Ajami and Western numerals

Pardon me as I sort out my long list of posts that got shelved prematurely this summer during my fieldwork. There is a really neat little article entitled Lost Language in Bostonia, the Boston University alumni magazine. It’s a fascinating look at the research of Fallou Ngom, who specializes in Ajami writing. Ajami is the name given collectively to modified versions of the Arabic script used to write various West African (non-Arabic) languages. Once you set aside the ridiculous title of the article – Ajami is only ‘lost’ in the ethnocentric sense that most Western scholars don’t know about it and is most definitively not a language, but rather a set of writing systems, each used to write a specific language – it’s an interesting look at a neglected subject relating to an area that is often misperceived as illiterate and having made no contributions to intellectual life.

But what interested me most about the article were the two photos of Ajami manuscripts – one right at the top of the article, another around two-thirds of the way down. And while, yes, I may be the only person to find this really striking, but both of the pages are numbered using Western numerals (51 and 7, respectively). In virtually any handwritten and printed Arabic literature, the set of Arabic numerals ٠١٢٣٤٥٦٧٨٩ are used, not the Western numerals 0123456789. In fact, these numerals have been one of the most resistant to being replaced by Western numerals, even as other regions of the world, such as Japan and India, have partially or fully abandoned their traditional numbering systems. That these Ajami texts are paginated in Western numerals is thus notable, and raises the question of how widely this practice has spread. Is it just chance that these two texts selected happened to use Western numerals, or is this a systematic difference between Arabic and Ajami texts? And if it is a real difference, when and in what context(s) did it emerge? Sounds like a good project for a master’s thesis.



  1. Hi,

    The West uses Arabic numerals while the Arabic world uses Indian numerals. This is a more recent adaptation. I’d assume that at the time of writing these manuscripts while the Arabic cum Muslim world was in a more dominant position, the use of their own numeric system would be taught. Quranic Arabic is more exacting in its presentation than regular Arabic, so I would assume based on the use of Ajami as a missionary tool, that adhering to the more literal use of Quranic Arabic would include using Arabic numerals. I notice that the script also includes diacritics which would further support my supposition.

    A Wikipedia article also supports this: “As befitting their history, the digits (0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9) are also known as Hindu or Hindu-Arabic numerals. The reason that they are more commonly known as “Arabic numerals” in Europe and the Americas is that they were introduced to Europe in the tenth century from Arabs of North Africa. There they were (and still are) the digits used by western Arabs from Libya to Morocco.” The reference to this last sentence is here.

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