The Swahili Identity Re-envisioned

The Swahili Identity Re-envisioned

Swahili identity is not elusive if we can work to think beyond the racial prison-house of colonial thought and understand coastal communities through these broader historical trends.

Much of the post-colonial African scholarship addressed itself to the artificiality of the boundaries of contemporary African states. But little attention has been paid to the artificiality of the boundaries of the African continent itself. 

ALI MAZRUI, ‘Afrabia: Africa and the Arabs in the New World Order’ 

Rethinking Arab-centric and Postcolonial Nationalist Understandings of Swahili Identity

Hiistoriya’s recent visual essay on Swahili identity has sparked a fresh round of reflection on the complexity of Swahili identity and culture. The video advanced a nuanced approach to how we understand Swahili identities and varied applications of the term Swahili, including references to the proto-Swahili group called Wangozi. Importantly, the essay contextualised the emergence of Arabocentric frameworks of Swahili culture that stemmed from imperial histories linking the Swahili coast with Oman but ultimately was formalised by European misperceptions of coastal cultural identities. The video’s spread across social media platforms has underscored the continued relevance of questions linked to the problematic categorisation of Swahili society and culture over time.  

Challenging Eurocentric and Arab-centric Frameworks

Swahili identity has been highly debated in the past century. Many Western and African scholars have questioned if the Swahili are a unified ethnic group and whether the Swahili as a group are an African, Arab, or a hybrid community spanning East Africa’s coast. Historians and anthropologists of the Euro-American academy primarily initiated this 20th century academic debate, which Swahili and other African scholars would later engage and challenge. The Western academic framework for approaching Swahili identity was primarily a binary one that placed ‘foreign Arab’ and ‘indigenous African’ identities at different ends of the divide. While many scholars at first perpetuated Arab-centric definitions of Swahili culture, others later countered by asserting the Swahili’s Africanness. Yet both sides rarely questioned the basis of these rigid divisions between African and Arab, between the contemporary boundaries of the continent and precolonial understandings of identity and community along the coast.

Historically, these divisions were connected to European colonial classifications of natives and non-natives, rural and urban communities, and subjects and citizens. throughout Africa. The classification of perceived tribes, ethnic groups, and races across the continent was a significant feature of the European colonial project. These groupings relied on the underlying assumption of a fixed biological boundary between ‘the races of men’ and identities such as African and Arab. On the East African coast, these structures over-emphasised the contributions of foreign communities of Arab descent in building the diverse and complex Swahili maritime and mercantile civilisation. Such simplistic and problematic frameworks would play into and build on broader narratives of an Arab-led civilisation in East Africa that upheld structures of Omani rule along the coast and preceded the British arrival. 

Early Omani Arab-centrism and modern European racial classifications together cemented a vision of the Swahili as an Arabised set of communities distinct from the continental interior, despite the Swahili’s connectivity to both inland ethnic groups and the wider Indian Ocean world. The infamous Hamitic hypothesis was a stark example of these expressions of European scientific racism in the continent. Based on a Eurocentric denial of African civilisation, the hypothesis deemed some East African groups like the Tutsi, Abyssinians, and Somalis as foreign to Africa due to their perceived civilisational difference from those they considered to be true natives of the continent. This denial of African civilisation also included the refutation of the continent’s diversity and connection to global networks of commerce and cultural exchange. The Tutsi, therefore, were regarded as non-indigenous Hamites and the Swahili as half-caste Arabs in the pseudo-scientific racial hierarchies of colonial governance.

These racial classifications brought about socio-economic and political benefits to some while disenfranchising others. For instance, British colonial records in Zanzibar, illustrate dramatic increases of indigenous islanders identifying as Arabs from 1924 to 1931. At the time, Zanzibaris of Arab descent were afforded privileges by the colonial government which were denied to communities labelled as African. Swahilis during the colonial era, therefore, straddled the spectrum between classifications of Arab and African partly due to economic and political incentives.

Additionally, Arab identities along the coast were not fixed. They included stratified communities ranging from earlier indigenised Omani elites, such as the Nabahani, to newer migrations of Omanis and Hadhramis of more humble origins. On the subject of African-Arab binaries along the coast, the Kenyan scholar Mohamed Hassan Abdulaziz argues that,

“Indeed, the trend of the Coast has always been the Swahilisation of the Arabs rather than the Arabisation of the African Muslim inhabitants, in such facets of culture as language, and mode of living in general. This trend has been so forceful that most Arabs on the Coast, who have settled here within the last two centuries or so, have lost their original culture and language and completely adopted Swahili culture.”

Mohamed Hassan Abdulaziz

The critique of Arab-centric presentations of Swahili histories is vital in countering the legacies of racial hierarchies of European colonialism and Omani imperial stratifications. Hiistoriya strives to reverse these historical trends and offers a look into the region’s past that emphasises indigenous narratives. 

Swahili Fluidity and ‘the Invention of Africa’

The opening quote from Ali Mazrui gestures towards the importance of also questioning the definition and construction of the African continent and ‘Africanness’ itself. Mazrui advanced the concept of Afrabia in an attempt to rethink the division between the African continent and the Arabian Peninsula while interrogating the historical basis of the continent’s boundaries. He noted that the current Red Sea division of Africa and Arabia, in modern understandings of geography and race, contradicts centuries of trade, migration, and intermarriage across these regions.

