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[This entry articulates the themes and values in the languages and literatures of Muslims in sub-SaharanAfrica. Reflecting major linguistic divisions, it comprises two articles: East Africa andWest Africa. For discussion of the literatures of North Africa, see Arabic Literature. See also Islam, article on Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa.]

East Africa

Islam was brought to the peoples of eastern Africa mainly by settlers who arrived either by land, traveling up the Nile, or by sea, crossing the Red Sea or the Indian Ocean. Since the Arab conquest of Egypt(641 CE), the cultures of many East African peoples have become entirely Islamic. Some nations were only partially islamized because Islam became dominant only in part of their territory, or only in the cities; examples are the speakers of Amharic, Gurage, and Oromo in Ethiopia. Apart from a few examples, most African ethnic groups have been islamized wholly, or not at all. This demonstrates that individual conversions to Islam are, or were, rare, although they are the rule in Christianity. Most conversions of a nation or tribe probably took place after the king or chief was converted to Islam. Some nations, such as the Nubian kingdom of the Middle Ages, were fragmented under the impact of Islam; others, such as the Nilotic peoples, have resisted Islam throughout history. Unlike the hard-hit Nubians, most African peoples retained their cultural identity and individuality after islamization; for example, the Somali and the Swahili, though neighbors and both adherents of the Shafi’i school, are very different in culture and cosmology.

Languages. The islamized peoples ofEast Africaspeak the following major languages, from north to south.

Nubian was the literary language of the Nubian kingdom, which survived until around ‘1400 CE. Manuscripts in Coptic script on Christian subjects are still being discovered. At present the Nubians are islamized, but no Islamic literature is known to have been composed in Nubian; the scribes write Arabic.

Bedawiye or Beja is a Cushitic language spoken on the Red Sea coast of theSudan. The Beja were Islamized well before the Nubians, but they are not known to have developed a literary language.

The languages of the eastern Sahara, Teda (Tubu), Zaghawa, Masalit, and Tama-Mararit are only spoken languages. Their speakers use Arabic for all literary purposes.

In the northern three-quarters of Eritrea Tigre is spoken. It is a Semitic language with no significant tradition of writing in either Arabic or Ethiopic script. Afar, spoken in the triangle between the Red Sea, theAwash River, and the escarpment of the Ethiopian High Plateau, also lacks a written tradition in either script.

A number of Bantu languages are spoken south of the Equator by populations including some Muslims. A few Muslim tracts have appeared in Kituba, spoken inBrazzaville. Kingwana is spoken by the Zairean Muslims inKivu,Shaba, andKisanganiprovinces, who write literary Swahili.Yaois spoken in northernMozambique, extending intoTanzaniaandMalawi; for literary purposes Swahili is used. Nyanja, the chief language ofMalawi, is written by Christians and Muslims using roman script; some tracts have appeared. In Shona, the chief language of Zimbabwe, a life of Muhammad has been published in roman script by the Zimbabwe Islamic Youth Council.

At least two dialects of the Malagasy language ofMadagascarwere used for works written in Arabic script before the beginning of the twentieth century. Today the orthography of Merina, the dialect of the capitalTananariveand surrounding districts, is so well established that all writers, Christian and Muslim, write their works in it.

The Bantu language Makua is spoken in northernMozambiquealong the coast near the Tanzanian border. The Makua have been islamized for several centuries. A few manuscripts in Makua in Arabic script are known to exist. The so-called Zanzibaris, the Muslims of Natal, numbering about five thousand, speak Makua among themselves.

Literature. The contents of Islamic literatures of eastern Africa are fairly similar inEthiopiaandSomaliaas well as along the Swahili coast. The prose works comprise chronicles and other history texts, such as biographies of the prophet Muhammad, the Biblical prophets, ‘Ali, Husayn, and Sufi saints; there are also works on fiqh, shai’ah, tawhid, and astrology.

As in all Islamic literatures, East African poetry is a splendid contribution to art. Verse translations of Arabic poems have been made in many languages; for example, the Burdah of al-Busiri is popular in both Fulani and Swahili. In Swahili, there are half a dozen poetic versions of the Mi’raj, Muhammad’s journey to heaven, but none has been traced to an external origin. This type of popular religious poetry, composed by scholars, helps to spread Islamic ideas among all segments of the population.

