by Alan Thorold
The Yao in southern Malawi are people for whom Islam has been taken to be a distinguishing characteristic. They are a minority in Malawi - about 10 per cent of the population are Muslims, most of whom are Yao - and tend to be concentrated around the southern tip of Lake Malawi. The major Yao conversions to Islam occurred only about one hundred years ago, and since that time the Yao Muslims in Malawi have been to some extent isolated from the rest of the Muslim world. They thus represent an opportunity to trace the manner in which Islam works to transform a society from within. This is not to suggest that currents in the wider world of Islam have not affected the Yao, but that the influence which these have had upon the Yao is largely of their own choosing. The development of Islam among the Yao has, of course, occurred in conjunction with fundamental changes in the political economy of the region, but although these cannot be disregarded, it is my intention here to see if it is possible to understand part of the transformation of the Yao Muslims by way of a focus on their Islamic practice. It may be, I suggest, that there is a kind of internal logic of islamic transformation which can be discerned.
It became clear to me while I was in Malawi2 that the Muslims in the area were divided into three camps or factions. Most widespread and numerically strongest were adherents of the Sufi orders, known locally as twariki or followers of the tariqa. Then there were the sukutis or 'quietists' (the term sukuti is derived from the Swahili verb 'to be quiet'). I had assumed from the little that has been written about the sukuti that they were a branch of one of the local Sufi orders, but soon became apparent that they defined themselves in opposition to Sufi practices, and in fact were sometimes referred to as 'anti-Sufi.' Lastly, there was a small but very active group who will be referred to as the “new reformists” and who may be seen as the local representatives of the global Islamic revival.
To explain the emergence of these factions and describe their characteristics and differences, I shall construct a model of the development of Islam among the Yao. The elements of the model are drawn partly from Humphrey Fisher’s model of Islamic conversion in Africa, and partly from the dichotomy which several writers have made between popular forms of Islam often associated with Sufism and the scripturalist or reformed version. I suggest that there are three phases in the development of Islam in this region, each corresponding to one of the factions mentioned above. Phase 1 is that of appropriation and accommodation (Sufism). Phase 2 is that of internal reform (sukuti). And Phase 3 is that of the new reformism. As I will try to indicate, each phase may be defined in terms of a characteristic relationship to the Islamic scriptures, the Book. That is to say, the role of the Book changes with the development of each phase and, in some sense, an alteration in the status of the Book inaugurates each new phase and is a part of the mechanism which introduces the new phase.
One of the consequences of the shift from one phase to the next is a transformation in the identity of the Yao Muslims. Putting it in a very schematic way, in Phase I such Islamic practice as is adopted is used to bolster an emerging Yao “tribal” identity. This idiosyncratic and locally controlled version of Islam makes few demands upon its adherents, yet it furnishes them with a set of cultural markers which distinguish them very clearly from their neighbours, elaborating and supplementing rather than replacing distinctive Yao rituals. The development of Phase 2 is a reaction against some of the practices associated with Phase 1, and it tends to erode the unity of the distinctively 'Yao' Muslim identity. The sukuti movement opposes practices associated with Sufism, particularly the use of dhikr, but does not attempt any major social transformation of the Yao Muslims.
It is with the appearance of Phase 3, the new reformist movement, that the great transformation of Yao Muslims begins. It also heralds the end of the Yao Muslims as such, since those who associate themselves with, this movement see themselves primarily as Muslims, and any other identity is secondary and dispensable. The new reformists not only identify themselves as Muslim first and foremost, but they also model their behaviour and Islamic practice on that of an ideal type imported directly from the Middle East. They repudiate the earlier stages of Islam in the region and commit themselves to what they see as a global Islamic identity. The change in Islamic practice, from a pragmatic Sufism to a more and more extreme reformism is thus part of an ongoing metamorphosis of a local Yao Muslim identity into a supra-regional Muslim identity.
Before describing the onset of Phase I, some prelirinary historical background is required. The Yao were initially brought into contact with Islam by way of their trade with the coast, mainly at Kilwa, and, as the Yao historian Yohanna Abdallah observed, ventures to the coast soon began to have a profound influence on them: "This penetration to the coast was the reason that the Yaos began to regard the coast as their lode-star, and the arbiter of customs." There is evidence that the Yao, who were settled in what is now northern Mozambique, were involved in trade with Swahili and Arabs on the coast by the beginning of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century the demand for ivory and the growth of slave-trading in the area drew increasing numbers of the Yao into long-distance trading. The trade in ivory and slaves also precipitated an enlargement of the Yao political process, from the village, structured around a matrilineal sorority group under the authority of the headman, to the territorial chiefdoms based on trade links and military strength. The chiefs who rose to power during this period attained their position through a combination of trading and slave-raiding, dominating by the exercise of military power reinforced by the firearms acquired from their trading partners at the coast.
