By ThE NEW DAWN TEAM
Maulidi or Milad-Un-Nabii (the Prophet’s birthday) is a very significant ceremony within a significant number of Muslim communities in East and Central Africa region.
Despite differences of scholarly opinion over whether or not Milad-Un- Nabii celebrations are sanctioned by teachings of the Quran, Hadith or Sunna, they remain a significant event which distinguished scholars agree have played a crucial role in the spread of Islam into the interior of Africa.
Available historical evidence holds that, despite Islam having had a presence in this region for over 1000 years compared to other exotic religions which have existed for about 100 years only, Islam was slow to spread into the East African hinterland.
For example, the spread of Islam into the interior of Kenya lacked the professional zeal and drive as seen in the case of West Africa.
Before the establishment of British colonial rule in Kenya, Islam had remained confined to the coastal strip and a few areas of the interior namely, the north eastern among the Somali communities and at Mumias in Western Kenya where Muslim caravan traders had penetrated through Tanganyika trade routes in the early nineteenth century.
The building of the Kenya-Uganda railway in 1896 opened up the interior of Kenya to the people of the Coast where Islam had gained prominence for centuries. The railway made Mombasa an important distribution centre in the post-1890’s for East Africa and beyond. Commercial activities intensified as trade picked up between the coast and the interior with European and Asian businesses succeeding in attracting secondary industries and as commerce expanded, new job opportunities were created.
Good wages attracted migrant labour form as far as Eastern, Central and Western provinces of Kenya to the coastal towns of such as Mombasa and Malindi, to the numerous plantations that emerged along the railway line while others crossed the sea to Pemba and Zanzibar. Many of these migrant workers came into contact with Islam and were later converted, and when they returned home, they propagated it among their people.
Apart from up country people coming down to the coast, the railway line also made travel in the opposite direction easier, thus enabling coastal Muslim traders and preachers to gain access to the interior and propagating Islam there.
Thus it was only after the establishment of colonial rule in Kenya that serious attempts were made to convert the people of the interior into Islam. But unlike Christianity, efforts to spread Islam in the interior of Kenya were not missionary-based.
Spread of Islam in many parts of Kenya during colonial rule was urban-based, haphazardly conducted and localized, as reversions were done though personal contacts or ceremonies.
Many of those in the interior that were won over to Islam, not as a result of organised missionary crusades, but because they were first impressed by the Islamic way of life and the ties and security offered by becoming part of the Ummah.
Many of the early converts in the interior were impressed by the bondsmof brotherhood that were enshrined in Islamic festivals like Idd and Maulidi. In this regard, scholars agree that Maulidi played an important role in the spread of Islam in the interior of East Africa and the evolution of an African Muslim demography in the region.
Maulidi festivals in Kenya and the region are about 120 years old, meaning that they their commencement coincides with the establishment of early trade links between the Kenyan coast and the interior. But they gained momentum from about 1905 after the Kenya-Uganda railway reached Port Florence (present day Kisumu).
The genre Mauludi celebrations common in the East Africa region was started by Habib Swaleh bin Alwy Jamalulay of Lamu. He originally came from the Comoros Islands where Islam had spread many years ago. Habib Swaleh introduced Maulidi in honour of Habib Habshi of Yemen.
Thereafter, Sharif Ahmad al Ahdaly used the Maulidi to spread Islam into the interior of Kenya to as far paces as Mumias, Kakamega, Kendu Bay and Gulu in Uganda.
Source: New Dawn