Islam and Islamic Arts in Africa

by Allen F. Roberts
University of California, Los Angeles (formerly University of Iowa)

Sailing a dhow in Lamu, Kenya, 1969. Photo by Allen F. Roberts. 


 Dhows are still handcrafted in east African towns to ply coastal waters and sail eastward to southern Arabia and beyond. The people seen boarding this dhow in Lamu represent the mix of Swahili culture, for the sailors are both Yemeni or Omani and Kenyan, and the two women in black gowns are either local or expatriate members of an orthodox Muslim sect affecting Arab dress. This scene also proves a more general point: that Africa has never been isolated from the rest of the world, as “dark continent” myths and related inventions of “Africa” would have it (Mudimbe 1988, 1994). Instead, all African cultures are a mix of local and borrowed influences, aesthetics, and good ideas. Swahili language reflects this, for its grammar follows the principles of the great Bantu language family of central, eastern, and southern Africa, while many nouns are loan words from Arabic, Persian, and other languages.