FROM volumes of scholarly researches written by Africans and non-Africans, there is no doubt that the ancestry of the Yoruba people had link to either an ancient Nile tribe or that of the Middle East.
Words similarities of Yoruba with either variant of colloquial or modern Arabic languages are some of the contents that link ancient Nile and Middle East with the southwest Nigerian people as well as their 'cousins' along some countries in West Africa. More of interest is the fact that the name, Yoruba, either in writing or pronunciation, shares some commonalities with phrases or words of Arabic origins. Such examples include 'Ya-aruba', 'Ya'rub', Yauba, 'Yuuba' among others that confirm the Yoruba people's Nile and Middle East links.
Either in hyphenated Ya-aruba, apostrophized Ya'rub or Yaruba — from what has been described as colloquial Arabic — the origin of the name ‘Yoruba’ was never about the infertile argument that it was given by people of northern Nigeria. Emerged, possibly out of a less documented ancient Arab tribe, Yoruba as an identity, linked with the words and phrases listed above, trashes into the waste bin of unintelligent conjectures, the falsehood of the northern Nigeria connection.
The meaning of Yoruba and its origin will be treated in more details as this article tracks history, right from the current base of the people, in Nigeria, back to the ancestry of some Arab tribes. Interestingly, the diversity of Arab tribes dated back to pre-Ishmael (biblical period), among which emerged mixed races of light and dark skin persons.
Starting with a fiction that pretended to be history, of which has been trashed into the bin of fabrication, is important too. Such was that of Samuel Johnson (1846-1901) with his 20th century book titled The History of Yorubas. The author lifted Biblical Abraham era character Lamurudu (Numrud in Arabic or Nimrod in Jewish) into the period of emergence of Islam. Johnson needed that fiction to support his claim of Yoruba people "driven from Mecca" during the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad's era.
Steps away from the fiction of Johnson were some writers that gave acceptable reasons on the Nile link of many black tribes' migration southwards to West Africa. Movements of people from the Nile and Sahara downward as a result of climate change in ancient time has been confirmed by many historians. Such authors include Michael Crowther in his book West Africa Introduction to its History (1977, p.17). Crowther cited archaeological evidences of rock paintings and engravings, depicting men "many of whom are Negroes." Among such migrants, most likely, were the Yoruba, other sources have suggested.
Also, Molefe Kete Asante in The History of Africa The Quest for Eternal Harmony 2007, p. 3 wrote: "When the natural change occurred 3000BCE, and Sahara got drier, receiving little rain and the rivers failed, the entire communities disappeared.” The author noted how villages disappeared and people moved either to the north, south or east.
From the murky waters of history come highly contentious arguments such as blacks being the inhabitants of ancient North Africa, Egypt inclusive. Asante argued that prior to 2000BCE, all the people of North Africa were blacks (Asante 2007 p. 20). In fact, the author wrote that the original name of Egypt was Kemet before the Greeks renamed it Egypt. Kemet means 'land of 'the blacks' or 'the black country.' (Asante, 2007, p. 24).
The truth about Egypt's ancient race complexity cannot be confined within the spheres of conjectures, hypothesis and non-scientific contents like mere writing history without archaeological supports. For example, counter arguments said 'Kemet' means black land, referencing the Egyptian soil as black compared to other parts of the North Africa. In fact, there are no single archaeological evidence, so far, to support claims of black persons ever inhabited ancient Egypt, according to Egyptologists and other archaeologists. Was Egypt used as a mere transit point from the Middle East by some undocumented Arab black tribes, ancient Yoruba people inclusive?
As most scholars agreed that the Yoruba people emerged from either ancient Nile or Arab peninsula, perhaps the right place to start searching for the exact link and the meaning of the word 'Yoruba' is where the people originated from. With no archaeological findings, so far, according to several scholars, to support claims of black persons ever inhabited ancient Egypt, it is still not impossible to recover useful information from that part of Nile, in search of leads to support the people's transit or aboriginal status.
