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African Languages and Literatures

[This entry contains two subentries:

East Africa

Islam was brought to the peoples of eastern Africa mainly by settlers who arrived either by land, traveling up the Nile, or by sea, crossing the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. Since the conquest of Egypt (641 CE), the cultures of many East African peoples have become entirely Islamic. Some nations, such as Ethiopia, were only partially Islamized because Islam became dominant only in part of their territory, or only in the cities. But most African ethnic groups have been Islamized wholly, or not at all. This demonstrates that individual conversions to Islam were rare. Most conversions of an ethnic group probably took place after the king or chief was converted to Islam. Some powers of the time, such as the Nubian kingdom during the Middle Ages, were fragmented under the impact of Islam; others, such as the Nilotic peoples, have resisted Islam throughout history. Unlike the Nubians, most African peoples retained their cultural identity and individuality after Islamization; for example, the Somali and the Swahili, though neighbors and both adherents of the Shāfiʿī school of jurisprudence, are very different in culture and cosmology. The Swahili of East Africa have the most venerable Islamic traditions in sub-Saharan Africa. By 1500, Islam had become central to Swahili society and culture.


The Islamized peoples of East Africa (from north to south) speak the following major languages.


Nubian was the literary language of the Nubian kingdom, which survived until around 1400 CE Manuscripts in Coptic script on Christian subjects are still being discovered. At present the Nubians are Muslim, but no Islamic literature is known to have been composed in Nubian; the scribes write in Arabic.


Bedawiye or Beja is a Cushitic language spoken on the Red Sea coast of Sudan. The Beja were Islamized well before the Nubians, but they are not known to have developed a literary language.

The languages of the eastern Sahara, Teda (Tubu), Zaghawa, Masalit, and Tama-Mararit, are only spoken languages. Their speakers use Arabic for all literary purposes.

In the northern three-quarters of Eritrea Tigré is spoken. It is a Semitic language with no significant tradition of writing in either Arabic or Ethiopic script. Afar, spoken in the triangle between the Red Sea, the Awash River, and the escarpment of the Ethiopian High Plateau, also lacks a written tradition in either script.

Bantu languages.

A number of Bantu languages are spoken south of the Equator by populations that include some Muslims. A few Muslim tracts have appeared in Kituba, spoken in Brazzaville. Kingwana is spoken by the Congolese Muslims in Kivu, Shaba, and Kisangani provinces, who write literary Swahili. Yao is spoken in northern Mozambique, extending into Tanzania and Malawi; for literary purposes Swahili is used. Nyanja, the chief language of Malawi, is written by Christians and Muslims using roman script. In Shona, the chief language of Zimbabwe, a life of Muḥammad has been published in roman script by the Zimbabwe Islamic Youth Council.

At least two dialects of the Malagasy language of Madagascar were used for works written in Arabic script before the beginning of the twentieth century. Today the orthography of Merina, the dialect of the capital Antananarivo and surrounding districts, is so well established that all writers, Christian and Muslim, use it.

The Bantu language of Makua is spoken in northern Mozambique along the coast near the Tanzanian border. The Makua have been Islamized for several centuries. A few manuscripts in Makua in Arabic script are known to exist. The so-called Zanzibaris, the Muslims of Natal, numbering about five thousand, speak Makua among themselves.


The contents of Islamic literatures of eastern Africa are fairly similar in Ethiopia and Somalia as well as along the Swahili coast. The prose works comprise chronicles and other history texts, such as biographies of the Prophet Muḥammad, the Biblical prophets, ʿAlī, Ḥusayn, and Ṣūfī saints; there are also works on fiqh, sharīʿah, tawḥīd, and astrology.

As in all Islamic literatures, East African poetry is a well-developed art. Verse translations of Arabic poems have been made in many languages; for example, the Burdah of al-Buṣīrī is popular in both Fulani and Swahili. In Swahili, there are half a dozen poetic versions of the mirʿāj, Muḥammad's journey to heaven, but none has been traced to an external origin. This type of popular religious poetry, composed by scholars, helps to spread Islamic ideas among all segments of the population.

Egyptian influence.

Since Arabic and Islam came to dominate Egypt, it has played a leading role in Africa, radiating Islamic culture and literature in all directions. The great jurist and theologian ʿAbd Allāh al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820 c.e.) spent the last years of his life in Egypt; his legal school spread after his death to most of Egypt, all along the Red Sea and the East African coast, and as far as Malaysia and Indonesia. Even today a large number of the books and pamphlets on tawḥīd, fiqh, poetry, or fiction sold in bookstores in Mombasa or Singapore are printed in Egypt. The Egyptian poet Sharaf al-Dīn al-Buṣīrī (d. 1296 c.e.) wrote two long poems in praise of the prophet Muḥammad that became famous throughout Africa—the Burdah and the Hamzīyah, still recited from Morocco to Indonesia. Both have been translated into Swahili.

