British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme sheds new light on the history of Africa and Islam

Beyond Timbuktu: Preserving the Manuscripts of Djenne, Mali is a new initiative from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme

View over Djenne looking towards the Great Mosque. Courtesy Trevor Marchand
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At the beginning of December, a modest ceremony will be held at the National Archives of Mali in Bamako to celebrate a momentous achievement. 

The culmination of a nine-year project, the event will witness the handover of the final batches of about 8,000 digitised Islamic manuscripts collated from libraries and private collections located throughout Djenne, Mali one of the oldest continually inhabited towns in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The creation of the digital archive, copies of which will also be held at Djenne's own manuscript library and at the British Library in London, is the result of the efforts of a local team of Malian archivists, librarians and volunteers, as well as Sophie Sarin, a Swedish textile designer and art historian who has spent the past decade co-ordinating its collation.

The collection features almost 200,000 pages from richly illuminated Qurans and works of Islamic jurisprudence, treatises on mathematics and medicine, geography and astronomy, as well as transcriptions of oral histories handed down by “griots” – itinerant West African poets and storytellers – and hitherto unexplored esoteric works concerned with the practice of magic, known locally as “maraboutage”. Many of the manuscripts are written in what are known as Ajami scripts, Arabic alphabets used for the transcription of local African languages.

The documents have been rescued from oblivion, thanks to the support of the British Library's Endangered Archives Programme, an initiative funded by Arcadia, a charity established by Lisbet Rausing and her husband, historian Peter Baldwin, from the fortune that Rausing inherited from her family's invention of the now-ubiquitous Tetra Pak.

Since it was established in 2004, the EAP, has supported more than 350 projects in 90 countries worldwide, resulting in the preservation of more than 6.5 million images and 25 thousand audio recordings.

"More than 8,000 manuscripts have been digitised and this will form a really solid corpus of material for research given the breadth of the type of manuscripts that are available from Djenne," explains Dr Marion Wallace, the lead curator of African Collections at the British ­Library and co-curator of Beyond Timbuktu: Preserving the Manuscripts of Djenne, Mali, which is currently on display at the British Library and will also open the National Archives of Mali in December.

“That research will tell us much more about the manuscript culture of Djenne, once people have had a chance to research it, but it also makes the documentary heritage of Mali available to Malians, because anybody with an internet connection can now research it.”

The precariousness of Mali’s precious heritage became the focus of international attention in January 2013, when it was reported that extremists had destroyed more than 4,000 priceless manuscripts from libraries in Djenne’s sister city, Timbuktu.

In 2012, Timbuktu was overrun by a coalition of heavily armed rebels, which included Tuareg separatists of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad and an array of jihadist groups including Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

"The manuscripts were destroyed as the jihadists left Timbuktu. People wonder why they destroyed them because, in a way, they should have been careful about them because they are Islamic, but I believe they were destroyed as an act of spite," Sarin explained in a recent interview with the BBC.

“But there is enormous value in these West African and sub-Saharan manuscripts because they prove that there is written history in Africa. Previously, Africa was seen almost as a continent without written history, but with these West African manuscripts – particularly those of Timbuktu and Djenne – we have seen that there is an enormous amount of written material in Arabic from many centuries ago.”

Like Timbuktu, Djenne became one of Africa’s great centres of Islamic learning, pilgrimage and an internationally important trading entrepot thanks to its location at the point where trans-Saharan caravan routes met the inland delta of the River Niger, the great arterial waterway that has always acted as the lifeblood of West Africa.

Now a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to one of Africa’s most revered ancient monuments, its mud-brick and clay-covered Great Mosque, Djenne rose to international fame from the 13th century onward, especially during the time of the great Songhai Empire, which dominated the western sub-Sahara in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Between the 8th and 15th centuries, Timbuktu and Djenne's most valuable exports were salt, slaves and gold – it is estimated that approximately 60 per cent of the gold in circulation in world markets came from West Africa during this period – and this attracted Arab merchants from North Africa and the Middle East, establishing trading networks that transformed the Sahara from an impenetrable barrier into a vital bridge across which ideas, scholars and manuscripts travelled as well as goods.

