April 19, 2014

Duality and Tradition (by way of Wael Hallaq's The Impossible State)

"Many religious, mystical and other formulations are, up to a point, shrines for the relics of a completely or partially successful attempt to present and make available to various individuals and communities means for acquiring this knowledge. Like almost everything on earth, they are subject to deterioration or fossilization. They become both museums and exhibits, at one and the same time.
Because the tendency of stress discipine and group-attention without contemporaneous adjustment of other factors, many such formulations crystallized in the short or long term, and not infrequently claimed a monopoly of truth or effective ritual. This process, mirroring limited thinking patterns, frequently goes so far as to lead to a virtual destruction of the dynamic of the formulation of the school. In practice, exclusivism and dogmatism, beyond a certain point, militate against certain necessities of flexibility. There is a continuing need for regeneration.
What appears to some people as the sum total of the human heritage of philosophy or metaphysics or religion can also be viewed as heavily burdened with the wreckage or misinterpretation (through selective choice) of formulations previously operated by coherent schools. The factor causing this state of affairs is endemic in the human community."  -Idries Shah

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading the brilliant, but deeply flawed book The Impossible State, by Wael Hallaq. If you are looking for a more thorough critique of the book, you can google Dr. Lamu Abu-Odeh, who adroitly identifies some the book's major shortcomings (including its cynical reading of the modern nation-state as contrasted with the lofty idealism of something Hallaq calls "Islamic governance."). Despite its flaws, the book is a major work of scholarship and deserves serious attention. However, I will have to deflect my extended thoughts on the book to a later time. For now I would like to focus on a major ethical problem of Hallaq's book: the idealist characterization of a past ethical paradigm (what Hallaq calls 'Islamic governance.').

 In what follows, I would like to reflect briefly on the broad claim that it is both possible and desirable to "recover" precolonial ethical paradigms that were lost or fragmented by colonialism. I regard this claim as wrong. I do not mean to say that one cannot gain from studying the past, nor do I mean to deny the profound ways Western thinkers have ignored or subjugated "non-Western" traditions. What I have to say is that it is urgent that those interested in ethics and spirituality learn to see the duality in all religions and cultural traditions.

I must start with the most obvious claim. The primacy of enlightenment reason is a false absolute. In parts of the academy where I spend a great deal of time (notably Religious Studies) this is now a truism. The slow death of enlightenment reason has left intellectuals looking around for other enabling traditions, many of which were suppressed or denigrated by modernity. Understandably they find in these a source of moral guidance and clarity. But if enlightenment reason is a false absolute, there is no past tradition that contains this absolute ground of truth.

Thus I am suspicious of claims that we can find ourselves out of the duality of modernity (its violence that co exists with and is constitutive of its reason) through access to various modes of precolonial reality. I would not be so bold as to say that various premodern traditions cannot be enabling guides or fonts of moral inspiration. But there are two objections when it comes to "recovering" precolonial spiritual traditions. One is that these traditions no longer exist in their original form. There is a real sense in which modernity has rendered significant parts of these traditions obsolete or at least incomprehensible and trying to go back to 'sankofa' what has been lost leads to various forms of cult like veneration of outmoded ideas. For example, since one cannot recover the type of self these technologies worked on, the technologies themselves are obsolete. This is the significant agreement I have with Wael Hallaq's argument about sharia and the Islamic State. He argues that the Islamic State is an impossible one in the current Westphalian climate, and is thus a doomed proposition. This is a significant objection that is not readily or easily overcome. But Hallaq still seems to think it is possible to argue that "Islamic governance" was manifestly superior to the current nation-state system. I do not regard the comparison as feasible, due to an absence of any comparable data. I think it is quite likely that if we were able to go back in time to observe, we would find most of the same problems that plague our current justice system: bias, favor towards the affluent, corruption, blatant disregard for the law, etc. Hallaq, however, succumbs to the temptation to read a universal Islamic subject out of old jurist manuals. Yet he does not seem to realize the anachronism. Imagine if I were to read the universal Western subject out of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice!!  No doubt this anachronism will be less troubling for some than others, and some will regard the statement as cynical. I do not wish to advocate cynicism, but neither do I believe it healthy to persist in the illusion of being able to "go home again" (to quote Thomas Wolfe), or even the desirability to do so, were it possible.

