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The Swahili coast Swahili coast.png
The Swahili coast
The Bantu inhabited areas Bantu area.png
The Bantu inhabited areas

Zanj (Arabic : زَنْج, adj. زنجي, Zanjī; Persian : زنگی, romanized: Zangi; Turkish : Zencî) [1] [2] was a name used by medieval Muslim geographers to refer to both a certain portion of Southeast Africa (primarily the Swahili Coast) and to its Bantu inhabitants. [3] This word is also the origin of the place-names Zanzibar ("coast of the Zanji") and the Sea of Zanj.


The latinization Zingium serves as an archaic name for the coastal area in modern Kenya and Tanzania in southern East Africa. The architecture of these commercial urban settlements are now a subject of study for urban planning. [4] [5] For centuries the coastal settlements were a source of ivory, gold, and bond servants, from sections of the conquered hinterland, to the Indian Ocean world. [6]


Zanj in Arabic means the "country of the blacks". Other transliteration include Zenj, Zinj, and Zang. [3] [7] Anthony Christie argued that the word zanj or zang may not be Arabic in origin, a Chinese form (僧祇 sēngqí) is recorded as early as 607 AD. Christie argued that the word is South East Asian in origin. [8] Javanese word jenggi means African people, precisely the people of Zanzibar. [9] It is known that the Indonesian Austronesian peoples reached Madagascar by ca. 50–500 CE. [10] [11] As for their route, one possibility is that the Indonesian Austronesian came directly across the Indian Ocean from Java to Madagascar. It is likely that they went through the Maldives where evidence of old Indonesian boat design and fishing technology persists until the present. [12]

Division of East Africa's coast

Geographers historically divided the eastern coast of Africa at large into several regions based on each region's respective inhabitants. Arab and Chinese sources referred to the general area that was located to the south of Al-Misr (Egypt), Al-Habasha (Abyssinia) and Barbara (Somalia) as Zanj. [7]

Zanj was situated in the Southeast Africa vicinity and was inhabited by Bantu-speaking peoples called the Zanj. [3] [7] [13] The core area of Zanj occupation stretched from the territory south of present-day Ras Kamboni [14] to Pemba Island in Tanzania. South of Pemba lay Sofala in modern Mozambique, the northern boundary of which may have been Pangani. Beyond Sofala was the obscure realm of Waq-Waq, also in Mozambique. [15] [16] The 10th-century Arab historian and geographer Abu al-Hasan 'Alī al-Mas'ūdī describes Sofala as the furthest limit of Zanj settlement, and mentions its king's title as Mfalme, a Bantu word. [3]

Zanj territory


Zanzibar slave market in 1860, by Edwin Stocqueler Zanzibar Slave Market, 1860 - Stocqueler.JPG
Zanzibar slave market in 1860, by Edwin Stocqueler

The Zanj traded with Arabs, Turks and Indians, but according to some sources, only locally, since they possessed no ocean-going ships. [3] According to other sources, the heavily Bantu Swahili peoples already had seafaring vessels with sailors and merchants trading with Arabia and Persia, and as far east as India and China. [4] [17] [18] However, Zanj refers more to the state of religion than color or origin. The Swahili, a non-contemporary enthnonym, included both Zanj, non-believers, and the Umma, Islamic community. Since Arab and Persian identity is patrilineal, elite Swahili claimed, often fictionalized, prestigious Asian genealogy. Modern misconceptions of cultural fusion or Asian origins developed from the tendency of wealthy Swahili to claim Asian origins and the disproportionate 19th century importation of Omani elements to Zanzibari and Swahili society (standard Swahili is the Zanzibari dialect and thus includes far more Arabic loanwords than the other, older Swahili dialects. [19]

Prominent settlements of the Zanj coast included Malindi, Gedi, and Mombasa. By the late medieval period, the area included at least 37 substantial Swahili trading towns, many of them quite wealthy. However, these communities never consolidated into a single political entity (the "Zanj Empire" being a late 19th-century fiction).

