Pouwels – Horn and Crescent

Pouwels, Randall L. Horn and Crescent, Cultural change and Traditional Islam on the East African

Coast, 800-1900. Cambridge University Press: 1987, 273 pages, $ ?

A passing glimpse at the title of this book might mislead many to put this study into the “Horn region” of Somalia/Eritrea/Ethiopia; however, the book is a synoptic history of traditional Islam along the East African Coast with a major focus on Lamu and Zanzibar. Pouwels has done some brilliant research on the sociological and religious development in aong the Coast over the course of over 1000 years, using a vast amount of oral and unpublished material and penetrating the Swahili language and “soul” with unusual insights and perception. For the newcomer to this area it will be useful to first go through the glossary and get a good grip of terms such as “Uungwana” or “Ustaarabu” and “Waungwana”, some of the key expressions throughout the book. Pouwel maintains that present-day Swahili people can only be understood if we know who they were in the past. A shared history connects these Afro-Asiatic people from the upper north of the Lamu archipelago to Pemba, Zanzibar, Mafia, and as far as the Comoros Islands. Pouwels illustrates the effects which the early ‘Arabizing’ phases had on culture and religion, then continues with a discussion of the intellectual, social, and political arrondissement as the backdrop to the last section, covering the Zanzibar Sultanate of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although the book was by no means written with Christian missions in mind, the Christian worker in East Africa may pick up some important ministry insights as well: the comparison and contrast of non-Islamic African traditions with the Somali-like belief that, ‘the best people are ourselves, of that I have always been sure’; the personality cult around Muhammad (exemplified in ostentatious mawlidi [Muhammad’s birthday] celebrations) which are elevating Muhammad from the classic ‘messenger’ status to actually becoming the intercessor for the faithful; the Sufi influence through the significance of nur, ‘divine light’ and baraka ‘blessedness, spiritual power’. It is also quite revealing how a few influential Sunni ‘ulama’, namely Shaikh Sayyid Ahmad bin Sumayt and Shaikh Abdallah b. Muhammad Bakathir al-Kindi (both died 1925) had such a broad and lasting impact on the spread of Islam during the Colonial period. Zanzibari sheikh al-Farsi triumphantly wrote in 1972 about the time of the UMCA missionaries, Father Godfrey Dale and Bishops Tozer and Steere, about one of these Islamic scholars that “there has not been an ‘alim who has proven so effective in debating with the missionaries of Zanzibar as did Sh. Abdu’l-Aziz, for his arguments were the most strident…like the point of a gun: whatever stood before them could not escape destruction.” Yet, there were also very different Islamic leaders in the Zanzibar of the early twentieth century who contributed to major reform influences. One of these is Sultan Ali b. Hamud, educated in Harrow (where he was nicknamed ‘Snowdrop’) and thoroughly conditioned to Western culture and thought, yet proud and defensive about his Ibadi background, found a strong liking to run his palace and household ‘on the lines of a royal court in Europe’ to such an extent that his First Minister described him as having ‘exaggerated ideas of his own importance’. But the Sultan is also remembered for establishing the first Government school at Zanzibar in 1907 (in competition to the Mission schools) where next to traditional Arabic and Islamic sciences also ‘modern’ subjects such as bookkeeping and various crafts were taught by a European teacher he had hired. Pouwel amiably has succeeded in giving us a deeper understanding how the past hundreds of years have molded the East African Coast into the multi-facetted, fascinating society we encounter today all along from Lamu to Zanzibar.



Categories: Book Reviews and Reviews by Walter Eric.