September 29, 2009

Secularism, hegemony, and fullness (Talal Asad)

I've posted some stuff from Talal Asad before, from his book Geneaologies of Religion. The link below will take you to a link where he critiques secularism in a very trenchant and incisive way.

Secularism, hegemony, and fullness

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September 26, 2009

Book Review: Muntu by Jaheinz Jahn

I can’t say enough about this book. Over 50 years old, it is still worth revisiting for the force for which it makes its defense of African thought, philosophy and religion. Janheinz Jahn, a German scholar, originally wrote Muntu in 1958, around the time of intellectual ferment of luminaries like Fanon, Cesaire, and Senghor. The American edition first appeared in 1961 and was named book of the year by at least one major publishing organization. Jahn lays out the characteristics of African thought as illuminated through New World African religions like Santeria and Voudoun.

Unlike so much of today’s timid postmodernist theorization. Jahn is unafraid of the broad comparison and the book is infused with both an urgency born of passion for the subject matter, in addition to Jahn’s considerable erudition. He is equally at home discussing the implications of nommo, or the magic of the spoken word, as he is the function and symbols within Voudoun, or the difference between New World African religion and its parent in Africa. He also devotes a section to tracing the strands of African thought in the works of the so-called Negritude poets.

I will let William J. Austin, who has reviewed Jahn's work here, have the word on explaining the basic philosophical principles of African thought and aesthetics, according to Jahn:

The text is neatly divided into the major categories of African culture and religion, two forces which, as Jahn points out, flow in and out of one another like a river and its tributaries. Although Jahn makes mention of the cultures formed in northern Africa via the commingling of African and Arabic/Islamic impulses, his focus here is on “Black Africa,” or that larger portion of the continent below the Sahara. This section of Africa, however various in its individual cultural expressions, was surprisingly united in an overall religious structure that informed the ritual of worship, as well as the more pedestrian day to day activities. This over-arching structure contains four major forces: Muntu, Kintu, Hantu, and Kuntu. Muntu, or “human being,” finds its earliest known expression in the culture of the Bantu tribe. As a “force” it is plural, reflecting the myriad variations of humanity. Muntu, however, is not a self-activating force, but rather ‘sleeps,” dormant, while awaiting its activation via a more active sub-force known as Nommo. Nommo, quite simply, is language. The priests and elders of a tribe are most invested with Nommo, and maintain the power to enliven natural objects, and even man-made ones, through a ritualistic process of naming. But all human beings participate in Nommo to some degree. In fact, it is not until a parent names a child, that the child may be considered human, may be said to participate in Muntu. What we have, then, in the concepts of Muntu and Nommo, is not unlike the structuralist/post-structuralist emphasis on language as the begetter of personhood, of humanity. The linkage is certainly there, but it also obtains between Nommo and the Biblical declaration that “In the beginning was the word.”

In any event, Jahn’s detailed analysis makes clear the amazing similarities that reach across seemingly isolated cultures. Like Muntu, Kintu is plural, and represents the force or “spirit” in all non-human objects, animate and inanimate, including animals. Hantu is place and time, and Kuntu, perhaps the most complex concept of the four, represents modality, i.e., quality, style, rhythm and beauty. All four forces are united linguistically by the suffix and concept of NTU, or the essential compatibility and coherence of all things, human and non-human. The many in the one, the one in the many — this is familiar philosophical ground, and more evidence that Nommo does indeed unite all cultures, races, creeds, in their differences.

The one fault with the book is its almost complete lack of discussion about the impact of Islam and the Arabs on African culture and religion. No doubt there are other books that do this admirably, but it would have been quite interesting for Jahn to extend his thesis to some of the cultures of East Africa such as Somalia, the Swahili Coast or Zanzibar. Or even Ethiopia…the point being that these cultures have a much more ancient tradition of contact with Abrahamic religions, ergo we might expect to see a different kind of integration within an overall philosophy of Muntu then that which occured in the Americas under Jahn's rubric of neo-African culture.

How does Neo-African culture apply to African Islamic cultures of the East Coast, where extensive cultural mixing also took place? No doubt a variety of practices exist today which reincarnate the ancient beliefs in new forms, for example the practice of praying to Sufi saints and venerating their burial sites as holy places.

What is perhaps most interesting about Jahn’s thesis, as Austin pointed out, is that he brings out the true monotheism at the core of most African religion, explaining that this ONE God who is RULER OVER ALL is so distant from humanity that humans needs a variety of intermediaries in order to tap into the power of GOD's Being.


SQCC's website on Indian Ocean History

The folks at Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington DC have brought the ancient social, political and economic connections of the Indian Ocean together in an interactive and dynamic way for Web 2.0 or 2.5 or whatever the heck version we're on.
Indian Ocean History
If you are an educator or a student of Indian Ocean cultures and societies, this is an indispensable online resource.


The Ottoman Empire in East Africa

The Ottoman Empire began its march to dominance as a band of Turcoman nomads from Central Asia. Several centuries later, they were the globally dominant military, political, and economic power. Analysis of the Ottomans as a world power—especially their diplomatic relations with emerging European powers such as Portugal, Venice, and France—is not new in the historiography, but sustained monographic treatments of the Ottoman relationship with their eastern neighbors, especially the Safavids and the Mughals, have been rare. Moreover, Ottoman naval power has only recently given its proper place in the historiographical analysis. Historians such as Palmira Brummett, Andrew Hess, and Salih Ozbaran detail how the Ottomans were not only a ‘gunpowder empire’ with well organized armies; they also built and provisioned trading ships in the Mediterranean, Baltic, and Red Seas. S systemic monographic treatment of their presence in the Indian Ocean is yet to be written.

The knowledge of Ottoman presence in the Indian Ocean was initially facilitated by Portuguese historians, while on the Turkish side, the pioneering works of Salih Ozbaran have been collected in The Ottoman Response to European Expansion: Studies on Ottoman Portuguese Relations in the Indian Ocean and Ottoman administration in the Arab lands during the Sixteenth Century.

Ozbaran’s work of collecting and presenting primary sources and interpretation of Ottoman diplomatic relations and naval power is particularly valuable. He details how in the late 15th century, having conquered Istanbul and established hegemony over Anatolia and several Baltic and Arab provinces, the Ottomans turned to Venetian shipbuilders to challenge the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean. At the head of the Red Sea, the Ottomans completed their new fleet, and in 1507, Amir Husayn led the fleet to fight the Portuguese at Diu. Despite their defeat by the Portuguese in 1509, the Ottomans remained a viable naval power in the Red Sea, with outposts on the Horn of Africa and control over the strategic port of Aden on the Yemeni coast.

Furthermore, the hostility of the Swahili city-states to Portuguese hegemony meant that Ottoman incursions down the East coast of Africa were perceived as a real threat. In about 1585, a single Turkish ship promising support was sufficient to bring on a general revolt of Swahili towns, which the Portuguese promptly quelled. A couple of years later, Amir Ali Bey—whom some sources picture as an Ottoman official, but others as a mere buccaneer—appeared with a small force. Again, several city states immediately broke away from Portuguese control. At Pemba, the townspeople annihilated the occupying garrison, and an attack was mounted against Malindi, Portugal's staunchest ally. Again a Portuguese fleet from India restored control with appalling brutality. At Faza, they slaughtered the entire population, destroyed its vessels and plantations, and sent the head of its king as a grizzly trophy to Goa.

