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Posted on: 25 Jan 2012 Tagged by:

My interest in the East African region was stirred whilst visiting the Yemen during 2004 ....

Kenya: Lamu

To what extent does the Maulidi Festival of Lamu represent the wider culture of the region?

The Maulidi is an Annual Event


I begin by thanking God for all His blessings, including the opportunities I had to visit the lands of the Yemen and Kenya. I would also like to thank my advisor, Dr. Philip Sadgrove for his expert guidance which he delivered with upmost enthusiasm for the region’s culture and history. I am also thoroughly grateful to Dr. Rebecca Gearhart whom I admire for her connection and dedication to Kenya and its people. I am thankful for her correspondences and her works have been an invaluable reference throughout. Furthermore, though I am sure he will disagree, I am indebted to the great-grandson of Habib Saleh: Salahuddin bin Abdul Rahman al-Khitamy, who was always willing to answer questions and alleviate confusion.


My interest in the East African region was stirred whilst visiting the Yemen during 2004. Yemen’s strict segregated culture meant most of the people I met there were female, and because I stayed in a religious boarding school it also meant they were young. Though the school had students from countries as diverse as Indonesia, various parts of the Arab world and the US, I was particularly intrigued by the East African girls, mainly from Tanzania and Kenya. Though there were a few girls from the indigenous peoples of these countries, most of them looked far more like the local Yemenis than other Africans. Upon investigation, I learnt that many of them were indeed originally Yemeni, their grandparents having immigrated to Kenya they had now returned to their roots to learn more about their religion and culture.

Furthermore, this school was situated in the city of Tarim (in Hadramawt) which is regarded as a centre of scholarship and learning, and more importantly a centre of the Ba Alawi tariqa worldwide. It is impossible to speak of the founder of the Maulidi Festival, Habib Saleh Jamalulleyl, without mention of his religious background and specifically histasawwuf based heritage since this is where many of his principles came from.

Whilst in Egypt last year I decided to take advantage of the proximity and visited Lamu during the Maulidi Festival of spring 2008. Here, first hand, I felt that I saw where Africa and Arabia met. I was surrounded by people with a command of both Swahili and Arabic. I saw what looked like African dances, just moments before a Hadrami-written poem was read in congregation. I heard familiar litanies from the Yemen, read in an African style. I saw men with Arab features and African complexions dressed in shimmering white whilst indigenous Muslim Kenyans were dressed in other styles of clothing. I also attended women-only Maulid gatherings that held the familiarity of the segregated gatherings I had been to in the Yemen.

All these experiences drove me to read more into the place of Islam in Africa and I found that there were relatively far more studies and research on the West African coast in comparison to the East. However, I did find some detail on the Arab-Swahili and African links through things like trading, migration and slavery. Despite the works on these elements of the region and the mention of Habib Saleh, I felt not enough attention was given to his Sufi background or heritage.

Furthermore, while there is often a lot of criticism and blanket banning of all forms of music by many Muslims, I felt that there was a neglect in the mainstream of approaching the topic from a Sufi perspective since it has been central to the dawa’ and dhikr methods adopted by Sufis for centuries. Moreover, I felt that the anthropological and historical viewpoints and attempts at ‘classifying’ the Swahili have often been at polar opposites: one group completely dismissing the Arab influences whilst the other suggesting that Swahili is almost equivalent to Arab.

With all this in view I wanted to attempt a comprehensive study which would bring together all these questions. Thus, Section One discusses the history of the region.Section two briefly explores music in Islam and the various attitudes towards celebrating the maulid. Finally, Section Three focuses on the social situation in Lamu during the life of the founder of the Maulidi Festival Habib Saleh and his life, and goes on to analyse the components of the Maulidi festival. This section has been placed at the end so the discussions and findings from the earlier sections  can be brought into direct application. AConclusion will follow.

Section One: The East African Coast and the Arabian Peninsular

A consideration for the cross history and early exchanges across the region is vital in understanding present day coastal events like the Maulidi Festival. Thus, this section will focus on the historical links between the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa, focusing in particular on the Yemen and Kenya. While the island of Lamu, being central to this study, is important, a social analysis of it will be reserved for Chapter three; however, its geographical significance will be briefly reviewed at the end of this chapter.

Definitions of Culture

The term ‘culture’, which comes from the Latin “cultura”, – to cultivate, has always been a word too vast to limit to a single definition. While it can refer to a knowledge of fine arts and an interest in the refined – to be cultured- it is also known to mean shared ideals, customs and traditions amongst a given people. Mead 1937: 17 defined it as “forms of traditional behaviour which are characteristic of a given society.” [8] Interestingly, Eliot[9]asserts that “no culture has appeared or developed except together with a religion.”

In the light of these definitions, this discussion will largely focus on Swahili culture and what it means to be Swahili for the people of the region and the contributions to their culture from Africa, Arabia and Islam.

Migration and Settlement

According to Chittick and Rotberg (1975), the Arab settlement in East Africa dates back to the pre-Bantu period, as early as the first century B.C. – however, other historians put it much later. Pouwels (1987) states that there is evidence which places coastal civilisation to the end of the first millennium A.D. However, he also maintains, that to mark this as the beginning of the Swahili civilisation would deny importance to “imported, non-African ideas [which] influenced the nature and direction of change in coastal societies.” He regards thisas extreme as the position which holds coastal culture as being completely “Arab”.

