An overview of Islamic literature in Africa

Local and global interactions

Authored by: Scott S. Reese

Routledge Handbook of Islam in Africa

Print publication date:  December  2021
Online publication date:  December  2021

Print ISBN: 9780367144234
eBook ISBN: 9780367144241
Adobe ISBN:




This chapter explores the geographic breadth, temporal depth, linguistic diversity, and dynamism of Islamic writing in Africa. Specifically, it will offer a historical overview of textual production and education in Muslim Africa while also endeavoring to explore the cultural and social ramifications of the Islamic literary tradition. Beginning with the earliest appearance of locally written manuscripts from the eleventh century, it surveys the evolution of Islamic writing including religious works and institutions and local literature more broadly, such as poetry. In addition, it devotes substantial space to consider the evolution of ajami, vernacular languages written in Arabic script that comprise an important element of the African Islamic corpus. Finally, it includes an examination of both the premodern and modern evolution of the Islamic written tradition in Africa via not just the manuscript tradition, but also the emergence of print culture from the mid-nineteenth century. The development of the latter provided a platform – in concert with advances in steam transportation – that enabled Muslims to exchange ideas more rapidly and with greater regularity than at any time in the history of the faith. The result was the increasing integration of African voices into the global discourses of Islam advocating visions of the faith that were in line with larger debates while still distinctly African.

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An overview of Islamic literature in Africa


If there exists a popular image of Islamic literature in Africa, it is one of “ancient” Arabic manuscripts residing in ramshackle family libraries scattered among the dusty lanes of Timbuktu. This chapter provides a corrective to this overly narrow and contrived understanding of the Islamic written tradition in Africa (Triaud, 2012, 201–222; Triaud 2018; Hall 2018). While recognizing the importance of the Arabic tradition of the Western Sudan, the chapter explores the geographic breadth, temporal depth, linguistic diversity, and dynamism of Islamic writing in Africa. Specifically, it offers a historical overview of textual production and education in Muslim Africa while also endeavoring to explore the cultural and social ramifications of the Islamic literary tradition.

Beginning with the earliest appearance of locally written manuscripts from the eleventh century, the chapter surveys the evolution of Islamic writing including religious works and institutions as well as local literature more broadly, such as poetry. Rather than limited to Arabic, it will devote substantial space to consider the evolution of ajami, vernacular languages written in Arabic script that comprise an important element of the African Islamic corpus. This chapter also strives to devote equal attention to the Muslim written tradition in parts of the continent other than the Western Sudan. Though more modest in terms of numbers, East Africa, the Horn, as well as South Africa have their own literary traditions that overlap with, but are distinct from, the more famous canon of West Africa and equally important to each community’s sense of self. Finally, this chapter also places the literary conventions of Muslim Africa within the larger tradition of the Islamic discursive tradition (Asad 1986; Haj 2009). In particular, it highlights the continuous interaction between African Muslims with the global community of believers from the faith’s arrival in the tenth century down to the present. It will consider the African adoption of classical forms of Islamicate literature (e.g., the layout and content of texts along with various genres) beginning with the medieval period as well as the influence of African Muslim intellectuals on the broader world of Islamic ideas. In addition, it will examine both the premodern and modern evolution of the Islamic written tradition in Africa via not just the manuscript tradition, but also the emergence of print culture from the mid-nineteenth century. The development of the latter provided a platform – in concert with advances in steam transportation – that enabled Muslims to exchange ideas more rapidly and with greater regularity than at any time in the history of the faith. The result was the increasing integration of African voices into the global discourses of Islam advocating visions of the faith that were in line with larger debates and yet distinctly African.

“The gates of China”

“Seek knowledge to the gate of China”: this possibly apocryphal hadith, or saying of the Prophet Muhammad, exhorts Muslims to seek learning even to the furthest ends of the earth, a somewhat mythical China. This oft cited maxim serves as one of the primary rationales for Muslim intellectual endeavors from the earliest era of the faith, religious, scientific, or literary. So important was the acquisition of learning in the early Islamic heartland that, by the mid-ninth century, we see the development of most of the disciplines of the Islamic Sciences (tafsir – Quranic exegesis; Hadith collection; tawhid – theology; and fiqh – jurisprudence 1 ), a thriving literary scene as well as an academy in Baghdad, the House of Wisdom (al-bayt al-hikma) whose scholars were charged with translating the great Greek, Persian, and Sanskrit texts of antiquity into Arabic (Algeriani 2017). Thus it should come as little surprise that this thirst for knowledge and respect for literary endeavor would travel with the faith emerging in recognizable, if distinctive, forms wherever it took root. Africa was, of course, no exception.

The earliest evidence of Islam in Africa south of the Sahara dates confidently to the tenth century with evidence of early mosques in both the Western Sudan and coastal East Africa. It was certainly a religion of consequence, at least among elites and sophisticated urbanites, by the latter part of the eleventh century. As such, it should come as little surprise that we also see the emergence of traditions of religious learning and literary endeavors in these same places.

