The Importance of Heritage, Culture and History
November 28, 2007 § 15 Comments
A person’s ethnic origins, heritage and culture are part of what make mankind distinct from the animal world. Mankind has been given the ability to develop complex and intelligent works of art; intellectual and scientific discoveries as well as spiritual achievements. However, each nation – meaning ethnic group – has gone about this in their own ways, ways that have grown out of geographical positioning, necessity and inspiration. It says in the Qur’an,
“O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware.” (49:013)
Being of African origins and born in the United States is particularly challenging because of the country’s historical relationship to the African continent and particularly West Africa where my ethnic group, the Fula people or Fulani originate. Like the establishment of Islam in West and Central Africa, the Fulani heritage are coming by way of a physical, cultural and ideological marriage of Futa Djallon; Futa Tooro and Arab Muslims of the Umayyad Dynasty by invitation of the Monarch of Futa Djallon. This was during the time ‘Uqbah ibn Amir (RA), the Governor of Egypt, led a campaign to conquer Tripoli and eventually Italy, ordered by the Caliph of the Umayyad period, Hazreti Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (RA).
It was after this marriage took place that the height of African Islamic Civilization took its shape. And in the center of this shape was the foundation of academics which functioned as a library and mainstay for all spiritual, intellectual and scientific discoveries in West and Central Africa. This center was located in the city of Timbuktu, Mali. Timbuktu was populated by several ethinic groups, the majority of those groups were the Fulani, Songhay, Tuareg and Mandé peoples. The city housed what is known as Sankoré University, which was built in 989 A.H./1581 C.E..
The university itself was built by erudite Islamic jurist of Timbuktu named, al-Qadi al-Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar. This was partly accomplished with the financial assistance of a wealthy African woman who left a generous endowment funding the project, in the traditional way many women have assisted in supporting the Islamic Law guilds historically. Shaykh Mahmud Ka`ti described the process and dimensions used in building the university in his book Tarikh al-Fataash, saying,
“When he made the pilgrimage and prepared to take leave to return to Timbuktu, he took authorization from the attendants of the noble Kaaba to delineate the measurement of the Kaaba in length and breadth. They gave him permission and he measured it with a long cord measuring the length and breadth by marking these on the cord. He then brought this cord back to Timbuktu to serve as proportions. When he was ready to build the Sankore’ Mosque, he unrolled the cord and delineated the exact breadth he wanted to build by placing four pegs planted on the corners of the four directions. Thus, the inner court of the mosque had the exact dimensions of the Kaaba. It is not deficient of excessive to it in any way.” (qtd in M. Shareef, Sankore Institute)
This university was a symbol of the spirit of the society. Islam was at the center of this civilization which became a meeting point for traders and scholars from nearly every nation, Berber, Arab and Jewish traders, so by extension Europe as well.
The city was eventually destroyed by European explorers and slavers. There is a famous story of a 19th century French institution called the Société de Géographie which offered 10,000 francs to the first non-Muslim to reach the city and return with information about it. The prize was one by Frenchman René Caillié who disguised himself as Muslim in order to avoid the local Muslims fearful of European intervention. For most Americans, Timbuktu may seem like some fairytale story, especially taking into account fantasized descriptions European explorers, known as Orientalists, gave to anything Islamic during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. However, this legendary city’s history is a reality that has been on exhibition at the U.S. Library of Congress since 2005.
Today, the Timbuktu Manuscripts Project, is a scholarly effort to recover and preserve the manuscripts that were held in the once great city. There were several families which were the possessors and guardians of over 100,000 manuscripts some of which dated pre-Islamic 12th century. They are written in Arabic and Fulani and contain knowledge of subjects which range from astronomy to botanics, Islamic law, sciences and history. Some of which give detail descriptions on a number of African ethnic groups and their origins. The Ahmed Baba Institute founded in 1970 by the government of Mali is one such organization which has collected over 20,000 manuscripts for preservation.
I would like to close this post discussing the importance of heritage and history and how ignoring this further inhibits, both individually and collectively, from a real understanding of: who we are; where we are going and what we are capable of, in both positive and negative lights. I find that too many communities disconnect themselves from our historical selves. Some communities hope that somehow starting from, what the West considers, the pinnacle of human development, Modernism will bring a better world. Other communities feel disenfranchised from their ethnic and historical origins because of the malaise that developed during a tragedy or decline between then and now. The premise for both is that nothing valuable can be taken from the ancient, or nothing ancient is as valuable as what we have now. This position I cannot accept, the late vizier of Sokoto, Junayd ibn Muhammad al-Bukhari once said,
“Knowledge is universal and eternal but it has a social and cultural stamp. It also has a purpose and a commitment to a particular world view. It therefore cannot be neutral.” (M. Shareef, Sankore Institute)
Which implies to people of African origins that they are marked with the social and cultural stamp of the knowledge they are accepting, in fact it becomes a part of their identity. This is a very significant position that carries heavy implications. Junayd ibn Muhammad al-Bukhari also said in a poem,
“Whoever does not inform his children of his grandfathers Then has destroyed his child, marred his descendants, And injured his offspring the day he dies;
Whoever does not make use of his ancestry, Then he has muddled his reason;
Whoever is not concerned with his descent, Then he has lost his mind;
Whoever neglects his origin, Then his stupidity has become critical;
Whoever does not cause his ancestry to be abundant, Then his incompetence has become great;
Whoever is ignorant of his lineage, Then his intellect has dissipated;
Whoever does not increase his place of descent, Then he has abolished his honor.” (source)
Unfortunately, al-Bukhari’s poem sounds more like a vivid description of what was to come rather than a mere composition in verse. Perhaps the present day generations, you, me and our children can curtail this trending spiral of dishonor to the ancients and show the proper respect to those who were the harbingers of a lifestyle of tradition, knowledge and learning throughout the world and for Muslims a good place to start is the last legitimate Islamic Civilization, the Ottomans.
Powered by ScribeFire.