The Nigerian Islamic Manuscript in Public and Private Libraries

The Nigerian Islamic Manuscript in Public and Private Libraries

The Nigerian Islamic Manuscript in Public and Private Libraries, Dr Sani Umar, Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Abuja, Federal Republic of Nigeria.
The Nigerian Islamic Manuscript in Public and Private Libraries, Dr Sani Umar, Department of History and Diplomatic Studies, University of Abuja, Federal Republic of Nigeria.

he speech was given at the international scientific symposium organized by the Mohammed VI Foundation of African Oulema on the theme of “The African Islamic Heritage: Memory and History” on 22-23-24 Rabi’ al-Awwal 1443 H, corresponding to 29-30-31 October 2021 in the Nigerian capital Abuja.


This paper explores the historical development of Islamic manuscripts in Nigeria. Beginning from the precolonial era, the paper examines the different stages in the historical evolution of public collections of Islamic manuscripts in Nigeria.

The basic argument of the paper is that Islamic manuscripts, written in Arabic and in local languages using the Arabic script (ajami), are the documentary evidence indicating the development of Islamic traditions of learning in the various areas of Nigeria. As such, the manuscripts should be understood in relation to the intellectual history of Muslim societies in Nigeria. The manuscripts reveal the extent and depth of the intellectual engagements by Nigerian scholars with the global traditions of Islamic learning, while at the same time demonstrating the local areas of specialization and priority among Nigerian scholars of Islam. Subjects range from Islamic law (Fiqh), Theology, (Ilm al-Kalam), Sufism (Tassawuf) to Arabic language and Literature. Other subjects include Qur’anic Studies and Exegesis (ulum al-Qur’an wa al-Tafsir), Hadith and Hadith Studies (Hadith wa Ulum al-Hadith), and History. Nigerian Islamic scholars have also written on secular sciences such as Astronomy, Mathematics and Medicine.

A subsidiary argument is that these manuscripts deserve more than mere fascination with their existence, or even their preservation and conservation, important as both are. Similarly, while the codicological features of the manuscripts are interesting and important, this essay focuses more on the intellectual aspects of the manuscripts based on the belief that the manuscripts deserve to be engaged intellectually through preparation and publication of edited copies, translation into important languages, including the languages of the communities from which the manuscripts originated. Another important form of intellectual engagement is using the manuscripts as sources for the reconstruction of the history of the relevant communities, as well as the history of the traditions of Islamic learning for which the manuscripts are veritable testimonies. Both the main and the subsidiary arguments are pursued in the following pages by highlighting the various intellectual engagements with the manuscripts in the various stages of their historical evolution, particularly the published translations of some of the manuscripts. The following analysis will also highlight the global dimensions of the history of Nigerian Islamic manuscripts.

The paper is organized into three main sections, and a conclusion. Section One provides brief outlines of the advent and early history of Islam in the areas of present day Nigeria. Section Two provides brief outlines of the historical evolution of public collections of Islamic manuscripts in five historical stages. Starting with the earliest historical evidence of the presence of Islam in the region of the ancient Kingdom of Kanem in eighth-century, and beginnings of Islamic intellectual activity around the thirteenth-century, the tracing of the historical stages ends with the current developments in the first two decades of the twenty-first century. Given the limitations of space and the length of the period extending for over several centuries, the historical outlines are necessarily sketchy, demarcating major periods and identifying some of the key historical events that happened in the various periods. Section Three presents a case-study of the collections of Islamic manuscripts from Nigeria which are preserved at the Herskovits Africana Library at Northwestern University in Evanston (IL) in the United States of America. The conclusion provides suggestions for future development of Islamic manuscript in Nigeria and other African countries.

Section One: Advent and Early Historical Evolution of Islam in Nigeria

The existence of private collections of Islamic manuscripts in the areas of present day Nigeria has been historically confirmed from internal sources originating from the region, as well as external sources preserved outside the region, thereby demonstrating the global awareness of the existence of these manuscripts. Although it is not easy to provide a precise date for the emergence of the private libraries of Islamic scholars, the evidence indicates that by the thirteenth century Islamic learning was established in the ancient kingdom of Kanem. Several Arab historians have provided various bits of information about Kanem. For instance, Ahmad al-Yaqubi (d. 872) mentioned Kanem as a place inhabited by the Kingdom of the Zaghawa, while Abul-Hasan Ali al-Mas’udi (d.956) mentioned Kanem as a people. Thus, while Arab Historians have known about the[1] existence of Kanem quite early, the information they provided about the kingdom is too sketchy.

