by Abusufian Ahmed Ebrahim
story of Islam in Kenya begins with the settling of the Arabs
at the East African coast stretching from Somalia to Mozambique
well before the coming of Prophet Muhammad. Written evidence point
to the fact that by the second century A.D, Arab sailors were
traversing between the Arabian peninsular and the East African
coast for trade and commerce.
Arabs, some of whom made their home at the coast intermarried
with the local population resulting in the Swahili culture. The
earliest tangible evidence of evidence of the Islamic presence
in Kenya is a mosque foundation in Lamu where gold, silver and
cooper coins dating to AD 830 were discovered during an exaction
Other reports, however indicate that Islam was brought to the
country by two Arab chiefs from Oman. Sulayman and Sa‘eed are
said to have fled their homeland together with their families
and supporters after refusing to submit to Caliph Abdul-Malik
bin Marwan (685-705 C.E.). They landed on Pate, one of the islands
that make up the Lamu archipelagos where settled.
is clear that Muslims were among the first followers, and have
been the longest settled group, of the major religions in East
Africa The spread of Islam was supplemented by Arab traders through
their interaction with the local people. The local people were
attracted to Islam following the Islamic ideals exhibited by the
traders in business and other interactions.
the twelfth to the fifteenth century, Muslim towns established
at the coast flourished in socio-religious and economic development.
While the rest of the country was still a jungle, these cities
witnessed phenomenal development. In 1331, the famous Moroccan
traveler Ibn Batuta visited Mombasa which he described in his
annals as a city with numerous streets and storied buildings.
century, the Chinese Muslim traveller Zheng-the
most acclaimed admiral of the Ming Dynasty visited Malindi where
he talked about the progress enjoyed by the people of Malindi.
This era of development which was also present in other city states
of Zanzibar, Kilwa and Sofala was shattered at by the Portuguese
in the fifteenth century when they invaded and overrun the East
created massive destruction to the towns, some of them were burn
and levelled to the ground. For the next 200 years, they exerted
their influence subjugating the occupied people who nevertheless
on many occasions though without success tried to expel the European
was only the military prowess of the Omani Arabs that the Portuguese
were in the seventeenth century finally defeated and expelled
from East Africa save from Mozambique. Though the Portuguese were
very successful in establishing Christianity and its cultural
influence in its former territories (Brazil, Angola, Mozambique,
Goa, Timor and Macao and others), they failed to plant Christianity
among the people of the Coast.
After the expulsion of the Portuguese, Muslim rule was again established
but this time by the Omani rulers. They consolidated their rule
when Seyyid Said moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in
1840. The Sultan of Zanzibar thereafter carved a 10-mile coastal
strip along the coast as his possession. In the North Eastern
part of the country which is inhabited by the Somali speaking
community, Islam arrived from Northern Somalis where it was introduced
around 800 AD by Arab merchants.
It later spread progressively to areas inhabited by the Borana,
Gabra, Rendile and other tribes of Northern Kenya. For centuries,
however, Islam remained an urban and coastal and North Eastern
phenomenon and for centuries no efforts were made to spread it
in the interior.
Christianity where missionaries had the backing of the colonial
government in spreading their faith, penetration of Islam from
the coast into the interior of the Kenya hinterland was undertaken
during the 18
century by individual and adventurous
traders. Arab and Swahili traders ventured in the interior for
trade. In their business interactions with the people they came
into contact with, they were noted for their trustworthiness,
nobleness and tolerant attitude.
The Kikuyu of Nyeri referred to them as wanyahoro, meaning peacemakers.
Some of them acquired land where they built homes and Mosques
which served as staging posts for the spread of Islam.
the Western part of the country, traders from Tanganyika are credited
for introducing Islam in Mumias. The Tribal Chief of Mumias, Chief
Nabongo Mumia embarrassed Islam at the hands of Sharif Hassan
Abdalla together with his three brothers (Kadima, Mulama and Murunga),
and several of his subjects.
Islam was also spread through intermarriages as most of the traders
who ventured in the hinterland did not go with their wives and
family. A good number of them opted to marry the local women further
contributing to the spread of Islam among the local people.
building of the Uganda railway line from Mombasa brought created
another opportunities for the spread of Islam. Traders from the
coast travelled to the interior where they established pockets
of Muslim communities which opened the hearts of minds of the
locals to Islam.
Institutions (Islamic institutions)
centuries, areas around the Coast which were predominantly Muslims
were governing themselves with Islamic law. This was however,
interrupted with the Portuguese invasion of the East African coast
which saw a decline of Islamic influence for a period of 200 years.
