Discourses of Muslim Scholars in Colonial Ghana

by John Hanson and Muhammad al-Munir Gibrill


This gallery is based on research in the collection of Arabic and Hausa manuscript materials held in the Arabic Collection of the Institute of African Studies (IASAR) at the University of Ghana at Legon. The IASAR collection includes copies of manuscripts held in private collections in Ghana. A research team at the University of Ghana at Legon collected and deposited the materials in the 1960s. Later a duplicate set of copies of the IASAR collection was deposited in the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University.

The IASAR collection includes nearly 500 manuscripts written in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Approximately half the materials are historical and political in nature: narratives and chronicles, lists of titled political and religious leaders, and political correspondence. The other half includes religious materials (such as documents concerning jurisprudence, Sufism, and other religious matters) and literature (largely poetic eulogies, poetic elegies, and satirical commentaries).

Numerous Muslim scholars produced the original documents. Most of the manuscripts are copies made by scribes. Occasionally scribes introduced errors in the process of transcription. Several copies of the same document are in the IASAR collection, received from different private collections, allowing for comparative textual analysis to discover, if possible, the author’s version. Scribes making the copies sometimes added comments and asides in the margins, which help the reader understand decisions made in the process of transcription and local knowledge about the topics discussed in the documents.

Most of the materials are written by Muslim scholars residing in what would become today’s Ghana. Al-ḥājj 'Umar ibn Abī Bakri of Kete-Krachi was a prominent member of this group, but numerous others also wrote materials. A few of the documents are written by 'Uthmān dan Fodio and Muḥammad Bello, leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate. Others are written by prominent scholars from North Africa. Many documents, such as lists of political and religious leaders, are anonymous.

The materials selected for translation in this gallery are chosen to illustrate the various writings and changing views of one author, al-ḥājj 'Umar ibn Abī Bakri of Kete-Krachi, during a period of change in society. The translated works include some of al-ḥājj 'Umar's numerous historical works, including a poem on the Salaga civil war, three poems describing the European conquest of West Africa and its aftermath, and a poem about a Muslim reformist movement of the early twentieth century. Other materials are religious and literary in nature. These materials include al-ḥājj 'Umar's advice on religious topics, eulogies and elegies of prominent Muslims, and a satirical commentary on events in the early colonial era.