Sorabe, or Sora-be, is an alphabet based on Arabic used to transcribe the Malagasy language (belonging to the Malayo-Polynesian language family) and the Antemoro Malagasy dialect in particular dating from the 15th century.
Researchers are still hypothesizing about the origins of this transcription system. "Sorabe" means literally "large writings" from Arabic "sura" (writing) and Malagasy "be" (large). This denomination might point to the existence of a previous writing system with smaller characters of Sanskrit origin used in South East Asia as it is evidenced in some Malagasy words.
Traditionally, a large number of researchers have speculated about the fact that this writing system was introduced through commercial contacts of Malagasy with Arab Muslims. However, more studies claim that this writing scheme might have been possibly introduced by Javanese Muslims. There are striking similarities between "Sorabe" and "Pegon" writings (the Javanese version of Arabic script).
A couple hundred old manuscripts have survived to this day though the oldest may have been written no earlier than the 17th century. Those "Sorabe" are bound in leather and the texts are named after the colour of the skin. Most of the texts contain magical formulas but there are also some historical texts concerning the origin of some of the tribes of the south east of Madagascar. These origins are traced to Mecca or the Prophet Mohammed even though the practice of Islam is nowhere seen in the texts.
Sorabe eventually spread across the island beginning in the 17th century and, at the end of 18th century, the Merina king Andrianampoinimerina called for Antemoro scribes to teach the children of his court to read and write. This is how the future king Radama I could read and write sorabe from his childhood.
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- La Case, les Sorabe, l'Histoire
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- East Barito: Who Were the Malayo-Polynesian Migrants to Madagascar?