Swahili people

Last updated
Regions with significant populations
Tanzania (particularly Zanzibar), Kenya, Somalia, Mozambique, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Congo [1]
Swahili Coast c. 1.2 million
Flag of Tanzania.svg  Tanzania 961,000 [2]
Flag of Kenya.svg  Kenya 56,074 [3]
Flag of Mozambique.svg  Mozambique 21,070 [4]
Flag of the Comoros.svg  Comoros 4,000 [5]
Diaspora c. 0.8 million
Flag of Saudi Arabia.svg  Saudi Arabia 420,000 [6]
Flag of Madagascar.svg  Madagascar 113,000 [5]
Flag of Oman.svg  Oman 100,000 [7]
Flag of the United States.svg  United States 90,000 [8]
Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.svg  DRC 56,500 [9]
Flag of Burundi.svg  Burundi 25,000 [5]
Swahili, English, Portuguese, Arabic, French
Predominantly Islam ( Sunni, Shia, Sufism ) [10]
Minority Christianity ( Catholic, Orthodox )
Related ethnic groups
Mijikenda, Pokomo, Comorians, Bajunis, Shirazi, Mwani, Manyema and Barawani

The Swahili people (Swahili : WaSwahili) comprise mainly Bantu, Afro-Arab and Comorian ethnic groups inhabiting the Swahili coast, an area encompassing the Zanzibar archipelago and mainland Tanzania's seaboard, littoral Kenya, northern Mozambique, the Comoros Islands, southwestern Somalia and Northwest Madagascar. The original Swahili distinguished themselves from other Bantu peoples by self-identifying as Waungwana (the civilised ones). In certain regions (e.g. Lamu Island), this differentiation is even more stratified in terms of societal grouping and dialect, hinting to the historical processes by which the Swahili have coalesced over time. More recently, however, Swahili identity extends to any person of African descent who speaks Swahili as their first language, is Muslim and lives in a town on the main urban centres of most of modern-day Tanzania and coastal Kenya, northern Mozambique and the Comoros, through a process of swahilization. [11]


The name Swahili originated as an exonym for the language derived from Arabic : سواحل, romanized: Sawāhil, lit. 'coasts'. Swahili people speak the Swahili language. Swahili people's endonym for themselves is Waungwana, which means "the civilized ones." [11] Modern Standard Swahili is derived from the Kiunguja dialect of Zanzibar. Like many other world languages, Swahili has borrowed a large number of words from foreign languages, particularly administrative terms from Arabic, but also words from Portuguese, Hindi and German. Other, older dialects like Kimrima and Kitumbatu have far fewer Arabic loanwords, indicative of the language's fundamental Bantu nature. Kiswahili served as coastal East Africa's lingua franca and trade language from the ninth century onward. Zanzibari traders' intensive push into the African interior from the late eighteenth century induced the adoption of Swahili as a common language throughout much of East Africa. Thus, Kiswahili is the most spoken African language, used by far more than just the Waswahili themselves. [12]


The Swahili people originate from Bantu inhabitants of the coast of Southeast Africa, in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. These Bantu-speaking agriculturalists settled the coast at the outset of the first millennium. Archaeological finds at Fukuchani, on the north-west coast of Zanzibar, indicate a settled agricultural and fishing community from the 6th century CE at the latest. The considerable amount of daub found indicates timber buildings, and shell beads, bead grinders, and iron slag have been found at the site. There is evidence for limited engagement in long-distance trade: a small amount of imported pottery has been found, less than 1% of total pottery finds, mostly from the Gulf and dated to the 5th to 8th century. The similarity to contemporary sites such as Mkokotoni and Dar es Salaam indicate a unified group of communities that developed into the first centre of coastal maritime culture. The coastal towns appear to have been engaged in Indian Ocean trade at this early period, and trade rapidly increased in importance and quantity between the mid-8th and the 11th century. [13]