Our knowledge of Islamic learning and education in coastal East Africa is, unfortunately, severely limited for the premodern period due to a lack of source material. Earlier historians have used the dearth of materials from this period to argue that the Muslims of this region possessed little tradition of classical Islamic learning (Powels 1987). However, the few glimpses we have of scholarly life from this period would seem to belie this easy assumption. Ibn Battuta, for instance, noted the existence of a students’ hostel in Mogadishu in the early fourteenth century.

The first Portuguese mariners to arrive on the island of Kilwa in the late fifteenth century remarked on the large number of Arabic books to be found in the precincts of the king’s palace (Delmas 2017, 181–206). As one scholar has recently noted, the absence of texts in East Africa – as opposed to the rich collections of the Western Sudan – is likely due to climate. The regions surrounding the Sahel and Mauritania (where we find the largest collections of premodern Islamic learning) are host to an arid, dry climate perfect for the long-term preservation of paper. Much of coastal East Africa, on the other hand, is a humid tropical climate where paper and the knowledge it contains are subject to rapid deterioration (Kane, 2016). As such, there is little reason to presume Islamic learning was any less sophisticated in East Africa than its counterpart in West Africa or anywhere else in the Muslim world for that matter. However, given our lack of concrete materials, our discussion of premodern learning will be restricted primarily to West Africa, especially the region referred to as al-Bilad al-Sudan, the Land of the Blacks.

The presence of schools where the Qur’an was taught as well as a scholarly community in West Africa was first reported by al-Bakri in the middle of the eleventh century (c. 1054) who noted that upon investing the caravan town of Awdaghust on the Sahara’s edge, the Almoravid ruler, Abdullah ibn Yasin, reported the existence of “several mosques and schools where the Qur’an was taught”. Similarly, a town identified as “Ghana” (possibly Kumbi Saleh, the Ghanaian capital) was home to 12 mosques and numerous scholars (Lydon 2011). The rulers of the Ghanaian Empire – the earliest of the great Sudanic states – adopted Islam only in the waning days of the state. As such, our knowledge of the extent of Islamic learning during this period is fragmentary at best. We know from oral traditions, for instance, that the earliest form of these schools were institutions known as muhadra generally found in various oasis towns or in nomadic encampments (Lydon 2011, 40). In addition, many of the earliest pedagogues, at least in the region closest to the desert’s edge in what is today Mauritania, were associated with the expansionist Almoravid movement rather than with the more centralized kingdoms of the Sudan.

As Ghislaine Lydon has noted, book production and consumption were inextricably intertwined with commerce and travel. Most students who attended local muhadra did not go on to scholarly vocations but used the basic literacy and numeracy skills learned there to embark on careers in trade at various levels. Arabic literacy in the region grew rapidly from the eleventh century, and as John O. Hunwick once noted, it ultimately emerged as the “Latin of Africa” facilitating connections across a diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic landscape (Hunwick 2004, 133–44).

Ghana’s successor states – Mali and Songhai – were much more self-consciously Muslim in character. As such, many of their rulers eagerly styled themselves as patrons of the ulama and Islamic scholarship. Most notably, the Malian king Mansa Musa, while stopping in Cairo on his way to and from the pilgrimage in the mid-1320s, attended religious lectures, commissioned the copying and purchase of numerous manuscripts, and convinced quite a few members of the local scholarly community to return with him to the Sahel. There, he used his newly acquired cultural capital to expand and build a series of new madrasas in towns such as Gao, Jenne, and Timbuktu (Lydon 2011, 40). Therefore, it is from this point forward that we begin to find the largest evidence of scholarship and literary achievement.

The royal import of books, in particular, was part of an already long-established tradition in the Sudan where the acquisition of manuscripts constituted an important form of cultural capital that elites of all stripes (rulers, merchants, and scholars) were willing to expend large sums on and go to great lengths to acquire. Imported copies of the Qur’an were in circulation along with other classical texts by the eleventh century. By the sixteenth century, traveler Leo Africanus could observe that manuscripts imported from North Africa were in abundance in Timbuktu’s marketplace at prices that promised substantial profits. A copy of the twelfth-century legal text, Kitab al-shifa’ by Qadi Iyad, for instance, was purchased in Tuwat in 1468 for 45 mithqals – about 191 grams – of gold. In the second half of the sixteenth century, the Songhay ruler Askia Da’ud purchased a copy of one of the earliest Arabic dictionaries, al-Qamus al-Muhit, for 80 pieces of gold (Lydon 2011, 58–59). In fact, books remained an important commodity both for sale and as gifts through the nineteenth century (Lydon 2011, 60).

Books, however, were not only imported. Askiya Da’ud of Songhai promoted the local manufacture of texts that eventually gave rise to a significant industry. By the early modern period, a number of centers in the Western Sudan were well known for their skilled copyists, editors, and bookbinders. In addition to Timbuktu, smaller towns such as Tishit emerged as important centers of copying. Other towns such as Kano and Sokoto – in present day Nigeria – became famous for the quality of their leather used for binding (Lydon 2011, 61–62). But what were scholars and others actually reading?

