For a substantial number of people, notably in the northern hemisphere, the name Zanzibar sounds mythical and makes people dream. However, in reality, it has a physical existence and a particular place in the world map. It is an island country, which consists of Unguja and Pemba islands and a multitude of other islets (approximately fifty). The archipelago has an average area of 2 460 square kilometres[1] and almost one million of inhabitants. Zanzibar[2] lies in the north western part of the Indian Ocean about 40 miles off the shore of the African continent, at 6 degrees of latitude south of Equator. Zanzibar was for a long time an important island metropolis whose name became legendary and was very often confounded with the whole region. For instance, the Arabs called the eastern coast of Africa bar of the Zangh, meaning coast of the black people. In Arabic it became Zinjbar and later Zanjibar, a name that was used by navigators and geographers – somewhat loosely – to connote the island, the archipelago and, in early documents the entire East African coast[3]. 

By Mohamed Ahmed Saleh
By Mohamed Ahmed Saleh

The geographic situation of Zanzibar could be compared with countries and cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, in South East Asia, Bombay, Cape Town, Aden, Malta, and Gibraltar. These countries and cities, given sound policies, because of their strategic position, always benefit from whatever the prevailing world economic trend[4]. Zanzibar’s geographic situation, located “off shore” at the crossroad of maritime world and at the proximity of hinterland, for many centuries enabled Zanzibaris to play a role of middlemen in the commercial exchanges in the region, and in the process benefit from the civilizing influence of the international maritime expansion. Professor Abdul Sheriff, a well known and respected Zanzibari historian, is very clear in this sense: “the Swahili (Zanzibar) history is about adaptation and incorporation. We have always been middlemen – between the land and the sea, the producers and the buyers, the African and the Arabian. That is not a concern; it is our strength”[5]. This is why, Zanzibar remains to date, in many ways, very much a product of an ancient pattern of maritime trade and settlement.


SONY DSCGeographically and culturally,  Zanzibar belongs to that string of islands which extends all along the east African coast, from Lamu to Comoros, where for many centuries the Swahili culture and civilisation took shape and flourished[6].  This civilisation which developed around the City-States, trading posts, ports or islands, was based on commercial maritime activities, conducted principally between the peoples from the two continents of Indian ocean basin : Africa and Asia[7]. Zanzibar not only played a crucial role in the development process of this mercantile civilization, but it had also constituted an important human bridge between these two continents of the Indian ocean basin. In its prime Zanzibar was among a string of ports along the East African coast that evolved into powerful City States as they grew rich from Indian ocean trade. Those were the days when it was commonly said “if you play the flute at Zanzibar, all Africa as far as the Lakes dances”[8].

As one of the former important City-States in the Swahili World, Zanzibar’s history was essentially written by the monsoon winds[9], which, for centuries, propelled the dhows[10] to and from the two continents. From November to February, the northeast monsoon, the kaskazi, brought traders from Arabia, Persia and India with products such as dates, whale oil, carpets, incense, pots, glassware and clothes, as well as porcelains from China. From June to September the southwest monsoon, the kusi, brought vessels from the south and returned the others to their home ports north and east, around and across the Indian ocean carrying with them ivory, mangrove poles, spices, coconuts, tortoise, cowries, shells and sometimes even slaves, captured from the interior of the continent. In the course of these maritime activities, people from Africa and Asia were brought together through not only commercial and cultural exchanges but also intermarriage. Zanzibar developed into an important melting pot, where migrants from Arabian peninsular, particularly from Oman and Yemen, and migrants from Persian Gulf, especially from Shiraz province of Iran, were integrated into Zanzibari society. It is interesting to note here that shirazi identity remained to date one of the major components of Zanzibari Swahili identity[11]. A substantial number of Zanzibari indigenous people claim to be descendants from the ancestors from Shiraz, ancient capital of Persia[12]. People from Indian sub continent also very early took part in this human construction. People from other parts of the globe, whether, initially, they were invaders or merchants, were also integrated in the society and ultimately became part of the social, cultural as well as political construction underlying Zanzibari identity and nationalism. This connote one of the important characteristics of Zanzibari as “a seafaring and merchant people, nurtured by contact”[13].

