SOAS University of London

Early Nigerian Qur'anic Manuscripts

About ENiQMa

Early Nigerian Qur’anic manuscripts (ENiQMa): an interdisciplinary study of the Kanuri glosses and Arabic commentaries

A project supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council research grants scheme at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

  • Philip J. Jaggar (coordination and linguistic analysis)
  • A. D. H. Bivar (palaeography)
  • Dmitry Bondarev (coordination, linguistics, palaeography, digital archiving)
  • Abba Isa Tijani (Kanuri dialects)
  • Ahmad Achtar (Arabic/Qur’anic studies)
  • Daniel Vazquez-Paluch (Arabic/Qur’anic studies)
  • Rosemary Seton (archiving)

In the late 1960s some copies of the Qur’an were discovered in northern Nigeria, written in Arabic with commentaries in archaic Kanembu, and dating back to the 17th/18th centuries. These detailed and comprehensive manuscripts represent a rich and unique corpus of written evidence for an archaic variety of Kanuri/Kanembu as used in the Qur’anic commentaries over three hundred years ago.

The project, hosted by SOAS, covers a 3-year period (2005-2008) and has the following objectives: a palaeographic study of the manuscripts; a linguistic analysis of the Kanuri glosses; a comparative study of the Arabic commentaries (tafsīr); expanding the existing corpus by means of research visits to northern Nigerian libraries, archives, and private collections; digitization and systematization of existing manuscripts for analysis and long-term preservation; indexation and analysis of the digitized manuscripts and transcription of the Kanembu glosses by means of a database programme; creation and deployment of a web service application to access the database content for viewing, searching, and analysis of the Kanembu glosses and Borno Qur'anic manuscripts.

Research context

Although Kanuri is one of the first sub-Saharan languages to be documented, written sources prior to the early 19th century were generally recognized to be limited to a short 17th century word-list recorded by a French traveller to the Bornu area and discovered in a Paris archive (Lange 1972), and an even shorter 17th century record of Kanuri words and phrases found in the works of the Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi (Habraszewski 1967).

In 1958-59, however, Professor A. D. H. Bivar, on a visit to northern Nigeria, discovered some copies of the Koran with the glosses in a Kanuri dialect and commentaries (tafsīr) in Arabic, dating back to the 17th/18th centuries (Bivar 1960). Apart from representing a unique corpus of archaic variety of Kanuri/Kanembu, these manuscripts also provide a valuable historical insight into the key role of Kanuri/Kanembu scholars in the early development of Islamic scholarship and religious traditions in the Kanem-Borno empire, historically one of the most extensive and powerful Islamic states in West Africa.

Despite their scientific significance, historians and linguists have been largely unaware of the quantity and content of these documents, and so they have never been analyzed in any depth. In 2003, however, thanks to the generosity of Professor Bivar, Dr Dmitry Bondarev has been able to access and examine them in photocopied form in the Special Collections section at the School of Oriental and African Studies. At present, Bivar’s collection is deposited in the Special Collections Department of SOAS library, under the inventory number MS. 380808. The SOAS corpus contains copies of four different manuscripts, two of which comprise more than 100 pages each in microfilm form; the third and fourth had only 4 and 2 pages respectively. Recently, the so called “dated Qur’an”, or “Imam Ibrahim Qur’an” has been expanded to 23 more microfilm pages copied from a microfilm deposited in Jos Museum, Nigeria. There is also an additional Qur’anic manuscript with Kanembu glosses, deposited in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (Catalogue number: N334 Arabe 402) which has been included as a research objective in the original ENiQMa framework. This manuscript was first described by Déroche (1985) as Arabic and possibly ‘African’, then identified by Nikolai Dobronravin (p.c., 2000) as Arabic and ‘Saharan’ (Kanuri?), and subsequently analyzed in more detail by Bondarev.


  • Bivar, A. D. H. 1960. ‘A dated Kuran from Bornu’, Nigeria Magazine 65:199-205
  • Déroche, François. 1985. Les manuscrits du Coran. Du Maghreb à l’Insulinde, Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale.
  • Habraszewski, Tomasz. 1967. ‘Kanuri – language and people – in the ‘Travel book’ (Siyahetname) of Evliya Çelebi’, Africana Bulletin, 6, 59-66.
  • Lange, Dierk. 1972. ‘Un vocabulaire kanuri de la fin du XVIIe siècle’, Cahiers d’Etudes Africaines 12, 278–90.