There is none in the heavens and the earth but comet h unto the Beneficent as a slave. (Qur’an 19:93)

ISLAM HAS BEEN PRESENT ALONG THE EAST AFRICAN coast since about the 8th century, when Persian traders, princes and economic migrants first sailed by dhow to Lamu, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa, at first for trade and later to live. Although they often took local wives and concubines, marking the birth of an ethnically and linguistically mixed population-the “Waswahili”1-Islam remained for more than 10 centuries the preserve of merchants and land-owners. Caravans carrying ivory and animal skins brought slaves and porters from the inland to the coast, where they were excluded from mainstream Muslim society but simultaneously were attracted to its intellectual and spir- itual heritage. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, tariqas2 such as the Qadiriyya, Shadhiliyya and Ba ‘Alawi began to emerge in Africa, teaching an Islam that sought to accommodate marginalized people, particularly migrants from the African mainland, women and freed slaves. But what was it the tariqas offered that attracted so many?

The trade in slaves in East Africa at this time was intense. Demand for ivory reached its peak as the industrial revolution in the west made luxury items, such as billiard balls and piano keys, more popular. In 1856 alone, Zanzibar exported a quarter of a million pounds of ivory.3 Slaves were needed for the arduous caravan journeys upcountry, where diseases such as sleeping sickness killed horses and donkeys. However, burgeoning clove plantations in Zanzibar and Pemba began to create such a high demand for slaves that by the 1860s, more than two-fifths of the 22,000 slaves exported from Kilwa yearly remained in Zanzibar and Pemba. Although British colonial documents described the East African slave trade as “Arab,” less than a fifth of these slaves were transported to the Arabian Peninsula, India and Indian Ocean Islands.4

After the Napoleonic wars and the signing of the Moresby Treaty in 1822, which banned the export of East African slaves southward, international trade-and the power of the slave merchants in Zanzibar-all but disappeared. At this point, the predominantly Omani merchant classes began to turn to plantation farming as a new use for their assets. By 1832, the price of cloves, driven phenomenally high by a Dutch monopoly, earned producers a profit of more than 1,000%.5 The Omani Sultan Seyyid Said, who had lost around $50,000 in slave-trade revenues, was keen to recoup his losses and ushered in a slave-buying frenzy. In 1847, there were about 60,000 slaves in Zanzibar, yet by 1910 the island’s entire population was only 100,000.

Toward the middle of the 1800s, Africans from the interior began to rely more heavily on trade, with porters spending their time on the coast between caravan trips to do trade. The introduction of firearms only increased the conflicts that plagued weaker ethnic groups, adding to the stock of slaves that coastal traders bought; some, such as the Zigula, were even known to sell themselves into slavery to escape starvation.


Although the majority of slave owners were Muslims, this did not mean that Islam encouraged slavery. According to one hadith, the Prophet Muhammad said, “Slaves are your brothers, whom God has placed under your control. So whoever has his brother under his control should feed him and clothe him with what he wears; and do not assign him a task that is too much for him, or if you do, then help him.”6 Even so, in Lamu, slaves were not only considered incapable of attaining ustaarabu (civilization) or Divine favor, but also were linked with animal behavior, jinn and the devil. Though nominally converted to Islam, they were not allowed into waungwana (freeborn, high-class) mosques or to be taught by waungwana religious teachers, or even to recite the Mawlidi al-Burzanji, and were excluded entirely from religious life, whether private or public. Even the term ustaarabu is derived from the Arabic verb, ista’raba, or to be Arabized. Ethnicity and social status were evidently intertwined.

The Muslim traders that mainland Africans came into contact with projected an image of affluent, cosmopolitan sophistication; the imported cloth, which was often used as currency, meant that Swahili and Arab traders quite literally wore their money. Most of the Arabs in Tabora were Ibadi, a sect that in East Africa showed no interest in da ‘wa (calling people to Islam). One of the most notorious Swahili slave traders, Tippu Tip-hardly a shining example of Islamic morals-is reputed to have caused many conversions to Islam in Eastern Congo, simply through osmosis.


