Arabic Medicinal Manuscripts of Pre-Colonial Northern Nigeria: A Descriptive List

West African Muslim scholars produced a number of Arabic works relating to medicine, philosophy, economic studies, political thought, geography, architecture, town planning and public administration…


Traditional Muslim scholarship in West Africa, as elsewhere, used to involve fields of knowledge outside the scope of narrowly defined Islamic studies. For example, West African Muslim scholars produced a number of Arabic works relating to medicine, philosophy, economic studies, political thought, geography, architecture, town planning and public administration. Some of these manuscripts are housed in the personal collections of the families of the authors. In addition, some organizations have taken custody of these manuscripts, from time to time, and have preserved them in different forms for public use.

Figure 1. View of Timbuktu, drawn by Martin Bernatz (1802–1878) after a sketch by Heinrich Barth (1821-1865) (Source)

These organizations include some research and documentation centers in Nigeria, such as the Waziri Junaidu Personal Library (WJPL, Darul Buhuth), Sokoto; The Center for Islamic Studies (CIS), Specialist Library, Sokoto; the Sokoto State History Bureau (SSHB), Sokoto; National Archives Kaduna (NAK); the Arewa House Archives, Kaduna, and the Graduate Documents Center, Bayero University, Kano. This paper presents a brief overview of some northern Nigerian manuscripts, focusing on those that deal with different aspects of medical sciences such as pharmacology, ophthalmology, hygiene and general medicine. The aim of this paper is to show the continuing relevance of such manuscripts for African scholarship in the twenty-first century.[1]

An outline of some medicinal manuscripts

Figure 2. A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9. (Source)

1. Masalih al-insan al-muta’alliq bi-l-adyan wal-abdan

Author: ‘Abd Allah b. Fudi (1768-1827).

Location: Manuscript obtained from Bashir Osman personal library, Sokoto.

Content: The book is in two parts. The first part discusses spiritual aspects of Muslim life. The main emphasis of the second part is on medicine. ‘Abd Allah recognises the influence of environmental factors on health and wellbeing and so he dedicates the first portion of the second part of the book to a discussion of those factors and the role they play in causing illness or, conversely, promoting health. Following the Galenic medical philosophy inherited by Arab, Indian and African medieval thinkers, he identifies the principal cause of sickness as an imbalance between heat, cold, dryness and moisture in the body. Any such imbalance results in bodily malfunction, which in turn leads to illness. The manuscript also discusses the ethics of medical practice. In this respect it touches on issues such as respecting patient confidentiality, treating patients with kindness and hospitality, and not practicing medicine only for the sake of profit, but rather because of a genuine concern to assist the helpless and sick.


2. Diya’ al-umma fi adillat al-a’imma

Author: ‘Abd Allah b. Fudi (1768-1827).

Location: Printed (no date) by Alhaji Dan Ige Sokoto.

Content: The book specifically discusses ibadat (acts of worship). However, ‘Abd Allah also provides a chapter on medicine. Here, he explains the fundamental causes of sickness. According to him, one of the root causes of all sicknesses is excessive and frequent eating, especially eating solid food before an earlier meal has been digested. He further recommends light eating habits and maintaining a balanced diet; in other words, avoid eating only one type of food. Similarly, he strongly recommends fruit and milk as being part of the diet for everyone wishing to preserve their health. For the treatment of poisons such as scorpion stings and snakebite, he recommends the use of salt and water. He also provides a verdict (fatwa) prohibiting the use of wine and other unlawful substances in medication. Finally, he explains that one must not enter a town or place where there is a plague or similar disease, and he prohibits the use of black magic, divination and charms.

Figure 3. Illuminated pages from a loose leaf Qur’an, kept in a leather bag, on display in the British Library’s exhibition ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ (16.10.15-16.2.16). Late 18th/19th century  (British Library Or.16,751) (Source)


3. Kitab al-rahma fi -l-tibb wa-l-hikma.

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: CIS, ACC. NO. 315/63.