We can see how the development of the coastal civilisations was largely the product of waves of migration to the coast in the 13th, 14th and later the 16th and the 19th centuries. These migrants were mainly from southern Arabia. To support the influences of the Arab migration and settlement (of some degree of affluence), there are various sites of ruins of old civilisations along the Kenyan coast. One such place is ‘Gedi’[10], an Arab-African town situated along the road between Malindi and Mombasa. It is known to have been founded in the late 13th or early 14th century and was then abandoned in the seventeenth century. At the site, there are ruins of mosques and mehrabs, as well as graves. One grave was dated 1399 A.D. To this day, people come to leave sacrifices at the mehrabs [12] which, though no longer in use, are perceived as a source of blessing. Large quantities of porcelain are known to have been found at the site which suggests that the old town was also quite wealthy.

ruins of Gedi

When the 14th century traveller Ibn Battuta visited the region in 1331 A.D. he undertook the route from Aden to Zeila (on the Somalian coast). This in itself is representative of the route of influence we are looking at between the Arabian Peninsula and the coast of East Africa. Furthermore, Ibn Battuta made note of a lot of what he witnessed in terms of practices within the region, which sheds some lights on the type of cultural and religious practices prevalent at the time. Freeman-Greenville (1962) includes Ibn Battuta’s account of when he arrived at Zeila: “it was the custom here to call the sultan ‘Shaikh’” and that the Sultan Shaikh was Berber but also knew Arabic. Furthermore, he also observed with them a Zefe (procession to the grave of a saint – to be discussed in chapter three). The Sultan and his subjects were obviously Muslims which shows that by the 14th century, coastal East Africa was largely dominated by Islam.


Even from as early as the 11th century there is evidence of trade exchanges between the coast and nearby countries. Iron was exported from the coast, as well as other items such as shells, rhino horn, ambergris[13] and animal skins. Amongst items imported were Persian Gulf ceramics and Chinese Porcelain[14]. This establishes the ground for unified cultural tendencies across the trading countries since ideas as well as commodities could be exchanged among those travelling between places. This was essentially the attraction for migrants, many of whom were traders and saw the rise of wealth along the coast as an opportunity to move. The period 1300- 1600 A.D. has sometimes been called ‘golden age’ of the coast’s history because during this time trade and wealth reached a peak and there are remains of structures from then, many of them made from stone, which was a sign of prosperity.

Similarly, R. B. Serjeant (1995) includes a Qasida (Arabic poem) in his book called “FromSayhut to Zanzibar” which speaks about the journeys of the mariners from the Arabian Peninsula to the East African coast. One part says:

”If, lad, you’ve got any onions with you/ The price of them has gone up here (in Lamu) and in Zanzibar.”[15]

The commentary states that these ‘onions’ were the principal crop of the al-Hami village (of Hadramawt, Yemen), and the sailors used to bring them to sell to East Africa.


Another influence on coastal culture and development was slavery. The Arab-African slave trade has not attracted as much study debate as the transatlantic slave trade from West Africa to the Americas. In the case of East Africa, people were brought with caravans from mainland Africa to the coast and thereafter traded to the Arab merchants. Freeman-Greenville (1962) includes an account entitled “A Tenth Century Slaving Adventure”[16]that a Persian sailor recorded in his book Kitab al-Aja’ib. This was an account he heard from Omani sailors in which the latter sailed to northern Kenya. They brought all their “packages to land and began to trade, a trade which was excellent”- all with the permission of the local king, said to be “a young negro, handsome and well made”. When the sailors were about to leave, the King boarded the ship with a few of the men to bid them farewell. However, the Omanis betrayed them by cutting the ropes and setting off with them onboard, with the intention to sell them as slaves in their homeland. The original narration is far more fascinating and detailed; however, it ends with the African King becoming exposed to Islam and Muslims. He enters the faith, travels the Muslim Empire with caravans, makes the pilgrimage to Mecca, learns religion in Baghdad and eventually escapes via Egypt and down the Nile back to his homeland. Here he is reinstated as king, and many of his subjects also become Muslim. While, with no specifics names and dates the story could be a mix of truth and fantasy, it is nonetheless labelled credible enough to be published by historians; perhaps because it is representative of what a lot of Arab and African interaction was about: trade and slavery.

In relation to Lamu, folk historians deny that Lamu was involved in slavery in any way. However, there is sufficient evidence to prove that Lamuans used slaves and that the presence of slaves had a tremendous impact on the political, economic and religious systems on the island. Indeed much of today’s Maulidi Festival on the Island stems from Habib Saleh’s attempts at integrating ex-slaves into the social structure of Lamu during his time. This will be further discussed in chapter three.


It is thought that it was primarily the migration of inland Kenyans to the coast and their exposure to Persians and Arabs which led to the development of Swahili culture. Linguistically, 40% of Swahili words are of Arabic origin. Furthermore, the very word ‘Swahili’ comes from the Arabic ‘Sawāhil’ which means ‘coasts’[17].

More important than written and documented facts is often the collective memory of a people and how they imagine their roots. In this light, Swahili oral traditions relating to their ancestry are of upmost importance in determining Swahili origins. These stories usually link the earliest Swahili memories with Islam, which is still a significant presence in many African countries. Kenya today, is predominantly Christian with around 78% of the population identifying themselves with the religion. Muslims comprise just over 10%, however, Islam is still considered one of the “major” religions of the country[18] and the majority of the Muslims live towards the coast.


Geographically, the Lamu archipelago is the name given to a group of Kenyan Islands just below the Somali border. Pate Island, the largest of the group was once home to a powerful dynasty; however, it is inhabited today by a relatively small group of people. Today, Lamu town (henceforth, simply ‘Lamu’) is the largest town on these Islands, and ‘Lamu district’ includes part of the mainland too.

Today it is an island visited by those seeking a taste of Swahili culture. It has retained much of its old and traditional methods of living with the narrow winding streets and open stores. The methods of transport are donkey and boat, with most inhabitants simply walking through the town on their daily business. Historically, Lamu’s geographical location made it a natural port and a strategic access point for travellers and merchants alike and today, most of the coastline is dominated by hotels and restaurants.

