Africa is one continent whose peoples share a common position of subalternity in global relations, and a number of common historical experiences and cultures. The historical ties and exchanges that exist between Africa and the Arab World are numeros.
The number of Arabs and non-Arab people using Arabic as a working language is estimated at 300 millions, two thirds of whom are Africans. The Arabic script is used by a much larger number of people, some of whom use it to write African languages, which is what has given birth to Adjami. There is therefore a considerable degree of overlap between Africa and the Arab World, geographically and sociologically, and there are intense trade and economic exchanges between these two worlds.
Furthermore, there is a long history of higher education in the Arab World, and very old traditions of scholarship, and there is a huge body of literature in Arabic that is unknown to non-Arabic speaking African scholars. Similarly, there are a lot of books written in English, French and Portuguese that have not been translated into Arabic, but the extensive Arabisation policy promoted in a number of North African countries has made it more difficult for many scholars of this part of Africa, particular the young scholars, to participate in scholarly and policy debates in Africa conducted in English, French and Arabic.
There is also a growing number of African intellectuals who studied, and many students currently studying in the Arab World. All these people are operating at the margins of the African intellectual community.
More generally, the study of Africa was bounded in a context defined globally by colonialism and the Cold War, and regionally by the post-1945 consolidation of apartheid. In this configuration, North Africa was said to be a part of “the Orient” and, thus, of the area called “Middle East”, while apartheid South Africa was considered an exception to be studied separately. The domain of African Studies came to be developed around the land area between the Sahara and the Limpopo. Socially, Africa was Bantu Africa; spatially, it was equatorial Africa. This notion was, however, never accepted in the post-colonial academy in Africa, including in the programmatic work of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) that emerged as the pioneer and apex African social research organization on the continent. Established in 1973, CODESRIA defined the study of Africa as including both the continental land mass and the Indian Ocean islands, and set up research networks accordingly.
Part of the “Arab World” is in Africa. As has been noted above, out of the estimated 300 million inhabitants of the Arab World, 200 million (i.e. two thirds) live in Africa. Culturally, many millions of Sub-Saharan Africans are also linked to the Arab World through religious networks (Islam).
The post-Cold War and post-apartheid era calls for a careful and sustained problematisation of received boundaries in the study of Africa. It is suggested that this endeavor requires comparative studies which, while thematically focused, deliberately transgress these boundaries with a view to exploring historical terrains that were obscured by the dominant paradigm, and charting new grounds in identity theory and politics. In so doing, it is hoped that the study of African-Arab relations will not only be revitalized but, equally important, that new important insights will be developed that will contribute to a radical re-direction of our reading of African history, sociology and politics away from the hegemonic occidentalist bias that has been predominant. Furthermore, in exploring the historical legacies resulting from the flow of peoples and goods across boundaries and the contemporary patterns that are playing themselves out, it is expected that the initiative would explode various myths about the nature, content and direction of the complex interfaces between peoples and cultures in the making of politics, economy and society in Africa and the Arab World.
As an endeavour at the generation of new knowledge, the Institute is structured as a multidisciplinary intervention.