Context and Background

ʿAjamī 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 ʿAjamī), it is much less well known that numerous African languages also have ʿAjamī traditions—ones that often exist alongside the European-introduced Latin script. A particularly rich tradition of ʿAjamī 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 ʿAjamī 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 ʿAjamī 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 ʿAjamī by building collections and analyzing representative manuscripts, and 2) to conduct interpretive humanities research that will open up a sustained examination of the ʿAjamī phenomenon in sub-Saharan Africa. Through these two research trajectories, as well as our collection and analysis of ʿAjami 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 will be brought together in digital galleries prepared by the digital humanities team at Boston University’s Geddes Language Center, and will be made available to the public, students, teachers and scholars of Africa and Islam. Selected manuscripts in each of the four languages will also be published in peer-reviewed journals.

While there have been studies of particular African ʿAjamī literatures, this project will be the first to take a comparative approach, looking at the ʿAjamī 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 aim is to raise the visibility and salience of ʿAjamī 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. We will explore the role of ʿAjamī in the extension of literacy and the spread of Islam by analyzing texts in the four languages, all of which have significant literary traditions in ʿAjamī, dating back several centuries.

The project team will digitize, transcribe, translate and prepare multimedia instructional resources of selected ʿAjamī materials from the four languages. We will publish annotated versions of the selected texts, which will appear in Arabic and Latin scripts, with English and French translations. These will be made available to the widest possible audience through open-access online web galleries.