Content: The manuscript is specifically on materia medica, with more than one hundred medical cases reviewed. It is a compilation of Bello’s personal experimentation and observations on disease causation, symptoms and cure. He tested the materials he recommends, and established their medicinal efficacy. For this reason, at the end of every entry, prescription or treatment he concludes with: mujarrab al-sahih; in other words ‘tested and found effective’. In the book, as with ‘Abd Allah’s Masalih al-insan, Bello provides a chapter on natural sciences, that is ‘ilm al-tabi’a. In the text and especially in chapter three, he also recommends some precautions that help to maintain one’s health; these include regular cleaning of the body, clothes and environment, sexual satisfaction and protection from excessive heat and cold. There are different manuscripts or books with the same title in several collections in Nigeria. Some are written by the Yandoto ‘ulama of Zamfara and are in ajami (Hausa in Arabic script). Others are famous compilations on medicine by non-Nigerian authors, such as the one written by Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Nadr al-Shirazi and the one by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505).

Figure 4. Different types of leaves and roots sold at a market in Mali (Source)


4. Al-mawarid al-nabawiyya fi al-masa’il altibbiyya

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: Graduate Documents Center, BUK, Doc no. 566.

Content: This is a general treatise on Prophetic medicine and accounts for the properties of a variety of minerals and materials, and describes special supplications recommended by the Prophet for the treatment of illnesses.

Figure 5. West African manuscripts on a range of subjects (Source)


5. Ujalat al-rakib fi al-tibb al-sa’ib

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: CIS, 3/8/107.

Content: The book also examines Prophetic medicine. The first part of the book presents the position of the study of medical sciences in Islam. According to Bello, it is compulsory for the Muslim community to train experts in medical sciences who will take charge of health at the individual and communal level. This, according to Bello, will make Muslims independent of the non-Muslim practitioners among whom they live. In the book, Bello also laments the neglect of this science by Muslims; this neglect led them to follow superstitions and sorcery. He also discusses preventive medicine as well as public health. He strongly recommends the medicinal use of honey, milk and garlic to treat a variety of medical issues.

Figures 6-8. Pages from a Hausa Ajami manuscript by Husaini Bukar Salihu on subjects ranging from celestial positions to medical treatments. © Boston University Libraries (Source)


6. Kitab al-tibb al-nabawi

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: SSHB 3/30/109.

Content: The author, Sultan Muhammad Bello, follows the example of other reputed scholars such as the Syrian Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350) and the Egyptian Jalal al-Din al Suyuti (d. 1505), who also wrote on prophetic medicine. Bello was familiar with these works. As the title indicates, this text is another general treatise on prophetic medicine. As with Bello’s other texts, the introductory part is dedicated to examining the position and significance of medicine in human society and it appeals to Muslims to study that science. He mentions that the study of medicine is a specifi c obligation, in certain cases falling upon the individual (fard ‘ayn) and in other cases upon the community (fard kifaya).

Figure 9. A manuscript, though to be Syrian, titled Kitab al-tibb al-nabawi (Source)


7. Kitab al-tibb al-mu‘in al-musamma bi-tibb al-‘ayn

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: NAK, SOKPROF, item no.12/ref. no. A/AR9.

Content: The main subject of this manuscript is the treatment of eye diseases. Bello starts by identifying eye problems including diseases that cause dryness, redness, and discharge from the eye as well as some causes of blindness, short-sightedness and night blindness. This is followed by prescriptions for drugs and descriptions of how to prepare eye lotions and eye drops for treatment. It is interesting to note that some of the prescriptions in this text are mentioned in local languages such as Hausa, Fulfulde and Tamashek.

Figures 10-12. Arabic manuscripts detailing the anatomy of the human eye (Source)


8. Kitab al-adwiyat lil-‘uyun

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: NAK, SOKPROF. item no. 2. Ref. no. A/AR2.