Apart from a few classical authors, the vast majority of Arabic literary works that have influenced the Islamic nations of eastern Africa are popular tales, some in poetic form, but most in prose, and not in classical Arabic but in modern colloquial or postclassical written Arabic. These prose works are nearly all printed in Cairo, while the colloquial poetic texts usually circulate in local editions. These printed booklets (only a few can be called books) are of two kinds. The first comprises Islamic legends beginning with the creation, Adam and Eve, the stories of the prophets (qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʿ), the biography of the Prophet Muḥammad (sīrah), and the day of resurrection (qiyāmah), and ranging to the murder of Ḥusayn (qatl al-Ḥusayn) and lives of the saints (awlīyāʿ). The other type are popular works on Islamic duties.


Amharic is the chief Semitic language of Ethiopia. It is called Amara or Amarinya by its speakers, who number well over thirty million people. It is not known when Islam began to penetrate the Ethiopian Highlands, the heartland of the Amharic language, but it appears that at least the eastern part of the country was influenced by Islam from the thirteenth century on. The capital, Addis Ababa, was founded by the Emperor Menelik II only about a century ago. Its inhabitants are nearly three million people, including 3.9 percent Muslim who came from various parts of the country; it includes sixty-seven language groups, with Amharic as a common language. The Islamic religious leaders, most of whom are shaykhs of the Qādirīyah order, have learned Arabic, but most of the population knows Amharic. Learned works on Islamic law and theology are in Arabic; the liturgical works in Amharic can be obtained in the Islamic bookshops of Addis Ababa. Fewer than a dozen such books have been printed; the majority exist only in manuscript form, always in the Amharic script. Here are some fragments of Islamic liturgy, called zikr in Amharic (Ar., dhikr), intended for recitation.

The Merits of FridayWhen the dawn arrives on Friday,Hell turns into glowing embers.For the Muslims in the Firepunishment will be suspended.Even for the unbelieverspunishment will be much lighter.Whosoever dies on Fridaywill not suffer in the Fire.On the Friday, by God's favourwill the souls converse together.On the night preceding FridayMuslims should perform the zikr.

( Drewes, “Islamic Literature,” p. 15)

Zikr for the Holy ProphetProphet whose neck is like a golden flaskwhose eyes adorned with black antimonyshine like the moon shines in the darkest nightyou are my medicine, my amulet.come quickly, help me, a true slave of God.

Prophet whose fingers shine like stars at nightwho leads the faithful into Paradisewe all who say Muḥammad is our guidewe all who make perfection our high goalmay we be safe when Resurrection comes.

Prophet whose calves resemble golden cupsour hearts are pure of sensualityfor soon our bodies will fall into dust.we love you, we are yearning like dry landfor your own love, may it soon fall like rain.

To you God has assigned His Paradisewhere virgins clothed in silk rest on divans.Oh ruler of the world, oh king of kingsyou are for me like trousers,like a shirt,please help me when my soul feels overcome.

You are my shield, my shelter and my sword!You are my food, my needed beverage.Please help me when my grave is filled with dirtto find my words, to answer as I shouldthe dark and frightening angels of the tomb.

( Drewes, “Islamic Literature,” pp. 15–16)


Also called Galla, Oromo is spoken over a large part of central, western, and southeastern Ethiopia and in northern Kenya; it is a Cushitic language related to Somali. The millions of Oromo speakers are divided by religion: many are Christians; those who live in the Ethiopian province of Arusi are Muslims; and the vast majority still adhere to their traditional religions.

There is a wealth of oral traditions in Oromo, but very little of this has been published. The Islamic traditions in particular are little represented; two publications by B. W. Andrzejewski (1972, 1974) give oral Islamic texts, see also Asafa Jalata. These are all connected with the veneration of the Islamic saints, whose lives are narrated by the Oromo storytellers in tales full of morals and miracles; poems of praise are also recited about the saints’ virtues and holiness.


The Harari language is used for literary works in Arabic script in the city of Harar, eastern Ethiopia. Its chief prose work is the Kitāb al-farāʿid, which contains the basic doctrinal and moral precepts of Islam. Much of the poetry in Harari is liturgical, called zikri and intended to be recited during nocturnal prayer meetings, often under the supervision of the local leaders of the Qādirī Ṣūfī order. Here are a few of the almost six hundred lines of the zikri of ʿAbd al-Mālik.

Oh Prophet may God's blessing be upon youwe seek our refuge with you from our problems.You are a medicine for all diseases.Praying to God for you will be salvation.

Oh Prophet whom the Lord of light createdfrom light that is more radiant than sunshine.

Oh Prophet who revealed the hidden knowledge,whose name was first of all the names God mentioned.

Oh God admit the people who have studiedand love the humble servants who implore Thee.Open for us the shining gate of mercy,as Thou hast showered mercy on Thy Prophet.Oh Prophet who hast filled our hearts with splendour,pray God for us that He may give us blessing.His blessings have no end and no beginning.May you guide us towards the gate of Heaven.

( Drewes, Classical Arabic, p. 181)


Living in central Ethiopia between the Awash and Omo rivers, the Gurage form a dialect cluster within the subfamily of the Ethiopian Semitic languages. One of their seven tribes, the Silt’e, is Islamized. They use their own language for their Islamic literature, as well as Amharic, which at least the educated among them speak well. All are conservative Shāfiʿīs. The men migrate to Addis Ababa once a year after the harvest to earn a supplementary income, and there they learn more about Islam than they are able to in their own mountainous countryside.

