Learning about West African Ajami

The study of Ajami texts, those using the Arabic script and various modifications and extensions of it to represent languages other than Arabic, including many West African languages, is becoming well established with the emergence of several robust projects that are deeply interconnected.

One early digital collection founded in 2005 at Michigan State University, the Diversity and Tolerance in the Islam of West Africa project, involved many collaborators and has as its focus the countries of Senegal and Ghana.  There are at least ten Ajami manuscripts hosted that are findable from here.  The project, supported by the US Department of Education’s TICFIA (Technological Innovation and Cooperation for Foreign Information Access) program lasted until 2010, and still provides a good amount of contextual information about Islam and society in West Africa.  It is my understanding that a new website for the Africa Online Digital Library, which has been hosting the project, is being actively developed.

ishidaAjami (2)

Fig. 1.  A screenshot of a web-based application developed by Richard Ishida for the input of Ajami.

In 2009, the ASK-DL (Africa’s Sources of Knowledge Digital Library) project was initiated at Harvard University by Dr. John Mugane, also with support from the TICFIA program.  There are dozens of Ajami manuscripts found at this site, in languages ranging from Bamanankan to Pulaar to Wolof, alongside texts in other African scripts.

One of the participants in both of the above projects, Dr. Fallou Ngom, founded the African Ajami Library at Boston University in the summer of 2011, with the cooperation of the West African Research Center (WARC) and with initial funding from the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP).  The EAP1042 collection, covering texts in Arabic, Soninke, Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof, is directly related to this project.  The British Library also funded a project that is indirectly related, EAP535, that covers Hausa texts.  Ngom’s research into Ajami texts has yielded, importantly, an award-winning monograph, Muslims beyond the Arab world : the odyssey of ʻAjamī and the Murīdiyya (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Malian manuscripts from Timbuktu are being analyzed in South Africa through the University of Cape Town, in Germany through Hamburg’s Ajami Lab at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures, in the US through the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML), and in Mali proper through the non-profit SAVAMA-DCI (l’Association de Sauvegarde des Manuscrits et la Défense de la Culture Islamique).  The HMML effort is funded in part through EAP, which is also backing research into the manuscripts of Djenné.  Researchers of Ajami have also been active at Northwestern University, the University of Illinois, the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University, among other sites.

Coleman Donaldson, one of the researchers at Hamburg, just published a very informative article exploring linkages between Ajami and N’ko that may be found here.

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