People who live in Kenya's Lamu archipelago wait all year for Maulidi, the celebration they hold in commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad's birth. Thousands of their relatives and friends, from East Africa and abroad, descend on the tiny town of Lamu to celebrate for four days during Rabbi-al-Awwal, the month in which the Prophet was born. Maulidi is a home-coming and a religious pilgrimage for Muslims from the coast. It is an opportunity to arrange marriages and make business deals, but most importantly, it is a Prophet and pay homage to local saints.
The Lamu Maulidi festival has something for everyone. Children compete in donkey races and sailing regattas, keeping the sea front bustling with spectators. Others participate in board game competitions, poetry recitations, and henna painting contests that attract crowds at the Lamu fort. Inside Lamu's mosques, men gather to hear invited lecturers speak on the teachings of the Prophet, AIDS, environmental protection, and socioeconomic development.
At home, women congregate over aromatic cooking pots filled with the delicious foods they are famous for serving: shrimp pilau, cassava with coconut sauce, curried eggplant, roasted red snapper, and mango chutney. For them, Maulidi means more mouths to feed, more beds to make, and more children to look after. It also means more laughter and extra hands to help make this year's Maulidi more magnificent the last.
Many of the people who come to Lamu during Maulidi call themselves Swahili, a name given to them over a thousand years ago by Arabic-speaking traders, who referred to them as "people of the coast." Their cultural unity is distinguished by Swahili as their common language. Indeed, Swahili became the national language of Kenya and Tanzania in the early 1960s, when the countries won their independence from Britain.
Since then, immigrants from upcountry East Africa have further diversified the coast, making Swahili just one of the many African languages people speak there. Coastal people's ability to integrate newcomers and combine tradition with innovation has characterized the Swahili civilization for centuries. Their annual Maulidi celebration is a contemporary example of their dual propensity for continuity and change.
The Swahili are unique among Muslims in their celebration of the Prophet's birth. Most Arab nations do not officially recognize Maulidi as a legitimate Islamic holiday. In particular, the Wahhabi government of Saudi Arabia adamantly opposes celebrating the birth of Muhammad. Their objection to Maulidi has spurred much controversy on the East African coast over the past century. Yet Maulidi proponents have prevailed, and the celebration in Lamu continues.
Beloved Saleh, Lamu's patron saint
One reason for the Maulidi ceremony's resilience is that it contains core elements of the Swahili people's unique cultural identity. Most importantly, the celebration signifies a continuation of the Sufi traditions that first attracted coastal Africans to Islam.
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, is responsible for the spread of Islam in much of the Muslim world. In the East African context, Sufi practices such as ziara (saint veneration) and dhikr (rhythmic chanting) resembled African activities such as ancestor worship and spirit exorcism. Unlike early European missionaries, who ignored obvious parallels between African and Christian religious expression, Sufi sheikhs encouraged African participation in Islamic worship by incorporating matwari (drumlike tambourines) and Swahili translations of important Arabic religious texts.
The distinctive repertoire of devotional activities that emerged from the combination of African and Islamic traditions was noted by the famous North African traveler, Ibn Battuta. While visiting the sultan of Mogadishu in 1331, Ibn Battuta took part in a graveside prayer ritual that was followed by a zefe (musical procession). …