Beyond the Word: Ink in the Islamic Manuscripts of Northern Nigeria


This paper is focused on results of a survey and study in Northern Nigeria of the inks used in Islamic manuscripts and on related information on the extant traditional technologies of ink production. Knowledge of the specific inks used in the surviving, largely undated Northern Nigerian manuscripts written in Arabic script, often referred to as Islamic manuscripts, informs us about the society that created them and embeds their production within a specific cultural context. In a place such as Africa, where the historical record and archaeological heritage are so vulnerable, we look to all vestiges of material culture in order to expand out understanding of its people, its history and their culture. These manuscripts belong to the West African tradition of Islamic culture and scholarship, of which Timbuktu was a key center. Whilst another goal of the study was to establish a watermark chronology to provide information as to the papers‘ source, when particular papers were made, when manuscripts might have been copied, and their creators‘ paper preferences, the focus of this paper is on identifying and field-testing the inks used in these manuscripts. This study of over twelve thousand folios at fourteen manuscript Northern Nigerian repositories involved 4500 km of road travel and suggested a local, interrelated tradition of dye, ink and pigment fabrication. Preliminary data led to the hypothesis that the local technology provided the basis of the indigenous manuscript production, rather than one derived from the Mediterranean and the Islamic heartlands. Finally, the diversity of these manuscripts in Arabic script reflects a culture in which not everyone was Muslim but in which Islam played a dominant role.

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Correspondence to Michaelle L Biddle.

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Biddle, M.L. Beyond the Word: Ink in the Islamic Manuscripts of Northern Nigeria. MRS Online Proceedings Library 1319, 409 (2011).

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