In the cradle of humanity, Africa, thought was creatively practiced in a natural environment of bountifulness and human diversity. Languages, artistic works, inscriptions, cave paintings, and architectural constructs of huge irrigation schemes and other colossal monuments testify to the intellectual abilities of the African peoples who thought about them, and then designed and erected them. In the deeply rooted African spirituality, the African thought was expressed in a great many deities, rituals, ethical stands, and religious teachings.
Since ancient times, African thinkers used thousands of languages that have been grouped in the large families of the Saharan, Sudanic, Kordofanian, and others. Some of these languages were written in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Nubian Meroitic, Ethiopian Geez, or Arabic. Perhaps one of the oldest inscriptions in Africa is the Stale of Piankhi, the Nubian king who invaded Egypt and founded the 25 the Dynasty (ca. 734), which reads “I am a king, the image of God, the good divine one, beloved of the divine ones.” Another stale by Ethiopian King Ezana of Aksum (325 CE) carried with it a story of invasion. The African thinkers were also some of the earliest to establish cosmological doctrines on theology and monotheism. The Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten called for the veneration of the one almighty Lord, instead of the polytheist deities of his time.
African thinkers have contributed distinguished achievements to the arts and sciences, for example, the knowledgeable architect Imhotep, builder of the first pyramid, who was equally a prime minister, philosopher-teacher, and father of medicine. The continent witnessed prolific leaders of thought in the medieval times. In the 15th century, among the Mali and the Songhay, Timbuktu and Jenne began their long careers, with ideas from their schools of theology and law spreading far into Muslim Asia. ‘Abd al- Rahman ibn Khaldun of Tunisia (1332-1406) was a researcher on education and psychology, a political activist and a statesman, a jurist and judge who innovated autobiography as well as a scientific methodology for the science of history and founded a science of sociology in the course of his rigorous research to correct the reported events of history.
Endowed with intensive knowledge about the holy Koran, the Hadith (the Prophet’s sayings and deeds), monotheism, jurisprudence, linguistics, poetry, metaphysics, natural science, mathematics, arts and foreign languages, Ibn Khaldun spent about 8 years authoring his magnanimous masterpiece Muqaddimat Ibn Khaldun (the Ibn Khaldun Introduction), which is one of the seven volumes, Kitab al-’Ibar wa Diwan al-Mubtada wa al-Khabar (The Book on Events on the Days of the Arabs, the non-Arabs, the Berber, and Contemporary Relatives of the Superior Sultan). Excluding some historical events as “impossible” judged by “the nature of things,” the methods of scientific research and the rules of investigating historical events as “codes of society,” the Muqaddimat dealt with the study of “the ‘Umran [societal life or sociological activity], social phenomena, ownership, authority, acquisitions, craftsmanship, sciences, and the factors and the causes underlying them.” Ibn Khaldun’s history of the Berber is perhaps the strongest, richest, and most genuine historical research. The French historian Dozy described his accurate writing on Spain as “outstanding: nothing of the sort is found or comparable in the accounts of the medieval Christian westerners of whom no one successfully documented what Ibn Khaldun clearly wrote.”
Ant’nor Firmin, a Haitian thinker, is considered a pioneer of anthropology in the African domain. Early in 1885, Fermin realized that the human species appeared in various parts of the world with the same primordial constitutional imprint of the species, the same intellect and that same morality as in the original human blueprint.
In recent times, a number of African writers have added significant strides to our knowledge of the continent’s societal life and challenging realties, as they penetrated the arenas with intriguing thought. The Sudanese writer Jamal, a founding member of the 1962 African Encyclopedia, authored Sali Fu Hamar, a collection of stories on the African mythology, as well as other literary works on the African cultural and political affairs. The first African writer to be awarded a Nobel Prize in literature in 1986, the Nigerian writer Woll Soyinka earned his fame with a consistent critique of authority impositions upon the personal freedoms of people and the severe repercussions of state intrusions with respect to the peaceful competition in power relations. Soyinka addressed the traditional African rituals that continue to influence the mentality of Africans: “The king has died, and his horseman is expected by law and custom to commit suicide and accompany his ruler to heaven.”
Based on rigorous anthropological investigation on the impact of human geography on human behavior, Diop, a Senegalese historian and cultural anthropologist, developed a theory on the north and the south cradles of civilization in Europe and Africa, respectively. Diop discovered “for certain that ancient Egyptian Pharaonic civilization was a black civilization. Herodotus had no interest saying that ‘the Egyptians had black skin and frizzy hair.’” According to Diop, “The harsh and for long periods cold climate in Europe gave rise to the patriarchal family system.” Diop showed that Ethiopia [Nubia], Kush, and Ta-Set, the world’s first nation state, were “matriarchal.” Focusing on the Egyptian female, Nawal El-Saadawi, a prolific writer who has authored several plays, mostly translated into international languages, has analyzed with factual materials the current state of affairs of African and Arab women. Including her deep insights in The Hidden Face of Eve (1977), the stories of El-Saadawi have unveiled the conflicts of modernity with traditional forms of life in the society, in which women, in particular, suffer male domination and state repression.
African thought has been remarkably geared and engineered to address reality with a view to help enforce optimum change—a deeply rooted tradition that the African American scholar Maulana Karenga eloquently conceptualized as “the intellectual-activist tradition.” This norm, moreover, should be further linked to the richness of the continent and the colorful life of its peoples since ancient times, which further explains the African diverse, prolific, and multiple forms of thinking, compared with strict specializations of thought experienced in other places. The Cairo Trilogy and the other stories of Naguib Mahfuz have analyzed the lively experiences of people, the contrasting portrayals of secular versus profane situations in the spheres of family, neighborhoods, educational institutions and government agencies, and the contradictory encounters both women and men confront within the context of the African oriental life.
- Diop, C. A. (1996). Towards the African renaissance, essays in culture & development (1946-1960). Egbuna P. Modum, trans. London: Karnak House.
- Ferraro, G. (2003). Cultural anthropology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
- Hafez, S. (2001). Naguib Mahfuz—The Cairo trilogy: Palace talk, palace of desire, sugar street. New York: Everyman’s Library.
- Karenga, M. (2002). Introduction to black studies (3rd ed.). Los Angeles: Sinakore University Press.
- Woll, S. (2002). Death and the king’s horseman. New York: W. W. Norton.