Alamin Mazrui


Science in the Mirror of the Qur’an: Debating the Rationalist Tradition in East African Islam

In 1977 a regular series entitled “Sayansi katika Kioo cha Qur’an” (Science in the Mirror of the Qur’an) began appear in the East African Kiswahili Islamic quarterly, Sauti ya Haki (Voice of Truth/Justice) under the editorship of Sheikh Muhammad Kasim, one of the leading East African reformist Muslim scholars in the second half of the twentieth century. The local debate generated by the series ended up reenacting some of the concerns about science and rationalism in Islam that had been the subject of contestation in earlier centuries of the history of the religion. To fully appreciate the meaning of this moment in Kiswahili Islamic discourse, however, one must relate it to the dominance of an Arabic Islam that prevailed in East Africa well into the twentieth century.

East Africa was an integral part of an Indian Ocean culture that stretched back to antiquity.  It was part of what Abu-Lughod (1989) has described as “the world system” even though Africa does not feature in her analysis. This Afro-Arab interaction was particularly pronounced between the East coast of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, resulting in a degree of cultural interchange that, in part, led some to propose a demographic reconfiguration that came to be referred to as Afrabia. As a result of this cultural flow certain brands of Islam and the Arabic language found their way to and eventually became established in the East African littoral.

For centuries after the introduction of Islam, religious intellection and dialogue in East Africa was virtually limited to the ‘ulamaa, the religious scholars of the region. Within this class, the language of religious and philosophical discourse was primarily Arabic. In contrast to West Africa, East African Islam(s), especially among upper class Muslims, tended to be heavily Arabized both linguistically and culturally. Of course, Kiswahili was always the primary medium of vertical communication between the ‘ulamaa and the average Muslim – a communication that often took the form of religious instruction, mediated by translation of the Arabic Qur’an and the Hadith. But in upper horizontal communication between the ‘ulamaa  themselves on matters of religion, the medium was often the Arabic language, especially so in written exchanges.

In this process, the Arabic language became a major stimulant for the growth and enrichment of Kiswahili’s religious register. Indeed, when European Christian missionaries arrived in the nineteenth century, many regarded Kiswahili as a perfect medium to bridge the immense gap between the European Christian universe and the universe of what they regarded as African “paganism,” precisely because Kiswahili could already cope with the world of Islam, another monotheistic religion drawn from the same Middle Eastern ancestry as Christianity.

On the other hand, the hegemony of Arabic as the language of religious discourse might have hindered the growth of Kiswahili as an intellectual medium outside the discourse frame established by Arabic. The situation of Kiswahili “under Arabic” was comparable to that of Arabic “under Ottoman.” During the Ottoman caliphate (1517-1924), as Sari Nusseibeh (2017) demonstrates, Arabic was increasingly replaced by Ottoman as the language of governmental administration and intellectual discourse, in the process reducing not only the discourse spaces once dominated by Arabic, but also discourse opportunities for continued growth.  So, as long as Arabic was the dominant medium of religious intellection in East Africa, Kiswahili’s capacity to chart its own intellectual destiny within Islam was equally constrained.

This religio-linguistic status-quo remained unchanged until the 1930s when Sheikh Al-Amin bin Ali initiated a gradual process towards the Swahilization of Sunni Islam especially. When Sheikh Muhammad Kasim launched his Sauti ya Haki in the 1970s, it was partly with the objective of continuing the project of Sheikh Al-Amin bin Ali, his teacher and mentor, of freeing East African Islam(s) from the confines of Arabic and making the world of Islamic intellection both accessible to and inclusive of those not conversant with Arabic, thereby widening the space of public debate.  In a sense, this socio- linguistic development was also a reaction to the encounter with (post)colonial modernity with all its Euro-American trappings. The intellectual challenges that Sunni Islam in East African was made to face through this linguistic shift, I argue, also resulted in an epistemological turn of a sort, to some paradigmatic shift, modest as it was, from a militantly literalist interpretation of Islamic doctrine, to a quasi-rationalist engagement with the world of Islam.

Until Sheikh Muhammad Kasim passed away in 1982, Sauti ya Haki had established itself as a unique Islamic voice in East Africa partly because of its engaging style and critical perspective.  In addition to the main feature articles on topical issues by the editor himself, it carried essay contributions from other readers, and a page devoted to letters to the editor raising a wide range of issues of concern to and contestation between members of the diverse East African Muslim community. For a while, “Sayansi katika Kioo cha Qur’an” was the only regular series contributed by a devoted team of readers of the periodical.

While Sauti ya Haki continued to betray the characteristic male dominance in the exchange and production of knowledge in the public sphere, its preservation has been primarily a legacy of women. Virtually all the copies of Sauti ya Haki and the leaflets generated by some of its controversial content were procured not from Sheikh Muhammad Kasim’s sons or other male members of the community, but from his daughters. And these daughters are, in a sense, part of a long tradition in Islam, perhaps inspired by Aisha – Prophet Muhammad’s wife – in which women have served as the memory of the community’s Islamic scholarship.