SONY DSCIt was through the interplay of different elements of populations, languages and customs, the mingling of blood and ideas that permeated every aspect of life that led to the development of Zanzibari identity and culture. With all its complexities, Zanzibar emerged as one of the major plural societies of East Africa, composed of a large diversity of communities. Despite of socio-economic contradictions prevailing in the society, notably in terms of class and status, Zanzibar remained one of the few plural societies in Africa that have been successful in crystallising various diverse cultural communities into a single all-encompassing culture. Zanzibari culture is representative of a very rich repertoire with a number of compartments within which one can identify different origins in what is now a homogenous Zanzibari Swahili culture. The various Zanzibari communities were further cemented together by their linguistic and religious unity.

Modern Zanzibari identity is primarily based on the Kiswahili language and the culture associated with it. Bantu by its grammatical structure, Kiswahili language has incorporated in its vocabulary more than fifty percent of words of foreign origin, particularly of oriental background[14]. Kiswahili is the national and official language of the country. It is the mother-tongue of all Zanzibaris and the variant local dialect (kiunguja), spoken in Zanzibar town, served as the basis  of standard Kiswahili. It is one of the most important unifying force in Zanzibar and beyond its boundaries. The common language helped to cement the communities and accelerated the process of awareness of a common belonging and a common destiny; endowing Zanzibaris with a healthy and wealthy national consciousness. Non ethnic language, a language of trade, Kiswahili remained to date, the richest and the most important lingua franca in East Africa. It is the second largest spoken language in Africa after Arabic. It is the language of tolerance whose evolution was very much determined by the adaptation and integration of different vocabulary from different elements of populations which compose the present Zanzibari society. This is why the concept of tolerance in this language can be expressed in different ways. There are three words which express the notion of tolerance in Kiswahili: kuvumiliana, kustahamiliana, and kuchukuliana. The first two words kuvumiliana and kustahamiliana are synonymous and could only be distinguished by their lexical origin. The former is of African origin and the latter of Arabic origin. Both of them revolve around the question of patience. Patience is one of the source of imani (faith, uprightness and integrity), reinforcing the notion of tolerance. However, the third word kuchukuliana seems to be larger and seems to best represent the concept of tolerance. It puts more emphasis in its action on the question of consideration, and incite people to be considerate towards one another[15]. As we progress we will see that the concept of tolerance in Kiswahili, contrary to other languages, does not have a negative connotation. It is a part and a parcel of Zanzibari and Swahili mode of life.


silamiIslam is the religion of the majority of Zanzibaris, representing more than 90% of the total population. It is one of the important factors of inter-communal interaction. The majority of Zanzibaris belong to the sunni branch of Islam, and are followers of Imam Shafii[16] school of thought. The two other branches of Islam are Kharijism (Ibadhism) and Shiism. There are no fundamental contradictions between these different branches of Islam in Zanzibar, and hence, do not constitute any form of obstacle for inter-communal integration. The majority of Zanzibaris believe in unity in diversity and see in these different branches of Islam as well as the existence of other religious confessions as a factor of enrichment rather than a deficit. It is important to note here that Islam was never imposed by the sword in Zanzibar and in any other East African coastal societies. It is a religion which arrived by the dhows and developed through social and commercial contacts. The Swahili coast has been part of Islamic World from the eleventh century. The earliest ruin identifiable as a mosque is at Shanga, and the oldest known inscription on a mosque is the Kufic one at Kizimkazi in the south of Zanzibar island, dating from A.D 1106. Throughout its history Zanzibar has never experienced religious intolerance at a community level, neither between Christians and Muslims nor among Muslims of different obedience. Traditionally, the followers of the Ibadhi and Sunni had less religious interaction, but today particularly for the young generation they rarely express reservations with each other. They pray in the same mosques and perform almost all religious functions together[17].

