East Africa’s distinctive Islamic manuscript culture

First published in The New Arab, 07 September, 2022

Archiving the past helps ensure the knowledge and practices of generations gone by are not forgotten. A Minnesotan museum has contributed to the preservation of East African history by tracking down rare Islamic and Christian manuscripts.

Hundreds of rare manuscripts from Ethiopia have been digitized online by the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Minnesota, shedding new light on East Africa’s contributions to Islamic and Christian scholastic heritages.

The collection itself includes almost 300 manuscripts from the University of Addis Ababa and over 500 from the Sherif Hārar City Museum in Hārar, the city where most of the items were produced.

In this exclusive interview, The New Arab speaks to Josh Mugler, a curator of eastern Christian and Islamic manuscripts who worked on the project.

“We want to make it easier for East African Muslims here and elsewhere to study these manuscripts that are part of their own cultural history since much has been lost as a result of war and migration”

The New Arab: Who is this collection digitised for, and how crucial was it for HMML to work on this project?

Joshua Mugler: As with all of our projects, there are multiple audiences in view and we hope to benefit all of them.

Primarily, the audiences for most of our digitization projects are, firstly, members of the community whose heritage is being digitized, especially in (the) diaspora. And secondly, scholars researching this community. Of course, these groups have significant overlap, because plenty of East African Muslims (for example) are also researching their own cultural heritage.

In the case of our Ethiopian Islamic manuscripts, I hope that this work will build connections with the large community of East African Muslims here in Minnesota, primarily from Somalia. The cataloguing work on these collections was begun by Mohamud Mohamed, a Somali American graduate student and Minneapolis native who worked as an intern at HMML in 2021.

This manuscript of the Qur’an dates back to the 18th century [photo credit: Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and Addis Ababa University, Institute of Ethiopian Studies]

We want to make it easier for East African Muslims here and elsewhere to study these manuscripts that are part of their own cultural history since much has been lost as a result of war and migration. And we want to do this in a way that does not rely on removing manuscripts from the places where people have cared for them over the centuries.

This is easier to do with digital technology. This work is crucial because without cataloguing, there are just millions of images on a website and no one can find what they’re interested in.

Since the first millennium, Ethiopia has been at the heart of two manuscript book cultures underpinning Islamic and Christian religions and administrations and distinct geopolitical realities. These Christian and Islamic manuscript cultures also developed in various languages and scripts which some scholars say compartmentalised how we understand these cultures.

If the historiography of Christian manuscripts is already well rooted, Islamic manuscripts whether in Arabic languages and script or local languages and Arabic script (‘ağamī) up till now have been little studied.

The New Arab: Would you say that the manuscript culture of the East African region is less known than that of West Africa’s (with the likes of Mali’s Timbuktu) and under-researched, and how does the collection bring to light new information about what we may already know about Ethiopia’s manuscript culture?

Joshua Mugler: Yes, I would say that less attention has been paid to East African Islamic manuscripts specifically. Ethiopian Christian manuscript culture has received significant attention, partially due to the microfilm work that HMML did in Ethiopia in the 1970s.

This is somewhat understandable considering the difference in scale: we have digitized over 700 Islamic manuscripts from Ethiopia, but we have digitized hundreds of thousands of manuscripts from Mali alone and are still working there.

So it’s a smaller community and a smaller corpus of material, but I am excited to make these available for research. There are fortunately important projects like the Islam in the Horn of Africa database led by Alessandro Gori at the University of Copenhagen that are investigating this region more thoroughly.

Ethiopian Muslims began to introduce the literary culture and hailed manuscript work in mosques following the advent of Islam in the seventh century.

Books were stored and preserved in bookshelves known as taqet, which in Arabic is known as tāqat. According to scholars such as Hassan Muhammad Kawo, these indicate that (the) African endogenous culture of preserving textual material existed before the introduction of European models for archives and museums.

“Hundreds of Quranic manuscripts in these collections were copied and endowed for devotional reading at the tombs of family members, sometimes by men, but much more often by women”

The New Arab: Can you take me through two of the pieces that were most striking or interesting to you, and why are they so?

Joshua Mugler: I was impressed by the elaborate decoration on some of the manuscripts, especially Quran manuscripts and (other) devotional books.

The decoration style is different from that of any other Islamic region I know of and uses a distinct local colour palette (historically lots of reds, yellows, and blacks), often with decorative white text written by using negative space. For example, see IES 00258, a Quran manuscript from 1729 now held in Addis Ababa.

This sort of decoration would require an investment of time and money, indicating the importance of these manuscripts. Secondly, I was impressed with the effort to preserve elements of Hārari and Oromo, two regional languages that are less established in literary tradition than Arabic is.

For example, EMIP 01685 is an extensive compilation of information in Hārari from 1985, including diagrams of human anatomy and other helpful terminology. Moreover, Hārar has a small written tradition going back centuries, because there are three treatises on Islamic inheritance law in the language that have been copied for almost 500 years.

This 14th-century manuscript is an excerpt from Muḥammad al-Ghazālī’s treatise Kitāb al-arbaʻīn fī uṣūl al-dīn [photo credit: Hill Museum & Manuscript Library and Addis Ababa University, Institute of Ethiopian Studies]

The New Arab: Did this project in any way challenge what scholars such as yourself previously thought about manuscript culture relating to the region?

Joshua Mugler: I am not an expert on Ethiopia specifically, but I know that there were some surprises in these collections, such as the age of some of the manuscripts. The oldest dated manuscript in the collection is a work on Ḥanafī law copied in 1346 (EMIP 01539), which is older than most previously known manuscripts in Ethiopia.

I was also struck by the role of Hārari women in creating and preserving this manuscript heritage. As I noted on Twitter, hundreds of Quranic manuscripts in these collections were copied and endowed for devotional reading at the tombs of family members, sometimes by men, but much more often by women. This is a phenomenon I have not observed in other parts of the Islamic manuscript tradition.

The New Arab: There has been much discourse about whether Ethiopian manuscripts as Islamic and Christian can renew the points of contact between the two. What are your thoughts on this?

Joshua Mugler: These manuscripts testify to centuries of contact between Muslims and Christians in the Horn of Africa, from early contact and conflicts in the medieval period to missionary activity and European imperialism in recent centuries.

Despite these contacts (positive and negative), most of the intellectual conversation among those who produced the manuscripts was happening within the Muslim community and not across religious boundaries, even if they were otherwise interacting with Christians on a fairly regular basis.

I think one interesting question the manuscripts raise is what it means for Hārar and the other eastern regions to be part of a multireligious Ethiopia today. For Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia, it is important to consider how these cross-religious interactions can be moved forward in a positive way.

Adama Munu is an award-winning journalist that writes about race, Black heritage and issues connecting Islam and the African diaspora

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Journalist with an affinity for all things ‘African Diaspora’ and Islam. You can @ me via adamaj.co.uk or twitter/@adamajmunu

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Journalist with an affinity for all things ‘African Diaspora’ and Islam. You can @ me via adamaj.co.uk or twitter/@adamajmunu