The second objection is that modernity and what we currently know about the world has also rendered the objective descriptions of the world by past traditions obsolete. It is not merely a matter of mis-translation, or the need for new interpretation. These avoid the real ontological issue. Rather the problem is about new understandings of the objective world which render past pictures in holy books as a kind of blurred picture taken using outmoded and outdated equipment. The 'sacred' nature of a particular book ought not to blind us to this fact, although it often does. I suspect, the construction of the "sacred" is in itself an attempt to place dogma and tradition beyond the reach of reasonable doubt. The declaration of a book or a tradition as the objective and final word on reality is a tremendously tempting path for many smart, caring and dedicated activists and intellectuals. But one must ask oneself if they are dealing with things as they are or as things as they wish them to be. Finally, there is a dark side to "choosing or converting" to a single tradition. It manifests in an unwillingness to interrogate their own chosen tradition with the same acuity with which they critique modernity or atheism. Perhaps said tradition is under attack, and they feel the need to close ranks against outsiders, or perhaps it "works for them" and they do not wish to give the matter further thought. These reasons ought not to be taken lightly, but they cannot be regarded as serious arguments by the contemporary seeker.

My call again is for seeing the duality in all ethical social cultural and religious projects, and their contingent nature, including Enlightenment as well as all past religious traditions. I believe this attitude in and of itself is the appropriate ethics for our time, rather than any one tradition which needs to be (or can be) recovered and revived. I believe we have yet to investigate the possibilities of this attitude as an ethical and spiritual one. Indeed religious believers will see it as a form of unbelief, or radical skepticism which undermines their foundationalism. Our point should be that all past foundationalism is arbitrary. Once you realize the need for setting a foundation line for what you know, it becomes impossible to authentically do so, for foundationalism can only arise out of an objective conviction of the truth of something, not out of a psychological need for some foundation.


March 31, 2014

CUF Rally, Kibanda Maiti

Last week I attended a CUF rally in Kibanda Maiti, an open area in Ngambo where CUF has a strong presence. My attendance at the rally caused a bit of a stir in my neighborhood in Stone Town. A couple folks have taken to greeting me with the CUF rallying cry, "Haki sawa kwa wote!" (Equal rights for all). Some people wanted to know why I had gone (I told them I just wanted to listen), and whether I had understood what was happening.

Suprisingly I had. Although some of the back and forth between the speakers and the crowd was lost on me, I did clearly understand the purpose of the rally. In the first place, the rally was held as a result of Kikwete's speech rejecting "serikali tatu" and essentially firmly stating that the union was not going to change. There is some discrepancy between the current Tanzanian constitution, which says that Tanzania is one nation, and the current Zanzibar constitution, which says Tanzania is two nations, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. This discrepancy was the point of debate and a part of the reason for the 'serikali tatu' proposal. The previous chair of the Constitutional Convention, former Tanzanian Prime Minister Joseph Warioba, had proposed the three-tier government as a way to preserve the union. Warioba spent months collecting public opinions on the governmental structure, and claimed that 61% of those surveyed wanted a tri-governmental structure. Kikwete's speech essentially plunged this process into chaos, and the Convention that is now proceeding to vote on sections of the Constitution is essentially dominated by CCM, since the opposition parties have dropped out in protest.

The union is undoubtedly the MOST important and controversial constitutional issue, so when Kikwete gave his speech saying "serikali tatu haiwezekani", it essentially short-circuited Warioba's painstaking process of collecting public opinions and submitting drafts for approval by the constitutional convention. Warioba, who is far from being a CUF partisan or even pro-Zanzibar, nevertheless made this profound statement: "The citizens of Zanzibar have lost a right to lead themselves; equally, the Zanzibar House of Representatives (by appearing in the union parliament) are legislating on matters that do not concern them."

Wairoba sees clearly that the current union structure is not sustainable and has essentially resulted in CCM establishing itself in Zanzibar by dint of force and fraud. There is nothing to be gained from the purely pragmatic perspective of political stability, by continuing to deny Zanzibar a place within the union as a nation with its own autonomous government and an extensive degree of self-rule.

The leader of CUF, and current Vice President of Zanzibar, Maalim Seif Sharif Hamad was well aware of this context as he stepped up to the podium to speak at the rally. At first he seemed overly formal and a bit stiff, but he quickly warmed to the crowd. In an hour long speech, he touched on the history of the union, the efforts of Warioba to preserve 'serikali tatu', and the need for Zanzibaris to assert their rights within the constitutional process. At the end of his speech, he asked the crowd for permission to read a letter he was sending to "ndugu yangu, rafiki yangu" Rais Kikwete. To the cheers of the jubilant crowd, he announced that in response to Kikwete's hijacking of the democratic process, he was calling for a popular referendum on the union. This way, the union can be voted up or down by popular plebiscite.

This is CCM's worst nighmare. A referendum on the union would almost certainly favor CUF; CCM is perceived as a mainland party. But such a referendum, if it ever did emerge (an unlikely possibility) also has a worrying potential to erupt into violence, as have previous elections which were narrowly won by CCM. These narrow electoral victories, however, were only achieved through fraud and violence, and CCM's current dominance in Zanzibar is completely unsustainable.

