Skip to main content

Arabic Manuscripts from West Africa: A Catalog of the Herskovits Library Collection: Historical Context

Our collection of Arabic script materials from West Africa contains over 5,000 items collected from Africa and donated to the library by several Northwestern professors.

Search Our Arabic Manuscript Collection

Click here to search our Arabic manuscripts. You may search the catalog in either English or Arabic (although not all fields contain information in both languages). To search in Arabic, you must enable the Arabic characters on your computer. For more search tips, see Cataloging Conventions.

Historical Context: Notes on the Arabic Literary Tradition of West Africa

The peoples of the western savannah regions that stretch south of the Sahara first became acquainted with the religion of Islam in the late 8th and early 9th centuries. After the Arab expansion in North Africa, occasional commercial missions, coupled with the more regular movements of pastoral Berber-speaking tribes across the western fringes of the Sahara, helped diffuse Islam south of the Sahara in its earliest phase. The Empire of Ghana, in today’s southwest Mali, was the first political entity in the region to establish commercial relations with the Maghreb and Andalusia, and to host Muslim communities in its capital city. In the 11th century, Ghana was invaded by the Berber-led Almoravid Empire. The Almoravid influence was an important one, in that it reinforced Maliki Sunnism as the established version of Islam, and spread the Kufic-derived style of Arabic script that is still characteristic of West Africa.

The conservation of the latter aesthetic trait, and its development into local sub-varieties of Arabic script showing varying degrees of similarity with the Medieval maghribi style, is clear evidence of the existence of a West African literate culture, and of its historical depth. Some West African hands, especially those of the Central Sudan (Bornu and Kano), developed from the Kufic hand their characteristic thick and bold style1. Other, more cursive styles of writing that are well represented in most Nigerian manuscripts collections have been labeled as jihadi and tabi‘i. Timbuktu hands and other Western Sudanic hands are usually closer to the classical Maghribian/Andalusian styles: more smoothed than Bornuan and other Nigerian hands, they usually also feature a smaller kaf, a shorter qaf, and a ra’ which comes back up in a hooked shape rather than stretching below the following group of letters in a sword shape. Decorated qur’ans are an interesting feature of collections in West Africa, as elsewhere in the Islamic world, and those produced in Bornu and Kano are among the most distinctive. In addition to the calligraphic traits described above, they exhibit original geometrical patterns for rub‘ (a quarter of the Qur’an) divisions, usually filling a whole page, and smaller sajda (prostration), hizb (one-sixtieth) and juz’ (one thirtieth) markers, always with a combination of black, red, yellow and green inks.

The making of a West African tradition of literacy in Arabic, reflected in the development of local styles of writing, was a consequence of the involvement of native actors in the political and cultural venture of Islam in the region. Thanks to the participation of local groups, Islam would mature largely as a phenomenon indigenous to West Africa. The study of Arabic permitted local scholars to draw on the literature produced in the Arab centers of scholarship in North Africa and the Middle East. The Arabic language, however, was also adopted by the local literate class as a shared scholarly language to produce (and not only to consume) literacy. Scholars from various ethnic and linguistic backgrounds blended in a cultural koiné where Arabic played a role comparable to that of Latin in Medieval Europe. The role of Arabic writing and literature in West Africa has been long underestimated, although a major step in reconstructing this tradition occurred with the publication of volumes II (The Writings of Central Sudanic Africa, 1995) and IV (The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa, 2003) of the Arabic Literature of Africa series, both compiled by John Hunwick and published by E.J. Brill.

