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From the Blog
Islam in East Africa
This is the first of a four-part series on the history of Islam in Africa.
The East Coast of Africa has had links with various cultures and civilizations over the centuries. In the Valley of the Queens in Upper Egypt, the tomb of the famous Egyptian queen Hatshepsut reveals reliefs from 2,000 BC, showing the Egyptians trading with the Land of Punt, which at that time included Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen, and acknowledged its high degree of civilization. The Romans called it Azania.
The Islamic period on the East African Coast (EAC) started from the first hijrah to Ethiopia (Habasha) where An-Najashi (the Negus) was ruling. The pagan Quraysh followed the Muslims in their tracks and wanted An-Najashi to exile them, but once the king heard the Muslims recite Surat Maryam, he cried and allowed the Muslims to stay. When An-Najashi died, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) made the funeral prayer for him in Madinah, which indicates that he must have entered Islam and had a gathering of followers locally that more than likely went on to propagate in Eritrea and northwestern Somalia.
Following that, we see from the Lamu Chronicle that the Umayyad caliph Abdullahi ibn Marwan sent emissaries to the EAC in 696 CE, indicating some sort of relationship existing, possibly in trade and Islamic education. The Kilwa Chronicle includes the story of seven Muslim brothers who emigrated from Shiraz, Persia, and established rule on the EAC around the eighth century. However, it is debatable whether the ethnic "Afro-Shirazis" really existed on the coast, or if Persian descent was an instrument for the Swahilis to distinguish themselves later in the 12th century from the Shaykh and Sharif Arab clans and the Indians who were starting to arrive.
According to the Muslim historian Al-Mas`udi, in the 10th century trade was entering the EAC from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India, and China. The Muslim geographer Al-Idrisi noted in 1154 the trade between Zanzibar and Muscat, Oman. The Muslim Moroccan geographer and the first epic traveler to date, Ibn Battuta, visited Mogadishu, Mombassa, and Kilwa in the 14th century, where he found that the learned people and `ulamaaĂÂ˘Ă˘âÂŹĂ˘âÂ˘, who mostly practiced Shafi`i fiqh, had correspondence with their counterparts in the Hijaz.
The 12th to the 14th centuries saw the emergence of urban settlements such as Mombassa, Zanzibar, Kiwali, and Kilwa. The Swahili are said to have had a very natural lifestyle that was completely environmentally friendly. They used natural materials like coral to make houses that still stand today, and their diet was mainly made of local fruit, vegetables, and fish.
In the 15th century, the Christian Portuguese reached the coast. Vasco da Gama arrived in 1498 as representative of the king and people to perform trade and a religious crusade, but ironically, he would not have reached the coast without the maps of the Muslims, and no Portuguese sailors dared go around the Cape of Good Hope until the Muslim navigators trained them. Da Gama described Kilwa as extremely beautiful, with exotic fruit, organized streets, running water, strong structures, and literacy with scholars to rival Europe.
Despite the trust of the Swahili people, the Portuguese attacked Mombassa in 1505 and the people fled because of the heavy bombardment by cannons. The Portuguese established Fort Jesus in Mombassa, and other forts along the coast. The Portuguese continued to subjugate predominantly Muslim cities all along the Indian Ocean, from the Arabian Peninsula, Aden, India, Goa, Gujurat, to Calcutta, and created a trade route from the EAC all the way to China. Having had the experience in warfare and proselytizing with Muslims in Andalusia, the Portuguese forced missionaries on all its subjugated lands, and so it is reported that the Muslims, at least on the Swahili coast, revolted, and preferred to be placed under the protection of the Turkish caliphate rather than their Portuguese Catholic colonizers.
The Swahilis managed to drive out the Portuguese with the help of the Omanis, but by 1812, there were clashes between Mombassa and Lamu, and Sultan Sayyid Said intervened and conquered the Swahili coast. By 1840, it was totally subdued, to the extent that Zanzibar was made the capital of the Swahili coast and of Oman too, perhaps because it has a natural harbor and was, and still is, exceedingly beautiful.
According to Askew (1999:90), "The brutal imposition of Portuguese rule in the sixteenth century and their attempts to consolidate their power and break the hold of the Swahili merchant class over the lucrative gold and ivory trades, pushed coastal economies into a spiral of decline."
By enforcing a tribute in gold from every subdued city-state and implementing a pass system, created to control sea traffic, the Portuguese, as Abdul Sheriff (1987:16) states, "helped to kill the goose that had laid the golden egg."
The Omanis tried to revive the golden age of Swahili trade under the reign of Sultan Sayyid Said, but could not recover its past glory. Thus, the Swahili merchants increasingly turned to agriculture, producing spices such as nutmeg and cloves for commerce.
This series is dedicated to my dear friend, Khalida Khatun (may Allah be pleased with her), who was the driving force behind the book in which this article was meant to be published, if it werenĂÂ˘Ă˘âÂŹĂ˘âÂ˘t for her return to Allah.
Zahrah Awalah holds a BA in Arabic language and an MA in Islamic studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.