When the Nigerian writer Nana Asma’u composed her elegiac portrait of the Prophet Muhammad in the early 1800’s, she did so in what remains West Africa’s predominant language: Hausa.
And when the 18th-century court poet Sayyid Aidarusi honored his master with an adaptation of the Arabic epic “Umm al-Qura,” he wrote in the prevailing tongue of some 50 million East Africans: Swahili.
While all three wrote in their native languages, the scripts they employed each bore a close resemblance to Arabic. They were using Africanized versions of the Arabic alphabet, collectively called “Ajami.”
Much as the Latin-based alphabet is used to write many languages, including English, Ajami is not a language itself, but the alphabetic script used to write a language: Arabic derived letters to write a non-Arabic—in this case, African—language.
“Ajami” derives from the Arabic a’jamiy, which means “foreigner” or, more specifically, “non-Arab.” Historically, Arabs used the word to refer to all things Persian or non-Arab. Yet, over the last few centuries, across Islamic Africa, “Ajami” came to mean an African language written in Arabic script that was often adapted phonetically to facilitate local usages and pronunciations across the continent, from the Ethiopian highlands in the east to the lush jungles of Sierra Leone in the west.
“The spread and development of Ajami is not, if you really look at it, different from the spread of Latin in Europe,” says Ngom. Latin “was a church language, but its letters were adopted for use in French, German, Spanish, English and other languages.”
Reading in Ajami, “you will learn, for the first time, how people of West Africa perceived themselves in local accounts of history, as opposed to colonial records,” Ngom suggests. Indeed, it has been his experience in his native Senegal that colonial-era French and Ajami sources each paint distinct pictures.
“It is like you are looking at two very different accounts of the same events through different pairs of eyes,” he says.
The story of Ajami is intertwined with the stories of how Islam came to Africa some 13 centuries ago and how European colonization followed a millennium later.
[However,] documents pertaining to uniquely African cultural traditions, arts and sciences were also more easily written in a script that could accommodate local vocabularies and pronunciations.
In colonial times, Ajami began running headlong into the Latin-based scripts of European languages imposed by colonial administrators who viewed Ajami as nonsense at best and a threat to their authority at worst.
“The French were very suspicious of this writing they couldn’t read,” says Jennifer Yanco, U.S. director of the West African Research Association. “A lot of libraries were burned. So the local people got wise, and they began hiding books within double walls of their mud-brick houses, or they hid them in caves.”
In Nigeria, the British governor general from 1914 to 1919, Sir Frederick Lugard, directed that Ajami and Arabic were both to be officially replaced by Hausa written in the Latin alphabet. In the face of such cultural attacks, Ajami indeed became precisely what the colonial governments feared: a tool of resistance and reform.