Mahmood Kooria is a researcher at Leiden University .
From September 2016 to February 2017, he was a joint research fellow at the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) and African Studies Centre ASC Leiden.
Malabar in Zanzibar: Asian-African Intersections in the Circulation of Legal Texts across the Indian Ocean
While writing a biographical entry on Sayyid ʿUmar bin Aḥmad bin Sumayt, the famous chronicler of the Swahili Coast, Abdallah Salih Farsy noted that Sayyid ʿUmar’s father “taught him the entire Fathu’l-Mu’in at the same time that Sayyid Umar was teaching in the Malindi Friday Mosque. When he was teaching in the Malindi Mosque, it was their usual practice that his father teaches him the very lesson he was going to teach in the mosque that same day.” One wonders what is this Fathu’l-Mu’in? Why it is so important that a father teaches it to his son who teaches it again to the public at the main congregational mosque of Malindi? In his biographical dictionary entitled The Shafi'i ulama of East Africa, Farsy informs us further that the son beseeched his father many times to teach him the most noted text Minhāj, which he refused telling that it is not that important, instead he should focus on Fatḥ al-Muʿīn.
Both the Minhāj and Fatḥ are legal texts of Shāfiʿī school of Islamic law. Minhāj’s position is generally recognized among scholars. But, Fatḥ has been neglected by the scholars despite its significance among the Muslim jurists. It is written by a sixteenth-century Indian scholar called Aḥmad Zayn al-Dīn bin al-Ghazālī al-Malaybārī (d. 1583). Since its lettering in Malabar (southwest India), it has been influencing the juridical discourses of Shāfiʿīte ʿulamāʾ across the Indian Ocean rim. Many scholars wrote commentaries, super-commentaries or summaries in a number of different languages, including Swahili, Arabic, Malay, Tamil and Malayalam. Sayyid ʿUmar’s father himself has studied the text at Mecca with Sayyid Bakrī who has written a famous commentary on Fatḥ called Iʿānat al-ṭālibīn. Both the original and the commentary became so central to the Shāfiʿīte discourses in East Africa.
Although scholars generally state that the Shāfiʿī school is the most prominent legal thought and practice in the Swahili Coast, they have not explored the ways in which the school arrived, spread and survived in the coast. The studies on the East African Islamic education and knowledge transmission usually make fleeting references to the school, occasionally crediting its presence to the Ḥaḍramī Sayyids migrated from Yemen. Against this background, my study looks into such generalized statements critically and unravels many more contributors who actively partook in the spread and survival of the school in the coast. In my doctoral dissertation, I had explored the ways in which the Shāfiʿī school spread across the Indian Ocean rim since the thirteenth century, and this research is its continuation with a special attention to the Malabari and Zanzibari connections.