Currently, our most complete picture of premodern Islamic reading habits in Muslim Africa comes to us through the Western Sudan. This stems in part from a regional tradition of relatively extensive multigenerational family libraries. However, the survival of texts over the course of centuries is, as noted, equally a result of the hot, dry climate that provides particularly favorable conditions for the preservation of paper. Such libraries have served as sources of the West African past for modern historians for more than 60 years. Recently, Charles Stewart and Bruce Hall have surveyed the contents of more than 80 private manuscript libraries thoughtout the Sahel. Their sample, they note, encompasses more than half of the known book markets of West Africa. In doing so they have pieced together what they have termed West African Islamic “Core Curriculum” that provides a detailed overview of both the topics and individual texts regularly studied by religious students and scholars (Hall and Stewart 2011, 109–174).

Through a survey of more than 20,000 manuscripts produced between the early seventeenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century, Stewart and Hall demonstrate a persistent high level of erudition and creativity among the scholarly classes throughout Muslim West Africa across the religious sciences. Quranic exegesis and recitation (tafsir and tajwid); grammar (nahw); law (fiqh); mysticism (tasawuuf); and the life of the Prophet Muhammad all received scholarly attention. This included the study of what have come to be regarded as many of the foundational texts of each discipline as well as locally written commentaries and abridgments of these works along with original compositions. Taken as a whole, they note, these point to “the likely evolution of distinctive intellectual traditions across centers of learning in West Africa…” from at least the early modern period forward (Hall and Stewart 2011, 112).

In the field of tafsir, for instance, the works of the “two Jalals”, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505) and Jalal al-Din al-Mahalli (d. 1459), both famous scholars from Egypt, as well as that of Ali b. Muhammad al-Baghdadi (d. 1340) and al-Jaz’iri (d. 1468), are widely distributed. However, they note that the two most popular texts were written by well-known regional scholars Abdallahi dan Fodio (d. 1829), one of the founders of the Sokoto Caliphate in present-day northern Nigeria, and Muhammad al-Yadali (d. 1753), from Mauritania. Both of these works are found in multiple copies across Sahelian West Africa (Hall and Stewart 2011, 119).

The field of fiqh, or jurisprudence, tended to be dominated by many of the standard texts of the Maliki madhdhab, the dominant school of law in West Africa. As a result, many of the legal texts found in Sudanic libraries conform to those found in the wider centers of the tradition, especially North Africa. So, for instance, al-Subki’s (d. 1370) Jam’ al-Jawami’, a foundational text studied in Fez, is found in multiple collections along with al-Suyuti and Mahalli’s commentaries on it. The same is true of most genres of legal texts. However, there exist important exceptions such as Ahmed Baba’s fatwa or legal opinion, Mir’aj al-su’ud, a well-known and influential indictment of the practice of enslaving West African Muslims found widely throughout the region (Hall and Stewart 2011, 119).

The learning of religious or “legal literacy” was an integral element of “commercial literacy”. As such, practical manuals and handbooks tend to outnumber more theoretical texts. A similar picture holds true for theology and mysticism. Important theoretical works of each discipline are found throughout the region. Manuscript copies of the North African scholar, Muhammad al-Sanusi’s major works, such al-Aqida al wusta and al-Aqida al-kubra, are well represented. By the same token, al-Ghazali’s (d. 1111) Ihya ilum al-din, considered by many as the single most important work on mysticism and faith, is also to be found in many libraries (Hall and Stewart 2011, 138).

More common, however, are texts such as al-Sanusi’s Aqida ahl al-tawhid al-sughra, a work aimed at imparting the most basic elements of faith to students. Equally widespread are commentaries and versifications mostly by more regional scholars. The Urjuzat al-wildan by the Andalusian scholar al-Qurtubi (d. 1171) – and sometimes referred to as the Manzumat al-Qurtubi – a summary of the Five Pillars in verse form, was particularly favored for instructing children. Equally popular works were those of Ibn Sulaymi (d. 1801) whose poem on the attributes of God, Dalil al-qa’id il-kashf asrar sifat al-wahid, along with an additional book of commentary was especially popular in Nigeria, while the works of the Mauritanian alim al-Mukhtar al-Bunah (d. 1805) were similarly popular (Hall and Stewart 2011, 139).

Writings on Sufism followed a similar trajectory. Important works on the nature of mysticism and cosmology by Sufis such as al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Far’id (d. 1235), Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240), and Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani (d. 1565) can all be found in Sudanic collections, but they are rare (Hall and Stewart 2011, 139). More common are local works related to the various mystical orders or turuq (sing. tariqa) especially from the vibrant period of the nineteenth century.

The founders of the Sokoto Caliphate – including Uthman dan Fodio (d. 1819), his brother Abdullahi dan Fodio (d. 1827), and his daughter Nana Asma’u (d.1864) – for instance, all wrote copious amounts of mystical literature in Arabic, much of it in verse form. Among the Uthman dan Fodio’s many compositions are Tariq l’janna (The Path to Heaven), a text devoted to an explication of spiritual purification, and Usul al-din (The Roots of Religion), a theological primer that focuses on the singularity of the divine. Abdullahi dan Fodio is credited with numerous works as well, including Diya’l-qawaa’id wa nashr’l-fawaa’id li’l-ahl ‘l-maqaasid (The Light of the Principles and Diffusion of Benefits to the People of Firm Intention), a lengthy discourse on the path of mystical enlightenment, and numerous other texts. 2 Nana Asma’u is similarly famed as a poet who, among other works, composed two elegies to the Prophet Muhammad’s favorite wife, Aisha (Mack and Boyd 2000, 168–171).

