Historical East African Quran Manuscripts


(pictured above: the Boné Quran, South Sulawesi, 1804)
We tend to think of the Quran as being mainly produced in the Middle East or Indochinese regions, but Africa has a rich cultural Islamic heritage, as seen in many ways. These manuscripts from coastal East Africa have a unique style both of calligraphy and illumination (where text is presented with flourishes such as borders, calligraphic designs, and illustrations). Although this isn’t the normal subject matter of this blog, I’m recovering from surgery and yet trying to keep to my promise of a daily blog post, or as close to it as I can get. 

Boné Quran (South Sulawesi, 1804): Frontispiece with illuminated sura headings in cartouches set within a series of layered and decorated rectilinear frames marking the start of Sūrat al-Kahf. (Q. 18)

This is from a research paper contained in Approaches to the Quran in Sub-Saharan Africa, edited by Zulfikar Hirji, who is also the author of the final article, “The Siyu Qurans: Three Illuminated Quran  Manuscripts from Coastal East Africa,” which contains the photos shown in this post. The article quoted above states the following: 

This comparative study of three illuminated Qur’an manuscripts from coastal East Africa has established that all three were produced in Siyu on Pate Island in the Lamu archipelago. The Qur’an manuscripts were copied between c. 1750 and c. 1820 under the Famao rulers of Siyu and not under the Nabahani sultans of Pate.

The area in bold above is shown on the map below, in what is now Lamu County, a coastal province in Kenya. You can see Pate Island and Siyu. Lamu Island itself is known as the oldest living and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa. 

Its history relating to Islam in brief:

“Islam spread down the coast from African Muslims in the Horn of Africa, helping to develop what would be known as the Swahili culture. Despite myths to the contrary, Pate was neither an Arab nor Persian colony, but an African town frequented by trading Arabs, Persians, Indians, and others. It was the centre of the Pate sultanate from the 13th–19th centuries. The Swahili port of Pate long vied with Lamu and Takwa (on Manda Island) for economic dominance of the area, and came into prominence around the 14th century. It was subjugated by Lamu, however, in the late 19th century.”

RAS Quran: Illuminated sura heading at Sūrat YāSin (Q. 36).

The scholarly article referenced above is in a journal that also discusses such things as “Polemics and Language in Swahili Translations of  the Quran,” although those are more recent. Of course Islam is such a universal religion that it can be culturally assimilated by those inspired and guided by it in many ways. And thus we have the message of the Quran incorporated into Swahili culture and development. What’s interesting is that this culture in E. Africa developed independently from Arab or Persian influence. 

One of the fascinating facts here is that Quranic passages and other poetry were actually translated into Swahili using the Arabic script. Per this excerpt:

In fact, I had seen the Hinawy Qur’an in Mombasa in 2001 at the house of the late Sheikh-Sir Mbarak al-Hinawy when I was undertaking my doctoral research. From 1941 to 1959, from the port-city of Mombasa, Sheikh-Sir Mbarak al-Hinawy served as the governor (Swahili, liwali) of a ten- mile strip along the East African Coast that was part of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.

Zulfikar Hirji, Between Empires: Sheikh-Sir Mbarak al-Hinawy, 1896–1959 (London, 2012), pp. 105–62.

Of Omani heritage, Hinawy collected, researched, translated and published a number of important Swahili manuscripts in Arabic script, often in collaboration with local and European scholars.

Ibid., pp. 87–92
Oral tradition indicates that Siyu fort, pictured above, was built by a of Siyu leader, Bwana Mataka, whose full name was Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak bin Mohamed bin Oman Famau in the 19th century to protect Siyu residents from Omani Arabs domination.

Solomon’s knots were widely used in sub-Saharan Africa in textiles and other uses. It is also called a “Yoruba knot” or “endless knot.”

Among the Yoruba of Nigeria, the Solomon’s knot is called Arèwá and historically symbolised unity among the Islamic emirates in northern Nigeria. The Arèwá is used on all forms of material culture including Qur’an manuscripts where it is used as a division marker.

Zulfikar Hirji, “The Siyu Qurans: Three Illuminated Quran  Manuscripts from Coastal East Africa,” p. 446.
The Solomon’s knot motif can be seen on the outer border of this illuminated frontispiece containing Sura Al-Fatiha.
Round cartouche placed between lines of Swahili poetry in Arabic script containing repeated Allāh and vocalised shahāda clockwise set on a 3 x 3 magic square with lunette patterns.

Although more difficult to see, the manuscript pictured above contains Swahili poetry in Arabic script, showing cross-cultural influence. One rarely hears of such manuscripts from Africa, and this particular area is less well-known, yet fascinating. It even has a Chinese connection, where some Chinese explorers got stranded there, from whom a number of descendants in the region trace their ancestry. But for Ramadan, the story of the Quran’s worldwide influence is shown in these little-known but striking manuscripts and masahif.

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