Launched in 2010 as a faculty colloquium, Ifriqiyya is dedicated to giving historical depth to the study of Africa at Columbia.  Its historical focus is the period that preceded Western domination of Africa, a time when Arabic-scripted languages and Islam were the hallmark of a growing cosmopolitan civilization in and around Africa.  Its geographical focus highlights mediating regions – such as the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Sahara – through which multiple influences flowed and shaped the lives of those they connected. 

The word "Ifriqiyya" is a name that Rome gave to its southernmost province (Tunisia), that Ibn Khaldun used to refer to lands to the south, a region that Hegel characterized as Africa proper in contradistinction to European Africa (North Africa) and Asiatic Africa (Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia). Ifriqiyya appropriately highlights the instability of the contemporary designation, Africa, and the debates around it.

When established in 2010, Ifriqiyya focused on Timbuktu, and the making of an African literary world in the Arabic script.  As a project, Timbuktu embraced the range of distinct languages that used the Arabic script (in what are known as the Ajami literatures) in the period before Western colonization, from West Africa to the Swahili coast to early Afrikaans in South Africa, to explore multiple dimensions of an early cosmopolitanism.  Ifriqiyya is organized as both a seminar and a discussion group; the colloquium is driven by a stable group of scholars based at Columbia but reaching out to the New York area to ensure a continuous membership.

In 2013, Ifriqiyya received an initial President’s Global Innovation Fund (PGIF) grant from Columbia University, which we used to mount two innovative workshops, one on “Trans-African Slaveries” (May 2-3, 2014) and the other on “Indian Ocean Studies” (May 5-6, 2014). The object was to create global research networks on both of these themes. Following the two workshops, which brought together international and regional scholars and Columbia faculty and graduate students, we formed a partnership with the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and held a follow-up workshop on “Trans-African Slaveries,” this time in Kampala, in June 26-27, 2015.

The fruit of that last workshop is seven individual papers and an overarching thematic essay, published in the journal Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East (Duke) in its August 2018 issue, Vol. 38 Issue 2.

Following the submission of a proposal submitted by Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University and the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a research project titled “Decolonisation, the Disciplines and the University,” MISR was awarded a grant in December 2018. In accordance with the proposal, the Ifriqiyya Colloquium at Columbia University (ICCU) was identified as a member of the project consortium and was granted a portion of the award, which funds are to be administered by MISR and facilitated by the Principal Investigator Professor Brinkley Messick of ICCU and utilised for the goals of the project as set out in the award letter.