Saving Tradition: Genres of Islamic Knowledge in Senegal and the Western Sahel

Jeremy Dell, University of Pennsylvania


Before the twentieth century, to be literate in the Western Sahel meant to be literate in Arabic—or in other African languages written with the Arabic script. This dissertation investigates the history of non-Europhone textual practices in the Western Sahel across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Anchored in Senegal and Mali, it tells a regional story of how Muslim scholars, French colonial administrators, rural chiefs, printers, book dealers, manuscript collectors, and ordinary students and disciples sought to discursively construct a West African Islamic textual tradition by preserving and disseminating Arabic manuscripts. While many of these actors approached this task with different ideological motivations, they all assumed a connection between a regional religious identity and the physical preservation of texts. By considering such a range of actors, this dissertation also demonstrates that intellectual engagement with Islamic texts was not the exclusive domain of a hyper-literate elite, but a communal resource that offered solutions to problems generated by local circumstances. By studying the various initiatives that have been directed at preserving these materials, it seeks to understand the material conditions that enable the maintenance of specific discursive traditions. ^ Based on 20 months of oral and archival research in West Africa, Saving Tradition follows the trajectories of specific genres of texts, tracking their movement from private homes to public archives and eventually into print and other forms of mass media. It traces the publication histories of works of Islamic jurisprudence, Qur'anic commentaries, historical chronicles and Sufi poetry, analyzing the institutions in which they were embedded, the historical conjunctures in which they appeared and their critical engagements with the wider Islamic tradition. In the process, it adds new dimensions to the historical study of colonialism, Sufism, and Islamic law in Francophone West Africa, and gives content to long-standing calls for epistemic pluralism in the study of both African history and the intellectual history of the Global South.^

Subject Area

African studies|African history|Islamic studies

Recommended Citation

Dell, Jeremy, "Saving Tradition: Genres of Islamic Knowledge in Senegal and the Western Sahel" (2018). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI10843952.