During the beginning of the spring 2018 semester, I have critically rethinking about an effective digital history project relevant to the field of African History, and historian Walter Hawthorne and Bala Saho’s open access web-based archive called Social history of the Gambia: rescuing an endangered archive, police and court records stood out to me. Before going into the details of the Social History of the Gambia, I will provide a brief snapshot of the scholarship on Islam in Africa in the first half of this short essay. The second half of the essay will make an argument regarding the need to produce digital scholarly articles and books on women in Islamic Africa. Over the last four decades, scholars working in Islamic Africa have produced substantial monographs that broadly focused on male Muslim clerics as agents of “Islamization, while simultaneously painted a picture of women as blind followers of these male clerics. In particular debate over the authenticity, authority, and propriety of Islam have long been the hallmark of Islam since it was first revealed in Mecca. In the nineteenth century, the African continent, particularly West Africa had witnessed militant Islamic reforms movements, which attracted the attention of scholars. From the late-nineteenth century to the twenty-first century, the monographic scholarship devoted significant attention to the roles of large-scale mystical Islamic brotherhoods in spreading Islam in the French British West Africa. In the early twentieth and twenty-first centuries, reformist movements led mostly by men, such as Salafi and Wahhabi movements, diffused their ideas and books into specific regions in Islamic Africa, and reinvigorated the contested debates over the authentic Islamic practices. In all these cases, the agency to ignite Islamic reforms and facilitate the spread of Islam has been restricted to men.
The tendency to focus more on Muslim male clerics as agents of “Islamization” is often associated with limited historical source materials that highlight the roles of women in spreading Islamic practices in Africa. However, Historian Walter Hawthorne and Bala Saho have collaborated with the Michigan State University (MSU) Matrix and made available unexplored Islamic court records from The Gambia that contained incredible voices of Muslim women seeking a divorce, child custody, and property ownership from the 1820s to the 1960s. Hawthorne, Saho, and MSU Matrix developed an open web-based archive called the Social history of the Gambia. The the British Library, Endangered Archives project, funded the project as a pilot project.
However, Hawthorne and Saho’s project did little to produce digital scholarship based on these sources. Even though Saho produced an excellent monograph from this project, however, not much is done by scholars of Islamic Africa to use this invaluable information in producing digital scholarship on women in Islam in Africa. The Social History of the Gambia, I argue, could be best be described as a digital archive and not a digital scholarship because its pioneers did not produce a digital scholarship from the documents they digitalized. I defined digital scholarship as a particular form of scholarship that is produced through digital means, and it engages the scholarship produced in print scholarship in different ways. Thus, digital scholarship involves not just the process of archiving endangered projects as it was for the case of Social history of the Gambia, it also includes interpreting, analyzing, and producing digital scholarship that adds, challenges, and revises the conventional scholarship on Islam in Africa. In the near future, I plan