The Egypt part of the Nile and the Arab peninsula, being among the revered axis when it comes to heritage excavation, most likely, have materials till date to help unravel the meaning of Yoruba. Perhaps, hidden somewhere among books of some libraries and institutions of learning in Arab countries, exists the history of non-Nubian Negroid tribes that migrated downward sub-Saharan.
The Nubians have been the central focus of historians, as regards the c. 2000BC black persons sojourn in the Nile. There were other non-Nubian tribes of Negro origin not prominent, and the Yoruba were among such tribes, so suggest several sources.
The discipline known in modern scholarship parlance as Egyptology has helped in energising quite a lot of findings about the land and its ancient facts lost thousands of years ago. It is most unlikely that any Egyptologist would show interest in a Yoruba subject aimed at excavating possible links of the West African people to the Arab world of the past.
Wanted: 'Yorubaologists' to explore Nile, Middle East ancestral links
In search of ‘Yorubaologists’ that may uncover or recover text and scientific evidences like artefacts, in the Arab world, some trackings here in Yorubaland, southwest of Nigeria should provide leads. A lecture about history of ancient black tribes' migrations across the Nile, delivered by late famous cleric, Sheikh Adam Abdullah Al-Ilory (1917-1992) seems like one of such potential leads that require attention and scrutiny. Video of the lecture, digitally dated 29/3/92 (bottom right of the screen) offers quite some leads.
It is however important to state that the origin of the Yoruba people has nothing to do with Islam. The Yoruba, just like the ancient Arab, emerged thousands of years before Islam. So, the contents of this research as regards the meaning and origin of the word 'Yoruba' should be digested with open mind.
To a densely populated audience, Sheik Al-llory read from sheets of papers, possibly, of Arabic texts. The camera did not focus the papers from which the cleric occasionally read.
From the Arab of Yuuba came Bagda and Adakawa, among whom were people with Yoruba style face marks, the cleric said. The remnants of the ancient black Arab tribes, he argued, still exist in parts of Sudan.
He explained how Yoruba of that era "ti won le kuro ni oko Egypt," (Yoruba people driven from Egyptian farmland, converged during their journey with people of similar ancestry from North Africa, East Africa and northeast moved downward where they mixed with other black tribes). The cleric argued that there was no record that the Yoruba people of that era crossed any water during their “adorun ojo” (90 days) journey. He insisted that the Yoruba people did not come from Mecca as some historians have written. “Ti o ba se pe lati Mecca ni, bawo ni won se fo odo?” (If they came from Mecca, how did they cross the water?)
While Al-Ilory was not specific about what led to the blacks being driven from Egypt — date also not mentioned — the narration has one thing in common with that of Asante. The farmland location and disappeared villages as a result of drought are the two common factors mentioned by Asante, though of slight similarity with Al-Ilory’s argument.
Who was Sheikh Al-Ilory before his death in 1992? His father, Abdul-Bagi was a scholar in Islamic exegesis with nomadic preaching across major cities in Yorubaland. In addition to learning from his father, Al-Ilory was also a student of eighteenth century scholar, Sheikh Namaji el-Kanawy.
However, the sources of Al-Ilory's findings, most likely, from his rich scholarly Islamic knowledge need to be verified, specifically through archaeological supports. For examples, Crowther asserted that there were archaeological evidences of rock paintings, among others that supported Negroid lives of that era in the Nile. Radiocarbon dating and anthropological breakdown may reveal the specific black tribe origin of the artefacts wherever museums they are housed.
And when Al-Ilory said Yoruba derived their ancestry from the ancient Arab of Yauba, it meant that the people either used Egypt as transit or lived there (some years, decades or a century or more) before they were driven out. And if "ti won le kuro ni oko Egypt..." (driven from Egypt farmland) occurred, then, it suggested that the people inhabited in that part of the Nile, possibly as aborigines.
Between the Arab peninsula of ancient era and the Nile period of nearly the same time, there existed so much to be excavated by anyone interested in boosting Yoruba History with ‘Yorubaology’ as a study. Watching the recorded video of Sheikh Al-Ilory, one wondered: how 'Yauba' as a tribe seemed not to have been mentioned in quite a number of scholarly materials on the Yoruba ancestry subject. Again, ‘Yorubaologists’ are needed to finish or complement or recover the crucial facts mentioned by Sheikh Al-Ilory.