But CUF has its own challenges. How far is it willing to go to stand up for Zanzibar autonomy? And what will it do in the event of the union actually breaking? The mainland currently provides Zanzibar's security. How will it deal with the significant popuation of mainlanders who would continue to remain on the island. What would its relationship be with mainland Tanganyika? (for a relationship of some kind is unavoidable).

The rally ended with the reading of Maalim Seif's letter to Kikwete. Time will tell what the outcome of these negotiations will be. To be continued....

By the way, I have posted pictures of the rally on my Instagram account. You can follow me: @nmathews81. On twitter, I am @AzanianSea. Karibu.


March 22, 2014

Back in Zanzibar

Dear readers,

I'm back in Zanzibar for the first time since 2010. I am here to complete my dissertation research by looking at Omani migration and the current Omani diplomatic engagement with Zanzibar. It sure is an interesting time to be here! The new constitutional process is all over the news, with the question of the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika at the forefront. The Union, or Muungano, is at the center of the creation of modern Tanzania. The Union was originally the result of secret talks between former Tanganyikan president Julius Nyerere and former Zanzibar president Abeid Karume after the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964. Initially the Union was supposed to be for a period of ten years, but it has continued until now. The mainland government's control (especially in terms of security and policing, and the power grid) has been and is a sore spot for many Zanzibaris, who feel it is a new form of colonialism. Yesterday Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete gave a major speech in which he addressed the union, and rejected the idea of a tri-governmental structure (an idea proposed by CUF representatives, Zanzibar's largest opposition party.) The speech caused an uproar among the opposition, who see in Kikwete's pronouncements a violation of the democratic process and an attempt by CCM to dominate the constitutional proceedings.

The island is booming, at least in terms of tourist development; the number of luxury hotels and restaurants has skyrocketed. One particular restaurant called 6 South has just sprung up next to New Africa Hotel, complete with fountains and a giant wall of falling water in the entrance. It is all very plush, but it is hard to know (or is it?) who is really benefiting from this influx.  And aside from that, how many empty rooms do these luxury hotels have, while many Zanzibaris live on a thousand shillings a day? One Zanzibari lady of Goan origin complained to me that she was being hassled by the government because she lived in an area of high tourist traffic and no longer could afford to keep her restaurant open. It seems gentrification has come to Zanzibar to stay. Bring on the pumpernickel bagels!


July 28, 2013

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (Book Review)

Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. New York: Picador, 2008.

I've previously reviewed an earlier work from the prolific and brilliant Amitav Ghosh. 1993's In An Antique Land was an arresting mashup of Ghosh's fieldwork in Egypt and a historical reconstruction of the life of a 12th century Indian slave who moved with his master between Cairo and India.

Sea of Poppies finds Ghosh working the same rich themes of culture, language and hierarchy in the Indian Ocean world; but this time the context is colonial India in 1838, with Britian on the brink of the Opium Wars with China. Ghosh conjures up a world of sailors, merchants, convicts, colonial landlords and indentured laborers. The texture of language in the novel is almost unimaginably rich; one needs (and Ghosh provides) a reference index for the many untranslated words from the language of sailors. Whereas Ghosh's authorial voice intervened frequently in In An Antique Land, reflecting on both his own identity and the story he is tracking, in Sea of Poppies, the message is in the fully realized world that springs to life in its pages.

Ghosh wants to use language to pull us into the dizzying complexity and diversity of the Indian Ocean world; a subject that has fascinated historians and scholars. But Ghosh avoids the romanticism of much of this scholarship by emphasizing the strict social rules and hierarchies that structure individual lives. Racial discrimination, arranged marriages, slavery, caste, Hindu-Muslim relations are just a few of the topics Ghosh broaches with dazzling erudition.

Sea of Poppies is to be savored; its plot is easily lost in the texture of the multiple journeys of its fascinating characters--from the freeman Zachary, who is passing for white, to the Brahmin nobleman turned convict Raja Neel Rattan, to Deeti, a low caste opium farmer fleeing the vengeance of her family. But while the plot meanders, the goal is clear enough: each of these richly realized characters will end up aboard the ship Ibis, sailing from Calcutta to Mauritius.

With an obvious nod to The Many Headed Hydra, Ghosh emphasizes how a new kind of society emerges from the bowels of the ship; while this journey obliterates many barriers of caste and social distinction, it only serves to heighten other social tensions, propelling the novel forward to its tense and unresolved conclusion (the second novel in the trilogy, River of Smoke, is out now).
My only complaint about this magnificent novel is the character of Zachary, an "octoroon" freeman from Baltimore who passes for white. Ghosh struggles to find this character's inner dialogue and his language is curiously unaccented. His position on the ship allows him to talk to and engage with characters across the spectrum of society, both high and low; as such he remains a character who other characters talk to, but who lacks some of their tragedy and inner torment.


