The Timbuktu African Manuscripts, Omar Said and Ibrahim Sori: An Islamic, Black Muslim and Black American Intellectual Continuum

Timbuktu Manuscript with drawings and text

There was a world before European enslavers came into contact with West Africa and abducted thousands of Africans from their homeland to enslave them in America. There was a world that still persists – where African people like Omar Said and Ibrahim Sori wrote their own ideas and documented their own history in non-European languages. These ideas, innovations and histories are documented in over 40,000 Timbuktu African manuscripts dating as early as the 11th century and have been digitally preserved and made available to the public for the first time this year. As an artist who works with archives relating the Black Muslim heritage especially, this is truly exciting for me!

“Central to the heritage of Mali, they (the Timbuktu manuscripts) represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa.”

Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, Timbuktu Librarian

In this blog post, I share why the Timbuktu manuscripts and the writings of African Muslims who were enslaved in America – like Omar Said and Ibrahim Sori are important to my artistic practice, and why they are an important opportunity for all of us to learn more about ourselves (especially Black people and Muslims) from those who came before us.  

TheTarikh al-fattash manuscript by Mahmoud Kati is a 17th-century copy of a historical reference work. It retraces the entire history of the Songhai Empire until its demise at the hands of the army of the Sultan of Morocco (the Almoravids) in the 16th century.

There are many cultural stereotypes about Africans, Muslims, and about Black people and about America itself – even White people, that conflicting when we open up our minds to the diversity of Africans, Black people – both free and enslaved in antebellum America.

When we actually take a look into historical archives we find memoirs by Africans who were enslaved in America written in their own languages and in Arabic.

Nsenga Knight

For years, American students have been taught that “slaves” couldn’t read or write because that’s not what Africans did. We were taught that Africans had an “aural culture,” but when we actually take a look into historical archives we find memoirs by Africans who were enslaved in America written in their own languages and in Arabic. Timbuktu – the famed city in Mali, West Africa in fact had the most prominent libraries in the 13th and 14th centuries to which people travelled from all over the world to gain knowledge. There are over 400 million Timbuktu African manuscripts, the oldest of them date from the 11th century. 

There are a handful of scholars and even less cultural workers who have dedicated any time or resources to exploring the native writing of Africans who were enslaved in the Americas – otherwise known as  “slaves”. But, there is something that I’ve known for a long time that now the creators of the Omar play agree with – this information changes everything! Everything you thought you knew about Black people, our traditions, our sources of knowledge, and intellectual interlocutors has to be broadened when you consider the writing and manuscripts of figures like Omar Said and Ibrahim Sori.

When reading Omar Said’s autobiography, I got the sense that he had to watch his words.

Michael Abels, Composer for “Omar” opera
Nsenga Knight 2010, This is the Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word For It (Detail), 2 30 x 20 inch Screenprints on Paper (Installed at Project Rowhouses)

There were many ways in which Black people had to be careful about expressing their religious and cultural ideas. As Michael Abels, one of the composer of the Omar opera states, when reading Omar Said’s autobiography he got the sense that Omar Said had to “watch his words”. Many of us still feel like we have to be careful about expressing our religious and cultural beliefs in order to not be persecuted, look eccentric and/ or not be othered.

In the Black community, many of us who enjoyed reading and language in particular had to be careful with our words so as not to be excluded or accused of thinking or acting like we were “better than” or “white”. God forbid. Now imagine being forced to speak another language and forbade to speak your own, yet also forbade to write in the new language – but you were an intellectual, a prince, or a scholar in your own land! 

