an exciting theme that has increasingly become the intellectual pursuit not only for Africanists specialized primarily on the "Bilad al-Sudan" and the Maghreb, but also for scholars interested on the centrality of African Islamic legacies throughout the Americas during the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The symposium marked the official opening of the Sudan Al-Magharib Studies Unit (SMSU). This center's goals include revisiting the intellectual legacy of Africa's Islamic tradition, and most particularly the historical, cultural and religious ties that bonded the "Bilad al-Sudan" and its cultural and intellectual neighbors to the North, Bilad al-Maghreb. In line with its grand objective, the theme for this symposium (the first of many to follow) was to highlight the role of the "Bilad al-Sudan" as a cultural and intellectual bridge not only between Africa north and Africa south of the Sahara, but across the Atlantic through the Slave Trade, since it has long been clear to historians that a number of enslaved African Muslims in the Americas originated from this particular Islamic intellectual environment in the "Bilad al-Sudan". In a number of ways, this symposium was timely and succeeded in stimulating a wide range of interests in the pursuit of African Islamic and intellectual legacies that, especially in the light of recent discoveries of troves of Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu, must now become a priority for academic research. The "Bilad al-Sudan", which will be the central-focus of the SMSU, "has been a major conduit between southern Europe and Africa south of the Sahara for a lengthy period of time". As the symposium organizers pointed out, "the ancient trading, cultural and political links between the Maghrib and "Bilad al Sudan" became more complex, beginning with the birth of Islam in 622 CE. The multi-ethnic caravans, traveling through the major market cities along Africa's ancient trade routes, gave safe haven to diverse merchants and scholars. This unique group of people ferried goods, religious ideas, religious and secular scholarship and the craft of writing in the Arabic script and language. Starting with the Egyptian Nile Valley in 641CE, Islamic religious ideas and scholarship spread to the North west/Maghrib, to Mediterranean Europe and due South to Bilad al-Sudan. It went south beyond the Limpopo River and further southeast to Africa's coast and into Asia."

The Sudanic/Maghaaribi Studies Unit (SMSU) will be a research center within the Program in African Studies at Vassar College and will support collegial affiliations among North American and international scholars who research the historical, linguistic, socio-political, ethnographic and cultural relationships between Maghaaribi and Sudanic Africa. The SMSU also aspires to publish an electronic and a traditional English/Arabic language journal and promote collaborative research, coordinate conferences and curricula innovation.

Scholars and specialists attended the symposium from various academic institutions from such countries as Morocco, the United States, and Canada. This symposium was a unique kind of a meeting for these scholars to discuss many issues related specifically to the "Bilad al-Sudan" and the Maghreb. Among the topics that were discussed and generated great interest was the recent discoveries of Arabic manuscripts in Timbuktu (Mali) that testify to the glorious intellectual past that once made the Bilad al-Sudan a major intellectual terminus par excellence. On this subject, Prof. John Hunwick, one of the Symposium's guest speakers delivered an address entitled "The Islamic Manuscripts Heritage of Timbuktu." He discussed the level of Islamic scholarship and the various industries that flourished in Timbuktu as a result of such an intellectual climate in the 16th-century. The natural outcome of such a fascinating intellectual environment, Prof. Hunwick reminded his audience, was the flourishing of numerous private and public libraries with holdings of Arabic manuscripts that sometimes ranged from 3,000 to 5,000 volumes.

Hunwick's presentation was echoed by another thought-provoking paper delivered by University of California Riverside, African American scholar, Prof. Ray A. Kea, whose presentation "Following the "Ink Road": Learning, Trade, and Urbanism in the Western Sudan, 8th-13th century," also eloquently linked Timbuktu's written patrimony with the notion of the "Ink Road", an intellectual Caravan route that linked the Western Sudan with Andalusia in the North, Senegal in the West, Ethiopia in the East, and the Island of Zanzibar in the south.

Department of History, York University,  Toronto, Canada
Email: nigerian@yorku.ca
Fax: (416) 650-8173