Why did a seventeenth-century scholar translate a Fulfulde text, that had long served to divulge Islamic theology in West Africa, into literary Arabic, a language that was only understood by people who were already advanced in their studies of the religion? This article explores whether his prime concern was not a translation from one language to the other, but the translation of an oral work into a written text.
In the seventeenth century, tobacco was fiercely debated from England to Istanbul. Muslim scholars from Bornu and Baghirmi participated in this debate and maintained that smoking was forbidden by divine law, long after their counterparts in the heartlands of Islam allowed it. The question addressed here is why and how the adamant rejection of tobacco in central sudanic Africa was formulated. The study is based on a number of Arabic manuscripts from the region and focuses on a treatise, written around 1700, by Muḥammad al-Wālī b. Sulaymān. It is argued that he was as much inspired by the popular opinion about tobacco in his home-environment as by the writings of scholars from the Middle East. In folktales, tobacco was literally demonised, and the rejection of “pagan” smokers helped to mark new social boundaries. The dominant position regarding smoking was the result of an exchange between islamic learning and popular culture in the region.
The seventeenth century was a period of major social change in central sudanic Africa. Islam spread from royal courts to rural communities, leading to new identities, new boundaries and new tasks for experts of the religion. Addressing these issues, the Bornu scholar Muḥammad al-Wālī acquired an exceptional reputation.
Dorrit van Dalen’s study places him within his intellectual environment, and portrays him as responding to the concerns of ordinary Muslims. It shows that scholars on the geographical margins of the Muslim world participated in the debates in the centres of Muslim learning of the time, but on their own terms. Al-Wālī’s work also sheds light on a century in the Islamic history of West Africa that has until now received little attention.