The Swahili Arabs
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the adversary and gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” Psalm 107:1-3
The Swahili Arabs live along the coasts of Tanzania and Kenya, East Africa, in an area commonly known as the Coastal Belt. They are concentrated in some of the ancient settlements along the coast and in cities such as Dar es Salaam, Tanga and Mombasa. They can also be found throughout Zanzibar and Kenya’s Lamu Islands. The Swahili Arabs refer to their ancestors as the “old” or “true” Arabs. The group arose from intermarriage between traders from Arabia and local Bantu & Cushitic peoples. Slaves and mangrove poles were the main commodities sent to Arabia and South Asia. Even today, many Arab Swahili aspire to work in the Gulf States and families frequently intermarry between Yemen and Oman. Culturally and theologically, Arab Swahili proudly align themselves with Arabia rather than Africa.
What Are Their Lives Like?
Their lifestyle is suited to the environment in which they live. Most of the Swahili Arabs live in rural villages. They are primarily farmers and fishermen, although some who live in the cities may have other professions. The farmers grow cereal grains, vegetables, spices, and raise livestock. Some may have special skills as carpenters, ship wrights, or religious leaders; a few have become teachers or doctors.
Coastal Arab villages consist of houses that are situated closely together often with several generations living in the same house. There are many female headed households as a man is expected to provide a house for each of his wives and their children. Many women never leave the home. Family honour is very important, and each family member has a defined role according to Arab tradition. The family unit provides security during times of economic hardship and in old age. When young people leave their villages to find jobs in the towns or cities, the family socio-economic system is often weakened. Drug use among the youth is an increasing problem in society, especially in urban port cities.
As soon as a baby is born, the name “Allah” is whispered in its ear so that this will be the first word the child hears.
Boys and girls are raised together during early childhood; however, they receive very different treatment. While boys may be sent to school and madrassa (an Islamic school where they are taught to read and recite the Quran in Arabic), girls are often only sent to the madrassa and so may never learn to read and write their mother tongue.
Among the Coastal Arab Swahili, marriages take place as a way to continue a family lineage or as a means of meeting a family’s needs. The Swahili Arabs tend to marry other Swahili Arabs and Somalis or Arabs, because they are proud of their Muslim and Arab heritage and desire to remain a closed group. Polygyny (having multiple wives) is normal in Muslim Arab Swahili society and divorce and remarriage is very common.
What Are Their Beliefs?
The Swahili Arabs are virtually all Sunni Muslim. Many follow the teachings of the Quran because it provides hope for a better life after death. Like other Muslims, the Swahili Arabs adhere to the five “pillars” of Islam. These include reciting prayers five times a day while facing Mecca, affirming that Allah is the only god and Mohammed is his prophet, observing the prescribed fasts, giving alms to the poor, and making at least one pilgrimage to Mecca. They are increasingly moving towards Wahhabi Islam due to the influence of the Gulf States and as a reaction against secular national governments which they perceive as persecuting them. Some of their cities boast centres of advanced Islamic learning and pilgrimage that attract students and teachers from all over Africa and beyond. These madrassas train Muslim evangelists and imams who then move to other parts of Africa.
In a strong contrast to most of sub-Saharan Africa, many ordinary laypeople, both men and women, are theologically literate and articulate. They know their Quran and Hadith and are well versed in Islamic apologetics.
The mosque is the centre of worship and society. Men regularly attend the mosque for prayer, but women rarely attend, making their prayers in the home. While men worship at the mosques, women usually attend ceremonies conducted at home by female religious leaders.
In addition to their Islamic beliefs, some of the Coastal Arabs also believe in spirits and possession is not uncommon, especially among women. They may try to appease these spirits during times of crisis or sickness by enlisting a specialist to recite appropriate Quranic verses.
Religion: The Swahili are almost 100% Muslim, with very few believers reported.
Latest Prayer Updates:
This season of Ramadan has brought a lot of opportunities to have spiritual conversations as we break the fast with friends and neighbors in the evenings. Recently we enjoyed iftar with a family who are certainly people of peace. We spent over an hour talking about our respective beliefs and were able to share that while we could see that the people in this community are very good and kind people, they still had not been transformed by the love of Jesus. The father of the family listened intently to what was shared and even agreed that he should be willing to read the Bible. Please pray for families like these to realize that their striving for their own righteousness is not enough to be reconciled to God and that total transformation is available to them through Jesus.
Mid-way through Ramadhan, people here on the coast are finding life hard. This is the month they are trying to appease Allah, and hopefully feel satisfied in that. Of course from scripture we know it is an endless trail. Pray that the people of Kilwa Masoko and the South Coast would be drawn to Jesus, the only one that truly satisfies.