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Yao, Islam and the

Liazzat J. K. Bonate
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Yao, Islam and the

The Yao (pl., Wayao) is an ethnic and linguistic group with nuclei in northern Mozambique, southern Malawi, and southern Tanzania, though nowadays the Wayao can also be found in all major urban centers and other regions in these countries. Already in the late seventeenth century the Portuguese mentioned groups of mainland people called “Mujaua” or “Mujao,” who came to the coast to sell mainly ivory. In the nineteenth century, the Wayao became actively engaged in the international slave trade by selling captives from the African mainland to Arabs and Swahili in Zanzibar and other ports.

The expansion of the Makua and their fierce competition for the slave trade, along with the Nguni conquests, and the 1850–1860s drought and famine, triggered the first Yao emigration from Mozambique to the neighboring regions. The wars among the Wayao themselves also served as a significant impetus for their expansion. British colonization and the Portuguese wars of “effective occupation” on the opposing sides of Lake Malawi (called Niassa by the Portuguese) at the end of the nineteenth century caused new waves of emigration. In 1912, the Portuguese concessionary company Companhia do Nyassa conquered the lands of the Yao chief, Che Mataka, and subjected the Wayao to heavy taxation and forced labor, which prompted further emigration. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the Portuguese colonial exploitation became particularly intense, entire populations of some northern Mozambican regions crossed the frontier to the Nyasaland or Tanganyika in order to escape forced labor, compulsory relocations, and abuses of local administrators, virtually reducing some chiefdoms into nothing. The fact that they could often secure better wages and higher prices for agricultural produce in these countries than in Mozambique played a role on their decisions to emigrate as well.

The Adoption of Islam.

Despite their long-term relationship with the Muslim coast, the Wayao began converting to Islam only in the second half of the nineteenth century. As in the case of the Mozambican Makua, the conversion was an elite phenomenon, limited to the chiefly establishment. The first Yao chief to accept Islam was Makanjila III Bwanali in about 1870, while other important chiefs, such as Mataka II Nyenje, Jalasi, and Mponda did so in the 1880s.

Scholars have advanced several hypotheses as to what motivated the conversion of these chiefs. Some suggested that it was due to their desire to strengthen relationships with the Swahili and Arabs, as well as their desire for literacy and modernization associated with Islam and the coast. In addition, they needed to consolidate authority by enhancing their own status through Islam, which they associated with prestige and wealth. The British abolitionist policies, largely undertaken by Christian missionaries, and the Yao perceptions that the conflict over the slave trade had a religious character also seem to have contributed to this process.

However, the Wayao involvement in the nineteenth-century international slave trade was the most important reason for their conversion. Northern Mozambican Wayao, similar to other Muslims of the region, including the Swahili at the coast and the Makua of the mainland, identify themselves, besides being Yao, also as Issilamu (Islamic) and the Maka. The term Maka, which generally denotes being a Muslim, sprung out of alliances between the ruling coastal Shirazi clans and the powerful inland chiefs. These relationships were established in the second half of the nineteenth century through conquest and kinship relations in order to control major slave routes and trading outposts. These alliances resulted in a network of paramount chiefs and their subordinates making up the bulk of slave-raiders, who delineated the limits between themselves as the “Maka” (Muslims and “civilized”) and those to be enslaved (non-Muslims and “uncivilized”). The creation of “Maka” trade networks went hand-in-hand with massive expansion of Islam from the coast into the mainland, whereby the chiefs were the first converts.

In contrast to the Makua, little is known about the Yao chiefs’ kinship relationships with the coastal Swahili, or other Muslims for that matter, though Makanjila was reported to have considered himself “one with the coast.” Only Nancy J. Hafkin (1971) mentions such relationships. She states that the Yao Muslim chief Mussaca was a brother of Abudurabe, the Swahili sultan of Tungui in the contemporary Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, and was also married to Cuffria, sister of another Swahili ruler at Mocimboa da Praia.

