Joseph Wandera. Africa Today. Volume 61, Issue 3. Spring 2015.
The global resurgence of religion is a well-documented phenomenon in religious scholarship (Berger 1999; Martin 1999; Stark and Bainbridge 1985). The renewed religious vitality experienced today in various forms is a global phenomenon, defying the assumption that the impact of the enlightenment and modernization would eventually relegate religion to the private sphere. The underlying causes of this resurgence vary from place to place, but its effects are experienced through competition in the public square, in which religions are engaged with each other and with secular society.
Since the 1980s, this claim on public space by religious actors, including public preachers, is remarkably strong in East Africa. Although Kenya is a secular state with constitutionally enshrined freedom of worship, religion continues to be present in the public sphere, functioning as a key framework for communal life. This article addresses the issue of the growing relevance of religion in Kenya’s public sphere, as witnessed through religious polemics by Muslims and Pentecostal Christians.
Muslims in Kenya form a significant religious minority: they constitute between 10 and 15 percent of the population (Oded 2000:1). Before the coming of Islam to East Africa, there were trading contacts between East Africa and Western Asia. The East African coast formed the western littoral of the Indian Ocean and was an important destination in the monsoon-based trade (Horton 1996:414-18; Horton and Middleton 2000:72-78). It was in this context that Islam entered the coast of East Africa. Archaeologists have discovered the presence of a mosque and Muslim burial sites at Shanga in the Lamu archipelago (off the eastern coast of Kenya) dated between the years 780 and 850 (Pouwels and Nehemia 2000:252); trading activities at the coast reached a climax between 1000 and 1500 (Pouwels and Nehemia 2000:253). By 1300, Islam had transformed and incorporated the East African coast into the Islamic religious and cultural world. Ibn Battuta visited Kilwa, one of the Swahili coastal towns, in the fourteenth century and observed that it was occupied by Muslims and ruled by a sultan (Gibb 1956:380-81).
Sufi orders (turuq) were active in the spread of Islam in East Africa (Nimtz 1980). Among the earliest were the Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya, and Shadiliyya brotherhoods. In Bagamoyo, north of Dar es Salam, for example, the Qadiriyya, which today is probably the largest, began its activities in 1905. Under the leadership of Khalif Yahya bin Abdallah, of slave origin and generally known as Shaykh Ramiya, this brotherhood expanded in the area around Bagamoyo and Tanga and further north. In the west, Sheikh Ramiya’s influence was felt as far as Ujiji on Lake Tanganyika (Lodhi and Westerlund 1999). On the dhikr as practiced in Bagamoyo, Nimtz records: “The male murids meet with the Shaykh twice a week on Thursday and Sunday evenings. It is a ceremony that consists of reading and chanting, rhythmic swaying [,] and a respiratory exercise that results in hyperventilation” (1980:127). Further, the Qa- diriyya were a “noisy” order, whose forms of devotion were familiar to Africans. In this way, they presented Islam, using familiar aspects of an unfamiliar religion.
Mumias, lying in the interior of Kenya, experienced one of the earliest contacts between Islam and Christianity in Kenya. The coming of Islam to Mumias was followed by the arrival of Christian mission groups from Europe and the United States. Today, there are various Muslim and Christian groups in Mumias, with more than twenty mosques and forty-seven different Pentecostal denominations within Mumias town. Other religious groups around Mumias include Roman Catholics, the Anglican Church of Kenya, the Church of God, and the Salvation Army. Christian mission groups engage in proselytization, which Muslims notice quickly and respond to with outreach activities (Loimeier and Rudiger 2006).
Events in East Africa in general and Kenya in particular have brought Islam into the limelight. Horrific events, such as the August 1998 twin bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam, the 2014 attack on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, and other global attacks carried out by Islamic militants, have led the media to portray Islam negatively, as a religious tradition that promotes terror, causing Muslims to defend their religion as one that stands for peace. The public presence of Islam in Kenya is evident in the increased attention to religious observance, including prayer, fasting, dress, pilgrimage, and Islamic banking. Like the churches, Muslim bodies, such as the Supreme Council of Kenya Muslims (Supkem) and other Muslim institutions, have been outspoken on a variety of issues, including the hijb (worn by female Muslim students) and the general marginalization of Kenyan Muslims.
Individual Muslim leaders in general and preachers in particular are not necessarily representative of the larger groups to which they belong. This is particularly true with leaders who claim to have religious experiences directly with the divine, lending a specific personal charisma to their activities. This article approaches Muslim public preachers not merely as participants of larger social groups, but also as individuals. This individualist aspect is obtained by examining the preachers’ life stories, focusing on their formative influences. This analysis identifies how these preachers approach the notion of religious experience within their respective traditions, and how this experience influences their sermons. It closely examines the nature of the sermons, focusing on the use of space, texts, and themes, including rhetorical approaches.