July 10, 2013

Cargoes of the East (Martin and Martin)

Cargoes of the East: the ports, trade and culture of the Arabian seas and Western Indian Ocean. 
Esmond Bradley Martin & Chryssee Perry Martin
 London: Hamish Hamilton. 1978. 244 pp.
Zanzibar: Tradition and Revolution. 
Esmond Bradley Martin. 
London: Hamish Hamilton. 1978. 149pp.
Cargoes of the East is a long romantic pictorial essay on the traditional sailing vessel of the Western Indian Ocean, the dhow. The authors, an adventurous husband and wife team, have spent many years studying the dhow: where they go, who sails in them and what they carry. They have travelled widely in this area and talked to dhow owners, builders, captains, sailors, the buyers and sellers of the strange and exotic cargoes carried by these boats and written a diverting,almost escapist account of their research and travels. Though what has come to be known as a 'coffee table book', Cargoes has a wealth of anecdotes and richly-reproduced photographs.
Zanzibar has been more or less closed to the outside world since 1964. Edmond Bradley Martin claims to be the first writer to have been allowed full access by the authorities to 'carryout research and fieldwork' on Zanzibar and the island of Pemba which according to rumours current in the sixties was being converted into a Chinese military base. Being a geographer and because of his familiarity with East Africa, he has produced a good handbook, rich in description about the country's culture and ethnography.He also discusses Zanzibar's agricultural economy, its tourism and Islamic practices and includes a chapter on the country's future role in East Africa.
Third World Quarterly, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Jan., 1979), pp. 167-168.


June 30, 2013

Swahili in the Arabic script: part 5, the Script

         Traditional Swahili script has developed an unmistakable ductus (shape) of its own. It is usually marked by a well-rounded f, q, and w. It has neither the reduced scribbly shapes of modern Arabic writing, nor the oblique angularity of Persian. It resembles most the old-fashioned Indian and Malay forms of Arabic script, and is quite distinct from Urdu writing, except that during the last half century some attempts have been made to introduce Urdu conventions for aspiratives and retroflex phonemes which curiously fit the Swahili phonemic system. This will be discussed further below. One thing sets Swahili writing apart quite conspicuously from all other forms of Arabic script: the vowels have to be marked.
            There are about half a dozen different conventions for writing Swahili as it developed over the centuries showing how they have struggled for the perfection of their writing system.
1.     The 17th century: the Hamziya
2.     The 18th century: the Epic
3.     The 19th century: the introduction of ch and p.
4.     The 20th century
a.     The representation of e and o
b.     The representation of homorganic nasals.
c.      The representation of g, ng, and v.
d.     The representation of alveolars.
e.     The representation of aspirates.

From the first period only one text survives, the Hamziya., which I have described in an article in African Language Studies (see note 23). In the middle of the 17th century the Swahili language was still in an older period of its evolution and so was as different from modern Swahili as 16th-century Portuguese is from the modern language. We may therefore omit a discussion of its orthography, since no continuous tradition can be traced from that time to the present, except in the metre of the poem[1].
It is the 18th-century epic that stands clearly at the inception of the continuous tradition of Swahili poetry. The spelling in these epics suggests that those MSS were used only as aide-memoires for the reciters; they were not intended for solitary reading and enjoyment. The principle of the orthography could be called ‘herufian’, i.e. syllabic, in the sense that every herufi, i.e. consonant-character, represents a syllable, never more nor less, so that every line has exactly eight herufis. It is possible that the system was invented by Mwengo bin Asumani himself in the great MS that is now in Hamburg, and which I have always suspected was written by his own hand, since it seems to be contemporary and is completely consistent, in spelling, orthography, dialect and other aspects of presentation. His system works well provided the reader knows the language and the writer makes no mistakes in spelling or in prosody. The basic principle is the syllabic system of the Swahili morphophonemic structure, on which the grid of the Semitic consonant system is superimposed.
The result is that a number of letters are given more than one phonetic value. There are only three vowels in Arabic which serve for the five Swahili vowels. F has to represent f and v, d has to represent both dental and alveolar d, as well as nd, i.e. d with preceding homorganic nasal. B represents b, mb, p and aspirated p, as well as bw and mbw[2]. Ghain represents gh in Arabid words, and in Swahili words g, ng, and ngw. K represents k and aspirated k’ as well as kw. M and n can represent labialized mw and nw, but unsyllabic prenasalisation is not shown. Y reads as y or ny or yw. T represents alveolar and dental t, both of which can be aspirated.
However, in practice the options are severely restricted by actual occurrence. To give a few illustrations: a word spelled bibi can be read as bibi, ‘grandparent’, or pembe, ‘horn(s)’. None of the other potential permutations could normally be met with in this language. Mutu normally reads moto, ‘fire’. Muyu normally reads moya, ‘one’. Bini normally reads mbwene, “I have seen”. Biti normally reads p’ete, “I have received.”