Many of their works, however, are tied not only to mysticism proper, but also the wider social and political agendas of their jihad movement. Uthman dan Fodio, for example, composed Bayan wujub al-hijra (Declaration on the Obligation of Migration), in 1806, an Arabic pronouncement on the imperative of all believers to physically withdraw from the lands of the “heretical” Hausa princes signaling the start of the revolutionary political movement. Meanwhile, Abdullahi dan Fodio authored a number of texts on proper Islamic governance including Diya al-hukkam or Light of the Judges, Diyat al-Siyasat (Light of Political Systems), and Diyat al-khulafat (Light of the Caliphate). 3 Indeed, the leaders of Sokoto and other Jihad movements used Arabic as the primary medium for religious works of both an instructive and polemical nature. However, it is important to bear in mind that the intended audience of such works was generally educated elites. By the nineteenth century, in particular, Islamic literacy began to emerge among a wider swath of African Muslim communities via an alternative route, i.e., ajami (see Figure 3.1).

A picture of an opened Qur'an written in Arabic with additional Arab writings in the margins.

Figure 3.1   Handwritten Qur'an from Ethiopia, ca. early nineteenth century (Photo: Terje Østebø).

Ajami – expressions of the faith in vernacular languages

It is important to keep in mind that Arabic was not the only medium of written expression among African Muslims south of the Sahara. Instead, Muslim communities across East, West and even Southern Africa often retained rich written traditions through what are generally referred to as ajami languages. Ajami, is an Arabic word that originally referred to Persians but later came to mean “foreign” more generally. Over time, it also developed an additional derived meaning referring to any literary tradition using the Arabic alphabet. This includes a lengthy list comprising Persian and Urdu but also lesser known examples such as Pashto in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Jawi in the Malay Peninsula. This tradition is particularly well developed in Africa with Muslim communities producing ajami versions of Wolof, Hausa, and Fulfulde in West Africa (among many other languages); Swahili in East Africa, and even Afrikaans in South Africa’s Western Cape (Ngom 2016, 3). Widespread across both time and space, African ajami languages were (and to some extent still are) deployed across multiple registers by both Muslim and non-Muslim communities. In some cases, ajami serves as a teaching tool that complements Arabic largely within the context of religious literature and learning. In others instances, ajami may function as an alternative system that employs the Arabic alphabet to produce fully African language texts (Mumin and Versteegh 2014).

Dating the earliest use of ajami languages in Africa is difficult due to limited documentation and original source material. Fallou Ngom notes the earliest written traditions are traced to Old Tashelit – medieval Berber – Songhay, and Kanuri, all of which seem to have been in use between the tenth and sixteenth centuries (Ngom 2016, 8). Regular examples of ajami texts, however, begin to appear only from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries forward with the largest production of texts dating to the period after 1800. This holds true for both the literary traditions of East and West Africa. Ngom writes that the earliest attested complete ajami text in West Africa is a 500-folio pharmacological manuscript that dates to sometime in the 1500s. The earliest known Swahili ajami text from East Africa is the poem Swifa ya Mwana Manga (Ode to the Mwana Manga) which has been dated to c. 1517 (Ngom 2016, 8; Mugane 2015, 178). Singular examples of texts from East and West Africa can be found from this point forward. However, the great up-tick in literary production appears to date from the nineteenth century in both West and East Africa (Nogm 2016, 8; Mugane 2015, 178). In West Africa, the upsurge in ajami literature is directly related to the second wave of Jihadist or reform movements that swept the region from the beginning of the nineteenth century. It was from this period that we begin to see Hausa and Fulani in northern Nigeria, Fula in Futa Jallon (in present-day Guinea), and Wolof in Senegal, all of which emerge as important written vernaculars (Ngom 2016, 8; Mugane 2015, 178–179).

The greatest popularizers of vernacular ajami were undoubtedly the leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate who composed numerous works in Hausa and Fulfulde – both prose and verse – aimed at guiding the faithful along the “right path”. The Caliphate’s founder, Uthman dan Fodio, who wrote numerous works in Arabic, also produced ajami materials in Fulfulde. However, the family’s most prolific vernacular author was his daughter Nana Asma’u, who amassed an extensive body of work in Hausa, Fulfulde, and Arabic primarily in verse. Like the men of her family, Asma’u was provided a classical Islamic education that covered most of the disciplines of the religious sciences. This included solid groundings in fiqh, tawhid, the Qur’an, and hadith, but most especially mysticism (tasawwuf) (Mack and Boyd 2000, 7). As a member of the ruling and intellectual elite of Sokoto, Asma’u took an active role in the affairs of state following her father’s death in 1817. Specifically, she undertook efforts at vernacular education especially among women.