This article approaches the discussion of religion in the public sphere for purposes of analyzing the contemporary revival of religion. This approach can be useful in explaining the contemporary resurgence of religion in its complex and variant dimensions (Casanova 1994; Ellis and ter Har 1998). “The role of religion in public life seemed a more neutral approach to a complex and sensitive phenomenon,” which has dominated public life since the 1970s (Tayob 2011:1). Public Islam is a discourse within a new space where ideas are presented and developed (Tayob 2011:2) and which includes open air markets, streets, and stadiums.
The significant influence of Habermas on public debates in Muslim societies is well known. His framework has been useful in providing an understanding of the resurgence of religion; however, he dwells on rational and political conditions under which religions operate. Generally, religious discourses are not guided by rationality and democracy alone. I approach public preaching in Islam as a form of Da’wah, going beyond the limitations of previous approaches, which analyzed public Islam as politics. This analysis reflects more critically on the religious practices within public Islam.
The term Da’wah has acquired multiple meanings in the history of Islam. It can denote ‘call’, ‘invite’, ‘persuade’, ‘pray’, ‘invoke’, ‘bless’, ‘demand’, and ‘achieve’ (Westerlund 2004:170); however, it is mainly thought of as religious outreach for purposes of conversion or bringing lapsed Muslims back into the faith. Kerr corroborates the above understanding of the term and states that it is derived from the verb da’a ‘to call’, of which da’i, the active participle, is “one who calls or invites” (Kerr 2000:151; see Esposito 1988:71). A theological definition is: “the effort by the Muslim to enable other men to share and benefit from the supreme vision, the religious truth, which he has appropriated. In this respect, it is rationally necessary, for truth wants to be known” (Faruqi 1976: 391).
In the Qur’an, “God summons us to the abode of Peace” (10:25) and calls on humans to worship and believe in him (14:10). Muhammad is called God’s caller or God’s inviter, da- ‘i-yaila-allah (4:31). Ordinary believers are equally charged with the responsibility of Da’wah (Qur’an 3:104).
In the past, Da’wah accompanied commercial ventures and military conquests (Esposito 2003:64). It was a caliph’s role to extend authority over Muslims outside Islamic lands and enhance Islamic unity. In the twentieth century, “Da’wah has become the foundation for social, economic, political, and cultural activities[,] as well as domestic and foreign policy; justification for breaking away from the secular order of [the] colonial west; legitimization for claims to independent authority within the nation state; and a call to membership in the righteous Islamic community” (Esposito 2003:64). Thus, whether understood from the standpoint of the study of religion or from a more theological perspective, the understanding and practice of Da’wah entails crossing frontiers and working within the public domain.
By focusing on preaching as Da’wah, I hope to extend the understanding of religion in the public sphere beyond the political and sociological approaches. Such analysis is a departure from previous discussions on the public sphere, which have not given sufficient attention to the role of religion in public life. Previous scholarship on the public sphere has yielded good data by showing the role of new media and how this has opened up access to religious texts and increased the role of nonspecialists in widening the scope of participation in public Islam (Salvatore and Eickelman 2004). Through the liberalization of the mass media, it has become possible to share ideas based on religious texts across countries and throughout the world. Such open accessibility to religious texts has enabled people who have not studied religious sciences to participate in public interreligious debate. Several studies have treated the political and social contexts of religious practices. Soares has demonstrated how colonial policies in West Africa shaped spaces for Muslim political and social activities and how Islam lost out on its independent political capital (2005, 2006). In the same context, Haynes, in his study of Islam and politics in East Africa, confined himself to the “political significance of domestic and transnational Islamic militancy in East African countries” (Haynes 2006:490). Within the immediate context of this research, Mwakimako has studied the engagements of Muslims in political debate, especially on the contestation regarding the appointment of a Kadhi in Mumias. He concluded, “The ultimate power that accorded authority to the Kadhi during the colonial period was the colonial state” (Haynes 2006:440).
The effects of modern mass media and technology on religious debates cannot be dismissed, nor can the effects of modern liberal political trends on access to information and engagement in public debate be ignored. These perspectives contribute to an understanding of the conditions under which public religious discourses are now taking place and how these conditions stimulate contestation; however, these perspectives do not enable scholars to analyze a variety of religious expressions. Although this analysis has taken cognizance of the political and social contexts of the sermons, it is more concerned with identifying clearly what is taking place within these religious practices. This article, therefore, is extending the scholarship on religion in the public sphere, from the focus on mass media and technology to other forms of preaching.
