Sudanic Africa 3, 1992.

CEDRAB: The Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmad Baba at Timbuktu

John O. Hunwick

In November-December 1967 the Unesco organised a 'meeting of experts' on the sources of African history which was held in Timbuktu to which the writer of this note was invited.[1]The principal recommendation of this meeting was that a centre of documentation and research­to be called the Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Ahmad Baba­should be established at Timbuktu to collect and preserve the Arabic-Islamic cultural heritage of the Western Sudanic region and, in particular, the heritage of Timbuktu and its region. At the time this seemed like little more than a pious hope, but, strange to relate, within ten years of that date a centre had indeed been founded at Timbuktu and the present writer found himself invited by Unesco to visit the embryonic centre and propose to Unesco a ten-year plan for its development. When, in July-August 1992 I paid a visit to the CEDRAB in pursuit of research for my ongoing translation of al-Sa'di's Ta`rikh al-Sudan I was yet more surprised­and pleasantly so­to discover that many of my 1976 recommendations had been acted upon.

As of the present time, therefore, there exists at Timbuktu a documentation centre where are stored close to 6,000 items in Arabic, ranging from local chronicles and large collections of fatwas to single page documents, a small but carefully selected library of printed books in both Arabic and French, a bindery and repair section and a photographic section where microfilms can be made and processed. Aditionally, there is a large conference centre with some 'chambres de passage' for visiting researchers attached, a teaching centre (which can also function as a location for smaller meetings) and a three-bedroom bungalow (not as yet completely fitted out) where longer-term or larger groups of visitors can stay. The development of this centre has been due to a number of factors. First and foremeost, is the interest of the Malians in having such a centre and the fact that successive Malian governments have been prepared to fund its day-to-day operations­albeit at a level which only barely ensures its survival. Secondly, is the investment that Unesco initially made in equipping the Centre and supporting some of its activities­an interest that has been supplemented by ALECSO, the 'Arab Unesco' and ISESCO, the 'Islamic Unesco' in more recent years. Thirdly the financial support which a number of Arab countries­notably Saudi Arabia and Kuwait­have given the project and which has permitted the physical realisation of the Centre in the shape of its present buldings complex. The most important element in the Centre's development, however, and without which little of the foregoing could have been achieved, is the energetic and single-minded leadership of the Centre's director since 1977, Dr Mahmoud Zouber. Dr Zouber has a doctorate from the Sorbonne and his dissertation (directed by Charles Pellat), which was on the 16th century Timbuktu scholar Ahmad Baba was published in 1977.[2] He is fluent in Fulfulde (his mother tongue), Songhay, Tamacheq, Classical Arabic (his B.A. is from 'Ayn Shams University, Cairo), the Hassaniyya dialect of Arabic and French, and has a deep knowledge of the history and culture of the Middle Niger region and of the more general culture of Islam. He is very welcoming to visiting researchers (amongst others, two of my own graduate students have recently worked there) and is willing to allow bona fide researchers to photograph items in the collection or, if film is available, to have microfilms made of items in the Centre's collection by their film unit.

The manuscripts held at the Centre, under the watchful eye of the librarian-archivist Jibril Doucouré, are housed in locked cupboards and are numbered serially according to their accession. There has been little real 'preservation' apart from the fabrication of jackets made of card (possibly not acid-free) for individual documents. Generally manuscripts are simply stored 'as is' in their original leather slip-cases or whatever cover they had when purchased. Many are in very fragile condition and urgently require treatment by skilled preservation professionals and only the first 200 items have yet been microfilmed. Many of the 19th century documents on slavery that I photographed, for example, had broken apart into four or more pieces along fold lines; some were so fragile at the edges that even the most careful handling could not prevent pieces from chipping off; others were stained or obscured by discolouration and dirt so that the only way to ensure future legibility for the researcher is to make a hand-written copy in situ in addition to photographing.