Asama’u was chosen by her father to act as “the leader of women” within the Caliphate, a role that was hardly ceremonial. During the course of her life she composed at least 19 poetic elegies, but more importantly, numerous didactic works aimed at improving the practice of the faith among women. Two works in Hausa – The Path of Truth and Warning II – outline in clear, simple verse the obligations of women within the umma (Mack and Boyd 2000, 79–83). Others, such as A Prayer for Rain and Fear This, admonished women to forego traditional practices such as Bori – spirit possession – but also provided them with viable alternatives and Islamically acceptable means of petitioning the unseen (Mack and Boyd 2000, 40–45). Her compositions, however, were not meant simply for women of the Caliphate’s elite. Rather, her works were disseminated through a core of specially trained female teachers, known as jajis, charged with spreading her teachings among secluded women in towns and villages. Functioning as itinerant instructors, the jajis used the ajami compositions of Asma’u to impart not only the basic tenets of the faith, but also the perceived Islamic virtues surrounding charity, kindness, and hygiene (Mack and Boyd 2000, 76–77).

Swahili in East Africa also enjoyed broad currency in the nineteenth century especially in poetic and devotional works. The poem al-Inkishafi, composed around the beginning of the nineteenth century, is a lengthy lament devoted to the destruction of the town of Pate that “addresses the Mswahili soul”, in the words of John Mugane (Mugane 2015, 176). The poem chronicles the destruction of the town but decries the materialism and greed that were the city’s ultimate downfall (Mugane 2015, 176). Much of the most prominent poetry during this period was in the form of devotional verse intended either for the Prophet Muhammad or one of the numerous Sufi Shaykhs who accrued increasingly large followings throughout the coastal region from the mid-1800s.

Among the most notable was the Mana Siti Habib Jamaludin, known widely as Dada MaSiti (d. 1920), a female poet and mystic from the Somali town of Barawe located at the northern end of what might be considered the Swahili linguistic and cultural zone. After enslavement as a child in Zanzibar, Dada Masiti was freed around the age of 16 and embarked on a life of solitude and prayer. 4 As such, she is often compared to the eighth-century Basran ascetic, Rabia’ al-Adawiyya (d. 801). A devout member of the Qadiriyya Sufi Order, Dada Masiti composed devotional poems devoted to God and the awlia (saints) exclusively in Chimbalazi (also called Chimwiini.) These included Ya Rabbi Ya Muta’ali (O My Exalted Lord), an extended praise of God and His Prophet, and Bacda Hayyi (After Life), a lengthy work that mourns the passing of the Barawan judge and Sufi, Shaykh Nurein Ahmed Sabr.

However, her use of poetry as a didactic as well as a panegyric tool also warrants comparison to her Fulfulde-speaking sister, Nana Asma’u. As in Sokoto, there was a long tradition in Barawe of female responsibility for religious education within the home. The sheikha is credited with numerous religious poems – referred to locally as “stenzi” – related to not only the saints and the Prophet Muhammad, but also the hadith, law, and proper conduct (Kassim 2002, 104–120).

The works of these two poets highlights the intertwined nature of written texts in ajami, orality, and aurality. While the literature reviewed in this chapter clearly illustrates the customary scholarly concept of Africa as a continent of orality is misleading at best, the importance of aurality is widely documented throughout the literature on both Islamic education and worship in both Africa and beyond (Ngom 2016; Brenner and Last 1985; Brenner 1983). 5 However, the didactic and panegyric poetry of these women exemplifies the deep-seated relationship between the written and the oral that literally spans the continent.

Over the course of the early twentieth century, Swahili ajami was a didactic tool used increasingly to target popular audiences. Among the most striking examples of using ajami to target a mass audience was the Mombasa newsweekly Sahifa (lit. The Page) published by the noted alim Sheikh al-Amin Mazrui between October 1930 and February 1932. Printing only 100 copies each Monday and distributed for free, Sahifa was in line with many of the reformist publications of its time, such as Rashid Rida’s al-Manar. The “small newspaper”, or ki-gazetti as Mazrui referred to it, focused primarily on themes of education; proper moral, social, and ritual conduct; gender roles; and economic prudence, among others. Heavily influenced by the scripturalist/modernist trends of the time, al-Mazrui’s efforts were aimed at creating a new Muslim subject through use of the mass media (Kresse and Mwakimako 2017; Kresse 2018). While published only for a little more than a year, excerpts from the journal were republished twice in 1944 and again in 1955 as Uwongozi or Guidance in Romanized Swahili script illustrating the importance placed on the sheikh’s thoughts by the wider public (Kresse and Mwakimako 2017, 22; Mathews 2013, 525–545).