Some Swahili claim a Shirazi origin. This forms the basis of the Shirazi era origin myth that proliferated along the coast at the turn of the millennium. Modern academics reject the authenticity of the primarily Persian origin claim. [14] [15] They point to the relative rarity of Persian customs and speech, lack of documentary evidence of Shia Islam in the Muslim literature on the Swahili Coast, and instead a historic abundance of Sunni Arab-related evidence. [16] The documentary evidence, like the archaeological, "for early Persian settlement is likewise completely lacking.". [17] The most likely origin for the stories about the Shirazi is from Muslim inhabitants of the Lamu archipelago who moved south in the 10th and 11th centuries. They brought with them a coinage tradition and localized form of Islam. These Africans migrants seem to have developed a concept of Shirazi origin as they moved further southwards, near Malindi and Mombasa, along the Mrima coast. The longstanding trade connections with the Persian gulf gave credence to these myths. In addition, because most Muslim societies are patrilineal, one can claim distant identities through paternal lines despite phenotypic and somatic evidence to the contrary. The so-called Shirazi tradition represents the arrival of Islam in these eras, one reason it has proven so long lasting. Extant mosques and coins demonstrate that the "Shirazi" were not Middle Eastern immigrants, but northern Swahili Muslims. They moved south, founding mosques, introducing coinage and elaborately carved inscriptions and mihrabs. They should be interpreted as indigenous African Muslims who played the politics of the Middle East to their advantage. Some still use this foundation myth a millennium later to assert their authority, even though the myth's context has long been forgotten. The Shirazi legend took on new importance in the 19th century, during the period of Omani domination. Claims of Shirazi ancestry were used to distance locals from Arab newcomers, since Persians are not viewed as Arabs but still have an exemplary Islamic pedigree. The emphasis that the Shirazi came very long ago and intermarried with indigenous locals ties this claim to the creation of convincing indigenous narratives about Swahili heritage without divorcing it from the ideals of being a maritime-centred culture. [18] [19] [20]

There are two main theories about the origins of the Shirazi subgroup of the Swahili people. One thesis based on oral tradition states that immigrants from the Shiraz region in southwestern Iran directly settled various mainland ports and islands on the eastern Africa seaboard beginning in the tenth century. [21] [22] By the time of the Persian settlement in the area, the earlier occupants had been displaced by incoming Bantu and Nilotic populations. [23] More people from different parts of the Persian Gulf also continued to migrate to the Swahili coast over several centuries thereafter, and these formed the modern Shirazi. [24] The second theory on Shirazi origins also posits that they came from Persia, but first settled in the Horn of Africa. [21] In the twelfth century, as the gold trade with the distant entrepot of Sofala on the Mozambique seaboard grew, the settlers are then said to moved southwards to various coastal towns in Kenya, Tanzania, northern Mozambique and the Indian Ocean islands. By 1200 CE, they had established local sultanates and mercantile networks on the islands of Kilwa, Mafia and Comoros along the Swahili coast, and in northwestern Madagascar. [25] [26]

The modern Swahili people speak the Swahili language as a mother tongue, which belongs to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo family. The language contains loan words from Arabic. [27]


Islam established its presence on the Southeast African coast from around the 9th century, when Bantu traders settling on the coast tapped into the Indian Ocean trade networks. The Swahili people follow the Sunni denomination of Islam.

Large numbers of Swahili undertake the Hajj and Umrah from Tanzania, [28] Kenya, [29] and Mozambique. [30] Traditional Islamic dress such as the jilbab and thob are also popular among the Swahili. The Swahili also are known for their use of divination, which has adopted some syncretic features from underlying traditional indigenous beliefs, they believe in djinn and many men wear protective amulets with verses from the Qu'ran.

Divination is practiced through Qur'anic readings. Often the diviner incorporates verses from the Qur'an into treatments for certain diseases. On occasion, he instructs a patient to soak a piece of paper containing verses of the Qur'an in water. With this ink infused water, literally containing the word of Allah, the patient will then wash his body or drink it to cure himself of his affliction. It is only prophets and teachers of Islam who are permitted to become medicine men among the Swahili. [31]


Swahili Arabic script on a one-pysar coin from Zanzibar c. 1299 AH (1882 CE) Zanzibar-pysa-coin.jpg
Swahili Arabic script on a one-pysar coin from Zanzibar c. 1299 AH (1882 CE)
Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya Lamu door.jpg
Swahili Arabic script on a carved wooden door (open) at Lamu in Kenya
Swahili Arabic script on wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa in Kenya Fortjesusdoor.JPG
Swahili Arabic script on wooden door in Fort Jesus, Mombasa in Kenya

The Swahili speak as their native tongue the Swahili language, which is a member of the Bantu subgroup of the Niger-Congo family. Its closest relatives include Comorian spoken on the Comoros Islands, and the Mijikenda language of the Mijikenda people in Kenya. [32]

With its original speech community centred on Zanzibar and the coastal parts of Kenya and Tanzania, a seaboard referred to as the Swahili Coast, [33] Swahili became the tongue of the urban class in the African Great Lakes region, and eventually went on to serve as a lingua franca during the post-colonial period.