Ali Bey returned with a somewhat larger force two years later and took possession of Mombasa. Another Portuguese relief force was dispatched, and sailed into the harbor to find the Turks had come under siege by invaders they called Zimba, reportedly a savage people who had already destroyed Kilwa. The Portuguese fleet attacked and pillaged the city, and then, as they departed, the Zimba rushed in to complete the devastation. Advancing farther north, the Zimba finally were defeated at Malindi by a force of warlike pastoralists whom the Portuguese called Masseguejos. Portugese control would continue until the Omanis (invited by Mombasa city leaders) finally wrested control of the coast from the them in 1698.

Of course there are other stories here too: the conflict between the Ottomans and the Ethiopian emperor Minas over the coastal imperial stronghold of Debarwa, the intermittent treaties between the two parties over the trading entrepots at Massawa and Arkiko. During the 15th century the Ottomans had used local Muslim intermediaries to wage war against the Ethiopian emperor, while the Portuguese backed the Ethiopians but tried to make them submit to Papal authority in Rome. As both Ottoman and Portuguese power declined in the 17th century, these machinations died down.

The larger point in all is that the histories of these liminal spaces on the edges of the great empires often have their own unique and compelling stories which get lost amidst the focus on a perceived 'center'. If a historian came along who knew Kiswahili, Arabic, Portuguese, Ottoman Turkish, French, German, and English, and perhaps Gujarati he or she could write a comprehensive history of the Western Indian Ocean from antiquity to the present, including some of the arcane bits of minutiae which help give life to the larger sketch. As it now stands, learning two languages is a daunting enough task, so this herculean effort is still a future endeavor for some aspiring genius.


September 25, 2009

The Role of Islam in Tanzania's Liberation Struggle

What's often left out of the Nyerere-centric narrative of Tanzanian nationalism is the contributions of Muslim townsmen.

Back during my first trip to Tanzania in 2006, I went with a friend to the Maktaba ya Taifa in Dar-es-Salaam and happenned across Mohamed Said's book on Abdulwahid Sykes. It came as a revelation to me that Sykes and other Muslim leaders in Dar had been the impetus and the organizational core of the Tanganyikan African Association, the organization which would eventually become TANU.

The book is a chronicle of that struggle, and Mohamed Said is anxious not to allow his readers to forget this 'underground' history.

Dr. John Iliffe has offered his review of Said's book. He critiques its somewhat polemical tone and addresses a personal accusation Said made against him. However I believe despite the occasional polemic, Said's work brings to light some important aspects of Tanzanian history that deserve a wider audience. We owe Bwana Mohamed Said a debt for bringing this forgotten history to light. Please visit the following links for more of his work:

Islam's Role in Tanzania's Freedom Struggle

Interview with Mohamed Said

The Question of Muslim Stagnation in Education

Islam and Politics in Tanzania


Maldives documentary on al-Jazeera English

People and Power is a GREAT show on al-Jazeera English. Here they look at the Maldives.


Dr. Amin Alhassan: Giving Is An Act of Self Interest

Yes, yes and yes. Dr Alhassan lays it DOWN in this piece about the dangers and disadvantages of state dependence on foreign aid. Best of all, it is done in a way that is accessible and direct. The good doctor has given The Azanian Sea to reproduce a portion of her article, but do yourself a favor and read the whole thing, available in PDF format here. I hope this will help those of us in the West who are tempted to overcongratulate ourselves for the work we do in Africa. The point is not so much that your project, your spring break trip, or your 'mission' to Africa is 'bad.' The point is that its rarely as altruistic as you would like it to be. What makes it possible for so many 'well meaning Westerners' to go to Africa to teach, build wells, do the Peace Corps, etc. is the continuing dependence of African states on international aid.

excerpt from "Telescopic Philanthropy, Emancipation and Development Communication Theory" by Amin Alhassan

From Charles Dickens to Present
“Telescopic philanthropy”, as a phrase, was first used by Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House some 150 years ago to poke fun at and critique what was then an English fascination and obsession with designing development projects to save Africa and Africans from poverty, and to usher them into a modern economy of production. In the Dickensian narrative, the story is told of a Mrs. Jellyby, a friend of John Jarndyce, who neglects her house and children and is obsessed with projects designed to save African in the Congo from poverty by teaching them how to grow coffee to enable them to earn an income. In retrospect, it is clear that what Dickens was describing was the genesis of what is now a global industry of state, non-governmental charities and celebrity acts of philanthropy to save Africa from itself. Dickens was noted for his journalism and the use of the novel as a means of social critique. His discussion of telescopic philanthropy is instructive because it allows us to understand the practice of international development as pre-dating the post-World War II Truman era. It also allows us to understand how international development framed as charitable interventions that northern developed countries do to global southern countries as acts that are tied to the domestic power politics of the so-called benefactor countries.

It is against this backdrop that I am motivated to argue that the problem with Africa is as much a problem of development as it is the troubling impact of international aid on the continent’s self-initiative. Evidently what I am aiming to argue is not about a global divide of technological haves and technological have-nots. The global divide that interests me is the global divide of benefactors and beneficiaries, that between donors and beggars, between philanthropist and objects of charity. The institution that is partly responsible for this global divide is the global media. As we have seen from Dickens, the attempt to save Africa is not new. Indeed, Susan Thorne’s (1999) provocative interpretation of 19th Century middle class formation in Victorian and Edwardian Britain makes the case that saving the heathens in Africa was always preferred to saving the heathens at home, and that this particular fascination with the distant other had a definite imperial logic. It is a logic that is still with us today....

If we remind ourselves that the original idea of international development assistance that the US invented was not about development of the Global South, but about developing a global instrument of soft power and containment (Samarajiwa 1987, Escobar 1995), then the epistemic commitment of development communication theory ought to question the language of help that characterizes international development. Much of the development communication literature of the past 60 years has been on how to become an effective handmaiden of this dubious re-invention of international diplomacy called international development (See Waisbord 2000 for a comprehensive statement of various theoretical, methodological and strategic commitments in the field).

Development communication theory as an area of inquiry needs to take into account the price the so-called poor pay when they get a clinic built, pipe-borne water provided or a school built through the altruism of the philanthropist, the gift giver, or the new missionary worker of international development. I want to use a recent EU decision to illustrate this point. In July 2008, the BBC reported that the European Commission had agreed to use one billion euros of unspent European farm subsidies to aid African farmers (BBC 2008). The BBC report, which showed a picture of an African farmer labouring a rice field, went on to quote European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso as saying “The impact of high food prices is particularly severe for the world’s poorest populations” and adds that without the EU’s assistance, the UN’s goal to reduce global poverty will fail. This European act of altruism, upon a second look, is not only a phantom one, but a Trojan Horse that is meant to purchase a highly needed strategic advantage for the EU in a growing global tide against EU and North American agricultural subsidies and how they negatively impact on farmers in the Global South. The price Africa will pay for getting the “spare change” of one billion euro dropped in its begging bowl is that it will lose a strong standing in making a case against the EU for subsidizing its farmers so that they can unfairly compete with Africans in a global food market. What the EU’s charitable gesture does against the discourse of fair trade and the fundamental illogicality of preaching free trade in Africa while maintaining farm subsidies in Europe is far more significant that any apparent altruism it might suppose. Here then is the point about giving being an act of self-interest


The Standard | Online Edition: Fire on Faza Island in Lamu archipelago

The Standard Online Edition: Lamu fire: More than 2,500 residents out in the cold

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September 24, 2009

Sudan's Colonized Judiciary (Book Review)

by Alex de Waal from Making Sense of Darfur

It’s an unfortunate reality that books on Sudan by Sudanese authors—even those who have a wonderful English writing style, and who deal with their subject matter in a way that combines insight with accessibility—rarely get the attention they deserve.

