Zanzibar, Sa?idi Sultanate of

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The Omani dynasty of Zanzibar, under the able leadership of Sayyid Sa˓id bin Sultan (1791–1856), inaugurated a new era in the commercial life of East Africa. Zanzibar had steadfastly remained loyal to Omani rule whether under the Yarubi dynasty, which had driven the Portuguese out of East Africa by the end of the seventeenth century, or under the Yarubi successors, the Busa˓idi dynasty, which came to power by the 1740s. Sayyid Sa˓id was able to assert his sovereignty over much of the East African coastal strip but not over the Mazru˓i of Mombasa (his major competitor) who held out until 1837. He eventually moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar by the 1830s. The sultan was a master of intrigues and was able to deal with potential rivals such as Kimweri, the Kilindi ruler of Usambara, by disbursing gifts to Kimweri's officials, who were urged not to lose sight of the sultan's interests.

Major changes took place in East Africa after the arrival of Sayyid Sa˓id. In fact, East Africa experienced what can be termed as a commercial revival, brought about by expansion in trading activities, new agricultural ventures (introduction of clove plantations), reforms in currency and customs administration, and encouragement of people with trading skills, such as Indians and Omani merchants, to settle in Zanzibar. The expansion in the coastal economy confirmed Zanzibar's privileged position as the hub of the international trade with its control of coastal ports through which products such as ivory and slaves filtered from the interior. The sultan's aggressive economic policies encouraged the trading caravans to venture into the interior of East Africa, and wherever the Arab and Swahili traders went Islam went with them. This is how Islam gained a foothold in the interior of East Africa along the trading routes as far as Buganda, where contact was made with the King of Buganda.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the growth of Islamic higher education in the whole coastal region. This growth was due primarily to the Omani presence and, in particular, the Zanzibar sultanate, which contributed to literacy and to the intellectual life of the community. Written texts became more readily available and this led to greater knowledge and adherence to the written orthodox tradition, which was stimulated by the Sa˓idi sultanate. Religious scholars from Arabia—mainly from Hadramaut and Oman, the Comoros, and the Benadir coast—began to arrive in the coastal towns and especially in Zanzibar, which emerged as the leading center of Islamic learning in East Africa. Later some of the leading scholars in East Africa (such as Sayyid Smait and Abdalla Bakathir) traveled to the Middle East where they supplemented their education. Moreover, the Zanzibar sultans employed religious scholars, of both Shafi˓i and Ibadhi rites, as Muslim judges. Nevertheless, Omani Ibadhi influence was very superficial on the mainland. In fact, not only did the Ibadhis as a community lose Arabic as their first language (many had African mothers), but in addition some of the leading Ibadhi families ended up following Shafi˓i rites.

See alsoAfrica, Islam in ; Mazrui .


Farsy, Shaykh Abdalla Saleh al-. The Shafi Ulama of East Africa, ca 1830–1970. Edited by Randall Pouwels. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1989.

Pouwels, Randall. Horn and Crescent: Cultural Change and Traditional Islam on the East African Coast, 800–1900. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Abdin Chande