Arabic scripts employed in West African manuscripts have not been fully explored in scholarly literature. The aim of this paper is twofold: to discuss the literature available on this issue and to advance a classification of West African writing styles. This classification is based on the case study of the “de Gironcourt” collection of Arabic manuscripts, gathered in the modern states of Mali, Niger, and Nigeria at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Islam in Africa is designed to present the results of scholarly research into the many aspects of the history and present-day features of Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The series will take up issues of religious and intellectual traditions, social significance and organization, and other aspects of the Islamic presence in Africa. It includes monographs, collaborative volumes and reference works by researchers from all relevant disciplines.
John Hunwick (1936-2015)
Professor John Owen Hunwick, a leading scholarly authority on the history of Islam in West Africa, passed away on 1 April 2015, after a lengthy illness.
Born in 1936 in Somerset, England, John Hunwick came into contact with Africa as a conscript soldier in British Somaliland from 1955. Back in Britain, he studied Arabic and Islamic history at the School of Oriental and African Studies, graduating in Arabic in 1959. He then went to Ibadan in Nigeria to teach Arabic and the University College there. After several years in Nigeria, he became Associate Professor of History at the University of Ghana, before finally coming to Northwestern University in Evanston, USA (from 1991), where he taught African history and Islamic studies until his retirement in 2004.
Professor Hunwick was an authority of a wide variety of topics and periods of the history of Islam in Africa, in particular in the medieval and early modern periods. He will perhaps be most remembered for his relentless efforts to show that Africa’s past was replete with written sources, and not just the “oral history” that earlier generations of historians assumed. He worked both to collect manuscripts but not least to catalogue and disseminate knowledge about them. In Timbuktu, which came to be at the centre of his attention from the mid-1990s onwards, he will in particular be remembered as the instigator for the UNESCO-initiated Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmed Baba. The centre, now Institute for Studies and Research (IHERI), is a repository of locally produced Arabic manuscripts of a wide variety of topics. Hunwick committed himself to disseminating knowledge of the rich literary heritage in Arabic from Africa, not least through the multi-volume bio-biographical dictionary Arabic Literature of Africa (Leiden: Brill from 1990, edited together with R.S. O’Fahey). He also initiated several journals for this purpose, from Research Bulletin of the Centre of Arabic Documentation in his Ibadan period, through the Fontes Historiae Africanae bulletin, to Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources, where he published a large number of documents and biographical studies on important Muslim scholars.
Professor Hunwick published several monographs, the most important being a study of the sixteenth-century Moroccan scholar al-Maghili’s influence on Songhay and Hausaland, Shari’a in Songhay (his Ph.D. Oxford University Press 1985), and a commented translation of al-Saʿdī’s Taʾrīkh al-sūdān: Timbuktu and the Songhay Empire (Brill 1999). However, already from the early 1960s he produced a series of important articles that set the pattern for the study of Islam in West Africa from the medieval to the modern, including an important discussion on the early history of Gao in the Almoravid period, on Islamic law in Songhay, and on issues pertaining to Sufism and slavery. He emphasized the importance of Africa’s contacts across the Sahara, and coined the phrase that “Arabic is the Latin of Africa.” In 2005, the African Studies Association recognized his extraordinary achievements by endowing him with the Distinguished Africanist Award.
Professor Hunwick’s lasting contribution to the study of Islam and Africa includes the establishment of the first academic centre exclusively devoted to the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa: the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA), founded in 1999 under the umbrella of Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies (PAS). He was able to attract significant grants for ISITA and built an impressive scholarly network around its activities. Always fond of puns, Hunwick used to say, “IS IT A good program? Yes, it is!” Indeed, the role of ISITA in promoting the study of Islam in Africa cannot be overestimated. For Brill Academic Publishers, Hunwick will—in addition to his publications mentioned above—be noted as the founder of the book series Islam in Africa (ISAF).
Professor Hunwick was an generous, welcoming and compassionate scholar, who made all effort to support scholars working in West African Islamic history, and in particular his many students, from Africa and elsewhere. He was for many of us the ultimate authority on any question relating to the use of Arabic in Africa, to issues of Shari’a in the African Maliki tradition, and to scholarliness in general. A veritable pioneer and trailblazer has left us, and those who used to stand on the shoulders of this giant will miss him dearly.
Professor Knut S. Vikør, University of Bergen, Norway
Professor Rüdiger Seesemann, University of Bayreuth, Germany
This article describes and analyzes barnāwī, the Arabic script of Borno (northeastern Nigeria) and most ancient prototype of what we define as the Central Sudanic family of scripts. Barnāwī shows paleographic features that clearly set it apart from some other West African Arabic scripts, thereby confirming the inadequacy of the label sūdānī, which often surfaces in literature to collectively brand a variety of scripts used in different regions of West Africa. A paleographic analysis of barnāwī also suggests that its origins predate the development of the maghribī script in North Africa in the twelfth century.