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Arabic Inscription or Hausa Verbiage: Between Manipulative Interpretations and Subjective Impulse

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Written by: Malaysia

Arabic Inscription or Hausa Verbiage: Between Manipulative Interpretations and Subjective Impulse


While reading through Nigerian National Dailies on the weekend, I came across two sets of articles which focused on de-inscription and re-inscription of “Arabic language” on the nation’s currency. These articles bore two different sides and shades of a rejoinder to a provocative, yet, imaginative piece that was written by Dr. Lakin Akintola of the Muslim Rights Concern. Convoluting like a chain reaction, Prof. Suleiman Dankano joined Dr. Reuben Abati and Mr. Isiaka Adams in the discursus, by trading issues with the latter and Dr. Akintola, with a pace that typically re-dimensioned Abati’s confutation and expatiated upon his themes. Although these savvy minds made laudable attempts in landing their points academically, perspectival impulses illustrative of the Orientalising discourse between late Edward Saeed and Bernard Lewis deprived them such objective balancing. This article is envisioned as an alternative, yet historical expiation on what is what and what is not, about the rhapsodized former inscription on the Nigerian Naira bills. Possibly, this might offer discerning minds, a sense of proportion imbued with historical alertness to facts of history, being consciously or subconsciously subdued.


In a shrewd but topsy-turvy move to re-ignite the debate on the inscription on Nigeria’s currency, Dr. Akintola affirms, “… we of the Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) wish to refresh the memory of the new Central Bank administration regarding this ugly development. We also wish to call the attention of the National Assembly to the volatile issue. The removal of Arabic from some denominations of the naira was motivated by no patriotic cause. It was driven by bad faith, distrust and intent to do mischief.” This was in his article entitled, “Nigeria: Return Arabic to the Naira,” published on the 17 July 2009, in Daily Trust Newspaper. More precisely, he declares in another piece entitled “Put Arabic back on Naira notes,” “The Arabic on the Naira symbolizes the existence of Muslims in the country while the English on the Naira represents the Christian population. To remove the Arabic unceremoniously is to tell the Muslims that they do not belong.” This was published in Nigeria Compass on the same day with the first one. In a condensed form, Dr. Akintola was calling for the re-inscription of what he calls Arabic on the Naira Bills, on the ground that it symbolizes Muslims’ stake in our national configuration. Following this line of symbols and identity representation, the ingenious Abati, scatologically spoke from a different side of the divide by submitting, “But his Friday, July 17 column titled "Put Arabic back on Naira notes" is irresponsible.” He deplores the removal of Arabic inscriptions from the new national currency (N5, N10, N20, N50) by the Obasanjo administration in 2007, and argues that "it was a provocative, politically naive and parochial step." Dr. Abati ended his agitated response by remarking that, “And Dr. Akintola's threat that certain "measures will be explored at the appropriate time if the Yar' adua-Sanusi duo fails to reprint those denominations with their traditional Arabic graphics" is what I call silly...” Note, the emphases are mine!


While struggling to supply the missing links in the exchange of verbal passes between Akintola and Abati, Mr. Adams contends, “A careful decoding of the Arabic inscriptions that strangely offended the sensibilities of a section of the populace to warrant its being expunged from the face of the naira would show that only the alphabet was in actual fact Arabic; the wordings were Hausa concepts.” In a brash and historicizing response, which shares Abati’s rash-approach, yet, peculiar for highlighting some historical flaws in the latter’s exposition, Prof. Suleiman Dankano writes, “Once more, I would like to state here that the Arabic inscription on the Naira was an act of Arabic cultural imperialism (we were never colonized politically by Arabs)… We should be talking about development rather than senseless and uncivilized enteritis that are making Nigeria not only a pariah nation in the comity of nations but a failed state.” Nonetheless, Prof. Dankano fell into similar historical pit by situating the Malaysian debate on the permissibility of using Allah outside its historio-contextual plane. More of what he said was a distortion and manipulation of the realities which encircle the events being depicted. For lack of space, I beg reader’s pardon in referring them to Newspaper editorials and various court proceedings on this matter. This has never generated hypertensive and acrimonious national reactions as it was deductively construed. So, we can discard the foisting of a persuasion which is deficient and prejudicing of the facts of history. Again, the above emphases are mine and as intended, these are meant to make readers alive to the similarities and the divergence in the tune and perspectival renditions of these contributors.


