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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 Collections

The ‘Umar Falke Collection consists of 3323 items, approximately 90% of which are original manuscripts, while 10% are market or printed editions. Most of these documents were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries.

This collection represents the intact library of a Kano trader who was also a local scholar and author—‘Umar Falke [b.] Abi Bakr (d. 1962). Malam ‘Umar Falke is a prototypical example of the Hausa scholar-trader--a learned man who dedicated his life to the pursuit and dissemination of Islamic knowledge. Malam ‘Umar Falke was affiliated to the Tijâniyya tariqa (Sufi order), and was among the first group of Nigerian scholars to accept the leadership of the Senegalese Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975), thereby starting the “Fayda Tijâniyya” in Nigeria. Falke’s library is composed of poems, journals, and religious works that he authored, those handed down to him by his ancestors, and the religious works that he acquired from others in the course of his travels. Upon Falke’s death in 1962 his library was distributed among his heirs, but in 1970 Northwestern University Professor John Paden was able to reassemble much of it and purchase it on behalf of Northwestern University.

The collection contains books and manuscripts on all aspects of Islamic learning, protective medicine, and the secret arts (asrar). It is strong in works on Sufism and in almost all the branches of Islamic sciences, especially Maliki law, jurisprudence, Prophetic traditions (hadith), theology, literature, and grammar and contains a number of fine examples of handwritten copies of the Qur’an that may have been used by Umar’s students. The library also includes earlier works written by West African jihad leaders and many other notable malams (learned men). A special area of the Falke collection is in the field of protective and secret medicine. Falke was a noted healer who wrote several books on the subject.

The Falke collection has been the subject of a doctoral dissertation. See Mohammed Abdullahi, “A Hausa scholar-trader and his library collection: The case study of Umar Falke of Kano” (Northwestern University, 1978).

Language: The majority of the items are in Arabic, but approximately one fourth are in Hausa written in the Arabic script (ajami).

Authorship: 40% Nigerian authors; 60 % authors from others areas of the Muslim world, mainly North Africa and Egypt.

The John Paden Collection contains 606 items, approximately 60% of which are original manuscripts, while the remainder are market or printed editions. Most of these documents were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. They were acquired by Northwestern University Professor John Paden during the course of his research in Nigeria in the 1960s and donated to the library.

Approximately 40 % of the collection consists of copies--made in Nigeria--of works from classical Muslim/Arabic literature. Some are handwritten copies while others are printed editions. Subject matters include basic jurisprudential treatises, classical commentaries on these works, and printed versions of the better-known diwans of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. The calligraphy (some of it ornamental), marginal comments and colophons by West African copyists are of interest.

The remaining 60 % of the collection contains works written by Nigerian authors, predominantly market or printed editions. Subject matters covered include poetry (especially of the madh genre, in praise of the Prophet, of Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani, or of Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse), Arabic grammar, history, theology, jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, Prophetic Tradition (hadith), biographies of local scholars, and Sufism. This last category predominates and the collection is particularly rich in works by Kano authors of the Tijâniyya tariqa and by the great Senegalese propagator of the Tijâniyya, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse. There are also over 30 copies of works by the great early 19th century Sokoto writers—Shaykh ‘Uthman b. Fudi (Dan Fodio), his brother ‘Abd Allah, and his son Muhammad Bello.

The Paden collection has been the subject of an article by E.N. Saad, “The Paden Collection of Arabic Materials from Kano,” History in Africa 7 (1980): 369-72.

Language: Predominantly Arabic, with some items in Hausa, including a collection of Hausa poetry (items 425-468).

Authorship: 60 % works by Nigerian authors; 40 % authors from others areas of the Muslim world, mainly North Africa and Egypt.

The John Hunwick Collection contains 569 items, the majority of which are market and printed editions and photocopies of original manuscripts. Most items were produced in the 20th century, although some of the photocopies are of older items. Northwestern Professor John Hunwick and his students purchased these materials during research trips and donated them to the library.

