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Shedding light on the Islamic manuscript culture of East Africa

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Hundreds of rare manuscripts from Ethiopia have been digitized online by Minnesota’s Hill Museum & Manuscript Library, shedding new light on East African contributions to Islamic and Christian school legacies.

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

In this exclusive interview, The new Arabic interviews Josh Mugler, a curator of Eastern Christian and Islamic manuscripts who worked on the project.

The New Arabic: For whom is this collection digitized and how crucial was it for HMML to work on this project?

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

Primarily, the audiences for most of our digitization projects are, first, community members whose heritage is being digitized, especially in (the) diaspora. And second, the researchers who are researching this community. Of course, these groups overlap considerably, as many East African Muslims (for example) are also researching their own cultural heritage.

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

This manuscript of the Koran dates from 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 abroad to study these manuscripts which are part of their own cultural history as much has been lost due to war and migration. And we want to do that in a way that doesn’t rely on removing manuscripts from places where people have maintained them over the centuries.

It’s easier to do with digital technology. This work is crucial because without cataloging there are only millions of images on a site and no one can find what interests them.

Since the first millennium, Ethiopia has been at the heart of two manuscript book cultures that underlie distinct Islamic and Christian religions and administrations and geopolitical realities. These Christian and Islamic manuscript cultures also developed into various languages ​​and scripts that some scholars believe have compartmentalized the way we understand these cultures.

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

The New Arabic: Would you say that the manuscript culture of the East African region is less known than that of West Africa (with the likes of Timbuktu in Mali) and understudied, and how the collection highlights it shed new light on what we may already know about Ethiopian manuscript culture?

Joshua Mugler: Yes, I would say that less attention has been paid specifically to East African Islamic manuscripts. Ethiopian Christian manuscript culture has received particular attention, in part because of the microfilm work carried out by HMML in Ethiopia in the 1970s.

This is somewhat understandable given 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 body of material, but I’m happy to make it available for research. Fortunately, there are important projects like the Islam in the Horn of Africa database led by Alessandro Gori at the University of Copenhagen that study this region in greater depth.

Ethiopian Muslims began to introduce literary culture and praised handwritten work in mosques after the advent of Islam in the 7th century.

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

“Hundreds of Quranic manuscripts from these collections have been copied and endowed for devotional reading at the graves of family members, sometimes by men, but much more often by women”

The New Arabic: Can you describe to me two of the pieces that have marked you the most or that have interested you the most, and why are they?

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

The decorating style is unlike any other Islamic region I’ve been to and uses a distinct local color scheme (historically lots of reds, yellows and blacks), often with decorative white text written using negative space. For example, see IES 00258, a 1729 Quran manuscript now housed in Addis Ababa.

This type of decoration would require an investment of time and money, indicating the importance of these manuscripts. Second, I was impressed by the efforts made to preserve elements of Harari and Oromo, two regional languages ​​less steeped in literary tradition than Arabic.

For example, EMIP 01685 is an extensive compilation of Hārari information from 1985, including human anatomy diagrams and other useful terms. Additionally, Hārar has a small written tradition dating back centuries, as there are three treatises on Islamic inheritance law in the language that have been copied for nearly 500 years.

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

The New Arabic: Has this project challenged in any way what scholars like you previously thought about the region’s manuscript culture?

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

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

The New Arabic: There has been much discussion about whether Ethiopian manuscripts as Islamic and Christian can renew the points of contact between the two. What do you think about this?

Joshua Mugler: These manuscripts bear witness to centuries of contact between Muslims and Christians in the Horn of Africa, from the first contacts and conflicts of the medieval period to the missionary activity and European imperialism of the last centuries.

Despite these contacts (both positive and negative), most of the intellectual conversations between those who produced the manuscripts took place within the Muslim community and not across religious boundaries, although they otherwise interacted quite regularly with Christians. .

I think an interesting question raised by the manuscripts is what it means for Hārar and the other eastern regions to be part of a multi-religious Ethiopia today. For Muslims and Christians in Ethiopia, it is important to consider how these inter-religious interactions can positively progress.

Adama Munu is an award-winning journalist who writes about race, black heritage and issues connecting Islam and the African Diaspora