|Regions with significant populations|
|Swahili coast (mainly Zanzibar, Pemba, Comoros)|
|Related ethnic groups|
|other Swahili people|
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. Their origins are linked to Shiraz and the southwestern coastal region of Persia (now Iran). The Shirazi are notable for helping spread Islam on the Swahili Coast, their role in the establishment of the local Arab-Swahili sultanates, their influence in the development of the Swahili language, and the wealth they accumulated from trading commodities and particularly Zanj slaves along the southern Indian Ocean littoral.
There are two main theories about the origins of the Shirazi 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, in an area between Mogadishu, Somalia in the north and Sofala in the south. According to Irving Kaplan, prior to the 7th century, the coastal areas frequented by the Persian migrants were inhabited by non-Negroid Africans. By the time of the Persian settlement in the area, these earlier occupants had been displaced by incoming Bantu and Nilotic populations. 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.
The second theory on Shirazi origins posits that they came from Persia, but first settled on the Somalia littoral near Mogadishu. 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 AD, they had established local sultanates and mercantile networks on the islands of Kilwa, Mafia and Comoros along the Swahili coast, and in northwestern Madagascar.
Some academics have questioned 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. These academics state that the evidence confirms mass migration to the African coast over the centuries from the Persian Gulf and Arabia, but Persian Gulf is much more than a Persian coast. There are also several different versions of stories about the settlement of Shirazi along the Swahili Coast. According to Jack Drake Rollins, the Shirazi community was likely formed through intermarriages between Persian and Arab male settlers and local Bantu women. Genetic analysis by Msadie et al. (2010) found that the Comorian Shirazi primarily carry Bantu-derived paternal lineages and moderately low paternal ancestry associated with South Iran and Southeast Asia, but exclusively bear Bantu-linked maternal clades. This suggests that male-dominated trade and religious proselytisation were the main drivers of gene flow from the Middle East (see genetics).
The Kilwa Chronicle, a medieval document written in Arabic, indicates that the early Shirazi also settled in Hanzuan (Anjouan in the Comoros Islands), the Green Island (Pemba), Mandakha, Shaugu and Yanbu. According to the anthropologist Helena Jerman, the Shirazi identity (Washirazi) was born after the arrival of Islam, in the 17th century. Their traditional Bantu lineage names were gradually abandoned and substituted with Arabic family names (e.g. Wapate became Batawiyna), new origin legends and social structures were imagined into folklores, and the societal structures were adopted from Persian and Arab settlers from nearby societies in Asia.
Arab geographers historically divided the eastern coast of Africa into several regions based on each region's respective inhabitants. According to the twelfth century geography of Al-Idrisi, completed in 1154 CE, there were four littoral zones: Barbar (Bilad al Barbar; "land of the Berbers") in the Horn of Africa, which was inhabited by Berbers and stretched southward to the Shebelle river; Zanj (Ard al-Zanj; "country of the blacks"), located immediately below that up to around Tanga or the southern part of Pemba island; Sofala (Ard Sufala), extending from Pemba to an unknown terminus, but probably around the Limpopo river; and Waq-Waq, the shadowy land south thereof. However, earlier geographers make no mention of Sofala. The texts written after twelfth century also call the island of Madagascar al-Qumr, and include it as a part of Waq-Waq.
Islam was introduced to the northern Somalia coast early on from the Arabian peninsula, shortly after the hijra. Zeila's two-mihrab Masjid al-Qiblatayn dates to the 7th century, and is the oldest mosque in the city. In the late 9th century, Al-Yaqubi wrote that Muslims were already living along this northern littoral. He also mentioned that the Adal kingdom had its capital in the city. Ibn al-Mujawir later wrote that, due to various battles in the Arabian peninsula, Banu Majid people from Yemen settled in the central Mogadishu area. Yaqut and Ibn Said described the city as an another important center of Islam, which actively traded with the Swahili-speaking Zanj region to the south of it. The thirteen century texts also mention mosques and individuals with names such as "al-Shirazi" and "al-Sirafi" and a clan called "Sirafi at Merca", suggestive of an early Persian presence in the area.