We should take a close look at Abdullahi Ibrahim’s recently-published history of the Sudanese judiciary: Manichaean Delirium: Decolonizing the Judiciary and Islamic Renewal in the Sudan, 1898-1985. Abdullahi writes as an insider to Sudan’s Islamist intellectual and political tradition, and illuminates why not only the law, but the judiciary as well, was an arena of such significant political contest in colonial and post-colonial Sudan. He places contemporary Sudan within the wider post-colonial experience, using Frantz Fanon’s paradigms of the opposition between the European/canonical and the native/deviant, using the divided judiciary as his case.

British rule in Sudan, as elsewhere, was marked by a talent for divide and rule. This has been much-remarked in the context of the ‘native administration’ system, developed in the 1920s in order to marginalize the educated ‘detribalized’ elites whom, the British feared, would challenge their rule. The rural aristocracy was empowered—within very strictly defined limits—and became tarnished as ‘collaborators’ within the dominant nationalist political discourse. Sharia judges were also allocated their tightly-defined status within the system: low.

Abdullahi documents how the colonial subjects’ experience of British rule was hierarchically ordered, from matters of dress to education to urban geography. He poses a set of dualities. The colonizers and their carefully-chosen effendi clients wore suits and polished shoes (jazma), while the rest wore jellabiyas and markubs—and could be punished for violating the dress code. Khartoum was the modern city, laid out in a grid (with diagonals, said to resemble the Union Jack), while Omdurman the ‘native’ town retained its disorderly street plan. (To this day the executive is in Khartoum and the legislature on the other side of the river.) The administration used the Gregorian calendar and collected regular taxes and dues; the traditional system used the Islamic calendar and collected the Islamic Zakat. Students destined for prestigious posts attended the secular Gordon Memorial College close to the Governor-General’s Palace in Khartoum, those relegated to local affairs went to the Mahad al Ilmi (Islamic College) in Omdurman.

Abdullahi’s account is made particularly vivid by his gift for anecdote and personal observation. He recounts a story told by an old folklorist whose life story he compiled, describing how the schoolboys of Khartoum turned out for a parade in honor of a British colonial official. After long waiting in the sun, the officer arrived on his horse, inspected the schoolboys from the government schools but wheeled away at the very point where he came to the ranks of the boys from the khalwas (Quranic schools), who went away aggrieved, ‘staring into the void drilled by the refusal of that British official, the symbol of power and legitimacy, even to take notice of our presence.’

Abdullahi’s chief concern is how this duality translated into the legal sphere, relegating Islamic Law and its courts to second class status and a domestic sphere. Instead of being a nationally unifying factor, Sharia became a divisive issue. The qadis (judges) of the Sharia Division were junior to the ‘authoritative’ Civil Division. Qadis were required to wear a version of traditional garb including a turban (a dress code that some later adopted as a defiant gesture against western mores), were not entitled to receive salutes from policemen, and were widely ridiculed as ‘women’s judges.’ This refers to how the Sharia courts were visibly ‘women’s courts’, crowded with abandoned wives and their children and dispossessed widows hoping for the near-impossible to occur. Abdullahi notes that women preferred the Sharia courts to the tribal courts because Islamic law gives them more rights.

Imperial Sudan possessed neither a unified legal code nor a single judicial system. Among the majority, the sense of moral injury generated by the distinct second-class status of their own customary legal system, generated a rage for justice, unmet in the formal courts. Post-colonial Sudan was little different: the ruling secularized elites despised the Sharia courts, insensitive to their political plight and history. From the first days of independence, the search for a unified judiciary became a central theme of Sudanese politics. Abdullahi describes how this struggle translated into a ‘rage for masculinity’ and a preoccupation with sexual morality (including especially prostitution and homosexuality) in public discourse. It is not insignificant that Hassan al Turabi is the son of a qadi. Abdullahi breaks new ground in situating Turabi’s political philosophy in his family background.

In two provocative chapters, Abdullahi provides an Islamist perspective on the politics of Nimeiri’s Islamism. He is critical of the Republican Brothers’ leader Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, for repudiating the Islamic courts—rubbing in their faces the fact of their colonial origin and their inability to implement their ruling, made in 1968, that he was an apostate. Abdullahi describes the popular support for Sharia as stemming more from people’s hostility to the (secular) courts with their slow and expensive procedures, than enthusiasm for Islam. Nimeiri’s September Laws held out the promise of a unified judiciary, but disappointed. Abdullahi concludes by noting that Sudanese political society remains in a Manichean trap, and implies that a certain madness, a ‘logic of daring,’ will be needed to escape from it.


September 22, 2009

Top Tanzanian Bureaucrats Choose To Enroll Children At Successful Turkish Schools

Top Tanzanian Bureaucrats Choose To Enroll Children At Successful Turkish Schools

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Political and Cultural Aspects of Qu'ranic Translation in East Africa Part 4: Conclusion

The final part in our special series on the translation of The Holy Qu'ran into Kiswahili

Part 4: Qurani Takatifu and the work of Sheikh Abdullah Farsy

Following the publication of Kurani Tukufu, Sheikh Abdullah Farsy of Zanzibar had published a tract, "Upotufu was Tafsiri ya Makadiani", which denounced the Ahmadiyya translation. This was followed by his own effort to translate the Qu'ran into Swahili, called Qurani Takatifu. Painstakingly, Farsy built on the work of his teacher Sheikh Mazrui and published his translation in installments in the Zanzibar weekly newspaper Mwongozi (The Guide). Finally, he published the complete translation in 1967. The work was sponsored in part by the Islamic Foundation of Nairobi, a group sympathetic to the anti-Ahmadiyya stance of the Jamaat-e-Islaami in Pakistan; in fact the introduction to the second edition (1974) of Qurani Takatifu is a Kiswahili translation of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi’s introduction to his Urdu commentary on the Qu’ran. Maududi at that time was the head of Jamaat-e-Islaami.

Farsy took aim at what he believed to be the Ahmadiyya’s deliberate mistranslation of Quran 33:41 (In Farsy’s version it is actually verse 40). We have already discussed how Kurani Tukufu rendered "Khataman Nabiyyin" (seal of the prophets) as “Muhuri wa Manabii.” But Farsy is more explicit; he translates the phrase “Khataman Nabiyyin” as “Mwisho wa Mitume,” adding, “The inversion of these words is a lie of the Ahmadiyya who claim for themselves ‘Muhuri wa Manabii.’ And they mention piles of names of university students and their books and SLANDER [this is in all capital letters in the original Swahili] the matter in the way they translate it.” Farsy then devotes four and a half pages to discussing this issue, finally concluding on a somewhat humorous note: “We rest our pen a little that we may entertain those thoughts another time. This thing is exhausting and we don’t want you to be bored.”

Sheikh Farsy was in a unique position to do a Kiswahili translation. On the one hand, his education by scholars like Sheikh Ahmed Muhammed el-Mlomry, Abdullah Bakathir, and Sheikh Mazrui prepared him to relate the Islamic message to a new generation of believers. On the other hand, his position first as chief qadi of Zanzibar (until 1964) and then chief qadi of Kenya, gave him the prominence and connections to ensure his translation would be read by a wide audience.