What Prof. Charles Soludo, the former CBN Governor de-inscribed from the Naira Bills, can it be called Arabic inscription as claimed by these intellectuals or Arabic alphabets with Hausa Concepts, as opined by Mr. Isiaka Adams? Unraveling the veracity of these claims thus necessitates the need to demystify the name of the said controversial inscription, its origin and usages within and outside the Nigerian domain. Is it an Arabic language as acclaimed? Intelligiblizing the facts of history suggests that what was de-inscribed is Hausa language, scripted in Ajemi characters and not Arabic inscription or language as acclaimed by these learned fellows and, or, as it is wrongly upheld by many people. Consequently, the phrase, ‘Arabic inscriptions’ and ‘Arabic,’ are misnomers. With this in mind, we shall proceed to remonstrate that “Ajemi” is neither a language nor an Arabic lettering or alphabet as also purported by Mr. Adams. There are crystal clear and indisputable differences between a language and a lettering/alphabet, although we can draw a connection which does not invalidate our earlier hypothesis. Making inferences from what Roman characters/Latin-based alphabets, is, to modern English language will offer a creditable platform to launch our analytical review. When combined in its appropriate ways, these characters will give birth to what is known as words that fit into modern English language. Further possibilities portends that same characters can be scripted in other languages such as Spanish as much it is possible with some dialects. The Spanish also have their alphabets which bear semblance with those of English letters. In the light of this, it will be inappropriate to interchangeably use Roman characters in place of whatever languages it is used in scripting, as much as it is with Spanish letters. The use of Jawi characters in scripting Bahasa Melayu, the official language being spoken in Malaysia further consolidates our position. It will be distressful to say what was scripted on Malaysian currency is Jawi and not Bahasa Melayu. The semblance of these characters with those of Arabic, both in form and the way they are scripted from the right to the left, will make a not too informed mind to think it is Arabic. This challenges, takes to the cleaner and deflates Mr. Adam’s over-assuming self-confident remarks-, “I make bold to assert that Arabic is visibly inscribed on all the Ringit notes even though the country is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society comprising a slight majority Malays, Chinese and Indians.” So, language is therefore one thing as much as the characters are, although, we can establish a relationship between the two, such which can neither abrogate their individuality nor arrogate sameness to them.


Ajemi falls into the lot of the character-language theory that is being hypothesized. In its own right, it is a group of lettering/characters/alphabets, with Arabic derivative. Unambiguously put, the origin of Ajemi’s characters is Arabic. There is the need to reiterate that, etymologically and in its developmental evolution, the word Ajam from which Ajemi evolved has other primary and primordial usages as non-Arabic and Persian. Trailing this aside, the Arabic origin of the Ajemi characters explains its semblance with some Arabic alphabets. Even, with this, it has some peculiar letters, albeit localized, that are missing in the source from which it derives, thus leading us to the question of the variations in its sounds systems when used to transcribe other languages as it were in the sub-Saharan Africa.  One of such differences is with the Arabic letter, , which translates as “aas it contrasts with the Ajemi version of Nigerian Hausa/Fulani. There is the need to state that, even, there exists a big difference between the Fulani and Hausa Ajemi. Though ‘,’ can be found in Hausa’s Ajemi, it has another character, which translates as ‘tsa,’; something that is holistically different and unique, when contrasted with Arabic alphabets. Also, this same Ajemi can be scripted in Arabic.


