Muhammad Idris Muhammad Saleh (Maalim Idris): 1934-2012

12 June 2012

By Anne K Bang, Bergen

Muhammad Idris Muhammad Saleh died in Zanzibar on March 5th 2012, aged 78. Known locally as Maalim Idris (or Maalim Idrisa), his impact on the Zanzibari community was first and foremost as a religious leader and a teacher, but also as a keeper of the history of Islamic scholarship in East Africa, a writer and as a collector. Maalim Idris was born into a Comorian family in Zanzibar, a group that was well represented among the educated classes both in the Bū Saʿīdī times and in the colonial era. His father was a teacher and a schoolmaster, and Maalim Idris followed the same path after first receiving both a secular and a religious education. After graduating from Zanzibar Teacher Training College in the 1950s, Maalim Idris spent his active career teaching in several different schools on Unguja, while also working as a madrasa teacher.  Following retirement in the 1980s, he took a more active role in the Rahma Mosque in the Shangani quarter in Stone Town, and in 1985 he became the Imam there. He was also instrumental in developing the madrasa of that mosque, drawing children and youngsters from the neighbourhood and beyond. Maalim’s concern for the next generation and for education ran deep also in his work in the madrasa, and he was known to introduce unconventional subjects on occasion, for example French instruction in the 1990s. In the past decade, he was also introducing computer classes for boys and girls in the madrasa. Connected to his religious educational efforts, he also ran “The Islamic Madrasa Relief Organization” which offered assistance to orphans, organized youth activities and funded religious education in poorer areas of Zanzibar. Another example of his community involvement was his role in the Mwinye Baraka Foundation, which is a charitable organization named after Islamic scholar Mwinye Baraka (Sayyid Umar Abdallah, 1917-1988).


From the point of view of Islamic history, Maalim Idris’s greatest impact was undoubtedly as a collector of items pertaining to the Zanzibar and East African past. His growing, and eventually, substantial collection, combined with his willingness to share material with all those interested in the subject, made his apartment a well-known centre for local and foreign academics alike. I was fortunate enough to be one of them. Research periods in Zanzibar always included the “morning reports” in Maalim Idris’ apartment, with coffee and discussions over anything from the endless twists of Zanzibar politics, to international events, the price of rice and petrol to East African Islamic history. Occasionally, I would revisit a question from the day before, and Maalim would get up and say “Yes, about that; I found something …” and hand me a document that I had thought unobtainable – clearly from somewhere in the deep corners of in his collection. To the historian, the manuscripts, books and other textual material that were in his possession, are obviously valuable as historical sources. This is particularly so in a society that, due to the 1964 revolution and the exodus of many of the scholarly families from the islands, has much less textual material than could be expected given the history of Zanzibar as a scholarly center. For example, the Sumayṭ family left in 1965, taking with them the entire library of the father and son Ahmad and Umar b. Sumayṭ, both of them former chief Qadis and prominent Muslim scholars. Other libraries went to Europe or the Gulf, either with the families that left, or later, by other means. In some cases, manuscripts were simply buried or burnt.


Among the most important items in Maalim Idris’s collection are c. 30 manuscripts dating from 1860 to 1910. These are both Ibāḍī and Shāfiʿī and contain poetry, mawlids, legal material, grammatical works, medicine and (at least) two Qurans, all of them in Arabic. Some are locally authored, others are locally produced copies of standard works, while others, in turn, are imported from the Middle East during the late 19th century. In Zanzibar itself, the manuscripts come from different collections, but some of them must, by internal evidence, have belonged to the Zanzibari-Comorian scholar and teacher Burhān Mkelle (1884-1949). In addition, the collection contains several more recent manuscripts, both in Swahili (including ajami Swahili) and Arabic, testimony to the continued Islamic scholarly tradition in Zanzibar in the first half of the 20th century. Finally, the collection consists of an unknown number of books, again previously the property of famous Islamic scholars like Burhan Mkelle and Said b. Dahman (1877-1926), with their personal inscriptions, notes and waqfiyyas. Finally, among the sources pertaining to Islamic scholars can also be found letters, leaflets, prints and newspaper clips that are time-consuming – and in some cases impossible - to locate elsewhere. It is the totality, and not only the oldest and most spectacular manuscripts, that makes this collection an important one for scholars of Islam in East Africa. In the past decade, several works have been published by East African, Japanese and European researchers that refer to material in Maalim Idris’s collection, my own works included.

However, Maalim Idris himself saw the collection not merely as a source for academic books and dissertations. As he pointed out, what was left of Islamic manuscripts in Zanzibar has either been deposited in the Zanzibar National Archives, or remain in unknown private hands, neither of which ensures immediate accessibility, especially for non-specialists. Showing his true educationalist colors, Maalim Idris used to say that he had collected the material “for the young people”, for them to be able to access their history, with a clear reference to a chain of knowledge transmission that was broken during the 1960s and 70s. His view was that the young generation of Zanzibaris should know the full extent of their history, including the Islamic aspect that, in his view, had been partly eradicated.

Now, when Maalim Idris is no longer with us, we can only hope that his dream will be realized and that the tradition which he spent the better part of his life collecting will be incorporated into the wider, multi-stranded remains of the Zanzibari past and made available to all.

Below is a video of a discussion with Muhammad Idris Muhammad Saleh:


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