The idea of a bounded continental Africa, a continent comprising of an unchanged monolithic racial community, was an underlying feature of theories like the Hamitic hypothesis. Such concepts regarded any indications of pre-colonial civilisation and phenotypical differences in the continent as signs of foreignness. Many African nationalist movements repurposed these narratives of indigeneity and racial authenticity in the struggle for independence; an Africa for Africans. In some instances, however, this modern emphasis on African purity and authenticity would work to reproduce colonial notions of the Swahili as suspiciously “hybrid” and too closely linked to Arab-Islamic influences in the continent. The name of Africa itself is said to have originated from the Amazigh word ‘Ifriqiyya’ which once referred to the coast of modern-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria. Ironically, today, the region where the name Africa is derived from is considered to be a less authentic Africa than the Africa south of the Sahara. 

In the pre-colonial context, most communities across the continent did not identify as African, as it is understood today. The relationship of early coastal communities to oceanic networks hindered the emergence of a strictly continental understanding of identity. Therefore, in addition to histories of colonial classification, these connections were also used to question, scrutinise, and deny the Swahili’s Africanness.

The post-independence application of essentialist African framings on Swahili histories paradoxically reproduces European colonial ideas about the continent and claims that there is a single and static Africa. Under this lens, there has increasingly been less room for Swahili communities to fluidly assert oceanic, ‘Afrabian’, and Islamic senses of identity while still maintaining claims of indigeneity to the continent. The rigid either/or binary seems to continue to have a hold over nationalist and racial politics within East African states, shaping processes of state inclusion and exclusion for coastal communities. We should remain critical of these discourses that indirectly perpetuate colonial-era understandings of African purism to disenfranchise and distance Swahili communities from belonging to the continent.

For instance, the contemporary association of Islam with the global War on Terror and Arab identities has been used to increase state scrutiny over predominantly Muslim coastal communities. A conflation of Islam with Arabness has also led some to downplay the Islamic influence on Swahili culture and language to fit paradigms of African authenticity.

Such paradigms ignore legacies of the historical migration of early Muslim converts to the Kingdom of Aksum, of present-day Ethiopia and Eritrea, long before Islam had reached much of today’s ‘Middle East.’ Verses of the Qur’an were recited to an ‘African’ monarch, the King of Aksum, before being uttered in famous ‘Arab’ cities like Damascus. Additionally, Islamic influences on the Hausa or the Wolof of West Africa rarely leads to this same questioning of Africanness as is so often applied to the Swahili. Islam is not a closed spiritual system but rather one that has been diversely localised and indigenised throughout the continent and the globe.  

The Next Paradigm Shift?

The point of reviewing claims on the Swahili’s ‘Africanness’ should neither be to distance the coast from continental histories, nor to undermine Pan-African aspirations toward continental unity. Instead, it is to highlight that both essentialisms, Arab-centred and African purist, need to be critically scrutinised if we are to understand the Swahili’s past and present better.

As Alamin M. Mazrui and Ibrahim Noor Shariff highlight, “…a perspective is Eurocentric not only when it shows a pro-European bias. It can also be Eurocentric even when it shows an anti-European or counter-European bias if, in fact, it accepts the Eurocentric terms of the debate.”

Therefore, rather than seeking to prove the Swahili’s Africanness by accepting colonial and neo-colonial understandings of the continent, we can create spaces to expand our view of Africa and its geographic and cultural boundaries. For millennia indigenous communities on the continent established connections across its vast landmass and the seas that now define Africa’s beginning and end. Swahili identity is not elusive if we can work to think beyond the racial prison-house of colonial thought and understand coastal communities through these broader historical trends.

The late Ali Mazrui’s concept of Afrabia is a useful point of departure here. Yet other possibilities include challenging land-based understandings of space and identity altogether by using oceanic frameworks to make sense of a Swahili tradition that is simultaneously maritime, island-based, and continental without contradiction. With a diaspora of Swahili speakers across the globe, Hiistoriya’s emphasis on language and culture presents another framework that enables Swahilis by birth, by assimilation, and those living outside of the continent to all find a sense of connection to Swahili identity. Historians, politicians and local communities alike will continue debating on the identity of the coast; meanwhile, Hiistoriya is opening up a new space for much-needed dialogue and reconsiderations of Swahili pasts, presents, and futures.

– Abdulaziz, Mohamed H. 1979. Muyaka: 19th Century Swahili Popular Poetry. Nairobi: Kenya Literature Bureau.
– Ahmed, Hussein. 1992. “The Historiography of Islam in Ethiopia” Journal of Islamic Studies 3(1): 15-46.
– Askew, Kelly. 1999. “Female Circles and Male Lines: Gender Dynamics across the Swahili Coast” Africa Today 46(3/4): 67-102.
– Brankamp, Hanno. 2014. “Rwanda: To what extent did the Hamitic Myth prepare the ground for 1994?” Pambazuka News website, June 18.
– Fair, Laura. 2001. Pastimes and Politics: Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890-1945. Athens: Ohio University Press.
– Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizens and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 
– Mamdani, Mahmood. 2001. “Beyond Settler and Native as Political Identities: Overcoming the Political Legacy of Colonialism” Comparative Studies in Society and History 43(4): 651-664.  
– Mazrui, Alamin M. and Ibrahim Noor Shariff. 1994. The Swahili: Idiom and Identity of an African People. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc.
– Mazrui, Ali. 1992. “Afrabia: African and Arabs in the New World Order” Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies 20(3): 51-62. 
– Mazrui, Ali. 2005. “The Re-Invention of Africa: Edward Said, V. Y Mudimbe and Beyond” Research in African Literatures 36(3): 68-82. 
– Mudimbe, V. Y. 1988. The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
– Sheriff, Abdul. 2010. Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce, and Islam. London: Hurst Publishers.

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