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Advice

By:
Shaykh al-Amin bin ‘Ali al-Mazrui
Document type:
Articles and Essays

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Advice

Shaykh al-Amin bin ‘Ali al-Mazrui

Commentary

Shaykh al-Amin bin ‘Ali Mazrui (Kenya, 1890–1947) was the scion of a long line of religious scholars from the large Mazrui clan, which had immigrated to Mombasa, Kenya, from Oman during the 1700s. In the 1880s and 1890s, Arab colonial power in Kenya and Mombasa was replaced by British rule. Al-Amin sought to explain what appeared to him to be a topsyturvy world, and to find direction for a future he felt was being lost. He was very aware of the nature of this debate as it was being discussed outside East Africa. He appears to have read the teachings and writings of contemporary authors such as Muhammad ‘Abduh (chapter 3) and Rashid Rida (chapter 6). What is especially interesting about al-Amin, however, is the specific construction he gave to the singular historical character of Swahili Islamic society, as well as the localized dilemmas in which it found itself during Mazrui's lifetime. To address these issues, Mazrui wrote two short-lived newspapers in Arabic and Swahili in the early 1930s. Nothing has survived of those journals except for twenty-seven essays that he later collected into a little booklet, from which these excerpts are taken.1 Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800–1900 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 97–124, 201–202; Shaykh Abdallah Salih Farsy, The Shafi‘i Ulama of East Africa, ca. 1830–1970 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 120–122; Ahmed I. Salim, “Sheikh al Amin bin Ali al Mazrui: un réformiste moderne au Kenya” (Shaykh al-Amin bin ‘Ali al-Mazrui: A Modern Reformist in Kenya), pp. 59– 71 in François Constantin, ed., Les voies de l’Islam en Afrique orientale (The Paths of Islam in East Africa) (Paris: Éditions Karthala, 1987).

How Do We Imitate the Europeans?

All people of the world have their customs and habits which are not like those of other people. This is because of dissimilarities people have in their cities, nations, and religions. And the foundation by which people know their way is their nationality, from which they derive their habits and customs. For this reason intelligent people in every tribe customarily hold fast to these roots and habits and customs because they fear becoming like the blackbird which lost its way and [took to] imitating that of the sparrow, whose identity was lost to him yet who could not become a sparrow, an existence which was neither this nor that.

We must take care that we do not change our customs to those of others who do not get along with us except in an emergency, and then [if we do so, we do so] only for the good, and [if we choose to change to their ways, we should do so] only in ways that are good and which do not violate our religion.

I say this because every day we see ourselves mimicking whites, and not only in ways that are good and which do not contradict our religion.

We have imitated them in their habits; [it seems] we have only seized upon [things like] drinking wine and dressing as they do. I say [we should follow them only] in their good customs, like their pastimes, their ways of [conducting] meetings, their love of country, their solidarity, and other things like these; [however] in [other] things of ours, it does not benefit us to mimic them.

We also have wanted to follow them in their exertions. What we have observed of their exertions has been in their entertainment like football, golf, music, and dance, not in things like working or studying artisanry as they do. These are not the sorts of things we have taken to: to the contrary, we have left all meaningful forms of employment to the Chaga, the Taita, the Kikuyu, and the Kamba.2 [These ethnic groups were neighbors of the coastal Swahili. When the British made Mombasa the principal port city of their Kenyan colony, thousands of people from the upcountry crowded into the city seeking work and the excitement of the new possibilities that the new order seemed to represent. They learned quickly about the new forms of employment and mastered English, the new skills and ideas needed to land jobs in light industry and transport. The Swahili and other Muslims found themselves to be minorities in their own city.—Trans.] They are the ones who do mechanical and railway work: they are the telephone workers; they are the ones who do radio and electrical work; they are the ones who make an effort to learn the work of lighting and craftsmanship and other modern forms of employment.

We have tried to follow the whites’ ideas about knowledge, [the form of which] we have taken to be [merely] a twisting of the tongue when we say “yes,”3 [“Fot-fot yes” in the original. I am unable to identify this reference.—Trans.] even learning salutations like “good morning” or “thank you,” which are how you greet or thank someone in their language, as if the European language itself is all the knowledge we need. It has gotten so that people think there is no need for knowledge of [practical affairs like] business, agriculture, work, or other things!

Poor people of Mombasa! These days we cannot [even] see the difference between [genuine] knowledge and [mere] language. These casual employees of the Europeans who work as coolies and cooks and “boys,” all [of them] speak the language of the whites even more than our own. Are these ones [now] to be taken to be scholars? No, rather as fools who belong to the lowest order [of society].

