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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

On-line version ISSN 2309-9070
Print version ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.45 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2008


Towards a conceptualization of the study of Africa's indigenous manuscript heritage and tradition



Mary Minicka

Mary Minicka is Head of Preservation at the Western Cape Archives and Records Services, Cape Town, South Africa. E-mail:




This paper share experiences of th South African Conservation Technical Team of the Timbuktu Rare Manuscripts Project in the conservation and preservation of manuscripts in Timbuktu. A manuscript is always more than just its textual information - it is a living historical entity and its study a complex web of interrelated factors: the origins, production (that is, materials, formats, script, typography, and illustration), content, use and role of books in culture, educated and society in general. The widespread availability of paper made it easier to produce these manuscripts as some of the important vehicles for transmitting of knowledge in Islamic society. Islamic written culture, particularly during the time of the European middle ages was by all accounts incomparably more brilliant than anything known in contemporary Europe. The time for studying the African manuscript tradition has never been more appropriate given the recent renewed calls for the need to reappraise African history and achievements. It must be acknowledged, however, that the study of African manuscript heritage will not be without difficulty.

Key words: Timbuktu manuscripts, conservation, Islamic civilization, Mali, African manuscript tradition



Full text available only in PDF format.




1. A number of legends exist as to how Timbuktu came by its name. One relates that the original market was presided over by an elderly woman of considerable ferocity. Tin'Buktu in the Tamashek language means "Place of the old woman" (De Villiers & Hirtle 2003: 212).

2. The river Niger derived its name from the Tamashek phrase gher n-gheren meaning "river among rivers" (De Villiers & Hirtle 2003: 112).

3. For more on the literary heritage of the region, particularly efforts in conserving Mauritania's manuscript heritage, see Werner (2003) and Musa (2006).

4. Studies of 16th century chains of scholarly communication show a strong relationship between Timbuktu and Egypt and Mecca; in particular, Egypt was the pre-eminent centre of Islamic scholarship at the time (Singleton 2004: 7). Howe (1998: 150-51) writes that "Timbuktu was the most important but far from the only West African centre of Muslim scholarship", however he does go on to question the nature of the scholarship, calling it little more than a post-medieval "museum piece". See Howe (1998: 150-51, 154, 155) for more on Timbuktu's troubled place in the history of African scholarship.

5. The designation of "manuscript" is applied to texts that are handwritten; while "books" are printed.

6. The following breakdown was obtained from Saad (1983: 70): The Islamic sciences which lie at the core of the Islamic educational process throughout pan-Islamia can be divided into two categories. The first (and most important) consists of four branches of closely related subject matter, though of varying sources: Qur'anic exegesis (tafsir), traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (hadith), jurisprudence (fiqh) and the sources of law (usul). These four branches share a preoccupation with the governance of society and the conduct of individuals along ideal Muslim lines; and range from ethical standards and direct prescriptions to legal principles and precise laws. The second category of Islamic sciences includes: the fields of grammar (nahw), literary style and rhetoric (balagha), logic (mantiq) and doctrinal theology (tawhid). Of these, only grammar was considered to form an essential part of a scholar's education. The remainder (as well as astronomy, history mathematics and medicine) may be included to further refine the scholar's leaned capabilities or to earn him a greater versatility in juristic deductions and in Islamic doctrine. See Berkey (1992), Makki Sabai (1987) and Robinson (2003) for more information regarding Islamic scholarship.

7. Saad (1983: 22) further elaborates that scholars in this tradition were the leaders of the urban community of Timbuktu; and served as its representatives and as regulators of its public affairs. In their combined roles as notables and learned elite, the scholars could marshal considerable resources and mobilize wide sectors of the city's population. Naturally, this gave them a dominant voice in the internal affairs of their community. Furthermore, scholars and a common subscription to the tradition of Islamic learning seem to have played a city-wide integrative role which transcended the diverse ethnicity of the city's inhabitants (Saad 1983: 33).

8. That is, that a general understanding seems to have existed between the two parties that in exchange for the knowledge imparted, a student would amongst other things, assist his master in whatever may have been his source of income.