Egyptian influence. Ever since Arabic and Islam came to dominateEgyptit has played a leading role inAfrica, radiating Islamic culture and literature in all directions. The great jurist and theologian `Abdallah alShafi’i (d. 820) spent the last years of his life in Egypt; his legal school spread after his death to most of Egypt, all along the Red Sea and the East African coast, and as far as Malaysia and Indonesia. Even today a large number of the books and pamphlets on tawhid, fiqh, poetry, or fiction sold in bookstores inMombasaorSingaporeare printed inEgypt. The great Egyptian poet Sharaf ud-Din al-Busiri (d. 1296) wrote two long poems in praise of the prophet Muhammad that became famous throughout Africa-the Burdah and the Hamziyah, still recited fromMoroccotoIndonesia. Both have been translated into Swahili.

Apart from a few classical authors, the vast majority of Arabic literary works that have influenced the Islamic nations of eastern Africa are popular tales, some in poetic form, but most in prose, and not in classical Arabic but in modern colloquial or postclassical written Arabic. These prose works are nearly all printed inCairo, while the colloquial poetic texts usually circulate in local editions. These printed booklets (only a few can be called books) are of two kinds. The first comprises Islamic legends beginning with the Creation, Adam and Eve, the Qisas al-anbiyd’, the Sirah and the Qiydmah, and ranging to the Qatl al-Husayn and lives of the saints (awhyd’). The other type are popular works on Islamic duties.

Amharic. Amharic is the chief Semitic language ofEthiopia. It is called Amara or Amarinya by its speakers who number well over twenty million people. It is not known when Islam began to penetrate the Ethiopian Highlands, the heartland of the Amharic language, but it appears that at least the eastern part of the country was influenced by Islam from the thirteenth century on. The capitalAddis Ababawas founded by the Emperor Menelik II only about a century ago. Its citizens, including more than fifty thousand Muslims, came from various parts of the country and its sixty-seven language groups; they use Amharic as a common language. The Islamic religious leaders, most of whom are shaykhs of the Qadiriyah order, have learned Arabic, but most of the population know only Amharic. Learned works on Islamic law and theology are in Arabic; the liturgical works in Amharic can be obtained in the three Islamic bookshops ofAddis Ababa. Fewer than a dozen such books have been printed; the majority exist only in manuscript form, always in the Amharic script. Here are some fragments of Islamic liturgy, called zikr in Amharic (Ar., dhikr), intended for recitation.

The Merits of Friday

When the dawn arrives on Friday,

Hell turns into glowing embers.

For the Muslims in the Fire punishment will be suspended.

Even for the unbelievers punishment will be much lighter.

Whosoever dies on Friday will not suffer in the Fire.

On the Friday, by God’s favour will the souls converse together.

On the night preceding Friday Muslims should perform the zikr. (Freely adapted after Drewes, 1968, p. 15)

Zikr for the Holy Prophet

Prophet whose neck is like a golden flask

whose eyes adorned with black antimony shine

like the moon shines in the darkest night you are my medicine,

my amulet come quickly, help me, a true slave of God.


Prophet whose fingers shine like stars at night

who leads the faithful intoParadise

we all who say Muhammad is our guide

we all who make perfection our high goal

may we be safe when Resurrection comes.


Prophet whose calves resemble golden cups

our hearts are pure of sensuality

for soon our bodies will fall into dust

we love you, we are yearning like dry land

for your own love, may it soon fall like rain.


To you God has assigned His Paradise

where virgins clothed in silk, rest on divans

Oh ruler of the world, oh king of kings

you are for me like trousers, like a shirt,

please help me when my soul feels overcome.


You are my shield, my shelter and my sword!

You are my food, my needed beverage.

Please help me when my grave is filled with dirt

to find my words, to answer as I should

the dark and frightening angels of the tomb.

(Freely adapted after Drewes, 1968, pp. 15-16)

Oromo. Also called Galla, Oromo is spoken over a large part of central, western, and southeastern Ethiopiaand in northern Kenya; it is a Cushitic language related to Somali. The millions of Oromo speakers are divided by religion: many are Christians; those who live in the EthiopianprovinceofArusiare Muslims; and the vast majority still adhere to their indigenous religion.

There is a wealth of oral traditions in Oromo, but very little of this has yet been published. The Islamic traditions in particular are poorly represented; only two publications by B. W. Andrzejewski (1972, 1974) give oral Islamic texts. These are all connected with the veneration of the Islamic saints, whose lives are narrated by the Oromo storytellers in tales full of morals and miracles; praise poems are also recited about the saints’ virtues and holiness.

