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Islam in Kenya History s

by Abusufian Ahmed Ebrahim

Islam in Kenya

The story of Islam in Kenya begins with the settling of the Arabs at the East African coast stretching from Somalia to Mozambique well before the coming of Prophet Muhammad. Written evidence point to the fact that by the second century A.D, Arab sailors were traversing between the Arabian peninsular and the East African coast for trade and commerce.

The Arabs, some of whom made their home at the coast intermarried with the local population resulting in the Swahili culture. The earliest tangible evidence of evidence of the Islamic presence in Kenya is a mosque foundation in Lamu where gold, silver and cooper coins dating to AD 830 were discovered during an exaction in 1984.

Other reports, however indicate that Islam was brought to the country by two Arab chiefs from Oman. Sulayman and Sa‘eed are said to have fled their homeland together with their families and supporters after  refusing to submit to Caliph Abdul-Malik bin Marwan (685-705 C.E.). They landed on Pate, one of the islands that make up the Lamu archipelagos where settled.

It is clear that Muslims were among the first followers, and have been the longest settled group, of the major religions in East Africa The spread of Islam was supplemented by Arab traders through their interaction with the local people. The local people were attracted to Islam following the Islamic ideals exhibited by the traders in business and other interactions.

From the twelfth to the fifteenth century, Muslim towns established at the coast flourished in socio-religious and economic development. While the rest of the country was still a jungle, these cities witnessed phenomenal development. In 1331, the famous Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta visited Mombasa which he described in his annals as a city with numerous streets and storied buildings.

In the 15 th century, the Chinese Muslim traveller Zheng-the most acclaimed admiral of the Ming Dynasty visited Malindi where he talked about the progress enjoyed by the people of Malindi. This era of development which was also present in other city states of  Zanzibar, Kilwa and Sofala was shattered at by the Portuguese in the fifteenth century  when they invaded and overrun the East Africa coast.

They created massive destruction to the towns, some of them were burn and levelled to the ground. For the next 200 years, they exerted their influence subjugating the occupied people who nevertheless on many occasions though without success tried to expel the European invaders.

It was only the military prowess of the Omani Arabs that the Portuguese were in the seventeenth century finally defeated and expelled from East Africa save from Mozambique. Though the Portuguese were very successful in establishing Christianity and its cultural influence in its former territories (Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, Goa, Timor and Macao and others), they failed to plant Christianity among the people of the Coast.

After the expulsion of the Portuguese, Muslim rule was again established but this time by the Omani rulers. They consolidated their rule when Seyyid Said moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1840. The Sultan of Zanzibar thereafter carved a 10-mile coastal strip along the coast as his possession.  In the North Eastern part of the country which is inhabited by the Somali speaking community, Islam arrived from Northern Somalis where it was introduced around 800 AD by Arab merchants.

It later spread progressively to areas inhabited by the Borana, Gabra, Rendile and other tribes of Northern Kenya.  For centuries, however, Islam remained an urban and coastal and North Eastern phenomenon and for centuries no efforts were made to spread it in the interior.

Unlike Christianity where missionaries had the backing of the colonial government in spreading their faith, penetration of Islam from the coast into the interior of the Kenya hinterland was undertaken during the 18 th century by individual and adventurous traders.  Arab and Swahili traders ventured in the interior for trade. In their business interactions with the people they came into contact with, they were noted for their trustworthiness, nobleness and tolerant attitude.

The Kikuyu of Nyeri referred to them as wanyahoro, meaning peacemakers. Some of them acquired land where they built homes and Mosques which served as staging posts for the spread of Islam.

In the Western part of the country, traders from Tanganyika are credited for introducing Islam in Mumias. The Tribal Chief of Mumias, Chief Nabongo Mumia embarrassed Islam at the hands of Sharif Hassan Abdalla together with his three brothers (Kadima, Mulama and Murunga), and several of his subjects.

Islam was also spread through intermarriages as most of the traders who ventured in the hinterland did not go with their wives and family. A good number of them opted to marry the local women further contributing to the spread of Islam among the local people.

The building of the Uganda railway line from Mombasa brought created another opportunities for the spread of Islam.  Traders from the coast travelled to the interior where they established pockets of Muslim communities which opened the hearts of minds of the locals to Islam.

Religious Institutions (Islamic institutions)

Kadhi Courts

For centuries, areas around the Coast which were predominantly Muslims were governing themselves with Islamic law. This was however, interrupted with the Portuguese invasion of the East African coast which saw a decline of Islamic influence for a period of 200 years.  After their departure, the Islamic judicial system was again put in place and this continued under the rule of the Omani rulers who later shifted their base to Zanzibar in the 19 th century laying claim a 10-mile strip along the East African coast.