We have tried to imitate the Europeans in how we expect our women to act to the point that we expect them to be like theirs. We don’t consider them to be proper women if they don’t cut their hair [as white women do] or wear frocks. Or the knowledge European women have in fixing up their houses and making them comfortable and neat, and rearing their children in a healthy way, and with good customs and manners, and the ability they have in [doing] handy work and crafts and cooking, we have never regarded this twaddle as something that makes them civilized. It is a stinking mess, and [something] to make our women go around in circles.

Praise the Lord! Is it only in bad things that we see ways of following the whites’ example? It seems we have become like flies, building only in sores, or like scavenger beetles becoming offended only by a good scent, and made happy by a stench, searching for filth.

I implore you, O Prophet! Show us the truth, and charge us with the vigor to follow it. Show us what is worthless, and arm us with the strength to prevent it.

Advice for Today's Muslims

These quarrels in which Muslims are involved these days reduce them to a contemptuous and humiliating condition that accomplishes nothing for them except to debase their religion, which requires [of them] their best and [demands that they] cleanse themselves of all that is base. Muslims these days are in [such] a state of division that they are their [own worst] enemies. One hardly sees a city anywhere where there are not Muslims, and Muslims among whom there are great differences.

For example, Mombasa has 75,000 people, and among these are many Muslims who are the most humiliated of all peoples. They are poor in learning, poor in wealth, poor even in fearing the people who lead them, poor in everything. One source of great dissension in Mombasa concerns the Banyan community —who number only a few people—and [yet] they have two daily newspapers, while Mombasa Muslims have none. And in the whole of Kenya there exists not one, single [Muslim] newspaper except this wretched little one of ours which is so little. It brings me great sorrow that Goans have their own school, while we have not one school in all our communities [Swahili towns of East Africa] except these Qur'an schools which a seven-year-old child enters and—God forbid!—leaves at a barely mature age, hardly knowing anything except how to read the Qur'an. And [even this] he is hardly able to read properly, nor know its meaning, even that of the Fatiha [opening verses of the Qur'an], which he recites all the time in his daily and nighttime prayers. So he finishes at the Qur'an school, and his father takes him and he goes and pushes him into the fire pit of the missionary school where there is great misfortune [for him].

Our advice to today's Muslims is to [encourage them to] build their madrasas [seminaries] to teach their children what is in the shari‘a [religious law] and what they need to know about life in this world as well. This madrasa itself [provides] a stratagem for protecting children from the temptations of the mission school, saves their religiosity, lifts them into the exalted ranks, and teaches them excellent manners and great strength of character. This will [ward off] disgrace and will encourage them to desire better things of themselves, since all Muslims want very much to be respected, as God Almighty showed in the Qur'an.4 [The meaning is unclear: either that the Qur'an provides evidence of the great things Mazrui desires for Muslims, or that the Qur'an provides the wisdom by which Muslims can achieve great things.—Trans.] This respect cannot be realized except, first, by opening the way needed to accomplish this, nor is there any other means except through education that combines [matters of] Religion and the World.

This is the true way of advancing Muslims to a condition of pride and sublimation, the reason for lifting them up. But where is the money to build these madrasas? I say the money is not lacking. Rather, all the people require is a plan, [and] then they should resolve to do this with their whole hearts; afterward they ought to make a great effort, so then there will be no problem that the money will be available.

The people of Mombasa number about 75,000, as I have already stated, and many among them are Muslims. We believe that Muslims number about half, and we, that is Arabs and Swahili, number around 12,000. So if we require every person among us to donate three shillings a year, we will collect 36,000 shillings in just one year. This will be sufficient to build the madrasas that we need and to teach our children everything they need to know to benefit them in this world and in the Hereafter.

People suffering misfortune will say that this [plan] will cause them anxieties, but I say this must be and that we can do what is necessary to improve our resolve.

Every day we complain that our education is declining and that it is total nonsense to expect the government to improve it. God forbid, we are stingy with money! Do we think that great education will happen without a little application and with a lot of complaining?

We always want the government to treat us the same as the Indians. [Yet] have we thought even for a day of wanting to do as they do in giving as they do to educate their children? Indians each donate twenty shillings more than the Poll Tax they pay, and they do not see like you that [there is anything wrong in] teaching their children knowledge of the world. So why cannot we hospitable [that is, otherwise generous] people donate three shillings annually so our children can learn about religion and worldly matters too?

This is my plan and I place it before the eyes of our community for consideration. I ask God Almighty to help us to fulfill it.