We saw earlier how the Ahmadiyya made a direct challenge to the dominance of Islamic discourse by a coastal elite with strong ties to the Arab world. Many members of this elite had well-ingrained notions of their own superiority vis-à-vis other Africans. Sheikh al-Amin bin Aly, another Qur’anic translator and teacher of Sheikh Abdullah Farsy, warned against two dangers: European cultural imperialism, and the “khatari nyeusi” (black danger) of non-Muslim African migration to the coast, and his warning was indicative of the breakdown of the earlier discussed older mode of Swahili acculturation via ustaarabu. This dynamic was upended in the colonial era, partly as a result of the banning of slavery and the slave trade which undermined the economic basis of the coastal elite. The inability of the elite to control the cultural and demographic terms of this migration led to a great deal of social dislocation and the emergence of new sets of leaders who challenged the prerogatives of this elite; Sheikh Ramiya of Bagamoyo and Habib Saleh of Lamu are two prominent examples of this challenge. These challenges were not only predicated on breaking down barriers to the kinds of knowledge those of slave descent could have access to, but also on reforming corrupt practices within Islam. The origins of Habib Saleh, and his successful attempt to implant a renaissance of Alawiyya scholars in Lamu, show that the social impulse of Arabism had a progressive side as well, in which “a bond of ‘common Islamness’” transcended sectarian and racial differences.

Despite the cultural chauvinism of one of his teachers, Sheikh Farsy framed his translation in terms of Islamic universalism. “Uislamu hautaki istiimari (Ukoloni) wa dini. Si lazima lugha ya Kiarabu.” said Farsy,” His view was part of a changing attitude on the part of a generation of Islamic reformers who viewed the Qu’ran not merely as a devotional text, but as a practical guide to life possessing many of the solutions for the cultural humiliation and degeneracy Muslims had endured under imperialism. Bang explains, “The shift may attributed to a generally changed outlook among Islamic scholars, starting towards the end of the nineteenth century and spearheaded by such figures as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muhammad ‘Abduh and Rashid Rida.” Al-Mazrui, Farsy’s teacher, agreed that learning the Qu’ran without its meaning was not meritorious, but he like other Islamic reformers of the Salafi bent, advocated learning Arabic as early as possible. This shift can be mapped in attitudes toward the Quranic translation; it became of paramount importance to be able to read and understand the meaning of the text in order that the believers might apply it to their daily condition.

Framing was all important, and especially framing in light of the experience of Muslims recently coming out from underneath colonial rule. Kiswahili was the language of coastal religion and culture, but it was also, to the leaders of the nationalist movement in Tanzania, an ‘African’ language with the potential to unite the country. Islamic reformers like Farsy recognized that in light of these new circumstances, it was more imperative than ever to relate the Arabic meanings in the Qu’ran through a language relevant to the masses. The task was made easier in that Kiswahili, like Persian and Urdu, had a wealth of words of Arabic origin to begin with.

Overall “the popularity of Qurani Takatifu as a work of Swahili religious literature and the number of reprints it has undergone reflect how favorably it has been received by Kiswahili-speaking people.” Nevertheless, for Farsy and other Salafi reformers relating Islam as a total system to the changing conditions of modern life demanded wide dissemination of Islamic ideas. Translations such as Qur’ani Takatifu were meant to present Islam in a culturally relevant way, and were therefore only a first step towards preparing hearts and minds for the real obligation of every Muslim: to learn Arabic.

Farsy’s translation should also be seen in light of the tremendous transformation in access to education all over Africa. Mass literacy and mass education had placed new opportunities for the dissemination of Islamic education, and the tracts, books, and pamphlets of Islamic Africa until now are being presented in a variety of African languages, Swahili included.

Through the process of translation from Arabic to Swahili, the Qur’anic message took on a special cultural relevance as a point of contention for the Muslims of East Africa. The processes of Christian missionizing, British reform in Islamic education in Zanzibar, and the language policy of the British in East Africa spurred a reaction which created new opportunities for reform. The first Swahili translation was a hostile attempt by a Christian missionary with very negative views of Islam, as well as racist views of African capabilities and culture. In response to Godfrey Dale’s missionary translation, the Ahmadiyya saw an opening for spreading their unique vision of Islam. They saw it as their obligation to counter the Christian missionary presence, which they viewed as a cultural onslaught against Islam. But because of their insistence on several unique doctrinal points, their translation was also not widely accepted. In turn, the Ahmadiyyas provoked a response rooted in the same sort of motivation: to counter what was deemed as their assault on the true Islam. Qurani Takatifu gained wider acceptance, but generated its own dynamic of opposition as well as support, generating new debates about the nature and basis for establishing authority and legitimacy within the East African Islamic community.

This process of linguistic translation and religious dissemination through Kiswahili and other African languages will continue, and even accelerate as Africa increasingly enters the digital age. As long as there are believers, there will be efforts to bridge the gap between Islam as an ‘Arabic revelation’ and Islam as a ‘universal religion.’


Pensee #3: Reconceptualizing the "Regions" in "Area Studies"

I couldn't have said it better! As someone who has had the privilege to sit in Dr. Voll's class, his thoughts are on point and very welcome in light of the issues discussed in this blog.
by John Voll, Professor of Islamic History and Associate Director of the Prince al-Waleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.
Article originally appeared in the International Journal of Middle East Studies

“Area studies” as a way of trying to understand human experience is undergoing a major transition. Questioning the connection between Middle East and African studies highlights important dimensions of the changing nature of area studies at the beginning of the 21st century.

The question reminds us that the “regions” at the core of the concept of “area” studies were and are constructs for the convenience of analysts. During the 1950s and 1960s, policymakers and scholars divided the world conceptually into regions for study. In the United States, the definition of these regions crystallized around the list of non-Western “world regions” studied in centers supported by funding initially authorized by the National Defense Education Act of 1958. Although world regions had been (and are still) defined in many different ways, this 1960s conceptual division of the world became widely accepted. It is in this context that the regions involved in “African” studies and “Middle East” studies came to be defined. African studies became primarily the study of sub-Saharan Africa rather than the continent as a whole. The emerging cadre of professional “Africanists” tended to exclude the countries of “North Africa”
from their subject matter.

The definition of the Middle East changed significantly from the early usage by military planners in the 1890s. However, virtually every definition excluded African areas beyond the Mediterranean coast. In one exception, the British War Office during World War II included the Horn of Africa, but by the 1960s, most people accepted the conclusion of one of the standard geography texts of the time that Sudan and the countries of the Horn were “more properly considered as parts of intertropical Africa.”

One important result of this division was that the two fields—African and Middle East studies—developed relatively separately, and the conceptual regions tended to become reified. People spoke of “culture continents” with distinctive identities,2 opening the way for a vision of the world made up of separate—and clashing—“civilizations.” Topics that did not fit into these two conceptual boxes tended to be marginalized in “mainstream” coverage of sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East in conferences and professional associations.

These conditions contributed to two difficulties in the area-studies approach that are now changing. The first is a regionalist primordialism, which endows regions with some essential identity. As a result, interactions among regions are viewed as “borrowing” or “foreign” influences. However, interactions between the Middle East and “Africa” have resulted in dynamic cultural syntheses that are distinctively local but no longer simply manifestations of some primordial essence that has “borrowed” some foreign elements. Studies of these developments require “area-studies” expertise but also require transcending regionalist primordialisms. An interesting example of this postprimordialist analysis is Donald Wright’s study of Islamization and globalization in “a very small place in Africa." A dual regional studies approach, combining African and Middle East studies, is an important part of going beyond the primordialist perspective.

A second difficulty is a monolithic view of the dimensions of human activities in the region under study. Classical area studies tended to see geographicphysical, economic, cultural, and religious boundaries as being roughly the same. However, looking at the Middle East and Africa together reminds us that important regions or networks of interaction cross borders. The networks of Muslim pilgrimage that run from the Atlantic coast of Africa to western Arabia are an integrated region rather than two regions interacting. The networks of economic interaction have little relationship to the boundaries assumed by area-studies definitions of the Middle East and Africa. The classic study of the trans-Saharan trade from antiquity by E. W. Bovill presents an important example of how economic enterprise does not conform to the regions of area
studies. Studies of religious and economic relations between South Arabia and East Africa by scholars like Anne Bang illustrate that there was no clear “regional” boundary between the Middle East and Africa in this broad swath of territory.

