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  • The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africaed. by Mauro Nobili and Andrea Brigaglia
  • Evyn Kropf

Manuscript studies, Islamic history, African history, Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic manuscripts, Arabic script, ʻajamī, literacy, literary traditions, manuscript production, circulation, reception, materiality, writing materials, watermarks, layout, marginalia, writing practices, authorship, copyist techniques, contemporary manuscript production

Mauro Nobili and Andrea Brigaglia, eds. The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Islamic Manuscript Cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa. Studies in Manuscript Cultures12. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017. 367 pp., color illustrations. ISBN: 9783110541403. Open access version available online:

T his collective volume providesa compelling treatment of Islamic literacy in sub-Saharan Africa as embodied and embedded in a rich heritage of manuscript book production, circulation, and reception. In choosing this focus on sub-Saharan manuscript cultures, the authors follow directly the holistic approach put forward by Graziano Krätli, Ghislaine Lydon, and contributors in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa(Leiden: Brill, 2011). This approach advocates for an expansive study of manuscripts that eschews a narrow focus on textual elements and instead considers their contents within the material, technological, economic, cultural, and intellectual dimensions involved in their manufacture, dissemination, appreciation, consumption, and preservation.

The volume opens with Mauro Nobili's introduction, in which he makes a compelling case for holistically interrogating sub-Saharan Islamic literary sources for African history and Islamic history despite the complex marginalization of these sources in favor of African oral traditions and the "dominance" of the Arabo-Persian Islamicate center. This "old and deep literate tradition" (4) in Arabic and in 'ajamī(African languages written in Arabic characters) as embodied in thousands of manuscripts, has much to [End Page 417]contribute to the history of Islamic knowledge in general and to challenging the traditional paradigm which views sub-Saharan Africa as "a continent of 'oral societies'" (7). The eleven contributions that follow explore sub-Saharan manuscripts and literary traditions from a range of perspectives.

The essays of Michaelle Biddle and Andrea Brigaglia explore the materiality and production of manuscripts via their writing materials. Expanding on the seminal work of Terence Walz while complementing more recent work by Natalia Viola, Biddle offers a valuable contribution refining the typology of watermarked papers used in sub-Saharan manuscripts, particularly papers that can be associated with the Galvani mills. While the majority of papers used in sub-Saharan manuscripts are of European manufacture and bear watermarks and countermarks, most do not appear in existing watermark catalogs and databases. This substantially limits their utility for dating otherwise undated manuscripts. Working from a corpus of nearly 1,300 manuscripts, of which fewer than forty-eight bear an explicit dating, Biddle was able to determine that the vast majority of papers are of Italian manufacture (coming mainly from an area north of Venice) and that most date from the second half of the eighteenth century to the early decades of the twentieth century. Her detailed treatment of the ubiquitous Galvani papers allows for more precise dating based on countermark, watermark, and whether hand-or machine-made.

Brigaglia presents an intriguing analysis that associates the wooden tablet (or writing board) utilized in traditional Qur'anic education in northern Nigerian Muslim societies (and elsewhere in Africa) with a complex ritual of initiation based on the reenactment of the Qur'anic revelation. Brigaglia argues that, beyond serving as a tool for the transmission of Qur'anic knowledge, the wooden tablet is the central component of a complex array of symbols supporting an educational and initiatory process. Indeed, the entire cycle of the preliminary stage of Qur'anic education operates in a dense complex of analogies that allow the Muslim pupil to symbolically identify with the Prophet Muhammad at the descent of the Qur'an and establishment of the Muslim community.

The essays of Dmitry Bondarev and Susana Molins Lliteras explore the important marginal and interlinear spaces of West African manuscripts. [End Page 418]Bondarev discusses the insights that codicological features such as layout can provide with regard to the broader intellectual and cultural contexts in which manuscripts...


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