Political and Cultural Aspects of Qur'anic translation in East Africa Part Three: Ahmadiyya in East Africa
Part 3 in a special series on Kiswahili Qu'ranic translation for The Azanian Sea
Part 3: Ahmadiyya in East Africa and Kurani Tukufu
In a lecture in Dakar, Senegal in 1996, Tigiti Cengo expressed the questions of Islam’s cultural relevance to African culture and religion in a discussion about the Arabic origins of Swahili: “How many realize the direct descendance of the Swahili language, spoken all over East and Central Africa, from the Arabic. (Ebrahim Doda), a question which nobody can answer because it is baseless, unfounded, and even unnecessary. The same is true with the fundamental mistake of dating the birth of Islam as 7th century. How can one justify the non-existence of Allah(SW) and all His Creation which submitted to him before the 7th Century? Muslim scholars should consult deeper sources than those from the exploitative, oppressive, and sentimental generalizations that “Africa has had no culture, language, civilization, nothing; that “Islam is nothing but Arabism,” and the like from euro-western schools.”
Cengo’s assertion is extremely interesting; on the one hand, like the Ahmadiyya missionary Mubarak Ahmad Ahmadi in the introduction to the Ahmadiyya translation Kurani Tukufu, he seeks to give Africa its place in the world history of religion, inverting the argument used by Arabism to subtly argue that Africans possessed concepts of Allah well before Arabs or any other civilization. On the other hand, he posits that most of the negative ideas about Africa and the conflation of Islam with being Arab and speaking Arabic are western ideologies.
The latter statement is partly true, but not completely. British educational policy in Zanzibar was predicated on an absolute separation of races, with each “race” to be taught according to their perceived abilities. Africans figured at the bottom of his hierarchy, and the British went so far as to refuse requests by Arab parents to have the Africans join their children in the classroom. The British believed they were upholding the “natural” social order; in reality they were freezing their conception of “lower races.” Nowhere is this more starkly revealed than in the overall European view of the Waswahili as some kind of morally and racially degenerate mixture between Arab and African, chained to Islam and incapable of renewal, change, or innovation.
Yet this view of African degeneracy was shared by many members of the 'Arab' elite during the early twentieth century, but not for the same reasons. Their concept of civilization was not scientific racialism but cultural chauvinism. In Al-Falaq, one of a group of Arabic newspapers published in Zanzibar, one writer warned that stripping Arabic from the educational curriculum would result in Arabs becoming like the “zanji” in their manners and cultural. This Arab variety of racism relied on the threat of cultural degeneracy through loss of linguistic and religious identity. Without Arabic, Arabs in Africa would become like the heathen Africans, the washenzi.
A new Muslim group calling themselves Ahmadiyya would seek to transform the Arab cultural paradigm through which coastal Islam had traditionally been viewed, seeking to retain the importance of Arabic, while freely translating the Qu’ran into other African languages and employing a discourse of African contributions to Islam.
Founded in the town of Qadian, India (hence its alternate name of Qadianiyat) in 1889 by Hazraut Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), Ahmadiyyism was a prophetic movement that proclaimed Mirza Ahmad as mujadid, mahdi, and Messiah of Islam. Ahmad came from a family whose forbears fought in the British army in India. Educated in the Qur’an (he knew Arabic, Persian, and Urdu), Ahmad came of age as the subcontinent was wracked by competing ideas of religious legitimacy from all sides. Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians debated each other and themselves in their attempts to win converts. This policy was partly spurred by the British colonial policy of awarding political representation based on communal religious confession, but it was also a result of the rich texture of religious discourse, a climate that encouraged people to take theological matters seriously.
From 1872, Ahmad emerged as spokesperson for Islam against Christians and various Hindu sects like Arya Samaj. Yet he also proved quite ready to define his vision of Islamic legitimacy; in the early years of his ministry he debated Maulvi Muhammed Husain about the differences between the Hanafi madhab and the ahl al-Hadith Ahmad established a degree of fame before his claims to prophethood by his flamboyant debating tactics: in one instance offering money to the person who would refute his book on Islamic apologetics, in another instance, before a debate with a Christian missionary, issuing an invitation for a mubahala. According to the Ahmadiyya histories, Ahmad received a type of divine illumination through fasting; soon after he proclaimed himself the mahdi. His assertion led even close friends to disassociate themselves from him.
Most authors working on Ahmadiyya focus on the person of Ahmad, the theological debates his claims of prophethood raised, and the religious context of the Indian subcontinent. More work along the lines of Humphrey Fisher’s work is needed to understand the role of Ahmadiyya in the development of Islam in East Africa. It is known that the movement began its work with Mubarak Ahmad’s arrival in Mombasa in 1934. Branches of the organization soon sprang up in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, while the headquarters were initially located in Tabora.
Much of the controversy between Ahmadiyya and other Muslims had to do with Ahmad’s view of the death and resurrection of Jesus and the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. In an 1899 book, Jesus in India, Ahmad claimed Jesus had not died on the cross at all, but had sent a proxy, and had instead migrated to Kashmir and died in Srinagar at the age of 120. The controversy about Muhammad’s prophethood hinged on Ahmad’s unique explanation of the Qur’an 33:41. In Kurani Tukufu, the Arabic Khatataman Nabiyyina is translated as “Muhuri wa Manabii” According to Ahmad, the seal was not a literal finality. To counter the established wisdom, Ahmad related a hadith from Ayesha, “Say by all means that is the Seal of the Prophets, but do not say that there will be no Prophet after him.”
