Islamic Africa is a peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary, academic journal published online and in print. Incorporating the journal Sudanic Africa, Islamic Africa publishes original research concerning Islam in Africa from the social sciences and the humanities, as well as primary source material and commentary essays related to Islamic Studies in Africa. The journal’s geographic scope includes the entire African continent and adjacent islands. Islamic Africa encourages intellectual excellence and seeks to promote scholarly interaction between Africa-based scholars and those located institutionally outside the continent.

An exhibit was held in Paris in April-July 2013 of West African talismans. The catalog is online here and well worth perusing.

Destroyed manuscripts in Timbuktu; photograph by Eric Feferberg/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Mali version of Nigeria’s Boko Haram, calling itself Ansar al-Din, not only went after Western knowledge but earlier Muslim sources as well. When the extremists ran amok in northern Mali last year, they destroyed Sufi shrines, beat women whose veils were not long enough, flogged men for daring to smoke or drink and did just about everything they could to drag Islam into the mud. But they did not get to burn the vast number, estimated at some 300,000, of Islamic manuscripts stored in collections across Timbuktu. The story of how donkeys and ingenious local men, with a million dollars in funding from abroad, were able to smuggle the precious written documents to safety is told with flair by Sudarsan Raghavan in yesterday’s Washington Post.

Below is the end of the article, styling the rescue operation as an Indiana Jones Moment…

It was the first stage of that mission that brought Traore and his donkey caravan to the old-city streets of Timbuktu on that August night. His grandfather had helped him load the donkeys, but he stayed behind as Traore and three other men set out with the manuscripts.

The rain, in the end, helped them. The jihadists were not at their checkpoints, preferring to stay indoors. (more…)

General Charles Gordon, left; Muhammad Ahmad, the Sudanese mahdi, right

The current crisis in Mali, which has now spilled over into neighboring Algeria, is the latest outbreak of mahdi madness on the African continent. In Islamic eschatology, the mahdi is a savior of the Muslim community near the time of the apocalypse. The British colonial empire faced several mad mullahs when they tried to rule Sudan. One such infamous mahdi was Muhammad Ahmad, who proclaimed himself the leader of the Muslims against the Turkish oppressors in the 1870s. On January 26, 1885 the Mahdists following Abdullah Taashi took control of Khartoum, slaughtering the entire British garrison, including General Charles Gordon, before a relief force could reach the besieged city. These were the days in which a mahdi could inspire an army, over 50,000 men in the case of the force that overran Khartoum. In 1898 Lord Kitchener led a British invasion force of over 8,000 men assisted by 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptian troops. The British gunboat diplomacy resulted in a resounding defeat for the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman. Kitchener lost 47 men with 340 wounded, while the the Mahdists suffered 9,700 killed, 13,000 wounded, and 5,000 captured.

The Sudanese mahdi and the mad mullahs the British encountered in 19th century Afghanistan were not pietist reformers, but leaders of jihad against the hated occupier, whether fellow Muslim Ottoman Turks or infidel Europeans. The current crisis in Mali is an echo of past mahdis, but with a modern twist. The twist is how we now define a never-ending war on terrorism. Western views of the entire region entrapped by al-Qaeda confuse the situation on the ground. (more…)

A Tuareg nomad stands near a 13th century mosque in Timbuktu in this file photo [Reuters]

There is an old saw in English: cutting your nose to spite your face. The sorry lot of vigilante Ansar extremists have already desecrated several Muslim saints’ tombs in southern Yemen, but now come reports of lawless fanatics destroying saint shrines in the famed city of Timbuktu in Mali. Al Jazeera is reporting that many, if not all, of the shrines there on the World Heritage List have been damaged or destroyed. These are ritual attractions considered sacred by local Muslims for several centuries, not replicas of the Buddha or foreign idols. So who exactly do these fanatics hate? If you think they are doing this because they hate America and its freedoms, think again.