Harari. The Harari language is used for literary works in Arabic script in the city ofHarar, easternEthiopia. Its chief prose work is the Kitab al-Fard’id, which contains the basic doctrinal and moral precepts of Islam. Much of the poetry in Harari is liturgical, called zikri and intended to be recited during nocturnal prayer meetings, often under the supervision of the local leaders of the Qadiriyah. Here are a few of the almost six hundred lines of the Zikri of `Abd al-Malik.

Oh Prophet may God’s blessing be upon you

we seek our refuge with you from our problems.

You are a medicine for all diseases.

Praying to God for you will be salvation.


Oh Prophet whom the Lord of light created

from light that is more radiant than sunshine.

Oh Prophet who revealed the hidden knowledge,

whose name was first of all the names God mentioned.


Oh God admit the people who have studied

and love the humble servants who implore Thee.

Open for us the shining gate of mercy,

as Thou hast showered mercy on Thy Prophet.


Oh Prophet who hast filled our hearts with splendour,

pray God for us that He may give us blessing.

His blessings have no end and no beginning.

May you guide us towards the gate of Heaven.

(Freely adapted after Drewes, 1976, p. 181)

Gurage. Living in central Ethiopia between the Awash and Omo rivers, the Gurage form a dialect cluster within the subfamily of the Ethiopian Semitic languages. One of their seven tribes, the Silt’e, is islamized. They use their own language for their Islamic literature, as well as Amharic, which at least the educated among them speak well. All are conservative Shafi’is. The men migrate toAddis Ababaonce a year after the harvest to earn a supplementary income, and there they learn more about Islam than in their own mountainous countryside.

Islam may have been introduced in east Gurage by missionaries from Harar some three hundred years ago. One female saint, Makkula, is particularly venerated, especially in the Makkula mosque near her grave, where zikr is recited every Thursday night. The present leader of the Gurage Muslims is Sayyid Budala Abbaramuz, known as Getoch or Shekhoch, the head of the Qadiriyah order for all the Gurage and the Qutb (spiritual center) of the age who was created before Adam, so his followers say. He writes his own zikr hymns, all in Arabic, which are printed as a liturgy for his followers. Here follows the last stanza of a long poem in praise of Shekhoch, written by a Silt’e Gurage (after Drewes’s translation):

By God’s good grace this poem is complete.

Your faithful follower is drunk with love

with love for you who were created first.

Lord may our end be good on the Last Day.

May his light shine upon us. Bless Muhammad.

Somali. The Somali language is spoken in the Horn of Africa, the eastern corner of the continent, roughly east of a line running north to south from Djibouti to the point where the Equator meets the Indian Ocean. The Somalis were probably islamized in the late Middle Ages when they still lived in what was to becomeBritish Somaliland, whence they expanded south and west during the centuries that followed.

Somali literature was unwritten until 1972 when an orthography based on the roman script was accepted. Numerous books were soon published containing traditional Somali prose and poetry. Originally, the Islamic literature of the Somali was written exclusively in Arabic. Although Andrzejewski (1964) has said that there is no truly Islamic literature in the Somali language, the influence of Islam is well illustrated by the following love poem, composed by a caravan guide.

No oryx will expose her young one to the hunter’s eye; then why do you so shamelessly expose your thigh?

A flash of lightning, which thirst can it satisfy?

How can my heart be happy, when you just pass by?

When I am being carried to the grave come to my bier and whisper a sweet word.

I strained my eyes to get a glimpse of you.

It was like lightning flashing in the distance.

My heart is single: no one can divide my love.

Alas! The object of my love is distant like the moon.

Until I die I will continue singing songs.

With my last breath my last verse will go out.

(Freely adapted after Andrzejewski, 1964, p. 146)

The poem betrays its Arabian inspiration in several elements: the oryx occurs frequently in Arabic poetry; and the description of repeated lightning preceding longawaited rains is found in the poetry of many people of easternAfrica, with an early Arabic example quoted by A. J. Arberry (Arabic Poetry, Cambridge, 1965, p. 19).

The following poem was composed in the late Middle Ages, when Islam started expanding.

No house can hold a saint, a friend of God.

He does not own a building nor a field.

He leaves the fields and travels to the hills.

The desert weeps when he has gone away.