The Community of Islam

Jama‘a” in the Arabic language means something which makes [many] people into one, [all] having a part in a certain matter. Countrymen, for example, are a family which encourages people who live in a particular city to participate in the reconciliation of their community, not in [creating] divisions between tribe and tribe, nor between religion and religion. And [it is the purpose of] the Muslim community to encourage all Muslims to be one family, eliciting harmony from their religion and avoiding harm. Thus it enjoins every Muslim to be a brother to another, not to [create] differences between Indian and Swahili, nor between Arab and Kikuyu, nor between European and Javanese, nor between the damned and the devout, nor between master and servant.

God Almighty has arranged all Muslims in a form of brotherhood by His word, which stated that “Muslims are brothers.” And the essence of this brotherhood is in the fundamental objective of achieving unity, the abolition of different factions where every one defends only its own interests and causes harm to others. Confrontation saps people's strength. Even though their intention is to be united, they cling to their differences, each favoring only themselves.

Look at the armies of Islam which set out to conquer the cities of Iran in the time of our lord Abu Bakr [first caliph, reigned 632–634]. They were in four groups: ‘Amr ibn al-‘Asi [died 663] and his army, Abu ‘Ubayda [ibn al-Jarra circa 581–639] and his army, Yazid ibn Abi Sufyan [died 683] and his army, and Shurahbil ibn Hasana [circa 570–639] and his army. No doubt all of these shared one goal, but their enmity was well known. Because of this estrangement they were unable to defeat the Iranians until Khalid ibn Walid [died 642] went and brought all four armies together, creating one army under his command, which is when they defeated the enemy.

Likewise, we have seen [how] the armies of the Allies in the Great War [World War I] were afraid of defeating their enemies so long as each country had its armies under its own commanders. But when they joined together under the command of General [Ferdinand] Foche [of France], not many days passed without victory. These [examples] show that tearing at each other does not strengthen people even though they intend to be harmonized.

A function of the Community of Islam is [to see] that all Muslims are like the connecting parts of a body, like the parts of our Lord, the whole thing: and if one [part] is sick, the whole is seized by Wild Cardamom Fever.5 [Matungu fever is a very painful sickness that is common in East Africa.—Trans.] Furthermore, what is desirable is that it be like this between Muslims, each part [of the community] in respect to every other part. If the Community of Islam becomes this way, it will discourage some from organizing their own [exclusive] bonds, stopping them from bringing harm to others, and leaving [them] only [with] the duty a brother in religion owes another. It will permit them to help their brothers so they might bring about the desired harmony. And when, for example, does a rich person do harm when he tries to help his companion to be a rich man like him? Also, how bad does it appear to be when a person stops himself from rescuing a neighbor from a fearful danger in order that they might be like each other in vigor? Do we think we should distance ourselves from the bigotry of people when they were in the kind of ignorance [that existed] before the Prophet came, and follow what the Prophet told us? Should we not hold fast to our Islamic comradeship, thus saving each other? A Muslim is the brother of a fellow Muslim, just as the Prophet said.

Bibliography references:

Shaykh al-Amin bin ‘Ali al-Mazrui, Uwongozi (Advice) (Mombasa, Kenya: East African Muslim Welfare Society, 1955), pp. 6–8, 45–48. First published in 1931–1932. Translation from Swahili and introduction by Randall L. Pouwels. Thanks to Professor Thomas Hinnebusch for his valuable help with this translation.

Notes:

1. Randall L. Pouwels, Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800–1900 (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 97–124, 201–202; Shaykh Abdallah Salih Farsy, The Shafi‘i Ulama of East Africa, ca. 1830–1970 (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989), pp. 120–122; Ahmed I. Salim, “Sheikh al Amin bin Ali al Mazrui: un réformiste moderne au Kenya” (Shaykh al-Amin bin ‘Ali al-Mazrui: A Modern Reformist in Kenya), pp. 59– 71 in François Constantin, ed., Les voies de l’Islam en Afrique orientale (The Paths of Islam in East Africa) (Paris: Éditions Karthala, 1987).

2. [These ethnic groups were neighbors of the coastal Swahili. When the British made Mombasa the principal port city of their Kenyan colony, thousands of people from the upcountry crowded into the city seeking work and the excitement of the new possibilities that the new order seemed to represent. They learned quickly about the new forms of employment and mastered English, the new skills and ideas needed to land jobs in light industry and transport. The Swahili and other Muslims found themselves to be minorities in their own city.—Trans.]

3. [“Fot-fot yes” in the original. I am unable to identify this reference.—Trans.]

4. [The meaning is unclear: either that the Qur'an provides evidence of the great things Mazrui desires for Muslims, or that the Qur'an provides the wisdom by which Muslims can achieve great things.—Trans.]

5. [Matungu fever is a very painful sickness that is common in East Africa.—Trans.]

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