Some Zanzibaris allegorically compare this prevailing situation in Zanzibar with that of flowers which are varying in colours but in essence do not change their nature, they remain flowers. An important number of Zanzibaris are also active members of Suffi movements, turuq (Islamic Brotherhood), i.e., mystical group or group of ecstatic performance.  The two most important groups in Zanzibar are Shadhiliyya Yashrutti and Qadiriyya. The former finds its origins in Palestine while the latter was introduced from Iraq. These religious or mystical orders include men and women, performing their rituals separately, meet for devotional purposes and attend funeral and other rites involving their members. Their rituals consist of invocations and supplications. They invoke the names of God and other supplications, following a particular rhythm with over-breathing and other physical exercises that induce trance and possession[18].

Although Islam and the Swahili language constitute the cultural fundament of the islands’ social fabrics, other religions such as Christianity (Catholics as well as protestants), Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Parsee Zoroastrians, as well as languages such as Hindi, Gujareti and Arabic, coexisted peacefully and respectfully. Irrespective of individual confessions, all Zanzibaris have always congregated together in celebrating Prophet Muhammad’s birthday (Maulid)[19], Christmas, the Birthday of the Great Buddha as well as the Hindi Diwali[20]. Zanzibar has a long tradition of religious tolerance. It is worth noting that more than a century ago Seyyid Said bin Sultan[21] forbade his Muslim subjects to slaughter cows in the residential areas of Hindus, few though they were, in deference to their religious sensitivities[22]. Communities of all religious denominations were free to follow their own laws of marriage, divorce and inheritance. In 1860 Seyyid Majid bin Said bin Sultan[23], a Muslim Sultan of Zanzibar allowed the French Roman Catholic Mission from Reunion to settle in the country and establish their religious and humanitarian activities including building a Cathedral[24].  Less than two decades later, in 1877 Seyyid Barghash bin Said bin Sultan[25], another Muslim Sultan  of Zanzibar, allowed the construction of Anglican Cathedral at the site of the old slave market and provided the tower bell as a gift. The first University Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) was established in Zanzibar around the same period.

A true Zanzibari has always been a polyglot, with a capacity of communicating at least in three different languages. S/he would naturally be appreciative of a variety of music: african, oriental (arab and indian) or western (jazz and classical). These different influences appear also in the Zanzibari-Swahili music, taarab, which incorporates in its composition a mixture of african, oriental and western melodies. The evolution of Zanzibaris history and culture was very much marked by the liberty of movement of its population and freedom of expression and press. More than 40 newspapers were established in the country since the first newspaper in East Africa, The Gazette, was established in 1892[26]. All these factors are a clear expression of Zanzibari traditional spirit of openness and tolerance, which constituted the foundation stone of the Cosmopolitan Society of Zanzibar. The Zanzibari traditional spirit of openness and tolerance allowed the isles to be an important meeting point for explorers and missionaries in Africa. Burton, Krapf, Livingstone, Stanley, and other western explorers and missionaries set their journey inside African continent from Zanzibar.

SONY DSCThis spirit of tolerance, kuchukuliana, which in Kiswahili means mutual understanding made the Zanzibari society a cultural mosaic, which has always been open towards integrating not only traders but also invaders. Tolerance has always been one of the major components of Zanzibari social and cultural values. This concept has demonstrated in different periods of Zanzibar history its crucial role in the cultural, social and political processes leading towards the definition and the development of Zanzibari identity and nationalism.  Tolerance is not only a concept of the Swahili language[27], it is also and especially a mode of life and culture. It is a social system which is developed and inculcated into the society through the observation of different passage rites as well as religious and moral teachings, most of which start right from the birth. It is worth noting that non-islamic items of rituals, mila, which means traditions in Kiswahili, were incorporated into the corpus of religious behaviour. They form part of permitted Swahili religious practice[28].

Kuadhiniwa[29] ‘a call for prayers’ to a new born is one of the most important passage rites. This action consists of holding a new-born while taking an orientation of the Mecca and say in his/her right ear the first call for prayers (adhana), and then in his left ear the second call for the prayers (iqama). This signifies that the child is born Muslim and will have to follow the precepts of Islam. Religious and moral teachings are highly emphasizing on uaminifu (honesty) and uadilifu (ethics), which are the two major components of what is commonly known as imani, (faith, uprightness and integrity). Imani presupposes constant effort to surpass one’s ego and acquire a capacity of consideration and generosity in the most positive way towards the others[30].

