Imagining Arab Communities: Colonialism, Islamic Reform, and Arab Identity in Mombasa, Kenya, 1897–1933

in Islamic Africa
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  • 1 NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY

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After the advent of British colonial rule, the epistemological prestige of Muslim culture, Arabic literacy, and qadi courts declined in Kenya. Coastal residents sought favorable court rulings outside qadi courts, which no longer had independent jurisdiction, and many sought education and jobs in a British colonial system less favorable to Islamic learning. Recognizing these challenges, Sheikh al-Amin Mazrui—Kenya’s most prominent Islamic scholar—founded a newspaper called al-Islah in 1932. He was inspired by the prominent Cairo journal al-Manar, by the Salafi reformers Rashid Rida and Muhammad Abduh. Although al-Islah’s themes were similar to al-Manar’s in advocating for Islamic reform, al-Islah addressed itself to Swahili-speaking Arabs in a milieu where Muslims were increasingly a demographic minority and culturally marginalized. Print technology (al-Islah was printed in both Kiswahili and Arabic) and Salafi ideas in al-Islah worked together to spread reform and encourage East African Muslims to value Arabic and the pursuit of sharîʾa. Although these ideas were products of a long Islamic tradition that privileged access to knowledge as the passport of the believer, they were also newly self-conscious reflections of Arab cultural and religious identity; al-Islah’s articles stressed the Arab role in creating Muslim civilization in Africa. Al-Islah critiqued the parochial nature of the British colonial project, urging a return to pre-colonial modes of Islamic hegemony and stressing the essential role of sharîʾa in constituting Islamic identity. Islamic reform in East Africa and the “reimagination” of transnational Arab identity within it depended on Arab Muslims understanding the importance of Islamic knowledge—particularly Arabic and sharîʾa—in constituting coastal communities.

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