Omani influence on the coast intensified in the 1870s and 1880s as the number of plantations swelled. The ‘ulema, or religious scholars, in turn began to move from waungwana transmitting knowledge orally and in Swahili, to a much more restrictive, Arab-based authority. This increased after the British takeover in 1890, as this was an easier Islam to regulate. At the turn of the 20th century and at the bottom of Swahili social hierarchy were African slaves whose hope of learning about their religion was being eclipsed by the increasing elitism of their ‘ulema.

Even the introduction of secular law in 1907 under colonial rule enforcing manumission made no difference; if a slave was not freed by the free will of the master, by Shari’a (Islamic law) the manumission is null and void.7 Frequently ending up as squatters on the land of their former masters and almost never making their way into the mercantile economy, former slaves had little or no option to rise economically or socially.


The growing number of undereducated African Muslims gradually became a force that neither the waungwana nor the Omani bureaucratic state could afford to ignore. It was during this time that the tariqas first penetrated the East African coast, heralding profound changes in the expressions of Islam and its standards of scholarship. The Zanzibar ‘ulema gained an influx of scholars, including the Hadramis, Ibn Sumayt and ‘Abd Allah Ba Kathir, who did not rely on Omani education or blood for their access to religious authority. These scholars traveled throughout the Ottoman Empire, filtering news of a worldwide Umma (Muslim community) down to the East African public.

This mobility brought the two major Sufi orders to East Africa, the Shadhiliyya and the Qadiriyya, both of which were active in Africa by the 1880s. The Shadhiliyya was founded in Morocco by Sheikh Abu’l-Hasan ‘Ali ash-Shadhili (1196-1258), the most notable exponent of Sheikh Abu Madyan’s early Sufi teachings. It was introduced in Zanzibar via the Comoros islands by the Hadrami sharif Sheikh Muhammad Ma’ruf (1853-1905) in 1886. The Shadhiliyya found great popularity among Comorians. Hence the Comorian community in Zanzibar were disturbed by French colonial intervention and riled by a lack of access to Arabic and thus religious learning. Though the Shadhiliyya is often described as exclusive, by the time of Ma’ruf’s death in 1905, the tariqa was “widely diffused” along the coasts of Tanganyika, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Comoros and even New Guinea.8

The Qadiriyya, named after Sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir alJilani (d. Baghdad 1166), was brought to East Africa through Somalia by the Somali Sheikh ‘Uways (1847-1909). ‘Uways more or less made Zanzibar his base in the 1880s, having been invited there by then Sultan Barghash. The Qadiriyya was the most active tariqa in East Africa, making special efforts to recruit new members and spreading on the Tanganyikan mainland. Qadiri dhikr sessions were known for being particularly loud and lengthy, using drums-deemed too “African” by the Omani ‘ulema-and more ecstatic than that of the Shadhiliyya. Whereas the Shadhiliyya enjoy a larger membership in Zanzibar, the Qadiriyya have long been associated with mainland centers such as Tabora, Bagamoyo and Ujiji.
A third tariqa, the Ba ‘Alawi, founded in the 13th century in Tarim, Hadramawt in Yemen by Sheikh Muhammad b. ‘Ali (d. 1255), is seen as the most “orthodox” of the three due to its strong presence in the Zanzibar ‘ulema. Though it has been present in Zanzibar since the 17th century, this order blossomed in the early 19th century with the great wave of Hadrami immigration, carried by merchant clans following old Hadrami trading routes that connected the Swahili citystates with the Hijaz. The Ba ‘Alawi came to be a bridge between “popular,” tariqa-based Sufism and the Islam of the intellectual elite, establishing madrassas (schools) to teach Qur’an, the Prophetic tradition and jurisprudence, particularly to low-status, Hadrami migrants and freed African slaves. At the same time, the Ba ‘Alawis raised the general level of scholarship among the Zanzibar ‘ulema, finding great popularity among Shafi’i scholars. The energetic practices of the Qadiriyya provoked friction with the more sober Ba ‘Alawi. One of its leading figures, Seyyid Ahmad b. Abu Bakr bin Sumayt (1861-1925), considered banning Qadiri dhikr by fatwa as it appeared too intoxicating to be halal (permissible).9

One of the areas in which the tariqas reoriented Swahili religious life was the mawlid, commemorating the Prophet Muhammad’s birth. Previously, the mawlid had been dominated by the waungwana, reinforcing the popular opinion that they were cornerstones of “proper” Islam. However, with the growth of the tariqas came new renderings of the mawlid that allowed all Muslims to participate, regardless of race or class. More importantly, black Africans, Arabs, mixed-race Swahilis and Indians were enabled (or forced) to look beyond ethnic differences and reassess what it meant to be a Muslim.