Islam may have been introduced in east Gurage by Muslim religious intellectuals from Harar some three hundred years ago. One female saint, Makkula, is particularly venerated, especially in the Makkula mosque near her grave, where zikr is recited every Thursday night. The present leader of the Gurage Muslims is Sayyid Budala Abbaramuz, known as Getoch or Shekhoch, the head of the Qādirī order for all the Gurage and the quṭb (spiritual center) of the age who was created before Adam, so his followers believe. He writes his own zikr hymns, all in Arabic; these are printed as a liturgy for his followers. Here follows the last stanza of a long poem in praise of Shekhoch, written by a Silt’e Gurage (Drewes translation):

By God's good grace this poem is complete.Your faithful follower is drunk with lovewith love for you who were created first.Lord may our end be good on the Last Day.May his light shine upon us. Bless Muḥammad.


The Somali language is spoken in the Horn of Africa, the eastern corner of the continent, roughly east of a line running north to south from Djibouti to the point where the Equator meets the Indian Ocean. The Somalis were probably Islamized in the late Middle Ages when they still lived in what was to become British Somaliland, whence they expanded south and west during the centuries that followed.

Somali literature was unwritten until 1972 when an orthography based on roman script was accepted. Numerous books were soon published containing traditional Somali prose and poetry. Originally, the Islamic literature of the Somali was written exclusively in Arabic. Although Andrzejewski (1964) has said that there is no truly Islamic literature in the Somali language, the influence of Islam is well illustrated by the following love poem, composed by a caravan guide.

No oryx will expose her young one to the hunter's eye;then why do you so shamelessly expose your thigh?A flash of lightning, which thirst can it satisfy?How can my heart be happy, when you just pass by?

When I am being carried to the gravecome to my bier and whisper a sweet word.

I strained my eyes to get a glimpse of you.It was like lightning flashing in the distance.

My heart is single: no one can divide my love.Alas! The object of my love is distant like the moon.Until I die I will continue singing songs.With my last breath my last verse will go out.

( Andrzejewski, Somali Poetry, p. 146)

The poem betrays its Arabian inspiration in several elements: the oryx occurs frequently in Arabic poetry, and the description of repeated lightning preceding long-awaited rains is found in the poetry of many people of eastern Africa, with an early Arabic example quoted by A. J. Arberry (Arabic Poetry, p. 19).

The following poem was composed in the late Middle Ages, when Islam expanded.

No house can hold a saint, a friend of God.He does not own a building nor a field.He leaves the fields and travels to the hills.The desert weeps when he has gone away.The saint will pray to God while shedding tears:Oh Lord my heart is broken and distressed!What I will ask of Thee is not a house,Nor precious stones, nor buxom concubines;Not even any of those gardens highWhere all the trees are full of scented fruits.I only want your presence near my soulFor ever after may I see Thy light.

The author of this poem, Shaykh Abdurrahmaan Ismaa’uul (Ar., ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ismāʿīl; d. 1491 CE), was an important figure in the history of what is now northern Somalia. His work in the Djibouti region preceded the great expansion of Islam that was checked only by the Portuguese coming to the aid of the Ethiopian emperor in 1541 CE

South Africa.

There are some 44 million people in South Africa, of whom 1.5 percent are Muslims; including 75,000 African Muslims, whose languages are Zulu and Makua. The Qurʿān has been translated into Zulu. The largest Muslim group are Indians, mainly from Gujarat and the Punjab; 60 to 80 percent of Indians in South Africa are Muslims. Most of them are fluent in English and use Gujarati only as a home language. Young Indian Muslims learn Urdu in school as their language of culture and literature, but they read all their Islamic literature in English, including fiqh (jurisprudence) books, prayer manuals, and theology.

The only original Islamic literature in South Africa arose in the nineteenth century and was written in Afrikaans in Arabic script, making Afrikaans the only language of European origin to have been regularly used for a literature in Arabic script. Afrikaans literature in Arabic script is extant in a large number of manuscripts, all dating from after 1860; the oldest were written by and for Ḥanafī Afrikaans-speaking Muslims (Knappert, “Islamic Poetry,” p. 189). Today the Afrikaans-speaking Muslims can all write Afrikaans in the modern roman orthography. These Muslims of the Cape Province used to be referred to as the “Cape Malays” because some of their ancestors were brought to South Africa three hundred years ago from Java. They therefore belong to the Shāfiʿī school, whereas the Indian Muslims of Natal belong to the Ḥanafī school; the two groups have very different customs.


Of all the Islamic literatures of Africa the Swahili contribution is by far the most extensive, even though numerically Swahili speakers come well behind the Berber, Fulani, Galla, Hausa, Mande, and Somali nations. Swahili literature is also the oldest: the first datable text comes from 1652. The history of Swahili literature is closely linked to the geographical position of the Swahili coast between Mogadishu and Mozambique, a thousand miles long and only forty miles wide. The poetic activity was the fruit of the commercial towns, the majority dating from the Middle Ages: Barawa, Kisimaiu, Siu, Pate, Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa, Tanga, Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Mikindani, and Zanzibar. Commercial ties with the Middle East existed from time immemorial and were documented around the seventh century, mainly with the port towns along the Gulf, the Red Sea, and the South Arabian coast, and also with the towns on the west coast of India.