Swahili in the Arabic Script part 4: the book

The book
            To make a book the sheets may be glued together on one side, but in the tropics there are insects that eat this glue and the paper with it, so it is better to sew the sheets together.  However, the sheets are often placed loosely together in a leather case or wrapper, called chuo as distinct from kitabu, which refers to the written text. Waraka, pl. nyaraka, is a sheet of paper[i]. Jilidi is also sometimes used for the leather binding. The binding is sometimes made of cloth, on which the scribe may write the title, the author’s name, the date and the town, followed by praises to God and the Holy Prophet. This cloth is called dibaji, and is often beautifully decorated with a gate-motif, for a book is regarded symbolically as a house of wisdom, and each chapter is a babu or mlango, a gate or door through which the avid reader may enter another store-room of wisdom. Later the word was used simply for ‘preface’[ii].
            Not every work was considered worthy of immortality; on the contrary, fables and fairy tales, songs and riddles were not written down by the Swahili scribes until European scholars such as Edward Steere and Carl Velten, came along in the 1890s and persuaded them that it was worth preserving their national heritage[iii]. Traditionally, as we have seen, the art of writing was associated with religion. The result is that almost all the Swahili writings from before that period are of a religious kind. There are histories of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions and of the Koranic prophets of the past (‘Biblical history’); many of these legends are in verse. There are liturgies, prayers and recitations, hymns and litanies. There are contracts of marriage and deeds of property[iv].
            As the vehicle of the Koran, that is, the miraculous characters in which the sacred word of God’s own book are fixed, visible for human eyes, the Arabic script has travelled with the Arab conquerors and the traders, the merchant captains and the wandering scholars, to the ends of the old world. It is taught from Dakar in West Africa to the Sulu Islands in the Philippines, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar[v]. As a result it links all the peoples who live in between those places by a common form of expression and communication. It must be appreciated that the teaching of reading and writing in all Islamic countries is done by means of and with the purpose of reading and reciting the Koran. Young boys memorize whole chapters and learn to write these down on pieces of paper for the personal use of others. For this activity is in itself God-pleasing and the product can be sold: in many countries the text of certain chapters is used as a talisman for the protection of its wearer against diseases and disasters. God’s word protects those who have faith in it against all afflictions.
            Not only letters, but entire words were adopted from the Koranic text into the languages whose speakers were drawn into the circle of Islamic culture. The result is that languages as far apart (7,000 km) as Swahili and Malay have almost four thousand Arabic (and a few hundred Persian) words in common. Not all these words are Koranic expressions, some are taken from the colloquial Arabic of the sailors. The result is that Malay and Swahili travellers, if they meet, can converse in limited Arabic[vi]. If they are both scholars, they will, of course, converse in the classical Arabic of the Koranic text, and correspond in it. This communicability is, of course, a strong incentive to retain the use of Arabic script. Many literate Muslims nowadays, in countries where the Roman alphabet has become predominant, such as North Nigeria, Turkey and Indonesia, can read and write their language in two alphabets, like Yugoslavs or Indians[vii]. They will use on alphabet(the Roman) for official business and the Arabic script for religious writing, for decorative purposes and their personal correspondence[viii]. The modernists in such countries, especially in Turkey, condemn the Arabic script as old-fashioned and a symbol of inflexible isolationism.
            However, for millions of Muslims, the Arabic script is still the most noble and beautiful representation for human words in visible form. Even though it is often called unsuitable for most languages, it has been shown to possess a remarkable capacity for adaptation. It is or has been used for the following languages (apart from Arabic): Afrikaans, Achenese, Beluch, Bengali, Berber, Dinka, Dyula, Fulani, Gujerati, Hausa, Harari, Javanese, Kituba (Congo), Makua, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Manding, Nubian, Panjabi, Pashto, Persian, Somali, Sudanese, Swahili, Tamil, Tartar, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Yao, and Yoruba. Fifteen of these thirty-two language are spoken in Africa, sixteen if we count Malagasy, which makes it half of the total. This shows how Islamic culture spread to the far corners of Africa. Writings in these languages range from a few letters or contracts in some language to extensive literatures of poetry, literary and historical works in others, notably Hausa and Swahili[ix].
            Those Islamicized peoples for whom Arabic script became a major aspect of their culture developed a style of their own, so that, e.g. Swahili Arabic characters can be recognized at a glance. The scribes usually take great pride and pleasure in writing flowing, well-shaped characters, drawing each letter with great skill and care. In a culture where the visible arts such as painting and sculpture are not developed in a European sense, the art of calligraphy takes their place so that every known artists of the Swahili tradition of decorative arabesques was also a calligrapher.
            Two Persian letters, the ch and the p, were adopted by the Indians, the Turks and the Swahili. The formidable cultural and literary influence of Iran merits a separate chapter in the history of Islamic culture. Although many Swahili families claim descent from Iran (the Shirazis), the culture of Iran has left only sporadic traces in the Swahili language (some three hundred Persian words), the culture (the calendar) and the literature (some Persian epic tales)[x].


