SOAS University of London

Early Nigerian Qur'anic Manuscripts


1. Script and calligraphy

All manuscripts in the [COLLECTION] belong to an ancient calligraphic tradition which goes back to the Ifrīqī style – an offshoot of the heavy and angular Maghribī script which evolved from the Kufic script [Picture 1]. The Ifrīqī writing tradition was dominant in the Maghrib until the 14th century AD and was subsequently superseded by the more cursive Andalusian style [Picture 2]. This tradition has been preserved in northern Nigeria and southern Niger and is known in the literature as the “Borno Court Hand” (Bivar 1960), or the “Borno Ifrīqī hand” (Brockett 1987: 46) [Picture 3].

Picture 1

Kufic script.

Possibly Syrian, late 9th – 10th century C.E. Qur’an manuscript page in Kufic script, black and red ink, gold leaf on vellum.


Kufic script
Picture 2

Andalusian cursive Maghribi hand


Andalusian cursive Maghribi hand
Picture 3

Borno Ifriqi hand

Shettima Kagu Qur'an (ca 16-17th century AD) Q2:70-72Yermi Mustafa Qur'an (ca 18th century AD) Q7:89-93
Shettima Kagu Quran
Yerima Mustafa Quran

Palaeographic descriptions of the manuscripts in the SOAS collection may be found in Bivar (1960, 2008), and Bondarev (2006: 120-123, and an examination of the origins of the Borno Ifrīqī hand has been undertaken by Bivar (1960, 1968, 2008).

One of the most striking traits of the Borno scribal tradition, omitted in previous accounts, is the partial retention of the ancient Kufic practice of using coloured dots to signal variant readings in the early Qur’anic manuscripts (see Dutton 1999, 2000). A brown dot is used for imāla -- a (fronted) variant of the phoneme /a/, and yellow and red dots are used for orthographic variants of the letter ‘hamzah’ (glottal stop) (Mustapha 1987: 118-9). See the rectangle in Picture 3.

2. Paper

The physical characteristics of the paper used are an essential key to the history and chronology of the African Islamic manuscripts which usually lack dates. Previously, as stated in Bondarev (2006), we believed that the paper used in all Borno Qur’ans was of Oriental origin (there is a palaeographic distinction between the non-watermarked Oriental paper produced in the Middle East/Asia and the watermarked (since 1264) Western paper produced in Europe). Further examination of the black and white images and recently acquired digital photographs of 1YM, with Adobe Photoshop adjustment tools, proved that this conclusion was too simplistic.

There are two important criteria for identifying the origin and (approximate) date of paper -- the so-called “chain-lines” and watermarks. The chain-lines are the imprints left on paper by the cords (made of reed, bamboo, grass-stalk etc.) used for cross-fixing the main supporting cords (called “wire- or laid-lines”) in the mould (on which the paper pulp is poured). The spacing of the chain-lines and density and thickness of the wire-lines may provide some approximate chronological information (Humbert 1998).

Another and better known means of paper identification is the type of watermarks used by the paper manufacturers as a kind of “logo” or identification mark. In the 16th century (the period closest to our oldest manuscript 2ShK), the scribes of the Maghrib and Ottoman Empire (linked to Borno by trade and religious routes (Martin 1969, 1972) used both the non-watermarked Oriental paper produced in the Middle East and the watermarked European paper, though the latter started to dominate the paper market by the 17th c. (Déroche 2006: 57). If a manuscript is written on a non-watermarked paper, or watermarks cannot be seen for various reasons, only chain- and laid-lines serve as evidence for the possible origin and date of production.

The chain-lines in 2ShK are very difficult to discern because of the age of the microfilms and their multiple reproduction which has impaired the resolution. Curiously, the page areas most affected by damp, as seen on the 2ShK photographs [see Shettima Kagu Qur’an], provide a clearer image of the laid and chain-lines due to saturation of the deeper fibre structure. The gap between the chain-lines has been established at about 19 mm. There is at least one folio (2ShK-2A86&2A91) where using highlight/shadow adjustments in Adobe Photoshop CS one can see that the chain-lines are not grouped in pairs as was believed earlier, but are at relatively regular 19mm intervals, covering the whole sheet. If we knew that the paper used in 2ShK had no watermarks, this particular positioning of chain-lines would allow us to put a lower limit on the possible chronology of the paper material and hence on the latest time when 2ShK could have been written. On the other hand, we know that 2ShK is older than 3ImI (mid 17th). If there are no watermarked (Ottoman or European) papers with chain-lines of 19 mm intervals produced before mid 17th century, this would be an indication that we are dealing with an old variety of Oriental paper produced in the 11th to 15th cc AD (Humbert 1998: 17-18, 28-29, Déroche 2006: 55).

The paper characteristics of 1YM are clearer than those of 2ShK because the whole volume is available in high resolution TIF format photographs (with an inadvertent omission of 28 pages). Unfortunately, we were not in a position to inspect the paper to determine the type and/or presence of chain-lines and watermarks at the moment the photographs were taken. Later on, however, the same Photoshop technique applied to 2ShK proved to be efficient for identifying chain-lines on various sheets of 1YM. The batch of paper used in the first part of the manuscript has regular chain-lines spaced at about 30-32 mm. Since the manuscript was written ca 18th century AD, an Oriental or Maghribi origin is unlikely because: (a) regular gaps of 30 mm between the chain-lines are only attested in manuscripts written in India (Déroche 2006: 55); (b) Maghribi paper shows spacing greater than 30 mm; (c) the “trelune” (three crescent moons) and other European paper types became the most popular type in the Maghrib and Central Sudan by the second half of the 18th century AD (Déroche 2006: 58).