But before the end of the first millennium, Arab historians began to provide more specific information about Kanem. Thus according to Abu Ubayd Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Aziz al Bakri (d. 973), Kanem was a region, and that “the Kanemis lived beyond the desert of Zawila, and scarcely anyone reached them. They are pagan Sudan.” Yet [2] al-Bakri adds the very interesting remark that “Some assert that there is a people there descended from the Banu Ummayah, who found their way there during the persecution by the Abbasids.” This remark indicates that Islam might have reached Kanem after the [3] fall of the Ummayad dynasty c. 750 even if the people of Kanem were not yet converted to Islam at that time.

In contrast to the external sources that do not provide specific information about the date of the conversion to Islam in Kanem, the internal sources record that the ruler of Kanem Mai Umme Jilme, who reigned from 1085 to 1097, was he first Muslim ruler of Kanem. By the time of Mai Dunama Dabbalemi (r. 1210–1259), Islam was clearly established in Kanem, and Islamic learning was also firmly established, for Mai Dunama Dabbalemi is credited with sponsoring people to study at al-Azhar University. Further confirmation of the advanced state of Islamic learning in Kanem was recorded by Ahmad b. Muhammad ibn Khallikan (d. 1282), who recorded two lines of poem composed by “the literary man Abu Ishaq Ibrahim al-Kanimi, the black, the poet.”[4]

Apart from Kanem, Islamic learning was also introduced into Hausaland by the reign of Kano ruler Ali Yaji Dan Tsamiya (r. 1359-1385) when the Wangarawa brought texts of Maliki school of Islamic law into Kano. It should be noted that Islamic presence in Kano predated the arrival of the Wangarawa, who are credited for introducing texts of the Maliki school of Islamic law but not the introduction of Islam into Hausaland.

The historical evidence is quite clear that Islamic learning was well established in Kanem and Hausaland, the two areas of Nigeria that had the earliest contact with Islam. However, it is not feasible to give a precise number of the Islamic manuscripts in this early stage, mainly because no systematic attempt has been made to ascertain the quantity of these manuscripts. It is quite possible that there were tens of thousands of manuscripts spread in dozens of collections in Nigeria, West Africa, North Africa and the Middle East, Europe, North and South America, and possibly Asia.

In addition, private collections of Islamic manuscripts are still held by families of Islamic scholars not only in northern parts of Nigeria, but also in other parts of the country, especially in the southwest where numerous Muslim communities exist, with their own Islamic traditions of learning and rich collection of manuscripts. An important point [5] worth highlighting here is that private collections of Islamic manuscripts are not covered in this essay principally because of the inaccessibility of the private collections.

Section Two: The Historical Development of Islamic Manuscripts in Nigeria

The origins and historical development of Islamic manuscripts in the areas of present day Nigeria can be traced in five historical stages. While each stage has its unique features, several features are common across the different stages. Some developments originated in a particular stage but continued into the next stage, or even in all the subsequent stages. Other developments are unique to one stage only. For example, the evolution of catalogs of Islamic manuscripts continued from the second stage beginning with the coming of European travelers into the areas of present day Nigeria, and continued to the current stage. Similarly, research and publication on the manuscripts continued from the initial incorporation of contents of Islamic manuscripts into the writings of European travelers that began in the second stage, and continued in all the subsequent stages—of course with significant differences in the scope, quality and importance of the various researches and publications. These points have been noted in the following sketch of the historical development of public collections of Islamic manuscripts in Nigeria and abroad.

The First Stage c.1000-1600

This is the earliest stage in the production of Islamic manuscripts, which was directly linked to the introduction of Islam in the areas of the ancient kingdom of Kanem that originated from the ninth-century, and subsequently expanded to become Kanem-Borno Empire. The first Muslim ruler of Kanem-Borno was Mai Ume Jilme (c. 1085-1097), while the earliest known Muslim scholar from Kanem-Borno was al-Shaykh Ibrahim b. Ya‘qub al-Kanemi (d. 1211/212), a poet and a literary figure as already indicated above. It is reasonable to assume that he was not the first learnt Muslim from Kanem-Borno, but we do not have the clear evidence indicating the names of previous scholars.

