From Information Bulletin to Online Journal

A New Journal with a Past

While this new journal says it is “incorporating Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources,” it is in fact the third incarnation of a tradition that stretches back to the 1970s.

In 1964, the International Academic Union took charge of a project to publish critical editions of sources for African history, the Fontes Historiae Africanae series.  (The project, which is still running, has brought forth such works as Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West African History, Land in Dār Fūr, Sharīʿa in Songhay, Chronicles of Gonja, Bayān wujūb al-hijra,Voilà ce qui est arrivé, and many others.) John Hunwick, then at Accra, became director of the project in 1973, and began two years later to produce an annual Bulletin d’Information for this project. It was technically modest, mimeographed and distributed to interested parties, and was at first what the title indicated, notes and information about the FHA project itself. However, it soon began carrying some more general surveys of African historiography, and from 1979 actual sources with critical commentary. By 1983, when Hunwick and the bulletin had moved to Northwestern, such source presentations took up the major part of the publication, and in the mid-eighties, when R. S. O’Fahey of Bergen University joined as coeditor, this “information bulletin” came more and more to resemble a journal of history.

This was the time of computerization and the proliferation of desktop publishing, and the editors found it was time to make use of these new opportunities to transform the Bulletin into a full-fledged academic journal. Now independent of the Fontes project, the aim was the same—to present and document written source material for African history. It could still be heard then that “for precolonial African history we have no writings, only oral tradition,” and the journal was part of the effort to demonstrate how wrong this assertion was.

Thus Sudanic Africa was born. The two original editors, Hunwick and O’Fahey, invited me to join the team, and the technical publication was moved from Northwestern to us in Bergen. Jay Spaulding, a long-standing contributor, also joined the editorial board, as did later Stefan Reichmuth (and in some issues also Jean-Louis Triaud), and in the last few issues Scott Reese took care of book reviews. Thus, the editorial board was internationalized, and the journal also took a physical form we hoped would look more professional than the old mimeograph.

The name of the journal was chosen with care (but disregarding the danger that readers confused “Sudanic” with “Sudanese”). Its sphere of interest was to be defined by geography, not religion or language: the Sudanic belt from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Thus, it was to be open to sources in any language of that region, including Hausa, Somali, and Yoruba, as well as to Christian or other non-Muslim material. As it turned out, the journal did in part fulfill this intention, but the weight of scholarship on Muslim Africa and Arabic sources has made this type of material preponderant. Thus, when the new Islamic Africa changes its stated focus from the regional to the cultural-religious, this is in reality a continuation of what Sudanic Africa mostly dealt with in practice.

The journal’s subtitle, A Journal of Historical Sources, indicated the continuity from the Fontes effort. The aim was not to be a general journal for substantive historical studies, these had other outlets such as History in Africa, Journal of African History, the Boston IJAHS, and others. We were to be more specific, to present sources and to discuss them. Thus, a typical SAJHS article would present a “sample” source, be it a king-list, a didactic poem, a medical prescription, or a land charter, with an introduction that put the source in context; the Arabic text; and a translation. Some sources were there because they were intrinsically important for a region or event, others because they provided examples of historical processes or cultural features.

One difference of SAJHS from similar journals was its emphasis on presenting the text in its original language; thus, mostly Arabic. This allowed the reader to look over the historian’s shoulder. However, from a publisher’s standpoint, this also presented some challenges. Our original hope of presenting both a facsimile of the source and an edited typescript of it turned out to be difficult, given our limited resources, so most sources were presented in typed-in Arabic edition and translation only. Here the editors often became far more involved in the process than is customary in a regular peer-reviewed journal. All editions and translations were proofed and corrected by at least two editors, often leading to debates and correspondence between editor(s) and author if the editor disagreed with the author on one point or another in the translation. Those authors who presented sources in Somali or Yoruba had it easier in this respect.

Over time, the strict emphasis on presenting sources was relaxed to some extent, both to the benefit of more general questions of methodology, but also to include some items of substantive history, if this was at least rooted in a particular type of source material. The definition of “Sudanic” also became fairly relaxed; Aden, Zanzibar, and South Africa were soon included, as was the diaspora. One of the most read and quoted articles, and possibly also the most entertaining, concerned the peregrinations of Noble Drew Ali, the “prophet of the Moorish Science Temple” in Newark, New Jersey, and his unhappy encounter with an African and his unhappy encounter with an African Muslim missionary.

Another issue that was much read was our special issue on Kano (1993), in particular, the comprehensive bibliography of writings on Kano provided by John Hunwick. Including bibliographies was an important part of the source presentation going back to BIFHA days, a tradition we intend to continue. They have included other thematic lists, publications by leading scholars, both in obituaries but also living scholars! (the muʾallafāt al-shuyūkh series).

The journal had two other “special issues.” One was a collective volume of updated and corrected articles from the FHA Bulletin (2002), and the second a set of papers from one of the ISITA conferences on language and politics (2004). We also published a parallel book series in the same format as the journal, Sudanic Africa: Texts and Sources, although it appeared only in one volume (the Fontes special issue doubled as volume 2 of the book series).

From the mid-1990s, we started producing a web site where portions of the journal were made freely available. To make sure that libraries bought the paper edition, however, we posted only every other article. The web page also included, in addition to a cumulative index to all issues of Sudanic Africa, some source material that was not convenient to put in print, thus a survey of non-Arabic languages of the Sudan and documents from Darfur (at www.smi.uib.no/sa).

Sudanic Africa was very much a personal effort of the editors. This was evident on the contents page. Our two originators, John Hunwick and R. S. O’Fahey, provided much of the material, especially in the early years, alone or in collaboration with younger authors. But also in practical matters, the editors did everything except the actual printing (which we also did as inexpensively as we could, given our resources: we spent money on covers in two colors to give a glossy impression, while the interior was reproduced as cheaply as we could manage). We never had any staff, and the journal was not formally affiliated with anyone. In reality, however, the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies in Bergen (which had a sympathetic director) covered much of the cost of production, and its administrative staff helped out without sending any bill.

Still, this lack of institutional backbone became a problem over time, as other obligations began to dig into the time and resources of the editors. The journal started to fall behind its schedule, and as we did not want to “cheat” by publishing fake double issues to catch up, we found ourselves at the end two to three years behind the stated schedule. While we were in many ways in a noble tradition among academic journals here, it was less than satisfactory for subscribers and readers, and the need for a new drive from a new generation of scholars became more and more evident.

The result is before you; this new journal is new—with a clearer framework, an actual publisher, and an expanded mandate to cover all fields of Islamic Africa. But it is also old, in that it carries on the tradition of Sudanic Africa, and through it, the Bulletin d’Information of the Fontes series. That it returns to Northwestern after two decades in Norway thus also underlines the continuity to the Bulletin, published from there.

This continuity will be most clear in the section we have called “Sources,” which will be dedicated to the same kind of material as we published in the earlier journals: text and translations, bibliographies, methodological discussion of sources, and other aspects related to this focus, with, we hope, the same academic rigor that we aimed for in Sudanic Africa.

Knut S. Vikør
Editor, Sudanic Africa, 1990-2009