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

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.

About the Catalog

Because the entries in this catalog were created by four different catalogers over a span of two decades, there are some inconsistencies in the way the data has been entered, particularly between the two collections that were cataloged first (Paden and Falke) and the more recently cataloged collections (Hunwick and Ghana). In addition, because the cataloging fields have been changed and refined over time, not all the entries contain the same fields. Standardizing the data within all the collections is a longer-term project. For the moment, however, we have striven to be as internally consistent as possible within each collection.

Click here for a list of abbreviations used in the catalog.

Dates When two dates are listed (e.g. 1412/1991), the first refers to the Hijri calendar, and the second to the Gregorian calendar. When only one date is reported, it refers to the Gregorian calendar.

Brackets [ ] have been used for information which does not appear explicitly in the original item. Examples: a) to indicate an author and/or title which has been suggested by an external information source (such as an oral source) or by tentative internal evidence that needs to be verified; b) to correct misspellings occurring in the document; c) to attribute a tentative title to an untitled document

Below is a description of each cataloging field and the conventions used, along with relevant search advice.

LOCATE + REQUEST Each item has been assigned a unique identifier (e.g. Falke 0023 MS, Hunwick 23 ME). It consists of:

  • The collection name (Falke, Ghana, Paden, or Hunwick).
  • Item number:
    • Numbering starts with 1 for each collection. In some cases, an item may be divided into sub-items (e.g. Falke 0083.1 MS).
    • Each collection has a specific number form, which must be input correctly for your search to be accurate.
      • Falke: 4 digits; e.g. Falke 0023
      • Ghana: No leading zeroes; e.g. Ghana 23
      • Paden: 3 digits; e.g. Paden 023
      • Hunwick: No leading zeroes; e.g. Hunwick 23
  • Type of document, indicated by: MS (original manuscript), ME (market edition), or PE (printed edition). Photocopies are indicated by the suffix X. For example, MSX indicates a photocopy of an original manuscript. For a fuller description of the document types, see Abbreviations.

To search for an individual item by its number, enter the collection name and item number. For example: Falke 0023 or Hunwick 393.

AUTHOR (English and Arabic). The English spelling of an author’s name may vary between entries, since the same author may be known by different names or spellings in different regions. In general, we have adopted the spellings of author’s names found in the Arabic Literature of Africa, volumes 2 and 4 (Leiden: E.J. Brill). Variations on the author’s name are listed in the “Known As” field. It is thus recommended that when searching for a specific author you search not only by “Author” but also by “Full Text,” since “Full Text” will also search the “Known As” and “Nisba” fields.

TITLE (Arabic only). The fullest known title of the work is given, even if the title page has only an abbreviated form or is missing. For poems that have no commonly used title, the first verse has sometimes been entered as the title, or the poem may be named by the rhyming letter (e.g.: Qasida mimiyya, Qasida ra’iyya).

SUBJECT (English and Arabic). This is usually in two or more parts, separated by a colon. The first part indicates the principle subject rubric to which the item belongs, while the second indicates the sub-field (examples: Jurisprudence: inheritance or Sufism: Tijaniyya). The search engine is sensitive to individual words no matter where they are placed in the field. Click here to view a complete list of subject headings. The subject heading system used in this catalog is the same one employed by the AMMS/West African Arabic Manuscript Database (see Project History). For more information on AMMS subject headings, see

Included in the Subjects is the Form (English and Arabic). Indicates whether the item is in prose or verse, followed, in some cases, by the specific form (e.g prose: book or verse: kasida).


  • Known as (English and Arabic). Indicates alternate spellings and versions of an author’s name.
  • Author’s nisba (English and Arabic). The form of the author’s name that refers to geographic location, kinship group, or occupation (e.g. Kawlakhi, Fudi).
  • Copied at (English only). The location where the manuscript was copied or, in the case of market (ME) or printed (PE) editions, published.
  • Composed (English only). In the Hunwick and Ghana collections, this field indicates the date of composition of a work. Many of the items in this catalog are copies — produced in West Africa — of classical works of Islamic learning. In these cases, this field is used to indicate the date when the work was originally composed. Thus it does not necessarily represent the age of the document. If the copying date is the only one available, it is indicated in the “Composed” field, preceded by “cop.”
  • Condition (English only). Indicates the general physical condition of an item. In the Paden and Falke collections, this field is also used to describe types of paper, watermarks, and even rubrication, vocalisation, and type of script.
  • Miscellaneous (English and Arabic). This field in English contains useful information, including notes on the author; description of the contents; relations to other items in the catalog; and references to standard bibliographical works (such as the Arabic Literature of Africa) that contain information on the work or author. In Arabic, this field typically contains different information from the English field such as, for example, the names of poems contained within a collection of poetry.


  • Copyist (English only). The name of the copyist, when known. For market (ME) or printed (PE) editions, this field may also contain the name of the publisher as it appears on the front or back cover.
  • Owner (English only). When the item is a copy, this field indicates who owns the original manuscript (see, for example, Hunwick 395 MSX).

CREATION DATE (English only). In the Falke and Paden collections, this field indicates the date when the manuscript was copied. For the Ghana and Hunwick collections, this information is usually found in the “Miscellaneous” field. When the copying date is the only one available, it is indicated in the “Composed” field, preceded by “cop.”

LANGUAGE (English only). In the Falke and Paden collections, this field appears only when the language is something other than Arabic (e.g. Hausa) and notations on script, when they appear, are found in the “Miscellaneous” or “Condition” fields. In the Hunwick and Ghana collections, this field indicates the language followed by the type of script (e.g. Arabic: sudani).