In this first stage, developments are rudimentary, and could not possibly incorporate developments that happened in later periods. Still, the first stage is significant in providing the historical evidence for dating the earliest beginnings of the intellectual production of Islamic scholars that constitute the collections of Islamic manuscripts, as indicated by existing manuscripts that have been confirmed to belong to this period, such as manuscripts of the Qur’an with commentaries written in the ancient Kanembu dialect. The subsequent evolution of Islamic scholarship in the region has been amply [6] documented in numerous sources. More specifically, John Hunwick has documented the [7] names of individual Muslim scholars, the titles of their works, and the location of copies in various collections—as discussed in more details below.[8]

The Second Stage 1700-1900

The second stage can be dated from the period when European travelers began to visit West Africa. In the course of their travels, the European travelers interacted with Islamic scholars, who provided the Europeans with information and Islamic texts. For example, when Hugh Clapperton visited Sokoto at the turn of the nineteenth-century, he interacted with Sultan Muhammad Bello, who was one of the main sources for the information collected by Clapperton, which was eventually published in Narrative of Travels and Discoveries in Northern and Central Africa in the Years 1822–1823, and 1824. Other examples include Heinrich Barth who toured the region in the 1850s, and whose three-volume work titled Travels and Discoveries in North and Central Africa was published in 1857. Charles Henry Robinson documented his travels in Hausaland in his Hausaland, or Fifteen Hundred Miles through the Central Soudan published in 1896.

Unlike the medieval Islamic historians who reported the existence of Islamic learning but did not have access to the works of Islamic scholars, the European travelers were able to collect samples of the writings of Islamic scholars from the region and took them to various centers in Europe, where these manuscripts are preserved until now. Some of the European travelers based their travelogues in part on the writings of the Muslim scholars. In some cases, the European writers included the texts of Islamic manuscripts as appendices in their published works. This was especially the case with Heinrich Barth, whose historical accounts on Borno were based on the writings of Ibn Fartuwa, the chronicler of Mai Idrīs Alawma, who reigned c. 1571–1603. Similarly, Charles Robinson published the texts of Islamic manuscripts written in the Hausa language but using the Arabic alphabet.

Four key developments that are unique to this stage can be identified. First, the volume of Islamic manuscripts produced during this period is substantially more than the volume in the previous stage. This development is, of course, a reflection of the continuing spread of Islam in the region, as well as the consequent expansion of Islamic learning during the period. The most notable illustration of this development is of course the voluminous intellectual production by the leaders of the Sokoto Caliphate, the intellectual legacy of which has continued to the present as best represented by the late Wazir Junaid, who was an accomplished poet and prolific author.

Second, there are more publications of some of the Islamic manuscripts originating from the areas of the present day Nigeria, especially in the form translations, journal articles, and appendices in the travelogues of Europeans who visited the area in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Third, there is further development in collecting and depositing more manuscripts in universities and research centers in Europe, especially in Britain, France, Germany and perhaps other European countries as well. Fourth, this stage witnessed the beginning of cataloguing Islamic manuscripts, with a simple list of some authors and titles of their works. Each of these developments continued in more sophisticated fashion in the subsequent stages.

