Muslim History in Malawi – Chronicles

Original writeup byAbdul-Razak Fattani

It is an undisputable fact that the first heavenly revealed religion Malawi had ever known and embraced is Islam. It dates back as early as the 15th century when inhabitants of this land professed Islam as their heavenly revealed religion through some Arab and Swahili traders. It was in 1506 when Muslim Arab traders made their way into the territory and reached Nsanje town through the difficult and rough route of Shire River from Mozambique. These Arab traders stayed at the bank of Shire River. 

These noble Muslim traders were exemplary in their conduct and Islamic good behavior (akhalaq) and the brotherhood and love they had shown to the local people. They freely mixed with the indigenous people, ate together and stayed in huts.

It was in view of such good morals and humility that despite that these Muslim traders were neither preachers nor priests they managed to bring many people into the religion of Islam. Their good morals and the spirit of brotherhood were a reason enough to attract many to embrace Islamic.

Malawians have a record of warm heart hospitality which attracted many people globally. 

Before Christianity was known to Malawi in both its unofficial phase in 1861, when Dr. David Livingstone brought in Bishop Charles Mackenzie to Magomero, and officially in 1875 when the Free Church of Scotland came to plant a mission station at Cape Maclear in Mangochi, the majority of the local people at that time in terms of foreign religions were Muslims.

It is in view of this that all efforts were made to tarnish the image of Islam in the country by associating it with slavery and slave trade.

When Malawi became a British protectorate in 1907 the colonial government did all it can to wipe out the presence of Islam on the land. Muslims had their names being changed to Christian names and the Muslim youth who enrolled in to attend secular education were persuaded to embrace Christianity as most of the learning institutions were owned by the Christian missionaries. This was a major contributing factor as to why Muslims in Malawi had to boycott secular education in the colonial.

As a result, the Muslim stand not to attend secular education for the sake of protecting their religion and preserving it for the future generation the Muslim community was completely sidelined in the administrative activities of day to day running of government. Slowly the office of the District Commissioner was becoming more powerful than that of the Chieftainship which the Muslims commanded which would have resulted into a negative impact on the growth of Islam in the country had it been that the traditional leaders were not strong enough with their Islamic faith.

It was in fear of the complete imminent alienation of Muslims from the citizenry of the nation that prompted some Muslim leaders to set up a Muslim body responsible for education in both Islamic and secular.

This initiative saw the birth of the Muslim Central Body of Education (CBME) and later in 1946 the Nyasaland Muslim Association was formed. A few learning institutions in the name of CBME were established and bursaries were awarded to the needy Muslim students. All this was done in an attempt to keep away the influence of church missionaries into the Muslim children attending secular education.

This initiative was jointly pursued by both the indigenous Muslims who spearheaded it by garnering support from the local chieftainship authority and Muslims of Asian origin who willingly for the sake of Allah and Islam gave their financial and material support. Humble as it were, this struggle marked the renaissance of Islam in Malawi out of which sprang most of the Muslim organizations, Islamic learning institutions, Jamaats, bookshops and media institutions among many other avenues one can point at in the recent times.

It is, thus, in appreciation of these efforts that our Muslim scholars and fellow Muslims had done in the historical days of Islam in Malawi who with the little resources at their disposal and under very difficult circumstances defended Islam and preserved it for the upcoming generations by the grace of Allah that this research historical paper aims to pay tribute to such a caliber of Muslims who strived for the sake of Islam and analyse in an unbiased manner the fruits borne thereafter for the benefit of the present and the upcoming generations. This is also to serve as a model worth emulating in one’s endeavour to attain spiritual cleansing and admission into the much waited Jannah insha’a Allah.

Makanjira is an area in Mangochi which is very famous as far as the history of Islam in Malawi is concerned this is because of its oldest masjids. Makanjira translates into the way to Mecca (Macka-Njira).

What makes Makanjira tick? Records indicate that Makanjira was founded by a masjid in years around 1507. Makanjira a chief himself made Islam strong in this region, which is alongside the eastern part of Malawi where there is Lake Malawi.

Today Makanjira boost of a strong bold and vigilant Islam where there are several developments in Madrassa since the mother of all madrassa was set up as a well as secular schools. The madrassa record dates back to year 1800, where they were taught in Arabic and it is reported that an Arabic court was set at the same headquarters where Islamic laws were applied.

