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African Arabic Script Manuscripts

A critical part of Africa’s rich cultural heritage is the manuscript culture shared by nearly half of that continent’s population who adhere to Islam and for whom the Arabic script – used to write Arabic and African languages – connects them to a centuries’ old but still vibrant Islamic intellectual tradition. 

While much international attention over the past few decades has focused on the manuscripts of Timbuktu, it is only one site in a much larger terrain of Arabic manuscripts on the continent. Significant public and private collections of materials in Arabic, or in African languages written in Arabic script (ajami), exist throughout western, eastern, and southeastern Africa, and the Horn.

As a research institute, ISITA provides a framework where interpretive work on African Arabic script manuscripts—their contents, contexts and meanings—takes place. ISITA’s manuscript initiatives have focused primarily on making African manuscripts better known (through mapping and documentation projects) and more accessible for study (through cataloging and translation projects).

ISITA has also provided training to American scholars and librarians who use African manuscripts in their research, and support to African curators who work with African manuscripts on a daily basis. 

Below are ISITA’s major manuscript-related activities.

Arabic Literature of Africa series

ISITA sponsors the production of the Arabic Literature of Africa series—foundational reference works that provide a mapping of the Islamic intellectual tradition in Africa.

Read more about Arabic Literature of Africa.

ISITA-Berkeley-Nantes collaboration: translating and publishing African primary sources in Arabic and Ajami

A multi-year collaboration between ISITA, the University of California-Berkeley (led by Bruce Hall), and the University of Nantes (led by Bernard Salvaing), this project aims to make the contents of Arabic and Ajami manuscripts from Africa more accessible. The partners are organizing, beginning in 2019, a series of three workshops bringing together scholars who can translate and edit textual material from the African continent written in Arabic and Ajami with the goal of publishing an anthology. Brief annotations and introductions to the historical context that led to the production of the works will accompany each published text.

The first workshop took place at the University of Nantes from June 25-26, 2019 on the theme of “Le contact entre colonisteurs européens et colonisés musulmans” (Contact between European colonizers and colonized Muslims). The theme was conceived in a broad sense to include texts produced before the onset of European territorial occupation of the continent. At the workshop, an international group of scholars from Africa, Europe, and North America  workshopped their translations of texts relevant to the theme. The translated texts are currently being prepared for publication.

View the program of the Nantes conference.

Published translations of works by African Muslim writers

The following published translations are the outcome of ISITA’s Constituting Bodies of Islamic Knowledge project (2005-2011):

Mallam M. Bashir Abubakar, “Muslim Responses to British Colonialism in Northern Nigeria as Expressed in Fulfulde Poems,” Islamic Africa, 4, no. 1 (2013): 1-14.  

  • Annotated translations (Fulfulde to English) of three poems written in Fulfulde ajami in the early twentieth century. The poems express the reactions of their authors (from the Adamawa emirate located in what is now northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon) to the imposition of imperial rule in the region. 

Rudolph Ware, “In Praise of the Intercessor: Mawāhib al-Nāfiʿ fī Madāʾiḥ al-Shāfiʿ by Amadu Bamba Mbacké (1853–1927), Islamic Africa 4, no. 2 (2013): 225-248. 

  • An annotated translation (Arabic to English) of a widely recited praise poem by Amadu Bamba Mbacké, one of Senegal’s most famous Sufi shaykhs. With translation notes that expound on the significance of his poetic allusions for Murids, and an introduction that reflects on the roles of praise poetry in Islamic scholarly culture. 

Rudolph Ware, Zakary Wright, and Amir Syed, Jihad of the Pen: Sufi Scholars of Africa in Translation (Oxford University Press with the American University in Cairo Press, 2018).

  • An anthology of translated writings of Uthman b. Fudi (Nigeria), Umar Tal (Mali), Ahmad Bamba (Senegal), and Ibrahim Niasse (Senegal), founders of the largest Muslim communities in African history. Includes translations of primary Arabic sources that were the cornerstone of the Islamic revival in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, put into context of the wider trends of Islamic scholarship in the continent.

Link to the catalog of Arabic Manuscripts from West Africa at the Herskovits Library of African Studies works closely with the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University to support activities related to its important collection of Arabic-script materials from West Africa.

Learn more about this collection of over 5,000 items and search the catalog.

Training in working with African Arabic script manuscripts

In August 2017, ISITA and its partners hosted “Working with African Arabic Script Manuscripts,” a unique training workshop with dual goals of increasing Americans’ understanding of sub-Saharan Africa’s rich manuscript culture, while also supporting African curators’ efforts to preserve and make African collections accessible.

Over a week, 35 participants, including instructors, curators, and American university students, faculty, and librarians took part in lectures, hands-on sessions with Arabic and ajami manuscripts from the Herskovits Library of African Studies’ rich collection, and site visits to Chicago-area libraries.

The workshop was organized jointly by ISITA and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Center for African Studies as part of the US Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center grant in African Studies shared by UIUC and Northwestern; and the Centre for the Study of Manuscripts Cultures, University of Hamburg.

Thanks to support from the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, seven curators from African manuscript libraries in Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Zanzibar were invited to help in the instruction and share information about their collections.

Read more about the workshop.