Within the framework of these thoughts, why and how should Middle East and African studies be connected? They need to be connected through scholarship that transcends the primordialism and monolithic definitions of old-style area studies because these two regions are not separate “areas” or discrete “civilizations.” Instead, they are interacting and diverse sets of human experiences that historically have influenced and shaped each other. Understanding this will help scholars build a perspective and a methodology that avoids the dangers of old-style cultural essentialism that can lead not only to the conception but also to the reality of a clash of civilizations.


September 20, 2009

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.


September 19, 2009

Political and Cultural Aspects of Qu'ranic Translation in East Africa Part Two: Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu

Part 2 in a special series for The Azanian Sea on Kiswahili Qu'ranic translation

Dale Godfrey’s Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu
In the early 1900s, when the British colonial administrators in Zanzibar embarked on a project of educational reform, they targeted those schools who taught their students to be huffāz. Canon Godfrey Dale, a UMCA Missionary and the earliest translator of the Qur’an into Swahili, wrote derisively of such a practice, comparing it to a long and wearisome journey in the Arabian desert, and emphasized what in his view was the “frequent, wearisome, and monotonous repetition of the same idea, the same moral truths.” In another instance Canon Dale, relates a visit he made to a Zanzibar madrassa in which students were learning the Qur’an, yet were unable to relate to him its meaning.

On the Swahili coast in the early twentieth century, young Muslim students still embarked on a course of Qur’an memorization, in order to become huffāz (sing. hafiz, an Arabic word which literally means guardian/caretaker), but only a few students, either from the elite or exceptionally gifted, received further instruction in methods of tafsir, fiqh, and other Islamic sciences.

Islam in the history of the Swahili coast was a social marker for the coastal elite, the dynamic that separated them from the “washenzi”. Yet despite their sense of controlling the set of mores and manners known as ustaarabu, most members of coastal society spoke only Kiswahili. Even prominent ‘ulama rarely used Arabic in their daily conversation. For the lower classes, knowledge of the Qur’an was limited to being able to recite its words, and this was important because the importance lay in the recitation as much as in the explained meaning.

The British colonial administration, as well as some members of the ‘ulama, called these methods of memorization “parrot talk,” and spurred Ibn Sumayt in 1925 to formulate a new set of texts for teaching Qur’anic verses, which reduced dramatically the amount of required suras and included explanations of key concepts in Kiswahili. However, in Zanzibar, education in Arabic was a political issue, linked with access to power and the ability to determine one’s cultural destiny. Thus the educational reform threatened the most sacred elements of the elite’s identity: language and religion. Amal Ghazal writes, “Arabs believed, the British (and their collaborators) were not only trying to damage their identity and that of the island, but also trying to sever Zanzibar’s relationship with the broader Arab-Muslim world.”

As long as cultural and linguistic links to the Arab world survived, a potential for social ferment and upheaval in Zanzibar and the Swahili Coast existed; a point echoed by many European writers about East Africa. This is not to say that resistance could only originate from an Arab source. But the colonial administrators as well as the missionaries recognized the potential of Islam to serve as a base for overturning the terms of European order. This belief led Godfrey Dale to allude to a global conspiracy by Muslims to enslave all of mankind: “Before we allow lower races to drift into Muhammadanism let us remember to whom these words, “which your right hand possess” might apply if there were a Jehad (sic) proclaimed in Europe, Africa, and Asia tomorrow…unless there is some Christian power at hand to take advantage of and enforce these mitigations, slavery will continue unchecked with all its horrible cruelties.”

Dale’s translation—the Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu —was received with much hostility. It represents how important the issue of a frame is in conceptualizing Islamic legitimacy. In fact the debate over Dale’s translation was a debate over who had the “right” to translate the Qur’an, as well as the right of Muslims to reject hostile interpreters. Godfrey Dale was an outsider who had learned Kiswahili (and for that matter Arabic) only to communicate Christianity through it. Furthermore, his translation of the Qur’an did not contain the original Arabic text. (Even now, translations of the Qur’an into English are typically presented with the Arabic text, and if they are not then they are titled “a translation of the Qur’an or “the message of the Qur’an.” )
Secondly, Dale used the Kiswahili word Mungu to mean God, which is unacceptable for many East African Muslim scholars as a translation for Allah, because Mungu can be pluralized as miungu. Later translators prefer Mwenyezi Mungu, (lit. Almighty God) for its inability to be pluralized.

Finally, Dale wrote in the newly standardized Roman script for Kiswahili. Carl Meinhof, the German who first suggested that Kiswahili be written in this manner, though that it might be useful in training African civil servants if it could be stripped of its Islamic character. Thus the transformation of Kiswahili orthography was directly related to anti-Islamic sentiment as well as pragmatic administrative concerns. Sheikh Al-Amin bin Mazrui, a prominent East African scholar who had also translated large portions of the Qur’an into Kiswahili, complained that the new orthography distorted the Kiswahili sound system. Most Zanzibari intellectuals—whose relationship to Kiswahili as a language of Islamic communication was already ambiguous—looked askance at written Kiswahili which had been deliberately stripped of its visual relationship to Arabic.

For Canon Dale, the translation was a way of training missionaries to counter Muslims on their own linguistic terms, a sort of religious guerilla warfare with the text as weapon. His goal remained to show uncivilized “Muhammadans” the true way: “It seems to me a mere matter of loyalty and common honesty not only to contend ourselves for the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints [Christianity], but to do all that in us lies to bring the same Faith within the reach of the most backward races of mankind.”

Nowhere is Dale’s disdain for Islam and its theology more apparent than in his commentary on the Swahili translation, where he constantly seeks to demonstrate its logical inconsistency. For example, in his commentary on Sura An-Nisa, verse 157 (Qu’ran 4:157), Dale writes, “We have already explained the Muslim idea of a crucificixtion in place of our Lord. But it is very useful to know this aya and to know it together with those of An-Nas and Aali-Imran. To him he ascended; meaning after death or before death like Elijah? They do not mutually agree.”

Lacunza-Balda concludes, “Dale’s translation has been greatly disliked and, historically speaking, it well be that it has accentuated both the Muslim-Christian controversy and the emergence of a collective Muslim front to answer the challenge coming from a non-Muslim.” But if this was the initial point of debate out of which conceptual repertoires were built, the next set of debates around a Swahili translation of the Qur’an translations framed a complex set of ideas at the intersection of race, African identity, and Islamic legitimacy, thus contributing to a a process by which slaves and lower-class people re-appropriated concepts of Arab exceptionalism (ustaarabu) in light of Islamic ideals of universalism and equality, a process, that as we have seen, played an important role in the social integration of East African coastal society. New ideas of African nationalism and the intensified migration of upcountry people to the coast opened up the field for socio-religious reinterpretation of those who the coastal elite had previously referred to as washenzi.


Eid Mubarak to Azanian Sea Readers!


