Was there ever a Kiswahili word for ‘Holy’?

Was there ever a Kiswahili word for ‘Holy’?

‘The available evidence suggests that in the mid-nineteenth century, at the second coming of European-Christians to the East African coast, there was no lexical equivalent for ‘holy’ or its near-synonym ‘sacred’ in the spoken language of the Swahili people.’

Frankl, P. J. L., and Yahya Ali Omar (1999)


When looking for Kiswahili words currently in use that come close to describing something divine or sacred, two words attempt to do that: -tukufu and -takatifu.

The first word, ‘-tukufu’, comes from the root word -tukuza, which roughly translates into glorious in English. Examples of its use are as an adjective to describe the holy month of Ramadhan, ‘Mwezi mtukufu wa Ramdhan’, or as a dignified descriptor for people in honourable positions, such as a president, ‘mtukufu rais’. ‘-Tukufu’ is not bound to describing the divine, the sacred, or, for lack of a better word, the holy.

‘-Takatifu’, on the other hand, is the word best suited to fit the description of the adjective holy in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, ‘something exalted or worthy of complete devotion, something that is perfect in goodness and righteousness or something divine.’

In their article, The Idea of ‘The Holy’ in Swahili, P.J.L Frankl and Yahya Ali Omar present the possibility that the word -takatifu “was invented (derived from -takata which mean to become clean) for or by European-Christian missionaries sometime between 1853 and 1870”. One of the early Kiswahili-English dictionaries, written in four separate manuscript volumes between 1846-1853 by the German missionary Ludwig Krapf, do not include the word ‘-takatifu’. The dictionary does, however, include its root word, ‘-takata’, and its derivatives, ‘-takasa’ and ‘-takatika’. ‘-Takatifu’ is also absent in Krapf’s short Vocabulary of Six East-African Languages, published in 1950. The latest possible date of the word’s invention is inferred based on its presence in the English missionary Edward Steere’s 1870 book, A Handbook of the Swahili Language As Spoken at Zanzibar.

The word ‘holy’ had biblical and liturgical importance, but contrastingly when it came to Kiswahili, there was no direct translation for it. Before the coming of Europeans, the Kiswahili language was mainly used by its native community, a predominantly Muslim population which had a different way of expressing holiness. Divineness is attributed to things that are ‘of God’ and when it comes to people, objects related to God, their relationship to God describes them rather than their state of divinity. As described by Frankl, P. J. L. and Yahya Ali Omar, most holy objects, things or people had distinct names without necessarily using the adjective holy. For example, those who would be described as saints or ‘Holy’ people are referred to as ‘auliyaa’ derived from an Arabic word meaning friends of God. Zamzam water from Mecca, though considered to be holy, is plainly referred to as maji ya zam-zam. And for the most part most holy objects, dates and places would often be called -tukufu.

In Christianity, the word -takatifu is more commonly used as compared to their Muslim counterparts such as to name the Holy Spirit – Roho Mtakatifu, the Bible – Bibilia takatifu, saints – eg. Mtakatifu Yohane Mbatizaji (St John the Baptist), the damu takatifu – The holy blood of Jesus, the pope – Baba Mtakatifu wa Roma etc.

Amongst the indigenous Swahili and native Kiswahili speakers, especially those who are Muslim, the word -tukufu is the preferred adjective as compared to -takatifu. To Muslims the holiness described by the word -takatifu, is limited to the purest form of divinity which is only with things that are of God and with the Islamic belief centering around the oneness of God, believers of the faith avoid referring to people, places or objects with a Godly attribute. For instance, when describing a holy prophet in Islam, Muslims refer to mtume mtukufu and not mtume mtakatifu. In very few scenarios the words -takatifu and -tukufu may be used interchangeably nonetheless things such as the Quran, holy cities, holy months and days etc. are more often referred to tukufu instead of takatifu.

In the 1960s Sheikh Abdallah Saleh Al-Farsy, a former Chief Kadhi of Zanzibar and Kenya, titled his Kiswahili translation ‘Qurani Takatifu’, which according to Frankl, P. J. L., and Yahya Ali Omar was a ‘lexically controversial title’ rather than the usual Qurani tukufu. They argue that the Sheikh may have used the adjective to conform with ‘Bibilia takatifu’. This was the language of printed Kiswahili, and it was second-language Kiswahili speakers that did most print work at that time.

The phenomenon of Muslims rarely using holy as an adjective can also be seen in Arabic where the ‘Holy Quran’ is commonly referred to as القرآن الكريم ‘Al-Quran Al-Karim,’ directly translating to ‘The Noble Quran’. Whereas the translated bible is called and الكتاب المقدس ‘Al Kitab Al Muqadas’- ‘The Holy Bible’.

Another factor to consider in the discussion of whether or not the Kiswahili language used a distinct word for holy before the coming of European missionaries is that if there was a gap for the word holy in the language. The natives did not adapt a filler word for it from their Arab counterparts and other civilisations they interacted with. There is an extensive influence of Arabic in the language, especially when it came to matters of religion, governance and trade. It is noted that most of the words on religious issues have been adapted from Arabic. Therefore it would not have been surprising if the locals also adapted the word for holy from Arabic.

Examples of Kiswahili words with Arabic describing virtues and adjective:
Trustworthy – أمانة ‘amin – muaminifu
Kind – كريم karim – mkarimu
Brave – جسور jusur – jasiri
Valid – حلال halal – halali

The Arabic word for holy comes from a tri-consonantal Semitic root Q-D-S is قدس quds. Other similar words for sacred or divine include إلهي ‘iilhi or رائي raa’yi. Therefore a Swahilised version for a word like muqadas, based on the format applied to other words, could have been kudusi or mkudusi. The absence of such a word and the absence of the word -takatifu in the Kiswahili literature of utendi, Kiswahili epic poems, further points out to the possibility of there never being a Kiswahili word for holy in the sense of divine or sacred.

Notably, in the present-day, the word -takatifu is mostly used by Christian speakers of Kiswahili compared to Muslim Kiswahili speakers and the native Swahili communities. Ki-Misheni, which is Kiswahili that was spoken by European-Christian missionaries and their followers gave rise to the word and helped it spread across Eastern Africa. The word may have been created to describe divineness and sacredness that is commonly referred to in the bible and Christian practice. 

The Kiswahili language, as it is today, has a word for holy that is noted to have existed for two centuries, the question is whether the word existed before then.

Sources
– Frankl, P. J. L., and Yahya Ali Omar. “The Idea of ‘The Holy’ in Swahili.” Journal of Religion in Africa, vol. 29, no. 1, 1999, pp. 109–114. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1581789. Accessed 14 Aug. 2020.
– “holy.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, 2011. Web. 14 August 2020.

One thought on “Was there ever a Kiswahili word for ‘Holy’?

  1. I quite enjoyed reading this. Al Farsy’s translation was titled ‘Takatifu’ more likely to differentiate it from (and refute) the existing ‘Kurani Tukufu’, commisioned by the Ahmaddiya muslims rather than to conform with ‘Bibilia Takatifu’.

    Interesting read on Quran Swahili translations:
    http://www.azaniansea.com/2009/09/political-and-cultural-aspects-of.html
    http://www.azaniansea.com/2009/09/political-and-cultural-aspects-of_20.html
    http://www.azaniansea.com/2009/09/political-and-cultural-aspects-of_21.html
    http://www.azaniansea.com/2009/09/political-and-cultural-aspects-of_22.html

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