Riyadha Mosque Manuscripts: A Profile

  • Posted on May 16, 2011

The Riyadha Mosque is the longest continuously functioning and, historically, one of the most influential Islamic teaching institutions in the Swahili world (coastal East Africa). It was founded in the in the late 19th century by Swalih bin Alawi Jamal al-Layl (1853/52-1936).

A Sharif (‘noble’) with family connections to the Hadramawt in Yemen, Habib Swalih’s family roots go back to Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.). Habib Swalih settled on Lamu in the 1870s. He had great success gathering students around him and in 1892 the Riyadha Mosque was built. After his death in 1935 his sons continued the Madrasa (now presided by his grandson Habib Husein Badawy). Drawing on wider links with the Hadramawt as well as regional collaboration as far south as the Comoro Islands, the Riyadha became one of the most prestigious centres for Islamic Studies in East Africa.

In 1893, Habib Swalih introduced Habshi Maulid. The Mosque is the centre of the Maulidi Festival, which is held every year during the last week of the month of the Prophet’s birth. During this festival, pilgrims from different countries join the locals to sing the praises of Prophet Muhammad and many social, cultural, and educational activities are held. The activities are prepared and managed in cooperation between the Riyadha Mosque, the Lamu Museum and the community.

Activities at the Riyadha are continuous throughout the year. The institution educates children from the entire Lamu archipelago as well as advanced students from all over East Africa in the regular madrasa (mosque school) and in its Muslim Academy which now houses approximately 500 students. The Riyadha, with “branches” in other parts of the region, provides both basic Islamic education to children and higher learning (Islamic law, Quranic exegesis, Sufism, Teaching skills, Arabic etc.) to advanced students. The long history of the Riyadha as a teaching institution is also reflected in its rich library located on the mosque premises and used by students and researchers.

The manuscript collection of the Riyadha Mosque College

The Riyadha Library – without exaggeration – is one of the oldest libraries in East Africa and it contains different books covering different fields of study. It also contains manuscripts dating from the 1548 to the 1953, i.e. the period just before the transition to print circulation of Islamic scriptural material in East Africa (see Bang, Authority and Piety, Writing and Print, forthcoming, Africa, 82/42011).  Many books and manuscripts were owned by Alhabib Swalih and his sons, and others were generously contributed by the community and different organisations as waqf (‘religious endowment’) to the library. The library also holds newer books to meet demand from students and researchers.

The manuscripts range from 400-page tomes of Islamic law to smaller leaflets of 40-50 pages meant for use in an educational setting. Most are in Arabic, but some have interlinear translations into and/or commentaries in Swahili. The better part of the books is bound in leather in accordance with the Yemeni-Omani tradition that had influenced East African coastal Islam. The collection consists of approximately 200 manuscripts, and it is as one of the largest Islamic manuscript collections in Kenya.

The pre-print (manuscript) collection is in a dire situation and is currently kept in a cupboard without adequate care, security or a proper index. The main threat comes from climatic conditions, with high humidity all year, as well as insects, combined with inadequate funding over the past several decades to conduct adequate maintenance. This is highly unfortunate for several reasons. Firstly, the intellectual impact of the Riyadha on Islamic thought in the region is not reflected in the way its scriptural heritage is preserved. Secondly, as the main Islamic teaching institution in the region, the inadequate facilities at Riyadha send an unfortunate signal to smaller mosques that might otherwise be persuaded to deposit their own manuscripts at the the Riyadha library. Frequent maintenance and salvaging of the Riyadha manuscript collection may thus have a wider positive effect also on smaller private collections in the Lamu archipelago.

Rescue efforts

On the hundredth anniversary of Lamu Maulid, in 1993, the collection was counted, categorised and treated in cooperation with Lamu Museum. After twenty years, a preliminary survey of the manuscript collection was conducted in July 2010 as a collaboration between Dr Anne Bang from the Chr. Michelsen Institute and Dr Shamil Jeppie from the University of Cape Town in close collaboration with two representatives of the Riyadha leadership (Aydarus and Ahmad Jamal al-Layl), together with junior staff from both institutions. Dr Bang has for the past 10 years conducted research on the history of Islamic teaching in East Africa and on the Riyadha. Dr Jeppie has extensive experience in Arabic manuscript research and conservation efforts from Tombouctou in Mali.

The initial survey revealed that the Riyadha holds several manuscripts that until now have been considered lost in the region (See O’Fahey et.al. ALA IIIB). The survey further made clear the very bad state of repair of the manuscripts - deteriorated or broken leather bindings, fading ink, paper partly eaten by insects and fungus damage - underscoring the need for an immediate salvage operation.

Future plans

Plans are in place to make these manuscripts beneficial. The plan is to digitise the manuscript collection and make these digital copies accessible to researchers. This will be undertaken in by staff at the Riyadha who will be trained in digitization methods by UCT staff. This project will start in September 2011. The original manuscripts will be kept on the premises of the mosque (in Alhabib Swalih’s house) in acid free boxes and in a more secure environment (a lockable cupboard). A sample of manuscripts will be displayed at Alhabib Swalih’s old house in commemoration of his role in spreading knowledge in the community.

Aydaroos is a teacher at Riyadha Mosque in Lamu interested in heritage conservation of Swahili people.


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  • Whoever wrote this, you know how to make a good atrcile.

    By Neveah on 23/06/2011
  • Yo, that’s what’s up trutfuhlly.

    By Mina on 23/06/2011
  • Thanks a lot for your comments. Any question?

    By Aydaroos on 19/07/2011
  • Good work keep it up

    By Dr.Badawy on 18/10/2011
  • Thank you Dr. Badawy

    By Aydaroos on 20/10/2011
  • A very interesting article by Aydaroos. Best wishes with further endeavours to preserve your heritage.

    By S.Sonday on 27/10/2011