Swahili Ajami: An introduction

Today, Swahili is one of the most important languages of Africa. While it is written in Latin-script within the African Union, the language, in fact, had and continues to have a tradition of being written in Arabic script.

The Arabic script’s adoption in Swahili-speaking East Africa

With the advent of Arabic script in East Africa, the Waswahili (‘Swahili people’) developed Swahili Ajami literacy. Islamic education was the vehicle of the Arabic script’s diffusion in the region. However, we do not have a precise date for when its use began.

In East Africa, the earliest evidence of the script are inscriptions revealed through archaeological research from Shanga on the islands of Pate and Kilwa off the coast of Tanzania (coin inscriptions) and Kilwa, Tumbatu and Kizimkazi also off the coast of Tanzania (stone inscriptions, some in Kufic script style), which suggest that East African Muslim rulers used Arabic scripts as early as the ninth century1. Arabic language literacy can be dated back to the sixteenth century in the form of correspondence between local rulers of the region with the Portuguese.2

Swahili language literacy is attested as early as the sixteenth or seventeenth century in the works Liyongo and Hamziyya of Aidarusi b. Athumani.3 Like the spread of Islam and Islamic education, the use of the Arabic script propagated from the northern Swahili region (Lamu, Pate, Mombasa and, later, Zanzibar) to the coastal city-states of modern day northern Mozambique: Tungi, Quissanga, Angoche, Sancul, Mussimbi, etc.

This first occurred among regional and local elite families and later (mostly from the second half of the nineteenth century), the wider population, as evidenced by the increasing number of poetry, letter correspondence and Qur’anic texts. Since then, Swahili scholars have been working to adapt the Arabic script to the different varieties of the Swahili language. These efforts are most clear when examining the diacritics used to form Swahili’s Arabic script alphabet.

Adapting the Arabic script to Swahili phonology

The main challenge for Swahili Ajami scholars was the apparent discordance between the three vowel system of the Arabic alphabet and the five vowel phonological system of the Swahili language. For this reason, Swahili Ajami adopted in its earliest times a double sound role for two of the three Arabic vowels: the Swahili vowels /i/ and /e/ corresponded with the Arabic kasra (<ِ >); while the Swahili sounds /o/ and /u/ were both represented by the Arabic vowel damma (<ُ > ).

In nineteenth century, Swahili scribes and scholars such as Muhammad Kijuma, Mwalimu Sikujua b. Abd Allah al-Batawi and Umar b. Amin continued with a process of Swahilization of the Arabic alphabet that probably started in the previous century.4 In the twentieth century, scholars such as Yahya Ali Omar and Hajj Nur b. Muhammad Hajj Nur continued this work and attempted to create a Swahili Ajami alphabet as an orthographic standard.

MS-1: Sample from a Mombasa Swahili manuscript by Yahya Ali Omar

Among their achievements, they introduced the kasra ya kusimama (‘upright kasra’) to represent the sound /e/ as in the word mbele (‘in front’) and the damma yakupinduwa (‘overturned damma’) to represent the sound /o/ as in the word forodha (‘customs’). The same efforts were made for further sounds particular to Bantu languages and Swahili varieties but not represented in the Arabic alphabet. Some examples of these are: the nasal sounds /mb/, /nd/, /ng/; the plosive /p/; or the sound /ny/ as in the word nyama (‘meat’).

Scholars, however, did not always propose or use the same standards. The table below demonstrates the competing solutions put forth in “Chimbalazi5 Ajami alphabet” by Hajj Nur b. Muhammad Hajj Nur of Somalia (also used in MS-2) and the Swahili Ajami alphabet by Yahya Ali Omar from Mombasa (also used in MS-1).