British interests in the East African region started making headway in the mid to late 19th century when the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) was formed. They found the age-old Islamic judicial system in place. In 1895, the British were authorised by the Sultan of Zanzibar to administer the coastal strip as a protectorate, rather than a colony. This was different from the mainland which was administered as a colony. The authorisation from the Sultan was however, on condition that the British respect the Islamic judicial system in place.

Though the British respected this condition throughout their administration, the  Islamic judicial system which was applicable in all matters of law was gradually phased away leaving only the only the Personal Law which focussed on marriage, divorce and inheritance.

These laws were applied by Courts of Liwalis , Mudirs and Kadhis . This policy of retaining only the Personal Laws was carried out in several Muslim areas like Northern Nigerian and India which came under British rule. The Chief Kadhi was appointed to be the head of the Islamic judicial system. He became a civil servant appointed by the colonial administrators just like other judicial officers.

Among the Chief Kadhis in Colonial Kenya were Sheikh Sulaiman bin Ali bin Khamis Mazrui who was succeeded by his student Sheikh Al Amin bin Ali Mazrui. Sheikh Muhammad bin Kassim Mazrui served till 1967 when he retired on health grounds.

His replacement was the charismatic Zanzibari Ulamaa Sheikh Abdallah Saleh al Farsy. He was granted Kenyan citizenship when he assumed the office and is perhaps the most outstanding Chief Kadhi Kenya has had in the last 100 years.

Sheikh Farsy is better known for his monumental work Qura’ani Takatifu , the translation of the Holy Qur’an in Swahili. In 1975, he petitioned the then President Jomo Kenyatta to have Eid ul Fitr as a national holiday.  Unlike its sisterly East African neighbours-Uganda and Tanzania, Eid ul Fitr remains the only public holiday for Muslims in Kenya.

He retired in 1982 and his place was taken by Sheikh Nassoro Nahdy till 2004 when Sheikh Hammad Muhammad Kassim Mazrui took over. He followed in the footsteps of his father Sheikh Muhammad Kassim. The office of the Chief Kadhi has traditionally been stationed in Mombasa, the second largest town in the country which commands a predominant Muslim population. The issue of moon sighting though it is not among the official duties of the Chief Kadhis, it has been undertaken by the Chief Kadhi.

After independence, Initially, Kadhis' Courts were established, presided over by the Chief Kadhi and Kadhis appointed by Judicial Services Commission. The  appeals were to be made to the High Court which sitting with the Chief Kadhi or two other Kadhis as assessors. The Kadhis were mainly stationed in the Coast and North Eastern provinces, both regions with a Muslim majority. This figure was later raised to the present 14 Kadhis now stationed in various parts around the country. The station are in Mombasa, Nairobi, Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret, Mandera, Hola, Kwale and Bungoma. Others are in Malindi, Lamu, Isiolo and Nyeri.

This figure is still considered to be inadequate due to the high number of Muslims who are found in virtually all parts of the country. In the Kenya Judiciary System, the Chef Kadhi is on the same level with Chief magistrates while district Kadhis are grouped together with magistrates. Though Kadhis have traditionally been civil servants, at times they have been at odds with the government on a number of issues involving the Muslims.

In 1981, the government came up with a proposal to merge the succession laws. It was working on recommendations put forward by a Presidential-appointed commission produced drafts of a uniform family and inheritance laws to replace the customary, statutory, Islamic and Hindu laws then in force. Muslims were infuriated by the idea which aimed at doing away with the Islamic ordinance and replace it with one which did not agree with their faith.

A spirited opposition to the law which started with Sheikh Abdallah Farsy led to government to eventually reconsider its stand and Muslims were finally left out of the new proposed law.

In 2005, the government came up with a proposal for a new constitution for the country. It was put to the referendum where the citizens were to decide either to accept it or reject the proposed new constitution. Though Muslims participated in the whole process right from beginning, they were irked by provisions included in the document which greatly weakened the Kadhis courts. Further, the provisions made it easier for the courts to be expunged altogether from the constitution.

Christian groups were at the same time campaigning for the courts to be removed claiming that there were being used to introduce the Shariah legislation through the backdoor. Muslims resolved to oppose the proposed law and   the Chief Kadhi Sheikh Hammad Kassim -to the chagrin of the government, joined what came to be known as the Orange campaign to oppose the draft constitution. His action earned him the wrath of the government which viewed him as civil servant who was expected to diligently toe the government line. Senior government officials including a cabinet minister Ali Chirau Mwakere, called for his sacking an action which generated anger in the community. The Majlis Ulamaa Kenya and the National Muslim Leaders Forum where the Muslim torch bearers in the campaign against the proposed draft law.

Results from the referendum results led to a majority of Kenyans rejecting the document. Significantly, Muslims came together and voted as a block in rejecting the draft.

© 2009 Jamia Masjid