Swahili territory was occupied by the Portuguese from 1498 to 1729. With the power of Islamic leaders after 1729, the Swahili towns flourished, and so did their literature, especially the Islamic epic, the kasidas (Ar., qaṣīdah, hymns to Muḥammad), and the waadhi or admonitions to believers. The tradition of writing Islamic poetry continued throughout the nineteenth century and is alive today. Muslim scholars write hymns and prayers (dua, Ar., duʿāʿ) to be sung in the mosque. Especially popular is the celebration of the Prophet Muḥammad's nativity, during which specially composed kasidas and epic legends are recited or sung; both the feast and the recital are called maulidi (Knappert, Mi’raj and Maulid; Leiden, 1971). Perhaps the finest religious poems in Swahili are the elegies (malalamiko, Ar., marthīyah) in honor of recently deceased men of merit (rarely of women).

Wedding songs (nyimbo za ndoa) are composed freely by local poets, often using lines from traditional songs, and are sung at every wedding, wishing God's blessing and a fruitful marriage for the couple. Lyrical songs, if in one of two traditional meters, are often referred to as tarabu songs. Their theme is love for a sweetheart, for parents, or for a child. A frequent topic is a man's complaint about his girlfriend's unfaithfulness.

By far the most frequent meter in Swahili is the utenzi (tendi), with stanzas of four times eight syllables. It is much in use for didactic poems, easy for boys to memorize, concerning the duties of ṣalāh, ṣawm, obedience to parents or to one's teacher, and so on. More interesting are the seventy-two epic songs in Swahili, more than half of which recount historic legends and didactic chronicles of the sacred history of Islam in verse, extolling the exploits of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib and his heroic contemporaries. This Islamic epic poetry is a strong living tradition, written down only to be memorized and recited or sung by trained singers (waimbaji).


East Africa

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Jan Knappert

West Africa

There are two levels of Islamic literature in West Africa, as Knappert points out. First is the scholarly level of the learned ʿulamāʿ, fully literate in classical Arabic, who compose in that language. This literature is not essentially different from its counterparts elsewhere in the Islamic world. The African ʿulamāʿ composed original works in classical Arabic in which they attempted to interpret the sharīʿah in the light of African conditions and to explain Islamic theology against a background of prevailing African animism. Typical of such endeavors in West Africa were the Arabic works of the nineteenth-century Fulani Islamic reformers of the Hausa states. Local historical chronicles in classical Arabic were also written by West African ʿulamāʿ from the seventeenth century onward.

In addition to this indigenous classical Arabic literature—and no doubt arising out of it—there also developed in Hausa, Fulani, Wolof, Mandinka, and other languages of Islamized ethnic groups in West Africa what may be considered a subclassical or vernacular tradition of African Islamic literature. Although the literature primarily deals with Islamic themes, its functions gradually expanded to encompass secular themes and to serve as a written means of communication. This literature is written in vernacular languages using a modified form of the Arabic script known as ajami or aʿjami (from the Arabic root ʿ-j-m, “foreign”).

Ajami Literature.

Ajami was initially meant to be recited. Various diacritical marks were added to those already existing in the classical Arabic script, to serve the phonetic needs of African languages. In Wolofal (Wolof ajami), three dots referred to as ñetti tomb are typically added on Arabic letters in order to write some Wolof consonants that do not exist in Arabic. Thus, the Wolof mb and p are often written with a with additional three dots, and ng and g are both written with the single letter kāf with three dots or a single kāf. Similarly, ñ and nj can both be written with the letter jīm with three dots. Similar variations are also found in the writing of Wolof vowels that do not exist in Arabic. Such variations are common in ajami manuscripts in West Africa because the writing systems are not standardized. The modifications made on the Arabic script to write Hausa are described by Hiskett. Similar modifications to write Wolof are discussed by Ngom.

It is uncertain when these subclassical scripts and the literatures they record first emerged, but there is evidence that suggests that Kanuri, spoken just north of Lake Chad, was one of the first to be written in Arabic script, then Fulani, and later Hausa, Wolof, and Yoruba. Paper perishes rapidly in the African climate, especially in the storage conditions of earlier times. Written verse with Islamic themes in Zenaga, a language of the Saharan Berbers, can be traced back to about 1700 CE, although it may have been extant much earlier. Gutelius discovered a sixteenth-century ajami manuscript on Niger and Kel Tamachek history dating from the 1500s. A written literature with Islamic themes in Fulfulde probably emerged somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, perhaps under the influence of neighboring Zenaga. Hausa written literature is believed to have arisen later still, during the nineteenth century, as the Hausa peasantry were drawn more closely into Islam; it gathered force after the successful jihād in the Hausa states in the early nineteenth century. The peasants were illiterate in the Arabic script in which this vernacular material was written, but they could understand it when it was read to them by the literate ʿulamāʿ, which would have been impossible if the material had remained in Arabic.

