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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

11/2013 manuscript  of the month

Why write in the abandoned Arabo-Swahili script?

More than half a century after the use of the Arabic script for writing Swahili had been either forbidden for official use (1902 in German East Africa) or marginalized by the British (1920 in Tanganyika Territory), a Swahili tafsir (commentary) of the first six suras (chapters) of the Qur’an was written in this very script. What made Sheikh Aliy Hemed Abdallah Said Abdallah Mas'uud Khelef Al-Buhriy Al-Hinaiy (1889-1957), the author and scribe of the manuscript, decide to write in a largely obsolete script at the beginning of the 1950s, at a time when few people were left who were able to read it?

Fig 1. Sheikh Ali Al-Buhriy’s manuscript with 402 pages of commentary (tafsir)
on the first six chapters of the Holy Qur’an > Enlarge

The manuscript comprises 402 pages of a foolscap, linen-bound ledger (20 x 32 cm) normally used for keeping records in government offices in Tanganyika. A frame in dark blue ink is drawn on every page to create a large, rectangular box containing the running vocalized text without any word boundaries, seldom interrupted by any interspacing and showing little punctuation. Catchwords quoting the first word of the next page are placed outside the frame at the bottom of each verso page. The pages are numbered with red Arabic numerals at the top, positioned at the centre between the word juzuu (part) on the right-hand side and the title of the sura (chapter) on the left, outside the frame.

The complete text was written in Sheikh Ali’s very tidy, tight and beautiful hand, with few corrections or aberrations. The original Qur’anic Arabic is in red ink, immediately followed in dark blue ink by explanations of the Arabic word or phrase in Arabo-Swahili (Swahili in Arabic script). A brief introduction on the second page states that the text is in Kimrima, the variety of Swahili spoken on the coast of Tanganyika – contemporary mainland Tanzania – with Tanga as its centre (cf. figure 2). According to the colophon on the last page, the writing was finished on Friday, 7 January 1957.

The manuscript is in the custody of Mr Zuheri Ali bin Hemed Al-Buhry (b. 1944), a retired air-traffic controller living in Tanga. He found it in part of a larger collection once kept by his deceased brother, Sheikh Muhammed Ali (1927-1995), which had belonged to their father before it fell apart.

Mr Zuheri started transliterating the Arabo-Swahili text into Roman Swahili on 10 Rajab 1429 AH (14 July 2008 AD), keeping the original Qur’anic Arabic as well, inserted in red between round brackets (cf. figure 3).

Fig. 2: Page 2 of Sheikh Ali Al-Buhriy’s
manuscript with an introduction and
tafsir of Suratul Faatihah > Enlarge

Fig. 3: Page 1 of Mr. Zuheri Ali’s manuscript
with his transliteration of p. 2 of his
father’s tafsir > Enlarge

Fig. 4: Page 1 of Mr Zuheri Ali’s typescript
with his transliteration of p. 2 of his
father’s tafsir > Enlarge

After having seen this painstaking work, Sheikh Abdulahi Nassir from Mombasa, once owner of a now defunct publishing house and former director of Oxford University Press in Nairobi, wanted to have it published. Since then, Mr Zuheri has been working on a typescript, using a ‘copy-and-paste’ strategy to insert the original Qur’anic words cut from photocopies, but still keeping the red brackets around them by using the typewriter’s red ribbon (cf. figure 4).

Sheikh Ali Hemed Al-Buhry, the author and scribe of the original manuscript, had been the last qadhi (Muslim judge) under British rule from 1921 to 1935. Some of his other writings appeared in print. He published a Swahili book in Arabic script on tawhid (Oneness) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) in the handwriting of his brother, Juma Hemed, which was photo-lithographically reproduced in India around 1925. His publications in Roman script include a book on Islamic inheritance law (1923), a series of articles about the history of the Swahili coast in the newspaper Mambo Leo (1934-36) and a criticism (1954) on a Swahili tafsir published a year before in Nairobi. Other manuscripts written by him still exist at various locations. They are mainly in the Arabic language and deal with various Islamic sciences such as mathematics, astronomy and geomancy.