Writing in his 1655 History of the Sudan, West African Songhai Empire chronicler Abd Al-Sadi estimated that by the time Islam took a firm hold in Djenne in the 13th century, there were already 4,200 scholars working in the city. "Jenne is one of the great markets of the Muslims. Those who deal in salt from the mine of Taghaza meet there with those who deal in gold from the mine of Bitu," Al-Sadi wrote.

“This blessed city of Jenne is the reason why caravans come to Timbuktu from all quarters – north, south, east and west.”

‘Praise of the Prophet the Dala’il Al-Khayrat’, or ‘The Guiding Signs of Benefits’, is a collection of prayers eulogising the Prophet Mohammed by Moroccan scholar Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Al-Jazuli. It is one of the most common works among Djenne’s manuscript collections EAP
‘Praise of the Prophet the Dala’il Al-Khayrat’, or ‘The Guiding Signs of Benefits’, is a collection of prayers eulogising the Prophet Mohammed by Moroccan scholar Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Al-Jazuli. It is one of the most common works among Djenne’s manuscript collections EAP

Despite producing a smaller collection of manuscripts than Timbuktu, which continues to hold a semi-mythical place in the global imagination as a seat of learning and a kind of African Eldorado, contemporary academics believe that the manuscript culture of Djenne may play an important role in helping to re-­focus histories of the Arabic language and Islam, which have traditionally focused on the Arab world and the Middle East.

"In the West, Islam is strongly associated with the Middle East," writes academic Ousmane Oumar Kane, author of the pioneering Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa and holder of the first Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal professorship of contemporary Islamic religion and society at Harvard University. 

“Even in academia, most of the books published each year focus on that region. In fact, the Muslims of the Middle East represent only 20 per cent of the tradition’s 1.6 billion followers worldwide.”

For Kane, the example offered by Djenne, whose Great Mosque features on the cover of Beyond Timbuktu, and African Islamic states such as the long-lived Kanem-Bornu Empire, which stretched from between West and North Africa and the Nile Valley, also offer a much-needed corrective to the idea of Africa promoted by western colonialists.

“Before colonialism, in almost half of West Africa, Arabic was the language of instruction, but also of administration in most of the Muslim states, but it was replaced by Portuguese, French and English.

This had the effect of relegating Arabic-speaking intellectuals. They still tried to influence debate, but they were considerably marginalised,” Kane explained in an interview with the Harvard University-based Ottoman History Podcast. 

“After independence in the 1960s, Africans educated in European languages inherited political power and continued to undermine ­Arabic and looked down on literates in Arabic because colonialism wasn’t just political, it was intellectual as well,” he added.

Repairs on Djenne’s Great Mosque Trevor Marchand 
Repairs on Djenne’s Great Mosque Trevor Marchand 

“They tried to sell the idea that Africa was backward, that it had been oral and illiterate and that it was a savage continent that needed to be saved.”

For Kane, the whole notion of western colonialism, which was pitched as a civilising mission, stands in direct conflict with the reality of pre-colonial African history and older modes of Islamic literacy and scholarship.

Kane believes that it is impossible to understand Islam without comprehending how it was shaped by its spread throughout Africa where, thanks to more than 1,000 years of religious scholarship, the continent exerted an indelible influence on Islam's intellectual life.

“During the second millennium, the Arabic language played a transformative role in West African history,” Kane writes. 

“Some Islamised people in the Sahara gradually deserted their linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identities to claim exclusive Arab identities. Others retained their African languages, but used Arabic script to transcribe them, chronicle history and write poetry. Arabic as a linguistic vehicle of knowledge transmission was as important in the history of Muslim peoples as Latin was in Europe.”

Beyond Timbuktu: Preserving the Manuscripts of Djenne, Mali is on display at the British Library until January 6, 2019. For further infromation go to


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