A similar situation developed among the Fulani nomadic herders for whose Islamic instruction the Fulfulde material was largely composed. In Senegambia, Cisse notes that some colonial treaties established between the French and Wolof kingdoms were written in Wolofal. Although this cannot be confirmed, it suggests that ajami literacy might have been significant in the Wolof speech community during the colonial era. Once it began, this vernacular written literature burgeoned, especially in Hausa, Fulani, and Wolof, which now has a voluminous corpus of ajami composition. The continuing discovery of ajami documents in various parts of Sudanic Africa indicates that the literary tradition of ajami in the region is less understood, more widespread, and more diverse than is commonly assumed.

Fulfulde, Hausa, Wolof, and Mandinka written ajami vernacular literatures are mostly in verse. They derive from the classical Arabic genre of naẓm, didactic or instructional verse. Their content is drawn from the Qurʿān and from tafsīr, the classical Arabic Qurʿānic commentary. They consist typically of descriptions of divine punishment and reward (Hausa waʿazi, from the Arabic root w-ʿ-ẓ, “warn,” “admonish”). Frequent in this category are poems about dunyā (an Arabic word for “world” borrowed in many languages of Islamized ethnic groups of West Africa), which are Islamic memento mori. They personify the world as a painted harlot or as a fractious mare that throws her rider. The poet often dwells on the transitory nature of worldly pleasures and on the untrustworthiness of the world. This poetic genre is commonly found in Ṣūfī brotherhoods in West Africa. Here is an example from Hausa of this well-known genre:

We know, by God, that we shall go,On the day that death befalls usThere is no doubt that she will attack usFor our women and our riches.Woe to us on the day it shall be said,“What of So-and-so? Today he has passed away.”Everything of his has passed away,All the heirs now drink the soup.When the day of your death comes,You will forget son and grandchild,That wealth you have hidden away,Will not ransom you, you hear?

( Hiskett, 1975, p. 29)


Equally popular in both vernacular written traditions is a category known in Hausa as madahu (Ar., madīḥ or madḥ, “panegyric”). This consists of praise poems to the prophet Muḥammad that closely follow the format, imagery, and content of classical Arabic verse compositions such as the Burdah of al-Būṣīrī, the ʿIshrīnīyah of al-Fāzāzī, and other North African and Egyptian panegyrics. Such prophetic panegyric is closely associated with the spread of Sufism in West Africa. In the late eighteenth and early nineteen centuries, within the sub-Saharan Qādirīyah community there was an intensification of literary production. Poetry, treatises, rhetoric, prayer, and praise of the Prophet were newly popular modes of communication for the spread of Sufism. The overall aim of this activity was the elevation of Islamic consciousness throughout society, regardless of the general level of literacy (Mack and Boyd, 20–21). The following are examples of the panegyric genre, the first from Fulfulde and the second from Hausa.

More shining than all the pearls or rubies is Muḥammad,More beauty than all gold and silver has Muḥammad,More splendor than all moonshine or sunlight has Muḥammad,More sweetness than the purest honey has Muḥammad,More quenching for the thirst than water is Muḥammad.

( Knappert, 1990)

Heaven is lofty but you know it does not reachSo high as to equal the glory of Muḥammad.The throne of Heaven is beneath him in respect of glory.Because of his glory, our Prophet Muḥammad,His light exceeds the light of the moon on the fourteenth day of the month,Because there is no light like the light of Muḥammad.

( Hiskett, 1975, p.45)

Other Types of Poetry.

Among the most popular categories of Islamic verse in both these West African languages are poems describing the prophet Muḥammadʾs isrāʿ, his fabulous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem upon the mythical riding beast al-Burāq, and his subsequent miʿrāj (ascension) through the seven heavens to the throne of God. The following extract is taken from a long Hausa poem that tells the story of this event.

In the night, on a Monday Gabriel came to Aḥmad [he said]“The king greets you, He says He is calling,You are to mount al-Burāqa, O Prophet Muḥammad,”And Gabriel it was who led him on to hear the callTo the palace where no other had been before, Aḥmad.There at Jerusalem he dismounted, we have heard,And Gabriel brought water so that they might perform their ablutions a second time,Then Gabriel said, “Ascend, O Muḥammad,”And a ladder had been placed there for him to ascend to heaven.At the farthest lote tree Gabriel stopped,And Muḥammad said, “O Gabriel, do you leave me here alone?”Gabriel said, “O Trustworthy One, Muḥammad,Do not fear, you shall not fear today,Go to the palace, the king calls you, Muḥammad.”Then he crossed screens and rivers of lightAnd came before the king who had created Muḥammad.

( Hiskett, 1975, pp. 53–55)

Both languages also feature didactic verse on theological subjects, known in Hausa as tauhidi (Ar., tawḥīd). Here is an example from Hausa:

The Lord God is One, the Unique,Wherever you seek Him you will find Him,Say He, Allah, is One,Allah is He on whom all depend,He begets not nor is He begotten,And there is none like Him.

( Aliyu, 1983, p. 6)

Not all ajami literature was religious in nature. Astrology is also a popular theme for this verse, often intended for an agricultural or pastoral audience.

Oral Literature.

