Muslim oralcy in West Africa: a neglected subject

The 2015 Fage Lecture was given by  Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias.

Abstract

No religion is more scriptural than Islam, and Islamic culture is closely associated with Arabic literacy. Naturally, modern studies of Islam in West Africa have devoted great attention to written texts –Arabic inscriptions, Timbuktu writings, Sokoto Jihād literature, and other grand examples, but also smaller-scale manuscript traditions.

In contrast, oral materials produced in West Africa by Muslims, or by people who borrowed from Islamic repertoires with Muslim help, have attracted much less scrutiny. In fact they are often bracketed away by scholars and ideologues who are in search of pristine African traditions “uncontaminated” by Islam, or who dismiss them as ignorant misconstructions of Islam, vestiges of an era of jāhilīya that is better forgotten.

Hence this dimension of West African oralcy remains deprived of a generally acknowledged name. It is a research field yet to be perceived and constituted as such. Its links with other oral genres and with Arabic literacy, its political purposes, the alternatives to the Jihād tradition it offered, and the intellectual work it embodies, are still to be systematically investigated and discussed. Our aim in this talk is to call attention to the field’s contours and historical interest.