A local Muslim agency in the Western Sudan emerged as early as the 11th century, when Muslim rulers took over the vestige of the Ghana Empire. The later political entities of Mali and Songhay were both also ruled by Muslim lineages. Further east, at the end of the 11th century, Mai Umme Jilme, the first Muslim sovereign of the State of Kanem (North of Lake Chad) hosted a scholar named Muhammad b. Mani, who taught him the Qur’an. Kanem (later to become Bornu) eventually became the cradle of the Kanuri culture and language. By the end of the 12th century, Kanem was already producing indigenous scholars literate in Arabic, as revealed by the writings of the poet and grammarian Ibrahim b. Ya‘qub al-Kanemi (d. 1212), who taught literature in Marrakesh and died in Andalusia. In addition to the Maghrebian/Andalusian connection, Kanem-Bornu scholars also had a direct link with Egypt. Caravan routes linked it to North Africa through the Fezzan, and as early as the 13th century, a hostel for Kanem-Bornuan students had been built in Cairo by the sovereigns of the Sudanic state.

Contacts through trade continued to help the gradual spread of Islam across the savannah and well into the Guinea region. From the 13th century onwards, however, the promotion of Islam in West Africa was the concern of scholarly groups primarily devoted to teaching. The Jakhanké clans are probably the best known example of a West African Muslim scholarly lineage which engaged in peripatetic qur’anic teaching in the largely non-Muslim coastal areas of West Africa. A tenacious commitment to time-honored techniques of qur’anic elementary teaching and, at a higher level, to the uniform transmission of a body of notions primarily associated with Maliki law and Ash‘ari theology, helped shape a common identity among the Muslim scholarly groups operating in various sub-regions of West Africa. The wooden slate used by students for elementary learning of the Qur’an, the multicolored leather arm-bag used by scholars to carry handwritten qur’ans or other manuscripts, and the goat skin used as a sitting rug by the teacher became the symbols of a shared cultural horizon. Built on a homogenous set of educational practices, an often mobile and overlapping scholarly network brought together across West Africa a Fulani-speaking modibbo (< Ar. mu’addib, “literate”; cf. Tunisian meddeb, “qur’anic teacher”), a Dyula-speaking karamoko (< Ar. qara’a, “to read”, “to recite” or “to study”), a Songhay-speaking alfa (< Ar. al-faqih, “jurisprudent”), and a Hausa-speaking malam (< Ar. mu‘allim, “teacher”).

Most literary activities were directly dependent on the craft of teaching. The teaching method, mainly traceable back to the system of Medina, encouraged the student to follow a personalized pace for each book studied under the close tutoring of his teacher. The basic curriculum focused on a shared core of authoritative texts that the student could progressively extend with commentaries or texts of wider thematic span. The teacher was required to perform word by word oral translations of the Arabic texts studied into local languages. This helped to promote a slow process of linguistic osmosis involving scholarly classical Arabic and regional languages of West Africa (Fulfulde, Dyula, Songhay, Kanuri; later also Hausa, Wolof, Yoruba, and Gonja languages).

Jurisprudence was, quite naturally, an important field of interest for Muslim literates. This resulted not only in the writing of legal treatises in major centers of learning such as Timbuktu, but also, at a more pervasive level, in the production of fatwas that the Muslim population demanded on various issues. Many fatwas, however, where not recorded in writing.

Some groups of Muslim literates, especially those of the Jakhanké tradition, tended to maintain regular interaction with non-Muslim peoples. Non-Muslim kings and chiefs – such as, for instance, those of the Asante kingdom in today’s Ghana – at times relied on Muslim literates as scribes, advisors and historians, while common people sought them out either for fatwas or for qur’anic healing and protective medicine. The selling of qur’anic charms to a non-Muslim client was permitted by a number of Maliki jurists (see for instance Ahmad al-Nafrawi’s commentary on the Risala of al-Qayrawani). Thus Muslim scholars – whose lives were primarily devoted to the arts of reading and writing – were reputed across West Africa for their knowledge of the secrets for conveying the power of the written word of God towards diverse purposes in both the spiritual and physical realm. As a result, some of the activities connected to the development of distinctively Muslim arts of literacy in the region were prompted by concern for the transmission and use of the “virtues” (fada’il) of the verses of the Qur’an to heal or protect.