Content: This manuscript is another treatise on eye diseases. Bello places emphasis on the diet to be followed by patients suffering from those diseases. He recommends milk and eggs in addition to some prescribed drugs for medication.

Figure 13. Room full of manuscripts, National Archives Kaduna, Nigeria (Source)


9. Musuj al-lijayn al-musamma bi-tibb al‘ayn

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: SSHB. ACC NO.150.

Content: This manuscript also reviews eye diseases and mentions several ways of treating eye problems. It focuses on the preparation of antimony and its application to the eye for treatment. In the case of a person undergoing serious eye treatment, Bello recommends avoidance of hard labour and strong body movement including sexual intercourse.

Figures 14-15. Left: Prunus africana with stripped medicinal bark, Right: Preparing and drying out freshly dug traditional medicines (Source)


10. Risalat al-amrad al-kilyah wa ‘ilajiha

Figure 16. Arabic manuscript detailing the medicinal properties of the Cinnamon tree, used for treating a variety of illnesses including kidney diseases (Source)

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: WJPL, in a collection of correspondence by Gidado bin Laima.

Content: This is an epistle contained in Wazir Gidado b. Laima’s compilation of the correspondence of Muhammad Bello. This epistle was an answer to a letter sent to Muhammad Bello by the then Emir of Zazzau (Zaria). In his letter, the Emir complained of suffering from an illness and outlined the symptoms. Muhammad Bello replied: “From the description and symptoms of your ailment as contained in the letter, I think you suffer from a kidney problem.” Bello identified three main problems associated with the kidney: wind in the kidney, swelling of the kidney, and blockage (lit.: stones) in the kidney. For each of these, Bello prescribed the drugs to be taken and the methods of administration. The Emir followed the prescription that Bello sent him and duly responded to indicate that he was cured of the ailment.


11. Al-qawl al-manthur fi adwiyat illat albathur

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: CIS, 3/9/122.

Content: This subject of this book is the causes and treatment of piles. It details different aspects of treatment such as fumigation, and the diets that the patient should maintain in order to recover. In the last part of the book, Bello identifies some causes of liver problems and prescribes medication with a mixture of garlic, honey and other ingredients. The treatise is one of Muhammad Bello’s more scientifically detailed analyses of a specific illness.

Figures 17-18. Manuscripts from the Muslim civilisation detailing diagrams of individual organs in the human body (Source)


12. Kitab al-qawl al-sinna [i.e.: cassia senna]

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: SSHB ACC. N. 263.

Content: Bello’s text covers treatment involving the use of a single plant: cassia senna. He provides the plant’s names in Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamashek. He then traces the origin of the plant from the Arabian Peninsula and discusses its medicinal uses and efficacy, identifying six different ways of administering it. The leaves of the plant, according to Bello, can be used in different ways; these include drying and grinding them to make a powder, boiling the fresh leaves and grinding them to be administered with honey, tamarind or milk, or adding the leaves to natron or salt. Various methods of administration are described by Bello for the treatment of ailments including excessive phlegm, bile disease, diabetes, constipation and stomach problems. The scientific nature of this work is further strengthened by Bello’s description of doses, especially in the case of mothers who are breastfeeding. This text also describes how the quantity of the dosage changes depending on when the leaves were plucked.[2]

Figures 19-21. Left to right; Aloe vera, Neem leaves and Lemongrass, are commonly used in traditional West African medicine (Source) 


13. Nubdha fi adwiyat al-didan

Figure 22. A manuscript by Ibn Fadlan were he decribes the problem of parasites in the human body (Source)

Author: Muhammad Bello.

Location: WJPL 31/13.

Content: This treatise by Bello basically addresses a single problem: the diseases associated with worms in human beings. Bello identifies the types of worms prevalent in humans and describes the symptoms associated with their presence, stressing that these diseases are more common among children than adults. Bello estimates the length of a tape worm at maturity to be approximately 35 cm. His work adopts a scientific approach in its investigation and prescription of treatments.[3]


14. Qira’ at al-ahibba’ fi ‘ilm al-atibba’. An alternative title for the same book (Qira’at alahibba’ fi bayan sirr al-asma’) is used in Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack, The Collected works of Nana Asma’u, Michigan State University Press, 1997

Author: Muhammad Tukur. Location: CIS.

