The Sahel has long served as a double fetish in study of the Islamic World. Scholarship has traditionally taken it as a space of perpetual isolation, a wasteland of place and culture dividing the Islamic East from an African West. The trope follows that the Sahel’s harsh climate and sparse desert has insulated it from the broader Islamic World for better than a millennium. To the degree that change occurred at all, it did so violently. By the late nineteenth century, accounts describe a Sahel of orientalist fantasy; turbaned nomads fought European soldiers as calls for jihad and the mahdiyyah swept through the region.
Both narratives present a Sahel starkly at odds with the work of Sahelian scholars themselves. This panel seeks to recast such an understanding of the Sahel as a place of either isolation or violence. Instead the papers presented here argue for a more dynamic reading of the intellectual landscape connecting the Sahel with Africa and the broader Islamic World. Each of the panelists reconsiders notions of Islamic reform and dynamism through the lives of four scholars characteristic of the early modern Sahel. From the Sudanese Sufi scholar Muhammad al`Ubayd b. Badr (d. 1884) to the Azawadi transplant Zayn al-`Abadin b. Habib Allah al-Kunti (d. 1868), the papers present an image of reform and the early modern Sahel in which scholars were hardly recipients of an Arab East or an African West, but rather were active participants in shaping institutions of knowledge production far more varied than is normally assumed.
Please send abstracts (250 words max.) of proposed papers to Matthew Steele (msteele[at]fas.harvard.edu) by Monday 13 March.