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Review of The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast


By Kevin Ward

The Edge of Islam: Power, Personhood and Ethnoreligious Boundaries on the Kenya Coast. Janet McIntosh. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2009. Pp. xi + 325. ISBN. 978 0 8223 4509 (pb). £16.99.

The book is an anthropological study of ethnicity and religion in Malindi, an urban centre on the Kenyan coast.  Specifically, it explores the relations between the Swahili, culturally the dominant group, and the Giriama, one of the indigenous coastal peoples. During the colonial period the Giriama came to be grouped among  the Mijikenda, or ‘ten tribes’, which all too neatly differentiated them from the dominant hybrid Swahili society. But McIntosh notes that both Giriama and Swahili identities were not rigidly defined.  Swahili was not a specific ethnicity, but a diverse society which welcomed and assimilated outsiders, membership being open to all who embrace Islam, learn to speak Swahili, and who look to Arab culture and language to provide the cultural norms. Clientage and, to a lesser extent, slavery, were in the past routes towards assimilation by Giriama,   The porous nature of  these groupings has been challenged in the twentieth century by an increasing ‘folk essentialism’ – an attitude common to both groups,  that being ‘Swahili’ and ‘Giriama’  cannot   easily be erased or transcended, and that it has a basic biological basis. The wage employment of Giriama by Swahili landowners and entrepreneurs has replaced  the old forms of clientage. Such contractual relations are neither conducive to the interchange of values nor to assimilation. Modern politics in the post-colonial period has tended to accelerate rather than mitigate these rigidities.  ‘Majimboism’ (federalism) has had particular appeal to the coastal population the coast, as a strategy of defence against  up-country, Christian  domination of the state. But rather than utite coastal people against a common enemy, it has has served to solidify the perception of ‘tribe’ as an ineluctable determinant of being Swahili and Giriama.   Despite Islam’s universal appeal, the idea that one can be a Muslim and a Giriama is increasingly conceptualised as incompatible. This does not mean that Giriama are not, or do not become, Muslims. But their Islamic  status is uncertain.   Giriama are rather categorised as belonging to ‘dini ya kienyeji’ – the indigenous ‘religion’ - a dramatic recent reconceptualisation,  which downplays and limits participation in   the hegemonic culture enjoyed by the  Muslim Swahili community . These dichotomies are manifested in differing attitudes to personhood – with Giriama stressing social relationships, and Swahili increasing interiority and personal responsibility. This, in turn, is exacerbated by  the growing influence of reformist, wahhabist institutions,  critical precisely of those forms of Swahili Islam (Sufi brotherhoods and spirit possession movements) which have traditionally formed a bridge with Giriama understandings of the spirit world. McIntosh pays particular attention to forms of Giriama divination, in which, although both traditional and Muslim spirits are invoked,  the traditional spirit world has become  differentiated conceptually from that of  Muslim ‘jini’. In contrast to local spirits,  ‘jini’ have high mobility, are vindictive and sanction greed and accumulation of wealth. This mirrors the perceived lack of opportunity to travel enjoyed by Giriama  as compared with Swahili people, as well as their relative poverty and lack of opportunities. Giriama diviners sometimes feel ‘compelled’ to become Muslim in order to satisfy the insatiable demands of ‘jini’ who it is their misfortune to be  possessed by. As Muslim jini are potentially more powerful than local spirits,  it becomes necessary, nevertheless, to deal with them if one wants to be a successful order diviner (just as it may be important for clients to recognise jini if they want their medical or social problems to be addressed).  But this fact is itself resented.  The book explores these issues in the light of a sophisticated discussion of theories of spirit possession, identity, ethnicity, hegemony and ideology. There is a stimulating and helpful discussion of the meanings of syncretism, in which McIntosh advances the view that Giriama have a ‘polyontological’ understanding of the religious systems which impact their lives. A need to harmonise different elements and achieve consistency is not recognised, or not given priority. Islam ‘is not first and foremost a belief system with a monopoly on the Truth, but a locus of potency that can be tapped through mimetic behaviors … that call up its magic’. (p.190)   The book is beautifully written in a precise, clear and engaging style, and is of importance for anthropologists and political scientists as well as for students of religion. It has interesting insights for any who are studying the structures of ethnic and religious inequality in other parts of the world.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 72 (Winter 2010/11), pp. 121-122]

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