No standardized labels exist for the styles of Arabic script that have been used by most copyists south of the Sahara. Some of these styles (especially those of the Western Sudan: Senegal, Timbuktu, etc.), are more similar to the classical Maghribi script, and have been identified as such here. Other variants, which have been in use especially in Nigeria, and which derive from an older form of the Andalusian script (see A. D. H. Bivar, “The Arabic Calligraphy of West Africa,” African Language Review 7 [1968]: 3-15), have been identified in this website collectively as Sudani or West African. No reference has been made to their sub-variants, for which no unanimous labels exist to date. Naskhi and Sharqi are the labels used in the catalog to identify “Middle Eastern” styles of writing, modeled upon the form commonly used in modern printed Arabic books. Ajami has been used here with reference to the writing of local languages in Arabic (usually Maghribi or Sudani) script. For more on scripts, see Historical Context.

While the majority of the items are in Arabic, one can also find items in Hausa, Fulfulde, Wolof, Gonja, Dagbani, and Mamprule in the Arabic script, as well as Hausa, English, and French in the Roman script.


  • Pages (English only). Refers to the number of pages in a Market or Printed edition, or to leaves of a loose-leaved photocopied document or a manuscript. In the first case, they are identified as “pp” and in the second as folios: “ff”.
  • Dimensions (English only). Length and breadth of the item, measured in inches or centimeters.

ALA: Arabic Literature of Africa, 4 volumes, compiled by John O. Hunwick and R. Séan O’Fahey (Leiden: E.J. Brill)

GAL: Carl Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Litteraur (Leiden: E.J. Brill)

IASAR: Institute of African Studies, Arabic manuscripts collection, University of Ghana at Legon

CEDRAB: Centre de Documentation et de Recherche Ahmad Baba, Timbuktu (Mali)

Document Types:

MS: Original manuscript. Handwritten documents, including both original documents and copies of texts.

ME: Market edition. Reproductions (lithographic, photographic, xerographic, etc.) of hand-written items, bound (usually stapled) between covers with the title, the name of the author, and the sponsor of the edition (and often also a photograph of the author). Market editions represent a particular step in the transition of West African Islamic book reproduction/distribution from circles of copyists to a modern market. They developed especially in Kano during the late 1950s, to answer the need for a wider diffusion of books in the sudani style of Arabic script—a style to which people were accustomed but which was difficult to obtain in type-set editions. They were usually produced by professional copyists based in Kano and Maiduguri. Market editions were (and still are today, though to a lesser extent) sold by booksellers operating out of small stores or in market places in many parts of Islamic West Africa. The sponsor of the edition often gives away many of the copies.

PE: Printed edition. Type-set editions, usually printed at the cost of the author or one of his disciples. They have the appearance of a typical Arabic book. A few are printed in West Africa but most are printed by firms in Cairo and Beirut. These are specially done for the West African market and are rarely obtainable in the cities of their production.

MSX: Photocopy of an original manuscript.

MEX: Photocopy of a market edition.

PEX: Photocopy of a printed edition.

In 1991 the Herskovits Library received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to prepare a database catalog of its holdings in the Arabic room. John Hunwick directed the project, and Hamid Bobboyi and Muhammad S. Umar—then graduate students at Northwestern University—prepared and entered the data. Approximately 4,200 items were cataloged during this project, including all of the Paden collection, most of the Falke collection, and half of the Hunwick collection.

The cataloging system adopted for this project was based upon one developed for a similar project by Charles Stewart of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Stewart developed his Arabic Manuscript Management System (AMMS) in the late 1980s as a finding aid for a collection of Arabic manuscripts from Mauritania. The AMMS has gone through several transformations and is now available on-line as the West African Arabic Manuscript Database. This database contains over 20,000 records from seven West African collections, including the Northwestern collection (referred to there as the “Kano Collection”).

In 2005, a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to Northwestern’s Program of African Studies supported the cataloging of materials that had been added to the collection since the 1990s. Cataloging in this second phase was performed by Muhammad Sani Umar, Andrea Brigaglia, and Zachary Wright. The grant from the Mellon Foundation also supported the creation of the present website and search interface specifically for the Arabic materials held at Northwestern.

Materials from the Northwestern collection are now searchable in two places: the present website and the AMMS/West African Arabic Manuscript Database. This project would not have been possible without the cooperation of Charles Stewart at the University of Illinois and the use of the AMMS database and input system, and we acknowledge with gratitude his support and assistance. Collaboration between the two projects will continue, and any new materials added to the Northwestern collection in the future will be searchable in both the AMMS database and through the present website.


Funding for the creation of this website was generously provided by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


  • Hamid Bobboyi
  • Muhammad Sani Umar
  • Andrea Brigaglia
  • Zachary Wright

Arabic Translation:

West African Arabic Manuscript Database Project (AMMS):

  • Charles Stewart
  • Robert Duff

Northwestern University’s Program of African Studies:

  • Rebecca Shereikis, ISITA Program Coordinator

Northwestern University Library:

  • David Easterbrook, George and Mary Le Cron Foster Curator of the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies
  • Karen Miller, Monographic Cataloger/Digital Preservation Liaison
  • Stu Baker, Head, Library Management System
  • Claire Stewart, Head Digital Media Services
  • Robert Trautvetter, Systems Administrator, University Library Network Support Services

Northwestern University Information Technology Division Academic Technologies Group:

  • Bill Parod, Scholarly Technologies Architect
  • Harlan Wallach, Architect for Media Technologies
  • Jon Fernandez, Digital Media Specialist
  • Chris Wallace, Digital Media Specialist
  • Robert Taylor, Director, Academic Technologies