The saint will pray to God while shedding tears:

Oh Lord my heart is broken and distressed!

What I will ask of Thee is not a house,

Nor precious stones, nor buxom concubines;

Not even any of those gardens high

Where all the trees are full of scented fruits.

I only want your presence near my soul

For ever after may I see Thy light.

The author of this poem, Shaykh Abdurrahmaan Ismaa’uul (Ar., `Abd al-Rahman Isma’il; d. 1491), was an important figure in the history of what is now northern Somalia. His work in the Djibouti region preceded the great expansion of Islam that was checked only by the Portuguese coming to the aid of the Ethiopian emperor in 1541.

South   Africa. There are some 25 million people in South Africa, of whom fewer than 2 percent are Muslims; fewer than ten thousand of these are black Muslims, whose languages are Zulu and Makua. The Qur’an has been translated into Zulu. The largest Muslim group are Indians, mainly from Gujarat and thePunjab; they number some 160,000. Most of them are fluent in English and use Gujerati only as a home language. Young Indian Muslims learn Urdu in school as their language of culture and literature, but they read all their Islamic literature in English, including fiqh-books, prayer manuals, and theology.

The only original Islamic literature in South Africa arose in the nineteenth century and was written in Afrikaans in Arabic script, making Afrikaans the only European language to have been regularly used for a literature in Arabic script. Afrikaans literature in Arabic script is extant in a large number of manuscripts, all dating from after 186o; the oldest were written by and for Hanafi Afrikaans-speaking Muslims. (Knappert, 1980, p. 189). Today the Afrikaans-speaking Muslims can all write Afrikaans in the modern roman orthography. These Muslims of the Cape Provinceused to be referred to as the “Cape Malays” because some of their ancestors were brought to South   Africa three hundred years ago from Java. They therefore belong to the Shafi’i school, whereas the Indian Muslims of Natal belong to the Hanafi school; the two groups have very different customs.

Swahili. Of all the Islamic literatures of Africa the Swahili contribution is by far the most extensive, even though numerically Swahili speakers come well behind the Berber, Fulani, Galla, Hausa, Mande, and Somali nations. Swahili literature is also the oldest: the first datable text comes from 1652. The history of Swahili literature is closely linked to the geographical position of the Swahili coast betweenMogadishuandMozambique, a thousand miles long and only forty miles wide. The poetic activity was the fruit of the commercial towns, which all date from the Middle Ages: Barawa, Kisimaiu, Siu, Pate, Lamu, Malindi,Mombasa, Tanga, Bagamoyo,Dar es Salaam, Kilwa, Mikindani, andZanzibar. Commercial ties with the Islamic Middle East existed from the early eighth century, mainly with the port towns along the Gulf, the Red Sea, and the South Arabian coast, and later also with the towns on the west coast of India.

Swahili territory was occupied by the Portuguese from 1498 to 1729. Reislamized after 1729, the Swahili towns flourished, and so did their literature, especially the Islamic epic, the Kasidas (Ar., Qasidah; hymns to Muhammad), and the Waadhi or admonitions to believers. The tradition of writing Islamic poetry continued throughout the nineteenth century and is alive today. Muslim scholars write hymns and prayers (dua, Ar., du’a’) to be sung in the mosque. Especially popular is the celebration of the prophet Muhammad’s nativity, during which specially composed kasidas and epic legends are recited or sung; both the feast and the recital are called maulidi (Knappert, Mi’raj and Maulid; Leiden, 1971). Perhaps the finest religious poems in Swahili are the elegies (malalamiko, Ar., marthiyah) in honor of recently deceased men of merit (rarely of women).

Wedding songs (nyimbo za ndoa) are composed freely by local poets, often using lines from traditional songs, and are sung at every wedding, wishing God’s blessing and a fruitful marriage for the couple. Lyrical songs, if in one of two traditional meters, are often referred to as tarabu songs (the form taarab is incorrect; the Arabic word is tarb, “entertainment”). Their theme is love for a sweetheart, for parents, or for a child. A frequent topic is a man’s complaint about his girlfriend’s unfaithfulness.

By far the most frequent meter in Swahili is the utenzi (tendi) with stanzas of four times eight syllables. It is much in use for didactic poems, easy for boys to memorize, concerning the duties of of salat, sawm, obedience to parents or to one’s mu’allim, and so on. More interesting are the seventy-two epic songs in Swahili, more than half of which recount historic legends and didactic chronicles of the sacred history of Islam in verse, extolling the exploits of `Ali ibn Abu Talib and his heroic contemporaries. This Islamic epic poetry is a strong living tradition, written down only to be memorized and recited or sung by trained singers (waimbaji).


