Sudanic Africa 3, 1992.

Recent Books

Islamic Manuscripts In the World

World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts. Volume 1. General Editor: Geoffrey Roper. London: Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation, 1992, xvii + 569 pp. (available through E.J. Brill: Gld. 250.00/$143.00).

The present work is the first of three volumes offering a country-by-country survey of collections of Islamic manuscripts. The first volume goes from Afghanistan to Iran with the omission of Algeria, Chad, China and Ethiopia. Surveys of these countries are promised in the third volume. The country surveys generally describe the location (library, mosque, etc), the number of MSS, their condition with usually a few comments on older or calligraphically outstanding items

The Introduction explains that Islamic Africa is poorly represented:

Sub-Saharan Africa still remains a problem for us since there are not many sources for consultation to identify local scholars. Available information about Islamic manuscripts is extremely scarce, or non-existent. Because of the size of many African countries and poor transport facilities, movement within these not always, and neither is access to privately owned collections of Islamic manuscripts in outlying areas. There has been a reluctance amongst scholars in this area to undertake the survey.
Apart from the latter remark which seems a little surprising, the quotation accurately describes the situation in Africa. The following note looks at the volume from the perspective of Sudanic Africa readers.

Volume 1 includes four African countries, Benin (surveyed by Amidu Sanni), Cameroon (by Peter Chateh), Egypt (by a committee from the Dar al-Kutub al-Misriyya) and Ghana (by B.A.R. Braimah). Benin (p. 84) comprises a brief description of two private collections ­ Ahmadou Idrees of Cotonou (13 MSS) and Mohidou A. Gafar of Porto Novo (17 MSS). Most of the Cameroon survey (pp. 145-6) is devoted to the Bibliothèque du 'Mfon-Mom', Sultan of Foumban's Library, a library created with UNESCO assistance in 1985 and containing 84 MSS in the Bamoum language (of which there is a catalogue, Ghomsi Emmanuel et al., Catalogue Trilingue du Fonds Documentaire du plais de 'Mfon-Mom' à Foumban, Yaoundé: Institut des sciences humaines, 1984, 50 pp.). The survey of Egypt (pp. 201-36) is useful in that it lists catalogues and handlists that have appeared in recent years. There is a tantalizing reference to the private library of Shaykh Jamal al-Din Badr at Sohag (Balasfura) which is said to contain an autograph of Part VI of al-Mughrib fi hila 'l-Maghrib by Ibn Sa'id al-Maghribi. In addition to the well known collection of MSS housed at the Institute of African Studies at Legon, the Ghana survey notes 16 privately-owned MSS in Accra.

MSS of African provenance crop up elsewhere in the volume; a few MSS are noted at the Koninklijke Museum voor Midden-Afrika at Tervuren (Belgium) ­ these are most probably correspondence in Arabic exchanged between the advancing Congo Free State forces and local rulers and Mahdist officials in southwestern Sudan between 1896-98. The well known Arabic documents arising from the Black slave rebellion of 1835 (described by Vincent Monteil and others) of Brazil are noted (pp. 113-4) with the comment that they are in poor condition. Likewise, the Ashanti material in Denmark is noted (p. 194). Under France, there is one collection that may have escaped the notice of interested Africanists at the Musée National des Arts Africains et Océaniens (previously, Musée de la France d'Outre-Mer; Musée du Louvre) whose library apparently contains 32 MSS (30 Arabic, 2 Malagasy) from sub-Saharan Africa). Finally, under Germany, the two 'valuable, but undated, wooden boards from West Africa (Cameroon)' are presumably writing boards (Ar. lawh).

A general criticism of the volume is the tendency throughout to equate antiquity with importance, e.g. under Kassel (Germany) some MSS are described as, 'rather late (after 16th century) and not important for Islamic studies'; later in the same notice it appears that some of these MSS were brought to Kassel as war booty from Tunisia in 1686. 'After 16th century' will, of course, include the overwhelming bulk of African Islamic MSS. Nevertheless, all such research tools are to be welcomed, even if the price of this one means that few African scholars will see it and be stimulated to fill in the gaps rightly lamented upon in the Introduction.

R.S. O'Fahey

[For a review of Volume II, click here.]

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