Maalim Shihab and identity politics in the Swahili Coast.

To read Latifa Chiragdhin’s ‘Shihabuddin Chiraghdin: Life Journey of a Swahili Scholar’, (available on Amazona biography of her father, is to be intrigued, entertained and educated on matters history and culture, all at the same time. Latifa employs the use of simple, yet captivating language to take us through Maalim Shihab’s short but fulfilling life, right from childhood to adulthood in around two hundred pages.

The book is hard to put down especially for a reader who has an interest in the qualification and/or assertion of the cultural heritage of a people, more so a society as diverse as the Swahili. Throughout the book, one cannot help but marvel at Latifa’s storytelling prowess, taking the reader as if on a drone through space and time as regards several aspects (culture and education) of Swahili history. The reader not only gets a nostalgic feel about the life of Maalim Shihab, but the dynamics of change which puts Maalim as a vital protagonist in the growth of the Swahili space through education and social activism undefined and unsullied by political thought.

The book has an easy, organic flow, and you almost feel like you are part and parcel of Mombasa’s fascinating growth. It then serves as an important text for a reader who has either been misled, or misinformed on the history of the coast, as it has been with the case of Kiswahili language being a hybrid of Arabic and local languages as opposed to being a Bantu language on its own. By tracing the educational development of institutions in Mombasa, one can then easily understand that the so-called “backwardness” of the coastal people is largely a political construct to marginalize a people who have the oldest and most enduring material and manuscript culture in sub-Saharan Africa with the potential of monolithic growth.

Through this book, Latifa makes mention of other prominent individuals (scholars, intellectuals, thinkers) from Maalim Shihab’s school of thought (Prof Mohamed Hyder et al) who have defied the political constructs trying to force them into a little, inconsequential stereotyped box, and rose to become voices of authority in knowledge acquisition and dispensation in the Kenyan coast.

It’s very easy to fall in love with Latifa’s approach at handling vital historical data, painting in the mind of the reader credible, vivid images of a Swahili space, pre and post-colonial, and the ensuing conflict brought about by the clash of cultures (Indian, British, Portuguese, Arabic, Swahili and Mijikenda) in shaping Swahili thought, past and present. Her approach with this text is incredible in the sense that one may be forgiven to think of the narrator as a being that defies space and time, moving constantly between different “scapes” to bring out the history of Mombasa in such an accurate manner devoid of prejudices or flouted remarks at forces (political or otherwise) that have suppressed the region.

Most importantly, the book illustrates the inherent stubborn nature of the Swahili, a trait that has positioned the region apart from mainland Kenya through its insistence (positively) on guarding the unique nature of Swahili (hence, by extension, Islamic) culture which pre and postcolonial mediators and practitioners feared may be negatively influenced by Missionary approaches to the knowledge economy at the coast. This insistence gave birth to Indian and Arab (Swahili) schools which perceived of secularism through religious lenses, allowing the introduction of secular education (in the case of Arab/Swahili schools) after a sound religious foundation. Latifa mentions how Maalim Shihab used to listen to them recite Qur’an and in most instances read it with them during their formative years.

To date, it is a normal thing for Muslim families to either start their children off with madrasa classes or enroll them in integrated schools that have madrasa lessons.

The book starts by emphasizing what it means to be a Swahili- through the voice of the author and other influential voices in the coast- and how, even individuals like Maalim Shihab whose father was a Punjabi (or Kashmiri) native can lay authentic claim to a “Swahiliness” that goes beyond racial affiliation. This approach then logically and emphatically discards arguments that the Swahili are a tribe and illustrates how they are more of a society, as Professor Hanah Mwaliwa asserts in the introduction of her essay ‘Modern Swahili: the integration fo Arabic culture into Swahili literature.’ To then call the Swahili a tribe would be to disqualify other meanings the word Swahili may allude.

It would be worthwhile to note that Latifa subtly brings out an interesting interplay between ethnic (and geographical) affiliation to being Swahili and the enduring nature of identity politics, illustrating, in the process a sense of cultural fluidity through social interaction and integration. Perhaps (and this is a subjective notion based on my understanding of Latifa’s text and other such texts tackling the issue of identity politics) one can effectively claim identity to a particular cultural group through the spontaneous wholehearted allegiance to it (the group) based on the intensity by which it influences his/her thoughts, attitudes and behaviors at a particular point.

Professor Mohamed Hyder notes in the foreword: “…[But] Shihabuddin was not only as much a Swahili scholar as any Lyndon Harries, but he was also as Mswahili as Bwana Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassani…”, raising Maalim Shihab on the pedestal of “Swahiliness”, both by quoting a person as far removed from the Swahili social aspect as the former and as closely knit to the Swahili fabric as the latter. Following Professor Hyder’s quote, it would be then be easy to understand why Pat Caplan defines the conflict of identity politics “…as a shifting and complex area, but the trick is to claim the right identity at the right time.”

Maalim Shihab exhibited a very strong Swahili identity and his dedication to shaping a nation of future thinkers through directly engaging his young students in critical thinking beyond school text. This is a quality exemplified by most other Swahili scholars who attempt to draw the student’s mind away from the (narrowed) classroom and textbook thinking to investigate the undertones between which true education lies.

By the end of the book, one cannot help but admire Maalim Shihab and his contribution to the coastal and national knowledge economy, and as I was reading- much as I knew how it would end- I found myself cheering Maalim Shihab on, willing him to live, to not die so young while the world still needed his contribution. Fortunately, his selfless acts found a way to carry on and live through his students and his children. Would it then be wishful thinking to have wanted to meet this great man, and to have drank from his cup of knowledge?

The articulate manner in which Latifa has approached this text, paying careful attention to detail makes me want to read more from her in the coming days. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn an important aspect in the history of Mombasa.

Photo courtesy of Madam Latifa Shihabuddin

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