As noted above, all the items bear an accession number and this is the only form of classification there is. Every item as it was accessioned was entered by hand into a large ledger, indicating the title, author, number of folios and in many cases the name of the original owner. While in the early years of the Centre's existence acquisition expeditions were mounted throughout the Middle Niger region (with the help of a Land Rover purchased in 1983), these did not on the whole produce the kind of results such expenditure might justify. Budget constraints, apart from anything else, soon dictated another policy and more concentrated attention was turned towards the city of Timbuktu itself. Most acquisitions are now made through a permanent member of the Centre's staff, a young sharif, 'Abd al-Qadir Haidara who himself inherited a considerable library from his father and who has good connections with many families in the city. He carries out 'prospection campaigns' in the city and establishes lists of items on offer. The Centre then makes selective purchases as and when funds are available. The collection, as of August 1992 contained some 5,800 items entered into the accessions register (now in its third volume) and there were approximately 500 recent acquisitions that had not yet been entered.

The great majority of the items preserved at the Centre Ahmad Baba are of local authorship, though some non-local items have been acquired if they have some historical or aesthetic interest. Among the latter we may note a beautiful illuminated copy of the Shifa` of Qadi 'Iyad penned in Morocco (no. 3178) and one volume (in 80ff.) of the Wafayat al-a'yan of Ibn Khallikan in the hand of Ahmad Baba, copied by him in Marrakesh in Jumada I 1008/19 Nov.-18 Dec. 1599 (no. 3866). Almost all the items are in the Arabic language, though the index does record the existence of a letter in Tamacheq and several poems and letters in the Songhay language­the only examples of this language written in the Arabic script so far preserved to the best of my knowledge.

It is difficult to do justice to the richness of the collection in the space of a note such as this, but it may be worthwhile to indicate some of the principal categories of materials and to give illustrative examples of some of them. There are two broad categories of material; (1) items of a 'literary' character­religious treatises, chronicles, poems, all of which (or most of which) may be attributed to an author, and (2) items of a documentary character, including letters, commercial and legal documents. Between these two categories come a large number of items that are in one sense documents and in another sense­in that they are written by scholarly authors­works belonging to a literary tradition. These are the fatwas­both individual ones on specific topics and collected volumes­and the risalas, often on quite specific topics but addressed to particular individuals or groups.

Let us now consider the first category, i.e. those items which are of a 'literary' nature:

1. Religious Treatises
Prominent among these are works by Kunta scholars, Sidi al-Mukhtar b. Ahmad al-Kunti (d. 1811), his son Sidi Muhammad (d. 1826) and his grandson Sidi Ahmad al-Bakka`i (d. 1865) who was also the effective civil power in Timbuktu in the mid-nineteenth century and the host and protector of Heinrich Barth. Earlier Timbuktu scholarship is represented by a number of works by Ahmad Baba (though less than one would have expected), by the al-Minah al-hamida of Muhmammad Baba b. al-Amin (d 1606) on grammar (no. 1563), the al-Futuh al-Qayyumiyya of Ahmad b. Anda-Ag Muhammad (d. 1635) (nos. 1927, 1928, 2008) and the commentary by Ahmad Baba's grandfather Ahmad b. 'Umar b. Muhammad Aqit (d. 1583) on al-Maghili's poem on logic­the Amnah al-ahbab min minah al-Wahhab (no. 1945). There are also numerous works by Mauritanian authors, especially those of Walata, such as the celebrated qadi Muhammad Yahya b. Muhammad al-Mukhtar (d. 1912). Finally in this category we may note the existence of copies of a number of works by the early 19th century Sokoto family of scholars and state builders, the Shaykh 'Uthman b. Fudi (d.1817), his brother 'Abd Allah (d. 1829) and his son Muhammad Bello (d. 1837). In particular, there are several copies of each of the two volumes of 'Abd Allah's tafsir the Diya` al-ta`wil . Earlier generations of 'Nigerian' writers are represented by the 17th century Muhammad al-Wali b. Sulayman al-Fullani of Katsina and his contemporary Muhammad Masanih also of Katsina and the 18th century Muhammad al-Tahir b. Ibrahim al-Fallati of Bornu.