Content: Muhammad Tukur explains that he was requested by Muhammad Bello to compile the work, which is a general compilation concerning the medicine of the Prophet.

Figures 23-24. Arabic manuscripts detailing the practice of exorcism (Source)



A turning point in the intellectual history of West Africa was reached when Arabic manuscripts became widely used in documentation, such as recordings of courts proceedings, and correspondence generally. Indigenous Muslim scholars emerged as result of the intellectual activities that gained ground in that region, from the fifteenth century.[4] The nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Sokoto Caliphate, was the golden period for Islamic scholarship in what is today northern Nigeria.[5] John O. Hunwick has described the role of the Arabic Language as a language of scholarship in the region as the “Latin of West Africa”.[6] Just as European people wrote in Latin or borrowed the Latin scripts to write in their own languages, West African people for centuries produced scholarship in the Arabic Language and wrote in Arabic script in preference to writing in their own languages. The level of scientific experimentation and discovery evident in these manuscripts attests beyond any doubt to the level of intellectual development in that part of Africa, and discredits the popular notion that Africa did not contribute to the field of science and technology, as with other parts of the world in the pre-colonial period. The study of this legacy of preserved medicinal manuscripts could help to rejuvenate medical scholarship in the region. Thus, people would come to recognise the achievements of earlier generations, rekindling the spirit of scientific curiosity and medical experimentation. Similarly, and perhaps more importantly, these documents are based on herbal knowledge and on a holistic approach towards illness and well-being: as such, their teachings can contribute towards a medical system which would be a viable alternative to contemporary ‘Western’ commercial medicine with its symptom-centered and reductionist approach towards illness and well-being.

“Actions are but by intentions”: Ibn Rajab’s Commentary on Imam Nawawi’s Forty Hadith

The hadith of intentions is not meant to be taken in a vacuum. Nothing in the Shari`a is in a vacuum. It needs to be taken together with all the other injunctions of Allah and His Prophet which includes five hundred commands and eight hundred prohibitions. Furthermore the hadith of intention is a warning to eliminate self-display and self-delusion because they cancel  reward and have negative consequences. There are other applications as well. An important requirement is to tread the path of teachers and not to try and split hairs by philosophizing on our own.



‘Umar b. al-Khattab RadhiAllahuanhu narrated that the Prophet () said: Deeds are [a result] only of the intentions [of the actor], and an individual is [rewarded] only according to that which he intends. Therefore, whosoever has emigrated for the sake of Allah and His messenger, then his emigration was for Allah and His messenger. Whosoever emigrated for the sake of worldly gain, or a woman [whom he desires] to marry, then his emigration is for the sake of that which [moved him] to emigrate.” Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim.

This hadith has only one path to ‘Umar: Yahya b. Sa’id al-Ansari on the authority of Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-Taymi, on the authority of ‘Alqama b. Abi Waqqas al-Laythi, who narrated it from ‘Umar b. al-Khattab. Large numbers of people narrated this hadith on the authority of Yahya b. Sa’id, including Imam Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza’i, Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Layth b. Sa’d, Hammad b. Zayd, Shu’ba, Ibn ‘Uyayna and others.

