Arabic scripts employed in West African manuscripts have not been fully explored in scholarly literature. The aim of this paper is twofold: to discuss the literature available on this issue and to advance a classification of West African writing styles. This classification is based on the case study of the “de Gironcourt” collection of Arabic manuscripts, gathered in the modern states of Mali, Niger, and Nigeria at the beginning of the twentieth century.
This article describes and analyzes barnāwī, the Arabic script of Borno (northeastern Nigeria) and most ancient prototype of what we define as the Central Sudanic family of scripts. Barnāwī shows paleographic features that clearly set it apart from some other West African Arabic scripts, thereby confirming the inadequacy of the label sūdānī, which often surfaces in literature to collectively brand a variety of scripts used in different regions of West Africa. A paleographic analysis of barnāwī also suggests that its origins predate the development of the maghribī script in North Africa in the twelfth century.