One has to be a little nervous about any book whose description of its own first chapter says that “it might be of interest to specialists but can probably be skipped by the average educated reader who does not know Arabic.”
Beyond Timbuktu: An Intellectual History of Muslim West Africa is certainly a book that’s best suited for the specialist, though it does contain a lot of interesting information. Ousmane Oumar Kane ranges widely over the history of Muslim education in West Africa, focusing mostly on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but reaching forwards to contemporary Islamic colleges and universities in Africa and back into the Middle Ages.
The latter caught my attention for the usual spate of connections between distant regions. One I already knew was the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324/25 of the Malian emperor Mansa Musa, a king so rich he was immortalized (in European style) as an ornament on the famous Catalan Atlas. One I had never heard of was the existence of a school in Cairo for students from Borno, near Lake Chad, endowed in the mid-thirteenth century by merchants from the region.
Though most of the literature Kane discusses is Arabic, he also mentions the phenomenon of ajami, African languages transcribed in the Arabic alphabet. I was surprised to read that ajami may have appeared as early as the twelfth century, and that ajami literature exists in twenty-nine languages in West Africa and more than eighty throughout Africa.
It always interesting to get a little prod in one’s blind spot, since I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all. I already knew that appropriating one alphabet to write another language was a medieval commonplace. Christians in Muslim Spain wrote Latin and Spanish (or what would become the latter, over time) in Arabic script, usually called mozarabic. Muslims and moriscoes (converts from Islam) in Christian Spain did the same, called aljamia (sharing the same root as ajami). Judeo-Persian (which is more Persian than Hebrew) is written with Hebrew script, as are Judeo-Arabic and Ladino. Why shouldn’t the same be true in West Africa?