Kushindiliwa[31] is another fundamental passage rite that encourages in its teachings humility, humbleness, moderation and restrain from greediness, over temptation and jealousy. The action takes place by putting a thumb on the neck of a newborn while repeating to him/her that s/he has to be humble in life, resist temptations and all what is beyond his/her means, and should not be jealous or envious of others. These teachings, transmitted through the kushindiliwa passage rite, have an important place in the Swahili concept of tolerance[32]. They constitute a cornerstone on which other elements are relaying. In the place of power games, the Swahili concept of Tolerance  incites for a generalised humility, patience and mutual consideration, which ultimately lead to a mutual understanding and enrichment. Tolerance is a virtue, a value which implies open-mindedness and total abandon of selfishness. It is a constant effort of consideration towards one another as if it was a part of you. The difference with the “other” should not be considered as a deficit, but on the contrary should be seen as an element of enrichment, a common tool, which could eventually led to a mutual understanding.

gofu2First hair shaving marks the end of the uterine life of the child and  provides an opportunity of communion, around a feast, between family members, friends and neighbours. Traditional teachings encourage good neighbourly relationships. Neighbours are considered to be one’s second family. If charity always begins at home, in the traditional teachings it is highly recommended that it should be extended to one’s neighbours. This is why in the occasion of traditional or religious festivities neighbours usually exchange meals. Circumcision[33] is another ritual which has a particular importance in the society. It surpasses the physical sense of operation, i.e., the ritual consisting of removing the prepuce: it marks the end of the cycle of perinatal ceremonies[34] and announces the effective entrance of the child into the social life of the community. The passage rites reach their climax at the time of wedding celebrations. The brides by accomplishing the most important tradition of the Prophet, obtain a status of adults, and are considered as accomplished persons.  Weddings provide platform for the demonstration of inter-communal solidarity. Members of extended families of the brides, friends and neighbours interact together at the occasion of grand feasts and of dances. The more numerous the participants, the more praise worthy the marriage. Hence, customary ceremonies play a crucial role in cementing Zanzibaris communities together. They remain strong moments in the society, which provide the Zanzibaris with the means of consolidating their affective and social ties. It is an occasion for the exchange of gifts between individuals and different traditional networks. These ceremonial exchanges provide a framework for the development of social relationships[35].

Through customary rites and moral teachings one is brought up into understanding life in all its complexities and into believing in the universality of human race. Very often moral teachings encourage the society to stretch out their hands and to reach out to other peoples, other races; and to regard one another with the same respect, affection and dignity, for they all belong to the same human race. The Koran (and the Islamic Faith) is very explicit in its social teachings and endows racial as well as cultural diversity with sacred status as a divine creation: “O Mankind, we have created you male and female, and appointed you nations and tribes so that you may know one another” (Koran 49; 13).

Regardless of colour, creed or background, traditional teachings encourage people to judge the other entirely on his/her merits. Multiracialism or multiculturalism should be viewed as Nature’s way of harmonisation, for variety lends enchantment, beauty and novelty. This is very well reflected in a poem entitled Our Colours[36], by Shaaban Robert, a famous Swahili poet of our time:

Colour is God’s ornament, far from being a demerit,
All are the same whether they eat millet or wheat bread,
Eaters of wheat and lentils, living and dead,
Colour is God’s ornament, far from a mark of demerit
He adorns the stars and the Heavens, roses and jasmines,
Colour is God’s majesty and on the body it’s not uncleanness.
It is neither a mark of bitterness, nor sin nor blemish,
Colour is the beauty of the Perfect God Almighty.