The nineteenth century saw a series of Yao migrations from northern Mozambique. mostly south-west toward the southern zip of Lake Malawi, though some moved north into what is now Tanzania.
The cause of these migrations is not entirely clear, but would seem o have been a combination of (he effects of drought and famine in northern Mozambique, conflicts with the neighbouring Makua, and conflicts between Yao chiefdoms competing for slaves.7 The general pattern of the migrations is that as the weaker Yao chiefdoms fled from attackers and famine, they transformed themselves into invaders as they moved into what is now southern Malawi. By the time that Livingstone reached the area in the 1850s, the Yao were plundering and raiding for slaves among the Chewa and Mang’anga inhabitants, and had established themselves as the dominant political force in the region.
Livingstone was suitably horrified by this state of affairs and, returning to Britain in 1857. made an appeal at the Senate House in Cambridge which led to the formation of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa. The vanguard of the mission, which established itself in the Shire highlands in 1861, soon came into conflict with Yao slavers as a result of its policy of taking in and protecting runaway slaves.,8 This conflict and other difficulties forced a temporary withdrawal to Zanzibar, but in the 1870s the Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland established missions in the region and the numbers of British there began to grow. in 1891 a British Protectorate was declared over the territory then known as Nyasaland, now Malawi.
In the meantime the Yao chiefs became increasingly perturbed by the British presence in the region and the threat posed by it to the slave trade. A result of this was that they attempted to consolidate links with their Arab and Swahili trading partners at the coast. One of the more powerful of the slaving chiefs, Makanjila, made his allegiance clear in an exchange with a missionary, thus: “[Makanjila] in hisS vanity, swore what he thought an awe-inspiring oath, that if the Europeans touched the Sultan of Zanzibar, he himself would come to his rescue against the invaders. Thus showing that he regarded himself as one with the coast. "Makanjila., in about 1870, had been one of the first of the Yao chiefs to convert to islam, followed soon afterwards by several other of the powerful slaving chiefs."
The arrival in 1891 of Harry Johnston, the first Commissioner of the Protectorate, was quickly followed by the onset of a series of British campaigns against the Yao chiefs, and although the British forces suffered some rather severe setbacks, the 'pacification' of Nyasaland and the termination of the slave trade in the region was accomplished by 1896. This defeat and the end of the slave trade clearly caused a severe erosion of the chiefs’ authority since a great deal of their power and wealth depended on it. Yet it was just at this time that conversion to Islam became widespread among the Yao. A missionary wrote of this as follows: “It was very noticeable how in these years there was a recrudescence of the craze for Mohammedanism. It seemed as if the slavers, checked by the government, were determined to extend their moral force. As always, they used the native attachment to the old Yao initiation dances, encouraging these dances... in order to introduce gradually another dance which was regarded as an initiation into Mohammedanism .its name was jandu. They used the native funeral ceremonies in the same way.
Although the language is a little alarming, this description of the manner in which Islam was propagated by the chiefs and their supporters, and their reasons for doing so, seems to be accurate and convincing. In the face of British domination Islam became a means of legitimating the status of the chiefs, and the rituals which they controlled were the mechanisms by which this was accomplished. Thus by the turn of the century, many of the Yaos settled in southern Malawi were at least nominally Muslim. I have doubtless overemphasized the political motive of these conversions, but it does seem clear that the conflict with the British was the overriding factor which precipitated a mass conversion, and to explore all the other factors which prepared the ground for this would take u.s too far afield here.’4 The point to be stressed is that after a long period of contact with Muslims at the coast, and the development of a political economy based largely on the slave trade, conversion occurred at a time when those links with the Swahili coast were being effectively severed, and the influence of the erstwhile trading partners was much attenuated.
