Who Are the Swahili?

How were the Tanzanian natives named

By Aga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

Swahili fishermen Songo MnaraAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

Where did the name 'Swahili' come from?

Etymologically-speaking, ‘wa-swahili’ means the people of the ‘sahel’, the Arabic word for the ‘shore’.

Swahili boat (Dhow), Mafia, TanzaniaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

This appellation dates back to the colonial period and the 19th century, the Muslim geographers (al-Masudi, Idrisi, Yakut, Ibn Battuta to Ibn Khaldun) preferring the appellation ‘Zanj’ which not only referred to the inhabitants of the East African coasts but also to black people in general.  

Songo Mnara excavationsAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

How the Swahilis distinguish themselves

The Swahilis distinguish themselves according to their region, island or town of origin. For example, the people from Mombasa refer to themselves as wa-Mvita. Despite some common ground, Swahili identity remains multiple, incorporating populations of diverse background, Nilotic Cushitic, Bantu and Austronesian.

Swahili Outrigger boat, Mafia, TanzaniaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

What is the Swahili coast

The Swahili Coast is a stretch of land that extends from Mogadishu in Somalia to the Bay of Sofala in present-day Mozambique.

The Muslim geographers divided the coast into four regions: firstly, the navigators reached the Land of the barbarians, the Bilad al-Barbar; then came the Land of the blacks, then they arrived at the land of the Sofala.  

Conservation palace Husuni KubwaAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

How the Swahili culture formed

The Swahili civilization stands at the periphery of the Muslim and African worlds, resulting in the development of a unique coastal culture based on trade.  

Looking unto the Tanzanian horizonAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

In fact, its marginal position is linked to our vision of the Indian Ocean, which separates Africa, Arabia and Asia. But the ocean also provides a connection between these very different cultures: the Swahilis are thus dynamic players, equal to Arab, Persian and Indian traders. 

Kilwa great mosque insideAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

As well as religion and language, these coastal populations share the same social organization and architecture. 

Gedi archeological excavations great mosqueAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

More than 450 Swahili archaeological sites have been registered spread over 3,000 km of the coastline. 

Kilwa great mosqueAga Khan University - Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations

The lifestyles on the east coast, Comoros and Madagascar were homogenous due to the dissemination of new ideas and techniques by maritime travelers. Swahili culture reflects neither a specific ethnic group nor a particular nationality.

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Credits: Story

Professor Stephane Pradines, Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations, Aga Khan University 

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