African ajami languages are often thought of as occupying what can be called a popular register. As Ngom notes, local vernaculars in Arabic script can be utilized for all manner of popular purposes from panegyric poetry to billboards advertising goods and services (Ngom 2016). However, ajami was not merely a tool for education of the masses. Indeed, we find Arabic script vernaculars frequently being utilized for more intellectual purposes. Dmitry Bondarev, for instance, has established that an archaic form of Kanuri, which he has termed “Old Kanembu”, was largely an exegetical language used primarily among ulama of Borno located in modern-day Chad and dating to as early as the eleventh century (Bondarev 2013, 56–83). Similarly, there exist countless examples of Swahili ajami marginalia and interlinear text in East African Arabic manuscripts that serve as glosses for the learned reader, although this phenomenon has yet to be studied in detail. 6

However, such scholarly uses of ajami were not limited to the distant past. One notable example of the use of ajami for sophisticated scholarly purposes is Mawridu al-zaman fi tafsir al-qur’an, a Quranic commentary written by the Muridiyya scholar Muhammed Dem around the mid-twentieth century. Though written in the Senegalese vernacular Wolof, Jeremy Dell has pointed out that the text is aimed at an educated audience who possesses not only a familiarity with the Qur’an but also a more than passing knowledge of Arabic (Dell 2018, 55–76). What is also distinctive about this work, however, is that it was disseminated via print rather than in manuscript form.

The age of steam and print

The technological advances of the second half of the nineteenth century – what Jim Gelvin and Nile Green have referred as “the age of steam and print” – were, of course, transformative for the personal and spiritual lives of many Muslims (Gelvin and Green 2013; Huber 2013). Advances in steamship technology from the 1850s, along with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, rapidly increased the mobility of Muslims across the various European colonial oceanic empires. The number of Muslims traveling on the hajj during the second half of the century, for instance, increased exponentially with more believers taking part in the pilgrimage to Mecca than at any other time in the history of Islam (Tagliacozzo 2013, 103–120; Low 2008, 269–290). The development of regularized steamship routes also led to the emergence of new networks of commerce and labor as well as religious scholarship.

Aided by the corresponding emergence of regularized steamship routes across the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, print in various Islamicate languages (most notably Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish) exploded across the Muslim world from the 1850s onward. Print was, in many ways, the great democratizer of Muslim public and religious discourse and its study is a well-established and growing field (Robinson 1993; Cole 2002; Stark 2007; Green 2011; Ami Ayalon 2016). Advances in print technology – via both lithography and moveable type – revolutionized the accessibility of knowledge among Muslims (Cole 2002; Nemeth 2017). A great deal of research over the last decade and a half has focused on the proliferation of Islamic texts that accompanied the development of cheap lithographic printing as well as advances in moveable type. The work of Ami Ayalon, in particular, has greatly enriched our understanding of mass Arabic printing especially in the important centers of Cairo and Beirut through the second half of the nineteenth century. Most of his work, and that of others, has tended to center on what we might refer to as the most elite circles of the publishing world backed and promoted by intellectuals and business men associated with the so-called nahda or “awakening” movement as well as adherents of scripturalist reform – in either the Arabic speaking lands of the Middle East or Persianate South Asia (Robinson 1993; Cole 2002; Green 2011; El Shamsy 2020).

The progress of mechanical print certainly enabled the mass publication of the great classics of Islamic learning in fields such as law, theology, and mysticism, previously available only in manuscript form, and thus accessible to only a limited audience. But the rise of cheap, rapid printing in its various forms (e.g., lithographic, moveable type, and later, linotype and off-set printing) also led to the proliferation of enumerable voices that were for the first time able to simultaneously participate in larger, global currents of Muslim discourse while also giving expression to local views and concerns.

The print revolution, as it has been called, produced countless texts by authors reflecting their parochial interests, as well as demonstrating their engagement and understanding of issues of concern to the larger global community of Muslims. Commonly referred to as chapbooks, such works included hagiographies (the tales of saints), legal primers, essays, sermons, and collections of poetry among many other genres. Generally printed in limited numbers, with cheap bindings and on poor quality paper, such texts fall into the category of what Ami Ayalon has termed “pious print”. They were, by and large, not intended for sale. Instead, they were meant to be distributed to particular constituencies for various devotional, ideological, or ritual purposes usually for free or at a nominal cost.

It is important to point out that the trajectories of print, however, were not uni-directional. Nor was it the monopoly of elite intellectuals or scripturalist reformers. By the start of the twentieth century, African Muslims were avid consumers of print, but they were also emerging as producers. By the early 1900s, religious texts printed in Cairo and Bombay were readily available, for instance, in the coastal towns of East Africa, as were reformist newspapers such as Rashid Rida’s al-Manar. By the second decade of the century, Muslim scholars in both East and West Africa were also producing a small but steady stream of religious texts and periodicals of their own. These works ranged from popular newspapers to dense theological works as well as popular – and easy to read–collections of poetry and hagiographies aimed at extolling the virtues of the awliya. Such works were concerned with matters ranging from language politics and local practice to broader reformist issues such as the application of sharia and kafa’a (the Islamic legal notion that a woman may marry only one who is of the same – or superior – social, genealogical, or moral rank) or more prosaically, the shape of the cosmos (Reese 2008; Mathews 2013).