Section Two: The ‘controversies’ surrounding music and the celebration of the Maulid

Since the Maulidi Festival is significantly based on music and dance, the aim of this section is to discuss the issue of music in Islamic religious settings, as well as the controversy surrounding the celebration of the maulid. Both these areas can be discussed in great depth, however, we will only deal with a few of the issues pertaining to the subject.


Sufis like Inayat Khan[21] have famously said “Religions have all made music part of their worship. The Sufi especially loves music, calling it food of the soul.”[22] He believed that “it is no exaggeration to say that music is the language of beauty, of the One Whom every living soul has loved” thereby suggesting that it is a legitimate way of expressing love for the Divine. However, this may be considered a marginal position.

Music in Religious contexts

Similarly to Inayat Khan, Sufis like Muhyeldin Chishti of the famous shrine of ‘AjmerSharif’ in India used music as a way of calling fellow Indians to Islam. This type of music has since developed into the ‘Qawwali’ genre[23], which is the passionate singing and music playing of solo singers or groups, about God and religion. It is generally practised by the ‘Chishtiya order’ of Sufis and their followers.[24] There is also Habib Ahmed Mash’hur al-Haddad of whom it is said that over 300,000 people entered Islam at his hands alone. This was primarily in East Africa, and mainly in Tanzania.[25] As his title ‘Habib’ and his family name suggest, he was also from Hadramawt. A lot of his successes in teaching people about Islam came down to his not judging their ways and allowing many aspects of their cultural ways to be incorporated with the Islam that he taught[26]. This, as will be seen in the next chapter, was mirrored by Habib Saleh on Kenya’s island of Lamu.

It is also important to understand as to what extent music and singing (of a religious nature) is rooted in the history of the religion. The narrations in Sira[27] books about the migration of Prophet Muhammad’s from Mecca to Yathrib (later called Medina) is not complete without mention of the reception he received on arrival to Yathrib. There is detailed description of the song that the women and children of the city sung to receive him, which has become popular across Muslim lands and sung until today with various melodies:

O the White Moon rose over us

Coming from the valley of Wada’

And we owe it to show gratefulness

Where the call is to Allah

O you who were raised amongst us

Calling with a word to be obeyed

You have brought to this city nobleness

Welcome best caller to God’s way[28]

It is said that this was sung accompanied by the traditional daff[29]. This example from the sīra is often cited by those who favour the use of musical instruments with songs in praise of God or His Prophets. Indeed, even the Islamic call to prayer, the adhān, though without music, is melodious in nature and sets the use of melodies at the heart of the religion.

In relation to the time frame of the Maulidi Festival’s establishment, the controversy of music itself was not something that was contemporary to the period. However, the issue was the use of musical instruments in the mosques. Habib Saleh experienced this controversy in 1909 when a scholar in Hadramawt composed a maulid called Simt al Durar(The String of Pearls)[30]. Habib Saleh automatically adopted it since it was written by theQutb[31] of Hadramawt Habib Ali al-Habshi. The local Hadramis also welcomed it since their Qutb was the writer, and the ex-slaves also took to it since this new maulid reading was full of poetry accompanied by tambourines and small drums. Furthermore, according to (Gearhart 1998):

“Newly converted worshippers believed the tambourines helped them attain spiritual ecstasy, and therefore Sufi masters such as Habib Saleh encouraged their use. With the support of Mansabu and Ali bin Muhammed al-Habashi, the head (Qutb) of the Alawiyya Sufi order, Saleh argued that the tambourines sparked interest among non-Muslims, and facilitated a much-desired spiritual link between man and God” 104

Since the instruments are an essential part of the reading, they found their way into the mosques and the wangwana viewed this as an innovation and found it good cause to oppose Habib Saleh.[32] When the issue of musical instruments in the mosques is examined from a theological perspective, the four Sunni schools of thought differ in their rulings. The Hanafites consider all instruments to be impermissible in the mosques whereas the Shafi’ites[33] allow some leniency in the matter, especially concerning the tambourines and drums. In order to fully understand the aforementioned influences on the music and dance of the Maulidi Festival, some mention must be made of the ngomapractices, particular to the Swahili culture. However, this will be discussed in the next section.

Celebrating the Prophet’s birth

[As has been previously mentioned, neither this section nor the discussion within sufficiently does justice to the topic - it is only intended as a brief overview]

Regarding the Prophet’s birth and its celebration, a relatively recent controversy (in the context of Islamic history) has arisen around the issue and some people perceive it to be a non-religious act with no root in the religion. These people believe that it is an innovation and cite the hadith:

“Every innovation is a misguidance and every misguidance goes to Hell fire.”

(Sahih Muslim)

On the other hand, there are many Muslims who consider celebrating the maulid an act of worship. They interpret the above hadith by stating that the Arabic كل can mean ‘most’ as well as ‘every’ (which was considered al-Shafi’s position). Furthermore, Al-Asqalāni, the commentator on al-Bukhāri, said:

“Anything that did not exist during the Prophet’s time is called innovation, but some are good while others are not.”[34]

Most maulid gatherings generally consist of Qurān recitations, poetry recitals and end with food distribution. Some countries also organise marches where people walk through the streets with banners. These are all different methods of marking the day, and they vary between countries and cultures. Most of those who celebrate the maulid do not consider it to be an innovation, therefore, neither a good nor bad introduction to the faith. Rather, they believe it to be a command from God to rejoice in His favours since it says in the Qurān:

“O mankind! The advice has come to you from your Lord and a cure for the hearts – and guidance and mercy for believers. Say, “Upon Allah’s munificence and upon His mercy – upon these should the people rejoice”; this is better than all the wealth they hoard”  (Surah Yunus 10:57-58)

In this light, they consider that the greatest favour bestowed upon the universe was the coming of the Prophet, therefore they must rejoice for this. Furthermore, there are narrations where the Prophet was asked why he fasted on Mondays and he responded:

“I was born and the Qurān was revealed upon me in this day.”
(Mishqāt 179)

Thus, Muslims that celebrate the maulid also consider that the marking of the day of the birth of Prophet Muhammad was something he himself did.