Swahili LatinSwahili Ajami by YAOChimbalazi Ajami by HNM

Competing Standards of the Swahili Language

Beside the variations noted between the Chimbalazi Ajami and the Swahili Ajami alphabet presented in MS1 and MS2, it’s worth highlighting the dialectal variation within the Swahili linguistic societies. For instance, Kiamu, a northern dialect, predominates in classical Swahili poetry. Indeed, this form of the language figures in poems such as the one discussed further below (MS-3), which originates from over 2,000 kilometres away in Angoche in northern Mozambique.

This suggests that the Kiamu variety was an emergent standard for Swahili Ajami literature. It was subsequently challenged by the Kiunguja variety of Zanzibar, upon which European missionaries and British colonial officers based their written standard of Swahili using the Roman script.

This phenomenon created a double-oriented standardization of Swahili: one stemming from Ajami orthography and the other from Roman script orthography. However, while the Roman standard achieved some success due to its centralized and institutional dissemination, Swahili Ajami never reached a comparable level of harmonized literary practices. A view on a poem written in Angoche, northern Mozambique, may help to illustrate this point.

MS-2: Sample of the manuscript containing the Chimbalazi alphabet by Hajj Nur b. Muhammad Hajj Nur

A tenzi6 poem narrating the resistance of a Mogovola Makhuwa, ruler of the region of Angoche, against Portuguese colonial occupation between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Utenzi wa Kubula (as it is commonly titled) is written in Arabic script in Kiswahili with several loan words in Ekoti, Emakhuwa and Portuguese.

The poem also combines the two standard dialectal Swahili varieties: Kiunguja, the Zanzibari variety, which influenced the oral language of the southern Swahili region (including northern Mozambique); and Kiamu, the northern dialect standard in Swahili classical poetry.

In terms of orthography, the scribe combines standardized and unstandardized diacritic for different sounds. This approach by the Angochean scribes in general can be explained by the fact that while some Swahili Ajami diacritics can be generalized to most of the Swahili Ajami traditions, some are even more localized due dialectical variation of Swahili phonemes.

To illustrate this issue, I will compare two examples, both from the northern region of the Swahili coast (Mombasa and Barawa), with the features found in Utenzi wa Khupula.

The first example of this comes from a compilation of poems by Sheikh Mwalim Nur bin Hajj ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Barawi (c. 1882 – 1959), which were copied by the above mentioned Hajj Nur bin Muhammad Hajj Nur.

The last page of this manuscript presents a table of what is labelled the Herufu cha Chimbalazi7(‘Alphabet of Chimbalazi’).

Some of the symbols presented in the table of this Chimbalazi alphabet are equivalent to a second example: those of Mombasa (or Kimvita) popularized by Mwalim Yahya Ali Omar (1924-2008), one of the most distinguished Swahili scholars of twentieth-century Mombasa.

For instance, both the Chimwini alphabet and the Mombasa convention, use the letter <پ> (with three dots) to symbolize the sound /p/ while in the Utenzi wa Khupula the same symbol is used to represent a different sound: /ny/.8 Thus, <پ> represents two distinct phonemes. On the other hand, the letter <ڤ> is used in both literary contexts to represent the sound /v/, (however, in the case of Utenzi wa Khupula, it is sometimes replaced by the symbol <ف>); this is demonstrated in MS-3 below.

Sample of MS-3 from Utenzi wa Khupula

In addition, the Mombasa and Chimiini alphabets present different conventions for nasalized consonants.

The Chimiini convention, for instance, uses symbols such as <دۘ> and  <بۘ> for the sounds /md/ and /mb/, respectively, and <دۨ> and <غۨ> for the sounds /nd/ and /ng/, respectively.

The Mombasa convention uses the symbol <ﻤ۫ب> ,<نب > and <نغ> for the sounds /mb/, /nb/ and /ng/, respectively.

Both Mombasa and Chimiini conventions come from the northern fringe of the Swahili coast. However, while the Chimiini convention seems to be totally unknown by the northern Mozambican scribes, the Mombasa one seems familiar although it was scarcely used in the text of Utenzi wa Khupula and other local copied manuscripts.


