History of the Khojas: Arabs, Africans & Islam

Marhum Mulla Asgherali M M Jaffer

(Extracted from ‘Outline History of the Khoja Shia Ithnasheri Community in Eastern Africa – published courtesy the World Federation)

The role of Shia Ithna-Asheris in Eastern Africa is both impressive and interesting. But since it is a part of the major role played by Islam in Africa, it is imperative that we study the history of the first contact of Islam with this very important continent. There can be no doubt that the Arabs were the torch bearers of Islamic propagation, and therefore, the first Arab contact with Africa is a subject of our prime attention.

It is commonly assumed that Arabs were drawn to Africa after the advent of Islam. Records reveal, however, that Arab influence can be traced as back in time as 84 A.D. ( 1) There is an early guide to trade and navigation called the “Periplus” compiled by a Greek merchant seaman, which describes in detail the voyage down the Red Sea and the African coast of the Indian Ocean. From this ‘Periplus’ we learn that the people inhabiting the coast were of negroid stock, ruled by chiefs. But it also appears that these chiefs had long been under some kind of Arab suzerainty and there was already a well-established trade carried by Arab and Indian ships between Africa, Arabia and India. The book says: “The people of Muza (in Southern Arabia) sent thither many large ships, using Arab captains and agents, who are familiar with the natives and inter-marry with them.”

Africa saw the first light of Islam in the days of the Prophet himself, when a group of eleven men and four women took refuge in Abyssinia, escaping the rampant persecution in Mecca. As they explained their faith to the King and the priests, reciting Ayahs from the Surah of Maryam, tears rolled down the cheeks of all who listened, shaking their heads in awe and reverence.

Muslim historians have recorded how the King of Abyssinia decided to send a delegation to Mecca, so as to prepare a first hand report on the personality and the message of the Prophet.  The description of their first encounter with the Prophet is inspiring and moving.

The Holy Qur’an, in its unique rendering, describes how the delegation from Negasus responded to the message of Allah. In Suratul Maeda, Verse 83, Allah says:-
” And when they hear what has been revealed to the Prophet, you will see their eyes
overflowing with tears on account of the Truth that they recognize.”

It is interesting to note that while the people near and around the Prophet rallied against him, meting out ill-treatment and persecuting his followers, a group of people from across the sea, with a different ethnic origin, belief and persuasion, should be so receptive and responsive.  Here, I wish to make a pertinent observation on this historical event. This brief encounter of Islam and Africa, in Abyssinia and later in Mecca, is a significant pointer to the African affinity to Islam. The point I wish to stress is that Africa today is still responsive and receptive to the great message of Islam, in that it has a better appeal to the African mind and spirit than any other religion known to them. The relevance of Islam in Africa endures, but, it requires a healthy, fresh impetus and stimulus.

The penetration of Islam in the African society continued after the Prophet. The early record of Islamic impact upon this important continent has been meticulously preserved in the books of history, ethnography and sociology. The interesting admixture of social traditions, the emergence of new races by interbreeding among Arabs and Africans, the effect of Arabic upon the local African language, the birth of new Arabic dialects in Africa- all bear testimony to the great work completed by the Muslim Arabs.

The spread of Islam in Africa is one of the most captivating chapters in the history of that
continent. It begins in the seventh century with the conquest of North Africa, onwards to
northeast Africa, the Red Sea islands and the coast of Eritrea. From the eleventh to the
eighteenth century, Islam spread through the Sahara Desert to West Africa, and via the Nile to the Sudanese belt and along the Coast of East Africa. The Northern Sudan IS an example of total cultural assimilation by the Arabs. Ibn Khaldun, visiting North and West Africa in the 14th c.describes Mali as the centre of A/moravid Berber empire established in the 11th c. Many rulers of Mali made pilgrimage to Mecca, maintaining diplomatic, scholarly and commercial relations with the Islamic world.