The Al-Buhry family has long been one of the leading literary and scholarly families of the coast. Sheikh Ali was the son of the poet, healer and soothsayer Hemed Abdallah Al-Buhry (c. 1840-1928), the composer of the famous utendi (poem) ‘The Epic on the War of the Germans to Take Possession of the Mrima Coast’, about the fight against the German occupation of the Tanganyikan coast. A manuscript (c. 1930) of this 632-stanzas-long verse is in the ‘Allen Collection’ at the Library of the University of Dar es Salaam (cf. figure 5).

Fig 5. Verse 47 of ‘Vita vya Wadachi’, MS 2/2 Allen 1970: 3. ‘Allen Collection’, Dar es Salaam > Enlarge, with interlinear transliteration, transcription & translation

Although the tafsir manuscript in Mr Zuheri’s collection in Tanga is relatively recent, it exhibits salient features of the Swahili manuscript culture: its production by a member of a large family network; its scholarly use of both Swahili and Arabic, not only represented in one text, but also in the surviving collection; its use in madrassas (Islamic schools) with the aim of passing on scientific and religious Islamic knowledge; and its creation and preservation because of its intrinsic divine power. Judging by its physical appearance, the latter may have been the main intention of the composer, a result of years of madrassa teaching, not as a teaching aid, but as a divine work written in a script perceived by the author as the best, although many Swahili policy-makers at the time believed it to be subversive.


AL-BAHRY, Ali Hamid Abdal Saed (1344 AH): Kitaab Hajatul-Insan fil-Islam wal-Iman. Faizabad: Nidhamy.

ALI BIN HEMEDI, Sheikh (1954): Taarifu juu ya Tafsiri ya Wakadiani. Mombasa: Adam Traders.


ALLEN, J. W. T. (1959): "The Collection of Swahili Literature and Its Relation to Oral Tradition and History". In: Tanganyika Notes and Records 1959. (Ed. E. H. Leslie). Dar es Salaam.

ALLEN, J. W. T. (1970): The Swahili and Arabic manuscripts and tapes in the library of the University College of Dar-es-Salaam – a catalogue. Leiden: Brill. p. viii.

BUHRIY, Hemedi bin Abdallah (1955): "Utenzi wa Vita vya Wadachi Kutamalaki Mrima1307 A.H. – The German Conquest of the Swahili Coast, 1891 AD". In: Journal of the East African Swahili Committee 25, Supplement.

EL BUHURI, Sheik Ali bin Hemedi (1923): Mirathi – A Handbook of the Mohamedan Law of Inheritance with Appendices on Wills and Gifts and an Introduction, Translation and Notes / Mirathi – Muktasari ya Sheria ya Islam Juu ya Mirathi, Wasiya na Hibba. Nairobi.

EL-BUHURIY, Sheikh Ali bin Hemedi (1934-36): "Habari za Mrima". In: Mambo Leo 12 (1934), (141): 143-145; (144): 192-193; 13 (1935), (145): 6; (146): 22; (147): 40, 42; (156): 190; 14 (1936), (157): 6; (158): 26. [xx].

SAMSOM, Ridder (2011): "Swahili Manuscript Culture / Die Swahili Manuskriptkultur". In: Manuscript Cultures. Newsletter No. 4. Hamburg: Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures. pp. 68-77.

ZHUKOV, A (2004): "Old Swahili-Arabic Script and the Development of Swahili Literary Language". In: Sudanic Africa 15: 1-15.

Private collection in the custody of Mr. Zuheri Ali H. Al-Buhry, 27/08/2012 Tanga (Tanzania)
Foolscap ledger, paper 20 x 32 cm
201 folios of tafsir written on both sides in Qur’anic Arabic and Arabo-Swahili script
Tanga (Tanzania), between c. 1950 and 1957

Text & images by Ridder H. Samsom
© for fig. 1-4: Zuheri Ali, Tanga, fig. 5: Library, University of Dar es Salaam