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On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa

Author(s):Lydon, Ghislaine
Reviewer(s):Daddi Addoun, Yacine

Published by EH.NET (February 2011)

Ghislaine Lydon, On Trans-Saharan Trails: Islamic Law, Trade Networks, and Cross-Cultural Exchange in Nineteenth-Century Western Africa. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. xxviii + 468 pp. $95 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-88724-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Yacine Daddi Addoun, Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, York University.

In a period when the Sahara is mentioned only in relation to terrorism, it is a breath of fresh air to read Ghislaine Lydon’s On Trans-Saharan Trails. The author uses the unfortunate succession of deaths, between 1848 and 1850, of four W?d N?n network traders, who were operating between the two shores of the Sahara, to illustrate and test the strengths and weaknesses of what she terms the ?paper economy of faith?: the complex relationships between literacy, the corpus of Islamic law, its clerks, and trade. This study of trans-Saharan long-distance exchange economy can be studied thanks to numerous private collections and archives holding all kinds of commercial contracts, correspondence between traders, as well as judicial opinions deeply rooted in the M?lik? school of law. The author visited no less than 35 private collections in four countries: Mauritania, Mali, Morocco, and Libya, demonstrating the span of her research, a trans-Saharan enterprise in itself. In addition, Lydon collected more than 200 oral interviews, in a conscious effort to complement information available in written documents, especially colonial archives, and to seek for explanation of legal, judicial, and social concepts and practices, names of merchandise, and location of places — using at least six languages. This book is in fact a manifesto for the centrality of orality, even in a context studying ?paper economy.? The result is a well-informed study that shows a trans-Saharan trade network at work.

The book is an attempt to bridge the gap between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. It succeeds in establishing the place of the Sahara desert in the center of events and not just as a mere space of passage, and its inhabitants as active agents in the transformation of this region as a whole. The first two chapters focus on the longue dur?e. They lay out the transformations and introduction of new elements (camels, Islam, Arabs) that made this space an important node of commerce and communication. These chapters also contain a much-appreciated presentation of primary and secondary sources. Lydon is quite exhaustive in presenting works on trans-Saharan networks. She, however, leaves out Pierre-Philipe Rey and his disciples, such as Faouzia Belhachemi and Olivier Meunier[1] — important scholars who have tried to ?bridge the African divide.? The two subsequent chapters concentrate mainly on nineteenth-century developments. While the third chapter is a general overview putting the developments of market centers and their shift within the general framework of jihads, the fourth chapter concentrates more on the W?d N?n network, and its components, mainly Guelmim, Tikna and Awl?d B? Siba?. The author highlights the heterogeneous nature of the trade network because it was composed of Jews and Muslims, but also because it was ethnically diverse, including Berbers and Arabs. In common, they shared a certain kind of cosmopolitanism and transnational identity. The remaining chapters concentrate more specifically on trade and issues relating to paper economy. An important contribution of Lydon’s study is the emphasis on the role of women as agents on their own rights. Women not only contributed to the social reproduction of the network (which other historians have already acknowledged), but they also held the shore-side institutions and acted as immobile caravanning partners, besides supervising domestic and enslaved workers. Lydon stresses the role of some women in financing caravans and acting as shareholders. Indeed, others, such as the M?sna women of Tish?t, participated in caravans as traders and cross-cultural brokers. Lydon highlights the Muslim and patriarchal institutional weight on women in a way to appreciate their active role even further. As a female historian in a conservative society, Lydon had the unique opportunity to interview women (at least 60) and thus is able to bring out their voices as active participants in the trans-Saharan trade and counteract the androcentric paradigm that is prevalent especially in the history of African Islamic societies.

Lydon takes us into the details of trans-Saharan trade including contracts, currencies, and weights and measures in a well written book, accessible to non-specialist. In chapter six she brings out what I think is her major contribution in the historiography. By exploring the dialectics between commerce and literacy, she demonstrates how written contracts ordered by the Qur??n were instrumental in the development and consolidation of the trans-Saharan trade. Paradoxically, at the same time, those written contracts, even when authenticated by witnesses, were invalid as evidence in courts, in case of a conflict where the witnesses were far away or dead. The author considers this fact, as well as the absence of legal personality in Islam along with inheritance laws, as the causes for lack of capital accumulation over generations and thus the underdevelopment of the Muslim world. This argument expands our knowledge about the limits of Islamic economic practices and the ways traders tried to circumvent them by creating their own set of practices and rules. In chapter seven she illustrates this issue through a meticulous examination of a complex inheritance case triggered by the death of the four network traders mentioned above. She also highlights, through Shaykh b. Brah?m al-Khal?l, who had to resolve the case, how network structure could be so heavy that it forced out some of its best members. In an interesting competition between legal service providers over who were liable to pronounce a judgment on the case, it turned out that in conflict situations there was not always good-faith and certainly not much faith in the ?paper economy of faith.?

I am not sure, however, to what extent the invalidity of contracts in courts was widespread in practice. Even if M?lik was accredited to this opinion, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, states that it was rather an exception.[2] Also, the author acknowledges that she is writing about the fringes of Islamic world, in the sense that she deals with a space where no centralized state existed. So it is not clear to what extent this constraint on development can be generalized. Arguably, Lydon has a major argument that deserves to be investigated further.

On Trans-Saharan Trails is a great addition to African history, Islamic legal history, and the history of trade networks and diasporas. Lydon gives us a refined and nuanced analysis of the theory and practice of long-distance trade. It is an exceptionally well researched and crafted book and cannot be ignored by anyone interested in these topics. Lydon raises important questions and any future study on the trans-Saharan trade networks, and financial transaction in Islam will have to consider her contribution.

1. Maxime Haubert and Pierre-Philippe Rey, Les soci?t?s civiles face au March?: Le changement social dans le monde postcolonial (Paris: Karthala, 2000); Olivier Meunier, Les routes de l’islam: Anthropologie politique de l’islamisation de l’Afrique de l’ouest en g?n?ral et du pays Hawsa en particulier du VIII? au XIX? si?cle (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1997), Faouzia Belhachemi, ?Anthropologie ?conomique et historique des Touareg du Hoggar,? Doctoral dissertation, Universit? de Paris VIII Vincennes, 1992.

2. Ab? ?Abd Allah Mu?ammad b. Ab? Bakr b. Ayy?b, Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (751-691 H.), Al-?uruq al-?ukmiyya f? ‘l-siy?sa ‘l-shar?iyya, (Jaddah: D?r al-Faw?’id, 2007), 544-560.

Yacine Daddi Addoun is a post-doctoral fellow at the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on the Global Migrations of African Peoples, at York University, Toronto, Canada. He is interested in the history of slavery and its abolition in Algeria, the Maghrib and the Muslim world. His latest publication is ?`So that God Free the Former Master from Hell Fire:’ Salvation through Manumission in Nineteenth-century Ottoman Algeria,? in Ana Lucia Araujo, Mariana P. Candido and Paul E. Lovejoy, Crossing Memories: Slavery and African Diaspora (Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 2011), 237-260.

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Subject(s):Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Africa
Middle East
Time Period(s):19th Century