The tariqas ranked their members according to learning rather than wealth, and spiritual rather than political power. Whereas slave owners could use their wealth to educate themselves or their children, the batini (secret) knowledge that the tariqa imparted was given by God’s grace, and was therefore independent of material gains. It was only through the tariqas that Africans were able to become leaders in the Sunni community. “Virtually every sheikh who was involved in disseminating orders, especially in the hinterland and far interior, was an African.”10

Not only did the tariqas provide an alternative hierarchy, substituting a spiritual currency for a worldly one, but the imposition of colonial rule made it crucial to establish who one identified with. The Qadiriyya in Bagamoyo, choosing to define themselves in terms of their differences from coastal Arabs and Swahilis, aligned with the new colonial powers and against the old, elitist ‘ulema. ‘ I The Qadiriyya benefited from the British policies of indirect rule, but also, as Omani control began to crumble-culminating in the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964-being associated with a tariqa was far safer than clinging to the old seats of power.


The caravan routes that opened the interior to contact with the Muslim world were driven by economic rather than missionary zeal, but the superior status of slave traders served as an incentive to convert, not only in order to share in the prestige but also to fortify trade links with Muslim merchants. Primed by this natural drift, Sufi teachers found willing authences in mainland centers. For instance, the Comorian Shadhili teachers Sheikh ‘Amir bin Jimba and Ahmad Mruzi in Angoche, Mozambique, had ties to the Comoros from the slave trade of the early 19th century and before.12
The tariqas are often credited with “Africanizing” Islam, as Sufi leaders were more willing to accommodate practices such as drumming. However, the assumption that this meant a deviation from the Islam of the Qur’an and Sunna is more telling of the racial bias of those making the assumption. In fact, many of these African Sufis were every bit as learned in the sacred sciences as the waungwana, or more so.

The best illustration of this is Sheikh Yahya b. ‘Abd Allah Ramiya (d.1931), born with the name Mundu in eastern Congo and sold to a Muslim colonial administrator in Bagamoyo. As a domestic slave, Mundu was in a better position to earn his master’s trust, and around 1880 was allowed to begin commercial ventures, such as trading fish, and eventually bought a number of coconut plantations. Converting to Sunni Islam, taking the name Yahya b. ‘Abd Allah and using his capital to fund 10 years of religious studies, Mu’allim Ramiya, as he was then known, became the largest African landowner of his country, the leader of the Bagamoyo branch of the Qadiriyya with influence as far as Lake Tanganyika, and a prominent teacher of Islam, setting up his own madrassa in 1900. Owing to his personal fortune, he was able to sponsor students coming from East Africa to study at his school and care for orphans and travelers, particularly around the time of the mawlid, which he helped to establish in his town. Bagamoyo, incidentally, gets its name from bwaga moyo, Kiswahili for “lay down your heart,” as it was the last stop on one of the major trading routes and the last time that thousands of slaves ever saw Africa.

Another example is Sheikha Mtumwa, the leader of the Nkhotakota branch of the Qadiriyya in Malawi. Born in Zanzibar to a Malawian slave woman and a Swahili man, Mtumwa (meaning “slave” in Kiswahili) lived in Nkhotakota until 19 14 when her husband, the district commissioner, died. She then returned to Zanzibar with her son, and, with the help of a widow’s pension from the government, spent 10 years studying Him (knowledge) and running a plantation. She was given her ijaza (permission to teach) by Sheikh ‘Abdul Kadir and returned to Nkhotakota to spread the tariqa, particularly to women, finding quick success. “3 She later retired to Morogoro, Tanzania, where she died in 1958.