Previous studies have treated sermons in various contexts (Antoun 1989; Chanfi 2008a, 2008b; Chesworth 2006; Gaffney 1988; Larkin 2008; Loimeier and Rudiger 2006; Tayob 1999) and show how various contexts throughout history have influenced preachers. Such contexts have been both ideological and religious. The writers, as a result of their focus on these contexts, approach sermons as fluid and always subject to transformation, being continuous with tradition. In this way, preachers are presented as transmitters of tradition, in accordance with ritual, religious, and mystical dimensions; however, in passing on traditions, preachers reinterpret the message in the light of prevailing conditions. In all works surveyed, there seems to be a tension between preachers’ engagements with tradition and the influence of modernity.
Individual religious leaders in general and preachers in particular do not necessarily represent the larger groups of which they are a part. This is especially true with religious leadership that lays claim to religious experience. Thus, this article approaches the public preachers from the perspective of their individuality. It examines their life stories, focusing on their formative influences, and shows how preachers approach the notion of religious experience within their own traditions.
Formal Islamic sermons have received some scholarly attention (Antoun 1994; Gaffney1994; Tayob 1999). Analyses of the content, form, and style of Friday sermons show how Friday sermons contributed to revivalism in public life and the institutions within which they emerged; however, such analyses have left public sermons (mihadhara) out of their focus. This article complements previous research carried out on preaching outside the formal traditional contexts.
Brian Larkin has reflected on how the preaching of Muslim polemicist Ahmed Deedat emerged in a context of “Christian televangelists in the 1970’s” (2008:101), and the influence of Ahmed Deedat (1918-2005) on public preachers in East Africa has been noted (Chesworth 2006:172; Westerlund 1997:101). Deedat, a Muslim of Indian origin, accompanied his father and settled in Durban, South Africa, early in the twentieth century, where he encountered Christian missionaries who challenged him about Islam. His pamphlets first appeared on the East African scene in the 1960s (Chesworth 2006:172).
The origins of public preaching in East Africa can be traced to around 1986. In Tanzania, “Muslims began to employ references to the Bible, a strategy that was influenced by a visit of Ahmed Deedat in 1981” (Loimeier 2007:145). Deedat’s method of preaching influenced other Muslim preachers, such as Ustadh Ngariba Mussa Fundi (d.1993), a founder of the Muslim Preachers Movement in East Africa, and Kawemba Mohammed Ali (Westerlund 2003:101). From Tanzania, public preaching spread to Kenya in the late 1980s.
Similar to the South African context, the open-air preaching movement in East Africa can be understood as a response to the emergence of Pentecostal churches there (Loimeier 2007:145). The same applies to western Kenya, which has a strong history of Pentecostal churches, whose preachers engage in considerable polemical preaching.
There have been some studies on conversion. Gauri Viswanathan, in his book Outside the Fold, notes, “not only does conversion alter the demographic equation within a society and produce numerical imbalances”: it “challenges an established community’s assent to religious doctrines and practices,” threatening its cohesion (Viswanathan 2008:xi). As we note in this discussion, both Christian and Muslim preachers have had conversion experiences that have influenced their activities.
The Preachers and Their Sermons
This article focuses on the three most active preachers during the research period. An examination of their life stories notes their place of birth, families, and educational and religious backgrounds. In this section, we discuss their particular journeys toward Islam and how these ushered them into their public engagements. Eighteen sermons were recorded. This article focuses on three, given by Ali Kizibwa, Muhammed Wangulu, and Hassan Ngashe.
In the period of this study, Kizibwa preached for four consecutive days in Mumias: his sermons were critical of the Christian tradition and attracted the attention not only of Christians, but of the police. Wangulu and Ngashe preached for one day each, but their sermons were extensive.
This article then turns to sermons given by the three preachers between November 2009 and November 2012. It examines them, their audiences, and the ways in which the preachers presented them. It analyzes the themes emerging from the sermons, including theological matters and ritual and social issues. Occasionally, these themes touched on national issues, such as the debate on Kadhis courts in Kenya, but mostly they contributed to drawing a sharp distinction between Muslims and Christians in the country and the region. The preachers debated matters that divided Muslims and Christians, always attempting to argue that Islam was the absolute truth in all aspects.
The sermons are a form of polemical Da’wah in the style of Ahmed Deedat, but they contain peculiar approaches to the Bible. They do not all use the Bible the same way. Some use it to support Qur’anic positions, but others are more forceful in rejecting its validity. This special approach to the Bible is a main concern of this article. It demonstrates a specific articulation of Da’wah in Mumias, in which preachers rely upon the Bible to dispute with Christians, leading to a drawing of religious boundaries between themselves and Christians. Sometimes the activity leads to confrontation with the secular Kenyan state. Public preachers exemplify a new religious authority. Unlike the ulama, all those interviewed were former Christians who had converted to Islam. They have no training in religious sciences, and so base their authority on extensive use of biblical texts and their claim to extraordinary religious experiences that confirm their calling and their mission to convert other Christians. Highlighting their experiential encounters, they move from place to place to preach Islam mainly by using the Bible.