Scholars working on Malawi underscore the importance of the male initiation ceremony called lupanda for the conversion of the ordinary Africans. However, the question why these people chose to become Muslims, albeit through lupanda, remains unanswered. Undergoing ritual initiation controlled by chiefs meant achieving adulthood and becoming a proper Yao. It involved a partial male circumcision, transformed into a full Islamic circumcision after the conversion of the chiefs. Subsequently, lupanda was renamed jando, the way this kind of male initiation rite involving circumcision is known among Muslims at the Swahili coast. Jando became a vehicle for the simultaneous adoption of the Yao and Muslim identities, even by people from other ethnic groups. Thus the notions of being a Yao and a Muslim became interchangeable.

For the Mozambican case, it seems that the context of the nineteenth-century international slave trade had left little choice: either become Muslim and raid for slaves or resist conversion and turn into a target for enslavement. Ordinary people might have emulated their converted chiefs by adopting Islam. In principle, all the subordinates of the chiefs were nominally their kin, and thus expected to follow suit if the chief became a Muslim. The outsiders, on the other hand, might have sought to join the stronger chiefdoms and seek their protection in an environment of violent and rapid change and uncertainty. The most powerful chiefdoms were Muslim, such as those under the Yao chiefs mentioned above. Joining these chiefdoms meant adopting their languages, ethnic denominations, and particular cultures, including Islam. Those who were enslaved as captives and children born to them were sometimes incorporated into the local societies as junior members of local kin groups, and thus became Muslim, too.

ṣūfī Orders.

The establishment of the British and Portuguese colonial rules in the early twentieth century signaled the definite defeat of African resistance, and many chiefs that spearheaded it were killed or exiled. The weakening of the chiefly establishment coincided with the expansion of two ṣūfī Orders (locally, d/tiqiri from dhikr; Ar., sing., ṭarīqah, pl., turuq), the Shādhulīyah and the Qādirīyah, that first came to northern Mozambique along historical and cultural links to the Swahili world. The Shādhulīyah Yashrutiyya was brought in 1897 by Sayyid Muhammad Maʾrūf ibn Sayyid Ahmad ibn Abi Bakr (1853–1905) of the Comoro Islands, who was the regional founder and the head of the order in east and southern Africa. The Qādirīyah arrived with Shaykh ʿIssa ibnn Ahmad from Ngazidja in the Comoro in 1905 (or 1904), who was a khalīfa (Ar,. deputy head) of ʿUmar ibn al-Qullatayn an-Nadhiri of Zanzibar, who in his turn was a disciple of Shaykh ʿUmar Uways ibnn Muhammad al-Barawi (1847–1909), the founder of the Uwaysiyya branch of the Qādirīyah. Shaykh Maʾrūf and Shaykh ʿIssa both resided in Zanzibar at the time. The orders were initially established at Mozambique Island but spread throughout the country between the 1930s to the 1960s. In Malawi, both orders were implanted by the Yao shaykhs from Mozambique, the Shādhulīyah by Abdullah bin Hajji Mkwanda (1860–1930) at the end of the nineteenth century, while the Qādirīyah by Thabiti ibn Muhammad Ngaunje (1880–1959) at the beginning of the twentieth century. In both regions, as well as in southern Tanzania, these ṣūfī orders triggered further expansion of Islam, in a much higher scale than in any other times. This was in part because the orders were more egalitarian and inclusive than was the case when Islamic practices were controlled by the chiefs or the Swahili at the coast..

Thus, the emergence of the ṭarīqahs suggested that Islam was no longer the exclusive prerogative of the chiefs or the coastal Swahili because the religious authority associated with Sufism need not be linked to political power. Rather, it was based upon the ṭarīqah shaykh’s Islamic learning (ʿilm) and the place he occupied within the chain of transmission, silsilah/isnād, conferred to him by an authorizing diploma, the ijāzah. However, when the colonial rule was consolidated in the 1930s, and the chiefs were incorporated into the British Indirect Rule as well as the Portuguese Overseas Administrative System, they seem to have switched their attention from confronting the Europeans to recuperating Islam as part of their chiefly domain. Gradually they managed to take control of the orders by becoming khalifahs themselves or by putting in charge close relatives both in Mozambique and Nyasaland. This prompted a competition between the chiefly elites and the ṭarīqah shaykhs tariqa shuyūkh for the Islamic authority associated with Sufism. The competition was expressed through internal debates and conflicts involving such issues as whether the main ṣūfī ritual of dhikr should be performed loudly or quietly, with drums or without them, and in mosques or not. Trimingham (1964)maintains that these types of debate spread to the East African coast, the Yao regions in the southern part of Africa, and implicated Muslims in Uganda in the north as well. Among the Wayao, the adherents of the Qādirīyah were divided between those who performed the noisy dhikr with drums and the quietists (sukūtīs).