These then are the conditions in which Phase I of our model develops — the newly-converted Yao Muslims isolated from the rest of the Muslim world and inside a British-controlled and increa.singly Christian-dominated protectorate. So far the Book has not been much in evidence, and although several of the chiefs are reported to have employed Swahili scribes in the slaving era, and the association of Islam with writing and books must have been well established, there is little to suggest that literacy was a central motive for conversion.15 Nor does it seem that the actual contents of the Quran were of much interest to the new converts. To the extent that the Book features in this first phase of the development of Islam, it is as part of a ritual system in which it operates as a sort of fetish, a source of power rather than of doctrine.
In this phase of appropriation and accommodation, the Book occupies a subordinate role, and it is certainly not the main attraction. Islamic practice revolves around a few central rituals which are often merely transformed versions of pre-Islamic Yao rituals. Most important of these was the initiation ceremony for boys. By means of the introduction of complete rather than partial circumcision, and changing the name of the ceremony to jando (the term used on the coast), the Yao initiation ceremony in a largely unaltered form became a method of induction into Islam. The name of the initiation for girls was likewise altered.
The introduction of Sufism to the region in the early twentieth century was given an enthusiastic reception by the Yao Muslims. The Qadiriyya and Shadhiliyya had both established themselves on the coast, and were adopted by a number of Yao shaikhs who had ventured to the coastal centres and who returned to propagate elements of Sufi practice among the Yao’ The central ritual of the Sufis, the dhikr (or sikiri as the Yao refer to it), was swiftly incorporated by the Yao and replaced the performance of pre-Islamic dances at marriages, funerals and other ceremonies. As practised by the Yao, the performance of sikiri consists of a ring of dancers, usually with a core of young men, moving in unison around and around, bending and rising to expel and inhale breath. This can go on for quite a long time, certainly producing hyperventilation in the core performers, and makes for a very exhilarating spectacle.
So, through the agency of the shaikhs, the Yao were able to appropriate this rather attractive aspect of Sufism, and began to refer to themselves as followers of the tariqa (the Sufi way). Other elements of coastal Sufism — festivals like zIyaIa, the founders anniversaty, and the use of banners and flags - joined the sikiri in consolidating the appeal of the tariqa, and the authority of the shaikhs who propagated these practices was initially unchallenged. There was a good deal of prestige attached to those Yao who made the journey to the coast, and particularly to those who had been to Zanzibar, and the title of shaikh or mwalimu (teacher) was given rather freely to those who returned. Few of the Yao shaikhs of this first phase were completely literate in Arabic or made any pretensions to scholarship in Islamic doctrine. But they were very active in propagating their version of Islamic practice, and persuading chiefs and headmen to build mosques and set up madrasas at which children were taught how to pray, to recite the fariha, and other elements of this rudimentary Islamic way of life. Above all, they urged the chiefs to resist the encroachment of the Christian missions which were always eager to open schools in the region. and in this they were aided by the policy of religious neutrality which the colonial administration maintained.
That, then, is an outline of Phase 1, of the appropriation and accommodation of Islam by the Yao, and until the l930s it was entrenched more or less uniformly throughout the areas in which they were settled in southern Nyasalanci. Then a series of conflicts developed among the Yao Muslims which reveal, I think, the emergence of Phase 2 of our model — that is, of an internal reform movement. The controversies seem to have initially revolved around funerals, which is significant because the ceremonies associated with the burial of Yao Muslims were a rather striking instance of the accommodation of Islamic practice to pre-Islamic Yao custom. The feasts which follow the burial of a Yao adherent of the tariqa are known as sadaqa (a term usually denoting voluntary alms), and this term is also applied by the Yao to feasts commemorating lineage ancestors.2° A central feature of the sadaqa or funeral feast is the performance of sikiri.
The nature of the controversy can be illustrated by an interview which was conducted by Clyde Mitchell in 1948.21 Referring to a dispute which took place in Jalasi’s chiefdom in 1937, his informant says: “...long ago there was a law of Islam which says that if a burial takes place they take a flag and put it on the door where there is a death and when they have buried the body others are doing sikiri ... Ali Bisalimu (one of the antagonists] returned from a journey to the coast with many books ... he took a big book, named msafu [the Qur’an] which gave the old history and he found the words that putting the flag on the door and doing sikiri at the funeral is a huge sin. The Lord does not like dancing at the funeral. But to pray silently and grumble in the heart alone, until they bury the body. Then Ali Bisalimu ... started to tell all the Muslims.” Not surprisingly, he met with some fierce opposition from the local adherents of the tariqa, and Chief Jalasi called on him to explain himself. Ali Bisalimu is said to have replied: “I am making sukutu ‘silence’ at the funeral because at the funeral of Mohammed he did not see sikiri.” But Jalasi decided thus: “We don’t want sukuti in this land. Islam of the flag came long ago.
