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Desert Scrolls: Re-writing the History of Africa
You may have
witnessed a moment, an event or a discovery that would change the future of a
community. This event or discovery would have to be something exceptional and
dramatic to write a new chapter in the books of history.
But imagine witnessing a moment or discovery that would re-write the history of an entire nation! That has got to be
something spectacular to erase and replace the pages of history.
This is precisely what has happened in Timbuktu, Mali in the last five years.
Over a million manuscripts have been re-discovered and about 20 million more in
West Africa overall. These manuscripts date back to 12th to 16th century
"Prior to the re-discovery of manuscripts, people
thought Africa had no literacy and that it was a simple oral tradition,” says
Okolo Rashid, Executive Director of International Museum of Muslim Cultures
(IMMC) in Jackson, Mississippi.
"As a team of 25 scholars and historians study this
newly uncovered global legacy of literacy in Africa, they believe it's enough
evidence to re-write the history of Africa,” Rashid continued.
It is by far the most astounding revelation of its kind
ever since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Timbuktu manuscripts are a symbolic representation of
the impact and influence of the early schools and universities (12th-16th
centuries) that existed in West Africa.
"The fact that the trade of books in Mali was
considered the most profitable business at that time shows how much West
Africans loved literacy and education,” said Emad Al-Turk, Chairman and
co-founder of IMMC.
These manuscripts, incredibly rich in style and content,
illustrate the depth of knowledge and intellect of students and scholars in
this center of learning.
The variety of topics these manuscripts cover is
phenomenal. Some of the religious topics include: jurisprudence (Fiqh), human
and women's rights, and Quranic commentary (Tafseer). In science, they cover
everything from astronomy and medicine to mathematics.
"Interestingly, about 85 percent of manuscripts were
written in Arabic, which indicates that writers were well-versed in Arabic and
Islam, even though they may be addressing non-religious topics,” added Al-Turk.
Okolo Rashid described her trip to Timbuktu, Mali, in
January 2004, as "indeed a moving and deeply spiritual journey.”
She said she marveled at these manuscripts "so
beautifully bound in leather with calligraphy and illustrations painted on
About one million manuscripts were hidden in Mali for over
500 years. As she explains, "it's God's Will that they survived, partly
due to the arid environment.”
Opportunity to Tell
the True Story
The rediscovery of ancient manuscripts offers an amazing
opportunity to tell the true religious, political, social, and economic history
of Africa to the world.
According to Al-Turk, this rediscovery is "extremely
important for the educators in the American public school system because they
need to teach students the correct story.”
It will also bring to light Muslim accomplishments in
"For example, the concept of ‘global peace'. There is
a large body of knowledge in the manuscripts developed around conflict
resolution and mediation. This study will impact our global discourse on peace
and justice. Through the writings of ‘scholars of peace' five centuries ago, we
can learn from and adopt their unique model for local and global
peace-keeping,” explained Rashid.
As we study these manuscripts, we realize that these
people had developed a sophisticated socio-economic model for the publication
industry. Africans in Timbuktu were at the forefront of the global Islamic
knowledge industry at the time. They developed generations of local scholars
who wrote books about everything. These books were then beautifully bound and
Moreover, the manuscripts reveal that many Africans
brought to America were very established and educated individuals. Some of them
were judges, teachers, and merchants prior to the transatlantic slave trade.
They were not brought over to be ‘civilized'.
"In fact Muslim Africans were the first cultural
group to bring a revealed religion to America,” said Rashid.
These manuscripts may also serve as a "missing link”
between African-Americans and Islam. "It will allow African-Americans to
look at Islam and Muslim not as strangers anymore. This is the link that has
been missing from our Black and African studies in universities all this time,”
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