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Anonymous 19th-century scribe – If you don’t know what’s in the book, well…

December 12, 2014

The material below is taken verbatim from the Endangered Archives Blog for 12 December 2014, in celebration of Kenya Jamhuri Day:

The Riyadha Mosque in Lamu, Kenya, is home to a collection of Islamic manuscripts that documents and preserves the teaching traditions of the Lamu archipelago from c.1850 to 1950. In the EAP online collection, under the unassuming name of EAP466/1/18, can be found a 241-page compilation of prayers, litanies and invocations. It is prefaced by an inscription, framed by an ochre and black geometrical pattern, which reads, somewhat ominously: “This book, what is in it, is in it. Whomsoever does not know what is in it, may the dog pee in his mouth.”

When they were copied some time in the mid-19th century, these texts had been handed down through generations, and were well known in the wider Swahili world – indeed in the Islamic world as a whole. In the volume, we find for example the Mawlid Barzanji, authored in the 18th century, and widely recited in East Africa to this day. It narrates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, including the “heavenly handmaidens” who according to popular tradition attended his mother Amina. Knowledge of this type of text constituted what it meant to be a member of coastal Muslim community in 19th-century Lamu, through a “core curriculum” that regulated individual and collective practice of Islam. In short, knowing these texts made you part of mainstream culture. Failure to acquire this knowledge could mean social exclusion – or, more often, non-inclusion if you were an outsider to Lamu society. The consequences, as indicated by the inscription, could be dire.

A first assumption here is to interpret this threat as an eccentric liberty taken by the copyist, perhaps a poke at a madrasa (Islamic school) teacher who may have used these exact words during class. However, unusual though it may be, a similar worded warning can be found in at least one other manuscript from the Swahili coast, again cautioning against unwanted attention from dogs. The message is clear: Know you culture, your religion – and your identity – or else face exclusion.

Accessed 12 December 2014 at http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/endangeredarchives/2014/12/riyadhamosque_kenya.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+EndangeredArchivesBlog+%28Endangered+Archives%29

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