The controversies became particularly acute when centered on the performance of dhikr during funerals. J. Clyde Mitchell describes the sukūtī/twaliki (from ṭarīqah) dispute which took place in the Jalasi’s chiefdom of Nyasaland in 1937. In 1949, the British colonial government invited Sayyid Abduʾl-Hasan ibn. Ahmad Jamali Laili, a prominent Islamic scholar from Zanzibar, to arbitrate the conflict, but he was unable to settle the disputes. On the Mozambique side of the border, these disputes often caused violent physical outbursts between conflicting sides. In 1968, the disagreements were so heightened as to require the intervention of the Portuguese, who solicited Shaykh Momade Sayyid Mujabo of Mozambique Island to issue a fatwā (Ar., legal opinion) on the dispute. This shaykh ruled that the funerals should be neither silent nor noisy, but performed in a normal voice. In essence the sukūtī disputes about funerals continued well into the postcolonial period, but from the 1960s onward they pitted ṣūfīs against the newly arrived Islamists.


The Islamists, dubbed in Mozambique as the “Wahhābī,” emerged in the 1960s when the first graduates from the Islamic university of Medina returned to the country. Due to their closeness, the Wahhābīs are understood by Mozambican Muslims as evolving out of sukūtīs. However, as compared to the sukūtīs, they support a quiet funeral without any dhikr and express their views using the term bidʿah (Ar., abominable religious innovation) rather than sukūt or ḥaram. They denounce as un-Islamic not only funerals with dhikr, but generally all kinds of conceptions and practices not sanctioned by the Qurʾān and the ḥadīth. They criticize harshly the saint veneration and tomb visitation, spirit-possession cults, Islamic medicines and magic, and celebrations of the Prophet’s birthday (mawlid), all categorized as jāhilīyah (Ar., ignorance), shirk (Ar., polytheism) and bidʿah. The Wahhabi critique therefore is much more comprehensive than that of the sukutis (Bonate, 2005). During the last decade of the colonial period, the Wahhābīs and ṣūfīs got embroiled in several instances of violent and physical confrontations that continued to take place after independence as well.

Those who studied under Shaykh Abdullah Saleh al-Farsi (1912–1982) in Zanzibar were important for the emergence of the Islamist movement in Malawi… After independence, the Muslim Student’s Association was founded in 1982, proclaiming its anti- ṣūfī stance by adopting the slogan, “No Qādirīyah! No Sukutiyya! Islamiyya!” However, the influence of those closely associated with the South African Deobandis and those who were trained in Islamic institutions in the Middle East and North Africa seem to have been the most crucial factor to the emergence of Islamism in Malawi.

In Mozambique after the independence, the Wahhābī group, in particular their leader, Shaykh Abubacar Ismael Mangira, became close to the ruling FRELIMO party that inadvertently helped him to set up the stronghold of Islamism, the Islamic Council of Mozambique. This organization soon joined forces with the transnational Islamic nongovernment organization, Africa Muslim Agency, with headquarters in Kuwait, to confront the ṣūfī establishment and undertake a campaign of purification of Mozambican Islam. However, the Council’s 2002 attempt to put an Islamist in charge of the Yao Muslim association in Lichinga had failed.

Islam as Practiced by the Wayao.

The view that the Yao conversion implied more of an “outer” acceptance of Islam rather than a deep understanding of its inner intellectual or theological tenets is commonly shared by the existing scholarship. Following the description of the nineteenth-century British officials and missionaries, such as Duff MacDonald, David Livingstone, W. P. Johnson, James Frederic Elton, and others, scholars such as Alpers, Bone, Thorold, and von Sicard argue that the adoption of Swahili or Arab styles in clothing and architecture, the introduction of the coastal food, exemplified by planting of the mango trees, as well as hiring a scribe to write the chiefs’ correspondence in KiSwahili, and the presence of a Qurʾānic teacher were the most salient signs of the Yao Islamization in the late nineteenth century. Otherwise, the Wayao were deemed to have practiced a “syncretistic” and “un-orthodox” Islam whereby African culture incorporating matriliny, ancestral spirits, and jando initiation rites were retained despite the conversion.

