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The Shirazi in Swahili Traditions, Culture, and History1

  • Thomas Spear (a1)

“Strange foreign jewels on a mournful silent shore”

Historians have frequently viewed the Swahili-speaking peoples of the East African coast as members of an Arab diaspora that spread around the Indian Ocean with trade over the last two thousand years. The interpretation flowed easily from the apparent “Arab” nature of Swahili culture--a written language using Arabic script, elaborate stone buildings and mosques constructed in urban settings, Islam, and genteel social behavior--especially when contrasted with the culture of mainland Africans, members of preliterate, uncentralized communities. Since the Swahili culture of the islands and coastal fringes bore little apparent resemblance to the cultures of the mainland, historians reasoned, its development could only have been the product of Persian and Arab merchants bringing to the “mournful silent shores” of East Africa the “jewels” of their own Muslim civilizations.

The perspective was essentially diffusionist in assuming that cultural innovation and historical development in Africa could only have come from elsewhere, and racist in assuming that race and culture were so inextricably linked that a separate “race” of immigrants had to carry these new ideas. As a result, historians failed to investigate the possible African roots of Swahili culture in their Bantu language, their religious beliefs and values, their economy, or their social structure. But this charge applies not only to European historians; Swahili oral historians have long recounted the development of their societies in essentially the same terms in involved genealogies tracing the development of different Swahili families, communities, and institutions back to Persian or Arabian ancestors. When European historians came to study the oral traditions of the Swahili (usually in written, chronicle form), they thus found ready confirmation of their own assumptions and interpretations.

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The paper is part of a larger project with Derek Nurse on Swahili language and history and owes much to his analyses of the development of the Swahili language.

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2. The term “Swahili” itself is open to considerable debate. I use it as a descriptive term, including the members of historical Swahili-speaking communities scattered along the islands and coastal fringe of East Africa from Somalia to Mozambique. Swahili normally identify themselves by the name of their town (e.g., Pate, Amu, Mvita), their lineage or residential quarter within the town, or by general cultural terms such as “Shirazi” or “Arab,” as we shall see. See Shariff, I.N., “Waswahili and Their Language: Some Misconceptions,” Kiswahili, 43(1973), 6775, and Tolmacheva, M., “The Origins of the Name ‘Swahili’,” Tanzania Notes and Records, 77/78(1976), 2737.

3. Derek Nurse and Thomas Spear, The Swahili: History and Language of an African Society (forthcoming); Nurse, , “Notes on the Classification of the Primary Dialects of Swahili,” SUGIA, 4(1982) 165205; idem., “A Hypothesis About the Origin of Swahili” (mimeo, 1981); Tolmacheva, M., “The Arabic Influence on Swahili Literature: A Historian's View,” Journal of African Studies, 5(1978), 223–43.

4. deV. Allen, J., “The Swahili House: Cultural and Ritual Concepts Underlying Its Plan and Structure,” Art and Archaeology Research Papers, (1979), 132.

5. Trimingham, J.S., Islam in East Africa (Oxford, 1964); Pouwels, R., “Islam and Islamic Leadership in the Coastal Communities of Eastern Africa, 1700–1914,” (Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA, 1979), 166–82; Caplan, A., Choice and Constraint in a Swahili Community (London, 1975), 84115; Lienhardt, P., “A Controversy Over Islamic Custom in Kilwa Kivinge, Tanzania” in Lewis, I.M., ed., Islam in Tropical Africa (London, 1966), 374–86; bin Ismail, Hasani, The Medicine Man (Oxford, 1968).

6. Allen, “Swahili House;” Pouwels, , “Islam,” 352628passim; el Zein, A., The Sacred Meadows (Evanston, 1974).

7. Willis, Roy, “On Historical Reconstruction from Oral-Traditional Sources: A Structuralist Approach,” 12th Melville J. Herskovits Memorial Lecture, Northwestern University, 1976; Miller, Joseph, “The Dynamics of Oral Tradition in Africa,” in Bernardi, Bernardo, ed., Fonti Orali (Milan, 1978); idem., ed., The African Past Speaks (Folkstone, 1980); Spear, T., “Oral Traditions: Whose History?HA, 8(1981), 163–79.

