Soninke Ajami Manuscripts

An interview with Darya Ogorodnikova about West African manuscripts written in Arabic Script

Editor’s Note: One of the most promising, but understudied traditions of African manuscripts that include sub-Saharan African languages written in Arabic script is that of Soninke. To learn more about this, I recently addressed a number of questions to Darya Ogorodnikova who has been researching Soninke Ajami manuscripts as an Ajami Lab member since 2013. She will defend her PhD at the University of Hamburg in 2020. – CD

What are Soninke Ajami manuscripts?

By Ajami manuscripts, I mean manuscripts containing Ajami elements; that is, words and phrases in local West African languages written in Arabic script. Such writing may make up an entire text. Soninke Ajami elements in manuscripts, however, are mainly represented by annotations, written between the lines or in the margins. They typically serve to explain the phrases of primarily Arabic language texts.

What is the current state of Western academic knowledge about Soninke Ajami manuscripts?

Soninke Ajami went unnoticed by Western scholars until 2012. At that time, Nikolay Dobronravin identified a few Soninke annotated manuscripts in the collection of Trinity College, Dublin. He also flagged several other European collections of Arabic manuscripts that could potentially have similar materials. (CD: See “Online Ajami Sources and Resources” for links to a few of them)

As of this conversation, I have come across about 180 manuscripts (of different volume; from a few to several hundred pages) with Soninke Ajami annotations in public libraries in Europe, as well as private collections of West African scholars. This number, however, is only partial. More Soninke Ajami manuscripts have been identified by Djibril Dramé and Samby Khalil Magassouba as part of the project “African voices in the Islamic manuscripts from Mali” and within the British library / Boston University project (EAP 1042) led by Fallou Ngom and Eleni Castro.

Soninke Ajami manuscript written in the second half of the 20th century. Private collection of Sidiki Sakho, Kunjuru, Mali.

The quantity of Soninke Ajami material varies across the corpus of texts that I have collected: in some manuscripts, the Ajami annotations occur systematically; while in others, only occasionally. Interestingly, many Soninke Ajami manuscripts (more than 30% of my corpus) also contain an additional layer of glosses or colophons – the inscription at the end of a manuscript providing information about its production – written in other languages, such as Mandinka1.

What can Soninke Ajami manuscripts tell us about West African society and history?

Soninke Ajami manuscripts elucidate the classical Islamic education tradition. The scribes who wrote out the manuscripts sometimes mention themselves and their teachers, either in colophons or as references after Arabic and Ajami annotations. For instance, Arabic expressions, such as min fam muʿallimī ‘from the mouth of my teacher’, samiʿtuhu min shaykhinā ‘I heard it from our shaykh’ or min khaṭṭ shaykhī ‘from the handwriting of my shaykh’ are used to refer to their sources of information2. Such references uncover the context, places, and individuals who, directly or indirectly, created and used Soninke Ajami manuscripts.

A reference to the nineteenth-century Jakhanke scholar ʿUthmān Kaba after a Soninke gloss. MS.ARA.165a, Bibliothèque universitaire des langues et civilisations, Paris, France.

The analysis of the manuscripts’ content reveals which disciplines and texts were studied and constituted the scholarly curriculum3. The interlinear and marginal annotations reflect the specific methods by which students and scholars worked with texts.

In short, Soninke Ajami manuscripts are important internal witnesses of educational practices for a period from the late 18th – 20th centuries on a territory that includes parts of Mali, north-eastern and southern Senegal, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and northern and southern coastal Guinea.

What is one of the most interesting things that we have learned from Soninke Ajami manuscripts?

For me, the most interesting aspect is that these manuscripts showcase the crucial role that Soninke played as an exegetical language. Several scholars, such as Philip Curtin4, Tal Tamari5, Ousmane Moussa Diagana6, have long suggested that the transmission of Islamic knowledge among Jakhanke and Mandinka scholars was done in Soninke. The Soninke Ajami manuscripts back it up with concrete evidence.

Despite Soninke being the main language of the glosses, the manuscripts were in fact produced by the scribes of different identities and linguistic backgrounds. As mentioned earlier, a considerable part of manuscripts in my corpus, were written by non-Soninke speakers.

Furthermore, within my specific corpus of manuscripts, I was able to trace the connections between manuscripts, scribes, and their teachers, thus illuminating distinct networks of scholars. The largest group (approximately 25 manuscripts mentioning about 12 scholars) are manuscripts produced within the Jakhanke scholarly network developed around al-Ḥājj Sālim Kassama (Gassama), an eighteenth/nineteenth-century scholar of Touba (Guinea).

Another group of five manuscripts refer to 17th–19th centuries scholars from the Soninke-speaking areas in Mali, northeast Senegal, and Mauritania. Some of the scholars from this network were among the teachers of al-Ḥājj Sālim.

There are another five manuscripts, written in Mandinka-speaking southern Senegal and the Gambia, which are connected through the scholarly names mentioned in their margins. Thus far, I have not been able to identify who these individuals were.

For most manuscripts from my corpus, however, it was not yet possible to identify whether they belong to any specific scholarly network.

To what extent are these manuscripts typical for other West African languages?

The tradition of writing interlinear glosses is also known for other West African languages, such as Old Kanembu, Hausa, Fula, and Songhay. From this point of view, the Soninke Ajami tradition is not exceptional and also not the oldest. The earliest manuscript with the Soninke Ajami annotations in my corpus can be dated to the late 18th century thanks to the watermarks of the paper. In terms of comparison, the earliest Old Kanembu annotated manuscript is at least a century older – from the late 17th century.

