While the past decades have been characterised by a steadily growing interest in Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, there has been relatively little work on its ideational foundations or intellectual creations. This interdisciplinary panel (bringing together researchers with primary specialisations in history, anthropology, linguistics, and Islamic studies) aims to reduce this gap by focusing on a little-known fact: although scholarly curricula south of the Sahara are based on medieval Arabic texts, most oral interpretation and discussion – and some written commentaries – are in local languages. The practice of oral explanation in African languages dates back at least to the seventeenth century as shown by Kanembu glosses on Koranic manuscripts collected in northern Nigeria, is probably equally ancient in other languages (such as Maninka and Soninke) long associated with Islamic culture, and has been introduced in languages (for example Dogon) whose speakers began converting to Islam only recently.
Presentations will highlight specific linguistic features of the scholarly discourses involved, including: retention of archaic traits; syntactic traits destined to facilitate translation from Arabic into a local language; specialised lexicons; stylistic features; scholarly discourse in the context of the wider oral and written (both literary and non-literary) production of the societies concerned. Presentations will also identify Arabic commentaries (most medieval, but some modern or contemporary) accepted as authoritative in sub-Saharan Africa, and analyse: cultural and linguistic exchanges among sub-Saharan societies; the printing of Koran commentaries, in African languages, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; recent doctrinal developments; impact of Koran interpretation on current social, political, and legal debates.