The Third Stage, 1900-1960

The third stage is the colonial era that lasted from 1903 to 1960. The developments in this stage are more diverse. In one sense, there is a continuation of the Europeans collecting, translating and publishing Islamic manuscripts, especially the ones originating from the Sokoto Caliphate. An outstanding example of the continuation of this trend is Richmond Palmer, who translated several Arabic manuscripts and published them in books and academic journals, such as History of the First Twelve Years of the Reign of Mai Idris Alooma of Bornu (1926), Sudanese Memoirs: Being Mainly Translations of a Number of Arabic Manuscripts Relating to the Central and Western Sudan, in 3 volumes, (1928), Bornu, Sahara and Sudan (1936), “Western Sudan history: the Raudthât’ul Afkhari,” published in Journal of the African Society vol. 15 (1915–16), pp. 261–73, and “The Kano Chronicle,” published in Journal of the Anthropological Institute, vol. 38 (1909), pp. 58–98. Similarly, the cataloguing of Islamic manuscripts continued to develop during the colonial era, which built upon the earlier simple lists of some authors and their titles. Catalogs of Islamic manuscripts were produced not only for use at the various public collections, but they were also published in academic journals in order to call attention of scholars to the traditions of Islamic learning in Nigeria. The aim was to produce a comprehensive catalog of all the Islamic scholars and[9] their works, but that was not possible. Still, the foundation was laid for subsequent scholars to build upon. Even now, more Islamic scholars and their works are coming to light as a result of continuing research at Nigerian and foreign universities.

But the distinctive developments in this stage was the establishment of collections of Islamic manuscripts in Nigeria, especially towards the end of the colonial period. The collections at University of Ibadan and the National Archives in Kaduna were among the prominent collections established in Nigeria during the colonial period.

Two other important developments occurred towards the end of this stage. Some Nigerians who had their university education in the 1950s pioneered the tradition of the academic engagements with Islamic manuscripts in the context of writing their university theses and dissertations, some of which were eventually published. Dr. Aliyu Abubakar’s doctoral theses was eventually published as al-Thaqafa al-Arabiyya fi Nigeria, and it became the first of similar publications that followed subsequently. Using the Islamic manuscripts to write university theses and dissertations has continued in the subsequent stages, down to this day. The second important development was the translation into Hausa of some of Islamic manuscripts produced in the nineteenth century Sokoto Caliphate, and their publication. This development has also continued to the present.

The Fourth Stage, 1960s-1990s

The fourth stage started with Nigeria’s independence in 1960 and continued to the 1990s. Building on the developments that emerged in the colonial era, collections of Islamic manuscripts continued, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Researchers visited several towns and obtained original or photocopies of Islamic manuscripts in the private collections of Islamic scholars, which were cataloged and deposited at various Nigerian universities and research centers. An important development in this stage is the continuation of writing theses and dissertations produced in Nigerian and foreign universities for university degrees. Some of these dissertations are concerned with producing edited copies of specific manuscripts, often with translations into English. In some cases, Islamic manuscripts are the main sources for thesis and dissertations produced in the Departments of Arabic, Hausa, History, Political Science, and other disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences.

An interesting development in the fourth stage is the production of Arabic Literature of Africa (ALA), edited by John Hunwick and his collaborators and published in 1995 as noted earlier. This is a biographical/bibliographical dictionary of Islamic authors and their titles, together with annotations on each title, indicating its contents and any secondary literature on that title, such as university thesis and dissertations, translations, abridgement, commentary, versification, etc. Another valuable contribution of the Arabic Literature of Africa is the detailed information it provides on each Islamic manuscript, including the existence of copies in different public collections.

The publication of the Arabic Literature of Africa is the culmination of the early preparations of catalogs of Islamic manuscripts, which started in the second stage in the form of simple list of titles/authors, and continued in the third stage with more informative catalogs produced for the various collections in universities and research centers. Incorporating previous lists and catalogues, but also going beyond mere cataloging, Arabic literature of Africa is inspired by and modeled after the genre of mu’jam al-mu’allifin, the works Carl Brockelman, Geschichte der Arabischen Litteratur, and other similar works.[10]

A negative development in the fourth stage is the deterioration of the conditions under which some of the collections of Islamic manuscripts are kept in Nigerian institutions. There is real danger that many manuscripts will be lost due to the extremely poor conditions under which the manuscripts are kept, as well as lack of sufficient resources to provide the continuous preservation necessary for ensuring the safety of the manuscripts. These deplorable conditions are amply documented in a report of a survey of the collections conducted in 2007. The report did not mince words in pronouncing the extreme danger of destruction that awaits several manuscripts if urgent steps are not taken to avert the danger. Sadly, no such urgent steps have been taken yet. The [11] deterioration continues unabated.