In Mumias, I recorded thirty-seven sermons and interviewed eighteen preachers and sixteen members of their audiences. The preaching experiences were varied. Some preachers have been preaching for more than ten years, but others were under a form of apprenticeship organized by the more experienced preachers. The preachers in training lived with more experienced preachers, who taught them specific texts of the Bible and how to critique common Christian beliefs and objections to Islam. This training involved memorization of biblical texts and observation of the more established preachers engaged in preaching. It is this form of training and the subsequent preaching activities that accorded the preachers authority. The more experienced preachers were given more time by the moderators of the sessions to address the audience, but those less experienced observed or contributed in minor ways to a preaching event (mhadhara). The latter preachers were briefly introduced to the audience with the promise that they would be preaching on other occasions.
All eighteen preachers were youthful males aged between twenty five to forty years. All except Ali Kizibwa were married and had children. All had attained education up to secondary level but had not found formal gainful employment. In addition to the financial support they raised from their audiences, some were engaged in small commercial activities to support their families. Public preachers were well-known in the places they visited. They interacted easily with local people, with some of them calling out their names and stating how much they had looked forward to the mihadhara.
Ali Kizibwa was born in 1986 in Malindi, a predominantly Muslim region, but was nurtured within a strict Baptist tradition. His parents worshipped at the local Baptist church and ensured that their son attended children’s services there. He recollected how as a boy he participated in singing, acting, reciting biblical verses from memory, and other activities on Sundays. He stated that the desire to meet his playmates every Sunday at the church was a strong motivation for his regular attendance. He easily remembers songs they used to sing as children in church. Clearly, he was well grounded in this tradition from a tender age. When he reached the age of twelve, he began attending the youth services at his church, where he served as a choir teacher, first in the youth service, and later in the services for adults.
Ali Kizibwa converted from Christianity to Islam following two distinct religious experiences, which took place while he was in Mombasa. At the age of fourteen, he was transported in a dream to the inside of a mosque in Mecca:
The bicycle I used to supply paint was the one with which I was carried up to Mecca. I entered the mosque up to the black stone and was transported the same night back to Mombasa. (Ali Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010)
During a second religious experience, he said he had been transported from Mombasa to his hometown of Malindi. While there, he was introduced to a large gathering of people and heard a voice telling him “this will be your work in good times or bad times.” At first, he was terrified by these experiences. He broke down into uncontrollable tears, praying that God would rescue him from these tormenting experiences. After spending three hours in intense prayer, he was persuaded that the voice he had heard was from a heavenly being, most likely an angel. When asked if his religious experiences could be likened to those of the prophet Muhammed, he was quick to respond: “while mine was a dream, Muhammed’s was real.” However, he stated that, like Muhammed’s experience, his encounter marked the turning point of his life, transforming him from being a Christian to a Muslim. He was now persuaded that he was in the wrong religious tradition and needed to convert to the truthful tradition, Islam.
Ali Kizibwa went to a mosque in Manyatta in Mombasa and formally converted to Islam. Ahmed Mwanza, the imam at this mosque, asked him to recite the shahada (witness to Islam) after him, which he did, thus converting to Islam. It was at this point that he changed his first name, from Andrew to Ali. He stated that his conversion to Islam was the most important decision he had ever made. He observed that his conversion had given him peace and purpose. Immediately after his conversion, he underwent the Islamic rite of circumcision. Ahmed Mwanza, the imam at Manyatta, linked him to his fellow imam at Sakina Mosque, requesting that he be accommodated there while he was recuperating from the surgery. He was supported financially by benevolent Muslims who had learned about his conversion. These Muslims ensured that he was properly fed, contributed money for his upkeep, and encouraged him to be committed to his newly found religion (dini). He stated that following the social support he had received, he felt “at home” with the decision he had made to convert. He was convinced that these Muslims were now his new family of faith, on whom he would rely in case of any social problems.
Later, Kizibwa was directed to Uhuru gardens in Mombasa, where he found two public preachers. One of them, called Matano, upon learning about Kizibwa’s conversion, invited him to his house. He provided hospitality to him and volunteered to train him in the work of Da’wah. Ali Kizibwa recollected how biblically knowledgeable Matano was: “Matano taught me how to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation” (Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010). He added that Matano had a strong “memory capacity” and could recite the entire Bible without reading. It was under the tutelage of Matano that Kizibwa developed his skills in preaching, using the Bible. It was also then that he learned how to counter the central doctrines of Christianity. He explained that his host had taught him how to begin an argument in a mhadhara and build it up to winning level. Matano also had taught him the more common objections Christians raised about the Muslim use of the Bible. He denied having read any of Ahmed Deedat’s works. He stated that Deedat’s approaches to public engagements were overtaken by events, as Christians now posed more difficult questions to Muslims. This objection to the influence of Deedat upon the preachers may be due to a desire on the preachers’ part to portray their sermons as authentic as and more modern than Deedat’s.
