Ajami Manuscripts: Mali and beyond

A long history of the import of books and a more recent collecting enthusiasm of the curators of the state institutions and of the owners of private libraries has made the Timbuktu manuscript collections an important resource for the history not only of the famed city but of the North Africa and West African regions. The collections draw together manuscripts from Mali (including regions of Timbuktu, Mopti, Masina, Djenné, Ségou, Gao, Bamako, and Kayes) as well as from other West African countries such as Mauritania, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Niger and Nigeria, and manuscripts imported from the Middle East and North Africa. The major written language represented in these manuscripts is Arabic which was the scholarly lingua franca in sub-Saharan Islamic Africa. The works in Arabic attributed to hundreds of West African authors have been documented in 5 volumes of Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA) (started by John Hunwick et al. in 1994 and completed by Charles Stewart in 2016).

A treatise on legal matters (fiqh), author unknown, with
annotations in Soninke. The Tijāniya Library, Kayes, Mali.

ALA and similar studies helped dispel the myth that Africa is the continent without written history. However, the role played by local languages written in Arabic script (collectively known as Ajami) is still poorly understood. Often, it comes as a surprise even for the specialists dealing with African languages and cultures that the proportion of Ajami writing in the Islamic manuscripts is much higher than the received wisdom has assumed. In the catalogues of Islamic manuscripts in or from sub-Saharan Africa, the presence of Ajami is typically not indicated. If compositions in Ajami do occasionally find their way into the catalogues, the Ajami annotations written between the lines or in the margin seem especially elusive for the cataloguers. Very few exceptions only prove the general tendency to neglect the Ajami writing in Islamic manuscripts.

The reasons for such neglect are manifold. From the perspective of Islamic education in sub-Saharan Africa, the major factor obscuring the role of Ajami is the ascendancy of Arabic. The ultimate linguistic goal in Islamic education is mastering the language of the Qur’an and Islamic literature. This overshadows non-Arabic writing which is seen as mere “scaffolding” of educational edifice. Another factor is the dominance of the main text over the secondary texts. The Ajami is easier recognised as an entity when the non-Arabic part in the manuscript has much weight in the body text rather than in the margins or between the lines.

From the Western academic perspective, there is a disciplinary divide. In African studies, Arabists and historians deal primarily with the written content in Arabic whereas linguists are primarily concerned with spoken varieties of local languages. Linguists and anthropologists do not usually produce catalogues of manuscripts. Arabists and historians do not usually specialise in African languages (mastering Classical Arabic is in itself a challenge and cataloguing of hundreds of variations and derivative works represented in the manuscripts is an overwhelmingly time-consuming task).

This is why it was not until recently that historians, anthropologists and linguists started realising that there is much more to the Ajami writing than just curious instances of accidental, occasional or isolated phenomena. The studies of the last two decades demonstrated that the functional domain of Ajami had a wide scope with particular distributional patterns conditioned by complex social, religious, ethnic, linguistic and scribal practices and identities. Thanks to these studies the perspective on the importance of African languages in manuscript form is slowly changing, leading to the discovery of more and more Ajami manuscripts.

The African languages written in Arabic script cover a wide variety of genres. Some Ajami texts are versified or prose compositions dealing with theological, legal and ethical matters, as well as local genealogies and personal correspondence. Hausa and Fulfulde (also known as Pulaar, Fula or Fulani) are the languages best known for extensive manuscript production of such texts. Independent compositions in manuscript form are also reported for Songhai in Mali, Wolof, Mandinka and Maninka in Senegal, Guinea-Bisau, Guinea, and Mali, Kanuri and Kanembu, Tuareg.

However, a much higher proportion of Ajami writing is represented by commentaries and translations of the Arabic texts. This is one of the most frequent functions of Ajami and it is found in a variety of genres and manuscript types, ranging from the Qur’an, texts on theology, law and grammar to medicinal, healing and talismanic manuscripts.

The history of Islam in West Africa and the development of languages and literacy in the region can no longer be satisfactorily studied without taking into consideration the factor of production of different types of Ajami manuscripts. The Ajami Lab therefore aims at comprehensive documentation and analysis of different Ajami-based strategies developed among the complex Muslim communities who expressed and harmonized multi-ethnic and multi-lingual identities during the pre-colonial and colonial history of Islam in what is now Mali and beyond.