Similar to Old Kanembu and Hausa, scribes of Soninke Ajami used the available inventory of Arabic letters and assigned some of them an additional reading, rather than creating new graphemes. For instance, the Arabic letter ʿayn represents velar nasal /ŋ/ in Soninke but can also serve as support for a vowel. The Arabic kasra can either represent /i/ or /e/ in Soninke. A few manuscripts, originating from coastal southern Guinea, however, do feature the inconsistent use of imāla (a dot below) for /e/. This hints at a correlation between choices of Arabic graphemes for representing of some non-Arabic sounds and scribes’ region of origin and linguistic background.

A peculiar feature of the Soninke Ajami manuscripts is that the scribes indicated local scholars as authors or transmitters of some Arabic and Ajami annotations. Stefan Reichmuth has observed a similar system of references to the information sources, including local scholars’ names, in manuscripts from Ilọrin, Nigeria7. However, to the best of my knowledge, there was no systematic research on such referenced annotations besides my study of Soninke Ajami manuscripts.

What is the written tradition of Soninke like today?

My fieldwork shows that even at present times, some scholars prefer to copy and annotate texts manually rather than use printed books. Thus, Soninke Ajami manuscripts may still be written as part of classical Islamic education in scholarly centres near Kayes, Mali, and in several places in the vicinity of Bakel, Senegal.

A hall for teaching sessions at the entrance to Doukouré scholarly family compound in Diawara, Senegal.

However, the geographical area in which Soninke Ajami is written is less vast than before. Many of the Soninke Ajami manuscripts presently held in European libraries, were written by the Mandinka-speaking scribes from southern Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau. Sometime in the late 19th or 20th century, the tradition of commenting on religious texts in Soninke discontinued, and the scholars now use Mandinka as their translation language.

Soninke Ajami writing does not seem to be widespread for genres outside the religious domain: literary compositions, record keeping, correspondence, etc. The only example I know of is a philosophical poem composed entirely in Soninke and written in Arabic characters by a Malian author in the second half of the 20th century. (This poem was translated and analysed by Samby Khalil Magassouba and Djibril Dramé).

Also, Soninke Ajami exists mainly in handwritten documents. I have not encountered (although I have not done any specific research) the use of Soninke Ajami on cell phones or the internet. It’s worth mentioning that the Christian missionary organization SIL has published a number of print texts in standardised Soninke Ajami orthography: an ABC-book, translations of Christian religious texts, and Soninke legendary histories.

What was your favourite part of carrying out this research?

There are several aspects of the research that make me enjoy working with Soninke Ajami manuscripts. In general, they are all linked to a sense of discovery.

It starts with the identification of a manuscript in a library (since the presence of Ajami is rarely signaled in a catalogue description) or a private collection. Next, it is finding out the information about the date and place of origin of the manuscript. The scribes usually did not write down the dates in colophons. Thus, it needs to be estimated from other evidence, such as watermarks, library acquisition dates, or the lifespans of scholars mentioned in colophons or margins. Of course, it is not possible to recover the background information for every manuscript.

Deciphering the Ajami is especially exciting. Some elements are easy to interpret, some require moments (several hours or even days!) of contemplation and analysis, and yet others remain partly or entirely incomprehensible. In general, glosses are easier to decipher since there is a clue in a form of the segment of the main Arabic text to which they relate. Colophons or healing recipes may create more difficulties for understanding. The analysis of the Ajami annotations leads to discovering the careful and meticulous work of the scholars who elaborated / created this complex system of explaining and commenting on the text.


Curtin, Philip D. (1971), ‘Pre-Colonial Trading Networks and Traders: The Diakhanké’, in Claude Meillassoux (ed.), The Development of Indigenous Trade and Markets in West Africa, London: Oxford University Press, 228–239.

Diagana, Ousmane Moussa (1995), La langue soninké: morphosyntaxe et sens à travers le parler de Kaédi (Mauritanie), Paris: Harmattan.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (forthcoming), ‘“I Heard it from my Teacher”: Reflexions on Transmission of Knowledge in Islamic Manuscripts from Senegambia and Mali’, in Stefanie Brinkmann, Giovanni Ciotti, Martin Delhey, and Stefano Valente (eds), Education Materialized: Reconstructing Teaching and Learning Contexts through Manuscripts (Studies in Manuscript Cultures), Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (2016), ‘Exploring Paratexts in Old Mande Manuscripts’, in Giovanni Ciotti and Hang Lin (eds), Tracing Manuscripts in Time and Space through Paratexts (Studies in Manuscript Cultures 7), Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 1–33.

Reichmuth, Stefan (2017), ‘A Mainfold Heritage: Glimpses of a Family Collection of Arabic Manuscripts in Ilọrin (Nigeria) and Its Transregional Links’, in Manuscript Cultures, 10: 83–100.

Tamari, Tal (2016), ‘Styles in Islamic Education: Perspectives from Mali, Guinea, and The Gambia’, in Robert Launay (ed.), Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 29–60.

  1. Ogorodnikova 2016 []
  2. A preliminary study of such referenced annotations is Ogorodnikova forthcoming. []
  3. CD: For a discussion of the potential “Core Curriculum” in West Africa, see Hall & Stewart’s 2010 piece []
  4. Curtin 1971 []
  5. Tamari 2016, 45 []
  6. Diagana 1995, 19–20 []
  7. Reichmuth 2017, 95–6 []

Author: Coleman Donaldson

Postdoc at the University of Hamburg interested in speech and literacy practices in Francophone and Manding-speaking West Africa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.