The strongest impulse to writing in Arabic was provided, however, by the pedagogical pursuits of Muslim scholars. This could involve the copying of and commenting on textbooks produced by North African authors, often reproduced with extensive glosses by West African scholars (sometimes in local languages), or the production of an additional corpus of commentaries, versifications, or abridgments. Typical books taught, copies of which still likely constitute the core of any West African manuscript library, included the classics of Maliki law by North African authors (from the elementary Akhdariyya to intermediary texts such as the ‘Ashmawiyya, the ‘Izziyya and the Qayrawaniyya and specialized ones such as the Mukhtasar of Khalil, the Tuhfat al-hukkam of Ibn ‘Asim and the Mudawwana of Sahnun). The study of theology in West Africa was usually based on the works of the North African late Ash‘ari theorist, Muhammad al-Sanusi (d. 1490). His abridged text on Muslim belief (al-‘Aqida al-sughra), beside being often transmitted through standardized versions in local languages, has been commented upon in writing by, among others, the Nigerian Muhammad al-Wali al-Fulani (17th century) (see Falke/1249/MS), while another Nigerian, Tahir Feramma (d. after 1745-6), composed a versification of the ‘Aqida al-kubra. The study of the Arabic language and philological disciplines also constituted an important field for the West African Islamic scholars, especially in the urban centers. The philological syllabus was modeled on the Maghribian tradition, with the Ajurrumiyya and the celebrated Alfiyya of Ibn Malik on grammar, the Mulhat al-i‘rab of al-Hariri on the declination of nouns, the Lamiyyat al-af‘al of Ibn Malik on the declination of verbs, and the Maqamat al-Hariri on lexicography, featuring as the basic texts.

The study of literature included classical pre-Islamic poetry, but the major emphasis, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, was on the madh al-nabi (eulogy of the Prophet) genre, whose classics (the Burda and the Hamziyya of Busiri, and the ‘Ishriniyyat of Fazazi) served as models for countless local scholars to compose their own verses, both in Arabic and in local languages. Wa‘z (moral exhortation), elegy, and eulogy of the Prophet, of Sufi saints, and of local personages were the most common subjects treated by West African Muslim scholars who engaged in poetry writing, but satirical and lyrical poems have also been composed.

In the study of Hadith, the greatest prestige was usually attached to the Sahih of Bukhari and to the Muwatta’ of Malik, while the Shifa’ of al-Qadi ‘Iyad was the pillar of the study of the Prophet’s biography (sira), and the Dala’il al-khayrat of Jazuli was taught as the heart of prophetic devotion (salat ‘ala al-nabi), with a great number of works being written on this subject also by local scholars, especially during the flourishing of Sufi networks in the twentieth century.

The last discipline to be studied was always qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), undertaken only by senior scholars. The study of tafsir, usually through Mahalli and Suyuti’s Jalalayn and Baydawi’s Anwar al-tanzil, in some way sealed the cycle of traditional Islamic education and consecrated a higher-ranking scholar. Common, later additions to the West African tafsir curriculum include extended commentaries to the Jalalayn such as the Hashiyya of Sawi and the Futuhat of Jamal. Although tafsir was often practiced orally in local languages, very few West African scholars actually wrote extended qur’anic exegesis in Arabic. Significant exceptions are the Mauritanian Muhammad al-Yadali (d.1753), author of the Sufi commentary al-Dhahab al-ibriz, and the Nigerian ‘Abd Allah b. Fudi (d. 1822), who composed a longer tafsir titled Diya’ al-ta’wil, and an abridged one, Kifayat du‘afa’ al-Sudan. A long unpublished commentary on ‘Abd Allah b. Fudi’s Diya’ has been also written by the Kano leader of the Qadiriyya, Muhammad al-Nasir Kabara (d. 1996) with the title Tanwir al-Jannan. Another Nigerian, Abu Bakr Mahmud Gumi, has written a concise reformist tafsir, the Radd al-ahhan.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the expansion of Islam intensified, assisted by the movement of Dyula traders and petty artisans who were always accompanied by qur’anic teachers. The Dyula migrations helped consolidate Islamic literacy among the peoples of today’s Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Ghana, and throughout the Hausa-speaking areas of today’s Northern Nigeria (Katsina and Kano). Periodic visits by North African scholars, such as ‘Abd al-Karim al-Maghili (d. 1504) who sojourned in Gao, Kano and Katsina, also helped expand the scope of Islamic scholarship. A visit to Kano of the Egyptian polygraph Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti has also been claimed by local traditions; though his actual presence in Kano, with all probability, did not actually occur, Suyuti certainly had some correspondence with local scholars, and exerted a great influence on West African scholarship through his writings, especially in the fields of tafsir and hadith.

