Ibrahim al-Kanemi

Due to his late 12th/early 13th century writings, known and read in Morocco, Ibrahim al-Kanemi, carries the distinction – as the first sub-Saharan scholar, to have written in Arabic.

He was a grammarian, a poet and a member of the ulema (scholars) of Kanem-Borno, the first Muslim ruled state, of Central Sudan. Chosen scholars of this Lake Chad kingdom, were given mahrams (charters of privilege), which exempted them from military service and tax payments.

Those of the highest learning, wrote in Tarjumo, a sacred script; derived from Old Kanembu, from Kanuri – spoken in Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger.

At their meeting, elated by his erudition and lyrical skill, the Moroccan ruler, Sultan Yaq’ub al-Mansur, invited Ibrahim al-Kanemi, to teach in Marrakesh. It is from this association and his subsequent travels to Muslim ruled Spain (where he died) that we know of his writings, no longer extant – except for a eulogic poem to the Sultan. Still, he is a figure of genesis, in the growth of sub-Saharan literature.

© Natty Mark Samuels, 2015. African School.