Faculty of Theology presents cross-disciplinary, inter-religious study

Posted on October 27, 2015

The Department of Science of Religion in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Pretoria (UP), in association with the Muslim Education Institute Trust (MEIT), recently held a conference on one of the Timbuktu Manuscripts, viz the text dealing with Alexander the Great and Dhul Qarnain. Of particular interest was the question who exactly Alexander the Great was, and whether or not he was the same person as the Qura’anic figure of Dhul Qarnain – literally, the two-horned one. (Alexander’s iconic crown bore two horns.)

The conference was a precursor to the launch of two books featuring translations of two of the original manuscripts.

As indicated by the name, the Timbuktu Manuscripts hail from Mali. They date from the Golden Age of Timbuktu centuries ago and were kept intact because they had been hidden in walls and jars.

The manuscripts are hand written in an Arabic dialect. Two of them were translated by a small team of experts led by Sheikh Abdul Hamid Fernana  from the University of the Free State and Asgar Mukhtar, together with UP’s Dr Maniraj Sukdaven who did the editing. The project forms part of the African Written History Preservation initiative promoted by former President Mbeki and the Thabo Mbeki Trust.

Timbuktu once was a world-renowned centre of learning. Indeed, some of the world’s oldest universities are found in North Africa and religious studies, science, medicine and art could be studied there. Students even came from Europe to study in North Africa. The Timbuktu Manuscripts have contributed to reinstating the dignity of Africa after centuries of colonialism that sought to destroy African intellectual heritage.

The first translated and edited text deal with Alexander the Great, the Alexander Romance and the legend from an African perspective. Scholars in Timbuktu held a favourable view of Alexander the Great and associated the Alexander legend with the figure of Dhul Qarnain. The second text deals with diseases both manifest and hidden, and contains ancient African knowledge of medicine and psychiatry.

During the conference, a visiting scholar from Stanford University, Prof Shahzad Bashir, expounded on the Islamic view of Dhul Qarnain and Alexander the Great through the ages as depicted in literature and art originating in Spain, Africa and even Japan. Dr Sukdaven positioned the manuscripts in the tradition of the Alexander Romance and paid special attention to the motif of Gog and Magog in relation to the legends of Dhul Qarnain and Alexander the Great.

Prof Dolf Britz from Yale University’s Divinity School, gave an historical perspective on Alexander from Macedon (aka Alexander the Great) and discussed how important he was to early Christians who used his reign as a measure of time.

Sheikh Muhammad Yahya Ninowy, Dean of the Madina Institute, presented an alternative view by looking at the historical narrative of Alexander the Great versus the theological narratives in an attempt to reconcile the series of legends on Alexander the Great’s mythical exploits.

Sheikh Abdul Hamid Fernana from the University of the Free State expounded on Timbuktu as a centre of world knowledge, and explained how the scrolls lent credence to the fact that African scholars held Alexander the Great, Aristotle and Olympia in high regard.

In closing the conference Dr Essop Pahad said the purpose of South Africa’s involvement with the preservation and housing of the manuscripts was to give back to Africa its dignity and pride by creating a repository of universal knowledge that transcend all barriers.

The Laudium Sun newspaper recently featured an article about the Memorandum of Understanding that has been signed by the Department of Science of Religion and Missiology in UP's Faculty of Theology and the Muslim Education Institute Trust, which resulted in the launch of the Timbuktu Project (soon to be renamed African Intellectual Written Heritage).

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