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Central Sudanic Arabic Scripts (Part 1): The Popularization of the Kanawī Script

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In this article, I want to draw attention to the Arabic calligraphic styles used in manuscripts and “market editions” produced in twentiethcentury northern Nigeria. While research on the origins and history of the Arabic calligraphic scripts of the Central Sudan still needs to answer many questions, this article contends that, instead of focusing only on the few available sixteenth- or seventeenth-century manuscripts, researchers could also benefit from the study of the easily accessible twentieth-century Nigerian calligraphic hands, which have inherited and popularized more ancient calligraphic traditions. After reconstructing the career of a legendary calligrapher of Kano city and looking at his works as well as those of other contemporary calligraphers of the northern Nigerian metropolis, I argue for the existence of a specific “Kanawī” script used today for the realization of Qurʾāns and decorative copies of religious books and characterized by a maximization of the thickness of the traditional styles of the Central Sudan. The contemporary Kanawī, in fact, is only an extension of a style that was known in the rest of West Africa as “Hausāwī” already in precolonial times. Nigerian calligraphers consider this style, in its turn, to be an offshoot of more ancient scribal traditions that had their center in Borno (northeastern Nigeria/southwestern Chad). If the script of Borno is certainly the oldest form of Central Sudanic script, more research on the origins and development of the Borno scribal traditions and their Hausa offshoots will be necessary in order to shed light on the position of the Central Sudan within the wider family of western Arabic scripts.



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