Context and Background

Ajami is the Arabic term for non-Arabic, or foreign, and refers to non-Arabic languages that are written in the Arabic script. While it is common knowledge that languages such as Urdu and Persian are written in the Arabic script (and thus qualify as Ajami), it is much less well known that numerous African languages also have Ajami traditions—ones that often exist alongside the European-introduced Latin script. A particularly rich tradition of Ajami literatures lies in the Sahel, an area of West Africa that has come into focus with the rise of groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, and AQIM (Al-qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb) in Mali. Recent events in Niger and elsewhere in the region have signaled the urgency of developing a more nuanced understanding of this increasingly important world region. The Ajami literatures of the Sahel have much to offer in this respect, providing a window into the history and lived experience of peoples in this region. This history has generally been available to us only through a European lens—whether in European languages or African languages written in the Latin script.

This project aims to advance the understanding of Ajami in sub-Saharan Africa through comparative examination of four major West African languages: Hausa, Mandinka, Fula and Wolof. It brings together a multi-disciplinary team of experts working on different languages and contexts to achieve two interlinked goals: 1) to show the importance of Ajami by building collections and analyzing representative manuscripts, and 2) to conduct interpretive humanities research that will open up a sustained examination of the Ajami phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. Through these two research trajectories, as well as our collection and analysis of Ajami texts, we expect to contribute to the understanding of literacy, showing its multiple forms, degrees, and custodians – thereby going considerably beyond the understanding of literacy that Goody and others initiated some 50 years ago.  The collections, analysis and research findings are brought together in digital galleries prepared by the digital humanities team at Boston University’s Geddes Language Center, and made available to the public, students, teachers and scholars of Africa and Islam. Selected manuscripts in each of the four languages will be published in peer-reviewed journals such as Islamic Africa.

While there have been studies of particular African Ajami literatures, this project is the first to take a comparative approach, looking at the Ajami phenomenon across a number of languages. The four languages are spoken by large populations stretching across West Africa. Each has played an important role in the spread of literacy and in the dissemination of the diverse and tolerant strains of Islam that have characterized West Africa for the last millennium. Our goal is to raise the visibility and salience of Ajami by making significant textual materials available to the scholarly community and the wider public, and to encourage future study of these rich sources of new information on Muslim West Africa.