Folk tales, poetry and taarab music were three elements which played an important role in the construction of the national symbols of Zanzibari culture. They were the vehicles which have always helped to convey messages of peace and tolerance. They have always propelled holistic values of love; of emotional world of fantasy, and moral values which tend to teach that the good will always triumph and the bad will always fail. They were the major weapons used to fight obscurantism. This is why it was very common to hear people judging a man not by his material wealth but by what s/he has in her/his brain, as a poet, a jurist, or a teacher. Knowledge was the major aspect which allowed a person to obtain that renown respect in the society which in Kiswahili is called heshima.

Zanzibar is by all standards a cultural community whose development was made possible thanks to the spirit of tolerance.  As an important component of Zanzibari culture, tolerance played a vital role in merging together all the different elements of Zanzibari society. By discouraging all kind of discriminations and encouraging mutual understanding tolerance was an important source of strength for Zanzibaris. It allowed them to be together as a people and survive different invasions throughout the history. Today as yesterday Zanzibaris future lies on their capacity to surpass the political manipulations which tend to divide them along racial lines. There is no future for Zanzibaris out of their Zanzibariness. This is clearly emphasised by Professor Sheriff  “It has a history of invasions, and of assimilations of the invaders in the integrated culture of Zanzibar. It is a cultural mosaic that has a pattern and a meaning that would be lost if the pieces were separated and identified individually as African, Arab, Indian, etc, it can only be identified as Zanzibari”[37].


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[1] The main island (Unguja) has an average area of 1 464 square kilometres and its sister island, Pemba, 868 square kilometres.

[2] The name « Zanzibar » has a triple usage. It is the name of (i) the country, (ii) the main island (which is also known as Unguja), and (iii) the Capital city of the archipelago.

[3] The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Zanzibar: A Plan for the Historic Stone Town, (1996), p. 11.

[4] Abdulrahman M. BABU, Zanzibar and the Future, in Change vol. 2 No. 4/5 April/May, Dar Es Salaam, 1994, pp. 28-33.

[5] In Robert CAPUTO, Swahili Coast: East Africa’s Ancient Crossroads, National Geography Magazine, October 2001, p. 118.

[6] The Swahili cultural influence extends about 3 000 kilometres all along  the east African coast, from Brava (Somalia) up to Sofala (Mozambique), including adjacent islands, notably Lamu, Mombasa, Pemba and Unguja (Zanzibar), Mafia, Kilwa and the Comoros

[7] Michael N. PEARSON, Port Cities and Intruders. The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1998. Alamin M. MAZRUI, and Ibrahim Noor SHARIFF, THE SWAHILI, Idiom and Identity of an African People, Africa World Press, Trenton, 1994. Mohamed Ahmed SALEH “Zanzibar et le monde swahili”, Afrique Contemporaine, No. 177, 1er trimestre, La Documentation Francaise, Paris, 1996, pp. 17-29.

[8] Harold INGRAMSs (1942), Arabia and the Isles, p. 10.

[9] See Richard HALL, Empire of the Monsoon : A History of the Indian Ocean and Its Invaders, Harper Collins, London, 1996

[10] Lateen-rigged wooden vessels still used today.

[11] Abdul SHERIFF and Chizuko TOMINAGA, “The Ambiguity of Shirazi Ethnicity in the History and Politics of Zanzibar”, in Christianity and Culture, N° 24, 1989.

[12] The Shirazi tradition has existed for at least five centuries. The concentration of people claiming Shirazi origin occurs along the Mrima coast and the offshore islands. There are some so-called Shirazi villages where a majority consisted of such families, or where the people identified themselves with the ruling or social elite. On the offshore islands of Unguja and Pemba, the indigenous population has come to identify itself as Shirazi in contradistinction from the more recent African  and Arab immigrants. In general an important number of Zanzibaris can claim to have a foreign ancestry : persian, arab, indo-pakistanese, goanese, chinese, comorian, seychellese, mainland african. See Abdul SHERIFF and Chizuko TOMINAGA, “The Ambiguity of Shirazi Ethnicity in the History and Politics of Zanzibar”, in Christianity and Culture, N° 24, 1989.

[13] Abdul SHERIFF, in Robert CAPUTO, Swahili Coast: East Africa’s Ancient Crossroads, National Geography Magazine, October 2001, p. 113.