There is also a tradition of unwritten vernacular Islamic literature in Fulfulde and particularly in Hausa. This consists of oral versions, often highly localized, of major Islamic folkloric cycles such as the romance of Banū Hilāl, the saga of Sayf ibn Dhī Yazan, and the Islamic version of the Alexander cycle. The Maqāmāt stories and the classical Arabic collection Qiṣaṣal-anbiyāʿ are also common sources for oral tales. This oral literature appears mainly to have been acquired by contacts with popular Cairene Muslim storytellers by Hausa and Fulani pilgrims and other travelers passing through Egypt in the Middle Ages. The tales were then taken up by native storytellers and adapted for Hausa and Fulani audiences. Unlike the Swahili case, such material was seldom if ever recorded in verse in these West African languages. Verse, and the expensive paper it was written on, were reserved strictly for religious and didactic purposes, and the tales therefore continued as a purely oral tradition. Later, during the colonial period, they were written down in Hausa in the boko (English, “book”) roman script introduced by the colonial administration, not in ajami; they were then published in volumes printed and bound in European fashion. Similar recordings in Fulfulde are not known, though some may exist. Typical examples are the Alexander cycle, in Hausa Ruwan bagaja; the Maqāmāt tales, Hausa Gan doki, and the Islamic version of the Cid, Hausa Iliya Dan Maikarfi. These stories are now commonly referred to as “Hausa novels,” an inappropriate term that disguises their ancient Islamic folkloric origin.

In addition, there is a vast corpus of Hausa, Fulfulde, Wolof, and Mandinka oral narrative that is clearly of pre-Islamic folkloric origin but has picked up Islamic accretions. These color the stories but go no deeper. The genre is thus typical of the level of Hausa and Fulani society characterized by “mixed” Islam—an attenuated form of Islam syncretized with pre-Islamic animist culture. In Wolof and Mandinka, this form of oral Islamic literature may have resulted from the pre-Islamic tradition of praise-singing traditionally performed by the griot or jail, the so-called “Masters of Speech” who also serve as professional storytellers, genealogists, and oral historians. One example, from Hausa, is the ancient story of the monstrous pumpkin. This fantastic vegetable grew and grew, to the initial delight of the Hausa villagers who looked forward to endless supplies of pumpkin soup. But when it reached a certain size, it began to devour all the beans, then all the grain, then all the goats and cattle, and finally all the virgins. At this point the desperate villagers called in the local hero to save them. He drew his sword, exclaimed “There is no god but Allāh,” and struck the pumpkin a mighty blow that split it asunder. At once all the goats, cattle, and virgins emerged, safe and sound. He then revealed that he was the prophet Muḥammad! The story appears to be an early African wisdom tale that acquired Islamic character. There are many such examples of pre-Islamic folkloric tales now featuring such Islamic characters as Iblīs, the Mahdī, and the companions of the Prophet, especially his son-in-law ʿAlī.

Certain other major West African languages exhibit similar Islamic traces in their otherwise essentially African folkloric traditions, for instance Mande, Songhay, and Yoruba. These languages, spoken in the part of West Africa that was broadly dominated by the medieval Islamic empire of Mali, are characterized by the “weak” Mali tradition of Islam, which largely escaped the rigors of Islamic reformism that influenced the faith in the Hausa states. The early tradition of composing Islamic literature in classical Arabic certainly flourished among the Mali ʿulamāʿ of the Middle Ages. Hargreaves ’ (p. 25) indication that more profit was made from the sale of books than from any other commercial activity in Timbuktu in the sixteenth century is an illustration of the rich Islamic literary and intellectual life in Timbuktu during that period. However, owing perhaps to the lack of a sustained reformist tendency, a significant vernacular written tradition never developed, and no known significant ajami literature exists in Mande, Songhay, or Yoruba. Their folklore is tinged with Islam in much the same way as that of Hausa, but not to the extent that it should be regarded as a fully Islamic literary tradition. The Mande languages with known ajami literature are the Senegambian variety called Mandinka, and Malinke (primarily spoken in Guinea and Sierra Leone), but their ajami literature remains insignificant compared to Fulani, Hausa, and Wolof ajami literary productions.

Arabic Influence on Indigenous Languages.

There are at least three hundred minor vernacular languages in West Africa. Many of these, especially those adjacent to Muslim-majority areas, contain Arabic loan words, usually in fully adapted form; some also contain Hausa loans. There is little doubt that many of these loans entered the languages during the Middle Ages through trading contacts with Muslims, especially Muslim Hausas. The Islamic reform movement in the Hausa states and the jihād of the nineteenth century left behind a further accumulation of Arabic and Hausa loans. Thus the Gwaris of west central Nigeria, who remained animists until quite recently, nonetheless worship a deity they call “Allāh Bango,” “Allāh of the writing board,” reflecting their contacts with itinerant Hausa Muslim literates who carry the bango, a wooden slate inscribed with Qurʿānic texts from which they recite; they also worship a deity they call “Mamman,” apparently derived from “Muḥammad.” The oral traditions of many animist peoples of West Africa have also acquired minor tinges of Islam, but no written Islamic vernacular literatures of any significance have developed among them.

