Ode to Sheikh Abdul al-Amawi: The Old Man of Barawa

by Natty Mark Samuels Published on: 18th November 2015

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In this article, Natty Mark Samuels explores the life and contributions of 19th Century Abdul Aziz al-Amawi. Abd al Aziz al-Amawi originated from Barawa, Somalia and his subjects of expertise included theology, law, Sufism, grammar, rhetoric, and history. What is more, he composed an unfinished Swahili-Arabic dictionary. Dedicated to Mohamed Kassim and Bradford G. Martin

bannerThe Barawa seafront / Brava Ierè, Somalia (Source)

The Old Man of Barawa

An old man from Somalia (Source)

An old man looks out to sea, from his solitude on the roof of his house. He loves to sit there, gladly accepting the breeze – still delighted, by the dance of the palm tree fronds. He sits in the simple cubicle they made for him – his giver of shade – from wood and cloth  and watches the younger, more mobile life, go by: to see that all is well. They built this box for him, so he can watch thebody he has known and loved, more than any other body, human or otherwise…

The four young fishermen, market-bound – their catch of hammerhead shark, balanced on their necks. Boys are jumping and diving into a pool of water, formed by two neighbouring rock outcrops; immersed in the ecstasy of play, bathed by sun and water. A father races his son, to some point along the beach. Four girls, wearing different coloured garbasars (shawls), walk hand in hand, enjoying sweet camaraderie. A camel takes it easy, lolling in the sand.

An old man looks out to sea. As he looks at God’s masterpiece – canvas in turquoise and green – he reflects on a great teacher he heard of: in homeland Somalia and later on in Zanzibar. As he does, other voices come into his head – like having a conversation, with two other people present – reminding him of this and that. An old man, looks out to sea, thinking of Sheikh Abdul al-Amawi…

Old Man: Born here in Barawa,
City of the skilled and the learned.
Workshop of the weaver,
Courtyard of the scholar.1st  Voice: I think of the Tunni,
Skilled in carpentry –
Renowned makers of beds.
2nd Voice: Embroiderers of cloth,
Patient as the sloth –
Kofia hats upon our heads.Old Man: They worked with all materials, producing…1stVoice:   Sandals and belts
2nd Voice: Craftsmen of leather
1st Voice:  Necklaces and bracelets
2nd Voice  Craftsmen of silver
1st Voice:  Pots and bowls
Voices   : Craftswomen of clay and water

A young Tunni in Somalia (Source)

While deep in contemplation, he picks up the cup, to take a sip of lemon tea. Marveling at the movement of white on blue: of the seagulls gathering near a rock outcrop – and the foam of the waves, on the other side of it.

Old Man: Beloved Barawa. I’m still elated by the knowledge, that this city helped to nurture the minds, of those such as Sheikh Uways and Dada Masitti – our Grandmother Masitti. As those on the west of the continent, in the country of Mali, are proud of the scholars of Timbuktu, I am proud of you. Brilliant Barawa – magnet for students and teachers, near and far. A city busy with craft and trade, across the Indian Ocean; with knowledge and teaching, throughout the East African region. The great teachers, who carry the nisba (attribution), al-Barawi.

A henna-bearded man, wearing a red-patterned macawis (lungi), guides three goats along the sandy street – one temporarily, going in the other direction! A girl, ferrying a big green melon, grins as she walks by, observing the little scenario.

Old Man: From Barawa to Zanzibar,
The beginning of his fame.
A teenage phenomenon,
They began to hear the name –
Voices:      Sheikh Abdul al-Amawi.
Respected by all,
Including the Omani.Old Man:     At the age of eighteen,
They made him a qadi.
A teenage judge,
Of an important city –
Voices:       Sheikh Abdul al-Amawi.
Honoured by all,
In the lands of the Swahili.

Barawa (Baraawe) to Zanzibar (Source)

Old Man: A teenage judge in Kilwa! One of the great city-states, located on the East African coast. Still seems almost unbelievable! And because he done such a good job there, he was transferred to Zanzibar, to become the chief judge there. Zanzibar, island of learning and legend. Zanzibar, which became the capital city of the Omani trading empire – after the transfer from Muscat. If I remember correctly, it was actually one of the scholars of Zanzibar, who he studied with – Sheikh al-Qahtani – who recommended him, to the Omani sultan.