This interview is quoted at some length because it is quite revealing about the nature and origins of what became known as the sukuri movement in Malawi.22 It uses the Book rather than tradition as its referent and authority, and it opposes the accretions of the Islamic practice of Phase I, but it tends to do so negatively, by pointing to their supposed deviance, rather than by way of a positive doctrine. Nevertheless, the sukuti movement took root and has re-emerged in various disputes throughout the area since then. J.N.D. Anderson, who visited Nyasaland in 1950 as part of his research on Islamic law in Africa. reported that a dispute at that time became sufficiently serious for the Nyasaland administration to bring a mediator from Zanzibar to try to reconcile the parties. Once again the performance of sikiri at funerals was at issue, as well as the legality of eating hippopotamus meat, which the sukutis opposed.
Shortly before I arrived in Malawi a dispute in Makanjila’s chiefdom had resulted in the sukuti faction hiving off and building its own mosque. One of the sukuti leaders there informed me that again the point of contention was the conduct of funerals, and although the chief had organized a debate between the parties, a compromise could not be reached and the chief had eventually sided with the shaikhs of the tariqa. In the lakeside village where I stayed in another chiefdom there was a dispute about the form of the Friday prayers which reflected a more general dispute in the chiefs village, where the sukuti faction claimed that it was wrong to perform the Friday prayer and the midday prayer together.
The description of the sukuri movement as “anti-Suti” seems quite accurate. It emerged in opposition to the Sufi-influenced latitude of Phase 1, but it remains dispersed and fragmented. both spatially and ideologically. Despite a tendency toward scripturalism and a more puritanical practice of Islam, there does not appear to be any unifying positive doctrine. It defines itself negatively, in opposition to the tariqa from which it emerges in response to a growing recognition of the significance of the Book. It also begins to undermine the Yao Muslim identity of Phase I in a way that the minor differences between followers of the Qadiriyya and Shadhiliyya never did.
The positive doctrine and ideological unity which the sukuri or internal reform movement of Phase 2 lacked, to some extent creates the opening for the arrival of the new reformists. This third phase of the development of Islam among the Yao starts to make its presence felt in Malawi in the 1970s, and although its supporters are still few in number among the Yao Muslims, its influence has grown very rapidly. It has certainly benefited from the disarray and erosion of the ranks of the tariqa caused by the sukut is, and although the new refonnists tend to look more favourably upon the Islamic practice of the sukuis than that of the rariqa, they are not seeking to ally with them. One of the slogans which was popular at meetings of the reformist Muslim Students’ Association underlines this: No Qadiriyya! No Sukutiyya! Islamiyya!” But with a strong central doctrine of scripturalism and a strategy to implement it, the new reformists have set about undermining rather than directly confronting both of the other factions.
They are supported in this by relatively large material resources — funds which flowed in from donors mostly in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is channelled through the Muslim Association of Malawi, an organization founded in Blantyre in the 1940s by Muslims of Asian extraction, and until recently of little consequence to the Yao Muslims. With the funds came people to administer them: a financial director from Kuwait and teachers from various parts of the Muslim world. The programme which the revived Muslim Association embarked on was directed mainly toward the provision of education for the Yao Muslim youth. Islamic centres with primary and secondary schools have been built, funds have been made available for Muslim pupils to attend these and also government schools, and scholarships have been set up to send selected students to Islamic colleges abroad. The policy of the post-Independence Malawi government to detach the mission schools from the control of the churches and to open government schools in non-Christian areas has helped the cause of the new reformists considerably. since Yao Muslims are now less resistant to the idea of sending their children to school.
