University of Bergen


Linking global cities; tracing local practices Islamic literature and networks in the South-Western Indian Ocean, 1800-2000
The Indian Ocean Programme: Hadrami diaspora: migration of people, commodities and idea
Trade, migration and cultural change in the Indian Ocean
The Sufi heritage of Ahmad b. Idris and his students
A Muslim intellectual elite: Innovation and leadership in the Sudanese tradition
Arabic Literature of Africa
Timbuktu manuscripts project
Islams in Norway
Protestant Missions

The Indian Ocean focus grew up, partly from the Sudan milieu, partly from independent research on East Africa and South-East Asia in the late 1990s. Its main bases has been in Anthropology, History as well as Archaeology which has been active in East African studies for some time. Within this area, two independent larger projects with external funding has taken place, one from Anthropology until 2000; the other in History starting as the first came to an end.

Linking global cities; tracing local practices
Islamic literature and networks in the South-Western Indian Ocean, 1800-2000

NFR PROJECT 178634/V20

The religion of Islam is the paramount unifying feature of the port cities of the western Indian Ocean. In the past decade, a series of studies have viewed the Indian Ocean rim as a global world linked through persistent cultural contact, the religion of Islam and, later, the emergence of European colonialism. These studies have applied the concept of translocality, both as overarching research perspective and as reference to empirical realities. Furthermore, they have analyzed movements of people, goods and ideas between the port cities of the Indian Ocean, specifically with a view to the inter-civilizational encounters and ensuing cultural change. The result is the emerging field of Indian Ocean studies, which in turn address the ongoing debate on globalization.
Through detailed study of new sources deriving from northern Mozambique and coastal South Africa, this new project will fill lacunae in the empirical knowledge about Swahili regional identity and the spread of Islam through networks of learning. The project, funded by the Research Council of Norway, will produce fresh knowledge about Islamic literature and learning in South-Eastern Africa and link the missing cities in a string of ports and work towards a completion of a chain.

Ass. Prof/Researcher Anne K. Bang, University of Bergen
Prof. R. Sean O'Fahey, Department of History, University of Bergen
Elke Stockreiter, School of Oriental and African Studies/University of Bergen Prof. Abdul Sharif, Zanzibar Indian Ocean Research Institute
Ass. Professor Jeremy Prestholt, University of California, San Diego


The Indian Ocean Programme: Hadrami diaspora: migration of people, commodities and idea
This research project, which was carried out 1996-2000, focused on several major themes around Hadramaut in South Yemen and the migrations from to areas around the Indian Ocean. One relates to the formation of diaspora communities and the links between the diaspora and the home areas of Hadramaut. A second focus is on the major trade systems and the organization of trade across the Indian Ocean, including themes such as transport, credit relationships, the solution of conflicts etc. Thirdly the spread of Islam throughout this region, both mediated by migrants, traders and Muslim scholars, helped spread the Shafi'i school of Islam, introducing not only a new faith, but also a new platform for organising communities and their activities. A fourth research theme is the study of loanwords as evidence for culture contact, with particular emphasis on Swahili, Somali, Indonesian and Urdu loanwords in the Arabic dialect of Hadramaut.

The conceptual challenge of the programme is how to deal with the Indian Ocean in the 'long durée'. Links across the ocean date back to the first and second millennium BC, and such links have provided links between early communities and state formations earlier conceived as being fairly isolated. In this perspective studies on technologies for travelling and for communication have been important. MiniatyrThis field affects both the way the Hadramis could travel on their migration and what it took to undertake such a travel, but also how and what type of links could be maintained between the Hadrami migrants in the diaspora and the communities back home. One important part of this brings us to the history of navigation in the Indian Ocean and the importance of the monsoon to the earlier phases of such navigation, compared to later technologies based on steamships and air traffic. Such links of communications did not only bring people around the region. Central was also the flow of commodities, coffee from Yemen, spices from India and South East Asia, slaves from East Africa, dried fish from Shihir, and also the considerable business involved in transporting people going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Hence issues such as the availability of trade capital, the ability to organize trading houses in rational ways and dealing with the issue of information about markets far away become central operational challenges.

