NEH Ajami Project

Ajami from ʿAjamī is the Arabic term for non-Arabic, or foreign, and is used to refer to non-Arabic languages and literatures that are written with the modified Arabic script. While it is common knowledge that languages such as Urdu and Persian are written in the Arabic script, less well known is the fact that numerous African languages also have Ajami traditions. The Ajami literatures that have developed in sub-Saharan Africa, which hold a wealth of knowledge on the history, politics, cultures and intellectual traditions of the region, are generally unknown to the scholarly community and the general public alike, largely due to lack of access.

Our project ʿAjamī Literature and the Expansion of Literacy and Islam: The Case of West Africa that was awarded a NEH Collaborative Research Grant seeks, through increasing access to primary sources in Ajami, to spark research and scholarly work on this important part of the Islamic world. We do so by exploring the Ajami literatures of four main “Islamic languages” of West Africa (Hausa, Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof) and making selected manuscripts and their transcriptions and translations widely available in print and online. We drew primarily on existing manuscript collections, publishing a selection of them with interpretive materials in web galleries that are freely accessible to the public, scholars, teachers and students of Islam and Africa. The project has digitized twenty manuscripts in each language and prepared transcriptions into the Latin script as well as translations into English and French. In addition, for each language, we selected over five manuscripts that were the subject of video recorded recitations/readings by local scholars. We prepared interpretive essays on the Ajami literature of each language and a general interpretive essay on African Ajami traditions in general. A selection of the interpretive essays are published in Islamic Africa as a double special issue (volumes 14.2/2023 and 15.1/2024).

The interdisciplinary and international project team consists of Fallou Ngom (Principal Investigator), Daivi Rodima-Taylor (Project Manager), and digital humanities specialists from Boston University, Rebecca Shereikis at ISITA Northwestern University, and David Robinson at Michigan State University. Our work was conducted in collaboration with ISITA at Northwestern University, WARA (West African Research Association), WARC (West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal) and colleagues from Bayero University and Kaduna Polytechnic in Nigeria, and Université Gaston Berger of Saint-Louis and Université Assane Seck in Senegal.