Interview with Ousmane Kane

by Franz Schmidjell and Abdel-latif Muhámmad Bilal ibn Samar

© Ousmane Kane

Ousmane Kane occupies the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Chair of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society at the Divinity School of Harvard University. His research interests lie in the intellectual history of the Islam in Africa and the Islamic globalization. “The Homeland is the Arena. Religion, Transnationalism and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America” and “Non-Europhone Intellectuals” are his latest publications.

Schmidjell: In 2012 different jihadist groups occupied Northern Mali. We have learned that they destroyed many libraries and burnt manuscripts in Timbuktu. How big is the loss for the Islamic heritage in Sub-Sahara Africa?

Kane: On January 27, the French and Malian troops re-conquered Timbuktu. On the same day, a journalist of Sky News, embedded with the French troops reported that 25,000 manuscripts had been burnt or disappeared. Interviewed from Bamako, the capital city of Mali located hundreds of miles away, the mayor of Timbuktu Ousmane Hasse reported having heard that the largest library in Timbuktu (Ahmad Baba Library) had been torched by fleeing insurgent groups. The news of the destruction of manuscripts spread like wildfire. In reality, 95% of the 300,000 Timbuktu manusripts had been moved to Bamako during the crisis. 4,203 manuscripts had been stolen or torched and 17 mausoleums destroyed. The Islamists apparently took also hard drives of some computers on which manuscripts were digitized. This is certainly a loss, but thankfully not of the magnitude reported at the beginning of the French military intervention.

Bilal ibn Samar: In your book Non-Europhone intellectuals, you are calling to rethink the role of Islamic scholarly tradition in Africa and the Africans' contribution to Islamic knowledge. Where does the misreading of the African Muslims' intellectual production stem from?


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Kane: This misreading rests largely on racial stereotypes and colonial hegemonic discourses. The main stereotype is that African culture was essentially oral before colonial rule. Orality is certainly very important in Africa (and elsewhere), but it is obviously only one part of the complex story of interactions between different parts of Africa (particularly North and Sub-Saharan Africa) and between Africa and the rest of the world. The introduction of Islam in the African continent paved the way for the growth of literacy in Arabic and in Ajami (African languages written with the Arabic script). Colonial discourses tended to represent “Black Islam” as syncretic and thus different from Arab Islam. Central to this representation is the assumption that the Sahara was a barrier separating North from Sub-Saharan Africa. Many historians have challenged the notion that the Sahara was a barrier. Rather, it has indeed been a bridge between various peoples of the region. The history of migration, identity formation and transformation induced by ecological conditions (drought, diseases, extension of desert) but also war and state formation are such that rigid binaries like North African/Sub-Saharan, Arab/African, White/Black, which have been so resilient in the Western and African academy, are not helpful in understanding the history of Africa. It is the interactions between Arabs, Berbers, and Blacks, Muslims and Non-Muslims that shaped the contours of the region.

Bilal ibn Samar: You draw the picture of this hidden or underestimated Non-Europhone Intellectuals' history in Africa from the Middle Ages until today. What are the main characteristics throughout the centuries and the main differences of it?

Kane: The earliest known author who wrote in Arabic, Abu Ishaq al-Kanemi, flourished in the early 13th century. Thus, the history of local composition in Arabic in the Bilad al-Sudan spans a period of eight hundred years. The existence of a hostel for students from Borno in Cairo in the 13th century proves that some students from the Central Sudan received the best Islamic education available in the medieval period. The colophon of some Timbuktu manuscripts suggests that a scribal tradition existed in the Western Bilad al-Sudan by the turn of the 15th century. Available testimonies prove that in the 16th and 17th centuries, many important documents have been written in Arabic by Sudani Muslims, including the famous Timbuktu chronicles. But the intellectual transformation occurred indeed in the late 18th and early 19th century, a period in which paper had become affordable. It was in this period that a critical mass of scholars has emerged, and an abundant intellectual production in Arabic and Ajami was made. It was also in the 18th and 19th century that the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa culminated with the Islamic revolutions led by Muslim clerics for the most part who established states in which Arabic was the language of instruction and administration. From Borno (as early in the 15th century) through the Sokoto Caliphate, the Dina to the Umarian State, Arabic had been the official language of administration and instruction long before French, English, and Portuguese in Africa. Although local African languages were used for every day communication, classical Arabic was the language of communication for the elites as Latin was in Europe for centuries.


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Then European colonial rule started at the beginning of the 20th century. The colonial state had very ambivalent relationship with Arabic language and the Islamic clergy. On one hand, it viewed the presence of an educational system and literate elite as an asset for the building of an administration. On the other hand, the colonial state feared that the Muslim clergy could be a potential threat because of the jihadi credentials of some clerics. Thus the colonial state simultaneously strove to build on this Islamic education system while attempting to cut it from its Islamic roots in order to promote a European modern colonial subject.


Bilal ibn Samar: Sometimes we tend to think that this intellectual growth ended centuries ago, with no permanence and link to the present.

Kane: This Islamic scholarly tradition is still alive and well. Throughout European colonial rule (first half of the 20th century), Muslims have succeeded to preserve Islamic education. After colonial rule, Islamic education underwent dramatic transformation with the establishment of integrated curriculum schools combining Islamic and Western education. Recently higher Islamic education has boomed in Sub-Saharan Africa. Before 1980, there was no Islamic university in Sub-Saharan Africa. Muslims from this region used to attend higher Islamic education in North Africa or the Middle East. In 2012, more than two dozen modern Islamic institutions of higher learning had been created in West and East Africa. (9 September 2013)

Further reading

Ousmane Oumar Kane (forthcoming): Timbuktu and Beyond: Rethinking African Intellectual History, Harvard University Press.

Ousmane Oumar Kane (2010): Homeland Is the Arena Religion, Transnationalism and the Integration of Senegalese Immigrants in America.


Ousmane Oumar Kane (2003): Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria. A Study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition.


Further articles in: Harvard International Review, Politique étrangère, Afrique contemporaine, African Journal of International Affairs, Islam et sociétés au sud du Sahara, Cahiers d’études africaines