Iconoclasm has a long history that is hardly unique to the Middle East. The modus vivendi is the idea that if you don’t like something, just get rid of it no matter what other people think. Tolerance and dialogue might as well be Satanic in this twisted worldview. It is important to observe that in both the Yemeni case and now in Timbuktu the destruction takes place because of an almost total breakdown of security. No government, responsible or not to world opinion, is behind this action to such a sacred Islamic site. It is very much a replay of the Wahhabi wave that swept across Arabia with the sword of the Sa’ud clan. The Wahhabis, considered fanatics at the time by most other Muslims, wanted to turn back the clock to a narrow understanding of what they thought life was like in the time of the Prophet. Were ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who died in 1792 (just six years before Napoleon invaded Egypt and proclaimed himself a true Muslim come to rescue Egypt from its corrupt rulers) to come back from the dead and see the palaces, shopping malls and gentrification of the ka‘ba as these have evolved with the vast oil wealth of the Saudi elite, he would no doubt follow Balaam and curse the day he ever met Ibn Sa’ud.

Timbuktu, as a major African center of Islamic education, is also a rich treasury of Islamic manuscripts. Will these fanatics torch the handwritten copies of the Qu’ran, traditions and other religious books in the libraries? ‘Abd al-Wahhab is not about to be resurrected, but there is a need for a modern day Muslim Balaam to get off his ass and curse such sacrilege.

This summer the “Arab Spring” seems to be getting hot as hell, even beyond the “war-is-hell” sense. Masses of Egyptians are rallying in Tahrir Square to protest the military’s latest moves; Syria downs a Turkish fighter jet; there are increasing riots in Sudan not related to the secession of the south; and the list goes on. But below the North African countries where the jasmine-tinted winds of change first blew away dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya (with the anti-dictatorial aroma catching on in Yemen and reaching as far east as Bahrain) there is a crisis which is not being covered. The hot topic should be the Sahel, the region that cuts across Africa in a dry zone of perpetual dearth and periodic death.

In a special report on Al Jazeera, it is reported that 15 million people are affected by a severe drought combined with ineffective government assistance programs and decreasing food supply. The report provides a country-by-country breakdown of the problem. Consider the situation in Mali, for example:

Prices of millet and sorghum grain have risen significantly after harvests in 2012 were 25 per cent lower than in 2011. Political instability, following a coup in March 2012 and the breakup of Northern Mali into the self-proclaimed state of Azawad, has further hampered the ability of aid agencies to assess needs and deliver the necessary aid to this landlocked country.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that more than a million children face acute malnutrition, with as many as 146,000 people displaced into Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, under deteriorating circumstances.
People affected: 3-4million.


John Donne and 1664 Dutch map of the world

“No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee….”
John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, 1624

What was true some four centuries ago for the English metaphysical poet John Donne is timeless, even if his writ shows its linguistic age. Today it can also be said that no country is an island unto itself, no matter where or how you spin the globe. This is certainly the case for the United Sates, with our military still on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, targeted drones over Pakistan and Yemen, the smoldering aftermath of the bombs that brought down Qaddafi in Libya, the stench of made-in-the-USA arms just about everywhere. If, as Donne eloquently reflects, the death of any man (or woman or child) diminishes us, then why are we so hell-bent on adding to this diminishing by arming thugs and sending our military to die in other countries?

First, it is important to realize how much the death toll drones on daily. Take today, for example. On Al-Jazeera we learn there are “many dead in Afghanistan suicide blasts,” 18 dead and 45 wounded by the numbers. As the nominal peace part still fails to protect the dictator-weary people of Syria, reports are that some 9,000 have been killed so far by the Assad regime, including refugees over the border in Turkey. There are also “Pakistanis dead in apparent sectarian attack,“adding six more to the thousands who have been killed in the ongoing violence that plagues Pakistan. The see-saw fighting in Yemen’s troubled south leaves “Dozens killed in attack on Yemen army base.” And a few days ago “Hamas hangs three Gaza prisoners“. (more…)

The following information comes from a website devoted to the preservation and digitalization of the many Arabic manuscripts archived in Mali. The main website is

The Timbuktu manuscripts are a symbolic representation of the impact of the early schools and universities (XII-XVIth century) that existed in West Africa (Timbuktu-Gao-Djenné-Kano). However, the manuscripts that remain in Timbuktu are only part of the intellectual heritage of the region because other manuscripts can be found throughout West Africa.

Today, this entire African intellectual legacy is on the verge of being lost. The brittle condition of the manuscripts i.e. pages disintegrate easily like ashes. The termites, insects, weather, piracy of the manuscripts, and the selling of these treasures to tourists for food money pose a serious threat to the future of the manuscripts of Timbuktu. (more…)

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