The presence of centralized states supportive of Muslim education, of course, helped form and consolidate scholarly networks. Timbuktu, which would remain throughout the ages the authentic symbol of the West African contribution to classical Islamic learning, had initially flourished under the protection of the sovereigns of the Mali Empire and, later, of the Askiyas of Songhay. The intellectual movement revolving around its Sankore mosque attracted numerous scholars from the Sahara and North Africa, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries. The town’s dynamic intellectual life promoted a significant market for the products of literacy (international trade of books and papers; crafts linked to manuscript copying and ink production, etc.). The most celebrated product of Timbuktu scholarship is probably Ahmad Baba (d. 1627). Born to a scholarly family of judges, the Aqit, Ahmad Baba has an outstanding record of writings of his own, especially in the field of Maliki law, in which he excelled, but also in biographies, theology, ethics and spiritual psychology.

The Western Sahara, where the nomadic people of the Malian and Algerian Adrar held stable links with Mauritania, witnessed another period of religious revival in the late 18th century, when a regional network of commerce and scholarship developed around the family of the Kunta, strictly linked to the Qadiriyya Sufi order. A number of writings – in prose and verse - are attributed to its most celebrated exponent, al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (d. 1811), and to his followers and descendants, on fields such as law, Qadiri Sufism, etc.

Sufi orders promoted much of the scholarly activity in West Africa during the 18th, 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. The most outstanding and best-known case in late pre-colonial Africa is the scholarly revival promoted by another Qadiri network, the Ibn Fodiye (Dan Fodio) family, from the end of the 18th century. The Fodio family initiated a successful jihad against the rulers of the Hausa States of Northern Nigeria, and established a new Islamic state with Sokoto as the capital city. Many of the Fodios were distinguished literates, who intentionally undertook an effort to revive Islamic literacy and reform the practice and the understanding of Islam in Hausaland. ‘Uthman dan Fodio, ‘Abd Allah dan Fodio and Muhammad Bello wrote, altogether, at least 300 works (mainly in Arabic; some in Hausa and Fulfulde). Their writings cover virtually all disciplines: from Prophetic medicine to history, jurisprudence, political theory, polemical engagements, Sufism and devotional poetry.

In the 19th century, the connections between Muslim scholars of the western Sudan (Futa, Mali, Masina, etc.) and those of the central Sudan (Hausaland, Bornu, Adamawa) intensified. These networks encouraged circulation of the political enthusiasm conveyed by the successful experience of the Sokoto Caliphate of the Fodios; the doctrinal renewal conveyed by the Sufi turuq; and the anxieties, joined with millennial beliefs, created by the news of the coming wave of European conquests. In 1825 and 1837, Sokoto was visited by a Fulani scholar from Futa Jallon, al-Hajj ‘Umar, on his way to and from Mecca. Back in the western Sudan, al-Hajj ‘Umar rallied an army and launched a jihad that would lead him to confront both local kingdoms and the rising French colonial power. An important effect of al-Hajj ‘Umar’s campaigns was that they contributed to the spread of small Tijani communities throughout the region—these would later develop into the most active religious networks of the 20th century in most of West Africa.

