Black History and the Intellectual Golden Triangle

13/10/2015 14:18 BST | Updated 12/10/2016 10:12 BST

In his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Weltgeschichte or Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, the German philosopher Hegel divided Africa into three main parts which he described as:

"[...] that which lies south of the desert of Sahara -- Africa proper -- the Upland almost entirely unknown to us [...]; that to the north of the desert -- European Africa (if we may so call it) [...]; the third is the river region of the Nile, the only valley-land of Africa, and which is in connection with Asia." (Hegel, G.W.F, Lecturers on the Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd, 1914, p.95)

He then went on to write dismissively of Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa in particular, as that part of the world which had no history:

"At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it that is in its northern part belong to the Asiatic or European World."

The view that Africans did not have any history to speak of because they did not develop a writerly or intellectual culture prior to their encounter with European civilisation can be traced back to David Hume in a footnote he added in 1753 to his major essay entitled "Of National Characters" (1748), and to Immanuel Kant in his philosophical and anthropological writings on race and "hereditary racial inferiority".

Even in modern Western scholarship, the work on oral traditions which was done by Milman Parry in The Making of Homeric Verse (1971), A.B. Lord in The Singer of Tales (1960) and Jan Vansina in Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology (1965) consolidated the view that Sub-Saharan Africans had always been non-literate peoples.

However, anyone who takes time to examine the African manuscript tradition, especially from the tenth century up to the nineteenth century as John Hunwick, Ghislaine Lydon, myself and others have done, will discover that prior to their encounter with European colonialism, Sub-Saharan African societies already had thriving literary cultures that enabled them to transmit their histories through both written and oral mnemonic systems. Such literary cultures were marked by an intellectual cross-pollination between the parts of Africa imagined by Hegel to be intellectually and historically separated, and also between West Africa and the Graeco-Arabic intellectual and translation movements in Iraq which started from about the second half of the eighth century. Indeed Sub-Saharan Africa, in the middle ages, was part of an intellectual golden triangle which included Iraq and Andalusia (Spain).

In their studies of the so-called "oral poets" of West Africa (griots), Milman Parry, A.B. Lord, Jan Vansina and others failed to make a distinction between a poem's mode of composition and its mode of rendition and transmission. It was therefore assumed that the very act of oral rendition of a poem by a poet was also its composition. The eminent German scholar Gregor Schoeler provided a meticulous critique of Parry and Lord's theories in his examination of oral poetry theories in some studies of classical Arabic literature.

In the eleventh century, the eminent Andalusian geographer Abu 'Ubayd al-Bakri (d. 1094) compiled his famous Kitab al-Masalik wa al-Mamalik (The Book of Routes and Kingdoms) using eleventh and tenth century written and oral sources he collected from trans-Saharan travellers. In a chapter entitled Dhikr Ghana wa siyar ahli-ha (Reports about Ghana and the Customs of its Peoples), he provided a detailed account of the social, political, economical, cultural, and intellectual life in the ancient Kingdom of Ghana including reports that it was filled with students, professors, poets and jurisconsults or experts on law.

Thirteenth and fourteenth century historical records suggest that by the twelfth century, black scholars from the ancient kingdoms of Ghana and Kanem, for example, had not only managed to develop indigenous literary cultures and forms of knowledge using the medium of classical Arabic which served as the lingua franca of the intellectual elites in medieval West Africa in the same way that Latin was for Europeans, they also had mastered the classical and latest intellectual trends from 'Abbasid Iraq (750-1258).

Eminent thirteen and fourteenth century Arab historians and biographers like Ibn Khallikan (d. 1282) in his biographical dictionary entitled Wafayat al-a'yan wa-anba' abna' al-zaman (Obituaries of Eminent Figures and the History of the Sons of the Era), the great Damascene historian Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi (d. 1348) in his Tarikh (History), and the philologist and literary critic Salah al-Din al-Safadi (d. 1363) in his al-Wafi bi al-wafayat (Completeness in Obituaries) recorded how the famous black Arabic poet, grammarian and belles-lettrist from Kanem, Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub al-Kanemi (d. circa 1212) immediately became an intellectual celebrity when he arrived in Marrakesh during the second half of the twelfth century. He worked as a professor for the intellectual elites and a court poet for the rulers of Marrakesh. He then spent some time in Spain, possible teaching, before returning to Marrakesh where he died in around the year 1212. The famous medieval diplomat, scholar and poet from the Spanish city of Valencia, Ibn al-Abbar (d. 1260), included an entry on Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub al-Kanemi in his major anthology of poets of Spain entitled Tuhfat al-Qadim. He described him as being of "extremely dark complexion" and as "the best poet of his generation." He wrote:

"His complexion was extremely dark and his circumstances were very strange. He arrived in Morocco [...] and lived in Marrakesh where he taught literature. According to my sources, he then came to Spain. He was a brilliant poet..."

In al-Dhahabi's report, Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub is described as:

"...the black grammarian and poet from Kanem, a small country bordering Ghana in the land of the blacks [south of the Sahara]." (Tarikh, Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-'Arabi, 1997, vol.43, p.400, Entry No. 560)

Among his famous students in Marrakesh was an illustrious Damascene scholar and historian called Taj al-Din Ibn Hamuwayh who is quoted by al-Dhahabi in the same source mentioned above as saying:

"He [Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub] mingled with the elites. He spoke with an [African] accent but he was unequalled in composition. He used to visit me frequently to teach me [he then goes on to cite examples of his poems]. He had memorised grammar and a lot of classical poetry. I heard that he had been teaching in Ghana."

Al-Dhahabi and Taj al-Din Ibn Hamuwayh mention that Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub had been educated entirely in ancient Ghana and had not travelled anywhere prior to his resettlement in Marrakesh. To the surprise of his students in Marrakesh and Spain who imagined other parts of Africa to be intellectual deserts, he arrived in Marrakesh armed with the important intellectual texts of the day and after having mastered and committed to memory the Maqamat (Assemblies), a difficult prosimetric work written by the famous twelfth century prosodist al-Hariri of Basra (d. 1122), and other key texts on Arabic grammar and classical rhetoric. His contemporaries describe him as the finest belles-lettrist, grammarian, and poet of his day.

If it is true, as the historical sources suggest, that the famous Maqamat text by al-Ḥariri of Basra, Iraq, was part of Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub's education in Kanem, it also suggests that the colleges in Sub-Saharan Africa had access to the latest texts from other parts of the intellectual golden triangle. The existing texts from as early as ninth century in Iraq up to sixteenth century Africa and Spain, suggest that the relationship between the three regions was characterised by an intellectual cross-pollination.

Ibrahim Ibn Ya'qub is just one among many African intellectuals who traveled across continents to seek and spread knowledge, long before the famous Leo Africanus enchanted Europeans with images of Africa and Africans in his Description of Africa, originally written in Arabic in the sixteenth century and then translated into Italian, French, Latin and English.

A wealth of early and original sources on black African intellectual history exists in both manuscript and published form but remain closed off to scholars who lack knowledge of the necessary ancient languages and the research tools required to access them. Thankfully, many universities across the world now offer training in such languages and research skills. The recent establishment of world digital libraries by the major research libraries across the world means that such once hidden sources are now available to anyone, for free, at the click of a button. We are now living in our own golden era. Let us leave our own mark by building on the scholarship and intellectual tradition we inherited from our ancestors.