Swahili in Arabic Script part 3: the ink

 The ink
            Ink was prepared from scorched rice which was pounded into powder and then mixed with water and Arabic gum to make it sticky, otherwise it would run too quickly and make stains. Red ink, which was commonly used by Islamic scribes to insert passages from the Koran into their Swahili works, and also for ornamental flowers and arabesques, was prepared by means of zingifuri, cinnabar or red mercuric sulfide, known already to the ancient Greeks. The Swahili poet often begins his invocation by addressing his assistant thus:
            “Brother bring me a good black ink, and red ink too, the best, from Egypt[i].”


June 23, 2013

Swahili in Arabic Script, part 2, the pen

The pen
            The Swahili writers of the Islamic tradition often mention the pens with which they write their works. These pens are said to have been imported from as far away as Syria, and some are made of gold, or so we are led to believe by one anonymous poet, who begins his work addressing his scribe thus:
            “Ahi, patie kasabu kwa kalamu ya dhahabu”
            My brother, find me a reed for a golden pen.”
            Here kalamu is obviously intended to mean ‘penholder’ a metal cylinder in which a reed writing-piece fit. The Swahili kalamu comes ultimately from the Latin calamus, which itself means a read (botanically unrelated to modern calamus, which is a rattan palm). The reed writing-piece was at one end sliced obliquely or slightly concavely, after which the resulting point was slit vertically through the middle, a fifth of an inch or a little more, to permit the ink to run down slowly and evenly. Cutting the nib (jilifa) was a great art in which one had to be a specialist. The left side (insi, i.e. the side held toward the writer, for no one was allowed to write with the left hand) was cut half a millimeter shorter than the right side (wasihi), and slightly softer. The best reeds for writing were found near Basra and in the Nile Delta, from where they were dispatched directly to the cities for use, since the reeds must not be dry, for that would make them stiff and brittle. Reeds found at the seashore (bahari) could also be used. Cutting a good pen was considered so important that Islamic scholars used to say: “Good cutting is half of good writing.” Every type of writing required its own special method of cutting the pen. Every Islamic nation has developed its own typical variant of Arabic script, so that connoisseurs can see at a glance whether a page of writing is in Persian, Hausa, Malay, Urdu, or Swahili, without knowing those languages, simply by recognizing the shape of the letters. Pens are so precious that they have to be kept in a special container (mkilama) a long flat, wooden box often beautifully ornamented with inscriptions of proverbs like ‘allama bi’l-kalami[i] “He taught mankind by means of the Pen”. Attached to it one often finds an inkwell (dawati or dawaya, sometimes used for the ink itself). The word kalamu is often used in the meaning of “Man’s destiny”, since God created a gigantic pen to write down the future events until Judgement Day[ii].


Swahili Literature in the Arabic Script, part 1

(Editors note: this is an old article from a journal called Manuscripts of the Middle East, which I transcribed for the blog, as it contains a lot of useful information unavailable elsewhere on the web. I will continue to publish snippets of it in future posts. The article was written by Jan Knappert, a well known scholar of Swahili poetry, with several books to his name on the subject. In the interest of space, I have not included all the relevant citations, although should anyone want to consult them, I will be happy to provide them; simply leave a comment on the posting.)

In this article, some aspects of the vast subject of Swahili documents in Arabic script and their contents will be discussed. I have published seven books on the subject, during 36 years of study, but much more remains to be done. In spite of the enormous losses through neglect, vermin, floods and fire, there are still hundreds of Swahili manuscripts in Arabic script in private collections in Barawa, Lamu, Pate, Malindi, Mombasa, Tanga, Bagamoyo, and Zanzibar. Together, these texts comprise the content of Swahili culture: there are texts on theology, law, medicine and many other subjects. Many of the texts are in verse; there are seventy-two known epic poems in Swahili. Three unknown epics have come to light in Mozambique, about which I will report in a later publication. This article will deal mainly with the exterior form of the manuscripts and how they are made.

