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An African-centered intellectual world; the scholarly traditions and literary production of the Bornu empire (11th-19th century)
A 16th century African scholar's view of his world.
Studies of African scholarship in general, and west African scholarship in particular, are often framed within diffusionist discourses, in which African intellectual traditions are "received” from outside and are positioned on the periphery of a greater system beyond the continent1. But this conceptual framework isn't grounded in any evidence from studies of African history, where African scholars —such as those in west-Africa's Bornu empire— situated themselves firmly within their own environment, and perceived the rest of the world as located on the margins of their African society.
From its inception, the Bornu empire's ruling dynasty was closely associated with its scholarly community, encouraging the latter's growth through patronage and privileges in order to legitimate and exercise its own power. The influence of Bornu's scholars spread from Egypt to the Hausalands, and from Morocco to Sudan and its intellectual production and diasporic communities greatly shaped the education networks of West Africa.
This article explores the intellectual history of Bornu, including its 16th century chronicles in which the world was perceived as anchored in west Africa with Bornu at its center.
Map of the Bornu empire in the 17th-18th century.2
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The political and intellectual history of Bornu
The empire of Bornu was originally established in the 9th century in the northeast region of Lake Chad of Kanem, and was the most dominant political power in the region of west Africa historically referred to as the “central Sudan”. Kanem's ruling Seyfuwa ruling dynasty adopted Islam, and quickly transformed their state into a major center of learning. By the late 14th century, the kings (titled Mai) moved to the Bornu province on the western edge of Lake Chad after being forced out of Kanem by a rival power, and Bornu soon become the heir to the scholarly traditions of Kanem. At the height of Bornu's power in the 16th and 17th century when it reconquered Kanem (hence Kanem-Bornu), the state's administration included scholars who were employed as judges, minsters and members of the powerful advisory council to the King, such that even the position of the imam of the main mosque was a state office.3
Beginning in the reign of 'Alī b. Dūnama (1465-1497), many schools were built in the new capital Birni Ngazagamu. The city quickly became a center of Islamic education under Dūnama's successors, who encouraged the growth of its scholarly community and funded the activities of the scholars, a tradition that would be maintained through the 19th century.4
Bornu's rulers actively encouraged the spread of scholarship across the provinces by granting scholars mahrams (charters of privilege) of lands and permission to levy taxes from their lands and be exempted from civic duties. These scholars, called mallemtis became influential and their towns grew into important centers of learning5. From the capital came a wave of migration of Bornuan scholars, traders and craftsmen across west Africa, following a voluntary policy on the part of the Bornu rulers, to extend their influence over the administrative structures and cultural practices of Bornu's neighbors.6
Some of the most notable Bornu scholars include the 17th century scholar Abd al-ʿAzīz al-Burnāwī (d.1667), that was active in the northern fringes of Bornu at the town of Kulumbardo, from where his students carried his teachings to north Africa especially morocco. His disciples such as the Funj scholar Aḥmad al- Yamanī (d. 1712) from Sennar (in modern Sudan) who'd been to Bornu and was active in the moroccan city of Fez, where he influenced the prominent sufi scholar al-Dabbāgh (d.1719). Through his influence on sufism, al-Burnāwī was considered an axial scholar by his peers; “the master of his time” and the “wonder of his age.”7
Another is Hajrami al-Burnāwī (d. 1746), who was born and studied in Ngazargamu, and wrote several works on various subjects, including a famous critique of Bornu's rulers and elites titled Shurb al-zulal, in which he castigated them for their corruption, the unfairness of the judges and the selfishness of the wealthy merchants. This work was copied across west Africa where it was highly influential to later scholars such as the Sokoto founder Uthman Fodio (d.1817), and was also copied in Egypt's Al-Azhar University by the Egyptian scholar Hasan al-Quwaysini (d. 1839).8
17th-18th century manuscript, Shurb al-zulal' written by Kanuri scholar Harjami, Kaduna national archives
17th century Quran with Kanembu glosses, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS.Arabe 402, 17th-18th century, Qur’an copied in Konduga, Bornu, private collection, MS.5 Konduga, 18th-19th century Bornu Quran, With marginal commentaries from al-Qurṭubī's tasfir
Bornu and West Africa: an intellectual diaspora.
