University of Bergen

The Indian Ocean Programme: Hadrami diaspora: migration of people, commodities and idea
Trade, migration and cultural change in the Indian Ocean
The Sufi heritage of Ahmad b. Idris and his students
A Muslim intellectual elite: Innovation and leadership in the Sudanese tradition
Arabic Literature of Africa
Timbuktu manuscripts project
Islams in Norway
Protestant Missions

The study of 'Islamic societies' often takes one or the other as a given factor, focusing on its 'impact' on the other: Either seeing 'Islam' as an unchanging entity which social groups promote or reject; or inversely tracking the inevitable 'decline' of Islamic thought by a teleological 'historical development' of modernization.

The projects grouped together here instead take a dynamic approach to the relationship between the development of Islam as religion and ideas, and the evolution of society. Neither Islamic thought nor social forces are fixed entities, developments in one link to changes in the other. This is true as well of the mystical and political movements of Africa and the Middle East in the past as it is in the ideas of Muslim immigrants to Europe today.

These projects look at this relationship from various angles, historical and contemporary, in widely different geographical areas, from the margins of the Islamic world in the south to the Muslim minorities in the north, and from a number of different methodological approaches, from Islamology to Anthropology. By combining the study of ideas with the study of society, it is easier to see the Muslim world through the eyes of its actors.

The research focus currently consists of these individual projects and activities:


The Sufi heritage of Ahmad b. Idris and his students
The study of Sufism has often followed one of two very different approaches: Either a 'classical' or 'literary' study of early Sufi theology or poetry, with a focus on particular authors. Or a sociological or anthropological study of a Sufi organzation in the contemporary world, most often with more emphasis on its social or political impact than on the ideas it propagates.

The informal program carried out in Bergen since the late 1980s has attempted to bridge this divide, by studying a circle of Sufi scholars of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries both in their social setting and organizational development and through their writings and ideas. Ruqaiya Moskeen, DamaskusThe project has so far lead to five dissertations (four published to date) as well as several independent monographs and a number of articles, combining into what has been called a 'Bergen school' of Sufi studies.

The project focuses on the tradition established by the Moroccan Sufi Ahmad b. Idris (d. 1837: O'Fahey 1990), and follows the careers of his students Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Sanusi (d. 1859: Vikør 1995) and Muhammad 'Uthman al-Mirghani (d. 1852: Karrar 1992), and associate Muhammad al-Majdhub (d. 1831: Hofheinz 1996), as well as following the tradition to twentieth-century Yemen (Bang 1996) and to South-East Asia and beyond (Sedgwick 2005).
While these monographs have studied the intellectual as well as social context of these scholars and the organizations and traditions they set up or inspired, the group has also emphasized the study and publication of the writings of these Sufis. Two volumes of writings from Ibn Idris has been published (Thomassen & Radtke 1993 and Radtke &al 2000), as well as several articles presenting individual works from the Idrisi tradition. The project continues with further work on presenting writings from the tradition, and following its impact on a wider scale.

Books and monographs from the project to date:

  • R.S. O'Fahey, Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad Ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition, London 1990.
  • Ali Salih Karrar, The Sufi Brotherhoods in the Sudan, London 1992.
  • Einar Thomassen & Bernd Radtke (eds.), The Letters of Ahmad Ibn Idris, London 1993.
  • Knut S. Vikør, Sufi and scholar on the Desert Edge. Muhammad b. 'Ali al-Sanusi and his Brotherhood. London 1995.
  • Knut S. Vikør, Sources for Sanusi Studies, Bergen 1996.
  • Anne K. Bang, The Idrisi state in 'Asir, 1906-1934: Politics, religion and personal prestige as statebuilding factors in early twentieth-century Arabia, Bergen 1996.
  • Albrecht Hofheinz, Internalising Islam: Shaykh Muhammad Majdhub, scriptural Islam and local context in the early nineteenth-century Sudan, Dr. philos., Bergen 1996.
  • Bernd Radtke, John O'Kane, Knut S. Vikør & R.S. O'Fahey, The Exoteric Ahmad Ibn Idris: A Sufi's Critique of the Madhahib and the Wahhabis: Four Arabic texts with translation and commentary, Leiden 2000.
  • Mark J.R. Sedgwick, Saints and sons: The making and remaking of Rashidi Ahmadi Sufi order, 1799-2000, Leiden 2005.

