Ajami in the Senegambia

by Fallou Ngom

Senegambian Ajami Scholars: Diversity and Tolerance in Their Own Words

"Ajami" (or a'jami) comes from the Arabic word for foreigner or non-Arab sometimes used to refer to a Persian. It has come to be applied to documents written in a variety of languages, with each language using a modified Arabic script. In Africa, important ajami literatures are in Kiswahili, Hausa, Wolof, Mandinka, Fulani -- the language of the Fulɓe (also called Fulfulde, Fellata, Pular, Pulaar etc. depending on the dialect) -- as well as in a few other languages. All are spoken by people who have a long history of practicing Islam, and who sought to adapt the Arabic alphabet to their own tongue first for religious purposes and later for secular functions. This adaptation was not easy. Arabic consonants and vowels do not correspond to all of the sounds in these African languages. Therefore intellectuals within each community devised systems of transcribing African languages with modified Arabic scripts which formally or informally could be taught thereby allowing speakers to learn to write, read and recite ajami texts. Evidence suggests that these ajami literatures started some 300 years ago; there is also evidence that the Tuareg of the Sahara and Sahel developed a system for their language some 500 years ago. Kanuri, spoken just north of Lake Chad, was one of the first African languages to be written in Arabic script followed by Fulani, and later by Hausa, Wolof, and Yoruba.

The early development of ajami in African Muslim societies is not well documented. It may well have started in the traditions or pedagogies for teaching the Qur'ān and other religious texts, when it was important to communicate meaning and some information about Arabic grammar and syntax in the local language. It probably also reflected a desire to put some cultural traditions in writing, and to have a practical mode of written communication. The local language was a better vehicle for these than Arabic.

While some literate members of Muslim societies such as religious leaders wrote exclusively in Arabic, others wrote in Arabic as well as ajami, and chose the medium in relationship to the subject matter and intended audience. Some religious leaders even encouraged their disciples to disseminate their religious teachings in ajami. This is the case of Bamba, the founder of Murīdiyya, who is said to have encouraged Serigne Moussa Ka, one of his senior disciples, to shift from writing in Arabic to Wolofal (Wolof ajami).

Historically, Arabic was used in Muslim societies of Africa for communicating outside of the ethnic group and for dealing with most theological, legal, and broader historical issues. Ajami was often used for pedagogical purposes, especially communicating an understanding of Islam to non-literate members of the society (such as women, slaves, children, peasants etc.) and to record and disseminate information deemed important to lower groups of society. Ajami manuscripts generally fall in two major categories: 1) Religious poems intended for recitation, in the same way that the Qur'ān itself was designed for recitation (and actually means recitation), and 2) Religious and secular prose designed for keeping records such as family genealogies, historical accounts, advertisements, and correspondences, to name only a few.

The ajami literatures of Africa are very little known outside of their language areas, and the numbers of ajami users are not generally reflected in official government literacy rates. In many cases in Africa today ajami is spreading, especially through the print, radio, TV and electronic media. Although a large literature is emerging in the Roman script, ajami continues to be a major means of written communication in many African Muslim societies, particularly in rural areas where local qur'ānic schools remain the primary educational institutions.

To understand ajami one must know the Arabic script, the African language, and the system of transcription. Consequently, not many people are equipped to unlock ajami's secrets. In the texts in this gallery, Fallou Ngom has combined these skills across four languages spoken in West Africa and especially in Senegal.

Ultimately, it is Ngom's hope that this gallery will foster new scholarly insights and further inquiry on ajami literatures of Africa for a better understanding of the historical, intellectual and cultural heritage that has found expression in ajami.