NU media staff welcomes new digital collection

Sara Peck

Until recently, scholars would have to book a plane flight to access rare African manuscripts in Arabic. Now, Northwestern’s creation of a database of documents from its Africana collection has made previously unavailable artifacts accessible online.

Since the 1960s, approximately 5,000 donated West African manuscripts written in Arabic and indigenous African languages have been compiled in NU’s Herskovits Library of African Studies. This year, NU’s African Studies Department and Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa collaborated to organize the manuscripts into an online database.

“It didn’t make a lot of sense,” said Rebecca Shereikis, ISITA program coordinator. “The collection was on a computer, but was not available online. Specialists on Islamic Africa are scattered across the world, and they would have to physically come to Evanston to use the manuscripts.”

Shereikis, who oversaw the cross-departmental collaboration during the project, said the library funded the process through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The project took a little more than two years to complete, and contains entries from African scholars, poets, healers and Islamic mystics. Sixty percent of the manuscripts are handwritten in Arabic, including “market editions,” or literature that was distributed in African marketplaces.

Third-year graduate student Zachary Wright, who helped catalog the materials, said the diversity of sources was difficult to organize, and that the collection is much more valuable because of the variety of its source materials.

“It was just this deposited mass,” Wright said. “It ranged from full books to letters and poems, and it was challenging to classify each document.”

Wright explained that entries were organized into four categories based on the scholars who collected them: The Umar Falke Collection, The John Paden Collection, The John Hunwick Collection and The University of Ghana Collection.

Wright said these written records discuss pre-colonial Africa, about which not much is known because historians often based their research on oral history.

“It is said that pre-colonial Africa has no history,” he said. “This is an important testament to disprove that. There is a tradition of Islamic scholarship in Africa.”

Wright said the collection combines African and Islamic studies. Until the collection was compiled, Islamic studies was undeveloped at NU in comparison to the university’s highly regarded Africana collection and African Studies department.

“(The collection) is important for NU since we don’t have an Islamic studies department,” said Wright. “The field (of Islamic African studies) is often marginalized.”

The availability of the Islamic-African documents is all the more timely due to current international events, such as political turmoil in the Middle East, that have intensified the American discussion of Islam.

NU professor and ISITA Director Muhammad Sani Umar said that although sub-Saharan Africa is home to more than 200 million Muslims, that Muslim population is often overlooked by historians and researchers.

“The purpose of the collection is to call attention to the rich Islamic African history not normally on the radar of most people,” he said. “The focus is always on the Middle East.”

Umar said he hoped that the university would take steps to establish an Islamic Studies department.

“Many universities don’t discuss Islamic Africa,” Umar said. “(In conjunction) with the African Studies Department and the collection, an Islamic Studies department would make NU a big player is the study of Islamic Africa.”

The database can be accessed at:, as well as on the fifth floor of the University Library by appointment.

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