9. The majority of Muslim libraries maintained a tradition of open access to scholars from around the world. The majority of the libraries of Timbuktu appear to have been private collections of individual scholars or families, Singleton (2004: 8) argues for a combination of causal factors. Though, a fuller understanding of this unusual situation may lie largely in Timbuktu's social structure and history (Singleton 2004: 8). Timbuktu's remoteness may have contributed to the staunch private library tradition. The difficulty in acquiring books may have created an environment of acute bibliophilism, combined with the fact that manuscript acquisition was probably one of the very few outlets of socially acceptable outlets for wealth display. Support of private libraries may also have been influenced by influences from the wider pan-Islamic world. Men appointed as librarians of public or mosque libraries were only drawn from the ranks of those scholars held in high esteem and the position itself was held in high social and scholarly regard (Singleton 2004: 8). Historical records of Timbuktu hold in the highest esteem those scholars with large book collections. Thus, by retaining a private collection of manuscripts, a scholar or family gained social respect and renown similar to that enjoyed by librarians abroad (Singleton 2004: 9). Combined with the fact, that in Timbuktu the body of the scholarly elite (the ulama) was drawn exclusively from the city's wealthiest families. Singleton argues that this made the institution of a public library surplus to requirement, as only the wealthy owners of private libraries were literate enough to read most of the erudite works available in library collections. This closely bound community of scholars lent book to one another; in an environment of scholarly collegiality, combined with the mitigating social factors and biases, allowed scholars to Timbuktu to hold to their traditions, largely ignoring the public library model of the greater Islamic world (Singleton 2004: 10).

10. Berkey (1992: 43) writes that the overwhelming preference for transmitting knowledge was through oral transmission in Islamic knowledge transmission. Oral transmission was viewed as the only truly legitimate means of transmitting knowledge is deeply embedded within Islamic academia (Berkey 1992: 24). Berkey (1992: 18, 24) notes that this bias was present from Islam's earliest days and has survived to the present; giving Islamic learning a measure of informality by not binding it to a system of formal qualifications obtained from formal institutions of higher learning - allowing for a vitality and flexibility in the study of the Islamic sciences. Therefore, institutions of learning played no actual role in Islamic education; though schools existed as buildings and endowments Islamic law allows no corporate identity to any particular institution. As a consequence, no formal degree system was ever established (Berkey 1992: 16). Rather, it was the student" s personal connection with his teacher(s) (or shaykhs) was of great importance. A person's education was judged not on where it was obtained, but from whom - as students built their own careers on the reputation of their teachers (Berkey 1992: 23).

11. Hodgson maintains that within the scope of world history, Western Europe played little more than a peripheral role, and, well into the Middle Ages, a frankly backward role. Hodgson (in Hodgson & Burke 1998: 26, 27) prefers to refer to Western Europe as a frontier region to the larger and more vibrant Afro-Eurasian civilization zone/bloc.

12. Paper is thought to have been invented some time in China during the latter part of the 1st century BCE (Bloom 2001: 1, 32). Imperial household records award a patent to an Imperial courtier Tzai Lun around 105 CE. Europe only acquired the technology of paper manufacture by the 11th or 12th centuries CE (Bloom 2001: 1). The first paper mill in Europe was established at Fabriano, Italy in 1276 CE; another century passed before a paper mill was established at Nuremburg, Germany in 1390 CE (Al-Hassan & Hill 1992: 191). The unification of Western Asia under Islam in the 8th century meant that the Islamic encounter with paper in Central Asia, resulted in its rapid spread Samarqand to Iran, Iraq, Syria and North Africa to Spain within a mere two centuries; compared to the approximately five centuries it had taken to spread from China to Samarqand (Al-Hassan & Hill 1992: 191; Bloom 2001: 47; Hrbek 1988: 5).

13. Today, a ream has 500 sheets. Originally a ream contained some 480 sheets, or enough to make up 20 quires (that is, booklets of 24 pages each). The modern English word "ream" derived in the first instance from the Arabic rizma, meaning "bale or bundle". From the Arabic word rizma derived the Spanish resma (risma in Italian, ries in German, ris in Danish) and eventually the Old French rayme (Al-Hassan & Hill 1992: 192; Bloom 2001: 9; Loveday 2001: 53).

14. There is an interesting historical anecdote from the much travelled Ibn Battuta (1304-1368 CE) who visited Egypt in 1327, illustrating the use of paper as being associated with people of "quality" which Bloom (2001: 81) cites in his book on the role of Islam in the history of paper. Ibn Battuta relates that no person could enter the city of Damietta (in modern-day Egypt) without the governor's seal - persons of "repute" had the seal stamped on a piece of paper which they showed to the gatekeepers - all others had the seal stamped on their forearms.

15. Italian paper makers had begun manufacturing paper from the 13th century CE and were soon exporting it to North Africa and Western Asia. The oldest paper mill in Europe, named after the town in which it is located in Italy, Fabriano, is still in operation today. The huge importance of paper making as an industry in Islamic lands was little more than a mere whisper by the 19th century, as the art of papermaking had died out centuries before ( Bloom 2001: 53). Bloom (2001: 9) credits the success of the Italian paper making industry to a greater access to water power and a further development of Italian technology that enabled the development of a stronger and cheaper product than was locally available in many Islamic lands. Soon paper makers in Islamic lands were unable to compete with European exports. There now remains virtually no reliable evidence, apart from the surviving sheets of paper themselves, that paper was actually ever produced in Islamic lands (Bloom 2001: 53).