Muslim Arab who descended in early 1570 built some masjid. Makanjira was the transit route to Nkhatabay for the Muslims who were travelling by dhows. The third chief was converted to Islam hence he spread Islam to his subjects. Muslim communities in thousand colonial times in 1508. The most popular Yao was Selemani. They used to move by dhows, which were built in Makanjira and Nkhotakota to carry caravans across the lake costal.

The area produced coconuts that were cultivated by Muslims who used to read the Holy Quran in Arabic language in year 1807. There was only an Arabic literature in the country. However despite this good record the road is impassable and people fail to sample the conspicuous of Makanjira hence motor bicycles are used.


Muslim Association of Malawi

The Muslim Association of Malawi (MAM), then Nyasaland Muslim Association, was formed in 1946 in response to the plight of Muslims who were being sidelined and discriminated against in as far as secular education was concerned which the Christian missionaries had set up as a trap to convert Muslims into their non-Islamic faith.

The Central Body of Muslim Education (CBME) became the main arm of the Association focusing on education of the Muslim youth and awarding bursaries to the needy students all over the country.

In an effort to bring every Muslim on board a selection of the Muslim Traditional Authorities then called National Authorities (NAs) were made trustees of MAM a tradition that continues to date. This placed the Association in a position that made it become more of a spokesman for the Muslim community through which their voice could be heard.

The name of Sheikh Bunayya Amasi comes into perspective in as far as the founding of MAM is concerned. It might not be Sheikh Amasi who actually founded MAM in 1946 but he definitely triggered the concept as he single-handedly founded and formed the Kanyenda Muslim Association to oversee a chain of madrassa schools he established soon after he got his Islamic education from Zanzibar.

He first opened Kanyenda Madrassa School in his home district of Chiradzulu in 1942 and later embarked on establishing similar structures in Blantyre and Mangochi districts. These learning centres offered both Islamic and secular hence they were known as madrassa schools. Kanyenda Muslim Association was therefore established as an administrative machinery in running these Muslim owned learning institutions from which the term ‘Association’ was derived to set up a national body – the Nyasaland Muslim Association and later upon the country’s change of name to Malawi after its attainment of independence from the British colonial rule in 1964, the Muslim body came to be known as the Muslim Association of Malawi to date.

Since both fell under the same leadership called for more of the likes of Sheikh Amasi to get the madrasa schools up and running. To achieve this more young Muslims of the time travelled to Zanzibar in pursuit of education some of them were Sheikh Qassim Abbas, Sheikh Umar Idruss and Sheikh Saidi Atibu.

The notable leaders of the Association were its first chairperson Sheikh Rajab Karim who was succeeded by Lali Lubani. Upon Lubani’s death Mussa Gama became the Association’s chairperson who was later succeeded by Sheikh Hussein Mwarabu.

Muslim Youth Committee

This served as a youth arm of the Muslim Association of Malawi composed of a few among those young Muslims who had undergone secular education in Christian missionary schools but were strong enough to maintain their Islamic faith and neither did they adopt Christian names. These included Shayibu Itimu, Muhammad Kulesi, Daud Milanzi, Ibrahim Panjwani and Twayibu Lawe among others.

The Muslim Youth Committee worked hand in hand with the main body, MAM to which it offered secretarial and other equally important services that required some knowledge in secular education and English language, a strength Muslims in the country were very much in need of.

It is in view of this strength, which the Committee had that led to setting up of a delegation, which travelled to Kuwait for resource mobilization. The mission proved a success as Kuwait swiftly in its response set up a special fund for Malawi, which later came to be known as the Africa Muslim Agency.

Africa Muslim Agency

Africa Muslim Agency was established in 1980 in Kuwait following the Muslim Youth Committee of Malawi resource mobilization visit to that country. Initially, it was formed as a fund for Malawi but later expanded its funding to other African countries hence the name Africa Muslim Agency (AMA).

It had, thus, among its objectives to financially and materially channel assistance to local Muslim organizations in Africa in various fields which included education, construction of mosques and Islamic centres. Dr Abdu- Rahman Sumaytu championed the mission as the person in-charge of the Agency which saw him making frequent visits to Malawi besides making extensive travels all over Africa.

AMA, quickly soon after its formation, sent a country representative whose dedication to duty changed the image of Islam in Malawi. 

To a fast growing religion and developmental conscious as within a short period of time MAM embarked on construction projects of a number of Islamic centres and mosques. Some of which are Blantyre Islamic Mission, Zomba Islamic Centre and Mangochi Islamic Centre.

The Association also secured scholarships which saw a good number of students leaving for studies abroad to countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt among others.