The Fifth Stage 2000-2020

The fifth stage, starting in the 1990s and continuing to the present, is characterized by the use of information and communication technologies in the collection, cataloguing, and preservation of the Islamic manuscripts. Starting with the simple steps of making copies of Islamic manuscripts on microfilm and microfiche that began in the 1950s-2960s, the use of information technologies continues with the computer-based catalogs and digital copies of manuscripts. Consistent with the rapid development in information and communication technologies in various fields, there has been a great deal of change rapidly happening in so many aspects of the application of these technologies in the collection, management and utilization of Islamic manuscripts.

Several digital copies of Islamic manuscripts are available on the internet. Similarly, ongoing publication of researches and academic conferences on various aspects of Nigerian and West African Islamic manuscripts are readily available on the internet. Even earlier materials published before the age of the internet are now also available in digital forms on various platforms, including Jstor, ResearchGate, and websites of universities and research centers. Equally important, there are several publications based on researches using Islamic manuscripts to explore various aspects of the traditions of Islamic learning. Examples include the rich collection of essays edited by Graziano and Lydon[12], and another equally rich collection edited by Robert Launay. [13]

These publications have been greatly facilitated by the use of information and communication technologies to make Islamic manuscripts more readily available to researchers and scholars.

A notable feature of the development in this stage is the connections established between individuals and institutions who are working with Islamic manuscripts in Nigeria, and in other parts of the world, as amply reflected in the evolution of the collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, preserved at the Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University—discussed in more details below. In other words, developments in this period are still unfolding in so many ways and on many different electronic platforms.

Section Three: The Collections of Arabic Manuscripts of West Africa at Herskovits Library

The fascinating story of these collections of Islamic manuscripts illustrates many important points, some of which are unique to these particular collections, and some are equally observable in other collections elsewhere. Specifically, the richness of these collections and the intellectual outputs from the academic engagements with the collections are unique in many important respects.

The origins of the collection go back to the 1960s. During his doctoral research in Kano [14] in the 1960s, John N. Paden became acquainted with the traditions of Islamic learning of Kano and northern Nigeria more broadly, and their transformations in the twentieth-century, on which he wrote his massive doctoral thesis in the three volumes. The dissertation was published in 1973 as Religion and Political Culture in Kano. This book has remained a classic and a must-read since then. Based on his deep knowledge of Islamic traditions of learning in northern Nigeria, Paden recognized the importance of Islamic manuscripts. Thus he was able to reassemble the Islamic manuscript collection of Mallam Umar Falke, a prominent Islamic scholar, which was distributed among his heirs after his death in 1962. On behalf of Northwestern University, Paden purchased [15] the manuscripts from the heirs and brought them to Northwestern University in 1970, where he was teaching at the time. This collection of Nigerian Islamic manuscripts known as the Falke Collection forms the heart of the massive collection of Islamic manuscripts from West Africa preserved at the Herskovits Africans Library at Northwestern University.

The Falke Collection comprises some 3323 items, “90% of which are original manuscripts, while the remaining 10% are printed copies of the original manuscripts, dating from the 19th and 20th centuries.” Furthermore, the Falke Collection has been described thus:

The collection contains books and manuscripts on all aspects of Islamic learning, protective medicine, and the secret arts (asrar). It is strong in works on Sufism and in almost all the branches of Islamic sciences, especially Maliki law, jurisprudence, Prophetic traditions (hadith), theology, literature, and grammar and contains a number of fine examples of handwritten copies of the Qur’an that may have been used by Umar’s students.[16]

While the Falke Collection may be unique, especially in its size, it can still be considered as a very good example of the contents of other collections, which may be smaller, particularly in the subjects included in the collection—a point reflected in the other collections at the Herskovits Library as discussed below. The vast majority of the manuscripts in the Falke Collection were written in Arabic, and “approximately one fourth are in Hausa written in the Arabic script (ajami)” It is estimated that 40% of the authors of the manuscript in the Falke Collection are Nigerian Islamic scholars, while the remaining 60% of the authors are from “others areas of the Muslim world, mainly North Africa and Egypt.”

The initial cataloguing of about one thousand items in the Falke Collection was done as a Ph.D. thesis at Northwestern University in 1978 by Mohammed Abdullahi, titled “A Hausa scholar-trader and his library collection: The case study of Umar Falke of Kano.” Subsequently, the rest of the collection was catalogued by Hamid Bobboyi and M. Sani Umar also in the course of their doctoral studies at Northwestern University in the 1990s.