The travelling of people also implied travelling of Islamic missionaries and the propagation for the Shafi'i school of Islam. The dominance of this law school throughout the Indian Ocean is intimately linked to the migration history of the Hadramis that we are dealing with. Thus there is a need to focus on such intellectual networks and how Islamic teachers have maintained links to each other across the ocean, and how they have related to local populations, be they fellow Hadramis or other Muslims. Of particular importance in the historical studies is the role played by the 'neo-Sufi brotherhoods' around the region.
Moving towards the question of diaspora adaptation itself, and how the Hadramis experience this adaptation, the programme has approached this question through comparative research of particular histories of diaspora formation. Cases studies have been undertaken in Hyderabad, in Singapore, in the Sudan and in southern Ethiopia, to see the extent to which we can catch similarities in experiences across time and space, but also between different groups and individuals in different economic and social positions in society.

It is this wider cultural historical perspective that the study of loanwards becomes of particular relevance, in order to document effects of the various phases of culture contact that have been indicated above.

The four-year project concluded with a conference in Bergen in December 2000.
Involved in project are, from Bergen:

Leif Manger, R.S. O'Fahey, Anders Bjørkelo, Anne K. Bang;
Anthropology students
Helle Silva (Mozambique Island), Kjell Hausman (Hadramaut), Jorid Tveita (Comoro Islands).
Outside collaborators include
Ulrike Freitag, London, Sylvain Camelin, Paris, Samia el Hadi el Naqar, Khartoum, N. Sudhakar Rao, Hyderabad, Mikhail Rodionov, St. Petersburg, Abdul Sheriff, Zanzibar; and in Hadramaut: Mustafa Aydarus and Mohamed Said.

Trade, migration and cultural change in the Indian Ocean
Archaeological and local written sources enable us to discover trade- and migration networks across the Indian Ocean extending from the Middle East to East Africa, to India and Indonesia and further east as early as 2000 BC. Similarly, material from Tamil and Chinese sources give a new understanding of the early history of Indian Ocean. From the first century AD we find networks which closely resemble the later Arab trade- and migration networks. On this background, it seems fruitful to discard the previous division between the pre-Islamic and the Islamic period, as well as the division supposedly caused by the coming of the Portuguese.

The emergence of Islam in the seventh century and the subsequent spread of Arab-Islamic culture across the Indian Ocean brought a new dimension and intensity to already established networks. More specifically, the regions to the south and east of Arabia became linked for the first time through a common religion, Islam, and through the adoption of elements from Arab culture. On the eastern shores of the Indian Ocean and deep into Central Asia Buddhism spreading from India played a similar uniting role. As the Arab-Muslim networks spread it was not long before Islam started to replace Buddhism in some areas. A comparison between functions of these two religions in the creation of over-seas trading networks will definitively underline the broad perspective of this project. The establishment of Arab trade posts in seaports around the Indian Ocean was essential. There emerged an Arab diaspora bound together through trade links, marriage ties and travelling students and scholars. The uniting force of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca should also be included in the analysis. The Swahili culture on the east coast of Africa is one such result of Arab migration.

The overall aim of the project is to come to a better understanding of the connection between trade, migration and cultural change. Knowledge about commercial activities can be gained from archaeological evidence and written sources. We believe further that if one can reconstruct the trans-oceanic commercial links then one can also draw some conclusions about migration patterns. Then comes the question of who migrated, did they bring their families and how did they gain a living abroad. When we know the answers to these questions we may also be able to say something about the economic and cultural impact of migration.

The project will run 2001-2003.

Individual projects

  • Christian Meyer: 'Non-Greco-Roman networks in the Indian Ocean before Islam'.
  • Anders Bjørkelo: 'The financing and organisation of coastal and transoceanic trade in East Africa, South Arabia and India in the nineteenth century'.
  • Anne Bang: 'Integration or cosmpolitication? Family history and identity in East Africa and South Arabia c. 1850-1945'.
  • Eivind Seland: 'Indian Ocean in Antiquity: Trade and the emerging state'.
  • R.S. O'Fahey: 'Islamic Literature and Culture in Eastern Africa'.
  • Leif Manger.


Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (SMI)
Phone + 47 55 58 26 47, fax + 47 55 58 98 91, e-mail: post@smi.uib.no
Postal address: SMI, University of Bergen. PO Box 7800 Bergen, Norway
Visiting address: SMI, 5th floor , Stein Rokkans Hus, Nygårdsgaten 5, 5015 Bergen