In 3ImI, the chain-lines are quite discernable on one of the black-and-white photographs of the only dated manuscript 3ImI (1Jumadi II, 1080 AH/26 October, AD 1669). They have approximately the same regular spacing as in 2ShK, i.e. 19-20 mm. Regarding 4MM, some of the chain-lines are visible but it is impossible to establish either the pattern of positioning -- regular or grouped -- or distance between them.

3. Page layout

The arrangement of the text against the margins, the number of lines per page, the structure and means of the text division, and the decorations in the manuscripts are the main features of the page layout. While the number of lines and width of (side, upper and bottom) margins are all manuscript-specific features (see Bondarev 2006: 118-123), internal text divisions and their decorative manifestation are, to an extent, typical of all Magribī manuscripts of the Qur’an. Features common in most Maghribī Qur’anic manuscripts (see discussions in Deroch 2004: 67-96, 2006: 233-236) include: the rectangular and/or rounded decorations in sūra al-fātiha and at the beginning of sūrat al-baqara; trefoils (three petals) in red ink for verse separation; triangle-shaped ‘hamsas’ (the isolated letter hā’) filled in in black used for every fifth verse; and roundels for every tenth verses are all. On the other hand, in Borno, these typical features emerged in their distinctive style renowned for the diversity of asymmetrical ornamental motives in rectangular and roundel shapes used for the internal text division (cf. Brockett’s 1987: 46-47 description of a similar Borno-type manuscript).

Leaving aside individual variation in text features and calligraphy, all the Borno manuscripts in the collection show this distinctive West African page layout,more specifically “the Borno type”, bearing in mind that it was from Borno that Qur’anic education and the Ifrīqī script spread westwards to Hausaland where this type is also attested.

4. Dating

A relative chronology for the initial corpus of four manuscripts has been established against the only dated manuscript, i.e., 4ImI (the ‘Imam Ibrahim Qur’an’). The local tradition ascribes the provenance of all manuscripts to Birni Gazargamo, the capital of Borno founded in 1480. This account is in accordance with the historical fact that until its destruction in 1808, Birni Gazargamu was renowned in West Africa and in the historical Central Sudan for the extensive production of calligraphic copies of the Qur’an, from small-size manuscripts to large “royal-style” volumes. This gives us upper and lower limits for the relative chronology of the manuscripts. According to Bivar (1960, 1968), who examined various palaeographic features of the Borno Qur’ans in 1959, 2ShK looked much older than the 17th century 4ImI, so we can place it somewhere between 1480 and the early 17th century. The ‘Malam Muhammadu Qur’an’ (3MM) is, on initial appearance, close to 2ShK, but may be a little younger (Bivar 1960). The ‘Yerima Mustafa Qur’an’ (1YM) is the most resent in the original collection and can be safely placed between the late 17th and mid 18th centuries, since there are significant differences compared with late 18 th century manuscripts from Birni Gazargamu.

Relative Chronology


Bivar, A.D.H. 1960. ‘A dated Kuran from Bornu’, Nigeria Magazine 65, 99–205.

Bivar, A.D.H. 1968. ‘The Arabic calligraphy of West Africa’, African Language Review 7, 3–15, I–VIII.

Bivar, A.D.H. 2008. ‘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. 2006. ‘The language of the glosses in the Bornu Qur’anic manuscripts’, Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies 69, 1, 113-140.

Brockett, Adrian. 1987. ‘Aspects of the physical transmission of the Qur’ān in 19th-century Sudan: script, decoration, binding and paper’, Manuscripts of the Middle East 2, 45-67.

Déroche, François. 2004. Le livre manuscrit arabe: prélude à une histoire. Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Déroche, François []. 2006. Islamic Codicology: an Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script; translated by Deke Dusinberre and David Radzinowicz; edited by Muhammad Isa Waley. London: Al-Furqān Islamic Heritage Foundation.

Dutton, Yasin. 1999. (Part I) ‘Red dots, green dots, yellow dots & blue: some reflections on the vocalisation of early Qur’anic manuscripts (Part I)’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies 1:1, 115-140.

Dutton, Yasin. 2000. (Part II) ‘Red dots, green dots, yellow dots & blue: some reflections on the vocalisation of early Qur’anic manuscripts’, Journal of Qur’anic Studies 2:1, 1-24.

Humbert, Genevieve. 1998 ‘Papiers non filigranés utilisés au Proche-Orient jusqu'en 1450 : Essai de typologie’, Journal Asiatique 286-1,

Martin, B. G. 1969. ‘Kanem, Borno and the Fezzan: notes on the political history of a trade route’, The Journal of African History 10-1, 15-27.

Martin, B. G. 1972. ‘Mai Idris of Borno and the Ottoman Turks, 1576-78’, International Journal of Middle East Studies 3-4, 470-490.

Mustapha, Abubakar. 1987. The Contribution of Sayfawa ‘Ulama’ to the Study of Islam: c. 1086-1846 AD. The unpublished PhD thesis. Kano: Bayero University.