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Lamu's Sacred Meadows
Jan 4, 1995


Lamu is a small island off the coast of Kenya, no larger than ten square miles. It is one of several islands that make up the Lamu archipelago, not far from the Somali border. Its contact with the Arabian Peninsula dates back many centuries and certainly predates Islam. The trading links between the Arabs and the Cushtic and Bantu people of the African mainland have made it a buzzing multicultural trade centre since the beginning of the millennium. The language, known as the swahel, that developed along the coast traces its roots to a mixture of the Bantu and Arabic languages. Its people, the Swahili, have a rich culture and advanced literary tradition. Lamu has recently attracted a growing number of European tourists, few of whom will be aware of its contribution to Islamic education and the spread of Islam into the interior.

Islam in East Africa

Archaeological and historical evidence indicates that Islam has been practised in East Africa for a very long time, although there is no consensus over the exact date of its arrival. Al-Baidh, in his book Stages of East African History suggests that it arrived during the time of the Khalifa 'Abd al-Malik bin Marwan, at around 702/80H. He suggests that it was brought over by a group of Omanis, among them two nobles called Said and Sulaiman. Said is reported to have come to Lamu and Sulaiman to Mombassa.

While most European historians, (e.g. Parrinder (1976), Martin (1973) and Horton (1987)) support the hypothesis that Islam arrived around 800/178H or shortly afterwards, many local historians, are convinced that Islam arrived during the lifetime of the Messenger, upon him be peace, with some even suggesting it dates to before his migration to Madina.

Whatever the date of arrival, clearly it was firmly established before the nineteenth century, when, it appears, the East African coast underwent a cultural revolution. This phenomenon has been described by some as 'the arrival of the new literacy' and others as 'a period of rapid 'hadramization' of the scholars'. Lamu made its own special contribution to this movement. Two of the major factors effecting the rapid 'hadramization' and the spread of literacy and Islamic culture were the arrival of a young Comorian immigrant called Salih and the establishment of a mosque-college called the Riyadah.

Hadrami tradition and the way of Bani Alawi

The people of Hadramaut, now part of the Yemen Republic, are famous for the respect they give to the Prophet and his family and for their love of migration. There are at least as many Hadramis outside Hadramaut as there are inside it. There are many of them in East Africa. Their love for the Messenger and his family goes hack to when the Prophet Muhammad, upon him he peace, sent Ziyad bin Labid al-Khazraji to Tarim in the tenth year after the Migration. Shortly afterwards, Ziyad received a letter informing him of the death of the Prophet and a request from Abu Bakr for the oath of allegiance of the people of Hadramaut. It was gladly given by the people of Tarim who are reported to have wept en masse when they heard the news. However, many of the surrounding tribes were not so keen to give their allegiance to the new leader. It is reported (Bin Sumeit, nd., p.12) that Abu Bakr prayed for the people of Tarim that their land should always flourish, that God should bless their water and grant an abundance of righteous people in it.

The Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, is reported to have seen the valley of Hadramaut and the plain of Madina in a dream and was told that he would emigrate to one of them. The body of the Messenger is buried in Madina but many of his family emigrated to and settled in Hadramaut.

They brought with them the sharif tradition that was later to be known as the way of Bani Alawi after one of their great ancestors, Alawi bin 'Ubaidallah. The way of the Alawi family is almost synonymous with Hadrami scholarship. Tarim, the subject of Abu Bakr's famous supplication developed into an important centre of learning.

The Alawi tariqa, in the words of the former Mufti of Makka. Muhammad bin Hussain al- Habashi, is the sirat al-mustaqim which:

consists of the words and actions of the Messenger, upon whom be peace, as well as descriptions of his character and person and the things he permitted without comment. This was the way of the major companions, his family and the righteous predecessors and those who followed. It was recorded by the two Imams, Abu Talib al-Makki in his Qut and Imam al-Qushairi in his Risala. The contents of their books were amended, revised and edited, and put into chapters and sections, by the 'proof of Islam' al-Ghazali. This is the way of the Alawi-Husaini Hadramis, passed on from generation to generation, from father to son, as related from al-Husain and 'Ali Zain al-Abidin and al-Baqir and al-Sadiq and others.' (Al-Habashi, nd., p.5)

This tradition produced the scholars and traders that spread Islam to Indonesia, East Africa and many parts of Southern India. It was often carried by sharif families, i.e. those whose lineage goes back to the Prophet himself. One of these families was the Jamal al-Layl family.