We do not know when writing on the East African Coast was first practiced. On the basis of archaeological discoveries it has been established that there was contact between the Kenya Coast and Mesopotamia as of c. 750 AD.[i] The oldest known mosques date from the late eleventh century.[ii] Swahili was spoken on the East African Coast when al-Mas’uudi visited it.[iii] Structurally, Swahili is a Bantu language.[iv] Swahili literature has been written in the Arabic script for three centuries[v] until the colonial period when Roman script and printing were introduced.[vi] Still in AD 1900 the German scholar Dr. Seidel could write[vii]: ‘The Swahili language is written in Arabic letters’. We do not know when the Swahili poets first began to write down their works, but the oldest surviving Swahili manuscript is dated with the equivalent year of AD 1652.[viii] From that time onwards there is a steadily increasing stream of manuscripts in the Arabic script. In the library of the University of Dar es Salaam, there are almost a thousand Swahili manuscripts; other collections comprising a few hundred MSS each are to be found in Mombasa, Lamu and London.[ix]

The term literature here includes the complete writings known in a given language. Manuscripts may be handwritten poems, letters, contracts, deeds, and other documents of just one or a few pages each, like some of the long epic poems with over three hundred pages per text.[x] The interest of this literature is in the first place its historical importance: the Swahili are the only people in tropical Africa who possess a written literature going back more than two hundred years.[xi] Many historical data could be gleaned from these MSS.[xii] Secondly, there is an interest for students of culture, in particular Islamic culture, of which the Swahili people have developed their own typical variant.[xiii] Thirdly, students of literature, philologists[xiv], will find some unique works especially in the more than sixty epic poems, many of which have never been published. Some of these are extant only in one manuscript, so that it is fortunate that the Library of SOAS has acquired photostatic copies of many of the MSS in Dar es Salaam, which are now available for study in London, bound in eleven volumes. Many manuscripts are still in private hands in the towns and villages along Africa’s east coast. Not all of them are kept under ideal conditions: the climate is too hot and damp, the houses are not free of insects. But many Swahili manuscripts are part of a family heirloom which owners will not readily part with.[xv]

The tradition of writing Swahili in Arabic script is very much alive today. Poets still write verse in it, including long poems, and letters of all kinds are written in Arabic script, business as well as personal letters. Some enterprising people have begun to print manuscripts by photographic methods and make books from them that are distributed.[xvi]