September 18, 2009

Political and Cultural Aspects of Qur’anic Translation in East Africa, Part One

Part One: Introduction
The Qur’an, much like the person of Jesus in Christianity, has proven to be the most important foundation of Islam and thus subject to intense debate over its meaning and true nature. As an “Arabic revelation” the Qur’an belies a complete understanding without knowledge of Arabic. Thus the issue of Qur’anic translation is a prism through which the relative mutability of linguistic, cultural, and theological concepts (such as the person of Jesus and the nature of Muhammed’s prophethood) can be compared. This paper will compare three different Swahili translations of the Qu’ran by placing them in the context of East African history. I argue that each new translation generated a series of debates about legitimacy in East African Islam; the translations reveal histories of East African Muslims’ responses to imperialism, doctrinal legitimacy, cultural chauvinism, and modern education.

There are three well-known published translations of the Qur’an in Kiswahili: Tafsiri ya Kurani ya Kiarabu in 1923, translated by Canon Godfrey Dale, Kurani Tukufu translated by Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad Ahmadi in 1953, and Qurani Takatifu, translated by Sheikh Abdullah Farsy, and first published in 1969.

In a multi-part series for the Azanian Sea, I will examine all three of them in light of the various “movements” they represent, the frames they employed to make claims for legitimacy, and the claims and counterclaims they either made or refuted. Each of the translations was controversial, but this controversy was rarely over the nature of the translated text itself. The discourse of translation and the holy nature of the Qur’an were a convenient frame for debates over orthodoxy, legitimacy and self-definition in response to Christianity and imperialism. Translations were not threats to the sanctity of meaning literally conceived, but threats to the legitimacy of Islam’s unique identity, the ruling ideology of ustaarabu, and the “cultural wealth” of Arab/Islamic civilization.

Languages are deep and complex fields of meanings, with words that have no direct counterpart in a given target language. This problem is made even more difficult by the “texture” of the Qur’an itself, which contain numerous irreducible rhetorical elements. Yet translations of the Holy Qur’an have been a part of Islamic history; the first complete translation of the Qu’ran being undertaken by Shah Waliallah into Persian. As of now, the Qu’ran has been translated into over sixty-five languages around the world. So although debates about the translatability of the Qur’an have existed since the expansion of Islam beyond the Arabic-speaking world, there are now whole communities of Islamic discourse outside the realm of Arabic.

From the early Islamic conquests and the subsequent spread of the faith, there has always been tension between the global and universal aspirations of the Islamic umma and the local and particularist dimensions of the Qur’anic revelation in Arabic. Pan-Islamism was a reaction against colonial rule, particularly the project of modernity, with its universal ambition of remaking the self and institutions of the “other”. This encounter forced out into the open certain contradictions in Islamic society and one response was to proclaim the universalism of the umma in the face of European divide-and-conquer tactics. But since being a good Muslim inevitably meant mastering the Arabic language, Islamic preachers and evangelists were faced with the quandary of adapting and spreading their vision of Islam while using local languages: thus opening the question: could one really be an ideal Muslim without knowing Arabic? And if one couldn’t, then didn’t it mean that pan-Islamism was really just a dimension of pan-Arabism? Was being a good Muslim related to your spirit or your “ilm”? In practice, most Muslims found the importance of learning Arabic a non-negotiable point, yet this was not always because of the cultural chauvinism of the Arabs. Tellingly, those who most opposed one of the most recent Swahili Qu’ranic translations, Qur’ani Takatifu, were Sufis who believed strongly in the mystical power of recitation. In their view, it was the pronunciation of the words themselves, not their meaning, that incarnated a blessing for the believer.

One way Islam establishes itself as a spiritual authority is its use by spiritual authorities as a discourse of “essence” often posited in opposition to a set of practices deemed to contradict that “essence.” In the modern period, defined here as 1870-1950, reform once again became a clarion call by Muslim leaders; they attempted to address the miseducation, oppression, and moral degradation of their societies by addressing some of the contradictions brought into the open by modernity, but also by linking their discourse to the world condition of Muslims and their overall position vis-à-vis European colonialism.

The debates about Islam in this period were also debates about the effects of colonialism, and so imperialism became an additional “standard” by which legitimacy in an Islamic sense could be judged. Especially pertinent in this discussion is the impact of Christian missionaries across the Muslim world. The “clash of civilizations” debate ignited by Samuel Huntington has much deeper roots in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century “battle for souls” between Islam and Christianity. In fact its echoes can be seen in early attempts to translate the Qur’an for European audiences; the early translations into Latin, Italian, and French were devoted to refuting Islam and establishing Muhammed as a false prophet.

It is highly significant, as Lacunza-Balda emphasizes, that “the bridge between the act of “translating” the Qur’an and the purpose of “slandering” Islam had apparently been built by a Christian translation of the Qur’anic text.” So we can perceive initially two impulses for translation: one to reveal and refute, and one to simplify and explain in order to convert; in fact in the Christian missionary project, the need to communicate and the intent to control were “inseperable motives.”


African Languages and the World of IT

In a bit of tech-nerd glocal news, Afrigen and the ANLoc are hard at work making the web accessible for hundreds of different African languages and locales. Why is this important? I will let them explain it:

The first step for any localization project is to ensure that all users and computer systems can identify underlying language and country parameters. A locale is a master file that can be used across applications to specify meta-data for each language/ country pair. Data include language information such as how to express dates and Unicode font support, as well as country information such as currency names and symbols. When a locale is implemented properly, documents can be identified by language of origin, facilitating features such as search, spell-checking, and application-specific user options. Having a completed locale for a language is fundamental for the success of all future localization activities for that language.

On the ANLoc website, they write:
ICT is necessarily adapted to human languages in order to enable its use by non-specialists. For historic and economic reasons, however, certain languages dominate in this role, regardless of where ICT is used. So, when technology is used where the language and culture are different, it will exert an unintentional influence on the latter that could be negative. Localisation – the adaptation of ICT to the language and culture where it is used – allows that cultural pressure to be reduced, eliminated or even reversed. By addressing the issue of localisation this network and its sub-projects aim to address these dimensions to indeed turn ICTs into a positive force for all of the above dimensions.
In other words, they aim to make the web more multilingually friendly, especially for speakers of languages like Kikuyu, Zulu, dialects of Berber, Amharic etc. Of course this raises the question of whether these languages are actually being utilized to any great degree in cyberspace at present, and if so, is there a demand for them emanating from somewhere? I suspect of the languages I listed that there is in Amharic, but to what degree in the other languages? How will online interaction 'change' these languages, many of which are primarily oral to begin with? All in all, this is a great and overdue effort to make the global more local.


History of Shi'a Muslims in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania

By David H. Anthony
Department of History
University of California at Santa Cruz
which appeared in a 2004 article in Studies in Contemporary Islam

Dar es Salaam was, for the greater part of the present century, the capital of historic Tanganyika, now the mainland portion of the United Republic of Tanzania. It is situated on the East African coast and borders the Western Indian Ocean. For most of the brief history of the locality "religion" has amounted to the predominance of Islam. Although Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist and "traditional" African religious communities always exerted differing degrees of influence upon it, the very name Dar es Salaam has Muslim connotations, and reflects the relative strength of several "sects" of Islamic provenance.

Historically the vast majority of Muslims in Dar es Salaam have tended to belong to either the Shi'a community or to one of the Sunni sufi brotherhoods (s. tariqa, pl. turuq), each assuming a dynamic role in the propagation and institutionalization of the faith in the town. As early as the fourteenth century the feisty traveler extraordinaire Ibn Battuta recognized East Africa as an area of Islamic efflorescence. His trenchant observations regarding Kilwa, the jewel of the region, still may be read profitably as an indication of the religion's lasting roots.

The tightly organized Shi'a communities have been primarily "Asian" in composition. Most of their members have ancestral links with the western coast of India, especially Cutch, Gujarat, Kathiawar and Sindh. In contrast to them, the sufi brotherhoods, so influential throughout the world of Sunni Islam, have been of Arab and African composition, most originating in other coastal areas like Brava along the Somali littoral or Hadramawt in Southern Arabia, filtering down the East African coast or mrima by way of Mombasa and Zanzibar.

