Types of African Ajami

Welcome to a series of posts, exploring types of African Ajami manuscripts

This is the first post in a mini-series on types of Ajami manuscripts. See all the posts here.

What forms do “Ajami manuscripts” actually take?

This post, the first of a mini-series, seeks to answer this question by giving a general description of Ajami types along with some hints as to how they change across time. Subsequent posts will be more in-depth looks at each individual type with specific examples and discussions of their relevance for research.

The work behind this post and those to follow has long been brewing at the Ajami Lab. In this regard, a special thank is due to Darya Ogorodnikova for lively discussions and insightful ideas over the last few years. Coleman Donaldson helped in editing the text and shaping it into a nice blog format.

A Typology of Ajami Manuscripts

Assume that you have found two manuscripts: one written entirely in Ajami and the other with Ajami words or phrases alongside the Arabic. Assume also that you have identified the language in both manuscripts. What’s next?

First thing to do is to establish what kind of Ajami manuscript it represents. To do so, we draw on a typology with 5 different “types of Ajami” (hence, the “5A Typology”). The image below shows them in snapshot:

The 5A Typology for identifying Ajami Manuscript Types

The typology is organised according to the relationship between (a) Ajami, (b) Arabic and (c) layout and is made up of 5 distinct types :

  • 1) Ajami primary manuscripts;
  • 2) Intralinear Ajami (Ajami phrases following Arabic phrases on the same line);
  • 3) Interlinear Ajami (Ajami written between the lines);
  • 4) Occasional Ajami in densely written Arabic texts; and
  • 5) Ajami in healing and esoteric manuscripts.

Each of these types exhibits individual historical dynamics in terms of change and function that call for different methods of study.

Type 1 – Ajami Primary

Ajami primary manuscripts are the best studied and until 2010s they were the only focus of Ajami research. Such texts can roughly be subdivided into three subtypes: poetry, history and correspondence.

Type 1A – Poetic Texts

Type 1a is made up of poetic texts. They become more prominent and widespread towards the middle of the 20th century when manuscripts were increasingly disseminated in facsimile form. Due to its prominence in a more recent history of Islam in West Africa (i.e. during the last 200 years), poetry in Ajami is much better studied than the other two subtypes of single Ajami manuscripts. (See for example Brigaglia 2013/2014 on spread of literacy and Hausa verse in Nigeria stimulated by Sufi revival, or Hassane 2009 on religious poetry in Songay-Zarma in Niger, Salvaing and Hunwick 2003 on Fulfulde in Guinea and Ngom 2016 on Wolof in Senegal).

Type 1B – Historical Texts

Type 1b is represented by various historical texts. They range from narratives about the history of towns and polities to simple lists of rulers or scholarly lineages (Schaffer 1975, Giesing & Vydrin 2007, Wilks 2011, Bondarev 2014). Unlike religious poetry, historical manuscripts are not numerous. They usually represent discontinued practice of recording collective memories which may nevertheless continue in the oral tradition. Occasional copies of such manuscripts made in the 20th century do exist but the rationale for creating them is not always clear.

Type 1C – Personal Correspondence

Type 1c is personal correspondence in Ajami. Such manuscripts have been reported by many scholars but analysis of concrete examples is almost non-existent.

Type 2 – Intralinear Ajami

Intralinear Ajami—that is Ajami phrases following Arabic phrases on the same line—is very restricted type of text (only few have been identified to date: the majority of Type 2 manuscripts being a short theological treatise Um al-Barāhīn (al-ʿAqida al-Sughra by al-Sanūsī) and it seems to be stable for the last two centuries, disseminated only in manuscript form.

There is no specific research into this type of Ajami as of yet. 

Type 3 – Systematic Interlinear Ajami Glosses

The annotations in vernacular are written in fixed specialist registers cutting across regions and ethno-linguistic groups. In the Soninke data from wider Senegambia and Mali, it is a variety of Soninke which has almost uniform grammatical structures across different manuscripts. In the Old Kanembu manuscripts from the Lake Chad region where the Kanuri and Kanembu languages are spoken, it is an archaic variety related to Kanuri and Kanembu, but unintelligible to the modern speakers of these languages.

Type 3 has been at the core of our research on Ajami manuscripts with wide space between the lines. It seems to be stable in Senegambia/Mali manuscripts in terms of layout. In the 20th century, however, Type 3 starts appearing in facsimile form and in southwest Senegal the language configuration changes: from Soninke to Mandinka (Ogorodnikova 2016). The layout of the Old Kanembu manuscripts pushes this type to its most extreme; some manuscripts have only one line of the main text—the remaining space being taken by annotations (Bondarev 2017). Many such manuscripts move to facsimile reproduction in the 20th century. However, the most dramatic change is observed in the Borno Qur’an manuscripts with Old Kanembu annotation: this type of Qur’an disappeared by the mid-19th century.

Type 4 – Occasional Ajami

Occasional Ajami (mostly in the margins of densely written Arabic texts) varies relative to specific parameters, such as (a) time (more recent manuscripts have less Ajami), (b) domain of study (tafsīr manuscripts may have less Ajami annotations than the fiqh ones which deal with conduct and legal issues), and (c) region (more occasional glosses in Soninke than in Old Kanembu). However, the lack of any systematic research renders these observations very tentative.

Type 5 – Healing, Talismanic and Esoteric Ajami

Such Ajami manuscripts differ from the previous three in that the Ajami is not used for translation of Arabic. This type represents healing, talismanic and esoteric practices. These manuscripts are diglossic: Arabic has the agentive function towards the recipient of the amulet whereas the vernacular provides metadata about the uses and benefits of the amulet.

There seems to be specific distribution of local languages in such manuscripts. In the Senegambia and Mali, it is mostly Mandinka and other Manding languages rather than Soninke; in Nigeria, it is mostly Hausa, rather than Old Kanembu or Kanuri.

This type is most numerous in terms of individual manuscript items, currently estimated at more than a hundred thousand in Mali only (SaMaT 2018). Although the popularity of talismanic manuscripts has been reported in literature (Levtzion 1965, Goody 1968, Hamès 1997, 2007 inter alia), the function of Ajami content in these manuscripts has rarely been studied (rare exceptions are Hamès 1987, Dobronravin 2005, Donaldson 2013, Vydrin & Dumestre 2014).

We will explore each of the types in subsequent series posts which can all be viewed here.

Cite this article as: Dmitry Bondarev, "Types of African Ajami," in A-label: African Languages Between the Lines, 2019-09-03, https://ajami.hypotheses.org/753.


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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.

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Wilks, Ivor (2011), ‘Al-Hajj Salim Suware and the Suwarians: a search for sources’, Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series, 13, 1-79.

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