Perhaps the most famous example of a Sufi teacher introducing former slaves to profound religious knowledge is that of Habib Saleh. A Hadrami sharif attributed with numerous karamat (miracles) such as turning back a storm and a fire in Lamu town, Saleh commented on the top-heavy class system of the island by putting his efforts into educating former slaves and the poor of the Hadrami community rather than openly criticizing the system. His al-Riyadh mosque and madrassa, meaning “the sacred meadows,” was an important space for social change. For example, at mawlidi recitations in the mosque, he would sit behind the slaves, and even a da ‘if (person from a weak social class) would be invited to sit by the Sheikh to sing if he had a good voice.14 Saleh supported the slaves’ belief that it was only through love of the Prophet that one could draw near to him, expanding it with the concept of knowledge as the key to paradise; he was often dubbed “sharif of the slaves.” Though from the Ba ‘Alawi clan, Saleh did not use any distinct tariqa initiation, perhaps because of his focus on the inner, or batini, rather than the outer, dhahiri, aspect of the faith.

Swahili Sufism, like Sufism everywhere, does not depend on the structure of an order for its existence. In fact, its very essence is the fulfillment of what every chapter of the Qur’an emphasizes: slavehood to God. Although the worship of God in Islam takes a physical form, sincere worship is synonymous with an absolutely internal humility: “And do you (O reader!) bring your Lord to remembrance in your (very) soul, with humility and reverence …” (Qur’an 7:205).15 A large number of Muslim male names are attributes of God prefixed by ‘abd, or “slave.” In the case of Lamu’s slave population, ‘Abdallah was one of the Muslim names allowed for slaves by the waungwana, who, by contrast, borrowed the names of the Prophet’s companions and family. ‘Abdallah was also the name given to any slave boy whose father was unknown;’6 perhaps the subtext of this is that the boy could not be claimed by any master except God.

Slaves also featured prominently in early Islamic history. One of the close companions of the Prophet, Bilal al-Rabah, was an Abyssinian slave born in Mecca. Tortured for his belief in one God at a time when Mecca was largely polytheist, he came to be the first muezzin (one who calls the adhan, call to prayer), and was responsible every morning for waking the Prophet, who described him as “a man of paradise.”17 An interesting parallel, though it is unclear whether it was intentional, is that the only slave allowed into the waungwana mosque Mwana Lalo in Lamu town was its muezzin.18
Poverty is, as the Muslim scholar Martin Lings asserts, a concept inextricably linked with that of slavehood, and saints are not only known within Sufi milieus as “the poor” but also “the slaves of God in certain contexts where not only the fact of slavehood (which concerns everyone) but also full consciousness of it is indicated.”19 The extremity of need among former slaves, ostensibly free but subject to crushing social discrimination, resonates quite clearly with the spiritual poverty, or faqr, so often mentioned in Sufi literature. The Shadhili master Ibn ‘Ata’illah al-Iskandari, for instance, writes that “states of need are like jewel-laden carpets.”20 It takes no great stretch of the imagination to see why Sufism would appeal so strongly and profoundly to one for whom the world is an endless jewel-laden carpet.


Enticed by prestige but pushed away by racial barriers, East African conversion to Islam tended to follow the slave trader’s image at a superficial level, but that of the Sufi saint at the level of profound religious knowledge. Swahili Sufism, however, was not only African; Abu Bakr, the African khalifa of the Qadiriyya, ran a madrassa in Bagamoyo, where children of wealthy Arab and Indian families in Tabora and Ujiji were sent.21 It is also somehow unsurprising that there was a movement countering the exclusive, high-class Islam of the waungwana. For Habib Saleh, who saw Lamu society as unjust and therefore un-Islamic, sharing sacred knowledge with former slaves was a duty inherent in the faith. Whether or not they were drawn to the tariqas for social status or personal gain, slavery to God is by necessity hidden; “and God knows best what is in their souls.” (Qur’an, 11:31)

See our Current issue


Join our Newsletter

Follow us on