Among Muslims in Dar es Salaam ethnicity and nisba pedigree have been of prime importance. Rite followed determined communal affiliation. Rite was usually established by the manner and time in which Islam came to prominence within a given Muslim community and whether it was Sunni, Shi'a or Kharijia. Muslims of "Asian" origin were almost always members of Shi'a communities, either Isma'ili, Ithna ‘ashari, or Bhora (Bohora), while "Arab," "Afro-Arab" and African Muslims were as a rule Sunni, adopting either the Shafi'i or Ibadhi rite.

Consistent with Islamic practice throughout the Dar ul-Islam, the center of each section of communities in Dar es Salaam is usually the neighborhood mosque. This has generally taken one of two forms, either the elaborate, well-financed limestone edifices located in the center of the town in the appropriately named Mosque Street, or the smaller more modest structures serving the peripheral areas like Msasani and Kinondoni, where local materials employed in msikiti construction are indicative of the relative wealth of the inhabitants. The range of variation is great indeed, with some as basic as a thatch Swahili-type house while others may be quite old and made of stone.

Administration of these mosques has customarily taken the form of either communal ownership (strongest in the "Asian" Shi'a communities) or, what is more common among the Sunni groups, a kind of custodial control being exercised by the resident imam, who often has the prerogative of passing the mosque on to his eldest son. While computation of numbers for mosques in Dar es Salaam can be a difficult task, the few references enumerating these suggest steady growth, and this remains consistent with general population patterns.

The Shi'a Communities of Dar es Salaam
There are three major Shi'a communities in Dar es Salaam. These are the Ithna ‘ashariyya and two groups of Khoja Ismai'ili origin, the Ismai'ili or Nizari Ismai'ili and the Bohra (also rendered Bhora and Bohora) or Musta' lian Isma'ili. The progenitors of the present members of these communities originally converted from Hinduism. Relations between the variegated communities reflect in microcosm the major developments of Shi'a Islam elsewhere in the Islamic world. Khoja and Bohra merchants wielded great financial influence in Bombay and Gujarat, and used their wealth to advance the interests of Islam in early nineteenth century "British" India.

In the past the Muslim traders of Gujarat were divided into three groups, Bohra, Khoja and Memon, the former two being Shi'a, the latter Sunni. The basis of the distinction separating Khoja from Bohra came in a split after the death of the Fatimid caliph Mustansir Billah in 1094 A.D. Each community has in its turn had a long and distinguished history of trading and settlement activity in the Indian Ocean region, climaxed in 1840 by the invitation of Sayyid Sa‘id, then Sultan of Zanzibar, to live and trade under the auspices of his regime. From the start, therefore, Muslims of Indian ancestry have played a major role in the development of the Dar es Salaam social formation.

Khoja communities in India appeared as early as the fourteenth century when Persian Isma'ili holy men (piro) encouraged significant numbers of Hindus who had formerly been part of the Lohanna caste to embrace Islam. These conversions later became controversial, due to the alleged willingness of the piro to accommodate certain features of Hinduism in order to expedite the conversion process. This action was justified on the basis of the Shi'a doctrine of taqiyya, translated as "permissible dissimulation of real beliefs in difficult situations."
When most of the Khoja responded to the call of Sayyid Sa‘id in 1840, the key figure in the then unified Isma'iliyya community was its spiritual leader the Aga Khan (Agha Khan), then residing in Persia. By dint of his authority the Aga Khan issued firmans, directives that required the strictest obedience from members of the Shi'a Imami Isma'iliyya community at peril of ostracism; Khoja property was also held to be under the administrative custodianship of the Aga Khan.

In 1840, as a consequence of the altered climate of Iran in the wake of an unsuccessful rebellion against the Shah, the first Aga Khan fled to Sindh, later assisting the British in the Second Afghan War and in the conquest of Sindh as a result of which the Aga Khan was awarded a monthly pension of 3,000 rupees from the "British" Indian treasury. As part of the Anglo-Iranian accord the Aga Khan was not permitted to return to Persia. Consequently, he and his Iranian followers settled in Bombay among the Ismai'ili Khoja, the majority of whom then elected to accept the Aga Khan as their Imam.

Following the invitation of Sayyid Sa‘id, members of several Shi'a Indian communities (many of whom had had lengthy and intimate religious, marital and mercantile connections with the world of Islam) began to settle in several coastal East African entrepots, some eventually migrating into the interior as well. Among the most favored of these sites was Zanzibar, the fulcrum of Western Indian Ocean commerce. There Shi'a scholars such as Dewji Jamal and Abdullah Saleh Sachedina (students of the Bombay-based Mullah Qadir Husain), both of whom lived and worked in Zanzibar during the 1870s, became involved in proselytization on coast and interior in a manner similar to their Sunni rivals. In Dar es Salaam, for example, the first "Asian" trader is said to have been Shaykh Amiji Musaji, a Bohra who went to Mzizima, a predecessor of Dar es Salaam, in 1860, with Sayyid Majid ibn Sa‘id, the son and successor of Sayyid Sa‘id.

From Zanzibar these learned Muslim waalimu and their disciples were instrumental in propagating Shi'a Islam throughout East Africa, first to Mombasa and Lamu around 1880, then onward to Bagamoyo, Lindi, Pangani, Dar es Salaam and Kilwa from 1880-1904. By the turn of the twentieth century, Ithna ‘ashariyya, Bohra and Isma'iliyya were well on their way to establishing residences in Tabora, Ujijji and Kigoma and Lake Tanganyika, to Arusha, Kondoa-Irangi, Singida, Moshi and Dodoma, as well as in diverse areas in Kenya, Uganda, historic Congo (now Zaire) and points further south. Dar es Salaam was crucial in facilitating this penetration for it was the entry point to the hinterland. An extremely important split had occurred within the Khoja sacred community in this period, however, bringing in its wake dramatic and unprecedented transformations.

Prior to the transference of his headquarters from Iran to India, the allegiance of Shi'a Imami Khoja to the Aga Khan had been nominal, and distance had made it possible for his East Africa-based followers to fulfill their various communal obligations on a relatively informal basis. There had also been an attitude of broad tolerance for syncretic practices among Khoja, incorporating both Sunni and Hindu elements. Following the shift to India, however, the trend initiated by the Aga Khan was a gradual tightening of discipline within Khoja ranks, intended to purify Ismai'ilism of its anti-Shi'a and un-Islamic accretions. Because of the ongoing relationship connecting the "Asian" migrants in East Africa with their ancestral homeland, these changes necessarily affected the new Ismaili communities which sprang up in the shadow of Zanzibar, including settlers in a nascent Dar es Salaam.

Influenced by a series of court cases involving the Aga Khan in 1866, 1894 and 1908, a small but significant number of believers of Khoja origin came to feel that the power of the Aga Khan and certain other features of Ismaili doctrine were objectionable and elected to secede from the community. As Muslims these Khoja felt obliged to belong to some Islamic collective, which meant joining another Shi'a aggregation. As a result, many of these seceders sought membership in the Ithna ‘ashariyya.