Allen, John W. T. Tendi: Six Examples of a Swahili Verse Form.London, 1971.

Andrzejewski, B. W. “Allusive Diction in Galla Hymns in Praise of Sheikh Hussein of Bale.” African Language Studies 13 (1972): 1-31. Andrzejewski, B. W. “Sheikh Hussen ofBaliin Galla Oral Traditions.” In II quarto congresso internazionale di studi etiopici. Vol. i.Rome, 1974, pp. 463-48o.

Andrzejewski, B. W., andI.M. Lewis. Somali Poetry.Oxford, 1964. Bakari, Mtoro bin Mwinyi. Desturi za Waswahili.Gottingen, 1903. Bfittner, Carl G. Anthologie aus der Suaheli-Literatur.Berlin, 1894. Cerulli, Enrico. “The Folk-Literature of the Galla of Southern

Abyssinia.” Harvard African Studies 3 (1922): 9-228. Cerulli, Enrico. La lingua et la storia di Harar.Rome, 1936. Dammann, Ernst. Dichtungen in der Lamu-mundart des Suaheli.Hamburg, 1940.

Drewes, A. J. “Islamic Literature inCentral Europe.” Paper read at SOAS.London, 1968.

Drewes, A. J. Classical Arabic inCentral Ethiopia.Leiden, 1976. Knappert, Jan. “Miiraji, the Swahili Legend of Mohammed’s Ascension.” Swahili (Dar es Salaam) 36 (1966): 105-156.

Knappert, Jan. Traditional Swahili Poetry.Leiden, 1967. Knappert, Jan. Swahili Islamic Poetry. 3 vols.Leiden, 1971. Knappert, Jan. Swahili Songs of Love and Passion.Los Angeles, 1972.

Knappert, Jan. “Swahili Tarabu Songs.” Afrika an Ubersee 60.1-2 0977): 116-155.

Knappert, Jan. Myths and Legends of the Swahili.Nairobi, 1978. Knappert, Jan. Epic Poetry in Swahili and Other African Languages.Leiden, 1983.

Knappert, Jan. “Swahili Sailor Songs.” Afrika and Ubersee 68.1 (1985): 105-133.

Knappert, Jan. “Songs of the Swahili Women.” Afrika an Ubersee 69.1 (1986): 101-137.

Knappert, Jan. “The Islamic Poetry of Africa.” journal for Islamic Studies, no. 1o (199o): 91-140.

Samatar, Said S. Oral Poetry and Somali Nationalism: The Case of Sayyid Mahammad `Abdille Hasan.Cambridge, 1982.

Selms, Adriaan van. Arabies-Afrikaanse Studies.Amsterdam, 1951.


West Africa

There are two levels of Islamic literature in African Islam, as Knappert (1990) points out. First is the scholarly level of the learned African `ulama’, fully literate in classical Arabic, who compose in that language. This literature is not essentially different from its counterparts elsewhere in the Islamic world. It probably began in copying directly from classical Arabic sources imported from North Africa and Egypt, then by making extracts and summaries. Gradually the African `ulama’ began to compose original works in classical Arabic in which they attempted to interpret the shari `ah in the light of African conditions and to explain Islamic theology against a background of prevailing African animism. Typical of such endeavors inWest Africawere the Arabic works of the nineteenthcentury Fulani Islamic reformers of Hausaland (see Musa, 1992). Local historical chronicles in classical Arabic were also written by West African `ulama’ from the seventeenth century onward.

In addition to this indigenous classical Arabic literature-and no doubt arising out of it-there also developed in the Fulfulde and Hausa languages what may be considered a subclassical or vernacular tradition of African Islamic literature. It deals exclusively with Islamic themes and is written in these vernacular languages using a modified form of the Arabic script known as ajami, (from the Arabic root ‘-j-m, “foreign”). Various diacritical marks were evolved, in addition to those already existing in the classical Arabic script, to serve the phonetic needs of these African tongues; the process in Hausa is described by Hiskett (1975).

