Healing and Esoteric Ajami (Type 5)

Manuscripts rich in ethnobotanical and ethnomedical data

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

Unlike the previous three types of Ajami (Type 2 – Type 4), the Ajami in such manuscripts is not used for translation of Arabic, but rather has its distinctive function of providing metadata about the uses and benefits of the texts written in Arabic. The predominant subject matter in this type is esoteric protection and healing.

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 therein has hardly been studied (rare exceptions are Hamès 1987, Dobronravin 2005, Donaldson 2013, Vydrin & Dumestre 2014).

Type 5 Ajami is probably as numerous as Type 4 Ajami (occasional glosses). Our team in Mali has already identified languages in hundreds of manuscripts out of thousands of medicinal and talismanic documents in the libraries of Timbuktu. Compared to Type 4 however, it is easier to find Ajami in such manuscripts. They usually consist of just one or two folios (leaves) and their esoteric nature is inferable from visual characteristics, such as magic squares, long strings of letters conveying numerical values, and conspicuous shape of some words. This can be seen in the image below with examples of talismanic manuscripts analysed by Darya Ogorodnikova (2014).

Examples of manuscripts produced by the Mandinka-speaking esoteric specialists.

Medicinal and talismanic manuscripts are rich in socio-economic realities. For example, amulets with Bozo words and phrases are related to the social and occupational status of the ethnic group as professional fishermen. Thus, many Ajami texts from the Bozo area contain protective formulae against large fish or water animals, such as hippos (‘binding hippo’s mouth’ is one such formula). The Ajami terms are usually used for describing the names of plants, animals, ingredients of medicinal potions and terms of diseases. As such, Ajami Type 5 is a good source for ethnobotanical and ethnomedical research.

But why do the esoteric branches of Islamic knowledge expressed in amulets and healing manuscripts require the use of African languages alongside the Arabic? One possible answer is that Arabic and vernacular serve for different functional domains, as in a typical diglossic situation. Arabic has an agentive function towards the recipient of the amulet whereas the vernacular serves for instructions (e.g., how to use a healing amulet), labelling (e.g. the purpose of the amulet) and production manuals (e.g., how to produce an amulet to achieve the intended results).  

When knowledge of Arabic is insufficient by the scribe, he switches to familiar terms in the language he knows best, the process resembling code-switching in speech.

This is the sixth and final post in a series on types of Ajami. In future posts we will further elaborate on each of the type presented here.

Read the initial introduction here and find all of the posts here.


Dobronravin, Nikolay (2005), ‘Fula-Hausa-Arabic medicinal manuscript (fa’ida khakia shrub al-sana’)’ (from the collection of the Oriental Institute, St Petersburg, Russian Academy of Science), Pis’mennye pam’atniki Vostoka, 1(2), 35-42. (in Russian)

Donaldson, Coleman (2013), ‘Jula Ajami in Burkina Faso: A Grassroots Literacy in the Former Kong Empire’, Working Papers in Educational Linguistics, 28/2, 19–36.

Goody, Jack (ed.) (1968), Literacy in Traditional Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hamès, Constant (1987), ‘Taktub ou la magie de l’écriture islamique. Textes soninké à usage magique’, Arabica, 34, 305-325.

Hamès, Constant (1997), L’art talismanique en Islam d’Afrique Occidental. Personnes, supports, procédés, transmission. Analyse anthropologique et islamologique d’un corpus de talismans à écritures. Thèse de doctorat, Paris, École Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Ve sections, Sciences religieuses.

Hamès, Constant (ed.) (2007), Coran et talismans: textes a pratiques magiques en milieu musulman. Paris: Karthala.

Ogorodnikova, Darya (2014), ‘L’attestation écrite des langues Mandé dans les manuscrits  arabes ouest-africains’, 4ème Colloque International de Langues et Linguistique Mandé, Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso, 15-17 September 2014.

Vydrin, Valentin & Gérard Dumestre (2014), ‘Manding Ajami samples: Mandinka and Bamana’, in: Mumin and Versteegh (2004), 225-260.

Cite this blog post
Dmitry Bondarev (2019, October 1). Healing and Esoteric Ajami (Type 5). A-label: African Languages Between the Lines. Retrieved June 15, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/awu7

One thought on “Healing and Esoteric Ajami (Type 5)”

  1. It is quite intriguing that African literacy in Ajami has convincingly established the historicity of literacy in Africa and indeed a viable source of knowledge from and about Africa. It is worthy of greater attention and investigation in modern scholarship

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