Celebrating Swahili New Year: A Performative Critique of Textual Islam in Coastal Kenya

Ray, Daren E.


Article written by 2008 DPDF Muslim Modernities fellow Daren E. Ray, featured in a special issue of The Muslim World titled Muslim Modernities: Interdisciplinary Insights Across Time and Space, edited by 2008 DPDF Muslim Modernities fellows Daren E. Ray and Joshua Gedacht, based on a culmination of their DPDF cohort work and DPDF Alumni Initiative workshop.

Coastal East Africans began practicing Islam as early as the eighth century CE, yet debates over bid‘a (innovation) during the twentieth century recast several of their local practices as shirk (blasphemy). This article situates the celebration of Swahili New Year, now regarded by many East African Muslims as shirk, within the context of debates about maulidi, a celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth introduced by Arab immigrants. Drawing on personal observations, a locally-produced DVD of Swahili New Year, and interviews in Kenya, it compares celebrations of maulidi and Swahili New Year in 2010. This comparison demonstrates that the Swahili “Wamiji” community of Mombasa has adapted their variant of Swahili New Year to emphasize a repertoire of practices that it shares with maulidi and which many East African Muslims regard as intuitively Islamic. While Sufi tariqas, Salafi reformers, and Shi’a minorities focus on interpreting the texts of the Qur’an and ̣adith in their critiques of one another, the Swahili “Wamiji” community in Mombasa aims to rehabilitate Swahili New Year from charges of shirk through selective changes in practice. This adaptation seems to confirm the trend of deprecating African practices in favor of Arab ones. Yet, the practices of Swahili New Year also obscure the boundaries between religion and culture that are foundational to modern textual approaches to Islam in the region. Celebrating Swahili New Year thus offers a performative critique of textual Islam by arguing through practice, more so than discourse, against the assumption that African practices cannot be authentically Islamic. The article concludes by suggesting that research on performative critiques could illuminate histories of the majority of Muslims in Africa who did not engage in textual critique but have shaped Islamic celebrations and devotions through their innovations in practice.