To the south of the Barbar region, Al-Masudi mentions seaborne trade from Oman and Siraf port near Shiraz to the Zanj coast, Sofala and Waq-Waq. Ibn Battuta would later visit the Kilwa Sultanate in the 14th century, which was at the time ruled by a Yemeni dynasty led by Sultan Hasan bin Sulayman. Battuta described the local Zanj (negro) inhabitants, who constituted the majority of Kilwa's residents, as "jet-black" in complexion and possessing facial tattoo marks.
Another set of records are found in the Book of the Zanj (Kitab al-Zanuj), an ostensible compilation of mythical oral traditions and memories of settled traders on the Swahili coast. The late 19th century document claims that Persians and Arabs were sent by governors of the Persian Gulf region to conquer and colonize this seaboard. It also mentions the establishment of the Shirazi dynasty by Madagan and Halawani Arab merchants, whose identity and roots are unclear. According to R. F. Morton, a critical assessment of the Book of the Zanj indicates that much of the document consists of deliberate falsifications by its author Fathili bin Omari, which were intended to invalidate the established oral traditions of local Bantu groups. The Kitab's ascription of Arabian origins for the founders of Malindi and other settlements on the Swahili coast is also contradicted by recorded 19th century clan and town traditions, which instead emphasize that these early Shirazi settlers were of Persian ancestral heritage.
The regional evidence, particularly the gold trading Sofala region of Mozambique, suggests that these Shirazi Persians and Arabs had become rulers of the mainland settlements and islands on the Swahili coast, such as Mafia and Kilwa. The migration of Muslims from diverse parts of Asia continued. According to Abdulaziz Lodhi, the Iranians and Arabs called the Swahili coast Zangistan or Zangibar, which literally means "the Black Coast", and the Muslim immigrants from South Asia (modern Pakistan and India) to southern Arabian lands such as Oman and Yemen identified themselves as a Shirazi. The Muslim Shirazi settlements on the Swahili coast maintained a close relationship with those on islands such as Comoros, through marriage and mercantile networks.
The contact of Shirazi people with colonial Europeans started with the arrival in Kilwa sultanate of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer, in 1498. Few years later, the Portuguese and Shirazi people entered into disputes regarding trading routes and rights particularly about gold, a conflict that destroyed both Kilwa and Mombasa port towns of Shirazi rulers. The Portuguese military power and direct trading with India in the beginning, followed by other European powers, led to a rapid decline of the Shirazi towns which thrived and depended primarily on the trade. In parallel to European competition, non-Swahili-speaking Bantu groups began attacking Shirazi towns in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Thus, the Shirazi sultanates faced war from sea and land, leading to a rapid loss of power and trading facilities. The Omani Arabs re-asserted their military in the seventeenth century, and they defeated the Portuguese in 1698, at Mombasa. The Portuguese agreed to cede this part of Africa, and a fresh migration of Arabs from Oman and Yemen into the Shirazi people settlements followed.
Some towns and islands have had a much larger concentration of Shirazi people. For example, in 1948, about 56% of the Zanzibar population reported Shirazi ancestry of Persian origins. In local elections, the Shirazi voted for whichever party was politically expedient, whether the ethnic minority-supported Zanzibar Nationalist Party or the mainland Tanzania-associated Afro-Shirazi Party.
Several stone ruins in Tanzania are attributed to old settlements dating from the Shirazi era. Among these edifices are the Tongoni and Kaole ruins, as well as those found on Tumbatu and Pemba islands.
Like the rest of the Swahili people, the Shirazi speak the Swahili language as a mother tongue. It belongs to the Bantu branch of the Niger-Congo family. However, the dialects of Swahili language is best described as a syncretic language, that blended Sabaki Bantu, Comoro, Pokomo, Iranian, Arabic and Indian words and structure reflecting the syncretic fusion of people from diverse backgrounds that form the Shirazi people.
According to Ethnologue, the Comorian Swahili variety is divided into four principal dialects: Ngazidja, Ndzwani, Maore and Mwawli. Ngazidja is spoken on the Grande Comore Autonomous Island, and has around 312,000 total speakers. Ndzwani is spoken on the Anjouan Autonomous Island, and has roughly 275,000 total speakers. Maore is spoken on the Comoros, Mayotte and Madagascar islands, and has an estimated 136,500 total speakers. Mwali is spoken on the Moheli Autonomous Island, and has about 28,700 total speakers.
