Wolof Ajami, or Wolofal, can be found in limited forms in early 19th century Senegambia, but its main development and expansion occurred with the Muridiyya Sufi movement pioneered by Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba (1853-1927) at the end of the 19th century. The form developed in close conjunction with the expansion of the Sufi order itself, thanks to the work of a generation of scholars and poets linked to the founder, imbued with his vision of Islamic practice and familiar with the main events of his life. We think that the development of Wolof Ajami in Senegambia mirrors in some ways the expansion of Hausa Ajami in Northern Nigeria under the Sokoto Caliphate, and have some analogies to the growth of Arabic and Islam in the 7th century CE.
While there are some Wolofal documents written by members of the Tijaniyya Sufi order in Senegal, the bulk of Wolofal materials uncovered to date consists of manuscripts written by the members of the Muridiyya. These include official letters attesting to the birth of new Murid organizations, bilingual newspapers (written in French and Wolof Ajami), and genealogies of important local families. We have also found manuscripts for teaching Arabic grammar to users of Ajami. We can identify four categories of Ajami scholars trained in Murid schools: 1) historians, genealogists and biographers; 2) those who are engaged in research and dissemination of spiritual and esoteric knowledge; 3) writers of religious and non-religious poetry for recitation by specialized Ajami singers; and 4) scribes who translate Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba’s Arabic poetry into Wolof, copy important Ajami manuscripts, and write letters for non-literate customers who want to communicate with their literate friends and relatives.
The evidence indicates that the Murid recitations have greatly facilitated the spread of the Muridiyya and Ajami literacy in Senegambia. We can see this, for example, among second language speakers of Wolof such as the Seereer population of the Bawol area, the core of the Murid zone, who acquired literacy in Wolofal as they joined the Muridiyya. To accomplish this expansion, followers of the Muridiyya have made considerable investments in publishing presses and audiovisual recordings of their recited and chanted Arabic and Ajami poems. Today, they disseminate their materials in market centers throughout Senegal and online.