What is the meaning of 'Yoruba' as a word or phrase?
And the most contentious question is: what's the meaning of Yoruba? While waiting to research on the Yauba tribe of the ancient Arab, mentioned by Al-Ilory, the meaning should not be so difficult to recover. Here are some suggested connections between Yauba of the ancient Arab tribe and today's Yoruba in recovering the meaning.
By origin, who are the Arab or Arabs? The history of the Arab(s), according to several accounts, did not start with descendants of biblical Abraham through Ishmael. Descendants of Ishmael are one of the three main sub-ethnic Arab groups. In fact, the Ishmael descendants have been grouped as the last of the three.
The first, being those described as the undocumented Arab, second are the descendants of ‘Ya'rub’ while that of Ishmael as the third in that order. Between the ancient Ya'rub, the Nile tribe ‘Yauba’ and the Yoruba people that migrated downward sub-Sahara, there seemed to be names similarity.
‘Ya’rub’, an ancient pre-Islam Arab King was among the 24 sons of Qahtan, a patriarch described as son of the Biblical Hud, according to author Elsie W. Crosby in The History Poetry and Genealogy of the Yemen. (Crosby, 2007, pp. 74-75). The sources of the book were attributed to pre-Islamic Arabian historian Akbar of Abid B. Sharya Al-Jurhumi.
What does ‘Ya'rub’ mean in modern Arabic? Research suggests that there is no definite or direct meaning. But in colloquial Arabic variants, there are quite a number of meanings to suggest a link between Ya’rub, Yauba and Yoruba. Ya'rob, Yarrob, Yarab or Yaarub are other spellings that referred to an ancient Arab King known as Ya'rub.
‘Ya’ in Arabic means 'Oh' or ‘You' as an exclamation. And 'rub' rab'' or 'rrob could mean 'master' or king while 'rabi' is 'Lord'. Further breakdown in modern usage suggests that 'aru’ba' or ‘aruba’ means eloquent or brilliant in variants of Arabic languages. Mostly of female name, Aruba could mean a guidance or good wife while a hyphenated word with ‘Ya’ as in Ya-aruba' could mean 'You brilliant' or 'You clever', according to modern Egyptian-Arabic.
In linguistic regeneration, over the centuries, did 'Ya' change to Yo as the Yauba tribe mentioned by Al-Ilory migrated downward sub-Sahara from Egypt? Did the change occur from the Middle East before their ancestors moved from the Arab peninsula to Egypt?
Exact meanings of most names of countries or tribes and races are hard to get. Reason: over the centuries, languages change into variants and distort the original meaning of a given name. For ‘Yoruba’, as a name, the meaning could be ‘Oh brilliant’, ‘You brilliant’ ‘Oh master’ or ‘You guidance’, either of these falling into the colloquial Arabic language, in variants. And the fact that there are still as many as over 50 or more words of Arabic in the language of the Yoruba, till date, confirm that indeed, the name ‘Yoruba’ emerged from either Ya'ruba, Ya'rub and Yauba, among other similar words or names of ancient Arab origin.
From many indications, Yauba, over the centuries, changed to Yoruba, but the meaning seemed to have shades of interpretations too, with closeness in central focus across variants Arabic languages of Middle East and the Nile.
The commonality derived from all the variants could be translated to or as 'You Master.' It's therefore fictitious that the Yoruba people were so named by some people in northern Nigeria.
And when Al-Ilory said the Arab of Yauba met some other blacks somewhere in the Nile after they were driven from a farmland in Egypt, the remnants of that era still exist too in the Swahili language. Apart from the fact that Swahili means 'language of the Nile’ in Arabic, quite a list of words in the Eastern-Central-African language — like the Yoruba — have been found to be of Arab origin. From the Sahel to East Africa and West Africa sub-regions, Arabic flavoured-words in native languages are well known. Reason: most of the people emerged from the migration of black persons, possibly ahead of the Nubian era.