Society and culture
The Shirazi people have primarily been a mercantile community, thriving on trade. Initially, between the 10th and 12th centuries, it was the gold producing regions of Mozambique that brought them to the coast of Africa. Later the trading in African slaves, ivory, spices, silk and produce from clove, coconut and other plantations run with slave labor became the mainstay of the trading activity. These Zanj slaves were mostly captured during inland raids, and their presence in Swahili towns is mentioned in fourteenth and fifteenth century memoirs of Islamic travelers such as that of the fourteenth century explorer Ibn Battuta. The Shirazi were a large supplier of these slaves to the colonial era European plantations and various Sultanates. According to August Nimtz, after international slave trading was banned, the Shirazi community was economically crippled.
The arrival of Islam with the Persians and Arabs affected the Shirazi identity and social structures in many ways. According to Helena Jerman, the word "Sawahil" among the Shirazi people referred to "free but landless" strata of the society who had adopted Islam, then a new social category on the Swahili coast. Among the Muslims, this was the lowest social strata of free people, just above the slave strata. Along with the Wa-shirazi strata, there were other strata, such as the Wa-arabu, Wa-manga, Wa-shihiri, Wa-shemali, and the noble pure Arab ruler category called Wa-ungwana. The social strata of the Shirazi people came with its own strata taboos and privileges. For example, the upper strata Waungwana (also called Swahili-Arabs) had the exclusive right to build prestigious stone houses, and Waungwana men practiced polygynous hypergamy, that is father children with low status and slave women. The ritual and sexual purity of the Waungwana women were maintained by confining them to certain premises within these houses, called Ndani.
According to Michel Ben Arrous and Lazare Ki-Zerbo, the Shirazi society has been "fractured by the caste implications of race and class". As the Arabs who arrived from Persia and Arabian lands became slave owners and traders, they considered their slaves as inferior and unfit for Islam. The slave girls were concubines, who bore them children. The male offsprings were consider Muslims, but the female offsprings inherited their slavery and their non-Muslim heritage. Even in post-colonial society, the residual dynamics and distinctions of a racial caste system has remained among some Shirazi people. According to the sociologist Jonas Ewald and other scholars, the social stratification is not limited in the Shirazi society to racial lines, but extended to their economic status and the region of origin.
The Shirazi culture is Islamic in nature, identifying largely with its Persian and Arabic roots. There are also Bantu influences, such as the Swahili language. Although all modern Shirazi are of dual Bantu and Persian heritage, they trace descent to the old Persian founders of Kilwa, and some have retained physical resemblances to this original Aryan stock. According to G. Thomas Burgess, Ali Sultan Issa and Seif Sharif Hamad, many labor migrants from the African mainland also claimed Shirazi identity in Zanzibar to obfuscate their slave origins or secure benefits such as landownership rights that were redistributed after colonialism ended.
According to genetic analysis by Msaidie et al. (2010), who sampled the uniparental DNA of the inhabitants of the Comoros archipelago (Grand Comore: 170 men, 67 women; Anjouan: 104 men, 69 women; Moheli: 107 men, 60 women), the most common paternal haplogroups among the Comorian Shirazi are E1b1a-M2 (41%) and E2-M90 (14%). These Y-DNA clades are frequent among other Bantu-speaking populations on the east African mainland, which points to shared origins. The remaining Comorians primarily carry the haplogroups E1b1b-V22, E1b1b-M123, F*(xF2, GHIJK), G2a, I, J1, J2, L1, Q1a3, R1*, R1a*, R1a1 and R2 (29.7%). Of these latter clades, the particular haplotypes that are found in Comoros were observed to be most closely related to those in South Iran. This suggests that these northern lineages were brought by early Shirazi merchants from Persia between 1200-1300 CE, as they established local trading posts on the Comoros islands. Around 6% of the Comorians also bear the O1 haplogroup, which indicates a minor Southeast Asian influence.
