Ajami primary manuscripts (Type 1)

Ajami documents that are exclusively or predominantly in an African language.

This is the second post in a series on types of Ajami. Read the initial introduction here and find all of the posts here.

“Ajami primary” refers to manuscripts that are predominantly or exclusively written in an African language. They are the best studied and until 2010s they were the only focus of Ajami research.

Single Ajami texts can roughly be subdivided into three subtypes: poetry, history and correspondence.

Subtype 1a – Poetry

These are poems composed by famous Islamic scholars, such as ‘Abd Allāh b. Fodiye (1764/5-1829), Nana Asmā’u (1793/4-1864) (both writing in Fulfulde and Hausa), Muhammadu Samba Mombeya (1755-1852) (Fulfulde), Man Shinkafa (1800-1894) (Nupe) or by ‘learned’ griots, such as farba of Fuuta Jalon or Baa Hamma (or Maabal) of Bandiagara (late 19th century) and copied from autographs or written down from oral tradition (see inter alia: Hiskett 1975, Boyd & Mack 1997 and Dobronravin 2004 on Hausa, Muhammadu 1963, Sow 1971, Haafkens 1985, Salvaing & Hunwick 2003 and Seydou 2008 on Fulfulde, Ndagi 2011 on Nupe).

Spanning various genres – didactic and praise verse, elegies and eulogies – these poems often serve pedagogical ends to transmit basic elements of Islamic knowledge. They are typically written in a distinct linguistic register and thus are of special interest for research into register variation. Specialised poetic registers often disappear.

For example, Roger Blench (2010) observes that Ajami poems in Nupe are “highly specialised sub-genre and has almost disappeared today, along with the use of Ajami script among the Nupe”. A good example of how a specialised register may survive in manuscripts but escape the attention of scholars is the Nupe poem Miya ‘I begin’ on Muslim conduct and customs composed by Abdullahi b. Ibrahim Man Shinkafa (1800-1894).

Miya mire jin yebo nya tsu na jin yi na
Soko wacin a zankpe ya zana kpau ye na
Jama jati kaye tsu na yi kagboci na
Alhamdu yebo rejin o ya tsoici yi na jii na
Assalatu yeshi be yii yagi Amina nau mana

I begin with gratitude to the Lord, our Creator;
Allah is Exalted and Mighty for one that reflects
(He) causes laughter and cry, an attribute of The Powerful Lord
Thanks be to the Lord who created us…

(Ndagi 2011: 28)

Two manuscript copies of the poem shown below are very similar in text and orthography (although very different in layout).

Banfield & Macintyre (1915) who published the beginning of the manuscripts, transcribed the text correcting archaic and register-specific features. Thus, the aspect marker re in mire (marked in purple) was changed to a modern Nupe aspect marker e which resulted in change of meaning. This is shown below:

Subtype 1b – Historical texts

In addition to their face value as records of local history and customs, such manuscripts are good sources for proper names: places, peoples, ethnic groups, learned lineages, etc.

A few examples of Ajami “historical” texts

Special attention should be paid to different spelling subsystems. For example, in Borno gargams, the word <kargō> ‘he lived’ is written identically across all gargams but the place name  Gazargamu – the most famous city in Borno history – is written differently in four gargams: MS. H/279: <gasarkmu>, MS. H/280: <gazarkmu>, MS. H/281: <gazarkumu>, and MS. H/282: <qasargmu> (Bondarev 2014).

Subtype 1c – Correspondence

This subtype is poorly studied despite frequent allusions to Ajami being used in personal letters (See for example Mumin and Versteegh 2014 and chapters therein by Meikal Mumin, Maarten Kossmann and Ramada Elghamis, Valentin Vydrin, Andy Warren-Rothlin, Xavier Luffin, Kees Versteegh).

In some areas of sub-Saharan Africa, writing personal letters in Ajami was a common practice (Ngom 2010 on letters in Wolofal, Ngom et al. 2018 in Mandinka). In other areas, correspondence in Ajami was rather an exception from a more common practice of writing letters in Arabic (Dobronravin 2004).

An example of Ajami correspondence
Letter in Hausa written in the name of Oliver Howard (and signed by him in English). Archives of Arewa Hausa, Kaduna.

One such exceptional case are letters in Hausa written in the early 20th in century Bauchi (Northeast Nigeria). The letters were issued by the British colonial office, namely by Oliver Howard, the Resident of Bauchi (i.e. Head of colonial office) and were addressed to the emir of Gombe. The emirs of Bauchi also wrote to the colonial residents in Hausa at that time (I hope to write a blog post on such a letter sometime soon, if I obtain permission to reproduce it).

This is the second post in a series on types of Ajami. Read the initial introduction here and find all of the posts here.

Cite this article as: Dmitry Bondarev, "Ajami primary manuscripts (Type 1)," in A-label: African Languages Between the Lines, 2019-09-04, https://ajami.hypotheses.org/774.


Banfield, A. W., and  John L. Macintyre (1915), A grammar of the Nupe language: together with a vocabulary. London: Society for promoting Christian knowledge , frontispiece and p. 123.

Blench, Roger (2010), Oral literature genres of the Nupe of Central Nigeria, http://www.rogerblench.info/Language/Niger-Congo/VN/Nupoid/Nupe%20oral%20literature%20genres.pdf

Boyd, Jean & Beverly B. Mack (1997), Collected works of Nana Asma’u, daughter of Usman ‘dan Fodiyo. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Dobronravin, Nikolay (2004), ‘Hausa Ajami literature and script: colonial innovation and post-colonial myths in Northern Nigeria’, Sudanic Africa, 15, 55-69.

Haafkens, Johannes (1983), Chants musulmans en peul : textes de l’héritage religieux de la communauté musulmane de Marua, Cameroun. Leyde: Brill.

Hiskett, Mervyn (1975), A history of Hausa Islamic verse. London: SOAS.

Mumin, Meikal and Kees Versteegh (eds) (2014): The Arabic script in Africa: studies in the use of a writing system (Studies in Semitic languages and linguistics). Leiden / Boston: Brill.

Muhammadu, Eldridge (1963), ‘Introduction à la littérature peule du Nord-Cameroun’, Abbia, 3, 66-72.

Ndagi, Muhammad Umaru (2011), ‘A Thematic Exposition  of the Nupe  Ajami Manuscript Heritage  of Northern Nigeria’, in  Islamic Africa  2, 1, p. 11-33.

Ngom, Fallou (2010), ‘Ajami script in the Senegalese speech community’, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 10, 1-23.

Ngom, Fallou, Castro, Eleni, & Diakité, Ablaye. (2018), African Ajami Library: EAP 1042. Digital Preservation of Mandinka Ajami Materials of Casamance, Senegal. Boston: Boston University Libraries: http://hdl.handle.net/2144/27112

Salvaing, Bernard and John Hunwick (2003), ‘Writers of Guinea, in John Hunwick, Arabic Literature of Africa: Volume IV, The Writings of Western Sudanic Africa, Leiden: Brill, 491-529.

Seydou, Christiane (2008) (ed.), La poésie mystique peule du Mali: Introduction bilingue français-anglais, édition bilingue peul-français des poèmes. Paris : Karthala.

Sow, Alfâ Ibrâhîm (ed.) (1971), Le Filon du bonheur éternel, par Tierno Mouhammadou-Samba Mombéyâ. Paris: Armand Colin.

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