Although historically associated with the city of Mombasa, Kenya, originally the Mazrui (Ar. Mazru˓i) were native to the Rustaq region of Oman. By the early eighteenth century, they began settling the coast of Kenya and Pemba Island until, altogether, fourteen Mazrui clans came to be represented in East Africa. Mazrui accounts claim that the imam of Oman sent Nasir bin ˓Abdallah Mazrui as his representative (liwali) in Mombasa soon after capturing Fort Jesus from the Portuguese in 1698. However, other sources suggest Nasir arrived around 1727.
Beginning with Nasir, the Mazrui administered Mombasa as its principal ruling family until the Busaidi sultan of Zanzibar, Sayyid Sa˓id bin Sultan, replaced them with his own representative in 1837. Altogether, the Mazrui provided Mombasa with a succession of eleven liwalis, which was terminated when Sa˓id kidnapped and murdered Rashid bin Salim and twenty-four tribal elders. In 1741, Liwali Muhammad bin ˓Uthman Mazrui had refused to acknowledge the Busaidi tribe as the new imams of Oman. Further acts of Mazrui defiance damaged their already poor relations with the Busaidi, making a violent outcome inevitable.
Much remains controversial about Mazrui rule in Mombasa. A Mazrui history claims they exercised a true mastery over Mombasa's affairs, and that their dominion extended over "most of the Swahili country." However, a careful reading of all available sources indicates that their rule was totally contingent on support and alliances with Mombasa's Swahili citizens and their Mijikenda neighbors. Loss of this support in 1835 quickly led to the Mazrui downfall. Imperialist ambitions to widen their influence through interference in the affairs of neighboring coastal states like Tanga, Wasin, and Pate were resented and frequently resisted. Also, the Mazrui not only allowed a considerable trade in slaves at Mombasa, but most probably participated in it. In later years, like many coastal Muslims, they exploited slave labor in the areas they settled around Mombasa and Takaungu.
Although they lost Mombasa, after 1837 the Mazrui continued to resist Omani and European imperialism and to play a significant part in the history of Kenya. To avoid Busaidi predominance in Mombasa, many resettled in Pemba, Gazi, and Takaungu after 1837. One, Mbaruk bin Rashid of Takaungu, never rendered tribute to the Busaidi, nor recognized their sovereignty over East Africa, and Busaidi attempts in the 1850s and the 1870s to force his submission were both failures. Active resistance ended when a final, pointless Mazrui uprising was defeated by British forces in 1896, forcing Mbaruk to end his days exiled in another colonial possession, German East Africa.
Even before Mbaruk's defeat, some Mazrui had discovered intellectual resistance to be effective. Originally Ibadi Muslims, like the Busaidi and their Omani allies, in the 1800s many Mazrui converted to the Shafi˓i sect prevalent in East Africa. One in particular, ˓Abdallah b. ˓Ali, made the hajj and converted soon after 1837. His descendants, including ˓Ali b. ˓Abdallah and al-Amin bin Ali Mazrui, became some of the most influential Shafi˓i qadis in Kenya. More recently, scions of this particular family have enjoyed considerable popularity in Africa and the United States as educators and modernizers of African institutions.
Mazrui, Al-Amin bin Ali. A History of the Mazru˓i Dynasty of Mombasa. London: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Nicholls, Christine. The Swahili Coast. New York: Africana, 1971.
Pouwels, Randall L. Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast: 800–1900. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Salim, Ahmad Idha. The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Kenya's Coast, 1895–1965. Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1973.
Randall L. Pouwels