Working with African Ajami Texts

By Dr. Cheikh Mouhamadou Soumoune Diop 

My interest in the African Ajami research dates back to the first years of my doctoral thesis, titled: “La résistance par la parole dans deux textes mourides” (Les Cahiers SIELEC n°3, 2005). This was some five or six years before discovering Fallou Ngom’s work on African Ajami traditions. It is therefore with enthusiasm that I seized the opportunity to participate again in this type of scientific work. These are studies that take me back to my first form of literacy, when I learned to read the Arabic script and the Quran.

Reading and editing French translations and Latin-script transcriptions for the NEH Ajami project was therefore a truly enriching experience. It allowed me to revisit an important part of my culture – a culture that we all share in West Africa. The project is dedicated to collecting and digitally preserving a variety of West African manuscripts written in Ajami, and I was attracted by its mission to save this important knowledge from falling into oblivion. This is a collaborative effort that brought together many members of the academic community around Ajami studies, and I am happy to be part of that initiative.

The project can be seen as another sign of the progress in the field of the Muslim cultures of Sub-Saharan Africa, as Ajami manuscripts reveal the local imprint of the adoption of Islam in African communities. This work therefore demonstrates that, even as the entry of Islam in certain societies may have been violent, Africans have adapted and integrated this religion transmitted from the Maghreb to their everyday life and societies in a productive and peaceful way.

One of my tasks for the NEH Ajami project included editing and proofreading French translations. The grammatical and spelling errors that I encountered were frequently of the type that are called “coquilles” in French – little mistakes that automatic correction cannot fix. For example, the accentuation of vowels was sometimes omitted (perhaps a keyboard issue). Similarly, the use of capital letters in French is different than in English. Qualifying adjectives in French are not capitalized, which makes it appropriate to write “La communauté mouride” and “Les Mouride” (the noun). There were also tiny inaccuracies that were repeated in the first batch of texts I edited – such as the choice of French words “épeler’ and ‘écrire” that I replaced with “orthographier” and “transcrire.” I also suggest harmonizing the spelling of cities like Touba (rather than Tuubaa), Porokhane (Poroxaan in Wolof), or the word Mouridiya as it is transcribed in Senegal.

While the challenges that I encountered were not significant, it was difficult to ascertain in some cases why certain expression or syntax of a sentence or phrase were faulty. It was necessary to return to the transcribed manuscript to verify the original meaning of the translated text, and navigate between Wolof and translated French texts. At times it was also challenging to avoid repetitions, including in footnotes. I made suggestions for a more clear organization of that information in the reference section. The placement of superscript numbers also differs between the French standardization system, and MLA and APA standards, and I had to make relevant adjustments.

I learned a lot of new information from these manuscripts: about certain Murid historical figures whom I only knew by name before, and about the history of Muridiyya, its foundations and symbolic places. But I felt that the most fundamental contribution was the literary significance and value of the Wolofal poems. These included both the compositions of the most famous historical Wolofal poets, as well as others who are our contemporaries. For example, I was impressed by the poem “The Way of the Satisfaction of Needs” that is a commentary and translation of a text by Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba, composed in 2003 by a disciple named Xaadim Njaay, son of Sëriñ Shaykh Njaay Golbi.

In the construction of the poem, the author uses the technique called “mise en abîme,” which encourages the reader or listener to disentangle the words of the religious teacher and the disciple. This is a translation of the Arabic poem by the Shaykh that relates it to the realities of our time. The author suggests that the reader return to the founding principles of Bamba’s teachings, writing:

J’ai compilé ici des leçons de discipline et de morale

qui serviront à tout musulman qui les suivra.

Le titre du traité est Nahju Qaḍāʾi l-Ḥāji [Voie de la Satisfaction des Besoins],

originellement rédigé en vers [arabes] par Bamba, le Maître de la Mosquée [de Tuubaa].

And his words are not only intended for the Murid disciples. It is an update of the message of the religious teacher who called for the brotherhood of the whole humanity, unifying in its appeal to follow the way of God and resist the enemies of Islam, such as the colonizers. The poetic commentary of the author also reflects on the lessons of humanism taught by the Shaykh that have become fundamental to Muridiyya values. Here is an example:

Traitez tous les êtres humains de la meilleure façon possible,

soyez accueillant et aimant, et prudent avec les injustes!

Cultivez un amour sincère pour les autres êtres humains et parlez-leur doucement.

Soyez diplomate et amical!

On dit que le seul fait d’entretenir des relations courtoises avec les êtres humains

constitue la moitié de l’intelligence ! La courtoisie est un signe de vitalité de l’âme !

This text, alongside many others in this project that include speeches, press releases, and correspondence, testifies to the great mastery of Ajami writing in Wolof and its diverse social uses, and conveys the spirit that presided over the innovation of the Ajami script in those West African languages with a goal to preserve and teach a uniquely African literary culture. It is clear that these texts constitute a good corpus for comparative literary and social studies and extensive interdisciplinary scholarship.

Dr. Cheikh Mouhamadou Soumoune Diop is Associate Professor in General and Comparative Literature, and Head of Training and Research Unit at Assane Seck University of Ziguinchor, in Senegal, West Africa. His research interests include Francophone writers and the cultures of Africa, Canada, and the African diaspora. He works with theories of the imagination with a transdisciplinary approach. He has published work in this field and has coordinated several special issues of scientific journals, as well as published contemporary literary productions in the Wolof language. He has also written and published poetry and prose in French.