Islamic Africa in Search of a Database

Just as the emergence of a digital paradigm is transforming other fields of scholarship and providing new approaches to old questions as well as new questions altogether, Islam in Africa, a field that is at the intersection of African studies and Islamic studies faces new openings in research. However, scholars of Islam in Africa have been slow to adapt to emergent technologies for their own ends, leaving the question of the digital to the realm of manuscript preservation or stalling it at complaints about the digital divide. At the same time, the ongoing conversation about the Digital Humanities has, with a few notable exceptions, has seldom made African Studies or Islamic Studies (less true for Islamic studies), let alone Islam in Africa, a research priority.

Despite the state of affairs, the field is ripe for research with as many opportunities as there are challenges. The current moment can perhaps be compared to the first days of the field of African History in the 1960’s when Africa was in search of an archive. The process of building archives for the sake of African history in the first days of independence entailed not only the collection and preservation of documents, it also required defining what constituted a “document,” developing methodologies of research, and standards in professional activity. Similarly, the database is not simply a digital storage space; it has corresponding ways of thinking and attendant scholarly practices that should be intentionally defined for the sake of creating a “usable future.”(pdf)

These are the stakes that provide the larger backdrop of my project. The immediate query, I assure you, is far more modest. I want to generate a list of local textual production in Arabic by using the contents of the Segou collection if the Bibliotheque Nationale de France,  a 4,000-odd document library from present-day Mali, West Africa that was captured in 1890 by French military forces. I then want to take that information to make an assessment about the types of works that were locally produced. While there has been significant, if not magisterial, work done on the Arabic Literature of Africa, it has been more bibliographic than it has been analytical. There, too, has been work on the “Core Curriculum”(pdf) of West African Islamic learning. However, the scale has been too large to capture local production.

I have used the West African Arabic Manuscript Database as a source of the textual metadata that I used for a process of what I have been calling “scanning.” By scanning I do not mean digitalization, but rather I am trying to invoke the impression one has when walking quickly through the stacks of a library. The operation would probably be recognizable to library scientist as a statistical corpus analysis with an added geographical dimension.

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