[14] Abdulaziz Y. LODHI,  Oriental Influences in Swahili: A Study in Language, Culture Contacts, Orientalia et Africana Gothoburgensia 15, Acta Universitatis Go thoburgensis, 2000.

[15] Mohamed Ahmed SALEH, , “Kiswahili : Patience, humilité et dépassement moral”, Dire la Tolérance, UNESCO – Praxiling, Paris, 1997, pp. 65-66

[16] Inside the Sunni branch, there are four other schools of thought: Shafi, Hambal, Malik and Hanafi.

[17] Mohamed Ali BAKARI, The Democratisation Process in Zanzibar : A Retarded Transition, Institut für Afrika-Kunde, Hamburg, 2001. p. 89

[18] John MIDDLETON, 1992, The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization, Yale University Press, New Haven,  p. 170.

[19] Maulid: Elegy of Prophet Muhammad which gives its name to the ceremony of the celebration of his birth and to the religious text celebrating his life. The Maulid day is celebrated all over the Muslim World.

[20] Barwany (Ali Muhsin), 1997, Conflict and Harmony in Zanzibar, (Memoirs), Dubai.

[21] From Al-Busaidy dynasty he was the first Sultan of Oman who moved the Capital of his Empire from Muscat (Oman) to Zanzibar in 1832.

[22] Mohamed Ali BAKARI, The Democratisation Process in Zanzibar : A Retarded Transition, Institut für Afrika-Kunde, Hamburg, 2001. p. 89

[23] Sultan of Zanzibar from 28 October 1856 to 7 October 1870.

[24] N. R. BENNET, 1978, Arab State of Zanzibar, p. 82-83

[25] Sultan of Zanzibar from 7 October 1870 to 27 March 1888.

[26] To date, Zanzibar has a sole government-owned weekly, Nuru.

[27] TTe mother-tongue of all Zanzibaris

[28] John MIDDLETON, 1992, The World of the Swahili: An African Mercantile Civilization, Yale University Press, New Haven,  London, p. 170.

[29] Call for prayers insufflated into a newborn. It is a common practice in the whole Swahili World. See Mohamed A. SALEH, 1992, Le Grand Mariage “Ada” : La creation des notables à la Grande Comore (Ngazidja), Mémoire de l’EHESS en anthropologie sociale, Paris, p. 58

[30] The case of  Mzee Mwanze is a very eloquent example. His pragmatism, his kind heart, his spirit of openness, popularised him in Zanzibar where he was very well known for his humanism. He devoted one day of his week visiting all the sick people admitted at the V. I. Lenin Hospital at Mnazi Mmoja, Zanzibar, and praying for them, notably for their early recovery.

[31] Apprenticing of sentiment of humility, of reservation, of moderation and of self-retaining. It is a common action in the whole Swahili World; see Mohamed Ahmed  SALEH, 1995, Les Pêcheurs de Zanzibar: Transformations socio-économiques et permanence d’un système de représentation, Mémoire pour le Diplôme d’Etudes Approfondies, EHESS, Paris, p. 81.

[32] Mohamed Ahmed SALEH, 1977, “Kiswahili : Patience, humilité et dépassement moral”, Dire la Tolérance, UNESCO – Praxiling, Paris, pp. 65-66

[33] It is important to note here that Zanzibaris do not practice female excision.

[34] Ceremonies organised before, during and after the birth of a child.

[35] See for example Evans-Pritchard (1973) for the case of Nuer in Sudan.; Mohamed Ahmed SALEH, 1992, Grand Mariage “Ada” : La creation des notables à la Grande Comore.

[36] Shaaban Robert, « Our colours », in Ali A. Jahadhmy, Anthology of Swahili Poetry – Kusanyiko la Mashairi-, African Writers Series N° 192, Heinemann, London, Nairobi, Ibadan, Lusaka, 1977, p. 4-5

[37] Abdul SHERIFF, Historical Zanzibar: Romance of the Ages, HSP Publications, London, 1996.

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