This was the first hadith Bukhari recorded in his book, where it serves the purpose of the introduction (khutba), pointing out that all deeds that are devoid of the proper intention are vain (batil). ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Mahdi is reported to have said that “Were I to compose a book comprised of various chapters, I would place the hadith of ‘Umar regarding deeds and intentions in each chapter.” This is one of the firm hadiths which serves as an axis of Islam. Al-Shafi’i said that it comprises a third of all religious knowledge. Ahmad b. Hanbal said that the principles axes of Islam, in terms of hadith, are three: the hadith of ‘Umar that “deeds are judged only by intention,” the hadith of ‘A`isha, “Whoever introduces into our affairs that which does not belong, it is rejected,” and the hadith of al-Nu’man b. Bashir, “The licit is clear and the illicit is clear.” Ishaq b. Rahawyahi also included this hadith as one of the axises of Islam. Abu Dawud, the collector of the Sunan, is reported to have said that of the 4,800 hadiths in his book, it is sufficient if a person knows four, the hadith of ‘Umar regarding intentions and deeds, the hadith “Part of person’s virtue in Islam is to ignore that which is of no concern to him,” the hadith “The believer is not a believer unless he desires for his brother what he desires for himself,” and the hadith “the licit is clear and the illicit is clear.”

The first question regarding this hadith is whether it refers to all actions, or only those actions whose validity requires an intention (niyya)? Thus, if it refers only to the former, it would not apply to the customary areas of human life, e.g., eating, drinking, clothes, etc., as well as transactional matters, e.g., fulfilling fiduciary duties and returning misappropriated properties. The other opinion is that the hadith refers to all actions. Ibn Rajab attributes the first position to the later scholars whereas the second position he attributes to earlier scholars.

The first sentence of the hadith, “innama al-a’mal bi-l-niyyat,” is a declaration that the voluntary actions of a person are a consequence only of that person’s purpose to perform the act or bring it into existence (“la taqa’ illa ‘an qasd min al-‘amil huwa sabab ‘amaliha wa wujudiha.“). The second sentence, “wa innama li-kulli imri` ma nawa,” is a declaration of religion’s judgment of the act in question (“ikbar ‘an al-hukm al-shar’i“).? Thus, if the intention motivating an act is good, then performance of the act is good and the person receives its reward.? As for the corrupt intention, the action it motivates is corrupt, and the person receives punishment therefor.? If the intention motivating the act is permissible, then the action is permissible, and the actor receives neither reward nor punishment. Therefore, acts in themselves, their goodness, foulness or neutrality, from the perspective of religion are judged according to the person’s intention that caused their existence.

Niyya is used in two senses by the scholars of Islam. The first is to distinguish some acts of worship from others, e.g., salat al-zuhr from salat al-‘asr or to distinguish acts of worship (‘ibadat) from mundane matters (‘adat). This is the primary usage of the term in the books of the fuqaha`The second usage is to distinguish an action that is performed for the sake of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, from an act done for the sake of Allah and others, or just for the sake of other than Allah. This second meaning is that which is intended by the gnostics (‘arifun) in their discussions of sincerity (ikhlas) and related matters. This is the same meaning that is intended by the Pious Ancestors (al-salaf al-salih) when they use the term niyya. Thus, in the Qur`an, the speech of the Prophet (S) and the speech of the Salaf, the term niyya is synonymous, or usually so, with the term desire (irada) and related terms, e.g., ibtigha`. The texts of the shar‘ testifying to this usage are too numerous to be cited in this posting, but include such verses as “Among you are those who desire (yurid) the profane world and among you are those who desire (yurid) the next,” and “You desire (turidun) the profit of the profane world but Allah desires [for you] the next,” and “Whosoever desires (yurid) the harvest of the profane world, etc.” and “Whosoever desires (yurid) the immediate [gratification of the profane world], we hasten it to him what We wish to whom We desire,” and “Do not expel those who call out to their Lord in the early morn and in the evening, who are seekers (yuridun) of His face and let not your eyes wander from them out of covetous desire (turid) of the frivolity of the profane world.”

