Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA)

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Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa
Northwestern University
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“Constituting Bodies of Islamic Knowledge”

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, ISITA has been engaged, since 2005, in an ongoing inquiry into how African Muslims of all social strata actively shape religious life through their engagement with texts and bodies of religious knowledge. Titled “Constituting Bodies of Islamic Knowledge,” this project pursues a comprehensive approach to understanding Islamic thought in Africa that combines study of manuscripts and the intellectual production of the scholarly elite with an examination of more widely circulated and contemporary religious material such as audio and visual recordings and ephemeral texts that, in recent decades, have significantly changed the shape of Islamic knowledge and its transmission within Africa.

Between 2005 and 2008, co-investigators Ruediger Seesemann (Northwestern University) and Rudolph Ware (then Northwestern, currently University of Michigan) conducted a collaborative research program in various African locations, focusing on three areas.  Seesemann led an international team of researchers in compiling a bio-bibliographical work on writings by members of the Tijâniyya Sufi order—one of the two largest Sufi order in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the most important, but as yet understudied, mystical traditions within Islam.  Ware, in collaboration with several Senegalese researchers, collected data on the scholarly libraries maintained by clerical families in Senegal’s Fuuta Toro region.  The contents of these libraries and their histories offer a unique perspective on Islam’s development in an area widely thought to be the cradle of Islam in West Africa.  In addition, Seesemann and Ware co-led a preliminary inquiry into how Islamic knowledge is being transmitted to—and reconfigured by—wider audiences today.  At various sites in East and West Africa, researchers collected and cataloged samples of popular religious materials of various genres such as pamphlets, short treatises, published sermons, religious poetry, and audio and visual materials.

In the current phase of the project, ISITA is focusing on completing publications and disseminating research results.  ISITA continues its commitment to producing foundational reference volumes that provide a mapping of the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa, and two new volumes in the Arabic Literature of Africa series are in progress.  At the same time, ISITA recognizes the importance of making the contents of Arabic manuscripts from Africa more accessible to specialists, students, and the general public, and is producing two anthologies of translated and annotated texts from West Africa.  Details on these publications, envisaged to be completed by 2013, are as follows:

  • Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume VI:  Mauritania and the Western Sahara, edited by Charles Stewart (visiting scholar, ISITA).  This volume (projected for publication in 2014 by Brill Academic Publishers) will contain biographical information on the major authors of the Western Saharan region, and a catalog of their writings.
  • Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume VII: The Tijani Corpus and its Authors, edited by Ruediger Seesemann (Northwestern University).   This volume (projected for publication in 2015 by Brill Academic Publishers) focuses on the literary production of the Tijaniyya.  It is the fruit of collaboration by an international team of scholars conducting research in twelve countries since 2005.
  • An Anthology of Sufi Literature from Senegambia, edited by Rudolph Ware (University of Michigan) and Zachary Wright (Northwestern University).  This volume will contain translations into English of key texts by Sufi authors from the Senegambia region, which has one of the oldest and most productive traditions of Sufi scholarship in Africa and the world.  The volume will include an introductory essay situating the authors in space, time, and socio-historical context, as well as short introductions to each text.
  • An Anthology of Fatwas and Other Muslim Writings on European Colonial Rule in West Africa, edited by Muhammad Sani Umar (Northwestern University).   This volume will contain translations into English of the rich materials documenting African Muslims’ intellectual responses to European colonial rule that can be found in collections and libraries throughout West Africa.  Items such as fatwas, legal judgments, correspondence, local chronicles, and poetry yield valuable insights into how African Muslims perceived and responded to the reality of rule by non-Muslims. The volume will include an introductory essay situating the texts and their authors in space, time, and socio-historical context.

Arabic Manuscripts from West Africa

ISITA has collaborated with the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern to make available an online catalog of an important collection of Arabic-script materials from West Africa housed at Northwestern. To learn more about this collection and search the catalog, please visit: ISITA and the Northwestern University Library are currently collaborating on the next phase of work with this collection, which will include digitization and conservation work, as well as enhancements to the West African Arabic Manuscripts Database--an online union catalog of over 23,000 Arabic manuscripts from West African collections and private libraries.