The Swahili Coast is an elongated strip that runs from the eastern part of Africa around the Horn of Africa all the way south to Mozambique. This region that sits next to the Indian Ocean is one of the most enchanting places in Africa as far as history and culture are concerned. Voyagers and travellers from different parts of the globe have explored this unique region for centuries, and the stories there are the true stuff of legends. Religion is also one of the most amazing aspects of life in this region and it is the focus of this piece.
There is no way that the story of Swahili religions can be told without talking about the people and the cultures that are prevalent in the place. The Swahili Coast is a place of residence that is considered to be truly unique and outstanding. This is because it is a blend of native Africans, Arabs, Indians and even Portuguese. So, it is understandable and to be expected that the religions of this area will closely follow the history and culture of the people.
Traditional Swahili Religions
The original inhabitants of the area were the indigenous Africans and they had several traditional African religions, that have remained very strong to date. These tribes speak Bantu languages and they have several traditional faiths that they developed and have stuck to over time.
These are traditional beliefs of the native tribes that include different ethnic-based religions. These faiths heavily feature scriptural and oral practices which are then transmitted from one generation to another via songs, dances, folk tales and all kinds of festivals. These faiths even use items such as food to pass across religious messages.
Traditional African religions also contain a collection of lower and higher gods and they typically have a higher force known as the ultimate creator. They also feature worship or veneration of departed souls, spiritism, herbal healing, magic and deep aspects of traditional African medicine.
It is correct if these faiths are described as animistic, pantheistic or polytheistic. The central theme of these faiths is that they see the natural and supernatural as the same, and this is the dominant characteristic.
Swahili Religions - Islam
Islam is a dominant religion in the Swahili Coast but, unlike what happened in North Africa, this region was not subjected to a massive Muslim conquest. Islam arrived in this region in periodic waves but by the eighth century, it was already properly consolidated.
Today, the main religion of the region is the Muslim faith. At first, the Muslims who were fleeing from persecution in their own places are believed to have settled in the region, but that is not the only factor. Another factor that assisted in bringing Islam to the area is that Arab traders came with their faith as they embarked on commercial trips.
Researchers believe that it was Arab traders who were most responsible for the spread of the religion in this area. Today, a vast majority of the Muslims in this area are adherents of the Sunni branch of the faith, though others follow other branches. Some have a blend of Islam with local native faiths.
Hence, it is not a surprise to meet local men who wear amulets of protection that have verses of the Quran on them. Historians have concluded that the Islamic faith has become the principal element of a Swahili identity. Zanzibar, which is predominantly Muslim, is a good example of this.
Another aspect of Islam in this region is the architecture which one can easily notice with the mosques built of wood. Even though the mosques are not as big as those seen in other Muslim nations and the decoration is not as elaborate, they are distinctively Islamic. They also do not have minarets or even the inner courtyards, which is another unique feature of Swahili Islamic architecture. At the time the Islamic waves started hitting the Swahili Coast, the Omani Empire was at the peak of its power with its Islamic influence over the area.
There is also a remarkable fraction of Christians on the Swahili Coast, especially in places like Kenya. However, it cannot be said to be the dominant faith in the region.
There are scores of various Christian denominations, freely practising their beliefs and faiths among their Muslim neighbours. The heartwarming thing is how amicably adherents of both religions live with each other. Muslim neighbours heap plates of food and share with their Christian neighbours during their holy days, such as Ramadhan when each household cooks a feast, and the same is replicated during Christian holidays.