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  • Philosophising in Mombasa: Knowledge, Islam, and Intellectual Practice on the Swahili Coast
  • Valerie J. Hoffman
Philosophising in Mombasa: Knowledge, Islam, and Intellectual Practice on the Swahili Coast Kai Kresse Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, for the International African Library, London, 2007 xvi, 288 pp., $120.00 (cloth), £70.00, (paper)

This highly original book has two different goals: first, the description and analysis of the ideas of three contemporary Muslim thinkers of Mombasa, set against a richly drawn tapestry of the complexity of contemporary Swahili society; and second, the advocacy of an "anthropology of philosophy." The latter is laid out in an exciting and thought-provoking first chapter, which is followed by two chapters describing Swahili society and specifically the section of Mombasa where all three of his featured thinkers reside. The second part of the book consists of three chapters, each devoted to one of these thinkers. The third and final part of the book contrasts the wisdom of these three "elders" with the ideas and attitudes of some leaders of the younger generation, and reconsiders the implications of Kresse's ethnographic research for the formation of an anthropology of philosophy.

Kresse insists on the transcultural character of philosophical thought and that it is imperative to move beyond a Eurocentric approach toward rational inquiry. He points out the wrongheadedness of Western depictions of African cultures as static or simple, and his description of Swahili society is richly textured and amply succeeds in depicting its ethnic and ideological pluralism and internal dynamism. In fact, some of the Islamic practices that are [End Page 663] considered part of Swahili tradition were only introduced to the region in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century, as part of movements of Islamic reform, although such traditions are now criticized as un-Islamic by a new brand of reformist. Kresse points out that Swahili social life in general and the Old Town of Mombasa in particular offer many public or semipublic opportunities for informal talks and discussions, at least for men, and there is a great deal of social appreciation of philosophical prowess, including (or even especially) in poetry.

Nonetheless, a theme that emerges time and again in this book is a sense of loss: of cultural heritage and integrity, of morality, and of the social cohesion and unity that once existed in Swahili society despite its heterogeneity. In a sense, each of Kresse's featured thinkers grapples with an aspect of loss. Ahmed Sheikh Nabhany explicitly aims to preserve through poetry aspects of Swahili tradition—whether historical narratives or traditional technologies—that otherwise threaten to disappear altogether. Nabhany describes an ideal and seemingly static Swahili past, and Kresse admits that it is a stretch to call him a philosopher. Kresse's second exemplar, Ahmad Nassir Juma Bhalo, is a poet and healer, but Kresse presents him mainly as a moralist, through analysis of his didactic poem "Mtu ni Utu"—literally "a human being is humanity"—but meaning that it is humane conduct that makes us truly human. The final elder is Abdilahi Nassir, a religio-political thinker who embraced Shi'ism in the 1980s, although until recently to be Swahili was synonomous with Sunni identity, and Shi'ism in East Africa was traditionally associated with Indian or Iranian ethnicity. Sheikh Abdilahi is the only one of the three who presents genuinely original ideas, and hence is perhaps the only one who can be called a philosopher in the usual sense of the word. Perhaps most interesting of all is his judgment that true democracy does not exist anywhere and is currently impossible in the Kenyan context, where political life is rife with corruption and tribalism. The only hope that he presents is that someday there may emerge a "benevolent dictator" who would not be elected but would be recognized by the people as their true leader and who would promote the good of society.

For the most part, Kresse describes and contextualizes the ideas of the three men without evaluating their validity. In true anthropological fashion, this description emerges from their own words and in their own context, not from the researcher's questions. Nonetheless, it would have been desirable to subject...


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