It is uncertain when these subclassical scripts and the literatures they record first emerged. Paper perishes rapidly in the African climate, especially in the storage conditions of earlier times. Written Islamic verse in Zenaga, a language of the Saharan Berbers, can be traced back to about AH 1112/1700 CE, although it may have been extant much earlier. A written Islamic literature in Fulfulde probably emerged somewhat later, in the eighteenth century, perhaps under the influence of neighbouring Zenaga (see Haafkens, 1983, and Seydou, 1972). Hausa written literature is believed to have arisen later still, during the nineteenth century, as the Hausa peasantry were drawn more closely into Islam; it gathered force after the successful jihad in Hausaland in the early nineteenth century. The peasants were illiterate in the Arabic script in which this vernacular Islamic material was written, but they could understand it when it was read to them by the literate `ulama’, which would have been impossible if the material had remained in Arabic. A similar situation applied among the Fulani nomadic herders, for whose Islamic instruction the Fulfulde material was largely composed. Once it began, this vernacular written literature burgeoned, especially in Hausa, which now has a voluminous corpus of ajami composition.

Fulfulde and Hausa written vernacular literatures are almost exclusively in verse. Both derive from the classical Arabic genre of nazm, didactic or instructional verse. Their content is drawn from the Qur’an and from tafsir, the classical Arabic Qur’anic commentary. They consist typically of descriptions of divine punishment and reward (Hausa wa’azi, from the Arabic root w-`-z, “warn,” “admonish”). Frequent in this category are poems about dunyd (Arabic and Hausa, “`world”), which are Islamic memento mori. They personify the world as a painted harlot or as a fractious mare that throws her rider. The poet dwells on the transitory nature of worldly pleasures and on the untrustworthiness of the world. Here is an example from Hausa of this well-known genre:

We know, by God, that we shall go,

On the day that death befalls us

There is no doubt that she will attack us

For our women and our riches.

Woe to us on the day it shall be said,

`What of So-and-so? Today he has passed away’.

Everything of his has passed away,

All the heirs now drink the soup.

When the day of your death comes,

You will forget son and grandchild,

That wealth you have hidden away,

Will not ransom you, you hear?

(Hiskett, 1975, P. 29)

Equally popular in both vernacular written traditions is a category known in Hausa as madahu (Ar., madih or madh, “panegyric”). This consists of praise poems to the prophet Muhammad that closely follow the format, imagery, and content of classical Arabic verse compositions such as the Burdah of al-Busiri, the `Ishriniyah of al-Fazazi, and other North African and Egyptian panegyrics. Such prophetic panegyric is closely associated with the spread of Sufism inWest Africa. The following are examples of this genre, the first from Fulfulde and the second from Hausa.

More shining than all the pearls or rubies is Muhammad, More beauty than all gold and silver has Muhammad, More splendour than all moonshine or sunlight has Muhammad,

More sweetness than the purest honey has Muhammad, More quenching for the thirst than water is Muhammad.

(Knappert, 1990, after Seydou)

Heaven is lofty but you know it does not reach

So high as to equal the glory of Muhammad.

The throne of Heaven is beneath him in respect of glory.

Because of his glory, our Prophet Muhammad,

His light exceeds the light of the moon on the fourteenth day of the month,

Because there is no light like the light of Muhammad.

(Hiskett, 1975, P. 45)

Among the most popular categories of Islamic verse in both these West African languages are poems describing the prophet Muhammad’s isrd’, his fabulous night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem upon the mythical riding beast al-Buragah, and his subsequent mi’raj (ascension) through the seven heavens to the throne of God. The following extract is taken from a long Hausa poem that tells the story of this event.

In the night, on a Monday Gabriel came to Ahmad

[he said]

`The king greets you, He says He is calling,

You are to mount al-Buraqa, O Prophet Muhammad’,

And Gabriel it was who led him on to hear the call

To the palace where no other had been before, Ahmad.


There at Jerusalem he dismounted, we have heard,


And Gabriel brought water so that they might perform their ablutions a second time,

Then Gabriel said, `Ascend, O Muhammad’,

And a ladder had been placed there for him to ascend to heaven.

At the farthest lote tree Gabriel stopped,

And Muhammad said, `O Gabriel, do you leave me here alone?’

Gabriel said, O Trustworthy One, Muhammad,

Do not fear, you shall not fear today,

Go to the palace, the king calls you, Muhammad’,

Then he crossed screens and rivers of light

And came before the king who had created Muhammad.