After their departure, the Islamic judicial system was again put
in place and this continued under the rule of the Omani rulers
who later shifted their base to Zanzibar in the 19
century laying claim a 10-mile strip along the East African coast.
interests in the East African region started making headway in
the mid to late 19th century when the Imperial British East Africa
Company (IBEAC) was formed. They found the age-old Islamic judicial
system in place. In 1895, the British were authorised by the Sultan
of Zanzibar to administer the coastal strip as a protectorate,
rather than a colony. This was different from the mainland which
was administered as a colony. The authorisation from the Sultan
was however, on condition that the British respect the Islamic
judicial system in place.
the British respected this condition throughout their administration,
the Islamic judicial system which was applicable in all matters
of law was gradually phased away leaving only the only the Personal
Law which focussed on marriage, divorce and inheritance.
laws were applied by Courts of
This policy of retaining only the Personal Laws
was carried out in several Muslim areas like Northern Nigerian
and India which came under British rule. The Chief Kadhi was appointed
to be the head of the Islamic judicial system. He became a civil
servant appointed by the colonial administrators just like other
the Chief Kadhis in Colonial Kenya were Sheikh Sulaiman bin Ali
bin Khamis Mazrui who was succeeded by his student Sheikh Al Amin
bin Ali Mazrui. Sheikh Muhammad bin Kassim Mazrui served till
1967 when he retired on health grounds.
replacement was the charismatic Zanzibari Ulamaa Sheikh Abdallah
Saleh al Farsy. He was granted Kenyan citizenship when he assumed
the office and is perhaps the most outstanding Chief Kadhi Kenya
has had in the last 100 years.
Farsy is better known for his monumental work
the translation of the Holy Qur’an in Swahili. In 1975, he petitioned
the then President Jomo Kenyatta to have Eid ul Fitr as a national
holiday. Unlike its sisterly East African neighbours-Uganda and
Tanzania, Eid ul Fitr remains the only public holiday for Muslims
He retired in 1982 and his place was taken by Sheikh Nassoro Nahdy
till 2004 when Sheikh Hammad Muhammad Kassim Mazrui took over.
He followed in the footsteps of his father Sheikh Muhammad Kassim.
The office of the Chief Kadhi has traditionally been stationed
in Mombasa, the second largest town in the country which commands
a predominant Muslim population. The issue of moon sighting though
it is not among the official duties of the Chief Kadhis, it has
been undertaken by the Chief Kadhi.
After independence, Initially, Kadhis' Courts were established,
presided over by the Chief Kadhi and Kadhis appointed by Judicial
Services Commission. The appeals were to be made to the High
Court which sitting with the Chief Kadhi or two other Kadhis as
assessors. The Kadhis were mainly stationed in the Coast and North
Eastern provinces, both regions with a Muslim majority. This figure
was later raised to the present 14 Kadhis now stationed in various
parts around the country. The station are in Mombasa, Nairobi,
Kisumu, Nakuru, Eldoret, Mandera, Hola, Kwale and Bungoma. Others
are in Malindi, Lamu, Isiolo and Nyeri.
figure is still considered to be inadequate due to the high number
of Muslims who are found in virtually all parts of the country.
In the Kenya Judiciary System, the Chef Kadhi is on the same level
with Chief magistrates while district Kadhis are grouped together
with magistrates. Though Kadhis have traditionally been civil
servants, at times they have been at odds with the government
on a number of issues involving the Muslims.
In 1981, the government came up with a proposal to merge the succession
laws. It was working on recommendations put forward by a Presidential-appointed
commission produced drafts of a uniform family and inheritance
laws to replace the customary, statutory, Islamic and Hindu laws
then in force. Muslims were infuriated by the idea which aimed
at doing away with the Islamic ordinance and replace it with one
which did not agree with their faith.
spirited opposition to the law which started with Sheikh Abdallah
Farsy led to government to eventually reconsider its stand and
Muslims were finally left out of the new proposed law.
2005, the government came up with a proposal for a new constitution
for the country. It was put to the referendum where the citizens
were to decide either to accept it or reject the proposed new
constitution. Though Muslims participated in the whole process
right from beginning, they were irked by provisions included in
the document which greatly weakened the Kadhis courts. Further,
the provisions made it easier for the courts to be expunged altogether
from the constitution.
groups were at the same time campaigning for the courts to be
removed claiming that there were being used to introduce the Shariah
legislation through the backdoor. Muslims resolved to oppose the
proposed law and the Chief Kadhi Sheikh Hammad Kassim -to the
chagrin of the government, joined what came to be known as the
Orange campaign to oppose the draft constitution. His action earned
him the wrath of the government which viewed him as civil servant
who was expected to diligently toe the government line. Senior
government officials including a cabinet minister Ali Chirau Mwakere,
called for his sacking an action which generated anger in the
community. The Majlis Ulamaa Kenya and the National Muslim Leaders
Forum where the Muslim torch bearers in the campaign against the
proposed draft law.
Results from the referendum results led to a majority of Kenyans
rejecting the document. Significantly, Muslims came together and
voted as a block in rejecting the draft.