Muhammed Wangulu’s biography also points to his conversion. Wangulu was born in 1976 at Ebuhuyi village in Matungu District, near Mumias. His parents were staunch Roman Catholics, and so the boy was influenced to be active at his church. He became an altar boy and assisted the local priest in practical aspects of preparation for the mass. Upon completion of primary schooling at the age of fourteen, he fell sick with malaria. Despite using appropriate drugs, he did not get well. Later, he experienced pain and numbness in his legs, which developed into complete paralysis. Christian groups offered prayers to heal him, but to no avail. At the same time, he began “hearing strange voices” while asleep. He saw visions of people wearing Islamic dress (kanzus) and beating drums while singing and dancing. The local Catholic evangelist asked the family to trust in God for healing. Still worried, and feeling dejected, the family through one of the boy’s uncles, a Muslim, turned to the local imam, who offered prayers and invited the family to embrace Islam. It was then that Muhammed Wangulu converted to Islam. He recollected how he “felt a sense of inner peace” after his conversion. Eventually, he was healed of his ailment without visiting any other medical facility. He attributed this healing to his decision to convert to Islam. Later, after listening to public preachers in Kakamega town, near Mumias, he developed an interest in Da’wah and was invited by one of the preachers to an apprenticeship in Kakamega.
Hassan Ngashe was born in 1971 in Ogallo, also at Ebuhuyi. His father was a Roman Catholic; his mother, a Muslim. Like most children in Luhya culture, he identified with his father’s religious tradition; however, his father converted to Islam, influencing his son to follow suit. He traced the beginning of this journey toward becoming a preacher to his father’s conversion and a subsequent spiritual crisis. Before his conversion, a major Christian crusade had been organized in Kisumu by a visiting American evangelist known as Timothy Larry. Ngashe reported how Christians from his village had attended this meeting and returned home full of stories of how “God had transformed lives” at this crusade, including miraculously healing the physically deformed. On the evening that Ngashe was contemplating converting to Christianity, he “had a new feeling” in his heart-that Islam was the right religion. This experience took place on an evening after his routine prayers.
Several characteristics emerging from the preachers’ biographies merit reflection. First, the preachers were all former Christians. Second, they claimed to have had religious experiences, many in dreams, before their conversions. Finally, they had been affected by the Bible in their religious formation.
The preachers’ Christian backgrounds are important as a way of understanding the interreligious nature of Kenyan society, where Muslims and Christians live side by side. In Kenya, Christians are in the majority in most towns. All the preachers’ families were Christian, even though some had Muslims among their relatives. All the preachers were in one way or another influenced by their Christian past. Their Christian backgrounds equipped them well for their engagements with other Christians in public preaching.
As former Christians, the preachers could refer authoritatively to Christian doctrines, creeds, and songs. They were conversant with key doctrines, such as the miraculous birth of Jesus and his crucifixion. As is evident in the discussion of their sermons, their awareness of Christian themes was useful in their disputations with Christians. They employed songs used in Christian contexts to challenge and sometimes mock and ridicule their opponents. They occupied dual religious contexts, speaking as Muslims but in Christian ways. This double identity was derived from their blood relations in the community. Their “expertise” with Christian texts and teachings accorded them great authority in the eyes of their audiences.
Extraordinary religious experiences played a critical role in the formation of the preachers, who encountered what they interpreted as “the divine” in their dreams. These experiences transformed them from Christians to Muslims and persuaded them that they were being called to preach the message of Islam, with the goal of converting Christians. In the absence of training in religious sciences and being recent converts to Islam, these experiences supported their work amid growing opposition from the formal religious class. It was these experiences that enabled them to persist with their work, even when they encountered opposition from the police.
The role of the Bible in the formation of the preachers deserves attention. Most of the preachers spoke about how they studied or even reflected on the Bible before and after their conversion to Islam. Ali Kizibwa, upon his conversion, was introduced to the Bible by his host, Matano. The preachers’ familiarity with the Bible enabled them to engage with their Christian counterparts through public debate by quoting specific texts, with the aim of showing the falsehood of the Christian tradition. The preachers’ Christian pasts and their familiarity with the Bible exemplified the ways in which religious traditions borrow from each other and at the same time define themselves in relation to each other.
All the preachers were former Christians, and their family backgrounds played important roles in their religious allegiances. A common factor in their biographies was the role of religious experience in their conversion. These experiences seemed important for their conviction as Muslims in a country dominated by Christians. Their conversions led to an immersion in Bible study. To maintain their uniqueness in their listeners’ eyes, they denied that they had read the pamphlets and books of Ahmed Deedat, but the themes that they touched on showed the indirect impact of his works, which are readily available in Muslim shops in Mumias, and some of his sermons are playable on electronic gadgets.
