how the Arabic language came to West Africa

According to some of the continent’s foremost linguists, the Arabic language spread across West Africa primarily through faith, trade, and education.

During a session on Friday as part of the Sharjah International Book Fair, academics from Mali and Nigeria spoke to Senegal about the different ways the Arabic language permeated their respective societies and the challenges its viability faces today.

According to linguist Abdulqader Idris Mega, Arabic initially flourished through trade.

“So we are talking about a time before the 9th century when Islam came to Mali,” he explained.

“Written and historical sources state that the language originated mainly from groups of the Arabian Peninsula who initially mobilized from North Africa and moved further west.”

However, it was through the spread of Islam, Mega notes, that the Arabic language became a common feature of everyday life in Mali.

“And this is not really surprising, because when Islam came, the Arabic language automatically came with it,” he said.

“People started paying attention because it was related to faith. And through that idea, language spread through religious teachings and general education in the sciences.”

With Mali divided into tribes, each with their own dialects, Arabic served as a unifying language in the country’s internal and external affairs.

“Diplomatic correspondence with kings and empires in North Africa, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania was conducted in Arabic,” Mega said. “While in the country, it was also a language of official instruction and guidance.”

He is satisfied with the current state of the Arabic language in Mali.

“The language is still taught in high schools,” Mega said. “What’s also encouraging is that it’s the top language learners who choose after French.”

Booksellers from the Middle East and North Africa showcase titles at the Sharjah Book Fair.  Pawan Singh / The National

Nigerian researcher and author Omar Adam Mohammed says it was through faith and education that Arabic came to his homeland.

“Islam is the most important factor because language is encapsulated in faith,” he said.

“It was initially through traditional Islamic institutions where the language was mainly taught to understand the faith.

Such schools no longer exist as modern demands demand that schools also teach English, Mathematics, Geography and Science.”

The Senegalese linguist Mohammed Niang also noted that the Arabic language also spread to West Africa through the travels of non-Arabs.

“It is known that Africans came to Yemen in ancient times and then left for Egypt, Ethiopia and beyond,” he said.

“So the relationship between Arab and Africa is old and rich and it’s no surprise that it also appeared in the west in places like Senegal.”

That said, Niang cautions against taking the language’s prevalence for granted.

More needs to be done to ensure it plays a strong role in today’s society to meet some of the continent’s modern needs.

“We have cases in Senegal where people study Arabic abroad and when they return home, they cannot find the kind of work they are looking for,” he says.

“So we need more Arab educational institutions to come to Senegal and work within the existing education systems to create more viable opportunities for students when they graduate.”

Mohammed agrees and points to similar experiences of Nigerian students.

“We must strive to make the teaching of the Arabic language relevant to today’s needs,” Mohammede said.

“Because if you study and graduate from university and don’t have a job where you can use your Arabic skills, it will discourage others.

“It makes no sense to graduate with an Arabic language, but [get] no job.”

The Sharjah International Book Fair will last until November 13 at the Expo Center Sharjah. More information is available at

Updated: Nov 05, 2022, 13:46

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