Khadija Farah

Preserving Islamic Traditions in East Africa
Location: Nairobi
Nationality: Kenyan, American
Biography: Khadija Farah is a travel and documentary photographer from Nairobi, Kenya. From conservation to women’s issues, she is passionate about stories which provide a ‘light bulb moment’ or challenge public discourse on a subject. Much... read on
Public Story
Preserving Islamic Traditions in East Africa
Credits: khadija farah
Date of Work: 11/15/19 - Ongoing
Updated: 12/02/19
Location: Lamu, Kenya
The island town of Lamu in northern Kenya is famous for its Maulid festival, which marks the birth of the Prophet Mohamed. The month-long celebration during the third month of the Islamic lunar calendar culminates in a three-day festival which includes recitals of praise poems, traditional music and dances, dhow and donkey races, and an emotional parade through the narrow streets of the town.

The Maulid is historically practiced all over the world by Muslims who ascribe to Sufi orders. On the Kenya coast, Sufism has existed largely as a bundle of local practices – the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, the performance of dhikr, a congregational salutation at the end of prayer often set to rhythmic drumming, and a belief in the efficacy of prayers to local saints.

These practices have declined over time as a result of various influences. Scholars and financial support from Pakistan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia encouraged criticism of practices of ‘innovation.' Many who had studied in Saudi Arabia, Sudan or elsewhere returned to the coast, their claims to scholarship giving them status and influence as imams and teachers. Their criticism of innovatory religious practice such as the Maulid, therefore, seemed justified.
The Lamu Maulid, however, continues to persist. Now in its 110th year, the festival attracts a large number of Muslims from all over the world.

When I first decided that I would start documenting religious festivals on the African continent, the Maulid in Lamu was at the top of my list. Being a Kenyan-Somali and Muslim, it seemed obvious that I should start in my own country. However, I never grew up celebrating Maulid and saint veneration is so outside of my world view. In fact, until recently, I never even knew of the historical and cultural importance that Sufi Muslims played in spreading Islam on the continent, resisting colonialism, and preserving our traditions. Because of the overwhelming (and recent) view by most orthodox Muslims that the Maulid is an innovation, its prevalence has slowly been erased. Learning more about the Maulid in Lamu as well as East Africa's importance in Islamic history, challenged my own existing notions of piety. It is my hope that, through documenting these festivals, I can foster familiarity with others through traditions that are different from what they know.