The Preaching Event
Public sermons were held at Nabongo, an open-air market in Mumias. This market was frequented by thousands of people from far and wide. Hundreds of youths would be standing next to their bicycles (known as boda boda in Kenya), waiting to be hired. One could find almost anything at this market, including chicken, groundnuts, sukuma wiki (a common green vegetable), and plastic containers. In addition to local people, traders came from Bungoma, Busia, Butere, Kakamega, Eldoret, and Kisumu. This market hosted numerous political meetings, especially during campaigns for national general elections. Several churches stood about two hundred meters away from the preaching field. These were the Deliverance Church, Neno Evangelism Centre, Bible Way Ministries, and Chrisco Fellowship.
Public preaching was held in the afternoon on any day of the week, mainly on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. A series of sermons would be arranged so that their climax would fall on a Sunday, coinciding with the Christian day of prayers. Preaching on a Sunday attracted the participation of many Christians. Sundays were the main market days at Nabongo, allowing thousands of people to listen to the sermons.
The sermons usually began at around 2:00 p.m. and continued to 6:00 p.m., occasionally lasting to 7:00 p.m. Sometimes the preaching began at noon. Preaching was extended whenever heated debate occurred between a preacher and his interlocutor. Preachers would ask the audience whether the debate should continue or not. Members of the audience shouted back tuendelee (let us continue). Preachers thrived on the presence of big audiences. Their sermons became more animated as the size of the crowd increased. They endeavored to extend the sermons when the audience was large, but they ended the discussions when the size of the audience was decreasing and interest was waning.
At the beginning of the sermons, the crowd usually numbered about two hundred people. As the sermons intensified, the audience grew bigger and bigger, making it difficult for those who arrived late to find a place to sit. A public sermon could easily attract five hundred participants and observers. Except for the Christians who engaged in debate with the Muslim preachers, people attended out of curiosity to witness the verbal duel for entertainment, or simply to pass time. The Muslims who attended were interested in witnessing how Christians in general, and Christian interlocutors in particular, were defeated during the arguments (Juma 2010; Masika 2010; Odende 2010).
The infrastructure and seating arrangements during the sermon facilitated both the sermon and the debate. There was a table, a chair, and a microphone for the person whose task was to read the Bible and the Qur’an aloud. A Christian interlocutor, when there was one, sat next to the Muslim reader. Present also was a moderator, sandwiched between two Muslim preachers. He, too, had a microphone on the table in front of him. It was common to have two or three Muslim preachers taking turns to preach during one event. When no formal Christian interlocutor was present, the Muslim preacher tried to invite and/or to goad one from the audience. This was an important part of the mhadhara, and many preachers expended considerable effort to ensure that a debate was staged.
There were seating places for imams visiting from local mosques and prominent local Muslim traders. A preaching event of February 26, 2010, attracted Muslim traders and politicians, including Hamisi Imbuye, a civic leader, and Hussein Shingora, a trader who donated money toward the cost of the event. The other participants stood in a circle around the preacher. The Christians stood in a corner, waiting for the event to begin. They were not identified until the preacher asked Muslims present to identify themselves by raising their hands. Women had a separate space reserved for them, at a considerable distance from the men; they covered their heads with headscarves, in accordance with local Islamic norms. Some participants had pens and pieces of paper and made notes of the Qur’anic and biblical texts cited by the preacher. The organizers made sound recordings of the sermons for mass distribution. A young man sold compact discs at a hundred Kenya shillings (equivalent to $1.25). Qur’ans, white caps, and prayer mats were on sale.
The sermons expounded three main themes: belief, ritual, and social issues. The preachers used the Bible mainly. In most cases, a Christian interlocutor was present; in a few cases, the preachers managed to find an interlocutor from the audience. The preachers and their interlocutors took differing positions on matters of biblical interpretation, leading to a stalemate. All the sermons were inconclusive, with the preaching resorting to rhetorical devices to declare victory and demonstrate the futility of the Christian tradition. These aspects of the sermons are demonstrated in detail below.
We Must Debate with One Another
The first sermon by Muhammed Wangulu was presented on February 26, 2010, at Nabongo. On the day before, a conflict between Muslims and Christians had occurred. Wangulu had begun to preach at Nabongo when trouble started (Andanje 2010). He made remarks to the effect that some Christians were devil worshippers because they knelt in front of idols in their churches. He stated that only Muslims understood the meaning of ritual cleanliness before going to pray. Unlike Christians, who prayed while “stinking in all manner of filth,” Muslims were keen to be pure before approaching God. The Christians present were offended by these remarks and reported the incident at the local police station. The police intervened while Wangulu was preaching and ordered the meeting to stop. The Muslims marched to the district commissioner’s office and complained that they were being discriminated against, as Christians always held their meetings without interference. The district commissioner warned the Muslims to keep peace in the conduct of their affairs, promising to attend the following day’s event.