Swahili Ajami is a living tradition with ongoing orthographic standardization efforts. The writing of Chimbalazi, like many other Swahili dialects, is a local iteration that is part of this broader regional literary culture that itself is connected to the global world of Islam.

The decentralized nature of efforts and the diversity of Swahili dialects represent the primary challenges for the creation of a standard Swahili Ajami alphabet. Swahili scholars of the last century have also struggled with the more recently arrived Roman alphabet and the standards it has imposed in both literary traditions and the public sphere.


Banafunzi, Bana and Vianello Alessandra, (2014), “Chimi:ni in Arabic: Examples from Brava poetry”, In: Meikal Mumin and Kees Versteegh (eds.), The Arabic Script in Africa: Studies in the Use of a Writing System, Leiden & Boston: Brill. Pp. 293-310.

Chittick, Neville, (1964), “Appendix 1. Report on excavations at Kisimani Mafia and Kua. Annual Report of the Antiquities Department, Tanzanian Government, Dar es Salam. 

Chittick, Neville, (1974), Kilwa: an Islamic Trading City on the East Afrcan Coast, Vol. I – History and Archaelogy, Nairobi: The British Institute in Eastern Africa (Memoir Number One).

Chittick, Neville H. & Rotberg, Robert I. (eds.), (1975), East Africa and the Orient:cultural syntheses in pre-colonial times, New York and London: Africana Publishing Company.

Knappert, Jan, (1967), Traditional Swahili Poetry: an investigation into the concepts of the East African Islam as reflected in the Tenzi literature. Leiden: E.J. Brill.

Mulokozi, M. M. and Sengo, T. S. Y., (1995), History of Kiswahili Poetry [AD 1000-2000], Dar es Salam: Institute of Kiswahili Research, University of Dar es Salam.

Mumin, Meikal and Dimmendaal, Gerrit, (2019), “A Brief Sketch of Chimiini with special focus on contact-induced phenomena”, Swahili Forum 26, pp. 89-121.

Omar, Yahya A. and Frankl, P.J.L., (1997), “An historical review of the Arabic rendering Swahili together with the proposals for the development of a Swahili system in Arabic Script (Based on the Swahili of Mombasa)”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 7, N० 1, pp. 55-71.

Pouwels, Randall L., (2000), “The East African Coast, c. 780 to 1900 C.E.”, In: Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels (eds.), The History of Islam in Africa, Athens: Ohio University Press. pp. 251-271.

Sousa, João de. [1788]. Documentos Arábicos da História Portugueza copiados dos Originais da Torre do Tombo. Lisboa: Comissão da Academia Real das Sciencias.

Werner, Alice, (1921), “Utendi wa Ayubu”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, Vol. 2, N. 1, pp. 85-115.

Cite this blog post
Chapane Mutiua (2020, October 5). Swahili Ajami: An introduction. A-label: African Languages Between the Lines. Retrieved June 14, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/awub

  1. Sousa 1788. []
  2. Chittick 1974; Chittick 1964; and Pouwels 2000: 252. []
  3. Knappert 1967:3; Mulokozi and Sengo 1995:1. []
  4. See Werner 1921 and Omar and Frankl 1997. []
  5. Chimbalazi, Chimiini or Bravanese is a variety of Swahili spoken by the inhabitants of Brava, a coastal town of Southern Somalia. See Mumin and Dimmendaal 2019; Banafunzi and Vianello 2014. []
  6. Narrative Swahili poetry. []
  7. Chimiini, Bravenese or Chimbalaze is a Swahili dialect spoken in the region of Barawa in the southern coast of Somalia. []
  8. Sometimes the letter <ي> is also used. []

Author: Chapane Mutiua

PhD candidate at CSMC, University of Hamburg and researcher at CEA, Universidade Eduardo Mondlane. Research interests: Ajami literacy in Mozambique; Swahili Ajami correspondence; Swahili Ajami literature of northern Mozambique; Swahili culture and identities in Mozambique;

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