Lately, I have been more and more interested in the history of Islam in Africa. And, no, I am not referring to North Africa—but to what’s below the Sahara. My interest was sparked by the Metropolitan Museum recent exhibition Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara. The catalogue of the exhibition is a wornderful source of information and images. Yet, as I went on reading it, I realized I was totally, absolutely, and embarassingly ignorant of the topic. I am struggling understanding names and what they are referring to, it’s hard for me to follow the discourse of the well-written essays, because most often than I like to admit, I and the writer do not share any point of reference. Therefore, I realized it is about time to dig into the history of the Sahel.
What follows is a reading list I compiled on the history, culture, and art of the Sahelian empires. It also includes texts and reference books about Africa at large. It is by no mean exhaustive and I will need to update it as I go.
Sylviane A. DioufServants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas. New York: New York University Press, 1998. [Amazon link] — An account of the 18th-century slave trade: it follows Muslims from West Africa to the Americas. The book demostrates how Islam flourished during slavery, despite the Christian milieu where the slaves were forced to live. Not really about the Sahel stricto sensu, still an insightful reading. (thanks to Ana Elrich for the suggestion!)
Fauvelle, François-Xavier. The Golden Rhinoceros: Histories of the African Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. [Amazon link] — Fauvelle is a leading historian of African studies, and in this book, while not focusing on the Sahel only, he tells the history of the whole African continent between the 7th and the 15th century.
Green, Toby. A Fistful of Shells: West Africa from the Rise of the Slave Trade to the Age of Revolution. London: Penguin Books, 2020. [Amazon link] — The book is divided into two parts. Part one is about the “Causes”, and it provides a new, coherent view of the economic history of West Africa. Part two, “Consequences” focuses on politics, pre-Modern, and Modern history.
Gomez, Michael A. African Dominion: A New History of Empire in Early and Medieval West Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. [Amazon link] — Focusing on the Savannah and Sahel region, the book focuses on Islam’s growth in West Africa and the series of political experiments unique to the region, culminating in the rise of empire.
Oliver, Roland. Medieval Africa 1250 – 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. [Amazon link] — The title is self-explanatory: a history of the African continent, from the 13th to the 19th century.
Parker, John, and Richard Rathbone. African History: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. [Amazon link] — If you, like me, feel you are missing the basis, this book might be a very good place to start: since it is an introduction, do not expect to learn the details of the Sahel. The book, instead, takes a more general approach and looks at Africa’s past, reflecting on the changing ways it has been imagined and represented, both in Africa and beyond.
LITERATURE & LANGUAGE
Sunjata: Gambian Versions of the Mande Epic. London: Penguin Books, 1999. [Amazon link] — The Epic of Sunjata has been described as the African equivalent of the Iliad and Odyssey, and even though there are many differences between the African and Greek epics, this comparison recognises that Sunjata is as important to West African civilisation as its Homeric’s couterparts are to the West
Ngom, Fallou. Muslims beyond the Arab World: The Odyssey of Ajami and the Muridiyya. Oxfors: Oxford University Press, 2016. [Amazon link] — The book explores the tradition of writing African languages using the modified Arabic script (‘Ajami) alongside the rise of the Muridiyya Sufi order in Senegal. On both subject, I am totally ignorant. The book is quite expensive, but probably you can find it at your library.
SAHEL – ART AND ARCHITECTURE
Lagamma, Alisa. Sahel: Art and Empires on the Shores of the Sahara. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019. [Amazon link] — It is the catalogue of the MET Muesum exhibition. The volume examines the artistic and cultural traditions of the Sahel region, that includes present-day Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger. From the pre-islamic period all the way through the 19th century.
Aradeon, Suzan B. “Al-Sahili : the historian’s myth of architectural technology transfer from North Africa”. Journal des Africanistes, 59-1-2, 1989. [Persee link] — Abu Ishaq Ibrahim Al-Sahili (1290–1346) was an architect of the Mali Empire under the rule of Mansa Musa. In traditional architectural history of the region, al-Sahili appears over and over. In this article, his history is examined and its shortcomings analyzed.
Dethier, Jean, Ruth Eaton, Dorothee Gruner, and Sebastian Schutyser. Banco: Adobe Mosques of the Inner Niger Delta. Milan: 5Continents, 2003. [Amazon link] — This is a photo book portraying the village adobe mosques in the Inner Niger Delta. While I do not think this books will provide much in-depth information on the architectural history of the region, it is a good place to start and get acquainted with the style and the features of the region’s architecture.
Garlake, Peter. Early Art and Architecture of Africa. Oxfors: Oxford University Press, 2016. [Amazon link] — Condensing in a book the art and architecture of a whole continent sounds impossible, still, this book provides an understanding of the art developed in Africa over a period of 5,000 years. It focuses on seven regions: southern Africa, Nubia, Aksum, the Niger River, West Africa, Great Zimbabwe, and the East African coast—-treating each in detail and setting them in their social and historical context.