Islam in your pocket: A rich yet endangered collection linking Leiden and East Africa

Islam in your pocket: A rich yet endangered collection linking Leiden and East Africa

How is one a good Muslim in the modern world? In East Africa, from the 1930s onwards, Islam became portable and accessible: new notions of morality were packed into pocket-size booklets cheaply printed in India. What makes this 982-booklet corpus so unique and fragile?

Saidi Musa 8 Saidi Musa 8
Poet and thinker Saidi Musa of Tanzania (Ugweno, 1943) in Dar es Salam (2023), [photo: Annachiara Raia].

These portable forms of vernacular print Islam were very much the product of transcontinental connections between Swahili authors and booksellers belonging to an Islamic cosmopolis and concerned with educating wider audiences beyond the Arabic-speaking elite. In his work “Love for Religion” (Mapenzi ya dini), contemporary poet and thinker Saidi Musa of Tanzania (Ugweno, 1943) summoned Swahili readers with a sharp “awakening to the readers” (uzindushi kwa wasomaji):

Wasomaji watukufu! Huu ni wakati wenu wa kusoma vitabu vya Dini yenu ya Kiislamu kila usiku uchao. Mambo yamekuwa mapesi sio kama zamani masomo ya dini yalivyo kuwa kwa Kiarabu bila Kiswahili. Sasa masomo ya dini ni kwa Kiswahili, lililobaki ni wewe msomaji kujihimu kusoma vitabu mbali mbali. (Musa 1964:16)
“Esteemed readers! This is your time to study your Islamic religious books day in, day out. Things have become easier, unlike in the past, when religious books were only in Arabic. Now religious studies are available in Kiswahili. What is left is up to you: to be determined to read different books.”
DSC09222 copy 2jpg DSC09222 copy 2jpg
Mapenzi ya dini [ISIM 8457 F 56]

Several Swahili collections are kept at the Leiden University Libraries. As a Swahili specialist with a background in manuscript studies, I have been particularly fascinated by one twentieth-century manuscript-to-print collection commissioned by Jan Just Witkam at the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (see here). According to its inventory list, compiled by archivist Tjikke Vlasma and shared with me, the collection appeared to contain some one thousand titles. In 2019, the records were downloaded with the assistance of Martijn Lens and refined by Ursula Oberst, and we discovered it is larger still: 935 Swahili titles plus 395 in Arabic that altogether represent an extraordinary departure from the majority European Christian religious literature arriving and circulating in East Africa.

A glimpse at the collection shows that the most frequent topics relate to Islamic doctrine (72) and Islamic education (70). A more detailed breakdown provides an overview of the bestselling genres. At the top of the list are books on ritual purity, prayer books and calendars (73). These are followed by books on the Prophet Mohammad (53); texts for learning Arabic and Urdu (51); other prophets’ biographies (43); magic and astrology (43); and women and marriage (45). Other frequent topics are poetry and religious practices (36); social and ethical issues (35); prophets and saints (33); the Qur’an, Qur’anic studies, and translations (38); and Ramadan and fasting (18).

3a Collection copy 3a Collection copy
A selection of books and pamphlets from the Leiden collections.
DSC09222 copy DSC09222 copy
Dini ya islamu. [ISIM 8457 F 79]

Interestingly, the most commonly used format was 12 x 19 cm, as we see for “The Islamic Religion” (Dini ya Islamu), a Swahili pamphlet collection featuring testimonies on Islam by Christian intellectuals, among whom – to mention only a few – Thomas Carlyle, Laura Veccia Vaglieri, and the French philosopher Voltaire.

DSC09222 copy 4 DSC09222 copy 4
Tabia njema na adabu za madrasa. [ISIM 8453 C 45]

The larger 20 x 16 cm format was the most common for disseminating creative adaptations of didactic literature after the ’60s, when poetic booklets would become a mainstay. In a handbook for madrassa pupils titled “Good Manners and Madrassa Etiquette” (Tabia njema na adabu za madrasa) author Jumaa bin Mwin-Dadi mixes prose and poetry in touching on all facets of this topic, even matters of physical cleanliness, as illustrated in the excerpt below:

Katika jumla ya tabia nzuri ni kulala mapema na kuamka mapema kwa nishati. Na kujinadhifisha kwa kupiga miswaki na kujitoharisha na kutawadha tayari kwa swala la Asubuhi. (b. Mwin-Dadi, 1997: 11)
“In general, good manners include going to bed and waking up early and energetically. To freshen up, brush teeth, cleanse oneself of impurities, and make ablutions in preparation for morning prayers.”
Kwanza amka mapema \ Utapata afya njema \ Nadhafa siweke nyuma \ Uhoafu si kitu chema
To begin, with wake up early \ You will gain good health \ Don’t ignore cleanliness \ Being ungroomed isn’t a good thing

In terms of layout, these booklets also show the early assimilation of Western orthographic conventions and typography, e.g. capitalized letters, punctuation, and above all, the use of Roman script. Yet the Arabic script, specifically in eulogistic formulas such as the basmala (“in the Name of God the Merciful”), remains present. In Saidi Musa’s The Story of The Prophet Jesus (“Maisha ya Nabii Isa”), his teacher Sheikh Abdalla Saleh Farsy (a qadi of Zanzibar who later moved to Kenya) praises precisely this patchwork of Swahili prose text (in Roman script) and verses quoted from the Qur’an (in Arabic script); as he puts it:

Kitabu hiki kimekuwa kizuri mno kusisimua kwa yaliyomo ndani. Kimevutia sana kwa sababu ya ile aya za Qur’ani mtungaji alizozitia za kuthibithisa ayasemayo. (Farsy, Preface dated 1970:1-2)
“This book has done very well at narrating its own content. It is very appealing thanks to the Qur’anic verses that the author has included in order to support what he says.”
6 6
Maisha ya Nabii Isa [ISIM 8453 C 38]

Print certainly changed the way Swahili people knew and practiced Islam, yet being cheaply produced on Manila paper from India, this rich collection has also suffered damage from bookworms and age. Digitizing these sources is thus an essential task for bringing the collection to scholarly attention, and will allow students and scholars in the Global North, compelled by the broader debate of decolonizing these archives, to access and study African-language literature.

Waterschade Waterschade
Water damage to Dini ya islamu. [ISIM 8457 F 79]
DSC09234 copy DSC09234 copy
Damage to the binding and exterior of Dini ya islamu. [ISIM 8457 F 79]

In the framework of the NWO Talent Programme Veni SSH 2021 project “Portable Islam: Swahili Literary Networks in the Indian Ocean,” this collection is being linked to living family-run bookshops and authors in East Africa and India to better contextualize the making of a transoceanic tradition of learning.


About the author:

Annachiara Raia is an Assistant Professor at the Leiden Africa Studie Centrum and an interdisciplinary University Lecturer at the Leiden Centre for Arts in Society.

Works cited

bin Aly, A. (1962). Dini ya islamu : kimekusanya Ushuhuda wa watu wa Ulaya kwa dini ya isilamu, maneno ya vitabu vitakatifu kwa mtume Muhammad, mafundisho ya dini ya isilamu, hisabu ya waisilamu waliyo ulimwenguni hivi leo. Mombasa: The East African Muslim Welfare Society (ISIM 8457 F 79).

bin Mwin-Dadi, J. (1997). Tabia njema na adabu za madrasa. Mombasa: Adam Traders (ISIM 8453 C 45).

Bruinhorst , G. C. van de (2001). Islamic literature in Tanzania and Kenya. ISIM Newsletter, 8(1), 6–6.

Damen , J. (2008). The princess bride: How did a Zanzibari princess marry a German merchant–and her library end up in Leiden? Rare Book Review, 35(June–July), 14–15.

Musa, S. (1964). Mapenzi ya Dini. Mombasa: H. O. Adam and Sons (ISIM 8457 F 56).

Musa, S. (ca. 1998). Maisha ya Nabii Isa. Mombasa: Adam Traders (ISIM 8453 C 38).

Further reading

Raia, A. (2022). Easy to handle and travel with: Swahili booklets and transoceanic reading experiences in the Indian Ocean littoral. In M. A. Thumala Olave (Ed.), The Cultural Sociology of Reading (pp. 169–208). Cham: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-13227-8_7

Lacunza Balda, J. (1989). An investigation into some concepts and ideas found in Swahili Islamic writings. [Doctoral dissertation, SOAS, University of London].