The gradual process of individual defections from the Imami Isma'iliyya became a serious problem during the trial of 1894-95. This litigation centered around the commingling of property owned by the Aga Khan as custodian for the entire Isma'iliyya community. It had its roots in the court case of 1866 that had resulted in, among other things, the secession of five of the 450 Zanzibar Khoja families. They subsequently formed the nucleus of Ithna ‘ashariyya opposition to the Aga Khan, particularly regarding ownership of the Jamatkhana (i.e., "House of Assembly") and other communal property in common use among Isma'iliyya and seceders alike. The 1895 judgment gave Khoja the choice of remaining unconditionally allied to the Aga Khan or going their own way. Those preferring to join the Ithna ‘ashariyya lost their benefits as Isma'iliyya, specifically regarding burial rights.

Population figures for members of these "Asian" Islamic groups suffer from the same kinds of inconsistencies plaguing statisticians in Dar es Salaam. Often these were outsiders incapable of differentiating between Indians; distinctions observed occasionally appear arbitrary. Goans and Baluchis, for example, fell into different categories, neither of which was considered "Asian"; therefore, these were enumerated separately. The earliest totals for people of Indian ancestry in Dar es Salaam treat them as a group. These are the estimates of Bartle Frere for the year 1873. Frere found a total of 107 Indians comprised of 47 Khoja, 45 Bohra, and 15 Hindus. Elton in 1874 tabulated 21 families, including "1 Wannia, 13 Battiahs, 1 Mooltani, 3 Bhoras and 1 Khoja." In 1886, Kitchener reiterated Frere's 1873 total of 107, reckoning a total population which he believed to number in the range of 5,000. Subsequent statistics pay less attention to groups within the "Asian" community with the exception of Seidel's estimate of 1898 showing 600 Muslims and 200 Hindus, and that of Schmidt for 1913 making mention of 150-200 Goans. By the turn of the century "Asians" as a whole in Dar es Salaam were averaged between about 900 and 950.

Comparatively little is known about these "Asian" participants in the early life of Dar es Salaam other than that the majority were engaged in commerce, whether seasonally or as permanent residents. These traders were able to exert influence out of proportion to their modest numbers especially through financing safaris and caravans to the interior, several of which had been assembled in order to secure slaves for transport to Zanzibar. The involvement of people of Indian descent in the slave trade in the Dar es Salaam area seems primarily to have been related to usury, although Frere and Elton commented on a small portion of resident "Asian" slaveholders in Dar es Salaam.

The major distinction which seems to have existed within the "Asian" community revolved more around settlement than religion, most Hindus apparently preferring to travel to and from India on a largely seasonal basis, while Muslims both chose on an individual basis and were encouraged as groups, particularly in the case of the Khoja, to settle permanently. The relative size of these communities probably made for a greater degree of cohesion than was possible in India itself where caste, faith and geographical origin were of greater consequence. The tolerance of the Sayyids of Zanzibar seems to have been shared to a significant extent by their mainland coreligionists.

The role of various "sects" of "Asian" Muslims in Dar es Salaam during the interwar period appears to have been fairly independent from that of the African Muslims. These were accompanied by some of the ethnic and sectarian particularism which revealed itself in the succession of schisms common to both Shi'a Islam in general and the Khoja communities of East Africa in particular. At the same time it is evident that there was some degree of cohesion between members of various "Asian" communities, that transcended cultural, regional and caste barriers at crucial points during the twenties and thirties, most notably in the Indian Association, which consistently sought reform during these decades.

Muslim activity, however, continued to follow much the same communal pattern as pertained throughout the nineteenth century. The possibility of a wider level of Pan-Islamic cooperation arose in the twenties with the advent of the East African Moslem Association, open not only to members of the various "Asian" communities but to African and Arab Muslims as well. The ostensible unity of the daring pioneering venture broke down in the thirties, however, the separate constituents lapsing backward into their previous identities, leading to a renewed reliance upon the communally-based assembly halls (jamatkhanas) which had been so central to the Bhora and Isma'ili.

Many of the changes that occurred within these settings in the colonial period reflected bureaucratic pressures and preoccupations. Apart from descriptions of structural and theological innovation, the analysis of change among Muslims of Indian origin in Dar es Salaam has sometimes been fragmentary and hagiographical. Generally done by members of given communities, such studies have unearthed data concerning leading figures and pivotal teachers and their legacy to the improvement of the Islamic life of their specific segment of the town but have tended to replicate historically-rooted sectarianism.

Isma‘ilis in Dar es Salaam as elsewhere in the coastal towns of East Africa still represent the largest portion of Muslims of Indian ancestry. Since the mid nineteen twenties they have been able to make their presence felt in Dar es Salaam through the formation of a strong interterrritorial organization capable of championing their interests. In 1926, for example, the Aga Khan established Provincial Councils in Uganda; these were subsequently followed by others in Kenya and Tanganyika. The councils sought to coordinate communal activities in the three British-ruled localities.

Individual Muslims of Indian extraction have gained fame in Dar es Salaam as philanthropists since the era of German hegemony. During that period Sewa Haji Paroo, a millionaire wholesaler of Khoja background lent a measure of support to the Dar es Salaam school for Indians and Africans "intended for the free secular education of the poorer native classes." The Karimjee family, of Bhora origin, and the seemingly indefatigable Aga Khan, both financed projects of benefit to both Isma‘ilis and non-Isma‘ilis, including Africans. Prominent among these have been various educational educations such as the Dar es Salaam Secondary School for Boys, erected in 1939, from its inception providing for inclusion of up to one third non-Khoja pupils.

Relations between "Asian" and African Muslims, like those of the two larger ethnic communities created by colonialism, have been mixed. It is undeniable that occasionally these have been marred by conflicts, many of which have been economic and political in nature. Of these many were nurtured by colonial authorities and their settler allies in order to deter manifestations of Islamic unity in the face of alien occupation. Two such threats could be seen in the misnamed "Arab" rebellion led by Abushiri bin Salim al-Harthi, waged against the imposition of German Rule in 1888 and in the notorious "Mecca Letter Affair" of the First World War. In each instance Islam acted as a unifying factor, although not effective enough to guarantee victory.

Clearly, those precedents set by the Mecca Letter incident and Abushiri's Rebellion, when viewed alongside some of the instances of cooperation and philanthropy demonstrate that in spite of outbreaks of friction and the racialism aggravated by European occupation, real concern for the welfare of the local non-"Asian" population has been a recurrent theme among sectors of the "Asian" community; this has been especially evident in the more progressive leadership stratum. Some "Asians" were implicated in gun running during the Maji-Maji war of 1905-07 while others became casualties of the movement. One measure of the ambivalence of social relations between Islamic communities has been the thorny issue of miscegenation between Africans and persons of Indian backgrounds. An extremely complex matter, this seems never to have occurred on a large scale in Dar es Salaam, but certainly was not unknown. Historically, the sanctions against such choices have been great, including the risk of ostracism.

While racial prejudice must be considered as an element here, local practice has long eschewed exogamous relationships among African, Indian and "Arab" communities. It is true, however, that the strongly exclusivistic tendencies characteristic of Indian communities seeking to retain their caste purity, a pre-Islamic accretion, made even inter-Islamic marriages among "Asians" appear as a serious problem. The offspring of Afro-Indian relationships were called jotawa in Gujarati and chotara in Kiswahili, opprobrious terms which meant half-caste. While multicultural, this group has been strongly African in identity, outlook and social relations, though often forced to exist in isolation.


Swahili BlogRoll: Lady Jaydee

The Kiswahili cyberworld is growing!

Now even bongo flava stars have their own blogs. Keep up with Lady Jaydee aka Binti Machozi via her blog.

Lady Jaydee, in case you are wondering is a really dope singer from Tanzania who sings in Kiswahili, Lingala, Zulu, Kinyarwanda, French and English. Don't believe me? Check out the video below!

You can find her bios at Museke and at Bab Kubwa


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