Afrocentrism, Orientalism and Other Pitfalls of Studying the Swahili: New Thoughts on an Old Problem

By Nathaniel Mathews
Submitted to Session P4915 (Blackness in the Middle East: a Comparative Perspective, 2017 Annual Meeting
Africa (Sub-Saharan); Arabian Peninsula; Indian Ocean Region; Oman;
African Studies; Arab Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Historiography of the Swahili Coast has been plagued by a great deal of confusion and equivocation with regards to race. Early colonial scholarship on the Swahili celebrated them as an 'Arab' civilization in contrast to the uncivilized 'tribal' Africans they were surrounded by. Nationalist era scholarship emphasized the 'Africanity' of the Swahili in step with postcolonial aspirations for Pan-African freedom. Frustrated with these interminable debates, many scholars simply declared that the 'Swahili are the Swahili', even though many so-called Swahili would take exception to that term.The identity of the Swahili goes to the heart of the elusive historical meanings of 'Arab' and 'African.' this paper proposes a new approach to race, Africanity and the study of Islam together that transcends these dichotomies.

Placing disparate sources in the same frame-- classic black nationalist historiography, British Orientalist letters to Swahili elites, the classic debate between Ali Mazrui and Wole Soyinka in the pages of Transition magazine, and Swahili poetry, this paper critiques as inadequate both black nationalist and Arabocentric approaches to the study of the Swahili. While the former can often devolve into a form of what Sherman Jackson calls 'black Orientalism', the latter is often overdetermined by elitist, textually based approaches that represent Swahili society and history as an organic whole, lost to colonialism, rather than an ongoing terrain of debate, already striated by racial hierarchy, into which colonialism inserted itself. Furthermore these representations portray not a clash of civilizations between Islam and Europe, but an "embrace of civilizations" between Muslims and Europeans that relies on colonial representations of the African as a figure lacking civilization. These representations can lead to a form of nostalgic romanticism arguably as dangerous, if not more so than 'black Orientalism'.