Habib Salih Jamal al-Layl

The Jamal al-Layl family produced a number of famous scholars who settled in many parts of the world including the Comoro Islands and the Far East. They are also to be found in Hadramaut and the Hijaz.

Harun bin 'Abd al-Rahman settled at Pate, an island to the north of Lamu. As a result of political conflict, his great- grandson moved to the Comoro Islands, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, which had become distinguished as a centre of learning. It was here, in 1844/1269H, that Salih was born. At the age of seventeen, he travelled to Lamu for medical treatment and stayed with his uncle, 'Ali bin 'Abdallah Jamal al-Layl. His uncle had settled several years earlier and was established as a highly respected and leading scholar. The young Salih studied under his uncle's tutorage as well as several other leading teachers. He acquainted himself with the views of the local people and was readily accepted. His modesty and studious nature contributed to his acceptance into a society not known for welcoming strangers.

After one year, the young sharif returned to his father and expressed a desire to continue his studies in Lamu. His father was convinced by fellow-clansman, Mwenye BaHasan Jamal al-Layl, to allow his son to settle in Lamu. This was based on Ba-Hasan's prediction that his son had a bright future and would eventually become a great reformer of his time. In Lamu, Habib Salih excelled as a student of medicine and traditional Islamic learning and, at a young age, began teaching in a small mosque called the Sheikh Bilad Mosque. One of his famous teachers, Syed Mansab, donated a large plot of land on the outskirts of Lamu town known as Dari yo Mtanga, the Home of Dust. Habib Salih gladly accepted this gift and built a very modest madrasa, or mosque-school. He attracted many ex-slaves and people who were not welcomed in the highly stratified Lamu society.

Although there had long been a well-established scholarly tradition, it was the young Comorian who radically changed the society's approach to learning. He would teach Islam to anyone that was interested, making Islamic learning accessible to everyone. Also, he used his medical knowledge to help the poorest members of the community, and made an active attempt to take Islam to the surrounding areas. After a short while, the need to build a large mosque-college became very clear. The Riyadah was established in 1880/13O1 H.

The choice of name betrays its Hadrami origins. There was a famous mosque of the same name in Hadramaut, built by his friend and teacher, the scholar, 'Ali bin Muhammad al-Habashi.

Riyadah literally means 'meadows' and is understood by both al-Habshi and Habib Salih to refer to 'meadows of education'. The metaphor is based on a hadith of the Prophet who said:

'If you pass by the meadows of the Garden (riyad al-Jannah) graze from them.'

'What are the meadows of the Garden?' we said.

'The gatherings of remembrance,' he said. (Tirmidhi)

In another version of the hadith he said 'where people gather for education'.

The Riyadah of Siyun in Hadramaut and of Lamu in Kenya combine both of these two important functions. They are places of worship and remembrance as well as educational institutions.

The subjects taught at the Riyadah include Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). Arabic, mathematics, the four main schools of law, and comparative religion. The medium of instruction is Arabic with some explanations in Swahili.

The Riyadah produced many scholars, and influenced even more. Among them were a number of people appointed to the position of qadi (judge) or Grand Qadi. They include al-Sayyid 'Umar bin Sumait Qadi of Zanzibar and the Comoros, al-Amin Mazrui (father of the famous professor and television producer) Sheikh Hamid b. Juma. the current Qadi of Tanzania, and Sharif Sayyid al Baidh and Ahmed Mashur al-Haddad who were responsible for a large number of people embracing Islam in Uganda.

The success of the Riyadah was undoubtedly owed to the personality of Habib Salih and his holding fast to the way of his ancestors. One of his students, described Habib Salih saying:

He is righteous in his name and in his true self

And in his writing and in his mystical state,

And in his prayers and in his courtesies

The eulogy encapsulates the eulogized.

The Riyadah college today

After Habib Salih's death, his sons continued their fathers outstanding work, and to this day the Riyadah continues to produce imams and teachers. Habib Salih's grandson, Sharif Khitamy has a thriving medical practice in Mombassa where he is respected as one of its leading scholars. Graduates of the Riyadah have established schools all over East Africa, and supporters of this distinguished path with a special connection with this tiny island are found in London and Cape Town and probably everywhere in between.

Lamu's sacred meadows make it no ordinary little island.