Free access

The provenance of the three manuscripts presented in this volume is striking. It demonstrates the way in which the South Arabian and Islamic oral and written scholarly traditions extended beyond the narrow confines of the Arabian Peninsula. It further shows that Muslim scholars on the East African coast were familiar with and had access to these traditions.

It has been possible to trace the origins of some of the material in the manuscripts back to a poem by Bishop Quss b. Sāʿida ʾl-Ijadijj of Najrān. It would seem that he was a contemporary of Muḥammad who heard the bishop reciting the odes behind the material in the manuscripts at one of the famous ʿUkāz fairs.1 P.K. Hitti has pointed out that

the ancient poetry, has historical importance as source material for the study of the period in which it was composed. In fact it is our only quasi-contemporaneous data. It throws light on all phases of pre-Islamic life. Hence the adage, “Poetry is the public register (dīwān) of the Arabians”.2

The title of this volume refers to the ancient Greek name of the coast in a similar manner to the way in which the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea was used. In view of the long history covered by the manuscripts, it seems appropriate to use the title An Azanian Trio with the sub-title Three East African Arabic Historical Documents.3 The three manuscripts present a surprisingly detailed summary of the ethnographic, political, religious and social history of southern Arabia and the northern East African coast over a period of close to two thousand years. Many of the details will still need to be substantiated through archaeology, inscriptions, and as yet undiscovered sources in a variety of languages and traditions.

Their value is borne out by such statements as,

Until now, East African coastal history has been dominated by writers who used only Swahili. Many of them were former district officers or colonial bureaucrats and amateur historians who approached their problems exclusively through this language. Although they succeeded remarkably well, and although Swahili is still indispensable, it has been overused for certain problems in coastal history. Profitable results can be obtained through the use of Persian, Ottoman Turk, Somali, Sindi, Gujerati or Arabic. Among those, Arabic has by far the deepest time base. Ignoring Arabic for East African coastal history is like trying to study medieval European history without the knowledge of Latin.4

B.G. Martin’s comment seems an appropriate starting point for the consideration of the three manuscripts that are the main basis of this work. It is our hope that the publication of these texts will spur further research in East African coastal history.

All three manuscripts start with a brief reference to the traditions of coastal ethnic groups and their interaction with the Arabs, with a reference to the incursion of the Oromo and the establishment of trading posts along the coast by the Himyarites who in the pre-Islamic period were the dominant power in south-western Arabia. The manuscripts point to their conversion to Jewish monotheism and subsequent struggles with the Christian kingdom of Axum.5

An intriguing part of these developments is the reference to the Banū Qays al-Ghaylān, who at some point in the early sixth century A.D. first migrated from the Himyar area and settled in the Axumite kingdom, but subsequently towards the end of that century moved into the area north of the Juba River. Their migration forced local people, such as the Pokomo and Giriama, to migrate further south.

The manuscripts go on to cover the involvement of the ʿUmanis, the Portuguese, the Turks and the English on the East African coast. The role of the al-Bū Saʿids, the Mazrūʿis and the Somalis is treated in greater detail, as are the issues around the slave trade and dynastic struggles.

The genesis and background of the compilation, translation, annotation and editing of the material in this work is as follows:

We never met Dr Neville Chittick, but when in Ṣanʿāʾ of the Yemen in the 1970s we received from him a request for an evaluation of the English translation of what he sent to us as being Kitāb al-Zunūj. A reply was sent to him, but the postal service in the Yemen Arab Republic being at that time in a rather rudimentary state, it is unlikely that the letter ever reached him. The text remained with us for over twenty years, until Dr G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville alerted us to the fact that the full text in the original was in Somalia: Scritti Vari editi ed inediti by Enrico Cerulli,6 and was in fact in two versions labeled K and L.