Maternally, the Comorians primarily belong to the L0, L1, L2 and L3′4(xMN) haplogroups (84.7%). These mtDNA clades are also common among other mainland Bantu populations and at roughly similar proportions. The rest of the Comorian population almost exclusively carries mitochondrial haplogroups associated with Southeast Asia (15.3%), with the B4a1a1-PM, F3b and M7c1c clades (10.6%) and the M(xD, E, M1, M2, M7) paragroup (4%) most frequent. Since no mtDNA haplogroups linked with the Middle East were observed, the gene flow from this region appears to have occurred through male-dominated trade and religious proselytisation.
According to Msaidie et al., admixture analysis of the maternal and paternal contributions in the Comoros sample indicates that the Comorian population was formed through tripartite gene flow over the last 2,000 years between Bantu populations in sub-Saharan coastal East Africa, settlers from Iran, and migrants from Southeast Asia. Consequently, most of the Comorian islanders' gene pool is estimated to have derived from Africa (72%), with significant contributions from Western Asia (17%) and Southeast Asia (11%). Overall, the Comorian Shirazi were found to be genetically similar to the Lemba, a Bantu-speaking population inhabiting southeast Africa. Since the Lemba have Semitic cultural traditions and Bantu, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian associated paternal lineages have also been detected among them, the scientists suggest that they and the Comorians may have evolved through parallel demographic processes.
- Shirazi era
- Shirazi, Kenya
- Afro-Shirazi Party
- Kilwa Sultanate
- Sultan al-Hasan ibn Sulaiman
- Tongoni Ruins
- Kizimkazi Mosque
- Zanj Empire
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According to oral tradition, beginning in the tenth century immigrants from the Shiraz region of Persia (now Iran) settled the islands and mainland ports of coastal East Africa, from Mogadishu, Somalia, in the north to the Sofala coast of Mozambique in the south. Many scholars, however, believe that the Shirazi actually began their settlement of the East Africa coast in the twelfth century and that they originated in Somalia.
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About 2,000 years ago Negroid Bantu and Nilotic groups pushed into the area of East Africa from the north and west in successive waves and displaced the Bushmanoid and other non-Negroid inhabitants of the area... The Shirazi, who were Islamized Persians, also arrived, and some towns, including Mombasa, came under Shirazi control for a time... Before the seventh century non-Negroid people are thought to have inhabited the coastal areas visited by the early traders. After the seventh century it is certain that the situation changed, for Negroid Africans were reported as inhabiting the coastal areas.
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"In the twelfth century more foreigners emigrated from diverse parts of the Persian Gulf and settled in Mogadishu, Brava and elsewhere on the Benadir and the coast of the Shungwaya country, the southern hinterland of Somalia remembered as the homeland of the Kashur. These foreigners developed the trade of Mogadishu, which rapidly rose to a position of pre-eminence. In particular, they opened up the gold trade with the Sofala country, which until then can only have been on a minor scale. In furtherance of the trade with the south some of these merchants, ancestors of whom came from the Persian Gulf and who were remembered as of 'Shirazi' origin, settled on the islands of Mafia and Kilwa, rapidly, it appears, achieving a position of dominance. By about AD 1200 they had established themselves as rulers.