16. In Tlemcen (now in western Algeria) a noted jurisconsult Abu Abdallah ibn Marzuq delivered a long fatwa (that is, a legal decision) on 21 August 1409. It was titled Tarqir al-dalil al-wadih al-malum ala jawaz al-naskh fi kaghid al-rum (or, Decision ...concerning the permissibility of writing on paper made by Christians). Bloom (2001: 87) writes that this historical document is indicative of the fact that Italian paper had now entirely supplanted local production by the beginning of the fifteenth century: according to the document paper had once been made in Tlemcen, Fez (Morocco) and other Muslim regions of Spain, but now no longer was. Pious Muslims were thus forced to write on European paper containing watermarks they found offensive as they included representations of European Christian iconography such as crosses, or that of living beings. Ibn-Mazuq's decision framed the problem in terms of ritual purity and subsequently argued that writing in Arabic over the idolatrous designs rendered them invisible. Therefore, in writing God's name (and message) on such papers, replaced falsehood with truth - a situation he held to be analogous to the transforming a Christian church into a mosque.

17. The entry for watermark in the Bookbinding and Conservation of Books: A Dictionary of Descriptive Terminology further clarifies: "true watermarks are a localized modification of the formation and opacity of the paper while it is still wet, so that the marks can be seen in the finished sheet of paper when viewed by transmitted light."

18. Watermarks appear to have been a largely European phenomenon. No real equivalent has as yet been found in Islamic manufactured paper. Only in Islamic papers of Spanish origin have something approximating a watermark been found: a zigzag indentation running from the topbottom of the sheet, or a series of overlapping diagonal crosses. It is surmised that these marks were made with a stylus or brush while the sheet of newly-made paper was still wet. These marks are not considered to be true watermarks (Bosch 1981: 30; Loveday 2001: 53).

19. Despite all these caveats concerning the usefulness of watermarks to bibliographic research, literature on the subject of watermarks state that the continued research of watermarks to has much to offer. Bibliographic scholars continue to devote much space in their books on the topic of watermarks. The sense of things is a field that has much scope for further study, partly due to the challenges presented by the physical nature and quirks of the watermarks and paper.

20. The Arabic script reads from right to left, resulting in a book-format that is the reverse of what Roman alphabet-based literates are used to - opening at what would be considered the "back" of the book (Bloom 2001: 111).

21. The codex book structure consists of rectangular sheets of paper or parchment folded into gatherings (sections) that are sewn together and attached to protective covers. The individual leaves may be written either before or after compilation (Bosch 1981: 23).

22. The structure, materials and techniques that are considered to be the archetypical Islamic binding have "remained remarkably constant throughout the Islamic world over time [...] The folios were collated and assembled in gatherings, which were normally sewn into a single body using a link-stitch [...] that picks up the preceding gathering [...] [typically there were two sewing stations per binding, irrespective of the size of the binding] [...] [T]he coloured [sewing] linen or silk thread was soften too thin for its function and [frequently] broke. After sewing the spine was lined, usually with linen [...] [which] projected beyond the spine [...] on either side to form hinges by which the body was attached to the cover boards. After the [text block] edges were trimmed, end bands were sewn to the head [top] and tail [bottom] of the spine [...] The typical Islamic book cover, of leather made rigid with pasteboard, had foredge [...] envelope [or pentagonal] flaps. Sometimes flexible covers of skin, paper or cloth were used [...] corners were not systematically fixed: sometimes the mitres were lapped; occasionally butted [...] Islamic bindings often had doublures (linings) of paper, leather or fabric pasted onto the inner face of the upper and lower boards and overlapping the adjacent flyleaf" (Turner 1996: 356). Bosch et al. (1981: 24ff) a detailed breakdown of how the traditionally conceived Islamic book structure was put together (also: Szirmai 1999: 51- 61; Greenfield 1998: 80, 83, 88).

23. Howe's 1998 hardback edition bears the following: "For centuries, racist, colonial and Eurocentric bias has blocked or distorted knowledge of African, their histories and cultures. The challenge to that bias has been one of the greatest intellectual transformations of the late twentieth century. But alongside this necessary redressing has arisen a counter mythology, proclaiming the innate superiority of African-descended peoples. [...] [T]his Afrocentric movement is guilty of reproducing all the central features of the outmoded Euro-racist scholarship."

24. There is a principle within bibliographic studies that states that the books that have survived are the rare treasures, precisely because they are more valued they enjoy a greater consideration by the preceding generations. It is the more everyday, mundane and unappreciated volumes used by the average person that tends not to survive because of the fact that they are undervalued documents of everyday life. Therefore, field of bibliographic studies understands that it is skewed towards a better understanding of the rare, costly and treasured volumes because they form the greater part of the surviving codexical history that modern scholars can access.


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