Swahili Muslim Publics and Postcolonial Experience

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Kai Kresse
African Experience Cultures
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , December
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Kai Kresse’s ethnographic study Swahili Muslim Publics and Postcolonial Experience explores how Swahili-speaking coastal Muslims in postcolonial Kenya (wapwani) have historically addressed and negotiated “the conceptual and political challenges they confront in their everyday lives” (viii). Focusing on forms of creative situated agency among wapwani, the book spotlights how Mombasanese Swahili-speaking Muslim publics—that is, accessible discursive spaces within which wapwani interact and mediate discourses of their own making and shaping—have navigated the imagined “double periphery” in which wapwani view themselves as “less than” by upcountry, predominantly Christian peoples (wabara) and as “outsiders” among the predominantly arabophobe Muslim community writ large (umma).

The book is divided into two parts. The first consists of conceptualizations that explore the previously mentioned milieu in which members of this subculture locate and imagine themselves, react to postcoloniality and the postcolonial condition of being in a “past present continuous” environment, and make meaning out of and self-position themselves within the common discursive spaces that comprise Mombasanese Swahili-speaking Kenyan coastal Muslim publics. The second comprises close readings of textual and spoken sources of these Mombasanese publics informed by fieldwork, interviews, and conversations Kresse carried out in Mombasa during short-term visits between 2004 and 2014.

Specifically, Kresse concentrates on three publics: (1) Sheikh Al-Amin Mazrui’s Mombasanese newspaper pamphlet essays Sahifa (The Page), originally published in Swahili from 1930-1932 and republished in English in 2009 in the Friday Bulletin, Kenya’s leading English Muslim weekly; (2) Sheikh Muhammad Kasim Mazrui and Sheikh Abdallah Saleh Farsy’s triannual/quarterly Islamic Mombasanese newspaper Sauti ya Haki (Voice of Justice), published in Kimvita (the Mombasian dialect of Swahili) between 1972 and 1982; and (3) 2005 segments from Stambuli Abdilahi Nassir and Abubakar Amin’s popular Mombasanese Swahili talk radio program Elimika na Stambuli! (Get Educated with Stambuli!) on Sauti ya Ruhuma (Radio Rahma).

Part 1 of Kresse’s study provides the theoretical foundation on which he builds his analysis of the three aforementioned Mombasanese publics. The main concern here is to examine the relationship between the “past present continuous” postcolonial condition within which wapwani locate themselves, and the intellectual practices by which they approach, process, and create meaning in a postcolonial context. Issues that arise in this part include questions about historical memory, the normativity (and inadequacy) of European and Arabophone epistemological frameworks (i.e., ways of knowing) for analyzing the condition of wapwani and wapwani culture itself, and the recognition that Swahili-speaking Kenyan coastal Muslim publics provide an emic or an epistemologically indigenous discursive space in which an alternative conceptual paradigm not only operates but flourishes.

As Kresse details, these spaces provide wapwani room for conceptual decolonization, intellectual practice, and self-meaning-making. In doing so, the author identifies two characteristics of the Muslim publics he studied as they relate to the above-mentioned issues. First, he highlights how each public not only aimed to respond to the imagined “double periphery” in which wapwani view themselves, but also sought to re-imagine how its members understand their postcolonial situation and place within Kenya and the Muslim community writ large. Second, Kresse illustrates how each public uniquely operates on the notion of making “religious knowledge more accessible and less exclusive” (35), particularly as this knowledge relates to iṣlāḥ (reform) and ḥisba (the collective duty to unpack the meaning of the Qur’anic principle of “commanding right and forbidding wrong”).

Although these Mombasanese publics operate within a common historical, socio-cultural, and religious context, part 2 of Kresse’s book teases out the internal debates that distinguish these publics from one another. In unpacking iṣlāḥ and ḥisbah, for example, Kresse suggests that Mazrui’s Sahifa uses a “rhetoric of fear,” while Mazrui and Farsy’s Sauti ya Haki and Nassr and Amin’s Elimika na Stambuli! rely on a “rhetoric of shaming” and “open access” rhetoric” (49). Here, important differences of interpretation in what constitutes farḍ/wājib (what is obligatory), mustahabb/sunna (what is recommended), mubah/ḥalāl (what is permissible), makrūh (what is disliked), and ḥarām (what is prohibited) occur.

These differences in fiqh (legal understanding/jurisprudence), grounded in tafsīr (exegesis), ilm al-ḥadīth (the study of ḥadīth), and cultural perspectives, Kresse argues, do not simply constitute a lack of a clear shared sense of unity, but rather they constitute a communal and “continuous striving for moral guidance and normative orientation that shapes the dynamics of interaction” (191) within the Mombasanese wapwani community itself. Agreeing with recent scholarship by Shahab Ahmed, Kresse concludes that Islam can therefore be understood “‘as hermeneutical engagement’ . . . its internal contradictions . . . [as] ‘the social and discursive means by which Muslims entertain and maintain contradiction’” as an unlikely form of uniformity (Shahab Ahmed, What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, Princeton University Press, 2016; quoted on p. 200).

While Kresse’s book addresses crucial issues facing wapwani, it does not explicitly explore Muslim-Christian relations from the perspective of the latter. One may ask: How can Christians epistemologically acknowledge the multitude of Islamic ways of knowing (e.g., those of wapwani, Arabaphone Muslims, etc.)? And how can Christians engage with the multitude of mechanisms Muslims use to analyze, understand, and self-position themselves within environments of Christian hegemony?

Despite this lacuna, Kresse’s ability to weave together questions of rhetoric, postcoloniality, religion, culture, and politics, and to understand them from the epistemological vantage point of ethnographic actors themselves, is truly remarkable. As such, his work offers a paradigmatic model for how to undertake discursive case studies that “provincialize” European and Arabophone epistemologies, recognizing them as epistemes (i.e., ways of knowing) among others, and not epistemology themselves (i.e., the ways of knowing). Furthermore, the necessity for linguistic variance (e.g., not just English or Arabic, but also Kiswahili—and, more specifically in this case, Kimvita) for properly analyzing the kinds of local knowledge necessary for understanding the social world of historically and contemporaneously marginalized peoples comes across clearly and commandingly in Kresse’s ethnography.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Marcus Timothy Haworth is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
October 26, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kai Kresse is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Freie Universität Berlin, and Vice Director for Research at Zeibniz Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO), Berlin. Before that, he was Associate Professor of African and Swahili Studies at Columbia University. He is author of Philosophizing in Mombasa: Knowledge, Islam, and Intellectual Practice on the Swahili Coast.


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