Bruce S. Hall

Associate Professor 

My research is focused on the intellectual and social history of a region of West Africa called the Sahel, which straddles the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. It encompasses the modern countries of Mauritania, Mali and Niger. Most of the research that I have carried out has been based in and around the northern Malian town of Timbuktu, in a sub-region of the Sahel called the Niger Bend. I have worked in Timbuktu because it is the site of remarkable collections of written sources in Arabic from across the Sahel and further a field in the Muslim world.

My work is located at the intersection between West Africa's Muslim high intellectual culture and social and economic issues which that intellectual culture sought to address. My first book, A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2011. It is an intellectual history of arguments made about race and slavery in the West African Sahel. It reveals the long history of racial ideas in this region, and the different work that racial ideas were made to do over a period of more than three hundred years.

I am currently completing a second book project called “The Bonds of Trade: Letters, Social hierarchy and the ethics of connectivity in Timbuktu, 1846-1918.” This is a social, economic and cultural history of the famously remote town of Timbuktu in modern-day Mali between 1846 and 1918. Known primarily as a commercial entrepôt and center of Islamic learning on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert dating back to medieval times, Timbuktu’s mystique has contributed to an unusual level of interest in its heritage of Arabic manuscripts, regularly thought to be imperiled. “Bonds of Trade” bases itself on this archive of Arabic manuscripts, but in doing so recasts the story of those manuscripts from one of the remnants of lost treasure to that of a more contemporary and vital nineteenth-century world constituted by the practice of letter writing and commerce which connected people across extensive circum-Saharan space. By focusing on the practice of letter-writing, and the issues discussed in the letters, “Bonds of Trade” aims to show how the people in Timbuktu navigated the period before and after colonial conquest, and how they interacted with Islam legal institutions and the nascent colonial state as it was first being established. The letters reflect that circum-Saharan connectivity depended on the entrenched social hierarchies in circum-Saharan societies, especially in the widespread practice of slavery and slaveholding. At the same time, they reveal an abiding ethic of fraternity and friendship that used the language of Islamic belonging to engender a broad idea of equality among Muslims. The challenges to the network of letter-writers brought about by French colonial conquest of Timbuktu in 1893 lay in the undermining of the structures of social hierarchy and the redirection of trade away from the Sahara to the Atlantic coast. The project is based on a reading of more than a thousand letters from Timbuktu.

I am also the general editor of a bibliographic database of Arabic manuscript materials from across West Africa called the West African Arabic Manuscript Database (WAAMD), which can be accessed at


PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2005

MA, Queen's University (Canada), 1995

BA, University of Toronto, 1994

Research Interests

Muslim intellectual history in West and North Africa; Slavery; Social and Economic history of West and North Africa; Race; Mali; Songhay

Representative Publications

A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011). Winner of the 2012 Martin A. Klein Prize, awarded by the American Historical Association for the most distinguished work of scholarship on African history published in the previous alendar year, in English. 

“Memory, Slavery and Muslim Citizenship in the Post-Emancipation Circum-Saharan World,” L’Ouest Saharien 10/11 (2020), pp. 95-108.

“Reading Race in Africa and the Middle East,” Antropologia 7, 1 (2020), pp.33-44.

“Race,” in A Cultural History of Empires in the Modern Age, ed. Patricia M.E. Lorcin (London: Bloomsbury, 2019), pp.177-94.

“Vernacular Media, Muslim Ethics and Conservative Critiques of Power in the Niger Bend, Mali,” in Religion, Media & Marginality in Africa, ed. Felicitas Becker and Joel Cabrita (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2018), pp.133-53.

“Rethinking the Place of Timbuktu in the Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa,’ in Landscapes, Sources, and Intellectual Projects: Politics, History, and the West African Past, ed. Toby Green and Benedetta Rossi (Leiden, Brill, 2018), pp.239-58.

with Amadou Fofana, “Timbuktu: what call to action? Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, 2014, Mali),” in Black Camera 9, 1 (2017), pp.7-21.

with Ghislaine Lydon, "Excavating Arabic Sources For the History of Slavery in Western Africa," in African Slavery/African Voices, Volume 2, Methodology, ed. Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, Carolyn Brown and Martin Klein (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), pp.15-49.

contributor to Arabic Literature of Africa. Volume 5. The Writings of Mauritania and the Western Sahara, ed Charles C. Stewart and Sidi Ahmed ould Ahmed Salem (Leiden: Brill, 2015). Winner of the 2016 Conover-Porter Award, awarded by the African Studies Association for outstanding Africa-related reference works, bibliographies or bibliographic essays.

"Saharan Commerce and Islamic Law: The Question of Usury (ribā) in the Nawāzil literature of Mali and Mauritania, 1700-1929," African Economic History 41 (2013), pp.1-20.

"Arguing sovereignty in Songhay," Afriques: Débats, methods et terraines d'histoire 4 (2013), pp.2-17.

with Yacine Daddi Addoun, "The Arabic Letters of the Ghadames Slaves in the Niger Bend, 1860-1900," in African Slavery/African Voices, ed. Alice Bellagamba, Sandra Greene, Carolyn Brown and Martin Klein. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp.485-500.

"How slaves used Islam: The letters of enslaved Muslim commercial agents in the nineteenth-century Niger Bend and Central Sahara," Journal of African History 52, no. 3 (2011), pp.279-97.

"Bellah histories of decolonization, Iklan paths to freedom: The meanings of race and slavery in the late-colonial Niger Bend (Mali), 1944-1960," International Journal of African Historical Studies 44, no.1 (2011), pp.61-87.

with Charles C. Stewart, "The historic 'Core Curriculum,' and the book market in Islamic West Africa" in The Trans-Saharan Book Trade: Arabic Literacy, Manuscript Culture, and Intellectual History in Islamic Africa, ed. Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (Leiden: Brill, 2010), pp.109-74.

picture of Professor Bruce Hall


3218 Dwinelle Hall

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