A group of boys are helping their elders, carry their catch of swordfish, from the boat – laying them on the sand. Two boys further out, are struggling with the current, in their little rowboat.

Old Man: Scholars came from all over, to teach – or to further their studies – in Zanzibar. From the Horn, Arabia – especially Oman and Yemen – and from the Comoros Islands. Ulama who had studied in the Hijaz, as well as at Al-Azhar and at Zabid. I think of the pioneering triumvirate – Yemenis, Omanis and Shirazis – who spread the Word of God, along the East African coastline. Those learned in the Sunni school of Shafi’i, as well as those who followed the Ibadi teachings, as did many of the Omani community. In the old Stone Town, they gathered in the solidity of their knowledge. Subsequently, Zanzibar became one of the paramount places of Islamic learning, in the East African region. Sheikh Uways spent time in Zanzibar also. The rendezvous of traders and scholars. Ahhh Zanzibar…

1stVoice:  They came from all over,
As far away as Java.
Many came from India,
Speaking Hindi and Gujerati.
2nd Voice: They came from all over,
Far away as Sri Lanka.
Many came from Pakistan,
The ones we know as Sindhi.
1stVoice:   They came from all over,
‘Cross the Sea of Arabia.
Many came from Persia,
Such as the Baluchi.
2nd Voice:  They came from all over,
City state East Africa.
Many came from the Horn,
Like my fellow Somali.

 Somalia ethnic Groups (Source)

Old Map of the Swahili coast, published in Amsterdam by Cornelis Claesz in 1596 (Source)

Old Man: And as I smell the frying of chapatis, it reminds me again, that with the traders and scholars of the Indian Ocean zone, came their food also – especially the spices! All along the East African littoral, you can indulge yourself in culinary wonders, but in Zanzibar, you reach culinary apogee!

2nd Voice:   Shark with black pepper.
1st Voice:    Pilau rice and cardamom.Old Man:  Meat stew of ginger and chilli2nd Voice:   Spice cake of cloves and nutmeg.
1st Voice :   Cinnamon in Octopus curry.

Seafood from Somalia (Source)

Old Man: I remember that after each meal, during my Zanzibari sojourn, I’d wash it down with cane juice, embellished with lime and ginger, or coffee with cardamon seeds. May God continue to bless the Zanzibari, with their great cauldron of culinary alchemy.

A youthful crowd gathers, as one after the other, young men take it in turns, to jump, dive, somersault and back flip, from off of a stone harbour wall. After completing their arobatic display, they re-mount the wall, to enact another stunt. Leisure and laughter, in a corner of  Bararwa.

Old Man: It was his time of creativity also – of literary output. One of the things that endeared him to me, that I’ll always remember him for, was his endeavour in lexicography. In trying to raise the literacy levels of the general population, he began the compilation of a Swahili-Arabic dictionary. Sadly, this project was unfinished, at the time of his physical passing. But what a great and essential idea! Whereas other scholars focused on the ulama (scholars) – the intelligentsia – he thought of the ‘man in the street also’. He wanted to reach everyone.

1st Voice:    The Chagga and Makua
Voices:       Everyone
2nd Voice:   Nyamwezi and Ngoni
Voices:       Everyone
1st Voice:   Gogo and Yao
Voices :     Everyone
2nd Voice: Makonde and Hehe
Voices:       Everyone
Old Man:  Whoever spoke Swahili
Voices :      Everyone

Swahili Language (Source)

Old Man: Being a polymath, he wrote on varied subject matter, including, history, law, grammar, theology, as well as commentaries

1st Voice:  He wrote a diary


2nd Voice: Wrote on rhetoric


1st Voice:  On Sufism


2nd Voice: As well as poetry

Atlas of Africa (Source)

Old Man: Concerning history, he wrote chronicles of the Bu Sa’idi dynasty – from their time as the overlords of Zanzibar. It was they who sent him all over the region, as their chosen diplomat.

A man leads a camel, which has a load of firewood on its back. There is a quite, mobile recital from the Qur’an, as three girls pass by, in white garbasars, content in concentration, learning in unison, the most  sacred text.

