The Revelation: The earliest known use of ʿajamī as a label

The interlinear glosses written in African languages of West Africa often have a descriptive metalinguistic marker, asserting the presence of an Ajami segment.

Our blog has the acronym A-LABEL: we deal a lot with the African languages between the lines. But why “label”? This is because the interlinear glosses written in African languages of West Africa often have a descriptive metalinguistic marker, asserting the presence of an Ajami segment. This marker is typically a graphic variation of the word ʿajamī (عجمي – the form written on our logo) or ʿajam. Another way of the metalinguistic labelling of the Ajami glosses found in the manuscripts is the Arabic phrase fī kalāminā ‘in our language’ (في كلامنا) and its variations (for the use of ʿajamī and fī kalāminā in Soninke and other Mande manuscripts see Ogorodnikova 2017: 122-125).[1]

The earliest Soninke glosses marked with the word ʿajamī are found in the manuscripts written around the early nineteenth century (Darya Ogorodnikova is exploring this question in her PhD thesis expected to see the light of day this summer).   

In Hausa Ajami writing, various stylised forms of ʿajam(ī) were frequently used (Dobronravin 2013: 91) and until last week we could date it to the first half of the nineteenth century, as in the manuscript below, where the word ʿajam (encircled) is written in unconnected letters ʿayn, jīm and mīm:  

Shurūt al-ʿilm ‘The prerequisites of knowledge’. Kano, MS.Murtala. Before (?) mid-19th century.

A week ago, Nikolay Dobronravin discovered Hausa Ajami in a dated manuscript of Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī possibly copied in 1166H/1752CE (or 1177H/1763CE, depending on interpretation of the numbers in the colophon).[2] If it is indeed mid-eighteenth century, this would make it the earliest dated Hausa glosses and also the earliest dated label ʿajamī in the Hausa texts. You can see two tokens of ʿajam at the bottom of the page:

Maqāmāt al-Ḥarīrī, BNF/Gallica ark:/12148/btv1b53151891k. Colophon: 1752 or 1763.

Moving further east, the manuscripts with Old Kanembu glosses are generally believed to lack the ʿajamī label. I myself have previously stated as much (see Dobronravin 2013: 91, with a reference to Bondarev). I was wrong.

This conviction of mine was demolished a year ago while I re-investigated the famous dated Borno Qur’an, 1080H/1669CE (Bivar 1960, Bondarev 2006a, 2014). Previously, I had never noticed any instances of the word ʿajamī. Overlooking a word or a whole sentence in this and many other manuscripts is not so shocking – an average page of this 300-folio Qu’ran requires hours and days to make sense of all connections between the main text and surrounding commentaries. In any case, while looking for an Old Kanembu word in Sūrat al-Ahqāf (Q.46), I stumbled upon this:

Qur’an. CSMC, Hamburg, MS.3ImI. Colophon: 1669.

Circled in yellow is our ʿajamī (or ʿajam) in a stylised writing, with the “tail” of the letter mīm happily wagging left rather than submissively hanging down (as in common styles of writing). And this single occurrence of ʿajamī makes it the oldest known case of labelling non-Arabic writing. I am convinced that it was written before 1669 since we know that the Old Kanembu glosses were added to the main Qur’an text first, while the voluminous Arabic commentary of al-Qurṭubī, which wraps around the main text, was done afterwards, in 1080/1669 (see Bondarev 2017: 119-122, 2019).

When I first noticed this ʿajam(ī) I did not understand the meaning of the marked word, krtsāk, and I did not make a connection between this Old Kanembu word and the Qur’anic phrase tanzīl al-kitābi ‘the revelation of the Book (the Qur’an)’. I even fell in the fallacy of chance resemblance, trying to see in the word krtsāk the Ancient Greek χᾰ́ρτης (khártēs) ‘papyrus scroll; book’.  The Greek khártēs did actually make its way into Arabic and became qirṭās to designate papyrus, parchment or paper (Gacek 2001: 114, Gacek 2009). Given the antiquity of Islam in Kanem-Borno (see a succinct overview in Bondarev 2006b), it would not be implausible that the term for ‘writing surface’ was borrowed from Arabic sometime in the early centuries of Islam. Even more so, it would make sense to look more closely at the Old Kanembu krtsāk because in the neighbouring Hausa language the word for paper is takàr̃dā and it is indeed related to the Greek khártēs: it was borrowed from Berber (t(a)– being the feminine prefix in Berber) which in turn was borrowed from Latin charta (Kossmann 2005:77), the loanword from Ancient Greek khártēs.