Two issues can be synthesized out of the aforesaid. These are, the impossibility of substituting Ajemi characters for the Arabic ones, and this is why one is called Ajemi and the other, Arabic characters. The second is that, when existing as alphabets, both remains individually so, therefore cannot be considered a language. History has it that Ajemi as a character assumed a wider usage in places such as Ethiopia, Chad, Sudan and etcetera. Here again, one observes a localizing content that is different from other Ajemis’ and no where available in Arabic character. This is the case with Arabic letters such as ﺶ, ي, ز, ﻇ, ج, which are written in different modes in the local version of Ethiopian Ajemi characters, known as Amharic letters. The first attracts four dots/diacritics, second, three; third, two dots; fourth, two; and the last, three. With this, we can see the clear cut differences between Arabic letters and Ajemi characters and why one should not be short-changed for the other. By retreating back into the Nigeria particularism, the Ajemi letters were in use prior to the colonial invasion of our territories. This was acknowledged by Lord Lugard of the colonial hegemony, in his 1919 report on the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Nigeria. Accordingly, he writes, “Government did not interfere in the indigenous Koranic schools, in which reading and writing in the Arabic and Ajemi character, and memorizing passages from the Koran formed the curriculum.” Although his claim of non-interference cannot stand the test of history, he was able to differentiate between what is of Arabic and Ajemi characters, hence, persevering the truth of history. This statement clearly affirms that Ajemi was not foreign to the pre-colonial history of the Hausas neither could it be substituted for Arabic letters. It also affirms its usage in scripting books in the Northern part of the country as much as Arabic language was simultaneously in use. This leaves us with two-in-two possible interpretations which will soon be addressed. However, before doing that, one begs to disagree with Prof. Dankano that he missed the track by stressing that, “… the inclusion of Arabic in the Naira does not represent Islam but Arabic culture that has nothing to do with Islam. You must draw a line between Arabization and Islamization. Islam and Arabic are two different cultures.” Three things were misrepresented and garbed in the clothing of empiricism. The first is, “the inclusion of Arabic in the Naira.” What was inscribed was Hausa and not Arabic. Also, our erudite professor’s proclamation that Arabic is a culture seems too hollow, as he once told Mr. Adams and un-professorial. Arabic is a language and not a culture. The third which is on Arabization and Islamization, will also receive our attention in the two-in-two analysis.


Flourishing from the aforesaid, a more graphic illustration will be required so as to simplify our argument into the simplest decodable form. The de-inscribed words include thus which can be loosely translated as Naira Biyar, Naira Dari Biyar, Naira Gomma, and Naira Ashirin, Naira Dari Biyu.  Respectively, this means, 5, 500, 10, 20, and 200 Naira. In its Arabic equivalent, all these are supposed to be written as Khams Nairah, Khams Miah Nairah, Asharah Nairah, Ishirin Nairah and Mi’atan Nairah. Again, we have demonstrated that none of the inscription on the naira note can be called Arabic or Arabic alphabets. What was earlier scripted and de-scripted was Hausa language, couched in Ajemi letters. Those words were neither Ajemi nor Arabic, neither could they be said to be Islamic. So, if the Hausas so agree and demands that this be re-scripted on the Naira, so be it since other major languages are now on the naira. We may also need to take a telescopic look at this from another premise. Flashing down the memory lane, I recall an engagement with Prof. Oye Ibidapo-Obe, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Lagos. This, I will like to share with us, especially, the very part which is relevant to our discussion. In the heat of our discussion, my eyes had contact which a calligraphic inscription that was conspicuously placed in his office. Driven by the probing curiousity to know what the characters/symbol were and what they connote, my attention got distracted to the extent that the amiable Professor could easily interpret what was on my mind. Like a clairvoyant, he said, Abudugana, “that shouldn’t be strange to you! Oh boy!, that is the Chinese scripting of my name using Chinese symbols.” Same name can be scripted in Arabic, Ajemi, Yoruba, and Roman letters, but to mention a few. All of this neither changes the ‘Yorubaness’ of his name, nor do they make the professor’s name, acquire their corresponding individual linguistic status.


