Sudanic Africa 9, 1998.

Recent Books

Manuscripts I: Markaz Ahmad Baba

Fihris makhtutat Markaz Ahmad Baba li'l-tawthiq wa'l-buhuth al-ta`rikhiyya / Handlist of Manuscripts in the Centre de Documentation et de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba, Timbuktu. London: Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation. 3 vols: I, prepared by Sidi 'Umar b. 'Ali [Sidi Amar Ould Ely], ed. by Julian Johansen, 1995. 575 pp. II, compiled by librarians of the Centre, ed. by 'Abd al-Muhsin al-'Abbas, 1417/1996. 648 pp. III, compiled by librarians of the Centre, ed. by 'Abd al-Muhsin al-'Abbas, 1418/1997. 864 pp.


These are the first three of six projected volumes listing the manuscripts at the Centre Ahmad Baba (CEDRAB), Timbuktu (on this centre, see SAJHS, 3, 1992, 173-81). A total of 4,500 manuscripts are listed, each volume containing 1,500 items. The size of the volumes varies quite considerably, ranging from 575 pages to 864 pages. This is not, as one might suppose, because more information is given about individual items in volumes II and III than in volume I; the differences are minimal. The different size of the volumes reflects rather a different layout, especially in the formatting of the collective indexes at the end of the volumes (respectively 133, 137, and 230 pp.). The essential headings under which information is given (when available) are: title, author (with date of death), name and date of copyist, number of folios, size of page, script, physical state of the ms., type of script, references to the author (including references to GAL, EI, Kahhala, Zirikli). In vol. I mss. in particular subject fields are grouped together (21 broad headings), whereas in the other two volumes each item is classified under similar broad headings. Each volume has a set of collective indexes at the end (called fihris in vol. I and kashshaf in the other two volumes): authors, titles, copyists, and in the case of vols. II and III, subjects. In vol. I the opening and closing words of the ms. are sometimes given, but this practice is dropped in vols. II and III. This was probably wise, since such information was sporadic and often too brief to be of any real value. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, first lines of works in verse ought always to be included to help in identification of the item, often otherwise merely described as a qasida or a manzuma. In vols. II and III individual items bear the accession number they have in CEDRAB. In vol. I, somewhat awkwardly, they have a serial number within the volume which bears no relation to their accession numbers in CEDRAB, while the CEDRAB number is given at the left margin in brackets. This arrangement is a reflection of the subject grouping of the volume, but it does make it almost impossible to locate a ms. by its CEDRAB number. There is some overlap in items between vol. I and vol. II.

Having edited material for other handlists published by the Furqan Foundation, I am all too keenly aware of the difficulties in undertaking such a task. Editors have to work with the material they are presented by the indexers at source -- in this case staff of CEDRAB -- who may be familiar with the content of the mss and their local context, but have never been trained in how to describe a ms. Hence the material under individual entries may be inadequate or inconsistent, and the editor must give it form and substance to the best of his ability. In general these volumes succeed in their limited, but valuable, aim, which is to give a simple listing of the mss. available for researchers in a major African repository. They provide enough information to encourage the researcher to visit the Centre and take a closer look at whatever items interest him or her in this extraordinarily rich collection. For this we must be profoundly grateful to the Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, and to its far-sighted and generous patron H.E. Ahmad Zaki Yamani, former Saudi Arabian Oil Minister. For the first time, the researcher in Cairo, Chicago or London can have a glimpse of the riches of the Islamic learned tradition in Timbuktu without stirring from his home location. In particular, he can discover what a large amount of material was generated locally -- works of piety, Sufism, theology, jurisprudence, and history, including many items that would normally be classed as archival documents. The remaining volumes are eagerly awaited.

While it is appropriate to praise the initiative of the Al-Furqan Foundation and the industry of its editors, some comments on the technical problems the reader may encounter are in order. Some problems and inconsistencies occur in the collective indexes at the back of each volume, and these could (and hopefully will) be ironed out in subsequent volumes. Some of these (and some other problems elsewhere) that this reviewer noticed, working closely with the material, are as follows:

1. In vols. I and II the definite article is indexed under alif-lam, whereas in volume III it is ignored in alphabetization -- certainly the preferable option.

2. In vol. I in the author index, several forms of the name are given. Especially useful is the form where the nisba is given, followed by the name, followed by the item numbers. In vol. II the nisba entry leads simply to a 'See' entry, so the reader must search in another part of the index to obtain the item numbers. In volume III there are no nisba entries, which is a considerable inconvenience.

3. In the indexes of vol. I the item numbers are listed in ascending order from right to left, which is the usage of Arabic books I am acquainted with. In volume II item numbers are listed in ascending order from left to right, albeit with some 'rogue' numbers out of sequence. In volume III the arrangement is descending order from right to left.

4. There are some problems of attribution. Two I noticed are as follows: item 3927 Ta`rikh al-fattash is attributed to Mahmud b. 'Umar Aqit (sic) al-Sanhaji al-Tinbukti al-Wa'quri. Somehow Mahmud b. 'Umar b. Muhammad Aqit al-Sanhaji has been confused with the true author Mahmud Ka'ti al-Wa'kuri. In vol. II, items 1594 and 1798, entitled al-Nafha al-'anbariyya fi hall alfaz al-'ishriniyya, are (under different titles) attributed to Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Kashnawi, d. 1741-2, whereas they are the work of Muhammad b. Masanih b. 'Umar al-Kashnawi, d. 1667 (see ALA, II, 30).

5. There are some wrong date conversions, for example, vol. II, item 2889 -- 1379/1909 (in fact 1959), and item 2783 -- 1381/1921 (in fact 1961).

6. Not surpisingly, in such large works, there are some typographical errors (for example, vol. I, item 728, for al-taqrif read al-ta'rif, item 863, for 'al-Kinasi' read 'al-Miknasi', item 1190, for al-washkar (?) read wa'l-shukr. Better proofing seems to have reduced such problems in later volumes. In vol. I, entry 294 (and other entries for this author, Bay Muhammad al-Saghir al-Kunti), the date of 1865 is in fact the author's birth date, not his death date, though in other cases a single date given after the author's name is the date of his death.

7. If we were to take the descriptions at face value, the range of hands in which the mss. are penned would seem to be very restricted: most are 'Sahrawi', 'Sudani' or 'Suqi'. While Suqi is a fairly distinctive style associated with the 'ulama` of the Kel Essouk (Kal al-Suq), terms such as Sahrawi or Sudani have little meaning, being such broad 'schools' of script, within which are numerous sub-schools. In fact, in the absence of any agreed scheme of classification or terminology to describe the many varieties and sub-varieties of Arabic script found south of the Maghrib, any attempt to place labels must be regarded as purely subjective. In fact, it would be difficult to define where any script that might be thought of as Sahrawi ended and a Sudani script began. We certainly need to work at some objective taxonomy for the scripts of the region based on hundreds, if not thousands, or examples varying by date and region. Perhaps if we undertake this task with some consistency (based exclusively on dated samples from known places) we may one day be able to say that such-and-such a script is a sixteenth century Timbuktu hand or a nineteenth century Bornu hand, or better still, to give a range of calligraphic variants for sixteenth century Timbuktu and a range for nineteenth century Bornu etc. The pioneering work of A.D.H. Bivar desperately needs to be built upon, expanded and ramified if we are to make progress in the study of the calligraphic traditions of West Africa.

John Hunwick

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