African Time

In Time by Hassam Munir

Yasin Dwyer is a Jamaican-Canadian imam who is known for his insightful and inspiring Islamic reminders and lessons at Muslim community events. As these events often begin later than advertised, I’ve often heard Imam Dwyer quoting a mood-lightening but very thought-provoking Jamaican saying (in his Jamaican accent): “White man have clock, but Black man have time.”

It would take many books’ worth in writing to discuss and appreciate all aspects of the ways in which time has been understood and experienced in Islamicate West Africa. Only a small glimpse into this fascinating topic is possible here. (In general, scholarship on West African notions of time is very limited, in part because until very recently, Western researchers studied West African culture through the lens of their own (Western) notions of time.) But for those who are curious to learn more, Time in the Black Experience by Joseph Adjaye is a fascinating read.

As in many pre-modern cultures, time was linked primarily to astronomical observations, starting with the simplest: the movement of the sun through the sky, and the changing phases of the moon during the year. Beyond this, very little about timekeeping was standardized across the region’s diverse cultures. This has been misinterpreted into the notion of “African time,” which suggests that “Africans” have a very relaxed and unserious approach to timekeeping and, in turn, to punctuality and the future. Needless to say, this view has strong racist undertones.

In reality, many West African cultures simply gave (and still give) more significance to the meaning and experience of time rather than to structure and precision in timekeeping. While telling the story of an event, for example, the species of tree under which it occurred may be shared as a more important detail than the exact day. This approach to time may seem chaotic from the Western gaze, but it makes sense in rich, internally-cohesive West African worldviews.

Among the Bamana people of Mali, who are mostly Muslim and mostly not cattle herders, the time around 9 a.m. is referred to by everyone as misi-bò-tile, “cow move-out time.” While to those accustomed to Western notions of time this may seem irrational and imprecise (“why don’t you just say 9 a.m. or early morning”), such a view prevents one from appreciating the term’s origins in thoughtful concern for the cattle’s safety. The term was originally used to identify a time in the day by which the morning dew has dried up, because herding cattle through dew was known to hurt their hooves and make them ill. Thus, “9 a.m.” for the Bamana is not just a time of the day, but a time of day imbued with deep meaningfulness.

Time was measured in parts of West Africa by village elders meeting in a cave every two years and leaving cowry shells, by families tying a knot in a rope at the end of every 5-day week, by children using pebbles to keep track of how many new moons (i.e. lunar months) have passed, and in a variety other ways, for a variety of reasons. In parts of the Sahara Desert, for example, water is very scarce and it is impractical to measure and distribute it fairly, so many oases divided the daytime into eight units of 1.5 hours each and made contracts with each person needing to use a particular spring or well so they could use the water within their assigned slot of time; these 1.5-hour slots, in turn, came to regulate early daily activities as well.

According to a fascinating study by Lameen Souag, in some of the Muslim cultures of North and West Africa, out-of-fashion names were used for the Islamic prayer times, which came to be linked to certain daily activities. Isha was salāt al-nawm (“prayer of sleep”), turned into sákhú-fó (“sleep-thing”) in Soninké, and from there into sáafu (Mandinka), saafoo (Songhay), and sa’fi (Pular), all associating Isha with sleep. Isha was also associated in parts of West Africa with “milking”, through a name used for it by Arabian bedouin during the time of the Prophet (ﷺ), salāt al-‘atama (“prayer of the first third of the night”), in turn referring to their practice of milking their camels before praying it, a practice which may have survived in West Africa. Similarly, the Maghrib prayer’s alternative name of salāt al-fitr (“prayer of breaking the fast”) came to be associated with dinnertime; both the name and association were used in West African languages, such as fitiri (Mandinka), fùtúrò (Soninké), and fitirow (Timbuktu Songhay). These and other prayer names were used as references to time by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

What of the timekeeping devices and techniques used elsewhere in the Muslim cultural sphere? There are thousands of available manuscripts which, if they were to be studied and translated, would likely provide us with a treasure trove of the knowledge West African Muslims produced or acquired in fields such as astronomy, horology (the study of time), and technology. We will have to wait for that work to be done.

In the meantime, we can do some informed speculation. It is highly likely that, in pre-modern Islamicate West Africa, instruments such as astrolabes were used to measure the position of celestial objects in the night sky, and that this information was then used to develop zij tables which helped calculate everything from daily prayer times to complete calendars. It is also possible that, as in Syria and elsewhere, sundials were used in West African mosques for timekeeping, and that a person was appointed to the role of muwaqqit (timekeeper). It’s less certain that elaborate clocks, similar to those designed and built by al-Jazari in the 13th century, were created and used; however, they were known in nearby Morocco, where some have survived until the present (such as at the Qarawiyyin Mosque and Dar al-Magana), and it’s not impossible that the concept made its way south to West Africa as well.

None of this suggests that West Africans were unwilling or incapable to conceive of a more structured and precision-focused approach to time. Hopefully, through further research on many fronts, we will soon know much more about Muslim West Africans’ views of time. For now, it is safe to say that their approach to time was starkly different from the Western, post-Industrial Revolution approach that became the global standard (not always by choice, of course), but that to this day, in the context of their own cultures, their relationship with time is as rational and life-enriching as any other in the world.

Perhaps this is what the saying quoted by Imam Yasin Dwyer is hinting at—that there’s more to time than clocks. Or in the memorable words of Muhammad Ali: “Don’t count the days, make the days count.”