Prior to that, we had received from the late James Kirkman, then Warden of the Fort Jesus Museum of Mombasa, a photostat copy of an Arabic manuscript entitled Kawkab al-durriya li-akhbār Ifrīqiya, which we translated, with the kind help of Dr Pierre Cachia in respect of an Arabic poem which occupies the central place in that manuscript. We then left it aside for want of proper indication as to whether it might be of any material value.7

On comparing these two, or rather three, texts, we discovered that they cover in many respects the same subjects, though with variants in the events and anecdotes they relate, and in the comments that the authors make. It seemed worthwhile to set the three together and draw attention to their similarities and differences; for altogether they seem to present what must be a pretty widespread popular tradition of the history of the area as seen through the eyes of the people of the Swahili coast. There is much that is questionable in them, but the least that can be said of them is that together they help to clarify the religious, historical and cultural picture of a very interesting part of the world. We offer them together with notes and comments, not as anything final, but as something that may, in the course of time and after further research, be “filled out” to give a more accurate view of the history of East Africa.


R.A. Nicholson, A Literary History of the Arabs. Cambridge: University Press, 1956, pp. 135 f.


P.K. Hitti, History of the Arabs from the Earliest Times to the Present. London: Macmillan, 1961, p. 95. On p. 5 of the Introduction to An Azanian Trio, the story of Hassan bin Tubba (b. 420) is introduced with reference to Qāmūs and Sabāʾik al-Dhahab. This work, first published in 1823, is based on al-Qalqashandī’s Nihāyat al-arab fī maʿrifat ansāb al-ʿarab composed before 1418, when al-Qalqashandī died. His source, it seems, was the work of Hassān b. Thābit, a contemporary of Muḥammad, according to A. von Kremer’s Altarabische Gedichte über die Volkssage von Jemen. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1867, and his Die Südarabische Sage. Leipzig: F.A. Brockhaus, 1866. In his introduction to Die Südarabische Sage (p. 7), von Kremer refers to a poem by Bishop Quss b. Sāʿida ʾl-Ijadijj of Najrān, which is pre-Islamic and seems to be the source for Ḥassān bin Thābit’s poem. This sequence takes us back much closer to the time referred to in the Kawkab.


For such usage, see H. Philby, “African Contacts with Arabia”, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 86/44 (1937): 90–102, p. 100.


B.G. Martin, “Arab Migration to East Africa in Medieval Times”, International Journal of African Historical Studies 7/3 (1974): 367–390, pp. 368 f. See also A.H.J. Prins, “On Swahili Historiography”, Journal of the East African Swahili Committee 28/2 (1958): 26–40, p. 26. “Modern historians dealing with East Africa as a whole have, speaking in general, sadly neglected those primary sources that stem from Africa itself. This is partly due to ignorance; poor training in the methods of historical research; but also, and probably very largely, to the lack of systematization and accessibility of available African sources.” See G.S.P. Freeman-Grenville, “Swahili Literature and the History and Archeology of the East African Coast”, Journal of the East African Swahili Committee 28/ 2 (1958): 7–25, pp. 16, 19.


The Jewish presence in Arabia originates in the numerous dispersions beginning with the destruction of Samaria in 722 B.C. by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser/Sargon, followed by the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnessar, the occupation by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C.E., the deportations of the Jews mainly to Africa under Ptolemy Soter in 320 B.C.E. and the Roman destructions under Pompey and Titus in 63 and 70 C.E.


E. Cerulli, Somalia. Scritti vari editi ed inediti. Vol. 1. Rome: Istituto poligrafico dello Stato P.V., 1957. See also J. de V. Allen, Swahili Origins: Swahili Culture and the Shungwaya Phenomenon. London: J. Currey, 1993, p. 38, for a late tenth-century compilation of earlier materials, some being local historical traditions.


R.S. O’Fahey (comp.), Arabic Literature of Africa, Vol. 3: The Writings of Muslim Peoples of Northeastern Africa. Leiden: Brill, 2002, p. 103.