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Literacy And Scholarship In Muslim West Africa In The Pre- colonial Period



It is one of the curious ironies of history that in modern times, the Muslim peoples of West Africa have often been labelled by their Christian countrymen as 'backward', 'uneducated' and even 'illiterate'. It may be explained that these terms are not to be understood in an absolute sense and indeed, the implicit assumption behind such remarks is that the Muslims are 'backward' in regard to European-inspired technology and science, that they are 'uneducated' in terms of a school system and curriculum derived from European models and 'illiterate' in regard to the ability to read and write a European language expressed in the Roman alphabet. These same people, however, may be able to read and write Arabic with ease and perhaps also exkess their mother tongue with the help of Arabic characters and may have been receiving instruction since childhood in a system which had its origins in Fez or Cairo a thousand years ago. Such persons belong to an in- tellectual tradition in West Africa which studied Logic and Prosody as well as the legal and theological sciences in 16th century Timbuktu; a tradition to which belonged a man such as Muhammad Rello who thanked the first European visitor to his court profusely for the gift of a copy of Euclid, since his own had recently been destroyed in a fire.' Until the turn of this century, the Muslims of West Africa represented, in general, the educated elite, for though, in terms of scientific and industrial advancement they were far behind the Europeans whose technology was advancing inland from the coasts, Muslim societies possessed and had possessed for centuries a technological instrument which gave them an advantage over other neighbouring societies and which these non-Muslim societies were often anxious to share- the technology of writing. In the first of these two lectures, I want to examine the origins of this technology in the West African context and the role which literacy has played in the history of West African Muslim societies.