From one perspective, such works represent engagement with the intellectual, especially, reformist trends of the period on the part of those we might describe as regional scholars. As such, these materials demonstrate a dynamic, multidirectional flow of knowledge 7 and the emergence of a more horizontally integrated and intellectually engaged global community of Muslims. Thus, not only are the ideas of what we have come to regard as the main figures of reformist thought – such as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida – disseminated to a large audience, but also that we begin to see local scholars actively engaging with those ideas, seeking to become part of a broad globalizing discourse. However, we need to bear in mind that this newly emergent discourse was not driven by a few stray copies of al-Manar, but by sustained interactions made possible by a combination of new imperial networks of transportation and print.

The development of print in East Africa can be traced to the founding of the Matba’a al-Sultaniyya – The Sultan’s Press – by the Omani Sultan Sayyid Barghash bin Sa’id (1836–1888) in 1879 (Sadgrove 2008, 151–178). In West Africa, local print production seems to have arrived somewhat later, among the earliest examples being the Matba’a al-Amiriyya (the Emir’s Press officially called the Native Authority Printer) that began publishing Arabic books in the mid-1920s (Dobronravin 2017, 43–69). The former was known primarily for printing government circulars in Arabic as well as a range of Ibadi religious texts which the Sultans undertook as a sadaqa or pious deed. The latter was known for the production of a number of important local historical texts including early print editions of the Borno and Kano Chronicles (Sadgrove 2008, 153; Dobronravin 2017, 49–50) .Curiously, while printed works in both Arabic and ajami languages became increasingly common after 1900, these were frequently not produced locally. Rather, large numbers of books and pamphlets were imported from emergent centers of print, especially Cairo. Importantly, these “imports” consisted not only of materials hailing from the classical tradition or foreign authors. Rather, an increasing proportion of such works were materials authored by East or West African authors and intended for audiences at home. While we know of a connection between Cairo and northern Nigerian towns such Kano, we currently know a great deal more about the networks of print and publication that were emerging between Egypt and the port towns of East Africa via the Suez Canal.

By 1900, regular steamer connections developed a transportation web that helped expand the circulation of East African laborers and merchants between the ports of the western Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Regional ports such as Berbera and Mogadishu in Somalia and Mombasa and Zanzibar in British East Africa were linked to a wider world via larger imperial hubs such as Aden in southern Arabia, Durban in South Africa, and Suez in Egypt. Many of these routes were not new. Movement along them, however, was now faster, more regular, and less expensive than ever before, allowing increasing numbers of Muslims – mostly men – to transcend what we might view as their traditional geographic networks.

Traditionally, the ulama of East Africa and the Horn of Africa looked to the holy places of the Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) and the learned centers of the Hadramawt (such as Tarim) for spiritual instruction. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, we begin to witness a significant shift in these intellectual networks. From this point onward, we begin to find examples of East African ulama who increasingly found their way to Egypt and the cities of the Mediterranean. The famed Comorian scholar Sayyid Ahmed ibn Sumayt Ba-Alawi seems to have initiated this shift when he journeyed to Istanbul in the mid-1880s. Abdullah BaKathir soon followed in his footsteps in the 1890s, sandwiching a lengthy detour of Egypt in between a visit to his ancestral homeland Hadramawt and the Hijaz. The Zanzibari scholar and poet, Muhammad Barwani, published an extensive account of his travels in Egypt and the Levant just before the outbreak of World War I (Barwani 1915).

By the beginning of the twentieth century, however, we find not only scholarly tourists finding their way to Cairo. Rather, increasing numbers of students were seeking to drink from the fountain of knowledge at the legendary al-Azhar University. Somali students were reportedly attending the university in significant numbers as early as 1905, and by 1914 a full-page announcement appeared in a special issue of the Zanzibar Gazette encouraging Swahili students to study there (Sadgrove 2008). This emergent nexus is important because it was from the printing houses of Cairo – especially those in the streets and alleys around al-Azhar – that we see the emergence of East Africa’s modern print tradition.

Cairo was regarded as a capital of Arabic printing and book production by 1900. Cheap print led to the rapid development of a lively print culture in urban Egypt from the second half of the nineteenth century. But the real explosion in widespread print, for reasons not yet entirely understood, did not occur until the early twentieth century. Literally dozens of small “boutique” firms, mainly in Cairo and Alexandria, produced an eclectic array of books, pamphlets, and newspapers for the consumption of a growing reading public. Concentrated in the area of “old” Cairo around the Khan al-Khalili and al-Azhar, a few of these, such as the Maktaba al-Salafiyya established in 1909, tended to serve particular ideological agendas, and in their case, scripturalist reform (Lauzière 2010, 379). Most, however, were modest establishments that subsisted largely by printing what they judged the public wished to read and producing works on commission or for a flat fee. These might include scholarly commentaries, collections of sermons, mystical poetry, or hagiographies of local saints among many other texts. It was to one of these latter firms that many from East Africa and the Indian Ocean turned to publish their work: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi.