2. Chronicles.
First­and this was what drew me to Timbuktu for this particular visit­there are two copies of al-Sa'di's Ta`rikh al-Sudan,[3] Neither is dated, but both appear to be 19th century copies and both are in neat hands with fairly generous vocalisation of most place and personal names. One of them (no. 660 in 163 ff.) was obtained from the papers of Maurice Delafosse which were sold to the Centre by his surviving daughter, and lacks a small portion at the end. The other (no. 681) is complete in 199 ff. There are also two copies of the Ta`rikh al-fattash. The one which I briefly examined (no. 3927) follows the text of MS A/B of the published edition but lacks the opening sections down to the account of Mansa Musa and has one or more folios missing at the end.

The following is a summary list of the other principal chronicles and biographical dictionaries to be found at the Centre:

Turning now to the second category­items of a documentary character and to the fatwa material.

1. Documents relating to property ownership.

I did not examine any of these documents personally and the register gives no details on the dates at which such documents were drawn up. However, they are likely to date mainly from the 19th and early 20th centuries if the documents I did examine (which mainly concern slaves) are anything to go by.

2. Documents of regional and trans-Saharan trade.

It should be stressed that this is only a rapid sampling of what is in this archive. I was shown lists of several hundred documents the Centre is waiting to purchase from Timbuktu families when cash becomes available. There is little doubt that the possibility exists to reap an enormous harvest of commercial documents from Timbuktu (and, no doubt, Jenne and other centres of trade) over the coming years if funding is forthcoming.

3. Documents concerning slavery

Although my search was not exhaustive (but was as thorough as time permitted), I came across just under 200 documents relating to purchase, sale, inheritance and endowment of slaves, as well as documents of manumission and claims to free status. Some were in the form of contracts while others were letters or fatwas. I was able to photograph many of these with my own camera, the Centre being out of microfilm at the time (Unesco had sent them a batch of 16 mm instead of 35 mm film!). The following is a representative sampling:

4. Collections of fatwas.

There are a dozen or so major collections of fatwas at the Centre Ahmad Baba, totalling over 1,800 ff. Some of these are collections of the legal opinions of a particular scholar while others are more diverse collections of opinions of the scholars of the region as a whole. Most of the collections by single individuals are, in fact, by scholars of Mauritanian origin, though the major one is by the late 19th-early 20th century Kunta scholar Bay b. Sidi 'Umar (b. 1865)[7] which runs to some 488 ff. in nine volumes (nos. 118-126). There are three copies of the major collection of the fatwas of the scholars of 'Takrur'­al-'Amal al-mashkur fi jam' nawazil 'ulama` al-Takrur by al-Mustafa b. Ahmad al-Ghallawi (nos. 521, 1031 & 5346).[8] There is also a collection of the opinions Ahmad Bu 'l-A'raf (no. 711 in 45 ff.).


1 See 'Report of the UNESCO Meeting of Experts on the utilisation of written sources for the history of Africa held at Timbuktu, 30 November-7 December 1967' Research Bulletin (Centre of Arabic Documentation, University of Ibadan), 4, 1968, 52-69. [*]

2 Ahmad Baba de Tombouctou (1556-1627): sa vie et son oeuvre, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose 1977. [*]

3 I am currently engaged in preparing an annotated English translation of this work, based on the published text of Houdas compared with all other known manuscripts. [*]

4 See the note on this work by W.A. Brown, 'A new bibliographical aid: the IZALAT AL-RAIB of Ahmad Abu 'l-A'raf al-Tinbukti', Research Bull. (Centre of Arabic Docn.), 3, ii, July 1967, 135-6. [*]

5 Ed. Muhammad Ibrahim al-Kattani & Muhammad Hajji, Beirut: Dar al-gharb al-Islami, 1401/1981. [*]

6 There is another MS in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, mss. arabes, 5259, ff. 88r.-152v. [*]

7 For a brief account of him from the French colonial perspective, see Lt. Cortier, D'une rive à l'autre du Sahara, Paris 1908, 286-9. [*]

8 On this work see the note by W.A. Brown, 'A monument of legal scholarship: the NAWAZIL 'ULAMA` AL-TAKRUR of al-Mustafa b. Ahmad al-Ghallawi', Research Bull. (Centre of Arabic Docn.), 3, ii, July 1967, 137-8.[*]

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