While the urban ruling and commercial classes of these Swahili settlements included some Arab and Persian immigrants, the vast majority were African Muslims. Mythic origins from Persia or Arabia should not be taken literally, but rather as a widespread element of Islamic society to legitimate elite status. [19] [20] [21] The Bantu peoples inhabited the coastal regions, and were organized only as family groups. [3] The term shenzi ,

used on the East African coast and derived from the Swahili word zanji, referred in a derogatory way to anything associated with rural blacks. An example of this would be the colonial term shenzi dog, referring to a native dog. The name of a well-known dog breed, Basenji, means 'of the blacks'.

Stone Town in Zanzibar The alleyway in Zanzibar city.JPG
Stone Town in Zanzibar

The Zanj were for centuries shipped as slaves by Arab traders to all the countries bordering the Indian Ocean.[ citation needed ] The Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs recruited many Zanj slaves as soldiers and, as early as 696 AD, we learn of slave revolts of the Zanj against their Arab masters in Iraq (see below). Ancient Chinese texts also mention ambassadors from Java presenting the Chinese emperor with two Seng Chi (Zanji) slaves as gifts, and Seng Chi slaves reaching China from the Hindu kingdom of Sri Vijaya in Java. [6]

The sea off the south-eastern coast of Africa was known as the Sea of Zanj, and included the Mascarene islands and Madagascar. During the anti-apartheid struggle it was proposed that South Africa should assume the name Azania, to reflect ancient Zanj.

Contemporary descriptions

Arab descriptions of the Zanj peoples have been inconsistent. [6] [22] A negative view is exemplified in the following passage from Kitab al-Bad' wah-tarikh, [23] by the medieval Arab writer al-Muqaddasī:

As for the Zanj, they are people of black color, flat noses, kinky hair, and little understanding or intelligence.

In 1331, the Arabic-speaking Berber explorer Ibn Battuta visited the Kilwa Sultanate in the Zanj, which was ruled by Sultan Hasan bin Sulayman's Yemeni dynasty. [24] Battuta described the kingdom's Arab ruler as often making slave and booty raids on the local Zanj inhabitants, the latter of whom Battuta characterized as "jet-black in color, and with tattoo marks on their faces." [24]

Kilwa is one of the most beautiful and well-constructed towns in the world. The whole of it is elegantly built. The roofs are built with mangrove pole. There is very much rain. The people are engaged in a holy war, for their country lies beside the pagan Zanj. Their chief qualities are devotion and piety: they follow the Shafi'i sect. When I arrived, the Sultan was Abu al-Muzaffar Hasan surnamed Abu al-Mawahib [loosely translated, "The Giver of Gifts"] ... on account of his numerous charitable gifts. He frequently makes raids into the Zanj country [neighboring mainland], attacks them and carries off booty, of which he reserves a fifth, using it in the manner prescribed by the Koran [Qur'an]. [25]

Zanj Rebellion

The Zanj Rebellion was a series of uprisings that took place between 869 and 883 AD near the city of Basra in present-day Iraq. Many Zanj were taken as slaves and were often used in strenuous agricultural work. [26] In particular, Zanj slaves were used in labor-intensive plantations, harvesting crops such as sugarcane in the lower Mesopotamia basin of what is now southern Iraq. Harsh circumstances apparently provoked three rebellions in the late 7th and 9th centuries. What is now called the Zanj Rebellion was the largest of these. [27]

Researcher M. A. Shaban states that the Zanj Rebellion was not a slave rebellion but rather an Arab rebellion supported by East African immigrants in Iraq:

It was not a slave revolt. It was a zanj, i.e. a Negro, revolt. To equate Negro with slave is a reflection of nineteenth-century racial theories; it could only apply to the American South before the Civil War...On the contrary, some of the people who were working in the salt marshes were among the first to fight against the revolt. Of course there were a few runaway slaves who joined the rebels, but this still does not make it a slave revolt. The vast majority of the rebels were Arabs of the Persian Gulf supported by free East Africans who had made their homes in the region. [28]

