Arabic and Ajami Manuscripts in Ethiopia

13 April 2015

Hassen Muhammed Kawo

Most of the Islamic manuscripts remained until now not only unpublished but even unnoticed or forgotten in private or public libraries all over the country. A systematic campaign of collecting and microfilming Arabic Islamic manuscripts in the places where they are surely kept, before time and carelessness destroy them, is a desideratum which is sorely felt by interested scholars. Funds of Arabic Islamic manuscripts are waiting to be brought into light in every region where Muslim communities live.
—A. Gori, 2007

Ethiopia is an African country known for its literary heritage which is represented by a substantial number of works. Christian, Muslim and Jewish writers have developed manuscript traditions in Ethiopia in various fields and in various languages (especially Ge’ez, Arabic, Amharic and, to a lesser degree, other local language scripts in ajami). A great number of the histories of Islamic principalities and states in Ethiopia come directly from these local historical sources written in Arabic. The challenge is that Islamic history and culture in Ethiopia is a forgotten and understudied topic within Ethiopian studies—this is an aspect that needs to be recaptured. 

Religious texts, including the Qur’an, were introduced to Ethiopia in the early history of Islam. Books like those of Abī Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī (d. 476 AH/1083/4 AD) were brought to the Center of Shaykh Ḥussein of Bale in the 12th century. Regarding calligraphic styles, Ethiopian calligraphy is primarily naskh, with little evidence of other calligraphic influences such as Kufic, Maghribi or Diwani. Unlike Ge’ez manuscripts, Islamic manuscripts are predominantly found on paper, and rarely on parchment, which primarily carry texts and sometimes illuminations or decorations.  The reason why parchment was rarely used is that it was an expensive material.

Sharif Harar City Museum, Ethiopia
 Sharif Harar City Museum, Ethiopia

Most of these are not housed in libraries and archives, but are stored in private collections which are not identified and registered. Only a few collections are found in local and international libraries. The Institute of Ethiopian Studies (IES) has more than 300 Arabic manuscripts from 3000 Ge’ez manuscripts. There are some valuable collections of Arabic manuscripts, most of them in Harar and some of them in Wallo. Sharif Harar City Museum contains more than a thousand manuscripts in different fields. It was established by Mr Abdullahi Ali Sharif who, since the early 1990s, started gathering recordings of Harari songs. Later, with the support from the community, Mr Sharif started expanding his interests and began collecting manuscripts and other cultural artefacts. In 1998, his family residence, the Sharif Private Museum, became the first private museum in Ethiopia. A considerable portion of the Sharif collection was contributed by the citizens of Harar who trusted Mr. Sharif to take care of their heritage. Mr. Sharif developed his own conservation methods for safeguarding the manuscripts. In recognition of his lifetime devotion to the conservation of Harar’s cultural heritage, the Harari National Regional State provided the Ras Tafari House (built c. 1911) as a new venue for the collection. 

Arabic Manuscript at Sharif Harar City Museum (Image courtesy of Hassen Muhammed Kawo) Arabic Manuscript at Sharif Harar City Museum (Image courtesy of Hassen Muhammed Kawo)

Manuscripts were written in the Arabic language and a few manuscripts were written in local languages using Arabic scripts. For example: Argobba, Afaan Oromo, Afar, Alaba, Amharic, Silte, Qabena, Walane, Tigrina, Somali, etc. The ajami manuscript heritage represents many Ethiopian ethnic groups, while the Arabic literature emphasises the common heritage among Muslims. The ajami texts are an area that deserves investigation since it is not directly considered as Arabic literature but has a flavour of Arabic through its script, with borrowed words and styles. It is thus an illustration of the creation of literature in vernacular languages, through the adaptation of the Arabic script to the needs of local languages. The ajami type of literature probably appears from the 16th or 17th century onwards in the Harari (Adare) language, known from the Kitāb al-Farāiḍ (Book of Religious Duties) edited and translated from Harari into Italian by E. Cerulli in Studi Ethiopichi, La lingua e la Storia di Harar and translated into English by Emran M.Waber in 1992. These texts are found in the IES museum, as ms 256 (Harari No.5), ms 257 (Harari No.6a) and ms 265 (Harari No.25).

[Image Source: Everything Harar]

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