Whether or not the Yoruba migrated from Mecca through the Nile to their current southwest of what is known as Nigeria today can be debated forever.
What is however not in dispute is the Yoruba people’s Arab ancestry from where Oduduwa brought the culture of monarchical hereditary and priesthood. There are similarities in monarchy and priesthood structure between pre-Islamic Arab and Yoruba culture.
And how did a black race — possibly Yauba or Yuuba tribe — emerged in ancient Middle East? Deconstructed notion of white only biblical periods, of which volumes have been written, provide profound answer. The presence of Africa, specifically, Egypt and Ethiopia in the Bible many times did not happen without the mention of colour persons from the continent. For examples, interracial marriages of Abraham and quite a number of patriarchs in the Bible with women of African descents that produced children have confirmed presence of black persons in the Middle East of over 2000BC. Further deconstructing an all white skin Middle East was the fact that many black persons, possibly of centuries old generations, fought on the side of Muhammad against the oppressive and established traditional religious leaders of Mecca.
Back to Ya'rub's descendants, from which, possibly, a black tribe of Yauba, Yuuba or Yoruba emerged. How did they leave their Middle East origin to Egypt from where "they were eventually sent away"? Al-Ilory argued that for over 300 years, a dynasty of Pharaohs that ruled Egypt were originally from Yemen. While it is scientifically debatable to stay with the arguments of archaeologists that black persons “never inhabited” Egypt, the possibility of the scientists' earth scanners that failed to detect the existence of minority tribes that lived in ancient Egypt nation cannot be ruled out.
More profound in confirming Arab origin of the Yoruba are Arabic words in the southwest Nigerian people's language. There are two categories of Arabic words in Yoruba language: those originated from the pre-Islamic Arab and others borrowed from Islamic-influenced Yorubaland.
But there have been quite some mixed-up and distortions by many writers on the subject of Arabic words in Yoruba language. Most writers that compile the list don't always separate Arabic-origin from Islamic influence.
Among the Yoruba-Arabic original words from Middle East ancestral period till date are: the people’s name 'Yoruba' from Arabic origin of Ya'rub or Yauba; 'iwaju (front) from Arabic 'Alwaju' (the front); 'asiri' (secret), same as Arabic of the same meaning; 'alubosa' (onion), derived from ‘albasal’, Arabic for onion, among many from nearly 100 or more words.
Islamic influenced words like 'amin' (amen), 'adura' (prayer), 'wakati' (hour) 'sina' (fornication), 'alubarika' (blessing or prosperity), 'alafia' (wellness), 'kadara' (destiny), among others can be debated as having alternative non-Arabic Yoruba expressions. This category of listed words, among others were borrowed from Islam, post-migration of Yoruba in their current place of settlement. For examples, 'aamin' (amen) has 'aase' as Yoruba alternative. The same goes for 'adura' (prayer) which Yoruba call 'suure' (pronounced sooray) and kadara, ‘ayanmo’, among others.
Further confirming the common Middle East origin of most tribes of sub-Saharan Africa are some words of Arabic still in their languages till date. For examples, Yoruba and Swahili share common words and meanings from Arabic-influenced (not Islamic) lingual such as ‘fault’ (aibu) in Arabic and Swahili, but ‘alebu’ in Yoruba; ‘secret’ (asiri) in Arabic and Swahili, same in Yoruba.
For the Yoruba, whose ancestry has been linked to the vast parts of the world as the Middle East and Egypt, scholarly works without archaeological foundation or sources would remain very fragile to be accepted as evidences. The importance of archaeology in history is crucial in strengthening the Yoruba ancestry link to the Nile or Middle East Arab.
The higher an increase in research that goes into the exploration of Middle East-Nile-Yoruba link, the more the need for ‘Yorubaologists’ to step into the vacuum of scientific evidences. Within the southwest Nigeria current base of the Yoruba and diaspora, there are enough resources, both from individuals and groups to fund research on the subject of Yoruba people's trajectory from the Middle East, through the Nile and downward West Africa.
-Tajudeen Sowole is a Lagos-based Advisor on Art and Culture.