Section Three: Lamu, Habib Saleh and the Maulidi Festival

قال الإمام علي بن محمد الحبشي:

“ما شي كما مجمع المولد يجلي الكروب “

Habib Ali bin Muhammad al-Habshi said:

“There is nothing like the maulid gathering to alleviate anxiety”

As mentioned in the introduction, the founder of the Maulidi Festival was none other than Habib Saleh Jamalulleyl. The first part of this section will look at the history and social structure of Lamu prior to and during his life and then go on to briefly introduce his beliefs and practices with mention of the tariqa he associated himself with. The second part of this chapter will closely analyse the Maulidi Festival.

Lamu and Habib Saleh

History of Lamu’s social structure

When it comes to the people’s history on Kenya’s coast, El Zein (1974) mentions extensively the ‘folk history’ of the town of Lamu. This is perceived by some to be more fable than real, however, El Zein believes that this “makes no difference” since for the people of Lamu, “their history is real for them, and through it they judge the existing reality.”[35] The wangwana (lit. “possessors” and the ruling elite of Lamu) usually tell the story that their ancestors first arrived to Lamu whilst trying to escape from the chaos that took rife throughout the Islamic community in Arabia after the assassination of the third caliph Othman. They are thought to have settled on the southern part of Lamu.

There is also the narrative that at some stage during the caliphate of Harun al Rashid (which was during the latter part of the 8th century), a Muslim army of Syrians, Iraqis and Persians were sent to the East African coast and they settled in the northern part of the island. Whatever the reality, both stories are linked with Islamic history and therefore places Lamu folk history at the heart of the beginning of Islam on the coast.

The social hierarchy on the island gradually developed into what was largely:

The Wangwana

Hadramis /Reiyadah Sharifs

Comoro Islanders/ Bajuni people


Lamu is divided into two main parts, Mkomani and Langoni. Map 3 in El Zein highlights the social divide that has long separated the people of the island. Mkomani was predominantly inhabited by the wangwana, and Langoni by the Hadramis, Comoro Islanders and ex-slaves. These divisions were maintained by the societal rules that prevented people from different castes from marrying and in the Lamu prior to Habib Saleh’s prominence, thewangwana depended heavily on this divide to maintain their power.

The wangwana only saw fellow wangwana as their equals and mngwana (member of thewangwana) was a mngwana disregarding whether he was rich or poor. There was no concept of ‘climbing the social ladder’ and one of the main ways in which the wangwanaensured their social status was through their attitudes towards educating slaves and their views as to who was entitled to religious knowledge. “Education, at that time, meant the acquisition of religious knowledge, which was exclusively possessed by thewangwana.[37] Furthermore, instead of the ijaza system which is awarded generally when any teacher sees a student is capable enough to teach a particular book, thewangwana system made it necessary that the in order to obtain a license a person had to be one of the wangwana, spend at least 15 or 16 years with the wangwana teachers and also be able to pay them- thus these criteria automatically ruled out the slaves from ever reaching this position. However, there was soon to appear on the scene a changing force.

Habib Saleh and his early life

When other Husseini Sharifs left Patta for Lamu, the Jamalulleyl family initially went to the Comoro Islands. According to El Zein’s account, Sharif[38] Saleh was born in 1851 and came to Lamu from the Comoro Islands when he was merely fifteen years old. He came to join his uncle Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah bin Hassan who had come some years before and had established a close relationship with the wangwana since he submitted to the principle “the stranger is not allowed to beat the drum”[39] and thereby did not interfere with their affairs. The young Saleh lived with his uncle in northern Lamu and studied under him and other notable Lamu ulema and he obtained a general licence to teach around 1880. This period was unstable for the island since the slave markets were closed in 1873 and slave traffic on land was prohibited in 1876.

Sharif Saleh was also the first of the Sharifs to move to the southern part of Lamu. According to El Zein (1974), he moved due to his uncle’s refusal to allow him to marry his daughter. Whatever the cause, he started to attend the mosque in the new area ofDarajani and soon the Comoro Islanders that lived nearby asked him to deliver lectures for them at the mosque. The wangwana were not happy about this but since Sharif Saleh did not directly attack nor abuse them in his teachings, they did not take action against him.

Further to the social hierarchy described previously, Habib Saleh rejected the automatic status that his Arab background gave him and believed this automated ‘superiority’ was contradictory to the spirit of Islamic brotherhood. Because the slaves had recently been emancipated, Sharif Saleh established relationships with them and realised that what he perceived to be an irreligious social structure in Lamu, was largely upheld by the discriminatory attitudes towards education.

The Bani Alawi (or ‘Ba Alawi’) Order

Though the Jamalulleyl family did originate from Hadramawt, it could be argued that Habib Saleh was not officially part of the prevalent tariqa of this region until his connection with Habib Ali’ al Habshi had been established. The latter was said to be the ‘spiritual brother’ of Habib Saleh. An incident highlighting the strength of their relationship is recorded in El Zein[40] and is frequently orally narrated in Yemen too at the mention of Habib Saleh. The incident in question took place in Lamu on the night of a maulid when some of those against Habib Saleh set fire to some houses of the gathering’s attendees. When news of the fires reached the Habib Saleh, he asked for people to remain calm saying that if they continued with the maulid their houses would be saved. At the same time a similar gathering was also taking place in Seiyun in Hadramawt with Habib Ali al Habshi who was seen leaving the gathering and returned looking dusty and dishevelled. When questioned he replied that he had gone to help his brother Habib Saleh who had been in need. Though this story may sound strange scientifically (since he said he had left the Yemen for Kenya and returned within hours), from a Sufi perspective it is considered that those that elevate and strengthen their spiritual self over the physical could eventually overcome physical laws of time, space and distance.

