Ahmed Ibrahim
3 min readMar 15, 2023

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Ajami letters

Ajami The Old African Script

Ajami, also known as Ajamiyya, is an Arabic-derived script used to write African languages, most notably Mandé, Hausa, and Swahili, but also Mooré, Pulaar, Wolof, and Yoruba. It is an adaptation of the Arabic script that is used to write sounds that are not found in standard Arabic. Rather than adding new letters, modifications are typically made by adding more dots or lines to pre-existing letters.
There is no standard Ajami system, and different writers may use letters with different values. Short vowels are written with vowel marks (which are rarely used in Arabic texts other than the Quran). Many medieval Hausa manuscripts resemble Timbuktu Manuscripts written in Ajami script.

History

Ajami is a centuries-old practice of writing other languages in a modified Arabic script that is deeply rooted in local histories and socio-cultural practices, mediating commerce, politics, and social life in many West African regions. Downplayed by Arabic and European colonial administrators, systematic attention to African Ajami has only begun as a post-colonial effort by African scholars.

Ajami literacy has historically been high in West African communities. While Ajami scripts are often viewed through the lens of their religious-historical origins, it is becoming increasingly clear that their use in a variety of African languages extends far beyond religious and educational contexts.

Interpersonal communication, commercial advertising, street posters, billboards, road signs, political campaign ads, and the insignia of local businesses and services all use African Ajami.

Ajami, which arose from Islamic clerical and educational campaigns in the 15th and 16th centuries, served as an early source of literacy for several Sub-Saharan African languages, including Yoruba, Mande, Wolof, Fula, and Afrikaans. Its history disproves the commonly held belief that Africa lacks written traditions.
Downplaying and undervaluing the importance of African Ajami has long characterized Arabic as well as European colonial scholars and administrators, and this legacy persists, perpetuating racial stereotypes, limiting political participation, and obscuring ethnographic accounts of local practices and institutions.

Ajami has flourished for centuries as an important means of communication and a conduit for historical and contemporary knowledge in many areas of Africa where Qur'anic schools are the primary source of education. Consider Senegal. It is estimated that more than half of the population of this 'French-speaking country' is illiterate in French, and adequate written and oral French skills are largely reserved for urban elites.

Many ethnic groups, including Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka, use Ajami scripts for written communication. Ajami Wolofal (the Wolof ethnic group's language) is used in local communities for both religious and secular purposes, including personal written communication such as private letters, as well as business records and informal sector advertisements.

It is worth noting that large multinational corporations expanding their operations in Africa, as well as national and local political campaign organizers, have taken note of Ajami's role as an effective tool for reaching grassroots communities.

In Nigeria, there is an increasing use of Ajami in public. The Nupe originated in the 15th century when they formed loose confederations of settlements along the Niger River. When they converted to Islam in the late 18th century, they kept many indigenous aspects of social organization and cosmology. Nupe has long maintained close ties with their Yoruba and Fula neighbours, who are now all part of a large multi-ethnic state.

While Ajami is increasingly used as a mass communication tool in the commercial and political lives of numerous West African ethnic groups, there is still room for African national governments, supra-governmental bodies, and international development actors to formally recognize its central role in mediating the roots.

Although scholarly awareness of the importance of studying diverse historical records of African Ajami is growing, few people are aware of Ajami as a fascinating lens into everyday livelihood practices, political struggles, and the social imaginaries of many contemporary African communities.

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Ahmed Ibrahim

Full-fledged Content Creator & Tech Journalist. Worked previously with top publishers like AkhbarTech, Abda Adv, and RobbReportArabia.