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Swahili language Bantu language spoken mainly in East Africa

Swahili, also known by its native name Kiswahili, is a Bantu language and the native language of the Swahili people. It is a lingua franca of the African Great Lakes region and other parts of East and Southern Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, some parts of Malawi, Somalia, Zambia, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Comorian, spoken in the Comoros Islands, is sometimes considered a dialect of Swahili, although other authorities consider it a distinct language. Swahili has a 16–20% Arabic loanwords in the language, including the word swahili, from Arabic sawāḥilī. The Arabic loanwords date from the contacts of Arabian traders with the Bantu inhabitants of the east coast of Africa over many centuries. Under Arab trade influence, Swahili emerged as a lingua franca used by Arab traders and Bantu peoples of the East African Coast.

Malindi municipality in Kilifi County, Kenya

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Kilwa Kisiwani Island in Tanzania, an archaeological city-state site

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The Swahili people are a Bantu ethnic group inhabiting East Africa. Members of this ethnicity primarily reside on the Swahili coast, in an area encompassing the Zanzibar archipelago, littoral Kenya, the Tanzania seaboard, northern Mozambique, the Comoros Islands, and Northwest Madagascar. More recently, Swahili identity is centered around any person of African descent who speaks Swahili as their first language, is muslim and lives in a town on the main urban centers of most of modern day Tanzania and coastal Kenya, northern Mozambique and the the Comoros, through a process of swahilization.

Zanj Rebellion

The Zanj Rebellion was a major revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate, which took place from 869 until 883. Begun near the city of Basra in present-day southern Iraq and led by one Ali ibn Muhammad, the insurrection involved enslaved Bantu-speaking people (Zanj) who had originally been captured from the coast of East Africa and transported to the Middle East, principally to drain the region's salt marshes. It grew to involve slaves and freemen, including both Africans and Arabs, from several regions of the Caliphate, and claimed tens of thousands of lives before it was finally defeated.


Sofala, at present known as Nova Sofala, used to be the chief seaport of the Mwenemutapa Kingdom, whose capital was at Mount Fura. It is located on the Sofala Bank in Sofala Province of Mozambique. It was founded by Swahili merchants. This name was given because the area is rich with resources.

Afro-Arabs are Arabs of full or partial African descent. These include black populations within mainly the Sudanese, Somalis, Saudis, Kuwaitis, Emiratis, Bahrainis, Sahrawis, Mauritanians, Egyptians, Yemenis, Omanis, Moroccans, and Algerians with considerably long established communities in the Levantine Arab states such as Palestine, Iraq and Syria.

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.

Sea of Zanj

The Sea of Zanj is a former name for that portion of the western Indian Ocean adjacent to the region in the African Great Lakes referred to by medieval Arab geographers as Zanj. The Sea of Zanj was deemed a fearful zone by Arab mariners and legends regarding dangers in the waters abounded, especially near its far southern limits.

Ajuran Sultanate Somali Muslim empire (13th-late 17th century)

The Ajuran Empire, also spelled Ajuuraan Empire, and often simply as Ajuran, was a Somali empire in the medieval times in the Horn of Africa that dominated the trade in northern Indian ocean. They belonged to the Somali Muslim sultanate that ruled over large parts of the Horn of Africa in the Middle Ages. Through a strong centralized administration and an aggressive military stance towards invaders, the Ajuran Empire successfully resisted an Oromo invasion from the west and a Portuguese incursion from the east during the Gaal Madow and the Ajuran-Portuguese wars. Trading routes dating from the ancient and early medieval periods of Somali maritime enterprise were strengthened or re-established, and foreign trade and commerce in the coastal provinces flourished with ships sailing to and coming from many kingdoms and empires in East Asia, South Asia, Europe, the Near East, North Africa and East Africa.

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The Kilwa Sultanate was a Medieval 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, an Iranian 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.