In 2022, DNA was extracted from medieval and early modern coastal towns along the Swahili Coast. Before 1500 CE, the inhabitants carried both African, as well as Asia/Near-East ancestry which was mainly Persian-related. This is consistent with the narrative of the Kilwa Chronicle. After this time, Arabian ancestry becomes more prevalent, which correlates with the archaeological and historical record of interactions with Southern Arabia (Oman). [34]


For centuries the Swahili depended greatly on trade from the Indian Ocean. The Swahili have played a vital role as middle man between southeast, central and South Africa, and the outside world. Trade contacts have been noted as early as 100 CE by early Roman writers who visited the Southeast African coast in the 1st century.[ citation needed ] Trade routes extended from Kenya to Tanzania into modern day Congo, along which goods were brought to the coasts and were sold to Arab, Indian, and Portuguese traders. Historical and archaeological records attest to Swahilis being prolific maritime merchants and sailors [35] [36] who sailed the Southeast African coastline to lands as far away as Arabia, [37] Persia, [37] Madagascar, [35] :110 India [36] [38] and even China. [39] Chinese pottery and Arabian beads have been found in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe. [40] During the apogee of the Middle Ages, ivory and slaves became a substantial source of revenue. Many captives of the Portuguese sold in Zanzibar ended up in Brazil, which was then a Portuguese colony. Swahili fishermen of today still rely on the ocean to supply their primary source of income. Fish is sold to their inland neighbours in exchange for products of the interior.

Although most Swahili live with living standards far below that of upper hierarchy of the wealthiest nations, the Swahili are generally considered a relatively economically powerful group due to their history of trade. They are comparatively well-off; According to the United Nations, the island of Zanzibar has a 25% higher per capita GDP than the rest of Tanzania. [41] This economic influence has led to the continued spread of their culture and language throughout East Africa.


Thought by many early scholars to be essentially of Arabic or Persian style and origin, some contemporary academics are suggesting that archaeological, written, linguistic, and cultural evidence might suggest an African genesis which would be accompanied only later by an enduring Arabic and Islamic influences in the form of trade and an exchange of ideas. [42] [43] Upon visiting Kilwa in 1331, the great Berber explorer Ibn Battuta was impressed by the substantial beauty that he encountered there. He describes its inhabitants as "Zanj, jet-black in colour, and with tattoo marks on their faces", and notes that "Kilwa is a very fine and substantially built town, and all its buildings are of wood" (his description of Mombasa was essentially the same). [44] Kimaryo points out that the distinctive tattoo marks are common among the Makonde. Architecture included arches, courtyards, isolated women's quarters, the mihrab, towers, and decorative elements on the buildings themselves. Many ruins may still be observed near the southern Kenyan port of Malindi in the Gede ruins (the lost city of Gede/Gedi). [45]

Notable People

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swahili language</span> Bantu language spoken mainly in East Africa

Swahili, also known by its local name Kiswahili, is the native language of the Swahili people, who are found primarily in Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique. It is a Bantu language, though Swahili has borrowed a number of words from foreign languages, particularly Arabic and Persian, but also words from Portuguese, English and German. Around forty percent of Swahili vocabulary consists of Arabic loanwords, including the name of the language. The loanwords date from the era of contact between Arab traders and the Bantu inhabitants of the east coast of Africa, which was also the time period when Swahili emerged as a lingua franca in the region. The number of Swahili speakers, be they native or second-language speakers, is estimated to be around 80 million.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">East Africa</span> Eastern region of the African continent

East Africa, Eastern Africa, or East of Africa, is the eastern subregion of the African continent. In the United Nations Statistics Division scheme of geographic regions, 10-11-(16*) territories make up Eastern Africa:

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stone Town</span> Town in Zanzibar, Tanzania

Stonetown of Zanzibar, also known as Mji Mkongwe, is the old part of Zanzibar City, the main city of Zanzibar, in Tanzania. The newer portion of the city is known as Ng'ambo, Swahili for 'the other side'. Stone Town is located on the western coast of Unguja, the main island of the Zanzibar Archipelago. Former capital of the Zanzibar Sultanate, and flourishing centre of the spice trade as well as the slave trade in the 19th century, it retained its importance as the main city of Zanzibar during the period of the British protectorate. When Tanganyika and Zanzibar joined each other to form the United Republic of Tanzania, Zanzibar kept a semi-autonomous status, with Stone Town as its local government seat.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kilwa Kisiwani</span> Island, hamlet and an archaeological Swahili city-state site of Lindi Region, Tanzania.

Kilwa Kisiwani is an island, national historic site, and hamlet community located in the township of Kilwa Masoko, the district seat of Kilwa District in the Tanzanian region of Lindi Region in southern Tanzania. Kilwa Kisiwani is the largest of the nine hamlets in the town Kilwa Masoko and is also the least populated hamlet in the township with less than 1,000 residents. At its peak Kilwa hosted over 10,000 inhabitants in the Middle Ages. Since 1981 the entire island of Kilwa Kisiwani has been designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site along with the nearby ruins of Songo Mnara. Despite its significant historic reputation, Kilwa Kisiwani is still home to a small and resilient community of native residents that have inhabited the island for centuries. Kilwa Kisiwani is one of the seven World Heritage Sites located in Tanzania. Additionally, the site is a registered National Historic Site.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Zanj</span> Name used by medieval Muslim geographers to refer to a portion of Southeast Africa

Zanj was a name used by medieval Muslim geographers to refer to both a certain portion of Southeast Africa and to its Bantu inhabitants. This word is also the origin of the place-names Zanzibar and the Sea of Zanj.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Yao people (East Africa)</span> Tribe in East Africa

The Yao people are a major Bantu ethnic and linguistic group based at the southern end of Lake Malawi. They played an important role in the history of Southeast Africa, notably in the 19th century. The Yao are a predominantly Muslim-faith group of about two million, whose homelands encompass the countries of Malawi, the north of Mozambique, and the Ruvuma and Mtwara Regions of Tanzania. The Yao have a strong cultural identity, transcending national borders.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Islam in Kenya</span> Religion in Kenya

Islam is a minority religion in Kenya representing 10.9% of the Kenyan population, or approximately 5.2 million people. The Kenyan coast is mostly populated by Muslims. Nairobi has several mosques and a notable Muslim population. The faith was introduced by merchants visiting the Swahili coast, which led to local conversions and foreign Muslims becoming assimilated. This would later result in the emergence of several officially Muslim political entities in the region.

The Shirazis of the Comoros, 138,000 people with Iranian heritage, are one of the largest ethnic group inhabiting the archipelago nation of Comoros near the east African coast and they represent 17% of the total population of the Comoros. Their origins are linked to Shiraz and the southwestern coastal region of Persia. 89,000 people or 11% of the population from the Comoros have Southeast Asian ancestry. The Shirazi people are notable for helping establish Sunni Islam in Comoros, and the wealth they accumulated from trading commodities and slaves.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swahili architecture</span> Building traditions of the eastern and southeastern coasts of Africa

Swahili architecture is a term used to designate a whole range of diverse building traditions practiced or once practiced along the eastern and southeastern coasts of Africa. Rather than simple derivatives of Islamic architecture from the Arabic world, Swahili stone architecture is a distinct local product as a result of evolving social and religious traditions, environmental changes, and urban development.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swahili culture</span> Culture of the Swahili people in Africa

Swahili culture is the culture of the Swahili people inhabiting the Swahili coast. This littoral area encompasses Tanzania, Kenya, and Mozambique, as well as the adjacent islands of Zanzibar and Comoros and some parts of Malawi. They speak Swahili as their native language, which belongs to the Bantu language family. Graham Connah described Swahili culture as at least partially urban, mercantile, literate, and Islamic.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Islam in Tanzania</span> Religion in Tanzania