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We reveal the Comoros population to be a genetic mosaic, the result of tripartite gene flow from the North, the East and the West. Admixture analysis of the maternal and paternal contributions indicates the gene pool to be predominately African (72%), with significant contributions from Western Asia (17%) and Southeast Asia (11%). Our study therefore provides the first unequivocal evidence that the Middle Eastern trade routes that developed along the East African coast, during the last 2 000 years, have left a genetic trace. Male and female SEA gene flow has already been described on Madagascar, in populations that speak Austronesian languages, 5,8 but here we show that this extends beyond Madagascar, into African populations speaking languages from the Bantu family. This raises the question of whether the demic migration from SEA reached the East African mainland. The frequencies of Y-Hg E-V22, E-M123, G2a, J1, J2, R1a1 and R2 in the Comorian sample are compatible with gene flow from Iran. 27,45 This concords withhistorical data which attests to the presence of traders from Shiraz in Iran on the Comoros, and also the Comorian's own oral traditions which recount that Shirazi princes came in ships and established colonies on the islands. On the island of Anjouan the term "Shirazi" is used to refer to someone of Middle Eastern appearance. There is historical evidence that 1 000 YBP Persian traders played an important role in trade along the East coast, and we therefore predict that an Iranian genetic signal will be detected among Swahili speakers at former Middle Eastern trading centres on the sub-Saharan East coast, such as the islands of Zanzibar and Kilwa off the coast of Tanzania. Interestingly, there are a number of similarities between the genetic profile of the Comoros islanders and the Lemba of South Africa, a Bantu speaking people whose Semitic origins are evident at both the cultural and genetic level. 15,59 The Lemba have high frequencies of the Middle Eastern Y chromosome HgJ-12f2a (25%), a potentially SEA Y, Hg-K(xPQR) (32%) and a Bantu Y, E-PN1 (30%) (similar to E-M2), raising the possibility that the Lemba and Comorian populations are consequences of similar demographic processes. The high-resolution genotyping of the Lemba Y chromosomes and mitochondria will elucidate this question. The Comoros and Madagascar show similarities in the paternal and maternal contribution from SEA and Africa. The absence of a strong Middle Eastern signal on Madagascar could be due to sampling bias, since Arab or Persian traders are known to have established posts on the Northwest coast of Madagascar, whereas only populations from the centre and South of Madagascar have been studied to date. 5,8 The low frequencies of E-M293 and A-M91, on both the Comoros and Madagascar, contrasts with the high frequency found in inland populations from Tanzania and Kenya, 13,38 and could be characteristics of a genetic profile specific to sub-Saharan coastal East Africa.
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ancient Arabic geography had quite a fixed pattern in listing the countries from the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean: These are al-Misr (Egypt) -- al-Muqurra (or other designations for Nubian kingdoms) -- al-Habasha (Abyssinia) -- Barbara (Berber, i.e. the Somali coast) -- Zanj (Azania, i.e. the country of the "blacks"). Correspondingly almost all these terms (or as I believe: all of them!) also appear in ancient and medieval Chinese geography.
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Al-Masudi, writing of the first half of the tenth century, refers to voyages on the sea of Zanj from Oman and Siraf; the latter, situated on the eastern side of the Persian Gulf and serving Shiraz and other towns in the interior, was the greatest port of its age. Al-Masudi himself sailed across this sea with shipowners and captains from Siraf, embarking at Suhar in Oman. The last occasion he voyaged across it, returning from the island of Qanbalu to Oman, was in AD 916/17. He describes the goal of these voyages to have been this island, estimated as around 500 farsakhs (approx. 1,400 nautical miles) from Oman, and the country of Sufala and the Waq-Waq. Buzurg (a contemporary of Mas'udi) states that the place where ships normally went on to in the Zanj country was 800 farsakhs from Qanbalu (here 'Zanj' seems to be used in the general sense), but sometimes ships were carried down to the cannibal country 1,500 farsakhs from Qanbalu. This indicates that trade was carried on as far south as the lower Mozambique coast.
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Shirazi did not vote as a bloc; they split over which community -- Arabs or mainlanders -- presented a more natural ally.
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In the traditional centers of Swahili culture most Muslims adhere to the Shafi madhab, within Sunni Islam.
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There are probably no Shirazi of unmixed blood left, and the word "Wambwera" is obviously derived from the name of a district on the coast; but there is no reason to doubt that these people are the descendants of the old Persians who founded Kilwa. They exhibit even to-day features which though often quite dark are almost of an Aryan type, and are quite distinct from those of the Bantu negro.
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Many Africans claimed Shirazi identity to obscure their slave ancestry, to mark their status as landowners, or to gain access to World War II rations distributed by the colonial state along ethnic lines. To complicate matters further, the Shirazi usually regard themselves as primarily of Persian ancestry. If it is not always clear what the label represents in a positive sense, its negative claims are more consistent: Shirazi are neither Arabs nor "mainlanders" -- recent labor migrants from the African mainland.
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- Spear, Thomas (1984). "The Shirazi in Swahili Traditions, Culture, and History". History in Africa. African Studies Association. 11: 291–305. doi:10.2307/3171638. JSTOR 3171638.