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The Shirazi people, also known as Mbwera, are an ethnic group inhabiting the Swahili coast and the nearby Indian ocean islands. They are particularly concentrated on the islands of Zanzibar, Pemba and Comoros. A number of Shirazi legends proliferated along the East African coast, most involving a named or unnamed Persian prince marrying a Swahili princess. Modern academics reject the authenticity of the primarily Persian origin claim. 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. The documentary evidence, like the archaeological, "for early Persian settlement is likewise completely lacking.". The Shirazi are notable for helping spread Islam on the Swahili Coast, their role in the establishment of the southern Swahili sultanates like Mozambique and Angoche, their influence in the development of the Swahili language, and their opulent wealth. The East African coastal area and the nearby islands served as their commercial base.

Economic history of the Arab world

Economic history of the Arab world addresses the history of economic activity in the Arabic-speaking countries and the stretching of my Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Arabian Sea in the east, and from the Mediterranean Sea in the north to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean in the southeast from the time of its origins in the Arabian peninsula and spread in the 7th century CE Muslim conquests and since.

Sultanate of Mogadishu

The Sultanate of Mogadishu, also known as the Kingdom of Magadazo, was a medieval Somali sultanate centered in southern Somalia. It rose as one of the pre-eminent powers in the Horn of Africa under the rule of Fakhr al-Din before becoming part of the powerful and expanding Ajuran Empire in the 13th century. The Mogadishu Sultanate maintained a vast trading network, dominated the regional gold trade, minted its own currency, and left an extensive architectural legacy in present-day southern Somalia.

History of slavery in the Muslim world History of slavery in Islamic lands

The Muslim world initially inherited the institution of slavery from pre-Islamic Arabia; and the practice of keeping slaves subsequently developed in radically different ways, depending on social-political factors such as the Arab slave trade. Throughout Islamic history, slaves served in various social and economic roles, from powerful emirs to harshly treated manual laborers. Early on in Muslim history slaves provided plantation labor similar to that in the early-modern Americas, but this practice was abandoned after harsh treatment led to destructive slave revolts, the most notable being the Zanj Rebellion of 869–883. Slaves were widely employed in irrigation, mining, and animal husbandry, but most commonly as soldiers, guards, domestic workers, and concubines. Many rulers relied on military slaves and on slaves in administration - to such a degree that the slaves could sometimes seize power. Among black slaves, there were roughly two females to every one male. Two rough estimates by scholars of the numbers of just one group - black slaves held over twelve centuries in the Muslim world - are 11.5 million and 14 million, while other estimates indicate a number between 12 and 15 million African slaves prior to the 20th century.

Two or three Abbasid expeditions to East Africa are mentioned in the late Arabic Book of the Zanj. The Abbasid caliphs al-Manṣūr (754–775), Hārūn al-Rashīd (786–809) and al-Maʾmūn (813–833) are reputed to have sent punitive expeditions to the Islamized city-states of the Somali coast and set up governors there. The Book of the Zanj does not survive in any copy earlier than the 20th century and its historical reliability is highly questionable for the early Islamic period.

Indian Ocean slave trade Overview of the topic

The Indian Ocean slave trade, sometimes known as the East African slave trade, was multi-directional slave trade and has changed over time. Africans were sent as slaves to the Middle East, to Indian Ocean islands, to the Indian subcontinent, and later to the Americas.

Medieval Arab attitudes to Black people varied over time and individual attitude, but tended to be negative. Though the Qur'an expresses no racial prejudice, ethnocentric prejudice towards black people is widely evident among medieval Arabs, for a variety of reasons: their extensive conquests and slave trade; the influence of Aristotelian ideas regarding slavery, which some Muslim philosophers directed towards Zanj and the influence of Judeo-Christian ideas regarding divisions among humankind. On the other hand, the Afro-Arab author Al-Jahiz, himself having a Zanj grandfather, wrote a book entitled Superiority of the Blacks to the Whites, and explained why the Zanj were black in terms of environmental determinism in the "On the Zanj" chapter of The Essays.


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