Malcolm Omirhobo is a Nigerian Lawyer and Human Rights activist who wrote a petition demanding that the ‘Arabic’ inscription be removed from the naira notes. He had argued that Nigeria is a secular nation, thus, an inscription that portrays the Islamic religion is unacceptable.
In previous articles like, “Systemic Foolery”, I have given some explanations and debunked his argument from a Secular and Pan-Africanist perspective. In this article, we will look into history and how the Ajami script had been a part of us. For the sake of understanding, let me simply put the definition of Ajami this way;
“Ajami is the writing of African Languages in Arabic alphabets”
Nigeria, a product of the 1914 amalgamation by Lord Lugard is divided into three major tribes – Hausas, Igbos and Yorubas. This historical knowledge of the geography of these three tribes is important to understand who we were and where we are going to. These tribes existed independently before the amalgamation, therefore, a unified Nigeria is not a unification or oneness of our history and history plays a huge role in the development of any nation.
The first book written in Igbo Language (in Roman alphabets), Isoama-Ibo, a primer, was produced in 1857 by Samuel Ajayi Crowther. Before then, the Hausas had written books and poems in Arabic as well as the Ajami script hundreds of years before then. The Yorubas, on the other hand, had also written their languages with the Ajami script as far as the 16th century.
Samuel Johnson in his book, “The History of the Yorubas (1921)” wrote;
“After several fruitless efforts had been made either to invent new characters, or adapt the Arabic, which was already known to MOSLEM YORUBAS, the Roman character was naturally adopted, not
only because it is the one best acquainted with, but also because it would obviate the difficulties that must necessarily arise if
missionaries were first to learn strange characters before they could undertake scholastic and evangelistic work” (pg. xxviii)
While ignoring the fact that the Yoruba Language got to be written today in Roman characters due to the influence of the missionaries, one undisputable fact is that the Yorubas could read and write their language before the coming of the Europeans.
Professor Amidu Sanni’s, “Yoruba Islamic Verse in ajami: a Literary Genre Awaiting
Exploration in Arabic Manuscript Studies” further confirms the fact that the Yorubas had come in contact with Arabic and Ajami around the second half of the 16th century. The Ajami writing system had been around since the 10th century with Persian and other languages that had come in contact the withArabic language mostly through Islam. Swahili, the most spoken language in Africa is written in Arabic characters.
This knowledge of history is very important to answer the question, “What is the role of Ajami or Arabic in Africa?”.
Many books have been written, many documentaries have been produced to put the history of Africa in proper perspective. Most of these works have focused on debunking the idea that Africans were barbarians before the coming of the Europeans.
Walter Rodney’s, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972)” explains the political and economic situation of Africa before the White men came to exploit and steal. We learnt that the streets of Great Benin had been beautified with street lamps when the nights were darkly dark in London and it was robbery like the pre-Fashola Oshodi in Lagos.
Rudolph R. Windsor’s, “From Babylon to Timbuktu (1969)” gives an account of the history of the Black nations – their journeys and final settlements while Olasupo Shasore’s, “Journey of an African Colony (2018)” focused on Nigeria before and after slavery and the long walk to freedom.
While many works have refuted the claims of the Europeans that they had come to develop the continent, the works explaining the political and economic might of the pre-colonial African continent, little had been done to counter the claim that the white man brought literacy to Africa.
The reason for this begs for answers. The fact remains that Africans had read and written not less than 700 years before the coming of the Europeans. Literacy is not necessarily the ability to read A, B, C, D.
The Timbuktu manuscripts that date back to the 13th century were written in Arabic and local languages like Songhay and Tamasheq. They contain art, medicine, philosophy, and science, as well as copies of the Quran. The number of manuscripts in the collections has been estimated as high as 700,000. It is worthy of note that the oldest university in the world is in Africa.
According to the Guinness World Records, The University of Al-Karaouine, also known as Al-Quaraouiyine University, was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859 in Fes, Morocco. The university, which still exists today was founded years before the University of Oxford , the first British school was found in 1096.
Al-Azhar University, founded in 970 or 972 by the Fatimid Caliphate as a centre of Islamic learning, taught the Qur’an and Islamic law in detail, along with logic, grammar, rhetoric, and how to calculate the phases of the moon.
It is important that we look beyond our hatred for Islam, the Arabs and Hausas and embrace our history. The Ajami script debunks the claim of the Europeans that they brought literacy to Africa. We had studied arts, science and philosophy before the coming white men.
Islam is a religion while Arabic is a language and the Arabs, a group of people. There are Arab Christians who speak Arabic. Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke is a sister language to Arabic, both Semitic languages. A major parentage of Ethiopians use Amharic as their lingua Africa. Amharic is the second-most commonly spoken Semitic language in the world after Arabic.
Conclusively, a petition that demands that Ajami inscriptions be removed from the naira notes can be understood to mean that a lawyer wants us to remove our history and pride from our notes. Perhaps, if the Arabs replaced the Europeans and the Roman characters replaced Arabic and Ajami script, we would have embraced our beautiful history of literacy against the lies of intruders who claim they taught us to read and write.
Anyone who thinks the Ajami inscription is a form of Islamization should not pay tithes in naira lest the pastor be lslamized.
Bashir Lucas Samson Lukman
The History of the Yorubas By Samuel Johnson
The Journey of an African Colony By Olasupo Shasore
How Europe Underdeveloped Africa By Walter Rodney
From Babylon to Timbuktu By Rudolph R. Windsor
The African Caliphate: The Life, Works and Teachings of Shaykh Usman Dan Fodio By Ibraheem Sulaiman
Hassane, Moulaye 2008. “Ajami in Africa: the Use of Arabic Script in
the Transcription of African Languages”