Black and white arabic and english script by Omar Said and Ibrahim Sori above text in english on 2 prints
Nsenga Knight 2010, This is the Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word For It, 2 30 x 20 inch Screenprints on Paper (Installed at Project Rowhouses)

Even today, the struggle to preserve West African intellectual tradition is real! Just in the past few years, librarians like Dr. Adel Hadera Kadera of Timbuktu risked their entire lives to smuggle books and manuscripts out of the city to safe-guard them from vandalizers. The people of Timbuktu have always valued their books over all of their other worldly possessions. Aside from the knowledge they bear, these books have for centuries been the cornerstone of their trade industry and even the most profitable items. Their value cannot be underestimated. “Central to the heritage of Mali, they (the Timbuktu manuscripts) represent the long legacy of written knowledge and academic excellence in Africa” says Dr Abdel Kader Haidara, Timbuktu Librarian

the struggle to preserve West African intellectual tradition is real! Just in the past few years, librarians like Dr. Adel Hadera Kadera of Timbuktu risked their entire lives to smuggle books and manuscripts out of the city to safe-guard them from vandalizers

NSENGA KNIGHT

Omar Sa’id – an African scholar, and Ibrahim Sori – an African prince and many other Africans preserved their language in secret. With no one to write to – they wrote. With no one to recite their holy book to, they still remembered the Quran – every word and every curve of the letter.  did. Their writing is the basis for a series I began in 2010.

Nsenga Knight 2009, A Cross Time, Screenprint and Ink Wall Drawing with Fabric Adhesive, 9ft x 15t ft (Installed in 2010 at Icebox in Philadelphia PA)

They came from highly literate African societies. Hassan al-Wazzan, known as Leo Africanus, reported that the book trade was the most important in Timbuktu: “We sell many that come from the Berbers [Maghreb]. We receive more profit from these sales than from any other goods.” A number of professions were required in the production of manuscripts, using various manufacturing techniques and materials.

The Timbuktu African manuscripts reflect life in Timbuktu and its region in all aspects (intellectual, religious, economic, and scientific). In terms of religion, they reveal a peaceful, moderate, and open vision of Islam. In other areas, they remain benchmarks in everyday life. As such they are remarkably up-to-date.

Timbuktu Manuscript

The manuscripts of Timbuktu reflect life in Timbuktu and its region in all aspects (intellectual, religious, economic, and scientific). In terms of religion, they reveal a peaceful, moderate, and open vision of Islam.

We also find universities, like the Sankore University, which had upwards of 25,000 students enrolled in the 15th century studying subjects as varied as astronomy, math, Islam, literature, and biology.

There are so many ways in which we blind ourselves to knowledge by not opening our eyes to what’s in front of us or taking a moment to look closer. History for me is always abstract. When we find these manuscripts from our past they present us with an opportunity to re-contextualize and reevaluate what we thought we knew about ourselves, those around us, and from far away lands. It is important that we connect and extract value from them these resources and share them.

When I’m researching and working with archives, I constantly come across information that contradicts dominant narratives about Black people and Muslims in particular…like the Timbuktu manuscripts

nsenga knight

When I’m researching and working with archives, I constantly come across information that contradicts dominant narratives about Black people and Muslims in particular. When I see something for myself – like the Timbuktu African manuscripts that contradicts whatever closely held belief we’ve been indoctrinated with, I share it in my conversations, in my writing, and most importantly – in my artwork. Each new artwork is a new construct, and my invitation for us to collectively create wholly new constructions that broaden our collective imaginations. 

True knowledge is preserved in books and art. Indeed many of the manuscripts and books of Timbuktu are works of art… what must we do to make sure that future generations know about who we are, and the most important values that we can share with them?

-Nsenga knight

True knowledge is preserved in books and art. Indeed many of the manuscripts and books of Timbuktu are works of art. If Omar Sa’id and Ibrahim Sori could preserve the most important aspects of their culture in spite of decades of enslavement in a new and far away land, and if Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara and the people of Timbuktu could preserve over 1200 years of knowledge in manuscripts passed down – in spite of terrorist attacks aimed at stealing their manuscripts and all out war against them – what must we do to make sure that future generations know about who we are, and the most important values that we can share with them?

Nsenga Knight 2018, Tawaf/ Sa’y: Mankind (In Love With the Truth), 22.5 x 22.5 inches, Oil Stick and Gesso on Vegetable Parchment Paper (Available as Limited Edition Print)

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