All of these theological issues in turn related to Ahmad’s overarching goal: countering Christian missionizing in its imperial aspect through a reform of key doctrinal vulnerabilities within Islam. One of those “vulnerabilities” was the relationship of Jesus and Muslim belief in his resurrection. The crux of much of this debate was Qur’an 4:157 “The Women” (which, you will recall, was one of the verses Godfrey singled out for criticism in his Qur'anic commentary) :
“That they said (in boast), "We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah";- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them [or it appeared so unto them], and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not: Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”
The verse itself, because of the ambiguity and indirectness of its phrasing, invited multiple interpretations. The “orthodox” view prevalent in Ahmad’s time was either that God had rescued Jesus from the cross and raised his physical body to heaven, or that it was not really Jesus on the cross to begin with. Christian missionaries like Godfrey seized on this fact to prove the power of Jesus and Christianity over the power of Muhammed and Islam in debates. Ahmad’s mission has arisen because “Islam was in a situation of one who is encircled by bitter enemies and is assaulted continuously from every direction.”
A Kiswahili translation of the Qur’an was thus entirely consistent with Ahmad’s vigorous defense against those who attack Islam; the battle with Christianity became the context for justifying what many scholars viewed as “bida” or unlawful innovation. Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad prepared a new translation, beginning in 1936, as a counter to the “Upinzani unaoletwa na wasiokuwa Waislamu, hasa Wakristo.” (The opposition which has been brought to Islam by non-Muslims, especially Christians). The work was also an explicit response to Dale’s work:
“Zamani Padre Godfrey Dale aliandika tafsiri ya Kurani. Lakini kwa sababu yeye hakuwa na maarifa ya Kiarabu alishindwa mahali pengi kuandika tafsiri iliyo sawa. Mara nyingi hakufahamu neno la Kiarabu, na alichukua toka tafsiri ya Kiingereza baadhi ya maneno na kuyageuza Kiswahili bili kupeleza maneno ya asili. Hivyo tafsiri ya Padre Dale ina uharibifu mwingi unaokutana na kutojua kwake, na kadhalika unaotokana na uadui wake uliopitiliza mpaka. Kadhalika katika tafsiri yake, Padre Dale, hakuandika maneno ya asili ya Kiarabu ili watu wangepata kujua amekosa wapi, na amekosa nini, au amezidisha nini na kupunguza nini."
The work was begun on the first day of Ramadan in the month of November by Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad Ahmadi, the head of the Ahmadiyya mission in East Africa. With the publication of Kurani Tukufu in 1953, the Ahmadiyya made a significant contribution to Islamic renaissance on the East African coast. Copies of the new translation were sent to Mau Mau detainees in Kenya and plans were made for further translations into East African languages like Kikuyu. Whatever their theological differences with other Muslims, the Ahmadiyya, through their translation, addressed themselves to Dale’s denigrations of Islam in Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu and also contributed to a debate evolving about the origins of Islamic legitimacy on the East African coast. The Kurani Tukufu linked many Muslims in East Africa with a different part of the Islamic world, Pakistan. Furthermore, the Ahmadiyya were very explicit about the egalitarian and non-racial nature of Islam, mainly in an attempt to contrast it with Christianity. Perhaps this message may have also been effective against chauvinism and nepotism of certain members of the Arab elite, who blocked access to the highest levels of the ‘ulama for African Muslims.
By framing the introduction to Kurani Tukufu in terms of African contributions to Islamic history, the Ahmadi drew on rising nationalist sentiments and offered an alternative to the Arab civilizational motif prevalent in much of the Arab elite resistance to colonial rule. The introduction to Kurani Tukufu can be read as a subtle parable on the arrogance with which the Ahmadiyya itself was treated by the established Islamic authorities, an arrogance equivalent to the early messengers from Mecca who underestimated the Ethiopian king. The Meccan messengers who persecuted the early Muslims are of the same type who persecuted the Ahmadis. In fact now, the Qur’an itself is oppressed, and the Ahmadi translation would help to liberate it:
“To the people of Africa and especially the Eastern part, having studied the language placed before you with this translation, I am proud and happy because in the first days of this book you all’s continent protected those who hoped in this book and completely rejected oppression, injustice. Moreover, you were strengthened to erect justice and ethics. Today the teaching of your Qur’an is in a condition of oppression like those believers who were oppressed.”
Notwithstanding their unique theology, the Ahmadiyya are quite conservative on the issue of ijtihad, and their actual practice of Islam is quite orthodox. Yet they were attacked and heavily criticized both inside and outside of Pakistan. One frequent point of contention was Ghulam Ahmad’s collaboration with the British, which extended to frequent praise for the British role in cultural advancement on the Indian subcontinent. Such statements were used as evidence by anti-Ahmadi groups that the Ahmadiyya were little more than an imperialist front group seeking to undermine Islam. Out of this critique came the impetus for a third translation.