Hausa is one of the West African languages that exhibit the richest deposits of Arabic loans. Its grammar places it unmistakably in the Chadic group, as does its native vocabulary; however, it has acquired several strata of Arabic loans that now make up a substantial proportion of its total lexicon. The first layer is an ancient one that appears to have come into the language through very early contacts with Islam via North Africa and Borno. These words are often so phonologically altered that it is difficult, at first sight, to recognize their Arabic origin. Later, as the trade of the Sahara developed and encompassed the Hausa states, this vocabulary of Arabic loans was enriched with words relating to commerce and associated activities. Finally, around 1700 CE, the growth of literary activities in the Hausa states and the rise of centers of Islamic learning in such towns as Katsina and Kano appear to have released further Arabic vocabulary into both Hausa and Fulfulde. It seems probable that the scholarly practice of lection and commentary in these schools was responsible for this additional accretion of Arabic loans. The Muslim ʿālim would read his Arabic text—Qurʿān, tafsīr, fiqh, or whatever other branch of Islamic learning he might specialize in—to his assembled students. He would then deliver his commentary in a learned variety of Fulfulde or Hausa generously larded with Arabic theological, literary, and legal terms. In time these exotic Arabic words became integrated into scholarly varieties of the indigenous languages, bequeathing to them yet another Arabic lexicon. Fulfulde in particular acquired a sacerdotal status because it was the language of the Fulani reformers of the nineteenth century; for this reason it came to be especially favored as the language of commentary in the schools of higher Islamic learning in the Hausa states.

Besides Hausa, Wolof and Pulaar (the northern Senegalese Fulani) are significantly influenced by Arabic. The Islamization of the Wolof and Pulaar dates back to the eleventh century. Sahelian Senegal 's long involvement in the trans-Saharan trade exposed it to Islamic currents from North Africa, and the people inhabiting the banks of the Senegal were among the first in West Africa to embrace Islam. The Pulaar ruler of the Tekrur empire War Jabi came under the influence of Muslim traders and missionaries from North Africa. The great majority of the Pulaar in the area followed War Jabi 's example, and the Pulaar became the first major Senegalese ethnic group to embrace Islam en masse. From Tekrur spread the Almoravid movement, which swept through Morocco and Spain during the last third of the eleventh century, and over the years Tekrur became a training ground for Muslim clerics and missionaries operating throughout modern Senegal and West Africa.

By the fourteenth century, Qurʿānic schools were established in Senegal, and most Senegalese Muslims were already able to use classical Arabic scripts to write their own languages. During the mid-nineteenth century, a prominent clerical Pulaar warrior, Al-Hāj Umar Tall, who was initiated into the Tijānīyah brotherhood while on pilgrimage to Mecca in 1820, led a jihād that sought to overthrow pagan rulers and create Muslim theocratic states in the region. These historical events, which have accelerated the Islamization of the two major Senegambian ethnic groups (Wolof and Pulaar), account for the strong influence of Arabic found in Wolof and Pulaar. However, despite the Islamization of these Senegambian ethnic groups, literacy in Arabic remains low, and the use of the language is still primarily restricted to religious spheres. Today the Arabic language carries a “holy prestige” in Senegambia because the average Muslim in the area does not necessarily differentiate classical Arabic (the language of the Qurʿānic revelation) from the secular functions of Modern Standard Arabic.

Ṣūf  ī Literature.

The Islamic literary tradition in Arabic and ajami varies among religious brotherhoods in West Africa. Muslims are distributed in four major Ṣūfī brotherhoods in the Senegambian subregion: Tijānīyah, Qādirīyah, Murīdīyah, and Layene. Although these four brotherhoods share the goal of providing their students with their understanding of the Islamic faith, their origins and education methods differ. The major Tijānīyah branch of Malick Sy (based in Tivaouane) placed great emphasis on strengthening the connection with the Ḥāfiẓīyah Tijānīyah tradition of Mauritania, and through them Malick Sy established relations with Fez, Morocco, the site of the tomb of the founder and the leading center of the order. Ibrahima Niasse of the Niassène branch of Tijānīyah (based in Kaolack), the son of the founder Abdoullaye Niasse, developed a large following after the death of his father, and under his leadership the family developed a reputation in Islamic sciences and mastery of Arabic. The literary production of these two Tijānīyah branches is almost exclusively in Arabic.

In contrast, the Qādirīyah order in West Africa, particularly in Senegambia, displays two tendencies. Bu Kunta (1840–1914), the Qādirī Moor Shaykh who settled in Ndiassane, Senegal in 1885, was reportedly illiterate, and his family has never distinguished itself for its religious learning. Qādirīyah religious families in Senegambia are of predominantly Moorish origin, rather than indigenous Black African origin. Although there might be some Arabic and ajami literature in the order, they are largely unknown to the world outside the brotherhood. The Senegambian Bu Kunta Qādirīyah branch contrasts with the reformed Hausa and Fulfulde branch of northern Nigeria, which has engendered a rich Islamic literary tradition in Arabic, Hausa, and Fulfulde.

