a brief note on the Intellectual history of Africa
the Jabarti diaspora of North-Eastern Africa.
The African continent has historically been home to dozens of writing systems including some of the world’s oldest such as the Meroitic script of Kush, the Ge'ez script of Aksum, and the Old Nubian script of medieval Nubia, as well as some of the more recent scripts such as Nsibidi, Vai and Njoya's syllabary.
Each of these writing systems produced its own literary traditions and contributed to the continent’s intellectual history. While many of these writing systems were created within the continent, their usage was often confined to the societies that invented them. The vast majority of writing in most African societies was done using the Arabic script which was also rendered into various African languages as the Ajami script.
This was in large part due to the gradual adoption of Islam as a common religion across many African societies, which facilitated cross-cultural exchanges and the usage of the Arabic script without the need for extending political authority as was the case for Kush’s Meroitic script, Ethiopia’s Ge’ez script, or King Njoya’s script, that were all associated with royal power. Documents written in the Arabic script are thus attested in more than eighty languages across the continent from the Atlantic coast of Senegal to the East African coast in Tanzania to the forested regions of Eastern Congo.
Map showing the languages in which the Arabic script is attested, map by Meikal Mumin
In virtually all these societies, the tradition of literacy and the use of the script was propagated by African scholars through complex intellectual networks that cut across varied social interactions and political boundaries. Over centuries, this African literary tradition has left a priceless heritage in manuscript collections from Timbuktu to Kano, to Lamu, which underscore the salient role played by Africa's scholarly diasporas in the spread of learning across the continent.
In West Africa, the most dynamic of these scholarly diasporas were the Wangara of the Inland delta of central Mali. Appearing among the earliest documentary records about West Africa, the name Wangara became synonymous with learning and gold trade. These merchant scholars are associated with many of the region's earliest centers of learning and the emergence of intellectual movements that continue to shape the region's social landscape.
In East Africa, the Swahili were the region's equivalent of the Wangara. Initially confining their activities to the coast and its immediate hinterland, Swahili merchant-scholars spread out into the mainland, crossing into Uganda, Zambia, and Congo, until they reached the Atlantic coast of Angola. They were integrated into the region's societies, and contributed to the region's intellectual culture, producing a large collection of manuscripts across many locations from Kenya to Mozambique to the D.R.C.
Ruins of a mosque in Isangi, eastern D.R.Congo, ca. 1894, NMVW
While the intellectual history of West Africa and East Africa has attracted the bulk of attention from modern researchers, the northern horn of Africa was home to an equally vibrant literary tradition in Arabic and Ajami that is at times overshadowed by the focus on the Ge'ez literature of Ethiopia. The intellectual traditions of the northern Horn of Africa produced some of the continent’s oldest centers of learning such as Harar and Zeila, as well as many prominent scholars, most notably the Ottoman-Egyptian historian Abdul Rahman al-Jabarti.
The intellectual networks and scholars of the northern Horn of Africa are the subject of my latest Patreon article
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ruins of an old mosque in Zeila, northern Somalia
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