The earliest known Arab settlement on the East African coast is Pate, said to have been
founded in 689 A.D. During the next 600 years, other cities such as Lamu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa were founded and reached a high level of civilization; until eclipsed by the Portuguese conquests in the early 16th c. But the Arabs returned and ousted the Portuguese in the early 18th c to commence a new era of Islamic influence. (2)
Zanzibar’s Kizimkazi mosque dates from 1107 A.D. and the ruins of the 14th-15th c A.D.,
Mosques, houses and palaces show that Arab influence was paramount.

The Arabs in East Africa spread Islam, introduced coconut palms, casurinas and bougainvillea; they planted mango trees in their scattered trading stations providing a shade to many a village in the Tanzanian interior. More important, they intermarried with African people, the outcome being the Afro-Arab race, and its famous “Swahili” language. “Swahili”, a loan word from Arabic Sawahil, means coastal; it is basically Bantu, with many borrowings from Arabic.

They taught the Africans how to read and write, a gift which antedates in origin the English
roman script. They taught them the Holy Quran, and encouraged them to memorize smaller chapters first. In an interesting account of such one attempt described by Arye Oded in his book ‘Islam In Uganda’, we find a certain Ahmad Bin Ebrahim teaching small suras to the ruler of Baganda in Uganda. The local historians describe how the King was taught “Kulauzu”, “Birabinasi” and “Kuluwalulamo”, evidently referring to the chapters of AI-Falaq, An-Nas, and AI-Ikhlas.

The Christian evangelists in parts of East Africa made extensive use of Arabic for their
propagation work. There was a time when they wrote the Ten Commandments in Arabic for Africans to read, and the Catholic missionaries wrote their sacraments and prayers in Arabic. In their letters to their headquarters they pressed for books in Arabic as there was a big demand for them among the African chiefs. It was in the latter half of the 19th c that they began to apply the roman script to Swahili.

The oldest preserved Swahili literature is in Arabic script, dating from the early 18th c. Among the most important Swahili epic poems preserved is the one called “Huseni”, containing 1209 stanzas, about the life and martyrdom of Imam Husein. Its representation in Swahili literature is of particular interest for the study of Shi’ite school in East Africa. (3)

It must be noted that Arabs did not spread Islam in East Africa by use of force or by
colonization. They were traders, and along their trading routes, they performed their religious rituals regularly. To an inquisitive African, they inculcated Islam; and with their own actions and deeds, their civility, their polite demeanour, and with their amazing adaptability to the local culture, they invited Africans to the new fold. This was conversion without coercion. The coast people, known as Waswahili,- and also called Wangwana by Christian missionaries, were taught by Arabs various crafts. They became able artisans, masons, carpenters, gardeners and boat builders. But most important of all, they became zealous and enthusiastic propagators of Islam were specially angry when they discovered that the Wangwana were usually very fanatical in their Islamic faith much more so than the Arab traders, and that some of them were even trying to convert their fellow Africans. D.P. Jones of the London Missionary Society, who worked in the interior of East Africa, wrote to his headquarters on this subject. He said, “You will agree that however useful they may have been or may be in assisting us to build our houses etc., the harm they do in propagating their Moslem ideas and customs more than counterbalances the more
effective assistance they can render us.” (4 )

The early influence of the Post-lslamic Persia has also been traced. It may well be true that the town of Kilwa on the coast of Tanzania was founded by migrants from Shiraz in Persia; during the 10 c A.D. (5) A political party in Zanzibar formed under the name and style of Afro-Shirazi Party was suggestive. Further, a new year day is traditionally celebrated by Swahili Community with great funfare. This day is termed “Niruz”, a persian word meaning “a new day.” This ‘Niruz’ was celebrated last month (July-1983) in Mombasa, Kenya, as usual. The name of the head of the Community was given as Sheikh Mohamed Salim Shirazi. Besides, inspirations drawn from Persian Islamic literature can easily be traced from the early Swahili poetry.

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