Habib Ali al Habshi was a Sheikh of the the Ba Alawi tariqa, which was believed to have been named after al-Faqih Muqaddam As-Sayyid Muhammad bin Ali Ba’Alawi al-Husaini (who died in the year 653 AH/ 1232 CE). The Ba Alawi are descendents[41] of Sayyid Ahmad al-Muhaajer bin Isa (known locally as ‘AlMuhaajer’) who migrated from Basra in Iraq, firstly to Mecca and Medina and then to the South of the Peninsula. He was said to have left Iraq to escape the oppression of the Abbasid Caliphate since the Caliph of the time was suspecting all the Saadaat (Plural of Sayyid [master] which is a title for the descendents of Prophet Muhammad) of planning revolt.[42] Today the Ba Alawi tariqahas great following in the Arabian Peninsula, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and all over the world. The main principles in the order are ‘ilm (knowledge) and obscurity: the former encompassing inner and outer knowledge and the latter meaning humility and submissiveness amongst the people[43]. The principles of this order provided “the ideological basis for Habib Saleh’s reinterpretation of Islam in Lamu”[44] and this is apparent in that he promoted education that transcended social classes and lived amongst the people classed as slaves as a “brother.” El Zein (1974) provides a far more in depth critique of the order, however, this analysis is not considered relevant to Habib Saleh’s establishment of the Maulidi Festival and the question at hand. When it comes totasawwuf it is generally difficult to state in detail what a certain tariqa advocates or teaches. Essentially, every tariqa is about reaching God through repentance, self cleansing, and action. While Sufi scholars have been reluctant to document in writing detailed aspects of ‘unveiling’, the best way to determine a tariqa’s teachings is perhaps to look at the actions and words of scholars that associate themselves with it. Some of the well known contemporary scholars of the Ba Alawi tariqa that regularly visit the UK are Habib Umar bin Hafiz and Habib Ali al Jifri, the latter of whom is very popular with western audiences.

Among Habib Ali’s[45] work is  that with ‘The Radical Middle Way’, established in the UK in practice of a verse of the Quran:

“And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that you might bear witness to the truth before all humankind.” (2: 143)

Furthermore, it is a “grassroots initiative aimed at articulating a relevant mainstream understanding of Islam that is dynamic, proactive and relevant to young British Muslims.” This reiteration of the “middle way” is central to the Ba Alawi tariqa which promotes dialogue between Muslims and fellow citizens in their respective countries. Students of thetariqa are taught to engage with their local communities and take on aspects of the local culture that do not contradict core elements of Islam in the interest of dawa’.

A Yemen Times article[46] states:

“Today the whole of the Hadrami hierarchical segment is still represented in Africa. At the top of the social hierarchy, the sharifs that are best known are AlSaqqaf, BaAlawi and AlAydarus. By playing on their prestige and by means of marriages contracted with ruling families, the sharifs were able to establish political bases or take possession of power structures wherever they settled.”

This suggests that the power transferred at some point, from the wangwana to theSharifs. In a sense, perhaps one social hierarchy was replaced by another. However, as has been made apparent, both systems differed greatly in their dealings with the local people.

The Annual Maulidi Festival of Lamu

The annual Maulidi Festival of Lamu takes place on the island of Lamu every year in the last week of the Islamic lunar month of Rabi` el Awwal (the sixth month of the Islamic year) which is called Mfungo Sita in Swahili. The year 2009 just marked the 120th festival on the island[47]. It runs from the Tuesday to the Friday of the week, thus spanning a period of four days. There is something for everyone at the festival with donkey and boat races[48], henna and board game competitions and various other activities. The men also gather in the mosques to listen to speeches on campaigns against drugs or for the environment and the nights are kept alive with the ‘Sama’i’ where performers take to the stage in groups or solo to sing in praise of the Prophet in English, Arabic, and Swahili.[49]Boat Races

Furthermore, there are competitions between groups of performers outside the Reiyadah mosque after al-asr (the late afternoon prayer) which are also just outside Habib Saleh’s house (which is a few feet from Reiyadah mosque).Masjid Reiyada

The competitions are attended by his descendents and hundreds of other spectators. Generally, the winning group is decided according to the size of the crowd that it manages to attract. In addition to this, countless maulid gatherings take place in the houses of individuals and in mosques. This is not particular to Lamu, but happens all throughout Kenya, especially in coastal towns such as Malindi and Mombasa[52]. The grand maulid gathering of the festival, however, takes place at the Reiyadah mosque on the Thursday night of the festival week.The maulid read is the maulid of Habib Ali al- Habshi, also a Yemnite, buried in Seiyun. Habib Saleh considered Habib Ali al- Habshi one of his teachers and undoubtedly through him he came to accept the Ba Alawi tariqa as his own.

The festival ends with a Zefe (procession) on the last day to the resting place of Habib Saleh who is buried in the Langoni graveyard. There are also various other graves of notable scholars who originate from Hadramawt buried there.

The traditional Ngoma competitions

To understand the Swahili Muslim acceptance of Sufi gatherings and maulids, there must be some mention of the background of the general community. The Swahili word “Ngoma” means: “a drum; a dance” and Ngoma competitions are something very particular to the coastal culture. Gearhart (1998) states:

“like domestic space, music and dance events can be used to order social life and give it meaning” and “up to the mid twentieth century, nearly every household in each coastal town and village had at least one member involved with a music and dance association”

Section two showed how the hierarchy imposed by the wangwana ensured that there was a lack of social mobility for non-wangwana members. Despite this, Swahili elders maintain that ngoma competitions stimulated social interaction between groups that were otherwise divided by ethnicity or race. Though it did not eradicate the divisions, it did allow participation throughout the social spectrum. The designated ranks within the ngoma organisation were influenced by wealth and status, however, they were also granted on merits of song-writing and singing talent. This meant that new members were sometimes able to become leaders of significant standing in a relatively short amount of time.