The preacher spent most of the time arguing on the necessity for Muslims and Christians to gather for debate. By 5:00 p.m., he had not yet come to the theme. He invited any knowledgeable Christian to present himself for a debate. Although many Christians were present, none came forward. Wangulu insisted that “God is calling Muslims and Christians to engage in debate so as to find the truth.” After much prodding from him, the moderator declared the end of the meeting, promising that the sermon would continue on the following day. The preacher’s failure to address the anticipated theme was not uncommon: preachers did not always follow their promised themes.
This sermon, such as it was, had features that merit discussion. It was largely influenced by its immediate context, the conflict on the day before. Muhammed Wangulu started with a prayer, which focused on the social challenges within the community. He spent a considerable amount of time justifying the need for debate. Like other preachers discussed below, he tried hard to get Christian interlocutors to debate with him. He spent a considerable amount of time defending the need for debate, which underlined an important feature of Muslim public preaching in Mumias and elsewhere. It was reflected in the stage and places occupied by a preacher and his interlocutors; it revealed an important part of this preacher’s self-understanding that the public space was a stage where the truth had to be revealed through debate.
Jesus was Human and Muslim
Muhammed Wangulu continued his third sermon on February 27, 2010, when he addressed the promised theme. He began by stating that numerous biblical references address the topic of the nature of Jesus. He stated that in Matthew 13, beginning at verse 55, people had acknowledged that Jesus was a carpenter’s son. He observed that Jesus’s mother was Mary and that James, Simon, and Judas were Jesus’s brothers. He added that people knew that Jesus had sisters and wondered why Christians preached that Jesus was the son of God. Based on the above biblical texts, he demonstrated that Christians were wrong in ascribing divinity to Christ. He elaborated that Jesus was just an ordinary faithful prophet of God, whom God used in a special way to convey his message, the gospel (injil). He went on to state that the subject of the nature of Jesus was clearly shown in the sacred book of Muslims as well. Without providing the specific text from the Qur’an, he argued:
We Muslims believe that Jesus was one of the messengers of God, that he was the Christ born miraculously without any human intervention, that he gave life to the dead by God’s permission, and that he healed those born blind and the lepers, by God’s permit. (Muhammed Wangulu, Mumias, 2010)
Having set out his argument, first from the Bible and second from the Qur’an, Muhammed Wangulu posed a question: “How come Christians claim to know Jesus more than us Muslims, when there is every evidence that Islam teaches a lot about Jesus?” He argued that the true spirit of charity that Muslims display always toward Jesus and his mother Mary derived from the fountain of Islam, the holy Qur’an. Moreover, he argued that Christians were ignorant about the fact that Muslims do not mention the holy name of Jesus without adding an honorific: Eisa, alaihaassalam (Jesus, peace be upon him). He put to rest his case by stating that “Jesus was a Muslim prophet.”
At this meeting, a Christian participant raised his hand and demanded: “Tupe maandiko ya Qur’an kutia nguvu maadayako” (Give us some evidence from the Qur’an to back up your argument). Wangulu responded by stating that Jesus was mentioned in the Qur’an twenty-five times. He gave examples of verses from the Qur’an:
We gave Jesus, the son of Mary clear signs and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit (2:87). Oh Mary, God giveth thee glad tidings of a word from him: His name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary (3:45). Christ Jesus the son of Mary was [no more than] an apostle of God (4:171).
The Christian interlocutor intervened again, protesting that even though the Qur’an mentioned Jesus in a number of verses, this was not valid, as it missed a central aspect about who Jesus was: “The son of God.” In response, Wangulu laughed and said that he expected that kind of objection from the Christian, as that was the pet topic of most Christians without elimu (knowledge). The Christian responded by stating that the nature of Christ was central to Christianity. Wangulu ignored that response and shouted “Takbir,” to which all Muslims responded in unison “Allah Akbar” (God is great).
In the sermon, Muhammed Wangulu sought to put forward the case that Jesus was human and a Muslim, in accordance with Muslim belief. He presented evidence from the Bible, such as Matthew 13:55. In response, the Christian insisted that the preacher should provide evidence for the humanity and Islamic identity of Jesus based on the Qur’an. In the absence of such evidence, the Christian did not accept the Muslim position. Both preacher and interlocutor were talking at cross purposes, neither of them willing to give up their positions. Wangulu resorted to rhetoric to end the session by shouting “Takbir.” This sermon demonstrated the desire for debate; more pointedly, it demonstrated the need for the Muslim preacher to prove that his position was reflected in the Bible.
Was Jesus the Son of God?
I now turn to Hassan Ngashe’s sermon at Nabongo on February 30, 2010. He, too, approached the topic of the nature of Christ. His sermon involved a disputation between him and James Maloba. This was another debate that is worth closer examination.