A Muslim intellectual elite: Innovation and leadership in the Sudanese tradition
(part of project 'The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Africa', with Program of African Studies/ISITA, Northwestern University)

The study of Islam as a religion and as a system of thought and belief has been neglected by comparison with research on the history and sociology of African Muslim polities or movements. One explanation for this neglect is that most scholars of Muslim Africa have come to the field from the social sciences rather than philology-based disciplines such as Islamwissenschaft (Islamic studies).

The study of Islam as a religion involves a number of different aspects. There is a scholarly tradition, involving the study of the writings of African Muslim scholars at such historic centres as Timbuktu (Mali), Kano (Nigeria), Harar (Ethiopia) or Lamu (Kenya) and elsewhere. Such research requires the discovery, cataloguing and conservation of the very numerous private and public manuscript collections found throughout Muslim Africa. Most of these manuscripts are in Arabic, but African languages, such as Hausa and Swahili, written in the Arabic script, are well represented.

Beyond the primary stage of finding and preserving the manuscripts will be their study; who wrote them and why; what do they tell us about scholarly networks, the interaction between African and Muslim scholars elsewhere in the Muslim world, and the educational tradition. What topics were focused on? For example, in East Africa, there appears to have been an especial interest in herbal medicine. Linked to this is the structure of education; who taught whom? What was taught. How widespread was literacy? Related to this theme is the use of Arabic by traders, traditional healers, poets and other literate non-scholars.

Sources for the history of Islam in Africa

Arabic Literature of Africa
The project entitled Arabic Literature of Africa is designed to document the Arabic writings of sub-Saharan Africa and the Islamic literature of the region written in certain African languages. Its goal is to open up the intellectual history of the region's Muslims and to relate it to the intellectual history of the larger world of Islam; to explore the intellectual heritage of Islamic Africa, producing for the sub-Saharan regions a guide to their Islamic literature and scholarly production in Arabic and in certain African languages that goes beyond a mere enumeration of scholars and their writings.

The volumes are compiled and edited by John Hunwick (Northwestern University) and R.S. O'Fahey (Bergen). The volumes are:

  • 1. The Writings of Eastern Sudanic Africa down to c. 1900 (published 1994)
  • 2. The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa (published 1995)
  • 3. The Writings of the Muslims of Ethiopia, the Horn and Eastern Africa (fasc. A published 2003).
  • 4. The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa (published 2003).
  • 5. The Writings of the Modern Sudan
  • 6. The Writings of Western Saharan Africa [Mauritania]
  • Sudanic Africa: A Journal of Historical Sources
    The journal Sudanic Africa, published annually at Bergen, presents historical documents from Islamic Africa and surrounding regions, with translation and comments as well as articles relating to this topic.
    >> Visit the Sudanic Africa website for further detail

    Timbuktu manuscripts project
    Timbuktu has from the Middle Ages attracted many scholars from Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The objective of this project is to preserve and promote its literary heritage as reflected in its Arabic manuscripts. Through training and the upgrading of facilities, the project will increase the capacity of the Centre de Documentation et des Recherches Historiques Ahmad Baba in the restoration and conservation, and scientific exploitation and dissemination of the content of the manuscripts currently in its possession. It will also promote similar preservation and utilization of the many manuscript collections in private hands. The project is organized jointly between CNRT Research Council, Bamako; Northwestern University, and the University of Bergen, and has received funding from the Ford foundation and the Norwegian ministry of Foreign Affairs.


    Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (SMI)
    Phone + 47 55 58 26 47, fax + 47 55 58 98 91, e-mail: post@smi.uib.no
    Postal address: SMI, University of Bergen. PO Box 7800 Bergen, Norway
    Visiting address: SMI, 5th floor , Stein Rokkans Hus, Nygårdsgaten 5, 5015 Bergen