The role of the masharifu on the Swahili coast in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Questions of cultural identity and of the social role of a particular group within society are rarely uncontested, but perhaps nowhere in the world is there a society where questions of cultural origins and identity are as contested as on the Swahili coast. For decades there was much discussion among scholars and among the Swahili themselves concerning the “African” or “Asiatic” origin of Swahili culture and the nature of Swahili identity. The name “Swahili” means “coastal, " and until recently Swahili was a designation for Sunni Muslims living along the East African coast who spoke a Bantu language with a vocabulary that is approximately 30 percent Arabic in origin. A major subgroup of Swahili speakers call themselves “Shirazi, " based on putative descent from Arab princes who came from the city of Shiraz in southern Iran and settled in East Africa in the tenth century. For many centuries Islam in East Africa remained a largely coastal and urban phenomenon closely linked to trade. A series of Muslim principalities arose along long-distance trade routes on the southern Somali coast, including Mogadishu, Merca and Brava, which all became sultanates in the twelfth century, and as Swahili civilization extended southward along the coast from the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries, Lamu, Pate, Mombasa and Kilwa all became virtual city-states, usually ruled by a family claiming Arab descent.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationSayyids and Sharifs in Muslim Societies
Subtitle of host publicationThe Living Links to the Prophet
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9781136337390
ISBN (Print)9780415519175
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities
  • General Social Sciences


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