Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion


The project will explore a central hypothesis: Reforms in Islamic textual tradition and ritual practice during the 19thand 20th centuries took place within existing authority structures and led to a series of adaptations rather than breaks from tradition.

Abdallah BaKathir (d. Zanzibar 1925), Rihlat al-Ashwaq. MS copy (Zanzibar 1998) and prisnt (Cairo 1936).

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Current research argues that “something” changed in Islamic thought during the 19th century and that this transformation is still ongoing. Where local Sufi brotherhoods once held religious authority based on a combination of ritual and text, a new, “global” Islam emerged that emphasized the foundational texts (the Quran and the Prophet’s practice). Researchers have offered many explanations for this shift, but particularly highlighted the rise of print from the mid-19th century. They argue that reformist texts could be more widely distributed as a result, and that traditional Sufi texts lost out in the modern world of print capitalism.

A core hypothesis of the MPrinT project is that this perceived break between “traditional/local” and “modern/global” Islam must be tested by actual research into not only what Muslims read, but also HOW THEY READ. Were Sufi texts really discarded in the transition to print? How were texts transmitted orally after the transition - through recitation practices and rituals?  How did this vary across locations? Are we really looking at a break from tradition, or was this a shift – via a series of adaptations – that took within the existing Islamic tradition?

In the MPrinT project, we will answer these questions by mapping and documenting the manuscript-to-print transition along the Swahili coast of East Africa. By comparing texts that circulated in manuscript form with printed texts that started circulating from c. 1900, we will test whether the emergence of print actually favoured “global” Islam. A database will be set up where digital versions of will be made available. The MPrinT project will also investigate how selected texts have continued through oral transmission until the present, through communal recitation, ritual and teaching. By mapping the usage of text, we will determine how people’s perception of text has varied, between locations, generations and genders.

In this way, we will pave the way for a better understanding of the relationship between “local” and “global” Islam. This will nuance the widespread understanding of the former as peaceful and inclusive and the latter as puritanical and potentially violent.