Groups of scholars and pilgrims from across west Africa were attracted to Ngazargamu and encouraged to settle in the city, especially the Fulani diaspora which was to become prominent in the central sudan’s scholarly communities and networks during this time9. Among these was the 17th century scholar Muḥammad al-Walī al-Burnāwī al-Fulānī. His family was originally from Kebbi studied in Bornu and eventually settled in its vassal state of Bagirmi. He was a prominent scholar who composed several works across various subjects, he was also the teacher of the Katsina mathematician Al-Kashnāwī (d. 1741), and both were well-know in Egypt where they travelled in later years.10
Another was al-Tahir al-Barnawi al-Fullani (d. 1771), who studied and taught in Ngazargamu and served as one of the advisors to the Bornu rulers Mai Muhammad al-Hajj (r. 1729-44) and Mai Ali Dunama (r. 1747-92) for whom he composed two chronicles. Some of his compositions were included in the west African curriculum and were also copied in Egypt.11 Bornu scholars also travelled to other learning centers across west Africa and were especially active in the Hausa city-states of Katsina and Kano, as well as in the kingdoms of Bagirmi, Wadai and Nupe.12
1705 Qur’an with old kanembu glosses, written by a Kanuri scholar in the Hausa city-state of Katsina, now at the kaduna national archives MS.AR33; Old Kanembu manuscript on tawḥīd by Muhammad Suma Lameen written in 1910.
Bornu and the wider Muslim world: pilgrimage and international scholarship
Bornu's scholarship was distantly associated with Mamluk Egypt, where Bornu teachers had the most visible influence outside west Africa. This connection was a product of the deliberate policy by the Seyfuwa rulers who financed the establishment of infrastructure to house pilgrims from Kanem-Bornu in Cairo and Mecca, as well as to elevate their prestige across the Islamic world13. The 11th century Mai Ḥummay reportedly built a mosque in Cairo, and several external accounts mention the construction of a school by pilgrims from Kanem to Cairo in 1242 during the reign of Mai Dūnama b. Salma (1210-1248), other internal documents from 1576, the 17th century and external accounts reveal that many Bornu-educated scholars also taught and studied at the al-Azhar university in Cairo.14
Bornu's rulers also legitimized their power by performing the Hajj pilgrimage, demonstrating the remarkable stability of power in Bornu whose institutions allowed for the absence of their King, especially in the 16th- 18th century when 9 out of 15 rulers made the pilgrimage with some travelling as frequently as 5 times. While the obligatory pilgrimage was only rarely undertaken by most Muslim rulers in the wider Islamic world, the Hajj in Bornu had been transformed into a uniquely local legitimating tool as early as the 11th century when the first Seyfuwa ruler travelled to mecca. The pilgrimage later lost its power as a legitimating tool in the 18th and 19th century when the 'Hajj-King' figure was displaced by the Scholar-King figure.15
The pilgrimage served other functions besides enhancing the ruler's legitimacy, the retinue of the ruler which attimes numbered several hundred, also included scholars and traders from the empire, which served to augment Bornu's scholarship and trade, and maintain the chain of schools and lodges used by the Bornu diaspora across the Islamic world. Mai Idris b. 'Alī (1564-1596) is said to have spent a tonne of gold in cairo (a sum only rivaled by the Mali emperor Mansa Musa's famous pilgrimage in which the latter spent 12 tonnes in 1324).16
Some of this money was likely spent on maintaining Bornu's foreign housing facilities as such were usually the first order of business in the Mai's correspondence with the Mamluk rulers. As the Mamluk-Egypt historian al-Maqrīzī (d. 1442) writes; "This madrasa is for the Malikites. It is in the Hamam al Rish district in the medina of Cairo. It is for the Kanem, tribe of Takrur. When they came to Cairo around the years 640 (1242 AD) for the pilgrimage, they handed over a sum of money to the cadi 'Ilm al-Din b. Rashik. He built the madrasa and taught there; it has since been known by his name. Great fame was made in Takrur at this madrasa. Money was sent there almost every year"17
Copy of Al-ashmawiya written by Abubakar bn Almahir (Goni) Umar in bornu, SOAS; 19th century manuscript with kanembu annotations of Ibn ʿĀshir's poem titled al-Murshid, Imam Shettima Habib’s collection, SOAS london.