The Muslim Students’ Association, formed in 1982 and affiliated to the Muslim Association, has been active in schools throughout the Muslim areas. The national co-ordinator in 1986, Hassan Nkata, listed some of its objectives as follows: “to create Islamic brotherhood amongst the Muslim students, to make Muslim students understand the importance of secular education and its relationship with Islam, to encourage Muslim students Ito] understand Islam at an early stage (before going into the field of different jobs — this applies to those students who did not have the chance of acquiring Islamic education at a Madressa), to make authorities aware about the ne’ds of the Muslims in the different institutions thereby creating an Islamic atmosphere everywhere.”25 In Mangochi District at the time of my visit, the activity of the Muslim Students’ Association was co-ordinated by the young and energetic administrative secretary of the local branch of the Muslim Association. He arranged meetings of Muslim students in schools throughout the district, at which branches of the Students’ Association were formed and committees elected. Frequent “cometogether meetings” were held at the Islamic Centre then under construction outside Mangochi town. A feature of these meetings was the lectures which students were encouraged to contribute, often based on texts made available by the Muslim Association.
Significantly, the activities of the Muslim Students’ Association were confined to schools rather than madrasas, limiting the possibility of conflict with local shaikhs.
The doctrine which the new reformists propagate is scripturalist in the extreme, privileging the Book as the ultimate source of authority and rejecting all Islamic practice not sanctioned by it. The strategy of enlisting the school-going youth and of using the growth of literacy in general to inculcate scripturalism seems to have been effective, and this, combined with their material resources and links with the heart- lands of Islam, make the new reformists a formidable force.
t is clear that the new reformism, this third phase of Islamic transformation which threatens to eclipse the two earlier phases, is not in any simple sense an internal development. It depends upon the growing integration of Yao Muslims with the Muslim world at large, and upon factors external to Islam — in particular, changes in the education system in post-Independence Malawi, and the facility of modern travel and communications. To suggest then that this represents some sort of logical outgrowth of the earlier phases seems perhaps to strain a little against the facts, to be more Hegelian than historical. Up until the late 1970s, it seemed as though Islam among the Yao was in a state of dormancy if not atrophy. The sporadic conflicts between followers of the tariqa and the sukuti could have continued without resolution, gradually eroding the unity of the Yao Muslims. Yet it was just this divided condition of Islam in the region which gave the new reformists such a headstart, and which leads one to suggest that their success has been the logical outcome of emerging trends within the ranks of the Yao Muslims. The sukuti movement was able to place reform on the agenda, but operating within the horiLons of the existing Islamic structures, it had neither the strategy nor the resources to effect a major ransformatión. The tendency towards reformism had to wait until the Yao were once again connected with the Muslim world to achieve its full effect.
From the identity which the new reformists inculcate in their followers, and particularly in the Muslim Students’ Association, it would seem that one of their main objectives is to generate a sense of identity that consists of belonging toa global Muslim movement. It is an outward-looking identity, entirely opposed to the introverted identity of the Yao Muslims of Phases 1 and 2. This difference in identity is marked in many ways, but perhaps most significantly in language usage. Where Yao spiced with some Kiswahili was the language of the earlier phases, the new reformists use Chichewa (the national language of Malawi) or English at meetings, and employ Arabic greetings and formulae as much as they are able to. Above all, it is the aim of those committed to the reformist movement to go abroad, study in an Islamic institution and learn Arabic. Literacy in Arabic is rare in Malawi but it is now the aspiration of many ambitious young Muslims, and is especially desirable if acquired somewhere close to he Middle East. Within the limits of their situation as pan of a Muslim minority in a state where they are viewed with some suspicion, the new reformists are trying to forge an identity based on a model of Islamic practice very different from that of their Muslim predecessors in the region.
Looking at the emergence of the phases of Islam outlined above in terms of their relationship with the Book, there is a shift from a situation in which the Book is largely effaced to one in which it is central. It was adopted in the first phase as part of a ritual system in which it was useful and docile. In the second phase it began to assert itself, exerting an influence which is corrosive of the accretions of the first phase, without yet being able to impose itself convincingly. And in the third phase, taking advantage both of the ground prepared for it by the action of the first two phases and of conditions generally conducive to scripturalism, the Book begins to assume a position of centrality and authority. The increasing prominence of the Book is accompanied by a changing identity, from a situation where Islamic practice is used to bolster a tribal identity to one where it provides access to an international movement. The Yao Muslims have been changed. The Islamic practice which they adopted and made their own has been transformed, and their identity has been transformed with it. The growth of scripturalism has been followed by the demise of a tribal identity and the emergence of a new wholly Muslim identity. Islam, which once assisted the Yao to sustain a tribal identity, has now furnished them with an entirely new identity. The Yao who appropriated Islam are ultimately being appropriated by it.