June 23, 2013

Swahili Literature in the Arabic Script, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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


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