AFRICA IS A CONTINENT REMEMBERED CHIEFLY BY ASSOCIATION. We know and hear of it now not because of its freestanding importance as a civilization, but rather because of the celebrity personalities that have assumed the continent as a personal cause. Most media coverage is geared toward covering the contrast of Bono’s wrap-around sunglasses with the vast Saharan desert, rather than seeking to understand and analyze the rich contributions and hard struggles that have taken place and are taking place in this region. Africa remains an afterthought in the Western consciousness.
Resolving the devastating problems of genocide, famine, AIDS and exploitation now ravaging Africa is central to our collective humanity and purpose. However, we should take care to remember the continuing historical significance of the continent and its role in global as well as Islamic civilization. It is with this spirit that we devote this issue’s dossier to some of the past and present issues confronting Africa.
We begin with a tour de force by Sulayman Nyang, a leading scholar of African history. He charts the development of Islam since its formative period to the founding of Islamic empires and the civilization. He then turns his attention to colonial upheavals and the post-independence struggle to form a united African identity. Nyang underscores the importance of appreciating Africa’s “Triple Heritage”, a phrase coined by Ali Mazrui to denote the mix of traditional African culture, Islam, and Western influence that has shaped the continent.
We also look at the history of slavery, particularly the life of one remarkable man, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, an African prince sold into slavery in America. His story is not only a testament to the triumph of the human spirit over incredible oppression, it also establishes the context for what we now know to be Islam in America. We also examine how Sufi orders in East Africa helped “Africanize” religious knowledge during the slave trade era.
The legacies of slavery and colonialism cannot be ignored. A global responsibility rests on the world’s shoulders. We must work toward promoting sustainable political and economic development that empowers individuals, communities, and honest rather than corrupt regimes. This is not a pipe dream. Rwanda, for example, now has a booming coffee industry made possible by cutting the typical economic and strategic strings tied to foreign aid, and it is now giving hope to a people scarred by the horrors of genocide.
Shafiq Morton’s poignant account of the poverty and starvation in Niger is a story common to many Sub-Saharan countries. Global warming, deforestation, and desertification are likely to make things worse.
Moving away from Africa, the Danish cartoon controversy continues to engender debate around the world, sustaining mutual fear and misunderstanding. While many point to the cartoon saga as further evidence of irreconcilable differences between the West and the Rest, we investigate further and ask whether it heralds a clash of civilizations or merely a clash of caricatures. Whilst much of the fallout from the cartoon episode was negative, some positive developments have also occurred. We report on the Abu Dhabi conference organized by the Tabah Foundation and the Danish Youth Council that brought together Muslim and non-Muslim figures and activists throughout Europe. The refreshing results of the conference demonstrate how differences can be bridged through courage, mutual trust and dialogue.