The Indian Experience as a Swahili Mirror in Colonial Mombasa

The Ambiguous Position of Sheikh Al-Amin Bin Ali Mazrui

African and Asian Studies

People of Indian descent had long interacted with the Swahili of East Africa. This interrelationship became particularly momentous during British colonial rule that gave additional impetus to Indian migration to East Africa. In time East Africa, in general, and Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city, in particular, became home to significant populations of Indian settler communities. Motivated by an immigrant psychology and relatively privileged status under colonial rule, Indian immigrants took full advantage of the opportunities to become remarkably successful socially and economically.

Local inhabitants were fully aware of the success of Indian immigrants of East Africa, and for some of them, the Indian record became a yard stick for their own successes and failures. Among these was Sheikh Al-Amin bin Ali Mazrui (1891-1947), famed for his reformist ideas about East African Islam. Using his Swahili periodical, Swahifa, he tried to galvanize members of Swahili-Muslim community towards the goal of community uplift by drawing on the experiences of East African Indians as a way of referring them back to some of the fundamentals of a progressive Islamic civilization in matters of the economy, education, and cultural preservation. In this sense, the East African Indian “mirror” became an important means of propagating Sheikh Al-Amin’s agenda of an alternative modernity rooted in Islamic civilization.

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