Islam in Tanzania is the second largest religion in the country behind Christianity. According to a 2020 estimate by Pew research center, Muslims represent 34.1% of the total population. The faith was introduced by merchants visiting the Swahili coast, as it became connected to a larger maritime trade network dominated by Muslims. This would lead to local conversions and assimilations of foreign Muslims, ultimately causing the eventual formation of several officially Muslim political entities in the region.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Kilwa Sultanate</span> Swahili sultanate (957–1513)

The Kilwa Sultanate was a sultanate, centered at Kilwa, whose authority, at its height, stretched over the entire length of the Swahili Coast. According to the legend, it was founded in the 10th century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, a Persian prince of Shiraz. His family ruled the Sultanate until the year 1277. They were replaced by the Arab family of Abu Moaheb until 1505, when they were overthrown by a Portuguese invasion. By 1513, the sultanate was already fragmented into smaller states, many of which became protectorates of the Sultanate of Oman.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Islam in Zanzibar</span>

Islam is the most prominent religion on the semi-autonomous Zanzibar archipelago and could be considered the Islamic center in the United Republic of Tanzania. Around 99% of the population in the islands are Muslim, with two-thirds being Sunni Muslim and a minority Ibadi, Ismaili and Twelver Shia. Islam has a long presence on the islands, with archeological findings dating back to the 10th century, and has been an intrinsic part in shaping mercantile and maritime Swahili culture in Zanzibar as well as along the East African coast.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Swahili coast</span> Coastal area of the Indian Ocean in southeast Africa

The Swahili coast is a coastal area of the Indian Ocean in East Africa inhabited by the Swahili people. It includes Dar es Salaam; Sofala ; Mombasa, Gede, Pate Island, Lamu, and Malindi ; and Kilwa. In addition, several coastal islands are included in the Swahili coast such as Zanzibar and Comoros.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Tumbatu</span> National Historic Site of Tanzania

Tumbatu is historic Swahili settlement located on Tumbatu Island, Kaskazini A District of Unguja North Region in Tanzania. This site is a significant archaeological site that contains a large number of collapsed coral stone structures including private houses and several mosques, the largest of which is located on the shore facing the village of Mkokotoni on Unguja. Pearce initially looked into the ruins in 1915 and wrote about the mosques, palace, and other stone homes.

The Shirazi people, also known as Mbwera, are a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting the Swahili coast and the nearby Indian ocean islands. They are particularly concentrated on the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba and Comoros.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shirazi era</span>

The "Shirazi era" refers to a mythic origin in the history of Southeast Africa, between the 13th century and 15th century. Many Swahili in the central coastal region claim that their towns were founded by Persians from the Shiraz region in the 13th century. Once accepted as fact, modern research has disproved a Shirazi origin for the Swahili towns, instead emphasizing various social factors that induced claiming this identity.

Sultan Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi, was the founder of the Kilwa Sultanate. According to legend, Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi was one of seven sons of the Emir Al-Hassan of Shiraz, Persia, his mother an Abyssinian slave. Upon his father's death, Ali was driven out of his inheritance by his warring brothers. Setting sail out of Hormuz, Ali ibn al-Hassan, his household and a small group of followers first made their way to Mogadishu, a commercial port on the East African coast. However, Ali failed to get along with the city's Somali elite and he was soon driven out of that city as well.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Maritime archaeology of East Africa</span>

Maritime archaeology in East Africa spans the range from the horn of Somalia south to Mozambique, and includes the various islands and island chains dotting the map off the coast of Somalia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya. Primary areas along this coast include the Zanzibar, Lamu, and Kilwa Archipelagos. Although East African societies developed nautical capabilities for themselves, most of the maritime artifacts point to external merchants from Mediterranean cultures like Egypt and Greece, Indian and Chinese from South and East Asia in the early stages, to the great European powers during the Ages of Colonization and Imperialism.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archaeology of Pemba Island</span>

Pemba Island is a large coral island off the coast of Tanzania. Inhabited by Bantu settlers from the Tanga coast since 600 AD, the island has a rich trading, agricultural, and religious history that has contributed to the studies of the Swahili Coast trade throughout the Indian Ocean.


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