Originally Arabic script was not very suitable to represent the Swahili sounds, but over the years Swahili scholars have improved it by adding signs, partly taken from the Persian and Urdu traditions, so that today Arabic script is in many ways superior to Roman in showing phonemic features. There are two major conventions: the old ‘stenographic’ convention, in which the writing is clearly used as no more than an aid to refresh the reciter’s memory, and, at the other extreme, there is Mw. Yahya Ali’s perfected adaptations of Arabic script to the Swahili language, in which all the alveolar and aspirated consonants are carefully represented so that his method of orthography is in fact superior to the Roman alphabet without phonetic diacritics The first thing that young children in an Islamic culture are taught is the Arabic script. After this they are taught to read (not yet to understand, that will come later) the first chapter of the Koran. The major part of their primary education will be reading and memorizing this book, which for a Muslim is the literal word of God.
            This Holy Book is written (and now printed) in the Arabic script. Consequently, for all Muslims, the Arabic script is closely associated with the most revered thing on earth: the book that contains God’s own words. No wonder that Islamic peoples such as the Persians and the Pakistanis use the Arabic script to write their language even though it is quite unsuitable for Indo-European languages. They feel that it is the best script in the world. The nations which no longer use the Arabic script for their language, Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia, have abolished it because they are now “secular” states, Westernized nations. Even in those countries there are large collections of manuscripts in Arabic script, waiting to be studied, edited and published.
            We cannot here go into any details of codicology, the science of manuscripts, which examines the paper, the ink, the writing and other details which can inform us regarding the time, the country and the culture of the writers of a given manuscript. Islamic scribes end the writing of manuscript with a “colophon”, usually in a curiously triangular shape in which they put their name, home-town, and the date. Not all writers are so accurate, unfortunately. Sometimes the owner will put his name in the colophon, but, of course, neither he nor the scribe, i.e. the copyist, is necessarily the author of the work. The poet (if it is a poem we are studying) sometimes names himself in the last few verses of his work, often with a pen name rather his patronymic; these pen names were known to all contemporary insiders, but later historians usually have great difficulty identifying the author, and dating him. Many uncertainties remain in Swahili literature.
            Since every person has his own unmistakable hand, and since some scholars made a living (or more often a small occasional fee) by copying manuscripts for collectors, several scribes hands are well known to the students of codicology. In Swahili, the best known scribes are Mw. Yahya Ali, Mw. Muhammad Sikujua and Muhammad Abu Bakari Kijumwa.[xvii]
            Writing is considered an art in Islamic culture, indeed it is the most Islamic of all arts. A calligrapher, a person with a fine hand-writing, is still held in high esteem by his fellow Muslims. He will be asked, for instance, to write out passage from the Koran, one-page chapters, which people wear on their persons, folded up, wrapped in a piece of cloth with a string round the neck. Many people believe that these hand-written passages have the power to protect their wearers against many of life’s dangers, diseases and disasters.[xviii] This may serve as an illustration of the faith people have in the Koran as the word of God, and the power of every hand-written copy of this divine text. No wonder that the art of writing is surrounded with a mysterious aura of spiritual sanctity, and the man (less often the woman) who can write is likewise revered.
            Many of these scribes are also scribes in the Biblical sense, i.e. they are interpreters of the Holy Book, and thus experts in Islamic law, juriconsults, whose social prestige is often measurable in terms of political power. The result was that Islamic scholars rose to the highest offices in the state, they became imamu (‘rector’ of a mosque)[xix], kadhi (judge), or even vizier (Swahili waziri[xx],  minister). The art of calligraphy was practiced by sultans and princes, as well as by the poorest students, who thus shared the same aesthetic ideals. Unlike Chinese, Arabic script is based entirely on abstract signs, each of which must form an aesthetically satisfying unit by itself. In Koranic and ornamental writing every consonant is accompanied by its vowel sign (see below) to make a complete syllable and fill the space between the lines. Since each of the twenty-eight characters of the Arabic script represents a consonant, the three (five in Swahili) vowel signs give each character syllabic value. In Swahili, the vowel signs are a necessary part of the script, since the language is syllabic; in Arabic poetry too, the vowels have to be written.
            Arabic letters have symbolic values as a result of their spiritual usage. For instance, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet, called alif, is also the sign for the number one, a simple vertical stroke, the first letter of the word ahad, ‘one’, which in the Koran refers to God, who is the One next to Whom there is none. The word Allahu, ‘God’ also begins with that letter. Among the prophets, the letter alif symbolizes Adam, whose name also begins with alif, and who was the first prophet and the first human being The letter mim, the m of the Arabic alphabet is the 25th letter. It symbolizes Muhammad, who was the 25th prophet (after Isa (Jesus), who was the 24th. One the numerical scale, the mim has the value 40, because Muhammad was 40 when God first revealed the Koran to him. In this way every letter has its own special set of meanings and values, some of which are known to God alone.[xxi] The text of the Koran is thus much more than a series of phonetic signs, much more than a collection of histories and exhortations. Every page is like a length of cloth, into which God has woven the destinies of men, the horizontal lines alternating with the vertical lines to form patterns of beauty like the alternating strings of days and nights in our lives. The text of the Koran is immutable, it has always existed and will always exist as the mother of Man’s destiny. It has meanings behind meanings which even the sages can only guess at.
The paper
            The Swahili word for paper, karatasi, is of Greek origin and initially meant ‘papyrus’. True paper was introduced in the world of Islam during the early Abbasid period, i.e. after 750 AD, by Chinese prisoners who taught their Muslim masters to make it from rags of linen. The use of paper was established in the Arab world before 800 AD., i.e. the time of Harun al-Rashid, the great Caliph, since he had ordered it to be used in all the offices of his government in Baghdad. There, paper soon completely replaced papyrus as well as parchment, especially since writings on paper could not as easily be scratched out, as was done with writing on parchment. Even the Egyptians no longer used papyrus, indeed Egyptian paper soon became highly valued for its softness, its smoothness, and its whiteness; yellow, red, pink, green and blue paper was also produced there.
            In East Africa the paper was mixed in a pulp-vat (kasiria) with starch (nashaa), laid out on a deckle (kalibu) and then hung on the walls to dry. We do not know for sure that paper is still made by the Swahili; so far as is known, most of their paper now comes from India, at least it did in the nineteenth century. Ruling was obtained by means of a net made of string which was pressed down on the paper giving it lines to write on (misitari) as well as vertical lines for margins and to make the half lines of poetry. For the utenzi form a special ‘net’ was used with five vertical strings to ‘hold’ the kipandes, that is, the four pieces of the stanza (ubeti)[xxii] so that the page showed great regularity and beauty. For a long poem or a long chronicle the sheets could be glued or bound together to make a book, or they could be attached in long sequences, one at the bottom of the other, to form a scroll. The oldest shairi poems, however, were written on long sheets, from right to left, so that four lines fit across the page. In this way the final rhyme of the stanza, which has to be identical throughout the poem, could be shown at the left side down the page, for both the utenzi and the shairi. Instead of calling for his pen, the poem might ask for his assistant or apprentice:
            Mbuya lete karatasi ya Misiri
            Iwe safi na nyeupe ahiyari
            ‘My friend, bring Egyptian paper,
            let it be the best: pure white.’
            Unfortunately, unlike in the dry lands of the Middle East, where written documents on paper have been preserved from the early Middle Ages (from the ninth century in Egypt), in the tropical regions paper perishes quickly as it has many enemies: humidity, white ants, cockroaches, moths and worms, so that only four Swahili MSS of the eighteenth century have survived, and only one of the seventeenth.[xxiii]


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