The colonial period witnessed a further diffusion of Islam. Charismatic leaders of Sufi orders, such as the Tijani Malik Sy (d. 1922) and ‘Abd Allah Niasse (d. 1922), as well as the founder of the Muridiyya, Ahmad Bamba (d. 1927), were at the same time prolific authors in Arabic and pivotal figures in popular religious movements. An authentic boom of religious literature in Arabic and in Hausa ajami (Arabic script) was promoted in Nigeria in the mid-twentieth century by followers of the Senegalese Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975), himself a prolific and penetrating Sufi author. The Nigerian Niassene literary revival had its center in Kano, where a scholarly network formed that combined the innovative legal teachings of Muhammad Salga (d. 1938) with the Sufi doctrine of the Fayda transmitted by Ibrahim Niasse. Together – and at times in competition – with a popular Qadiri network championed in Kano by Nasir Kabara, the Nigerian Niassene group especially contributed to the popularization of Sufi poetry in Arabic and Hausa, but its scholars were also active in other literary genres (pedagogical pamphlets, jurisprudence, Tijani doctrine). Among the representatives of this group is ‘Umar Falke (d. 1962), whose private library constitutes the richest collection [link to Falke collection page] among the Herskovits Library’s Arabic manuscripts. This period coincided with the development of new techniques for producing and distributing the written word, through the so-called “market editions” of Arabic books (many examples of which are found in the Hunwick, Paden, and to a lesser extent, Falke collections). These are photocopied reproductions of handwritten originals, stapled, bound and distributed by a printing company in local markets. The lack of printing facilities for the local sudani Arabic script was one reason for the development of market editions, since the sudani script was still favored over the Middle Eastern Arabic script by a large sector of the West African public who had been educated in traditional qur’anic schools. Market editions have mediated the transition from handwriting to mass book consumption, while at the same time contributing to the maintenance of the local calligraphic tradition. Market editions were extremely popular during the 1950s and 1960s in Kano and other Northern Nigerian towns, while the Senegalese book market has also relied to some extent on them, particularly in the production of Muridiyya devotional texts.

The Nigerian arena has been a particularly fertile one in the twentieth century, seeing the emergence of eclectic scholars such as Adam ‘Abd Allah from Ilorin (d. 1992) and Sharif Ibrahim Salih from Bornu (b. 1939). Alongside the popularization of the Sufi orders, the diffusion of reformist thought during the 20th century has, in fact, opened new space for the production of Islamic knowledge and culture in West Africa. Reformist themes are present, in a lesser or greater degree, in the writings of active authors such as the above-mentioned Adam ‘Abd Allah, the Malian Sa‘d ‘Umar Touré, and the Nigerian Abu Bakr Mahmud Gumi (d. 1992). However, most reformist intellectuals have engaged themselves in the public scholarly arena more through new avenues such as newspaper articles and public speeches than through traditional literary genres. The increased exposure of the West African public to global cultural and religious developments at the beginning of the 21st century makes the arena of Muslim West African scholarship an extremely dynamic and diversified one today. The Arabic literary tradition of West Africa certainly has a future, yet much of its past has still to be revealed by the scrutiny of extant documentation such as one finds in the Herskovits Library collection.

By Andrea Brigaglia

1Although West African scripts are often referred to collectively as sudani, no standardized labels exist for the styles and sub-variants of Arabic script that have been used by most copyists south of the Sahara, and much work remains to be done in this area. An important early contribution is A. D. H. Bivar, “The Arabic Calligraphy of West Africa,” African Language Review 7 (1968): 3-15). Bivar, however, identified the thick, angular styles as ajami, whereas ajami is currently more commonly employed (including in this website) to mean a variant of the Arabic script used to write in languages other than Arabic.