Why is it that what most commentators on the Naira inscription debate as presumptuously demonstrated by these critical minds, fail to appropriate the details, painstakingly so far expounded? There might be a lot of reasons. However, following the tune and style of the rhetoric that were adopted by these individuals, it seems more appropriate to say they were prompted by the Orientalising psyche of the others’-other order.  Beclouded by this mentality, they were, most of the times defending their turf and takes, by and with all means, thereby making them to defile facts of history. Hence, their historical indictments. If they had been critical with penchant and hunger for facts, patriotic, as we were made to believe, all of them would not have committed the error of naming or calling the said inscription an Arabic one. Although Mr. Adam made a spirited attempt to argue otherwise, but he got it wrong as earlier argued. The alphabets, thought were of Arabic origin, the differences as pointed out in this piece will not allow somebody to pronounce that, “the alphabet was in actual fact Arabic,” as advocated by Mr. Adam. Also, by deploying the sentence, “the wordings were Hausa concepts,”  this can still be fairly condoned, however, one must be quick to point us that it might be misleading. By emphasizing that it was Ajemi, with the localizing content of the Hausa’s and Fulani, he would have properly situated his thought. He was unfair to the Fulani’s, hence, can be charged for dichotomizing the discourse that is of rich literary heritage. 


One also noticed the aforesaid in how Dr. Akintola phrased his wordings which read: “The Arabic on the Naira symbolizes the existence of Muslims in the country while the English on the Naira represents the Christian population.” Again, what was on the naira was not Arabic and one would have expected that he is abreast of this fact, on the simple fact that this falls into the areas of his expertise. If it were to be Arabic, as acclaimed by our eloquent doctor, then, Dr. Akintola might be making a cogent point which will soon be evaluated. Driven by the same motive, Dr. Akintola committed a blunder which was too costly because what could have been a point, he made redundant because of his the premeditated mind-set.  Prof. Suleiman Dankano, who observed this, was also in a hurry and more so, overwhelmed in his Christian other’s-other of Adam’s Islamic other, to accredit the sentence to Mr. Adams and not Akintola, the patent author. That was unscholarly and too minor an excuse a professor should be forgiven. It shows that the professor never exercised patience to read Akintola’s article before he began his crucification of his write-up. Conversely, one would have also expected Dr. Akintola to identify Hebrew or Greek with Christianity as it were and historically relate the language of colonialism with Christianity on the other.  Evidently, this was the case with our colonial history. The colonial masters worked with the Christian missionary in achieving this colonialising and imperializing objectives and that was why many Muslims had to adopt Christian names before they could be allowed western education. This was the situation in the Western part of Nigeria , even, in the North. Many who complied with this forceful and unfair directive, never made it back into the fold of Islam. Some were able and at least, I know of many, one of whom was to become a professor of History and Chief Imam at the University of Lagos. Little wonder, the highly revered Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land." There is need to put the record straight that, that English language’s evolution had a strong connection with the Roman Catholic Church. This cannot be denied. If Dr. Akintola had taken note of this, he would have saved himself a loss of the sense of proportion.