al-Kishnawi’s “Mughni al-mawafi” written in 1732 while he was in Egypt (now at the Khedive library cairo)
Bornu’s intellectual production: calligraphy and competing scholarly communities
The scholarly production of Bornu was fairly extensive. A specialist community of calligraphers and copyists emerged at Ngazargamu where they were engaged in the production of beautifully illuminated Qurans, with a unique form of calligraphy, that were sold across north Africa for 50 MTT, some of which ultimately ended up in western collections.18
Bornu's scholars innovated a unite form of calligraphy called barnāwī characterized by heavy and angular strokes, and by distinctive letter-shapes and pointing, it inturn influenced related forms of calligraphic styles in the central Sudan such as the kanawī used by Kano's scholars. The barnāwī calligraphic style was distinctive from the maghribī style of north africa and its derivatives across west africa, It was created during the early period of Islam's adoption in Bornu between the 11th and 13th century, and is alrgely based on older calligraphic styles used during the abassid era including Kufic.19
Despite the mostly royal patronage of Bornu's scholarship, the scholarly community of Ngazargamu and across the kingdom was divided between those who were active in the political centers and rendered their services to the royal class, versus those who functioned independently of the royal court and derived their income from commerce and teaching. It was the latter group that maintained a rather antagonistic relationship with the royal court, and acted as a check on the powers of Bornu's rulers by criticizing the excesses of the royal court. In two notable incidents, the scholars at the capital influenced the Bornu King Umar Idriss to get rid of two "troublesome" scholars in 1667 by exiling one named al-Waldede to Baghirmi and allowing the execution of another named al-Jirmi during an inavsion.20
19th century Qur'an from Bornu ,met museum, 18th century Bornu Quran, SOAS london; 19th-20th century Bornu Quran from Nguigmi, Niger,SOAS, London,
19th century leather bag for carrying books and writing utensils, Bida, Nigeria; modern leather bag and case for carrying a Bornu Quran.
A monumental work of African intellectual history; The 16th century Bornu chronicles
From the 16th century, Bornu's rulers developed a discourse of legitimacy, the main objective of which was to assert the political and religious superiority of the Seyfuwa rulers in the central Sudan and in the wider Islamic world. The writing of history was closely associated with the need to legitimize all political power and It was this question of legitimacy of Mai Idrīs b. 'Alī that was the most likely the origin of the two Bornu chronicles. The years of their composition in 1576 and 1578 were a turning point in Idrīs’ reign and for the Seyfuwa dynasty, as he definitively imposed himself against the previous dynastic branch and consolidated his military power on the fringes of the Bornu state. He thus commissioned a prominent Ngazargamu scholar; Aḥmad Furṭū, to write an account of his accomplishments.21
Aḥmad Furṭū was a Kanuri scholar born and educated in Bornu into a prominent scholarly family who were the beneficiaries of an 11th century charter granted by the first Seyfuwa ruler Mai Ḥummay (r. 1075-1086) to their ancestor Muḥammad Mānī and to a 15th century Bornu chronicler named Masbarma Uṯmān. Furṭū was considered a "man of letters" and had mastered various disciplines including law, theology, sufism and grammar, as reflected in the works he cited as well as his position as Imam of the main mosque at Ngazargamu. Despite never having left the central Sudan (not even for the Hajj) Furṭū was proficient in classical arabic philology and grammar, and cites several "classical" Muslim authors of the 7th-15th century including Ibn Taymiya (d. 1328) and al-Fīrūzābādī (d. 1414), his education reflects the high standard of learning present in Bornu and west Africa at the time.22
Furṭū accompanied his patron Mai Idrīs b. 'Alī during the latter's military campaigns and ceremonial visits to provinces, he was also present at the reception of diplomats at Idrīs' court from across the region as well as from the Ottomans, and therefore recorded first-hand accounts of Bornu's politics in the late 16th century. The two chronicles are essentially political works, and are the products of an established tradition which begun with Masbarma Uṯmān’s now lost chronicle for Idrīs' predecessor Mai Alī b. Dūnama (r.1465-1497).23
The Kitāb ġazawāt Barnū (written in 1576) constituting a legitimation of Idrīs' political and military actions in Bornu during a time of contested power between rival branches of the Seyfuwa dynasty at the capital, while the Kitāb ġazawāt Kānim (written in 1578) details the progress of his expeditions into the region of Kanem, and the province's itineraries, alliances and peace agreement.24
Map of the central Sudan during Mai Idrīs’ reign25
All of the extant manuscripts of these two chronicles are copies made in the 19th century from an older 17th century copy owned by al-Ḥāǧǧ Bašīr, the vizier of Bornu in 1853; the 19th century copies were further reproduced in 1921 and are currently stored at the SOAS26. The frequent copying of old texts isn't unusual in the region, because paper produced before the 18th century had a life span of only 150–200 years in West Africa, making it necessary to recopy a work at least every two centuries.27
The chronicles elevate the evolving genealogical and religious legitimacy of the Bornu rulers, by assuming the title of caliph and tracing the (superficial) origin of his Sefuwa dynasty to the Islamic heartland (initially the Yemeni Hymarites and later, the Meccan Qurayš), inorder to position him at the top of the hierarchy among the sovereigns of west Africa and the Muslim world, whose competitive ideological landscape was contested between the sovereigns of Morocco, Songhai and the Ottomans; read:
But just like similar mythmaking attempts across the Muslim world however, such bold genealogical claims received a mixed reception in both the domestic and international scholarly community of the time, with just as many scholars refuting them as those accepting them, and they remained a subject of heated debate in the Bornu capital itself.28 But this eastern-origin myth created at Bornu was nevertheless very influential in the myths of origin used by the ruling dynasties of the central Sudan region especially among the Hausa city-states.29
The majority of the expeditions recorded in the two chronicles were largely political in character, to pacify rebellious regions and to affirm Bornu's authority; but some had a commercial character tied to the salt oases. These were especially important as the taxes and other revenues from the regional salt and natron trade comprised the bulk of Bornu's state revenues30. While the primarily military account of the texts has led historians to see Idrīs' reign as an unbroken succession of wars, this is only an impressionistic reading, as the records of foreign embassies, the inclusion of peace agreements and trade caravans shows that the campaigns were only one among several facets of the exchanges between Bornu and its neighbors31
Copies of the ghazawāt Barnū (The Book of the Bornu Wars), ghazawāt kānem (The Book of the Kanem Wars) and Diwan salatin al Barnu (Annals of the kings of bornu), at SOAS
Importantly, the two chronicles present a very Bornu-centric conception of the world, highlighting the importance of regional relations over long distance contacts. In the world centered at Bornu, the wider Muslim world of North Africa and the Ottomans is only a marginal player in Bornu's politics and trade, the modesty of its presence in the narrative of Aḥmad Furṭū relativizes its place in relation to the relations that Bornu maintains with its closer neighbors.32
From his point of observation, Aḥmad Furṭū invites us to discover his world from a more accurately contextualized, African point of view: a Bornu-centric world, shaped by its own interests but open to the outside world, overturning the modern academic construct which perceives Bornu and other West African states as culturally and commercially oriented towards North Africa.33
Rather than straddling the long-distance routes crisscrossing western Africa and North Africa, Bornu was at the center of its world, from where all roads radiated.
Conclusion: Bornu’s place in African history.
Bornu's intellectual traditions resituate the legacy of African scholarship with its environment, placing Africa at the center of its own intellectual production.
While the old libraries of Ngazargamu were mostly destroyed during the course of the Bornu-Sokoto wars in the early 19th century and the internal conflicts which heralded the ascendance of the Kanemi dynasty, Bornu's scholarship survived the political turmoil. Many cities across the region became home to a vibrant scholarly diaspora from Bornu with some scholars travelling as far as Ethiopia; greatly contributing to the vast corpus of African literature now housed in dozens of archives across west Africa, waiting to be translated and studied.
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see Rudolph Ware’s discussion of ‘Isalm Noir’ in The Walking Qur'an
mapmaker; twitter handle @Gargaristan
Doubt, Scholap and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa By Dorrit van Dalen pg 32)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 214, The Tradition of Qur'anic Learning in Borno by Yahya Oyewole Imam pg 98)
Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa By Dorrit van Dalen pg 37
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 192-193)
Realizing Islam by Zachary Valentine Wright pg 24-25, The African Roots of a Global Eighteenth-Century Islamic Scholarly Renewal by Zachary Wright pg 34-35
Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 2 pg 39-41, The Kanuri in Diaspora by Kalli Alkali pg 43
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 230)
Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa By Dorrit van Dalen
Arabic Literature of Africa, Volume 2 pg 42-43
The Kanuri in Diaspora: The Contributions of the Ulama of Kanem Borno to Islamic Education in Nupe and Yorubalands by Kalli Alkali Yusuf Gazali
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 249)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière 228)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 220-226, 246, 340-341
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 250)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 247-248,252)
Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa By Dorrit van Dalen pg 33)
Central Sudanic Arabic Scripts (Part 2) by Andrea Brigaglia, Mauro Nobili pg 221-223 )
Doubt, Scholarship and Society in 17th-Century Central Sudanic Africa By Dorrit van Dalen pg 38-40)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 71-72)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 54- 58)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 67
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 71-72, 329)
mapmaker; twitter handle @Gargaristan
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 45-50)
The Trans-Saharan Book Trade by Graziano Krätli pg 149)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 314-319
Some considerations relating to the formation of states in Hausaland by A Smith pg 336
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 275-277, also see; Salt of the desert sun by Paul Lovejoy, and The Oasis of Salt by Knut S. Vikør
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière 306)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière pg 93-94)
Du lac Tchad à la Mecque by Rémi Dewière 329-330)