(Hiskett, 1975, Pp. 53-55)

Both languages also feature didactic verse on theological subjects, known in Hausa as tauhidi (Ar., tawhid). Here is an example from Hausa:

The Lord God is One, the Unique,

Wherever you seek Him you will find Him,

Say He, Allah, is One,

Allah is He on whom all depend,

He begets not nor is

He begotten, And there is none like Him.

(Aliyu, 1983, p. 6)

Astrology is also a popular theme for this verse, often intended for an agricultural or pastoral audience. Thus a poet writes charmingly in Fulfulde:

Have patience! Patience, soon there will be change:

The dori-stars are not yet in the sky;

The geese fromEgypthave not yet returned;

The first warm drops of rain have yet to fall;

The last green grass is drying in the sun;

The sand is hot like ashes in the hearth;

No cloud, no plume or feather in the sky;

No mist that rests upon the sandy hills.

Patience, my cow with copper-coloured back;

Patience, white-bellied bull with twisted horns.

(Knappert, 1990, after Seydou)

This delightful piece is strikingly reminiscent of the preIslamic qasidahs ofArabia, which reflect nomadic pastoral life in a desert environment. A Hausa poet writes, in a more pedestrian vein:

The sun remains in each lunar mansion

For a period of eighteen days; then it goes to another lunar mansion.

This is the reckoning of the non-Arabs, you hear.


On the seventeenth of May is the coming in of summer,

On the seventeenth of August is the coming of the harvest season,

The cold season comes in on the sixteenth of November,

The spring is on the fifteenth of February,

Each lunar season, its lunar mansions are seven,

Start with their advent, know that they go seven, seven.

(Hiskett, 1975, p. 121)

The apparent purpose of such verse is to assist Hausa farmers to plan their planting and harvesting, though it is probably read more widely for pleasure.

There is also a tradition of unwritten vernacular Islamic literature in Fulfulde and particularly in Hausa. This consists of oral versions, often highly localized, of major Islamic folkloric cycles such as the romance of Banu Hilal, the saga of Sayf ibn Dhi- Yazan, and the Islamic version of the Alexander cycle. The Maqdmdt stories and the classical Arabic collection Qisas alanbiyd’ are also common sources for oral tales. This oral literature appears mainly to have been acquired by contacts with popular Cairene Muslim storytellers by Hausa and Fulani pilgrims and other travelers passing throughEgyptin the Middle Ages. The tales were then taken up by native storytellers and adapted for Hausa and Fulani audiences. Unlike the Swahili case, such material was seldom if ever recorded in verse in these West African languages. Verse, and the expensive paper it was written on, were reserved strictly for religious and didactic purposes, and the tales therefore continued as a purely oral tradition. Later, during the colonial period, they were written down in Hausa in the boko (English, “book”) roman script introduced by the colonial administration, not in ajami; they were then published in volumes printed and bound in European fashion. Similar recordings in Fulfulde are not known, though some may exist. Typical examples are the Alexander cycle, in Hausa Ruwan bagaja; the Maqdmdt tales, Hausa Gan doki, and the Islamic version of the Cid, Hausa Riya Dan Maikarfi. These stories are now commonly referred to as “Hausa novels,” an inappropriate term that disguises their ancient Islamic folkloric origin.

In addition to these cycles of Arabic origin, there is also a vast corpus of Hausa and Fulfulde oral narrative that is clearly of pre-Islamic folkloric origin but has picked up Islamic accretions. These color the stories but go no deeper. The genre is thus typical of the level of Hausa and Fulani society characterized by “mixed” Islam-an attenuated form of Islam syncretized with preIslamic animist culture. One example, from Hausa, is the ancient story of the monstrous pumpkin. This fantastic vegetable grew and grew, to the initial delight of the Hausa villagers who looked forward to endless supplies of pumpkin soup. But when it reached a certain size, it began to devour all the beans, then all the corn, then all the goats and cattle, and finally all the virgins. At this point the desperate villagers called in the local cult hero to save them. He drew his sword, exclaimed “There is no god but Allah,” and struck the pumpkin a mighty blow that split it asunder. At once all the goats, cattle, and virgins emerged, safe and sound. He then revealed that he was the prophet Muhammad! The story appears to be an early African wisdom tale, with the moral “Nothing is for nothing,” that acquired its prophetic twist after the introduction of Islam to West Africa. There are many such examples of pre-Islamic folkloric tales now featuring such Islamic characters as Iblis, the Mahdi, and the companions of the Prophet, especially his son-in-law `Ali.