It is important to note that while the Falke Collection is unique in many important respects, especially in its volume, the other components of the manuscript collections at the Herskovits Library are not radically different from the Falke Collection even though they are considerably smaller in their numbers.

The other collections at the Herskovits Library include the following:

  1. The John Paden Collection: This collection contains 606 items, collected by John Paden in course of his research in Nigeria in the 1960s, which he donated to the Herskovits Library. About 60% of items are original manuscripts, while the remainder are printed copies of the manuscripts. Most of these documents were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries.
  2. The John Hunwick Collection: There are 569 manuscripts collected by John Hunwick during his academic career from the 1960s through the 1990s. Of special interest in this collection is that items 535-545 of this collection were “parts of a tome purchased by John Hunwick in Rabat in 1990 and containing works by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti and other Moroccan authors.”
  3. iii. The University of Ghana Collection: The 485 items in this collection are photocopies of manuscripts collected in the 1960s under the supervision of Ivor Wilkes who taught at the University of Ghana in the 1960s. He later joined Northwestern University, and upon his retirement in 1993 he donated the collection to the Herskovits Library. The majority of items are from northern Ghana, including “chronicles, lists of kings and imams, and letters, all being sources for the history of Northern Ghana.”
  4. The Mervyn Hiskett Collection: This collection of 100 items belonged to Mervyn Hiskett of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Hiskett was a famous scholar of the Hausa literary tradition in Northern Nigeria, with a special interest in Hausa ajami literature. The collection includes theses by Nigerian scholars who were supervised by Hiskett, and photocopies of manuscripts of works in Arabic and Hausa by Nigerian, Ghanaian, and Senegalese authors on religious, literary and historical issues.
  5. The Louis Brenner Collection: This is a small collection of “20 photocopies of Arabic books by Malian and Senegalese authors, published in the 20th century,” mostly on Qur’an, Sufism and Islamic law.
  6. The John Rylands Library Collection: The 200 items in this collection are photocopies of the original Arabic manuscripts from Kano, which are preserved at University of Manchester in the United Kingdom. John Hunwick obtained the microfilm of these items, which were printed and donated to the Herskovits Library’s Arabic collection.

All the items in these collections have been catalogued, using the Arabic Manuscript Management System (AMMS), a computer software developed in the late 1980s by Charles Stewart of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is a specialist of the history of Islam in Mauritania. After several developments that have transformed the software, it is now available on-line as the West African Arabic Manuscript Database, a sort of a union catalogue of “over 20,000 records from seven West African collections, including the Northwestern collection (referred to there as the “Kano Collection”).[17]

Obviously, the computerized cataloguing of the vast collections of Islamic manuscripts from Nigeria and West is a major accomplishment, especially in allowing researchers to see the connections among the Islamic scholars across West Africa. Works authored by Nigerian scholars are found in collections in other West African countries, and conversely, works from these other countries are also found in the collections of Nigerian manuscripts. Clearly, the intellectual community of Islamic scholars in West Africa has been historically connected through their written works.

Apart from assembling the rich collections of Islamic manuscripts not only from Nigeria, but also from several Muslim communities across West Africa, the Herskovits Library Collection has additional important components. Most notably, several individuals from Nigeria and other West African countries have earned their doctorate degrees by utilizing these collections. Furthermore, there have been several publications resulting from research utilizing the rich collections of Islamic manuscripts at the Herskovits

library. Future scholars will continue to consult these collections, for their richness makes them indispensable.

It could be plausibly argued that the materials in these collections belong to the Muslim communities of West Africa from where the manuscripts were produced. Furthermore, it can be argued that the manuscripts should never have been take out of these communities, and they ought to be returned to where they properly belong. This argument is not without its merit. But if we recall the point made earlier in this paper about the imminent threat of destruction facing the Islamic manuscript collections in Nigeria on account of the extremely poor conditions in which the manuscripts are kept, then the argument does not seem all that compelling. After all, the use of communication and information technologies in preserving these collections and making them available online are clear benefits that cannot be denied.