Similarly, Thorold (1995) argues, with regard to the advent of Sufism, that the Wayao easily absorbed the ṭarīqahs because they found dhikr to be particularly attractive due to its all-embracive social inclusivity as well as entertainment nature. Performed at mundane ceremonies like weddings as well as during sacred festivals, such as Ramadan and visits to the tombs of the ṭarīqah founders (ziyārah), dhikr was accompanied by brightly colored banners, musical instruments, and singing.

In particular the continual perseverance of matrilineal kinship, inheritance, and succession have cast doubts as to whether the Wayao could be considered “true” Muslims or not. This form of kinship obviously clashes with the requirement of the patriarchal family that Islam prescribes. However, concurrent presence of matriliny and Islam is not uncommon in other parts of the world. The examples of Muslim communities as diverse as that of the Kerala-Malabar coast in India, Minankabau in Sumatra, Indonesia, and along the matrilineal belt of sub-Saharan Africa, in countries such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zambia, Ghana, Nigeria and others, attest to that. As Jean Davison (1997) points out, Islam’s theoretical predilection for patriliny and patriarchy has not been adopted wholesale and is not consistent everywhere.

The notion of a “syncretic” Islam is of course a legacy of the colonial Orientalism, which identified Islam with a “classical” body of principles found in the writings of the “orthodox” ʿulamāʾ (Ar., pl., Islamic scholars, sing., ʿālim) class. Islam was seen as a single, unitary, monolithic and all-defining object, a part of the nature and essence of Oriental people living within a rigidly bounded set of structures. It was not perceived as a living faith but a continually reasserted version of the old principles, and all the changes and different conceptions of Islamic discourse and practices were measured against these principles. This is an unproductive approach to Islam of the Wayao or anybody else. Instead it might be interesting to look into the internal Yao Islamic conceptions and practices, their debates and agency, and reassess the historical context for their initial conversion and subsequent transformation in their ways of practicing and talking about Islam. The research on the written Islamic sources and literature that they have used in their day-to-day lives since the late nineteenth century might shed some light onto why they have seemingly maintained for such a long time a particular form of Islamic identity.



  • Adballah, Yohanna A. The Yaos. Chiikala Cha Wayao. 2d ed. London: Frank Cass, 1973.
  • Alpers, Edward A. Ivory and Slaves: Changing Patterns of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1975.
  • Becker, Felicitas. Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania, 1890–2000. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2008.
  • Davison, Jean. Gender, Lineage, and Ethnicity in Southern Africa. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
  • Elton, James F. Travels and Researches among the Lakes and Mountains of Eastern and Central Africa. Edited by H. B. Cotterill. London: Cass, 1968. First published 1879 by John Murray.
  • Martin, B. G. Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth Century Africa. New York and Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
  • Medeiros, Eduardo. História de Cabo Delgado e do Niassa (c. 1836–1929). Maputo, Mozambique: Central Impressora, 1997.
  • Mitchell, J. Clyde. The Yao Village. A Study in the Social Structure of a Nyasaland Tribe. Manchester, UK: Rhodes-Livingstone Institute and Manchester University Press, 1956.
  • Monteiro, Fernando A. 1993. O Islão, o Poder, e a Guerra: Moçambique 1964–74. Porto, Portugal: Universidade Portucalense, 1993.
  • Nimtz, August H., Jr. Islam and Politics in East Africa: The Sufi Orders in Tanzania. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1980.
  • Peirone, Frederico J. A tribu ajaua do Alto Niassa (Moçambique) e alguns aspectos da sua problemática neo-islâmica. Estudos Missionários, No 1. Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Missionários, Junta de Investigação do Ultramar, 1967.
  • Said, Edward E. Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. 5th ed. London: Penguin Books, 1995.
  • Trimingham, James S. Islam in East Africa. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964.
  • Vilhena, Ernesto J. de. Companhia do Niassa. Relatórios e Memórias sobre os Territórios pelo Governador. Lisbon: Typographia da “A Editora,” 1905.