Founded by a family of printers from near Aleppo in Syria in the mid-nineteenth century the Matba’a al-Halabi appears to have been the publisher of choice for many pro-Sufi, anti-scripturalist elements from East Africa and the Horn but also from Aden and as far east as Southeast Asia. Among East African collections, it is also not unusual to come across bespoken editions of classical texts such as al-Ghazzali’s Ihya ilum al-din (The Revival of Religion) produced for particular markets and paid for through the patronage of local benefactors. However, we also find numerous works by local African authors appearing under their imprimatur including Shadhili and Qadiri hagiographies, theological primers, commentaries on grammar, fiqh, and hadith (Laffan 2013, 25–39; Bang 2011, 103–104). Some of the works published were those of prominent regional scholars such as Ahmed b. Sumayt, who was an early adopter of print. His al-Ibtihaj fi bayan istlilah al-minhaj, a commentary on Nawawi’s al-Minhaj al-talibin, written shortly before his death in 1925, was published by his son Umar, with significant additions, via al-Halabi in 1935. There were many other works written by individuals with more localized reputations.

Among the most notable of these were the Somali ulama, Abdullahi al-Qutbi and Qassim al-Barawi, both adherents of the Qadiriyya Sufi order and followers of the renowned Sheikh Uways b. Muhammad al-Barawi (d. 1909.). Al-Qutbi’s most notable work was al-Majmu’a al-mubaraka (The Blessed Collection), published by al-Halabi in 1919. This was, in fact, a series of four pamphlets written while in self-imposed exile in Cairo during the First World War, variously regarded as a screed against supposed heterodox beliefs of Sayid Muhammad Abdullah Hassan, the so-called “Mad Mullah”, a didactic primer for correct behavior and belief aimed at a lightly Islamized and largely nomadic population or an anti-scripturalist polemic (Reese 2008). Qassim al-Barawi’s best known book was a collection of devotional poems, al-Majmu’a al-qasa’id (literally, A Collection of Qasidas), that consisted of poetic odes dedicated to praise of the Prophet Muhammad as well as Qassim’s spiritual guide, Sheikh Uways. Though locally focused, both illustrate the growing connectivity between East African Muslims and the wider community of believers during the first half of the twentieth century. Al-Qutbi’s book was praised by a Lebanese alim and virulent anti-Salafi, Yusuf Isma’il Nabhani, for instance, in a promotional blur, declaring it “one of the best religious works written in our age”. For his part, not only did al-Barawi avail himself of what seems to be a Somali-Qadiri connection with Halabi pioneered by al-Qutbi, but he also noted in his introduction that one inspiration for the collection was listening to the narration of al-mujadid fi zamanna (The Renewer of Our Age) by Yusuf Isma’il Nabhani who would remedy the troubles of the age. Indeed, al-Barawi drew extensively from Nabhani’s work Was’il al-wasul (The Means of Attainment) as support for the permissibility of prophetic intercession (Reese 2008, 188–190). What is particularly interesting, here, is that al-Barawi never traveled to Egypt and his knowledge of both Nabhani and Halabi had to come second hand. Yet, this contemporary fellow traveler along the path of the saints became an important spiritual touchstone.

African Islamic literature: an assessment

The relationship between Somali authors and Cairene publishers in many ways encapsulates the Islamic written tradition in Africa. Muslims in Africa have been consumers and producers of Islamic literature since the faith’s introduction. From the earliest period, we find African Muslims well versed in the core curriculum of Islamic learning. African believers are conversant with the major canonical works in all of the disciplines of the religious sciences from Quranic exegesis (tafsir) to jurisprudence (fiqh) and Sufism (tasawwuf). Equally important, African scholars have also contributed to and expanded the corpus of learning through their own works in law, exegesis, poetry, and mysticism.

Their intellectual creativity, however, was not limited to Arabic. African languages written in Arabic script flourished across the continent from at least the eleventh century and were utilized for purposes both sacred and profane. Ajami scripts were used to create poetic odes to the Prophet, legal primers, and mystical guides from West Africa to the Swahili Coast to South Africa. Arabic script, however, was also utilized to compose letters, write treaties, and prepare other correspondence both amongst African communicators and occasionally with the European colonial state. In some cases, ajami continues to this day as a means of local written discourse.

The emergence of print similarly illustrates African Muslim fidelity to the Islamic written tradition, literary creativity, and connectivity to the global community of believers. Scholars and their patrons adopted the new technology as a way to increase the availability of certain standard works form the Islamic canon. However, they were equally enthusiastic about using print to produce original works of their own. Equally important, print – along with new networks of interaction created by steam – facilitated the development of new relationships and scholarly encounters that ensured African Muslims remained integral members of the global community of believers.


What we recognize as Tasawwuf or Sufism developed somewhat later.

For complete copies of these works, see the Sankori Institute of Islamic-African Studies International “Your Light of the Age” website,

“Your Light of the Age”, Sankori Institute of Islamic-African Studies International,

Others versions of this story indicate her bondage was the result of a failed elopement while in her teens.

Thanks to Mauro Nobili for highlighting this point and providing valuable bibliography.

Examples may be found in the digital Maalim Idris Collection (EAP 1114) from Zanzibar hosted by the British Library.

In addition to being commented upon in international centers of learning such as Cairo and Beirut, Al-Qutbi’s work was read and positively remarked upon by more regional figures, most notably Muhammad Ali Luqman and al-Qadi Da’ud al-Battah, two important reformist figures in British Aden, who reviewed the collection for colonial censors, both of whom commented on its positive moral message.


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