8. This analysis and much of what follows is drawn from a number of excellent studies of Lamu, including el Zein, Sacred Meadows; Pouwels, , “Islam,” 203–42; Allen, , “Swahili House;” Ylvisaker, Marguerite, Lamu in the Nineteenth Century (Boston, 1979); and an ethnography of a village in Mafia, Caplan, Choice, with which they can be productively compared.

10. An Arabic History of Kilwa Kisiwani, c. 1520” in Freeman-Grenville, G.S.P., ed., The East African Coast (Oxford, 1962), 3537.

11. Chittick, H.N., “The ‘Shirazi’ Colonization of East Africa,” JAH, 6(1965), 275–94.

12. The attribution of an entire people to a single individual is common in traditions.

13. Both kinds of land tenure are still found in Swahili society today. In Lamu individual freehold tenure obtains on the island itself, while farms on the mainland are held in usufruct. The same distinction is made by the Bajun and on Mafia. Ylvisaker, , Lamu, 165; Bujra, J., “An Anthropological Study of Political Action in a Bajuni Village in Kenya,” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of London), 5468; Caplan, , Choice, 6073.

14. The Ancient History of Kilwa Kisiwani” in Freeman-Grenville, , Coast, 221–22.

15. Caplan, , Choice, 6073; Saadi, Kadhi Amur Omar, “Mafia: History and Traditions,” Tanganyika Notes and Records, 12(1941), 2327. G. Shephard, personal communication.

16. Chittick, H.N., “A New Look at the History of Pate,” JAH, 10(1969), 382. For the Pate Chronicle: Stigand, C.H., The Land of Zinj (London, 1913), 29102 (reprinted in Freeman-Grenville, , Coast, 241–96); Werner, A., “A Swahili History of Pate,” Journal of the African Society, 14(19141915), 148–61, 278–97, 392413.

17. People from Pate are still called Batawi elsewhere along the coast.

18. On traditions as models see: MacGaffey, W., “African History, Anthropology, and the Rationality of Natives,” HA, 5(1978), 101–20; Miller, “Dynamics;” Spear, “Oral Traditions;” Sahlins, M., “The Stranger King, or Dumezil among the Fijians,” Journal of Pacific History, 16 (1981), 107–32.

19. Lambert, H.E., Ki-Vumba (Studies in the Swahili Dialect, II) (Kampala, 1957), 13; bin Mwidad, Midani, “The Founding of Rabai,” Swahili, 31(1960), 144.

20. Bujra, , “Bajun,” 163; Nurse, , “Bajuni Historical Linguistics,” Kenya Past and Present, 12(1980), 3443; Guillain, C., Documents sur l'historie, la géographie et le commerce de l'Afrique Orientale (Paris, 1856), 2:237–45; Lambert, , Ki-Vumba, 913; MacKay, W.F., “A Precolonial History of the Southern Kenya Coast,” (Ph.D., dissertation, Boston University, 1975), 26–29, 66–67, 227–34.

21. Burton, Richard F., Zanzibar: City, Island and Coast (2 vols.: London, 1872), 2:362–63.

22. See, e.g., Chronicle of Mombasa,” Swahili, 34/1(1964), 21–27 and Spear, Mijikenda Historical Traditions, Nos. 16, 21, 27, 31, 65.

23. Feierman, Steven, The Shambaa Kingdom (Madison, 1974), 4564.

24. al-Masʿudi in Freeman-Grenville, , Coast, 1417.

25. al-Idrisi in ibid., 19–20.

26. Ibn Battuta in ibid., 27–32.

27. Nurse/Spear, The Swahili; Nurse, “Primary Dialects of Swahili;” idem, “Origin of the Swahili.”

28. Spear, , The Kaya Complex (Nairobi, 1978), 1043; idem, Kenya's Past (London, 1981), 33–40, 54–57.

29. Chittick, , Kilwa (Nairobi, 1974); idem, “Kilwa: A Preliminary Report,” Azania, 1(1966), 1–36; idem, Kisimani Mafia (Dares Salaam, 1961).

30. Horton, M., Shanga 1980 (Cambridge, 1980); Phillipson, D.W., “Some Iron Age Sites in the Lower Tana Valley,” Azania, 14(1979), 155–62.

31. Allen, , “Swahili House,” 45; Pouwels, , “Islam,” 352628passim.

1 The paper is part of a larger project with Derek Nurse on Swahili language and history and owes much to his analyses of the development of the Swahili language.

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History in Africa
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