Edited collections and articles in edited collections

  • Alpers, Edward A.. “East Central Africa.” In The History of Islam in Africa, edited by Nehemia Levtzion and Randall L. Pouwels, pp. 303–327. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000.
  • Alpers, Edward A. “Towards a History of the Expansion of Islam in East Africa: the Matrilineal Peoples of the Southern Interior”. In The Historical Study of African Religion, edited by T. O. Ranger and I. N. Kimambo, pp. 172–201. London: Heimenann, 1972.
  • Bone, David S., ed.. Malawi’s Muslims: Historical Perspectives. Blantyre, Malawi: Christian Literature Association in Malawi, 2000.
  • Thorold, Alan. “Metamorphoses of the Yao Muslims.” In Muslim Identities and Social Change in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by L. Brenner, pp. 79–91. London: Hurst & Company, 1993.

Journal articles

  • Alpers, Edward A. “Trade, State, and Society among the Yao in the Nineteenth Century.” Journal of African History 10, no. 3 (1969): 405–420.
  • Bonate, Liazzat J. K. “Dispute over Islamic Funeral Rites in Mozambique. A Demolidora dos Prazeres by Shaykh Aminuddin Mohamad.” Le Fait Missionnaire 17 (December 2005): 41–61.
  • Bonate, Liazzat J. K. “Muslim Religious Leadership in Post-Colonial Mozambique.” South African Historical Journal 60, no. 4 (2008): 637–654.
  • Bone, David S. “Islam in Malawi.” Journal of Religion in Africa 13, fasc. 2 (1982): 126–138.
  • Bone, David S. 1985. “The Muslim Minority in Malawi and Western Education.” Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs 6, no. 2 (1985): 412–419.
  • Carvalho, António. P. de. “Notas para a história das confrarias Islâmicas na Ilha de Moçambique.” Arquivo (Maputo) 4. (March 1988): 59–66.
  • Johnson, W. P. “Seven Years’ Travels in the Region East of Lake Nyassa.” Proceedings of the Royal Geographic Society and Monthly Record of Geography, new ser., 6, no. 9 (September 1884): 512–536.
  • Matiki, Alfred J. “Problems of Islamic Education in Malawi.” Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs. Journal, 12, no. 1 (1991): 127–134.
  • Matiki, Alfred J. “The Social and Educational Marginalization of Muslim Youth in Malawi.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 19, no. 2 (1999): 249–259.
  • Mumisa, Michael. “Islam and Proselytism in South Africa and Malawi.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 22, no. 2 (2001): 275–298.
  • Sicard, Sigvard von “The Arrival of Islam in Malawi and the Muslim Contribution to Development.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 20, no. 2 (2000): 291–311.
  • Sicard, Sigvard von. “Islam in Malawi.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 14, nos. 1/2 (1993): 107–115.
  • Thorold, Alan. “Yao Conversion to Islam.” Cambridge Anthropology 12, no, 2 (1987): 18–28.
  • Thorold, Alan. “The Politics of Mysticism: Sufism and Yao Identity in Southern Malawi.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies 15, no. 1 (1997): 107–117.
  • Van Kol, Willemijn. “Umma in Zomba: Transnational Influences on Reformist Muslims in Malawi.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 28, no. 3 (2008): 435–452.

Unpublished Resources

  • Bonate, Liazzat J. K. “Traditions and Transitions: Islam and Cheifship in Northern Mozambique, ca. 1850–1974”. PhD diss., University of Cape Town, 2007.
  • Hafkin, Nancy J. “Sheikhs, Slaves and Sovereignty: Politics in Nineteenth Century Northern Mozambique.” Paper presented at the Fourteenth Annual Meeting of the African Studies Association, Denver, 3–6 November, 1971.
  • Thorold, Alan. “The Yao Muslims: Religion and Social Change in Southern Malawi.” PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 1995.

Online resources

  • Bone, David S. “Malawi’s Muslim Communities in their Local and Global Context”. www.sharia-in-africa.net/pages/publications/ malawis-muslim-communities-in-their-local-and-global-context.php.
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