Similar to the Bu Kunta Qādirīyah branch, the founders of the Layene brotherhood have not distinguished themselves for their religious scholarship. This is perhaps because they had a limited number of Arabic scholars at the inception of the order. Although they have not produced any substantial literature in Arabic, there are important Wolof ajami poets in their communities. In contrast, Murīdīyah had numerous scholars educated in classical Arabic who nurtured the development of ajami literature in their communities. This was motivated by their desire to disseminate the teachings of their leader (Shaykh Aḥmadu Bamba) to average Wolof disciples, who were exposed to the classical Arabic script but had limited or no competence in the Arabic language. It is said that Bamba personally encouraged his senior disciple, named Musaa Ka, (the best known Murīd Wolof ajami poet and chronicler) to shift from writing in Arabic to Wolofal in order to reach the masses better. This is perhaps one of the reasons that Wolofal has significantly flourished in Murīd communities to the extent that it is now equated with Murīd identity for many people in Senegal today.

Secular Ajami Literature.

Contrary to the common belief that ajami literature is restricted to religious discourse, it equally serves various secular functions. Although most of the ajami literature is produced by religious leaders, and an important part of the literature deals with religious issues, ajami is by no means confined to the religious sphere. As with any writing system, it is used in discussions on sociocultural issues, criticisms of authorities (colonial, political, or religious), to write historical accounts, genealogies, commentaries, diaries, road signs, public announcements, business records, personal letters, and advertisements. However, available statistics do not accurately reflect the number of ajami users in West Africa. This is because official literacy rates in West Africa are generally based upon one 's knowledge of a foreign language or one 's mastery of the Latin-based alphabet designed for a given African language. Yet ajami continues to serve as one of the major means of written communication in many rural areas in Muslim communities in West Africa where Qurʿānic schools are the primary educational institutions.

Scholarly Attention.

Scholarly interest in Islamic literatures of Africa has been generally limited. This is partly ascribable to the fact that writings from “non-Europhone” Black African authors have been long neglected because of prejudice. Both Europeans and Arab scholars with the necessary linguistic competence to study Islamic literatures written by Black African authors have often deemed them of little or no scholarly interest or benefit. Consequently, few scholars have developed interests in such sources written in Arabic or ajami because of the incorrect assumption that the essential sources on African history are either oral or in European languages. For these reasons, the bulk of the rich indigenous intellectual heritage in Arabic and ajami in West Africa remains largely unmapped terrain.



  • Aliyu, Muhammad Sani. “Shortcomings in Hausa Society as Seen by Representative Hausa Islamic Poets from ca. 1950 to ca. 1983.” Master 's thesis, Bayero University, 1983.
  • Camara, Sana. “Ajami Literature in Senegal: The Example of Sëriñ Muusaa Ka, Poet and Biographer.”Research in African Literatures28, 3 (1997): 163–182.
  • Cisse, Mamadou. “Écrits et écriture en Afrique de l ’ouest.”SudLangues6 (2006): 63–88.
  • Diop, Amadou Hamadi. “Language Contact, Language Planning, and Language Policy in Senegal.” PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 1989.
  • Gellar, Sheldon. Senegal: An African Nation between Islam and the West. 2d ed.Boulder, Colo., 1995.
  • Gutelius, David. “Newly Discovered 10th/16th C. Ajami Manuscript in Niger and Kel Tamachek History.”Saharan Studies Newsletter8, 1–2 (2000): 1–6.
  • Haafkens, J.Chants musulmans en Peul. Leiden, Netherlands, 1983. Study of the Fulfulde written vernacular tradition.
  • Hargreaves, John. West Africa: The Former French States. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1967.
  • Hiskett, Mervyn. A History of Hausa Islamic Verse. London, 1975. Detailed account of the Hausa written vernacular tradition.
  • Hunwick, John. West Africa, Islam, and the Arab World. Princeton, N.J., 2006.
  • Kane, Ousmane. Intellectuels non-europhones. Dakar, 2003.
  • Knappert, Jan. “The Islamic Poetry of Africa.”Journal for Islamic Studies10 (1990): 91–140.
  • Mack, Beverly B., and Jean Boyd. One Woman 's Jihad: Nana Asmaʿu, Scholar and Scribe. Bloomington, Ind., 2000.
  • Musa, Sulaiman. “The Main Objectives of the Literary Works of Shaykh ʿUthman b. Fudi.”Selly Oak Colleges, Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Papers, no. 9.
  • Birmingham, 1992. Lists the Arabic works of the Muslim reformer of the Hausa states.
  • Ngom, Fallou. “Ajami Scripts in the Senegalese Speech Community.”Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies (forthcoming).
  • Qadhi, Abu Ammaar Yasir. An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qurʿān. Birmingham, U.K., 1999.
  • Robinson, David. Paths of Accommodation: Muslim Societies and French Colonial Authorities in Senegal and Mauritania, 1880–1920. Athens, Ohio, 2000.
  • Seydou, Christiane. Silâmaka et Poullôri. Paris, 1972. Covers the Fulfulde written vernacular tradition.
  • Villalón, Leonardo A.Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal: Disciples and Citizens in Fatick. Cambridge, U.K., 1995.

Mervyn Hiskett Updated by Fallou Ngom

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