Send Someone to Mecca in My Stead: Piety, Emotion, and Islamic Beliefs among Ex-Slaves in the Zanzibar Islands

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM
Clark Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Elisabeth McMahon, Tulane University
Numerous scholars have noted that slaves and ex-slaves living along the Swahili coast sought to show their Islamic faith as a means of acculturation.  The “Swahili” identity (or ethnicity), which in the Zanzibar islands was attached to ex-slaves by the early twentieth century, is predicated on a belief and practice of Islam.  This paper explores how rural ex-slaves used their public acts of piety as a means to articulate their membership in the emotional communities of Islam.  Discussion of Islamic beliefs on the coast rarely considers the emotional satisfaction & fulfillment offered to ex-slaves.  Rather than examining Islamic belief as a means of social acculturation, I am examining how it offered an emotional release for ex-slaves, a release often denied to slaves.  Through public demonstrations of piety, such as participation in sufi sects, writing wills, building mosques and leaving wakf for the benefit of mosques, ex-slaves forged ties based on common beliefs rather than on enslavement.  Using probate records, especially the wills of former slaves, held in the archives on Pemba Island, this paper explores the decisions of emancipated slaves about their religious beliefs and how best to enact them.  For the Muslim population on the island it was standard at death that their estates were divided by Islamic rules, and prayers and feasts were held based on the amount left behind.  Yet, the wills of several former slaves indicate the concern they had about whether their wishes and position as practicing Muslims were recognized within their community. The wills and wakfs of ex-slaves offered them comfort in their present life that their afterlife would be guaranteed.
Previous Presentation | Next Presentation >>