However, secular ngoma competition was a fierce affair, the extravagance of which could not be sustained without causing long-term damage to individuals and families. This was down to the excessive slaughtering of livestock that was done to accommodate the large feast at the end of a group’s performance. The competition between groups “was simply too destructive for a tightly knit society to withstand.” For these reasons it was believed that “secular ngoma activity ultimately compromised the moral integrity of those who participated in it.”[58] Generally, it is believed that ngoma died down as individual groups became bankrupt as a result of their excessive habits. Consequently, the decline of ngoma resulted in a lot of the old clubhouses being were converted into mosques where maulids were regularly held. There is also some speculation that a lot of the ‘Islamisation’ of the coast during this period was down to the after-effects of the Iranian revolution which brought about changes across the Muslim world.

Songs and Dances during the Maulidi Festival

One of these dances is the Ngoma Labarani, which means the Dance of Barani, since it was by the people of Barani. This involves two men circulating with swords facing each other in a non-aggressive manner to the sound of drums (see appendix 3). According to Salahuddin (the great-grandson of Habib Saleh):

“This was the favourite dance of Habib Saleh because he used to go and dance with the sword too [meaning he danced with the performers]…and that was and is the strongest dance from all of them.”[59]

Another dance is what is known as Uta and is one of the dances performed by thewagema (coconut farmers). “Uta was a rain-making dance performed by slaves before Habib Saleh promoted it as a form of religious entertainment for the Lamu elite”[60] It involves the wearing of leg rattles and the dancers use canes which are pounded on the ground in rhythm with their feet. Furthermore, it must be noted that the Uta dancers wear their traditional work rags to reflect their heritage rooted in slavery. In order to make their dance appeal to their masters, Uta dancers incorporated religious praise and poetry into their sketches, much of which was in Arabic. This meant that they had to memorise a lot of their lines, and for Habib Saleh this was a means through which he promoted their learning and education in Islamic matters.

Another dance is the Goma which in many ways contrasts to the Uta described above. This is performed by men in gleaming white thobes and white hats (known as Kufis) which is traditionally considered to be Arab dress and is even the national dress in Gulf countries like Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia today and since most Goma dancers are originally Arab and their clothing reflects this.

What the Goma does hold in common with the Uta is that both contain verses in praise of the Prophet and local saints as is the purpose of the whole festival.

The Rama Maulidi is considered to be one of the few salvaged ngoma dances that have been persevered as Sufi Dhikiri and consists of rows of men dressed in white singing verses of poetry describing the life of Prophet Muhammad. Its true origin has been somewhat disputed with some people speculating that it was established by one of the town’s leading clans while other’s believe that it was a slave practice from mainland Kenya. Interestingly, whilst speaking to present day attendees of the festival, many believe that it originated from the Yemen; this again links in with the issue of national memory and the Swahili tendency to link their culture with Islam over possibilities of local originations.

However, the Rama Maulidi has also faced its fair share of opposition (as previously discussed in chapter two) and Gearhart: 1998 makes mention of one Rama performer’s statement:

“There are local Muslims who oppose Rama maulidi. They receive payments from people in Saudi Arabia, who want to insure that it doesn’t continue… Yet they have failed. The Saudis want us to stop practicing many of our traditions. For example, they don’t want us to say prayers for the dead on the way to the burial (ziara)… They don’t want us to read prayers for the dead, to eat in the mosque, to play the tambourines while reading maulidi. They have tried many ways to stop us, but in vain” 113

General Competitiveness

As previously mentioned there are numerous competitions that take place during the maulidi days, with boat competitions, donkey races and board game tournaments being just a few from among them. As the background on the ngoma competitions highlighted, competitiveness was at the heart of Swahili culture with clan loyalty and territorial allegiance being at the forefront of this. These other competitions stem from this same spirit. Though neither religious nor non-religious in nature, they attract to the festival those who may have been disinclined to attend had the event been completely Islamic therefore this is thought to be yet another dawa’ strategy to reach out to those far from the practice of their faith.

Dawa’ Methods and the Maulidi

The influence of Habib Saleh can further be seen with the emergence of mosques in other towns along the coastal region with the same name “Masjid al-Reiyadah”. There is a mosque with this name in the costal town of Malindi as well as in Tarim, Hadramawt, where numerous mosques exist with this name. The latter suggests that Habib Saleh possibly imported the name from established mosques in Hadrami cities. The question arises as to how Habib Saleh was able to exert such great influence over Lamu’s people when he was not originally from amongst them: the answer seems to lie within his dealings with them.

There are narrations which describe his “new approach” with the slaves. One story says how when a slave would stop attending congregational prayers, he would “contact him and tell him the rest of the group felt his absence” and “never accused them of not praying; instead he assumed that they prayed in their houses.” [62] This kind of trust and equality was new for those he interacted with and undoubtedly it increased them in love and loyalty for him. Similarly, there is another narration too of how when Habib Saleh saw a man with soiled or dirty clothing coming to pray, “he would not point out that his clothes were dirty, but instead he would go and get one of his own robes and tell the man that he had gained some weight and that his robe was too tight. He tried to teach the slaves without attacking them.”[63] This approach was non-judgemental and full of wisdom, it meant he educated people without asserting any superiority over them.

In addition to this, other speculators as to why coastal Africans so readily accepted Sufi meditative practices and dhikr sessions have stated that the states (haal pl. ahwaal) that could be achieved during the dhikr sessions mirrored quite closely the trances people went into during spirit-exorcising dances. Some scholarly discussion also suggests that the practice of the Zefe, which is the procession to the resting places of local saints, is quite similar to the ancestral worship rituals that were and are part of some indigenous African cultures. Of course, the implication that the Zefe resembles ‘worship’ would outrage any orthodox Muslim, however, this suggestion is perhaps trying to address the similarities between honouring the forefathers and honouring local scholars, since in a sense both are about gratitude and kinship.

