What makes Africans Arab

What makes Africans Arab

The dynamics of Islamic African identity in the Arabian Peninsula.

Dr Iain Walker, Macquarie University
In 1998 East Africa was the scene of two terrorists attacks. Several of those responsible were Muslims from East Africa rather than from Arabia, yet they were operating under the aegis of Al-Quaeda, an Arab-dominated fundamentalist organisation. This fact raises some fundamental questions about identity that this project intends to confront. What prompts East Africa Muslims to identify themselves with Arab fundamentalism, given that, firstly, they are not Arab and, secondly, East African Islam is predominantly of the historically tolerant Sha'afi school and not the Wahabi variant practised in Saudi Arabia that has given rise to fundamentalism?
The role of Islam in shaping global events is undeniable and Australia is engaged with Islam not only as a result of its alliance with the United States but by virtue of its substantial Islamic population and its relationships with its Islamic neighbours and partners. A newly funded ARC Discovery project will focus on one specific part of the Islamic world, the northwest Indian Ocean, and one aspect of the issue, that of constructions of identities.

The answer lies in the ideology of being Arab: East Africans aspire to being Arab, in many senses of the term: it is an ideal identity. This prompts the questions this project will confront: how, why, and for whom do African Muslims construct their identities as "Arab"? What does being "Arab" mean to African Muslims? How far is it desirable to be "Arab" and how far is it possible to become "Arab"? If one becomes "Arab" how completely can one become "Arab", who sets the limits and what do they imply for those concerned? In order to answer these questions, it is essential to explore the processes of construction of identities within the diversity of praxis among East African Muslims.

The theoretical framework for this project centres upon issues of identity in space. One of the principal problems of contemporary thinking on identity is precisely the territorial character of attempts at analysis, and even an appeal to concepts such as "transnationalism", "diasporas" and "globalisation" evoke a quintessentially Western preoccupation with spatial mobility (or lack of it, or supposed lack of it) that has it roots in the historically sedentary cultures of Western Europe. However, other societies are less fettered by territorial attachments. In Arabia, not only do definitions of political units depend on social allegiances rather territorial claims, but historically long distance movements of peoples (for purposes of trade, religion, education) are quite unexceptional: many attachments that could be defined as "territorial" extend across large tracts of "non-territory" such as ocean or desert.

Transnational movements are not special in the Arab and Islamic world. For more than two millennia an Indian Ocean world, a "global" world, has extended from south east Africa through Arabia to south east Asia and beyond. It was, and still is an intricate network of social, political, religious, economic and cultural links that have bound together millions of individuals across thousands of kilometres and four continents. Here globalisation and associated issues are far from new: they have been a feature of social dynamics for centuries; here globalisation is historical, transnational links have been in place for centuries, the Western colonial experience is attenuated and Western influence itself is negotiated in a very different fashion. The problems of globalisation, as formulated by contemporary anthropological thinking, have become an obstacle to research in the region: treating a phenomenon as radically novel and socially disruptive when it is quite the opposite cannot aid in an analysis of the social networks and constructions of identity among the societies in question.

The inherently Western bias in the approach to the study of the transnational, globalisation and diasporas needs to be removed; the focus of attention must be shifted away from the colonial/post-colonial dichotomy to concentrate on the relationships and networks in East Africa and South Arabia as they are constructed through ongoing interaction. This project will be concerned with the social and the affective dimensions of identity formation and boundary construction, analysing the strategies used to determine group membership, inclusion and exclusion in a context where markers of identity may frequently be changing. This fluid, context-dependent character of identity means that Africans in Arabia may be Arabs in Africa, and so it is essential to analyse how potential identities are both internalised by the actors and externalised in the appropriate contexts.

The project will necessarily use the historical to frame the present. Three research sites have been chosen in each region to reflect their different roles in the historical development of the relationships between the two regions. The relationship between Hadramut and East Africa is historically anchored, dating back at least 2000 years with alternating periods of activity and quiescence but with an enduring social permanence. Oman was a colonial power, highly influential in East Africa from the late 18th century through to the mid-20th century, with real political power accompanying the establishment of the capital of the Omani sultanate in Zanzibar in the mid-19th century. Finally, the United Arab Emirates is contemporary point of reference for many East Africans. In East Africa, Zanzibar, like Oman, was powerful in the 19th century, while Lamu has been a centre for religious learning for centuries; the Comoros were at the peak of their influence in the era of European expansion and today struggle to participate in the networks.

An historical background provides the basis for the analysis of the present networks of relationships, relationships that are manifested though daily acts and deeds: conversations, use of language (both in a linguistic sense and in a semantic one), economic exchanges and reciprocity in all its forms, teaching and education, travel, political participation, storytelling and myth making, residence patterns and hospitality, cuisine, performance (music, art, song and dance), religious practice, including prayer and ritual, kinship, marriage, birth and funerals. Narratives, genealogies and biographies, personal histories and stories, all reveal both the "real" and the "perceived" in transnational relationships and allow for definitions of "Arab" and "African", how they are perceived, what they imply and how they change.
All these activities (and they are inextricably associated) are fields of social interaction in which identity is constantly being expressed, fixed, negotiated, contested, accorded. Since identity is constantly shifting it is highly important to identify the specific expressions of identity in a given set of circumstances. Who is included and when and how do patterns of activity shift, since such shifts often make statements about those participating? For example, when do bilingual individuals speak Swahili and when do they speak Arabic? Identity is expressed both explicitly-definitions of self or other as being "African" or "Arab"-and implicitly (or contextually)-cultural markers of identity such as dancing a specific dance or using a given language.

Questions also arise regarding the constituent components of identity: to what extent is being "Arab" separable from being Islamic? Given that all subjects are likely to be Muslim, does education at a madrasa in Yemen provide any credentials as an Arab? Given that Hadramut is a seat of Sha'afi learning, is there a specific reaction against the Wahabi fundamentalism of Saudi schools and is this relevant to the issues at hand? Are there any negative connotations to being African (the answer is certainly yes) that prompt self-identification as Arab? Is there genealogical reinvention that can be revealed through data collected in Africa?

The problem of defining the subjects of the project will be resolved not by locating Africans per se, but by working in locations (both physical and social) that may be identified as nodes in networks linking Africa and Arabia and then following networks from those nodes to other (social and physical) locations. This will throw up a wide range of individuals subject to an equally diverse range of influences: traders, students, pilgrims, family members. Some (students) will be more open to Islamic networks, others (traders) to Arab influences. Certain places are more likely than others (Tarim rather than Sana'a), as are certain contexts: individuals who have active links with Africa are likely to participate in networks in which issues of identity along the African/Arab continuum are relevant. However, the environment is essential since the study of identity cannot proceed by identifying members of the desired subject groups; rather, they must constitute themselves as the project unfolds.

The aim of this project is to explain how and why many African Muslims align themselves with the Arab world, thus contributing to an understanding of the diversity of local variants of Islam. This latter point merits emphasis, for despite a fundamental commonality of experience and a basis of shared beliefs, the unvarying Islam of the Western imagination does not exist: Islam is a collection of often locally specific socio-cultural manifestations. In the contemporary context an analysis of the relationships between Islamic peoples is fundamental to an understanding of the development of Islamic identity across social and cultural boundaries.

Back to the top of this page