The Timbuktu African Manuscripts, Omar Ibn 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 Ibn Said – an African scholar, and Ibrahim Sori – an African prince 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 Ibn 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TheTarikh al-fattash manuscript by Mahmoud Kati is a 17th-century copy of a historical reference work.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.

It is estimated that nearly thirty percent of the Africans enslaved in the United States antebellum south were Muslim. Omar Ibn Said for example, was born around 1770 in Futa Toro on the Senegal River to a wealthy family and educated in the Quran and other Islamic religious sciences. Prior to being abducted and sold into slavery in America at nearly 40 years old, he had married, had children and had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. According to Sylvaine Diouf, author of Servants of Allah, Omar Ibn Said “may have been the only person who actually wrote – openly – an autobiography while still enslaved.” His autobiography is the only known surviving American slave narrative written in Arabic.

As for Ibrahim Sori, he was a prince and Amir from the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea, West Africa, who he was a cavalry officer, a father and a husband in his homeland before suffering an unexpected defeat in war in 1788. At about 26 years old he became a captive, transported and enslaved in America for forty years. Despite being a slave, everyone – even his slave master, called him “Prince” – not knowing that he was in fact real African royalty. Prince Ibrahim Sori was known for his modest character, persistence, and patience. As stated in Chapter 4 of African Muslims in Antebellum America by Allan D. Austin, Sori was finally freed after forty years of slavery on the American frontier after an interesting turn of events revealed that he was in fact an African prince. As with Omar Ibn Said, he was literate in both Arabic and English and a Muslim who believed in one God.

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)
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)

Above is my 2010 artwork This is The Lord’s Prayer – Take My Word For It. This piece takes liberties in its interaction with archival materials written by both Omar Ibn Said and Ibrahim Sori. On the left is Omar Ibn Said’s writing of the Lord’s Prayer which he was asked to write by his slave master. It is signed by Omar and appears to have the signature and attestation of a witness. On the right is Ibrahim Sori’s writing of Surah Al Fatiha which he wrote as a free man, also signed by Omar Ibn Said and a witness. These two documents, commissioned as The Lord’s Prayer at different points in time and under different circumstances come together and intertwine. This intervention asks the audience to question what they’re seeing – whether or not they understand the language it’s written in, the validity of the witness’s testimony, and the agency of enslaved African Muslims in antebellum America.

There are many cultural stereotypes about Africans, Muslims, and about Black people and about America itself – even White people, that conflict when we open up our minds to the diversity of Africans, Black people – both free and enslaved in antebellum America. Omar Ibn Said’s autobiography gives us insight into the rich educational and Islamic religious culture of his native West African country, the political situation in West Africa which led to his enslavement, and his reverence for an understanding of Islam. The manuscripts of Ibrahim Sori also demonstrate the fact that in spite decades of enslavement, African Muslims were able to preserve and transmit aspects of their Islamic identities and religious knowledge through writing – such as with Ibrahim Sori’s Arabic rendition of the Fatiha (the first chapter of the Quran).

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

As a primary source written by an enslaved African in Arabic – a language that his slave masters did not understand, Omar Ibn Said’s manuscript is of critical importance because the foreign nature of the Arabic language it was written in buffered the text from being altered by either both his slave masters and proponents of slavery, and the abolitionists who often took liberties to change the writings of enslaved Africans to serve their particular agendas.

The writings of African Muslims enslaved in America contradict what I, along with generations of 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 “oral 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. At it’s height, Timbuktu’s Sankore University had upwards of 25,000 students enrolled in the 15th century studying subjects as varied as astronomy, math, Islam, literature, and biology. There are over 400 million Timbuktu African manuscripts, the oldest of them date from the 11th century. 

The Timbuktu manuscripts had been stored mostly in the private homes of Timbuktu residents and thus were not translated until this year and are rarely cited in the large context of Islamic discourse. There are a handful of scholars and even less cultural workers who have dedicated any time or resources to exploring the native and Arabic 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 newly available 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 Timbuktu and figures like Omar Ibn Said and Ibrahim Sori.

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

Michael Abels, Composer for “Omar” opera

Though not from Timbuktu, both Omar Ibn Said and Prince Ibrahim Sori also came from highly literate African societies that revered education. 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.

Since the 11th century, the people of Timbuktu have been going to great lengths to preserve knowledge. Yet 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

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

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 Ibn Said’s autobiography he got the sense that Omar Ibn 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! Omar Ibn Said – 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. 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)

Above is a picture of A Cross Time, a wall painting I created in 2009 in which I’ve abstracted parts Ibrahim Sori’s hand-written autobiography, a commissioned one page document detailing his experience from being abducted from his native West African land, enslaved and finally freed. I trace over Sori’s own handwritten words: They took me”. And by retracing his journey in every box I seek to reconnect to the diasporic relationship I have to my African and Muslim ancestors like Ibrahim Sori who knew Africa in their youth, were abducted from their homelands and disconnected from their communities, and endured slavery for a portion of their lives in the Americas.

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. 

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

We have to wonder, what has been missing from the global Islamic dialogue through the omission of nearly 9 centuries of preserved West African Islamic knowledge? It has been stated that 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. With all of the global turmoil and extremism in parts of the Muslim world, the Timbuktu African and Islamic manuscripts might have a tremendous deal of knowledge and solutions to offer us.

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.

As an artist, I see my creative work with the archive materials of African Muslims who were enslaved in the Americas as part of a larger effort to preserve and transmit the intellectual and cultural history of my African Muslim ancestors. 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.

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 Ibn Said 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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