There are of course many more aspects to the Maulidi Festival that have not been covered here. In addition to it being a festival of religious celebration it very often attracts dispersed family members across the globe that return to it as a social connection to their homeland. It is a time where weddings are arranged and reunions take place and a means by which local businesses thrive on the influx of visitors.


To what extent does the Maulidi Festival of Lamu represent the wider culture of the region?

Without doubt the richness, diversity and uniqueness of the East African coast and the surrounding region cannot be contained within a single piece of academic work. Length limitations do not allow the depth and detail that may be necessary for a more just analysis of such a vibrant region of the contemporary world. Due to this, the omission of some aspects was rendered necessary in this work if they were not deemed entirely relevant to the question at hand. Among these aspects was the influence of Oman, though important, it was felt that the detail on the Yemen was sufficient. Furthermore, the Jamalulleyl family’s history in the Comoros has not been addressed. There is also evidence that there were other organised Sufi orders established on the coast around the same period as Habib Saleh, and many of these emerged as successful anti-colonial movements with similar followings, however, since the focus of this work was on Lamu and the Maulidi, these were not included.

Furthermore, as sections one and two indicate, analysis of the Maulidi Festival brings to surface many questions about the region’s history, the issues of music and Sufi tariqas and the origin of the maulidIn reality, each of these issues are in themselves deserving of lengthy and independent research efforts, however, here both sections have simply been intended as introductions to their respective topics to serve the purpose of contextualising the Maulidi Festival.

In terms of whether the festival is a representation of the culture of the region as a whole, the first section demonstrated that there have been long ties between these countries across the ocean by way of trade, emigration and slavery, which all contributed to the arrival of Islam to the that part of the region. Thus, it is evident that the relationship between the East African coast and the Arabian Peninsula has been long standing and travellers such as Ibn Battuta documented their observations of the cultural practices and the way in which historical landmark events like the end of slavery brought changes across the coast.

Similarly, the second section showed that the Maulidi Festival is on the more liberal side of the music debate since it consists of singing with all forms of instruments as well as more traditional qasida readings in the mosques with the use of drums and tambourines. Furthermore, it is clear the maulid is something that has been celebrated in various styles and with the use of many methods through centuries. Though those that oppose the celebration, are, in their view, protecting Islam from all types of innovations, those that see it as permissible deem it an essential part of the faith. In this respect the Hadrami attitude of celebration has been incorporated into the East African attitudes since they were already celebrated in the area. However, whilst the wangwana did not have a problem with the maulid, they used it as a way of preserving their status by means of selective invitation to their gatherings.

It is evident that the Lamu before Habib Saleh’s prominence was one rampant with social divide through class structure based on grounds of ethnicity and language. It was a society still recovering from the slave trade and the general situation was always taken advantage of by the wangwana who had established themselves as the superior leaders. Despite the diversity of Lamu’s population from settled traders and immigrants from the Comoros and other areas, this system of wangwana superiority was maintained by the discriminatory attitudes towards education which excluded non-wangwana residents of Lamu from learning detailed aspects of the religion. However, it is also arguable that the Sharifs, in a sense, replaced the wangwana hierarchy with their own; however, regardless of whether this is true, what differed significantly were their methodologies. Habib Saleh’s attitude was one of tolerance and patience where he regarded the old system of discriminatory education wholly un-Islamic and set forth to educate the new free slaves of Lamu. It is apparent that his attitude was sincere since he went as far as to move to the region of the slaves’ residences and chose to live like them. He taught without direct preaching or provocative action and sought change from the grass-roots. He educated the slaves without judging and treated them as “brothers”.  Moreover, while Habib Saleh’s attitude towards musical instruments and universal education alienated him from the local wangwanaleaders, his teachings were generally with  license from ulema of Hadramawt like Sheikh Abu Bakr bin Salem and Habib Ali al-Habshi, and this won him the support of the Hadrami settlers.

The phenomenon that Habib Saleh created in his time, while not an isolated one, is from the best representations of Sufi attitudes to dawa’ and the preaching of a ‘hybrid’ Islam which allows the moulding of pre-Islamic practices into legitimate forms of dhikr. The present day existence of Maulidi ya Rama and Uta dances is evidence of how Habib Saleh brought together cultural practices that were divided by an ocean into what worked in harmonious unity on the coast. Furthermore, the fact that Habib Saleh opted to take the more liberal approach in his attitude to music is reflective of the teachings of Ba Alawischolars even today who believe in making things easy where possible in the interest ofdawa.  According to (Gearhart 1998):

“With the support of Mansabu and Ali bin Muhammed al-Habashi, the head (Qutb) of the Alawiyya Sufi order, Saleh argued that the tambourines sparked interest among non-Muslims, and facilitated a much-desired spiritual link between man and God” 104

This further supports the fact that Habib Saleh strived to make the local Islam relatable and appealing to local Africans and was prepared to take any opportunity that did not directly oppose Islamic law as a means of endearing them.

Thus, experts of the East African coast that hold that it is primarily “Arab”, do not take into account the work of Sufi scholars like Habib Saleh who strove to integrate African traditions into the local Islam by means of adapting some of their dances and practices. Similarly, the scholars who equate “Swahili” as being predominantly African do not take into consideration the importation of Hadrami ideas and customs, which included maulids written specifically by Yemeni scholars like Habib Ali al-Habshi. In this light, the existence of Swahili culture shows little support for cultural theories like Kim’s theory of inter-cultural adaptation which suggest that foreign migrants go through a process of detaching themselves from their birth culture before embracing the host country’s culture (Kim 1988). Swahili culture seems to be more supportive of Kramer’s cultural fusion theory since migrations to the coast, as well as the establishment of trading routes between Hadramawt and East Africa all brought together cultures and paved the way for a closer exchange of ideas, habits and customs.