Old Man: They sent Sheikh al-Amawi everywhere! On ambassadorial missions, to homeland Somalia – and as far south as the Comoro Islands. He was the trusted envoy, of the Omani sultans.

As the caller calls the followers to prayer, the old man takes the bowl of water – placed on a stool beside him – which was prepared and covered, after the pre-dawn prayer. After washing his face, hands and feet, using his walking stick, he slowly lifts himself from his chair, to kneel upon the ground. Facing where he has faced throughout his long life, he gives thanks to the Most High, for another day.

Old Man: They sent him into Tanzania, along the River Rovuma, that great perennial. Past the cataracts and the swamps…

2nd Voice: From the range called Matagoro
1st Voice: Into the Indian Ocean
2nd Voice: Near Cape Delgado
Voices: The river became the border
Between Mozambique and Tanzania
1st Voice: Through its tributaries
2nd Voice: Lugenda and Lumesale
1st Voice: Likonda and Muhuwesi
Voices: The river formed the border
Between Mozambique and Tanzania

Horn of Africa (Source)

A solitary boy, carries a skate fish on his head, to the place of the vendors and buyers. A black and white goat, rummages amongst the rubbish and the mud.

Old Man: One of the other thinks I respect him for, is his sense of religious tolerance. When the first Christian missionaries came to East Africa, as well as engaging them in debate, he also helped them to translate the Bible into Swahili. When inter-faith strife erupts, we need to remember acts such as this. Truly, Sheikh al-Amawi was a holy man.

A young mother watches over her little one, as he splashes at the water’s edge. A boy lays on the beach, while his friend covers him completely in sand – only his dark eyes remain visible.

Old Man: I feel privileged to have lived in Barawa, in this the 19th century, the same time as…

2nd Voice: Sheikh al-Sabiri

Ist Voice: Dada Masitti

2nd Voice: Sheikh Sufi


Voices:     Sheikh al-Amawi


1st Voice: Sheikh al-Zayla’i

2nd Voice:Sheikh Shanshi

1st Voice: Sheikh Uways


Voices:    Sheikh al-Amawi

L’inclination by Alphonse Etienne Dinet’s (1861 – 1929)

Old Man: Although my days are now numbered, I give thanks for the monsoon winds, that propelled the dhow (a lateen-rigged ship with one or two masts, used chiefly in the Arabian region), that took me from here to India – carrying frankincense, rhino horn, ivory and leopard skins. The sun that saluted my skin, the cultures that entranced my being. You kept me safe on the ocean, on my many journeys – so I could put food on the table, of those dependent on me.

A donkey moves along the road, guided by one of the two youths in the cart. Two women and a man, stroll along together, cocooned in conversation. A young man helps his hobbling grandmother back to the dry, after wanting to feel the sea on her feet. A man walks along the beach, hand in hand with a child, on either side of him.

1st Voice: Blessed be Barawa
2nd Voice: In the region called BenadirVoices:     Where the feet of Sheikh al-Amawi walked1st Voice: Blessed be Barawa
2nd Voice: Of coastline Somalia


Voices:     Where the boats were sewn and caulked.

Barawa Lighthouse, November 1986 (Source)
Photo by Nicola Prisco

Old Man: So much to give thanks for: so much. Thank you for the beauty of forgiveness. I haven’t always been the man I wanted to be. As you know, sometimes, I wasn’t the shining example of a good Muslim. But you never shut the door. I give thanks for your patience and persistence. So I thank you again for Sheikh Abdul al-Aziz al-Amawi – a man without lapses. A man of peace, piety and generosity. Barawa – and the East African region – was truly blessed, honoured, to have had one such as he, trodding the wide streets, between the coral stone houses, teaching in the mosques and the schools. My Lord, please continue to watch over beloved Barawa.

With a smile on his face – and water in his eye – an old man sits on the roof of his house, looking out to sea.


Bradford G. Martin the Zanzibar National Archives and the Sayyid Mohammed al-Bu Sa’idi Library, Oman – custodians of some of the writings of Sheikh Abdul al-Aziz al-Amawi.

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