Yet it is possible to argue that this linguistic Swahilization of Sunni Islam also began open up the religious space for greater women’s participation in Islamic discourses in East Africa. Arabic as the language of East African Islam had both a class dimension in favor of the ‘ulamaa and a gender dimension pegged to men. The shift to Swahili then liberated East African Islamic knowledge production and exchange from its class and gender confines, democratizing the process by allowing for the participation of women and the average Muslim in new ways.  And as Ousseina Alidou demonstrates in parts of her book, Muslim Women in Post-Colonial Kenya:  Leadership, Representation and Social Change (2013), this agentive role of women in East African Islam assumed an even more prominent role as the politics of pluralism moved to the fore.

The first essay in the series of “Sayansi katika Kioo cha Qur’an” appeared in the May 1977 issue of Sauti ya Haki and was concerned primarily with the ozone layer.  Other issues tackled subjects like the force of gravity, the process of photosynthesis, the controversial subject of Darwinian theory of human evolution, among others. The editor’s introduction to the series properly captures the goal of the series. In the words of Sheikh Muhammad Kasim,

Among the divine miracles bestowed upon Prophet Muhammad, and which is the most important miracle of all, is this Holy Qur’an…One of the reasons that the Qur’an is regarded as the most significant miracle of our Prophet is that it mentions matters which did not become known in modern scholarship until fairly recently. Among them, and the ones intended in this series, are those that are directly related to scientific knowledge. (My translation)

From this quote one sees a dual mission: To use scientific knowledge to shed greater light on Qur’anic verses that otherwise appeared obscure, on the one hand, and to provide scientific proof of the miraculous nature of the Qur’an – its elucidation of physical and biological phenomena that did not become known to the world of science until fairly recently—on the other.

The series was in general conformity with the quasi-rationalist orientation of most of the pieces in the periodical, especially those written by Sheikh Muhammad Kasim himself.  And the appeal to scientific reasoning that was core to the series of “Sayansi katika Kioo cha Qur’an” became the most obvious demonstration of the quasi-rationalist position of Sauti ya Haki. As a result, “Sayansi katika Kioo” cha Qur’an generated immediate and strong reaction from those who were already suspicious of the intellectual direction and proclivities of Sauti ya Haki.

Many of the attacks against Sauti ya Haki were verbal, and came primarily from a section of the Muslim clergy during their darasas – adult learning sessions — in various mosques. But there were others that were transmitted as mimeographed leaflets, some of anonymous authorship. A recurring charge levelled against Sheikh Muhammad in many of these texts, both oral and written, was that he was seeking to introduce “fikra za kimuutazila” (Mu’tazilah thinking) in the space of East African Islam. And this “fikra za kimuutazila” was presented as something “dirty” and therefore undesirable.

The Mu’tazilah, of course, is the school of thought that is credited with ushering in a rationalist tradition in Islam, especially in the interpretation of the Qur’an. It reached its high point during the golden age of the Abbasid Caliphate, between 8th and 10th centuries, in the cities of Baghdad and Basra (located in modern day Iraq). In time, however, the political and religious tide turned against the Mu’tazilites (as the followers of the school came to be known), and their school came to be regarded as virtually heretical. It is against this historical backdrop that detractors of Sheikh Muhammad Kasim tried to present Sauti ya Haki in a disparaging light, even though the periodical itself claimed no explicit association with the Mu’tazilah tradition.

In my elaboration of the paper, I hope to focus on three inter-related themes: (1) the quest for an independent East African Islamic tradition of Sunni expression through a linguistic “revolution” against the forces of both Arabization and Westernization; (2) a more detailed account of the rationalist orientation of Sauti ya Haki, drawing on the series on “Sayansi katika Kioo cha Qur’an” and other essays; and (3) the substance of the attacks against Sauti ya Haki, and the ways in which the rationalism of Sauti ya Haki connects and does not connect with the Mu’tazila thought.


Compelling intellectual interest, theme, or question:

The theme of my contribution is related to the place of science and rationalism in Islam. The discourse on the theme also touches on the question of translation of the Qur’an and the role of the Arabic language in Islamic thought.  The broader scope of this subject, then, lies at the intersection of Islamic studies, history, translation studies and sociolinguistics. The discussion will link twentieth century East African Islam with the so-called golden age of Islam – beginning from the rationalist tradition of the Mu’tazilah school that began around the 8th century or so to well into the 13th century and beyond, and connect Africa with the Middle East and Asia. The approach I will employ is Critical Discourse Analysis that treats language as a form of socio-political practice.


Provisional sketch of essay:

Science in the Mirror of the Qur’an:

Debating the Rationalist Tradition in East African Islam

The point of departure for my presentation will be the regular feature, “Sayansi katika kioo cha Qur’ani” (Science in the Mirror of the Qur’an), authored by a team of Muslim scientists teaching at the University of Nairobi in the 1970s. The column used to appear in Sauti ya Haki  (Voice of Truth/Justice), an East African Islamic quarterly in the Swahili language under the editorship of Sheikh Muhammad Kasim, one of the leading East African reformist Muslim scholars in the second half of the twentieth century. I will show that the local debate generated by the series ended up reenacting some of the central issues about science and rationalism in Islam that had been the subject of contestation in earlier centuries of the history of the religion in places like Baghdad and Basra. The presentation will also consider the gendered nature of knowledge production and preservation in the East African Muslim experience, revisiting a tradition that goes back to A’isha, Prophet Muhammad’s wife, in the founding years of Islam.