When a question relating to identity and whether he would describe himself as “Muslim”, “Arab”, “Swahili” or even “African” was posed to Salahuddin, he responded:

“…I just see myself as Muslim, nothing more and nothing less. And this was advice from my dad..”

There is no doubt that such sentiments are echoed across lands where Muslims are a minority and they feel a significant affinity for the Islamic umma. It is clear that present day coastal Swahili culture is an example of the fusions that are possible as a result of travel and settlement and the Maulidi Festival contains indigenous African traditions as well as remnants of Swahili ngoma practices which were turned into acceptable forms ofdhikr. Furthermore, many of these dances and songs contain Arabic qasidas often written by Hadrami scholars. The support for this may not have been possible without the centuries old trading link which saw the settlement of Hadrami merchants on the coast who brought with them Islam. In a sense, this suggests that the greatest unifying factor across the coast is perhaps Islam which brings it closer to Arabia than to mainland Africa. However; arguably, it was the integrations of the Swahili language and African culture by Sufi leaders that was the cause of the African people’s attraction to Islam and therefore the reality of coastal identity perhaps lies somewhere in middle. Thus, the island of Lamu is perhaps one of the finest examples of where two civilisations met on the border of two very different continents and developed into a rich and vibrant culture reflective of the local people’s history, religion and identity.


[8] Kroeber, A.L & Kluckhohn, C (1952:47)

[9] Kroeber, A.L & Kluckhohn, C (1952:51)

[10 http://www.africanmeccasafaris.com/kenya/mombasa/excursions/gediruins.asp

[12] Mehrab: This is the prayer niche found at the front of the prayer hall in a mosque to show the direction of Mecca.

[13] Ambergris: a sticky waxy substance of a black or grey colour produced in the intestines of sperm whales. “In Eastern cultures ambergris is used for medicines and potions and as a spice; in the West it was used to stabilize the scent of fine perfumes. Ambergris floats and washes ashore most frequently on the coasts of China, Japan, Africa, and the Americas and on tropical islands such as the Bahamas.” – Encyclopaedia Britannica

[14] Chittick & Rotberg (1975:10)

[15] R. B. Serjeant (1995:120)

[16] Freeman-Greenville (1962:9)

[17] The singular is ‘sāhil’.

[18]Government of Kenya : http://www.kenya.go.ke/.

[20] www.islamicawakening.com

[21] Inayat Khan was from India 1882-1927

[22] http://www.sufimovement.org/sufimusic.htm

[23] Among some famous Qawwali performers is the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who was hailed as the ‘Emperor of Qawwali’ and was listed in the Times magazines 2006 list of ‘Asian heroes’.

[24] www.chishti.ru

[25] www.iqra.net/shaykh1/

[26] An oral tradition related by the contemporary students of Habib Mash’hur was how some Muslims in Tanzania that he knew used to love going to the nightclubs through the night. So he habitually picked them up to pray ishā’ (last prayer of the day) in congregation with them, would then drop them off to the club, and then pick them up at dawn to prayfajr with them. He would then take them home. Habib Mash’hur was criticised for ‘assisting’ the sinners by driving them to a place of corruption, however, his intention was to honour the Prophetic hadith: A person who prayed ishā  in congregation is like a person who stood [for worship] till midnight and a person who prayed the fajr in congregation is like a person who spent the whole night standing [in worship]” Muslim 65. It is said that many of these people soon turned away from their partying habits.

[27] Sīra: Referring here to the biography of Prophet Muhammad

[28] It is traditionally sung in various tunes in Arabic, however, this is a translation by Yusuf Islam which he sings in conjunction with the Arabic: Album: Yusuf Islam and Friends, “Bismillah”(2001)

[29] Daff: a one sided drum made with animal skin and is of the least controversial of instruments in Islam.

[31] A Qutb is a spiritual leader of status within the hierarchy of tasawwuf.

[32] El Zein, The Sacred Meadows (1974:136)

[33] Q&A www.sunnipath.com

[34] http://www.arabray.com/english/28.htm

[35] El Zein (1974:19)

[37] El Zein (1974:33)

[38] Sharif is a title given to descendents of the Prophet’s family. Other alternatives are ‘Syed’ (popular in the subcontinent) and ‘Habib’(popular in Southern Arabia). ‘Sharif’ and ‘Sharifa’ are also a popular titles in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia for descendents of the Prophet and it is given as part of the birth name.

[39] El Zein (1974:117)

[40] El Zein (1974:140)

[42] http://baalawi.ning.com/

[43] El Zein (1974:146-7)

[44] El Zein (1974:143)

[45] Habib Ali al Jifri received a classical Islamic education from the illustrious scholars of Hadramawt, embodying a methodology which crystallizes the middle way. (www.theradicalmiddleway.co.uk)

[46] http://www.maldivesroyalfamily.com/baAlawi.shtml

[47] Sheriff, Abdulrahman Lamu braces for the 120th Maulidi Daily Nation

[49] 1998: September: Four Days for the Prophet: The World & I. 13 (9)

[54] The tradition of the maulid gathering being held on Thursday night is a Hadrami tradition. Whilst in Yemen I witnessed the maulid being observed every Thursday night of the year, with it being the highlight of the week for the community.

[57] Ali Ahmed Jahadhmy (2005) Learner’s Swahili-English English-Swahili DictionaryKenya: Evans Brothers Limited p.83

[58] Gearhart (2000: 36)

[59] correspondence via e-mail on 19/04/2009

[60] Gearhart (1998:102)

[62] El Zein (1974:126)

[63] El Zein (1974:127)

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