Certain other major West African languages exhibit similar Islamic traces in their otherwise essentially African folkloric traditions, for instance Mande, Songhay, and Yoruba. These languages, spoken in the part of West Africa that was broadly dominated by the medieval Islamic empire ofMali, are characterized by the “weak”Malitradition of Islam, which largely escaped the rigors of Islamic reformism that influenced the faith in Hausaland. The early tradition of composing Islamic literature in classical Arabic certainly flourished among the Mali `ulamd’ of the Middle Ages; however, owing perhaps to the lack of a sustained reformist tendency, a vernacular written tradition never developed, and no significant ajami literature exists in these languages. Their folklore is tinged with Islam in much the same way as that of Hausa, but not to the extent that it should be regarded as a fully Islamic literary tradition.

There are at least three hundred minor vernacular languages inWest Africa. Many of these, especially those adjacent to Muslim-majority areas, contain Arabic loan words, usually in fully adapted form; most also contain Hausa loans. There is little doubt that many of these loans entered the languages during the Middle Ages through trading contacts with Muslims, especially Muslim Hausas. The Islamic reform movement in Hausaland and the jihad of the nineteenth century left behind a further accumulation of Arabic and Hausa loans. Thus the Gwaris of west central Nigeria, who remained animists until quite recently, nonetheless worship a deity they call “Allah Bango,” “Allah of the writing board,” reflecting their contacts with itinerant Hausa Muslim literates who carry the bango, a wooden slate inscribed with Qur’anic texts from which they recite; they also worship a deity they call “Mamman,” apparently derived from “Muhammad.” The oral traditions of many animist peoples of West Africa have also acquired minor tinges of Islam, but no written Islamic vernacular literatures of any significance have developed among them.

Hausa is the West African language that exhibits the richest deposits of Arabic loans. Its grammar places it unmistakably in the Chadic group, as does its native vocabulary; however, it has acquired several strata of Arabic loans that now make up a substantial proportion of its total lexicon. The first layer is an ancient one that appears to have come into the language through very early contacts with Islam viaNorth Africaand Borno. These words are often so phonologically altered that it is difficult, at first sight, to recognize their Arabic origin. Later, as the trade of the Sahara developed and encompassed Hausaland, this vocabulary of Arabic loans was enriched with words relating to commerce and associated activities. Finally, around 1112/1700, the growth of literary activities in Hausaland and the rise of centers of Islamic learning in such towns as Katsina and Kano appear to have released further Arabic vocabulary into both Hausa and Fulfulde. It seems probable that the scholarly practice of lection and commentary in these schools was responsible for this additional accretion of Arabic loans. The Muslim `slim would read his Arabic text Qur’an, tafsir, fiqh, or whatever other branch of Islamic learning he might specialize in-to his assembled students. He would then deliver his commentary in a learned variety of Fulfulde or Hausa generously larded with Arabic theological, literary, and legal terms. In time these exotic Arabic words became integrated into scholarly varieties of the indigenous languages, bequeathing to them yet another Arabic lexicon. Fulfulde in particular acquired a sacerdotal status because it was the language of the Fulani reformers of the nineteenth century; for this reason it came to be especially favored as the language of commentary in the schools of higher Islamic learning in Hausaland.


Aliyu, Muhammad Sani. “Shortcomings in Hausa Society as Seen by Representative Hausa Islamic Poets from ca. 1950 to ca. 1983.” Master’s thesis,BayeroUniversity, 1983.

Haafkens, J. Chants musulmans en Peul.Leiden, 1983. Study of the Fulfulde written vernacular tradition.

Hiskett, Mervyn. A History of Hausa Islamic Verse.London, 1975. Detailed account of the Hausa written vernacular tradition. Knappert, Jan. “The Islamic Poetry ofAfrica.” Journal for Islamic Studies, no. to (1990): 9i-140.

Musa, Sulaiman. “The Main Objectives of the Literary Works Shaykh `Uthman b. Fudi.” SellyOakColleges, Centre for Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, Papers, no. 9.Birmingham, 1992. Lists the Arabic works of the Muslim reformer of Hausaland.

Seydou, Christiane. Sildmaka et Poullori.Paris, 1972. Covers the Fulfulde written vernacular tradition.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/african-languages-and-literatures/

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