The repeated call by Prof. Suleiman Dankano that a border line be drawn between Arabization and Islamization also smacks of a poor understanding of the terrain he feigned proper grasp.  He went as far as saying that Islam and Arabic are two different cultures. That was too vague, simplistic and over-generalizing. It would not have agitated any discerning mind and a good student of history if he had explained the two-sides of the concepts he was toying with. Firstly, he failed to clarify that Arabic is a language and Islam, a way of life. In Ethiopia, what was experienced was Islamization without Arabization, but that was not the case with other parts of the Muslim world, particularly, between the 685 CE/65 A.H until the fall of the caliphate. Before placing his argument, Prof. Dankano failed to beam his cerebral look at the language, as that in which the Qur’an was revealed. This is the language with which Muslims conducts their solat (prayers). Without any repugnance or speck of imposition, it is so considered and valued by Muslims, not only as a unifier, but also, as the Lingua Franca of the Muslim ummah. This is Muslims’ doctrinal right which is not opened to undue simulation by anybody.  In order not to fall prey of the same mistakes committed by our erudite professor, we must be quick to say, non-Muslims have claim to Arabic language as well, either as their dialects or major language of instruction. This balancing was left-out of Prof. Dankano analysis. His Orientalising suspicion/other’s-other suspicion became naked when he emphasized that, “Once more, I would like to state here that the Arabic inscription on the Naira was an act of Arabic cultural imperialism (we were never colonized politically by Arabs). I find that many of you are more comfortable with Arab imperialism and yet the Arabs depend on the West to defend them both economically and militarily.” That was obviously addressed to Muslims as it manifests in his usage of the phrase, “I find that many of you are more comfortable with Arab imperialism.” The emphases are mine. Who are this “many of you?’ Readers will need to recount that Prof. Dankano’s rejoinder was in response to Mr. Adams’s rejoinder to Dr. Akintola and Abati’s articles on this issue. ‘Many of you,’ therefore unambiguously refer to the Muslims who share Mr. Adams’s opinion, with whom he equated Arab imperialism. Even, Prof. Dankano’s choice of Arab imperialism smacks of Mr. Adams’s equation of Arabic with Islam. Peradventure, this captures the context in which Prof. Dankano’s Arabization thesis subsists. I never know of Arabs as imperial powers and will gracious love to be educated what makes them to be. Taking holistic look at this within the broader spectrum of what our professor calls “the Arabic inscription on the Naira was an act of Arabic cultural imperialism,” (the emphasis are mine), will bring to our intellectual glare and public horizon, what was being scripted and glorified in the name of scholarship. If one is to deplore the spirit of textual analysis and logical interconnectivity, Prof. Dankano’s illusion that what were de-inscribed off the Naira bills were Arabic and his distaste for how Dr. Akintola and Mr. Adam equated it with Islam, becomes imminent. If this is well taken, then, the professor can be said to have indirectly equated what he calls Arabic cultural imperialism with the latters’ standpoint. This was well-amplified when he raised the question, “Haven’t we had enough bloodshed emanating from Islamism and Islamic fundamentalism? Can you see how these senseless killings, senseless crises and senseless fundamentalist attitude are taking down our country?” He merely did not pronounce Islam, but a perceptive mind can rely on the mathematical concept of Mapping, Relation and Functions to create the bigger image he was trying to conjure. He failed to underscore the Universalist and integralist nature of Islam which also, Dr. Akintola and Mr. Adams did not sadly highlight. If Prof. Dankano had used the integralist dichotomizing approach, rather than his disintegrating-dichotomizing style, to explain Arabization and Islamization concepts, he would have saved himself this fallacy of history.


While joining issues with Mr. Adams and indirectly with Dr. Akintola, our professor feigned ignorance of Dr. Abati’s remarks to the latter’s contribution; a remark that is not befitting of a Journalist of his pedigree, more so, a Ph.D holder.  Dr Abati’s usage of “Absolutely wrong and mischievous” was as provocative as that of Dr. Akintola’s tune. He used the fire-for-fire approach and one may ask: Is that worthwhile a legacy to bequeath to the younger generation? Dr Abati played out his last card when he placed his outburst within the brace of what he calls, ‘Islamization and Islamic hegemonization agenda.’ What a volatile statement that can set the country ablaze. That was too hard and as an ardent follower of Abati’s column and other activities of his, I am disappointed. Until proven otherwise, I will be extra cautious while reading our brother’s contribution so as not to wrongly associate his position with statement of facts.


By way of conclusion, I detest to task our Prof. about the origins of the following words: adobe, alcohol, assassin, cable, caliber, candy, carat, coffee, hazard, damask, influenza, lake, massacre, mummy, orange, racket, sugar, syrup, and zenith. If it so turn out to be Arabic, I hope we won’t start another debate that this words be dropped because they were as Prof. will claim, “Arabic cultural imperialism.” This may sound too offensive to the sensibilities of an English man.


What a discourse of the orientalising other’-others presentation mode that was reeled with manipulative interpretations and subjective impulse, all in the bid to defend one another’s turf using the Machiavellian approach.


The author, Mr. Adebiyi Jelili Abudugana was a former student Union Leader in UNILAG. He can be reached through: 

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