Well, a closer look revealed to me the revelation. Quite literally. Because Old Kanembu krtsāk is not a translation of the Qur’anic al-kitābi (of the Book) but of the deverbal noun tanzīl ‘the revelation’. This Arabic noun derives from stem II verb nazzala ‘send down; reveal’. A comparison of the same verse of the Qur’an (Q.46:2) in the other manuscripts dismantled the feintest traces of my χᾰ́ρτης fantasy. For example, the manuscript MS.Tahir.Kano clearly tells us that <alqurānka jrksāktī allah kan kaṯīkō> ‘the revelation of the Qur’an is from God’. The item marked in bold is the same deverbal noun as krtsāk in the dated Qur’an MS.3ImI. Both nouns share the same verb root sāk ‘descend’. So it turned out that to translate the Qur’anic notion of ‘sending down, revealing’, Old Kanembu uses an applicative form of the verb sāk which is irgsāk ‘to send down, bring down’. This form is then nominalised either with a prefix k– as in k-rtsākh or with a prefix nz– (written as <j>) as in j-rksāk. The range of graphemic variation of this deverbal noun is great in Old Kanembu manuscripts (the factors being both orthographic and morphological). But whatever the variation, we have the winner for the earliest non-Arabic word in West Africa marked with the label ʿajamī and this word is Old Kanembu: krtsāk ‘revelation’.

There is one unsettling question: why only this instance of the word is marked with ʿajamī? Why no other verses but for Q.46:2 have it? I have checked all occurrences of Qur’anic tanzīl in the dated MS.3ImI. Thus, in 3ImI/Q.26:192 it is krtsak, in 3ImI/39:1 ktsak, in 3ImI/ Q.41:1 kitsāk and in 3ImI/ Q.69:43 kktsak. But none is marked as ʿajamī. I also looked up in the other places of MS.3ImI where tanzīl is mentioned – nothing: no krtsākh no ʿajamī.[3]   

And while diving again into my manuscript data in search of words for ‘descend’, I still could not find any other occurrence of ʿajamī in the other manuscripts. It might well be that ʿajamī in MS.3ImI Q.46:2 is a unique instance of this term – an exception confirming the rule and validating my earlier assumption about the lack of ʿajamī in Old Kanembu manuscripts.   

As for the words ‘paper’ and ‘book’ in Old Kanembu, I’ll leave it for another post.

[1] The paper of the manuscript looks almost a century younger! Manuscripts were often copied with the previous copyists’ colophons and we need to examine the paper first in such suspicious cases. Many thanks to Darya Ogorodnikova for having raised this question.

[2] Our Ajami Lab team is preparing a post on various types of such “labels” across West African manuscripts.

[3] These verses are as follows: MS.3ImI/Q.20:4, 32:2, 36:5, 40:1, 41:42, 45:2, and 56:80.


Bivar, Adrian David H. (1960): “A Dated Kuran from Borno”. In: Nigeria Magazin, 65: 199–205.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2006a): “The language of the glosses in the Bornu Qur’anic manuscripts”. In: Bulletin of SOAS 69, 1, 113-140.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2006b): “An archaic form of Kanuri/Kanembu: a translation tool for Qur’anic studies”. In: Journal of Qur’anic Studies 8, 2, 142-154.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2014): “Multiglossia in West African Manuscripts: A Case of Borno, Nigeria”. In: Jörg B. Quenzer, Dmitry Bondarev and Jan-Ulrich Sobisch (eds): Manuscript Cultures: Mapping the Field. (Studies in Manuscript Cultures, 1). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 113–155.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2017): “Islamic Education and Ample Space Layout in West African Manuscripts”. In: Andrea Brigaglia and Mauro Nobili (eds): The Arts and Crafts of Literacy: Manuscript Cultures in Muslim sub-Saharan Africa (Studies in Manuscript Cultures, 12). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. 105–142.

Bondarev, Dmitry (2019): “Tafsīr Sources in Four Annotated Qur’anic Manuscripts from Ancient Borno”. In: in Zulfikar Hirji (ed.), Approaches to the Qur’an in Sub-Saharan Africa. Oxford/London: OUP & IIS.

Dobronravin, Nikolay (2013): “‘Classical Hausa’ Glosses in a Nineteenth-Century Qur’anic Manuscripts: A Case of ‘Translational Reading’ in Sudanic Africa? In: Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 15, 3, 84-122.

Gacek, Adam (2001): The Arabic Manuscript Tradition. A Glossary of Technical Terms and Bibliography (Handbook of Oriental Studies, 58). Leiden, Boston, Cologne: Brill.

Gacek, Adam (2009): Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers. Leiden: Brill.

Kossmann, Maarten (2005): Berber Loanwords in Hausa (Berber Studies, vol. 12). Köln: Rüdiger Köppe.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (2017): “ʿAjamī Annotations in Multilingual Manuscripts from Mande Speaking Areas: Visual and Linguistic Features”. In: Islamic Africa, 8, 111–143.

If you would like to cite the source:  Dmitry Bondarev (2019, April 1). The Revelation: The earliest known use of ʿajamī as a label.

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