Market editions of Arabic texts written by Nigerian authors make up a significant portion of this collection. The writings of Shaykh ‘Uthman b. Fudi, his brother ‘Abd Allah and his son Muhammad Bello are well represented as are the works of the noted contemporary Sokoto historian, the wazir Junayd. Another of the collection’s strengths is printed works and market editions by major Sufi scholars of Senegal, including most of the works (devotional poetry and prayers) of Ahmadu Bamba.

Items 535-545 of this collection are parts of a tome purchased by John Hunwick in Rabat in 1990 and containing works by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti and other Moroccan authors, some yet to be identified. Most notably, it also contains a copy of famous Timbuktu jurist Ahmad Baba’s Ghayat al-amal fi tafdil al-niyya ‘ala al-‘amal (“The highest hope, on preferring intention to action”) (item 541). Only two other copies are known to exist (one in Morocco and one in Tunisia). This copy may be the original dictated by the author to one of his Moroccan students in 1595.

Language: The majority of the items are in Arabic, while some are in Hausa, Wolof, Fulfulde, French, and English.

Authorship: Approximately 70% Nigerian authors, with 30% by other authors, including Senegalese and North Africans.

The University of Ghana Collection contains 485 items, all of which are photocopies of original manuscripts. Most of these documents were produced between the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

In the 1960s the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana (IASAR) established a project of Islamic manuscript collection, directed by Professor Ivor Wilks. The Institute borrowed manuscripts from Muslim scholars, made multiple photocopies, and returned the original to the owners. Permission was given to anyone who wished to purchase copies of the manuscripts. Professor Wilks, an expert in Ghanain history and Islam, obtained copies of 485 items. Wilks later became a professor of history at Northwestern. When he retired in 1993 he donated the entire collection to the Herskovits Library. Cross-references to the cataloging numbers from the IASAR collection are included in the “Miscellaneous” field.

Nearly half of the works are on religious disciplines (jurisprudence, Sufism, ethics, theology) and literature (poetry: eulogy, elegy, satire). Another half is made up of chronicles, lists of kings and imams, and letters, all being sources for the history of Northern Ghana.

Language: Arabic, often with Hausa glosses, especially in the case of classical Arabic poems. Some items are in Hausa. Individual items are found in Gonja, Dagbani, a poem in Mamprule in praise of Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani, and some other unidentified languages of Northern Ghana. All items are in Arabic script.

Authorship: Mainly Ghanaian authors of the twentieth century such as al-Hajj ‘Umar of Kete-Krachi and members of the Bamba and Saghanugu families. It also includes many anonymous historical documents. Copies of works by Nigerian authors such as ‘Uthman dan Fodio and ‘Abd Allah dan Fodio are also included, as well as some by Malian authors, together with major classics by North African authors (Abu Madyan, Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Abu Zayd al-Qayrawani).

The Mervyn Hiskett Collection: Consists of approximately 100 items representing the personal collection of the late Dr. Mervyn Hiskett (1920-1994), who taught at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Hiskett was a pioneering scholar of the Hausa literary tradition in Northern Nigeria, with a special interest in ajami literature (Hausa written in Arabic script). During his career he collected various documents and materials related to the history and culture of Islam in West Africa, and northern Nigeria in particular. The collection contains Hiskett's personal books, theses by Nigerian scholars that he supervised, photocopies of manuscripts, and market editions and printed editions of writings of Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Senegalese authors focusing on religious and historical issues. The latter are mostly in Arabic, although some are in Hausa (in both Roman script and ajami), and contain notations by Hiskett.

Moroccan Manuscripts: 12 handwritten manuscripts from Morocco, including volumes of hadith and fiqh works, some dating from the eighteenth century.

Brenner Photocopies: 20 photocopies of Arabic books by Malian and Senegalese authors, published in the 20th century. They were obtained from the personal library of Louis Brenner of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. They treat Islamic matters such as interpretation of the Qur’an, Sufism, and law.

John Rylands Library Collection: John Hunwick obtained from the University of Manchester (U.K.) John Rylands Library a microfilm of a collection of Arabic manuscripts (books and documents), originating from Kano in northern Nigeria. The microfilm of these 200 items was then printed and donated to the Herskovits Library's Arabic collection.