Likewise, Imam Ahmad and al-Nasa`i report that the Prophet (ﷺ ) said that “Whosoever takes part in a military campaign in the cause of Allah, but sought only booty [thereby], shall gain [only] what he intended (nawa),” and on the authority of Imam Ahmad, “Most of the martyrs of my community shall die in their beds (ashab al-furush), and many a man killed in battle whose intention is known only to Allah,” and the hadith of Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas in Bukhari, where the Prophet (ﷺ ) says “Indeed, you shall never spend of your property an amount whereby you are desirous (tabtaghi) of pleasing Allah save that you shall be rewarded for it, even the morsel of food that you place in your wife’s mouth.”Similarly, it is reported that ‘Umar said “One who has no intention (niyya) has no [meritorious] deeds (“la ‘amala li-man la niyyata lahu”).

Despite the importance of having a good niyya, and its centrality to Islam, it is among the most difficult things to achieve. Thus, Sufyan al-Thawri is reported to have said, “Nothing is more difficult for me to treat than my intention (niyya) for indeed it turns on me!.”Yusuf b. Asbat said, “Purifying one’s intention from corruption is more difficult for persons than lengthy exertion (ijtihad).”?

An act that is not done sincerely for the sake of Allah may be divided into parts:

The first is that which is solely for display (riya`) such that its sole motivation is to be seen by others in order to achieve a goal in the profane world, as was the case of the Hypocrites in their performance of prayer, where Allah described them as “When they join prayer, they go lazily [with the purpose] of displaying [themselves] to the people.”

At other times, an action might be partially for the sake of Allah and partially to display one’s self in front of the people. If the desire to display one’s self arose at the origin of the action, then the action is vain. Imam Ahmad reports that the Prophet (ﷺ ) said, “When Allah gathers the first [of His creation] and the last [of His creation] for that Day for which there is no doubt, a crier will call out, ‘Whosoever associated with Me another in his actions let him seek his reward from other than Allah, for Allah is the most independent of any association (fa-inna allaha aghna al-sharaka` ‘an al-shirk).” Al-Nasa`i reported that a man asked the Prophet (ﷺ ), “What is your opinion of one who fights [in the way of Allah] seeking fame [in the profane world] and reward [from Allah]” The Prophet (ﷺ ) replied, “He receives nothing [by way of reward from Allah’.” The Prophet (ﷺ ) repeated this three times and then said, “Allah accepts no deeds other than those that are performed solely for His sake and by which His face is sought.” This opinion, namely, that if an act is corrupted by any desire to display one’s self (riya`) then that act is rejected, is attributed to many of the Salaf, including, ‘Ubada b. al-Samit, Abu al-Darda`, al-Hasan al-Basri, Sa’id b. al-Musayyib and others.

If one’s intention is corrupted with something other than the desire to display one’s self, e.g., to earn profit whilst on a jihad in the path of Allah, such an intention reduces one’s reward from jihad, but does not negate it entirely. Muslim reported in his Sahih that the Prophet (ﷺ ) said that “Soldiers in the path of Allah attain two-thirds of their reward immediately when they obtain booty [from the enemy], whereas they receive their reward in its entirety when they obtain nothing from the enemy.”

As for an action whose origin is for Allah, then it subsequently becomes corrupted by a desire to display one’s self, then the Salaf differed as to whether such an act is vain. Their differences on this matter have been reported by Ahmad and al-Tabari. Al-Hasan al-Basri is reported to have held that such a desire, in itself, does not invalidate the proper intention that was the origin of the act.

In conclusion, the saying of Sahl b. ‘Abd Allah is most beautiful in this regard: Nothing is more difficult on a person than sincerity because the person gains no share of that [act]. Ibn ‘Uyayna said that Mutarrif b. ‘Abdallah would repeat the following prayer, “O Allah! I seek Your forgiveness for that which I sought your repentance but to which I subsequently returned; I seek Your forgiveness from that which I rendered to You from my self, but then, I was not able to maintain faithfully; and, I seek Your forgiveness from that by which I claimed I desired your Face but my heart became corrupted with that which I did.”

Wa akhir da’wana an al-hamdu li-llahi rabbi al-‘alamin, wa-l-salat wa-l-salam ‘ala ashraf al-mursalin wa ‘ala alihi wa sahbihi wa azwajihi.