Northwestern Events Calendar


The "Suwarian Tradition" Revisited: Reconsidering West African Historiography from "Informants"

When: Wednesday, May 24, 2023
12:00 PM - 1:00 PM CT

Where: 620 Library Place, 620 Library Place , Evanston, IL 60208 map it

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Rebecca Shereikis   (847) 491-2598

Group: Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA)

Category: Academic, Lectures & Meetings, Multicultural & Diversity


Join us for a talk by Dr. Seiji Nakao, anthropology, Kyoto University and ISITA Visiting Scholar.

Lunch will be served during the talk.

Abstract: The famous 1968 article, “The Transmission of Islamic Learning in the Western Sudan,” by Ivor Wilks*, provides the basic framework of the history of Islam in the Volta region across Burkina Faso, northern parts of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. It also positions al-Ḥājj Sālim Suwari as the significant ancestral figure who introduced Islamic knowledge in the region and as the common founder of Jula and Jakankhe Muslim scholarly lineages. In his later work, Wilks named the scholarly lineage of al-Ḥājj Sālim Suwari as the “Suwarian Tradition.” However, Wilks’ assertion was largely based on the interviews and works of his “key informant,” the locally famous ‘ulamā’, al-Ḥājj Marhaba Sanogo. In the presentation, using Wilks’ own retrospective essay, his field notes, and a few Arabic manuscripts, I trace the process of how Wilks conceived of the concept of the “Suwarian Tradition” by obtaining the local historical knowledge and also show the characteristics of the historical narrative of al-Ḥājj Marhaba Sanogo. Comparing Wilks’ “Suwarian Tradition” and Marhaba’s historical narrative, I show that the two historians agreed upon the importance of al-Ḥājj Sālim Suwari, but they conceived the history of Islam in West Africa differently. Finally, I use this case to argue for reconsidering West African historiography as a (mis)interaction between academic researchers and local intellectuals.

*Wilks, I. (1968), "The Transmission of Islamic Learning in the Western Sudan," in Literacy in Traditional Societies, ed Jack Goody, pp. 162-197. Cambridge University Press.

Bio: Seiji Nakao is assistant professor in the Division of African Area Studies in the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies at Kyoto University. A historical anthropologist, he is interested in the socio-economic history and the history of Islam in Burkina Faso and the greater Voltaic region. His past research explored Islamic reform and renewal movements in nineteenth and twentieth century Burkina Faso through a combination of oral history and archival research.  

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