PhD research focus

Paul Naylor - Arabic sources for African history

I graduated from SOAS with BA Arabic in 2010 and since that time I was working mainly in Arabic translation; translating books, creating subtitles and working for media companies producing films and documentaries about the Middle East. In 2015 I was keen to return to academia and successfully applied to the AHRC studentship Arabic Sources for African History.

Paul Naylor

Though I knew little about West Africa at the time, I saw a great potential to use my language skills

 since while so many primary sources for Africa’s pre-colonial history are written in Arabic, there are a relatively small number of Africanists with a knowledge of the Arabic language.

Since my studentship is a Collaborative Doctoral Project between the University of Birmingham and the British Library, in addition to my PhD work at Birmingham I travel to the British Library in London around two days a week, cataloguing their collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa. I also helped with the curation of the Arabic items featured in their major 2015-16 exhibition, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song.

At Birmingham, my research concerns the Arabic writings produced by the leaders of the Muslim theocratic state founded in Sokoto (northern Nigeria) in 1804 by Sheikh Uthman dan Fodio, popularly known as the Sokoto Caliphate. At its height, the Caliphate included much of present-day northern Nigeria, southern Niger and parts of Cameroon and lasted as an independent state entity until 1903. I am especially interested in how Uthman’s brother, Abdullahi dan Fodio, and son, Muhammad Bello (which I call collectively the Fodiawa), set about maintaining and governing the Caliphate after the death of Uthman, as well as the associated tensions that arose between them during this process.  Furthermore, I am keen to understand the legacy of the Caliphate in more recent times by studying actors within and outside the West African region for whom it has political capital today.

My research involves consulting hundreds of Arabic primary sources, many of which exist only in their manuscript form. So in November 2015 I travelled to Niamey, Niger, to consult the Arabic archives held at the MARA, a department of Abdou Moumouni University. This was an enlightening experience in many ways, because culturally the area has much in common with the area I am studying. During this trip I wrote an article for the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog about my time working in the archives. Meanwhile, in March 2016 I started a three month visiting pre-doctoral fellowship at Northwestern University, Illinois. There, in addition to an active African studies community, the Herskovits Library contains copies of many original manuscripts written by the Fodiawa. I look forward to sharing my research at graduate seminars and will also present a paper at Northwestern’s forthcoming conference, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA). The conference is held in honour of the Africanist John Hunwick, whose Arabic Literature of Africa series is an invaluable resource for anyone studying Arabic sources for West African History.

At DASA, I much appreciate the weekly Africa Talks series and monthly Graduate Forums.  Whatever the topic, I can always take something away that is useful for my research and look forward to presenting at a Graduate Forum myself at a later stage of my PhD.  I presented my work at the 2015 DASA symposium Landscapes, Sources, and Intellectual Projects in African History, in honour of DASA colleague Paulo Fernando de Moraes Farias, and look forward to participating in the 2016 Cadbury Conference