Despite its sketchiness, this paper has captured some of the important points about the historical development of the public collections of Islamic manuscripts not only in Nigeria, but also across West Africa, and other parts of the world. It has also highlighted the significant features in contemporary development, most notably the application of communication and information technologies in the preserving and making accessible the rich collections of Islamic manuscripts spread not only across West Africa, but also in other parts of the world.

Two obvious implications can be highlighted here. First, the promise of information and communication technologies is very attractive for so many reasons, some of which have been highlighted in this paper. Clearly, future developments of Islamic manuscript collections cannot ignore the necessity of utilizing all the advantages offered by new technologies, even though they have their own problems that should not be ignored while utilizing them. In particular, the monetary cost of purchasing the needed hardware and software, as well as updating them constantly, is very high. The technical expertise needed is very specialized, and requires collaboration among computer professionals, librarians, archivists, and of course scholars. In fact, it was the availability of all these critical players at Northwestern University that made it possible for the collections to be developed to their present state. There is a continuing need for the same set of collaborators to keep the collections accessible.

Second, it is important to move forward in the direction of more scholarly utilization of the rich collections of Islamic manuscripts. This point indicates the need to move beyond mere fascination with the codicological features of the manuscript towards more robust intellectual engagements in the form of studying, translating, editing and publishing the manuscripts. After all, that was the reason for which they were produced in the first instance. Again, this has been one of the unique features of the Islamic manuscript collections at the Herskovits Library.

One final note, there is a need to expand the collaboration between people working and taking care of these collections and scholars from Nigeria and other parts of West Africa. Several scholarly activities are regularly taking place, which are always advertised online. Hence, interested scholars and researchers can join the vibrant intellectual activities through which the manuscripts are brought alive.


[1] Excerpts in English translations from 65 Arab Historians who mentioned West Africa and Islamic presence in the region are contained in Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West Africa, edited by N. Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000), pp. 21 and 31.

[2] Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources, p. 64.

[3] Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources, p. 64.

[4] Levtzion and Hopkins, Corpus of Early Arabic Sources, p. 163.

[5] For Example, see the collection of essays edited by Mashood M. Jimba titled Ulama’ al-Imarah: Tarjammt Nukhbah min A’lam Imarat Ilorin, (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al’Arabi 2019).

[6] Dmitry Bondarev, 2005. ‘Archaic Kanembu in the Borno Qur’anic manuscripts: palaeographic identification and problems of phonological and morphological reconstruction’, Borno Museum Society Newsletter, 63/64, 5-31.

[7] Excerpts in English translations from 65 Arab Historians who mentioned West Africa and Islamic presence in the region are contained in Corpus of Early Arabic Sources for West Africa, edited by N. Levtzion and J.F.P. Hopkins (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2000).

[8] John O. Hunwick, et el. Arabic Literature of Africa, (Leiden: Brill, 1995).

[9] Samples include: A. D. H. Bivar and M. Hiskett, “The Arabic Literature of Nigeria to 1804: A Provisional Account,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 25, No. 1/3 (1962), pp. 104-148 ; John O. Hunwick, “Notes on Some Collections of Arabic Manuscripts in Nigeria, History in Africa, vol. 15 (1988), pp. 377-383.

[10] G. R. Tibbetts, “The Cataloging of Arabic Books,” The Library Quarterly, vol. 29, 1959, Vol. 29, pp. 113-132.

[11] Angel D. Batiste, “The State of Arabic Manuscript Collections in Nigeria,” Report of a Survey Tour to Northern Nigeria March 3 – 19, 2007

[12] Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon, The Trans-Saharan Book Trade Manuscript Culture, Arabic Literacy and Intellectual History in Muslim Africa, (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

[13] Robert Launay, ed. Islamic Education in Africa: Writing Boards and Blackboards, (Indiana University Press, 2016.

[14] The following paragraphs are based on the website of the Herskovits Africana Library aavailable at, accessed on October 24, 2021.

[15] See analysis of Mallam Umar Falke’s autobiography in M. Sani Umar, “Islamic Education and the Intellectual Pedigree of Al-Hajj Umar Falke,” in Robert Launay, ed. Islamic Education in Africa, pp. 79-91

[16] Ibid. website of the Herskovits Africana Library

[17] (Website)

Keywords :