Arabic Manuscripts from West Africa: A Catalog of the Herskovits Library Collection

The Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University houses an important collection of Arabic script materials from West Africa. It contains over 5,000 items collected from Africa and donated to the library by several Northwestern professors. Original, hand-written manuscripts make up more than 60 percent of the content, which also includes “market” editions (photocopies of handwritten works that are often sold in African marketplaces), printed editions, and photocopies. Most are in Arabic, though some are in ajami—African languages such as Hausa, Fulfulde, and Wolof written in the Arabic script.

The collection unites an impressive concentration of works by West African authors, mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries, making it a unique and valuable resource for scholars interested in the production of Islamic knowledge in West Africa (for more information on this tradition, see “Historical Context”). It is especially strong in works from northern Nigeria (Kano in particular) but also includes items from Ghana, Senegal, and Mali. The works cover a wide range of subjects, including poetry, Arabic grammar, history, theology, Sufism, law, astronomy, and numerology. Highlights include the collection’s rich body of work on the Tijâniyya Sufi order, fine examples of Hausa poetry, and writings on medicine and healing.

This website provides information about the catalog, which contains entries from four separate collections: The Umar Falke Collection, The John Paden Collection, The John Hunwick Collection, The University of Ghana Collection, and access via NUsearch, Northwestern Library's discovery search tool.

Support for the initial cataloging of the collection in the 1990s was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Between 2005 and 2007, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation provided a grant to the Institute for the Study of Islamic Thought in Africa (ISITA) at Northwestern’s Program of African Studies to complete the catalog and make it web-accessible.

Established in 1954, the Herskovits Library contains nearly 300,000 volumes and is the largest separate library for the study of Africa in existence. Its collections support research on the Arabic manuscripts. Access to printed materials in the Herskovits Library's collections is available through the Northwestern University Library online catalog NUcat.