NEH ‘Ajamī Project

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 ʿAjamī traditions. The ʿAjamī 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 ʿAjamī, to spark research and scholarly work on this important part of the Islamic world. We will do so by exploring the ʿAjamī literatures of four main “Islamic languages” of West Africa (Hausa, Mandinka, Fula, and Wolof) and making selected manuscripts and their translations widely available in print and online. We will draw primarily on existing manuscript collections, publishing a selection of them with interpretive materials in web galleries that will be freely accessible to the public, scholars, teachers and students of Islam and Africa. The project will digitize twenty manuscripts in each language, and prepare transliterations into the Latin script as well as translations into English and French. Moreover, for each language, we will select five manuscripts which will be the subject of video recorded interviews and recitations/readings by local scholars. We will prepare interpretive essays on the ʿAjamī literature of each language and a general interpretive essay comparing the four literatures. A selection of the annotated manuscripts and interpretive essays also will be published in peer-reviewed, multi-disciplinary journals.

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 will be done in collaboration with ISITA at Northwestern University, IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire), WARA (West African Research Association), Ousmane Sene at WARC (West African Research Center in Dakar, Senegal) and colleagues from Bayero University and Kaduna Polytechnic in Nigeria.