SOAS University of London

Early Nigerian Qur'anic Manuscripts

Project Report

The palaeographic analysis of the manuscripts clarified various issues concerning the script style, spelling conventions, physical characteristics of the paper etc. We now know that the Borno scribes developed a generally consistent orthography, and that their writing tradition, as an offshoot of the ancient Maghribi script, preserved many archaic features such as coloured dots to indicate some consonants and vowels. These and other palaeographic findings are documented in Bivar (2007), and Bondarev (2005, 2006a, 2007a) (cf. too the palaeographic description)

We have established some regular grapheme-phoneme correspondences for Old Kanembu, based on palaeographical analysis of the glosses and current knowledge of phonological changes which have affected modern Kanuri (Bondarev 2005, 2006b).  This allowed a preliminary reconstruction of the phonological system of Old Kanembu. Grammatical analysis has shown that both nominal morphosyntax (especially the postpositional system) and the verb-inflectional morphology of Old Kanembu differ radically from modern Kanuri (Bondarev 2005, 2007b, 2008).  We concluded that the form of the language used in the vernacular glosses was not contemporaneous with the variety of Kanuri as spoken at the time the manuscripts were created (i.e. between the 16th and 18th centuries AD), but rather reflected a form of Kanuri/Kanembu deriving from the 14th-15th centuries AD (Bondarev 2006c).  

This discovery considerably increased the projected time-depth for Old Kanembu, raising the possibility of identifying processes of language-change over a much longer chronological span, i.e. possibly more than 600 years. Establishing such a time-depth, because of the lack of documentary materials, is generally impossible for the primarily oral languages of (West) Africa, and until our recent findings, it was possible to trace changes back only as far as the early 19th century. The discovery of Old Kanembu thus represents a major advance in our knowledge of the history of the Kanuri language and place West African linguists for the first time in the position similar to scholars of the Romance languages, who are able to trace the development of mediaeval French, Italian, or Spanish back to their ancestor form: Classical Latin.

The study of Arabic commentaries (tafsir) undertaken by Daniel Vazquez-Paluch and Ahmad Al-Achtar, sheds light on many aspects of the Islamic scholarly tradition in ancient Kanem-Borno.  It is now clear that the manuscripts were used for pedagogical purposes and not, as was previously assumed, as ceremonial “Royal Qur’ans”. They show that the Muslims of Borno had access to a wide variety of Qur’anic commentaries from diverse parts of the Muslim world (15 tafsir sources have been identified, see Al-Achtar 2007, Al-Achtar & Bondarev 2008).

Dmitry Bondarev and Abba Isa Tijani made hugely successful research trips to Nigeria in 2005, 2006, and 2007, consulting with a range of key Islamic scholars, and making visits to private and national libraries and archives (Maiduguri, Kaduna, Jos). They were able to photograph four Qur’ans and five Tarjumo manuscripts to add to the corpus of digitized manuscripts (from an initial 230 folios to more than 3,200).  The 17th/18th century Qur’anic manuscript deposited in the Bibliothèque National de France (N334 Arab 402) has also been digitized (11 folios) and successfully used for the palaeographic and linguistic analysis.  

A number of the digitized manuscripts were put on the web (and are currently in the process of migrating to this web-site), and linked to the database application, which itself is a web-site programme.  The computer application was finalized in Spring 2006 and was used for analysis and transcription of the manuscript content throughout the life of the project.  The application provided a  multifunctional tool for data entry, database organisation, statistic analysis, data export and other functions important for the future enhancement of the digitized manuscripts and transcriptions.

The most exciting discovery was the (archaic) language of the Qur’anic glosses (‘Tarjumo’), which is still used for Qur’anic interpretation. As the sacred language of Islamic scholars, Tarjumo has evolved as a highly technical translation tool and now exhibits the features of a ‘classical language’ typical of a diglossia, functionally restricted to use only with the source language (Arabic). These properties make Tarjumo unique among African languages written in Arabic script.


  • Al-Achtar, Ahmad. 2007. ‘Arabic commentaries in the Borno Qur’ans’. Powerpoint presentation at the 3rd AHRC/SOAS Workshop: “Early Nigerian Qur’anic Manuscripts: an interdisciplinary study of Kanuri glosses and Arabic commentaries”, London, 30 November, 2007.
  • Al-Achtar, Ahmad & Dmitry Bondarev. 2008.  ‘Arabic tafsiir in the Borno Qur’anic manuscripts (northeast Nigeria)’. Paper presented at the Centre of Islamic Studies, SOAS.
  • Bivar, A.D.H. 2007. ‘The scribal tradition of the Borno Qur'ans, the oldest Arabic manuscripts reported from Nigeria’. Paper presented at the 3rd AHRC/SOAS Workshop: “Early Nigerian Qur’anic Manuscripts: an interdisciplinary study of Kanuri glosses and Arabic commentaries”, London, 30 November, 2007.
  • Bondarev, Dmitry. 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.
  • Bondarev, Dmitry.  2006a. ‘The language of glosses in the Bornu Qur’anic manuscripts’. BSOAS 69, 1, 113-140.
  • Bondarev, Dmitry. 2006b. ‘Grapheme-phoneme correspondences in the  “Yerima Mustafa” Qur’an (YM) and Shettima Kagu Qur’an ( ShK): problems and solutions’. Paper presented at the first Project workshop, SOAS (see
  • Bondarev, Dmitry .  2006c. ‘An archaic form of Kanuri/Kanembu: a translation tool for Qur’anic studies’. Journal of Qur’anic Studies 8.2, 142-153.
  • Bondarev, Dmitry. 2007a. ‘The Nigerian Qur’anic manuscript project: retrieving a unique resource on the Kanuri language and culture’. African Research and Documentation 103, 65-82.
  • Bondarev, Dmitry. 2007b. ‘The LG [language of the glosses] linguistic analysis: limitations, outputs and prospects’. Paper presented at the third Project workshop, SOAS.
  • Bondarev, Dmitry . 2008.  ‘In search of the Saharan inflectional verbal paradigms in Old Kanembu’.  Afrika und Übersee (in press).