Weaving Africa Into the Tapestry of Islam

January 23, 2017
Ousmane Kane
HDS professor Ousmane Kane / Photo: Jonathan Beasley

Ousmane Kane, HDS’s Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor of Contemporary Islamic Religion and Society, wants to paint a much broader and more accurate picture of Islam. A leader among a burgeoning group of scholars in the field, Kane works to bring the Muslim heritage of Africa to light.

“In the West, Islam is strongly associated with the Middle East,” he explains. “Even in academia, most of the books published each year focus on that region. In fact, the Muslims of the Middle East represent only 20 percent of the tradition’s 1.6 billion followers worldwide.”

To address this critical gap in religious knowledge, Kane in June 2016 published the breakthrough work Beyond Timbuktu. The product of 20 years of scholarship, the book is the first true overview of intellectual history in Muslim West Africa. Kane says that his goal was to tell the story of the process through which Africa was Islamized.

“During the second millennium, the Arabic language played a transformative role in West African history,” he explains. “Some Islamized people in the Sahara gradually deserted their linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identities to claim exclusive Arab identities. Others retained their African languages but used Arabic script to transcribe them, chronicle history, and write poetry. Arabic as a linguistic vehicle of knowledge transmission was as important in the history of Muslim peoples as Latin was in Europe.”

Africans forever changed Islam, Kane says, influencing religious scholarship and intellectual life for more than a millennium. For this reason, it’s impossible to understand the tradition without a picture of how it was shaped by its spread throughout the continent.

“With the spread of Arabic literacy, African scholars developed a rich tradition of debate over orthodoxy and meaning in Islam,” Kane says. “Its rise was strongly connected to centers of Islamic learning outside of Africa. From Morocco to Egypt to the Muslim Holy Lands, African scholars have played significant roles in the development of virtually every field of Islamic sciences. Islamic scholarship in Africa remains just as significant today.”

Kane is also having an impact on the School’s mission to drive the conversation on global religion and to educate men and women who devote their lives to service. Last year he collaborated with colleagues in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences on the Islam in Africa lecture series that brought prominent scholars to campus. In 2017 and 2018, Kane hopes to make HDS the site of two international conferences on Islamic scholarship in Africa. Finally, he is working with the School’s Office of Ministry Studies to develop a course on spiritual cultivation in Islam—perhaps as part of a new initiative in Islamic spiritual life—for students preparing for religious leadership.

“Right now I teach courses on contemporary Islam,” Kane says. “They include ‘Islam, Modernity and Politics’; ‘Religion and Political Violence in the Sahel and North Africa’; ‘Islam in Modern West Africa’; and ‘Muslim Politics.’ In the years to come, I want to develop new courses to help provide a holistic education—particularly to our MDiv students planning a career in ministry.”

At a time when “the Islamic question” is central both to domestic politics and to international relations, Kane says that it’s critical to correct misconceptions about the religion and to draw a more accurate picture of Muslims around the world.

“Those who make news with violence and who get the lion’s share of media coverage represent a tiny minority of the more than 1.6 billion Muslims,” he says. “Yet, they have hijacked Islam. I want to give people a better understanding of the tradition to show that Islam is compatible with democracy and tolerance, that Muslim immigrants can integrate into Western societies, and that Westerners and Muslims can collaborate in a way that is mutually beneficial.”

—by Paul Massari