Hassan Ngashe argued that nowhere in the Bible did Mary tell Jesus that “your father is God,” and he supposed that the name Jesus had been given in accordance with the prophecy of the angel. He quoted Luke 2:21: “A week later, when the time came for the baby to be circumcised, he was named Jesus, the name which the angel had given him before he had been conceived.” Ngashe argued that this name had nothing to do with Jesus’s divinity. Moreover, Jesus underwent all the ritual ceremonies required of Jews. Ngashe quoted Luke 2:22-24 to support his claim:
The time came for Joseph and Mary to perform the ceremony of purification as the Law of Moses commanded. So they took the child to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord, as it written in the law of the Lord.
Ngashe argued that the idea of the divinity of Jesus had been made up by the fathers of the church: “As far as I know, God did not marry at any one time, and we have never gotten any information that he tried to engage a woman and was refused.” He made reference to John 8:40, stating that Jesus referred to himself as a person, not the son of God. Jesus did not have any association with God, and was not even the second person of the trinity.
At this point, Maloba intervened and requested that the reader read John 1:1-5. Kassim Jamal, the reader, obliged and proceeded: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God; inside him was life, and darkness could not overcome him.” Ngashe quickly interjected and asked Maloba to explain to the audience what the word him was referring to. Maloba answered, explaining that verse 10 of the chapter made it clear that it was Jesus who became God. He argued: “if you look at the reading closely, it indicates that Jesus participated in creation. But you [Hassan Ngashe] still hold that he is not the Son of God.” Ngashe interjected, “Jesus does not have any power at all.” He directed the reader to Luke 1:26: Jamal: Luke 1:26 … In the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel encountered God. Go up to Galilaya in Nazareth because a Virgin Mary has got a baby called Jesus.
Hassan Ngashe: Proceed; I want to interview him there.
Jamal: And the Angel entered in the house and said “Greetings, you have been given grace by God, the Lord is with you. And Mary was distressed because of the words of the Angel. And the Angel told her; do not be afraid, Mary, because you have grace from God. Behold, you will conceive a male child, and his name you will call him, Jesus.
Hassan Ngashe: Please give him the microphone. I want us to go slowly so that people can understand. When the angel came to Mary, did he bring her a baby or what?
Maloba: He brought a message
Hassan Ngashe: He uttered or not?
Maloba: He uttered.
Hassan Ngashe: From his mouth came forth what?
Hassan Ngashe: And where did these words come from?
Maloba: From God.
Hassan Ngashe: So that?
Maloba: She will give birth.
Hassan Ngashe: So what came to Mary?
Maloba: Listen to the words carefully. Mary says: “How will this happen yet I do not know a man?”
Hassan Ngashe: Listen, what did the angel bring to Mary?
Maloba: He brought words.
Hassan Ngashe: Message from whom?
Maloba: From God.
Hassan Ngashe: Message from whom?
Maloba: From God.
Hassan Ngashe: So Jesus was created from what?
Maloba: We weeh.
Hassan Ngashe: Takbir! (Hassan Ngashe and Maloba, Mumias, 2010)
Hassan Ngashe gave Maloba the microphone and created a dramatic exchange, which led to his desired interpretation. He ignored Maloba’s plea to read the text in full. His public display set up Maloba to agree that Jesus was human. Maloba was dismayed, but the Muslim audience loved the exchange and applauded Ngashe’s victory.
The disputation between Hassan Ngashe and Maloba ended with the former insisting that God had created Jesus, and therefore Jesus was human. Like the sermon by Wangulu, this sermon contains several features that should be highlighted. First, using the Bible, Ngashe disputed the Christian teaching on the divinity of Jesus; he used the Bible, but gave it a new effect to support his argument. Unlike the cited sermon by Wangulu, he did not take recourse to the Qur’an to adduce evidence in support of his position. In fact, both preachers relied on the Bible to support their positions, with each of them interpreting the Bible to suit his own argument. By closely interrogating Maloba toward a literal meaning of the Bible, Ngashe argued that Jesus was human, not divine. Second, there was no agreement between Ngashe and his interlocutor, as each one took a different position on how to interpret the Bible. Ngashe used dramatic dialogue to support his interpretation. He did this by asking that the Bible be read, while he repeated certain verses to validate his point. We see here how Muslim preachers appear to be arguing on the basis of a biblical text, but rely on the rhetoric of public engagement to support their interpretation.
We have now seen how preachers refer repeatedly to the Bible to support the truth of Islam. I now turn to Ali Kizibwa’s sermons, which take a more complex approach. His one sermon clearly rejected the Bible, but we see him returning to the Bible in subsequent sermons. As the most popular preacher, his treatment of scripture deserves closer attention.
Ali Kizibwa preached at Nabongo on March 16, 2010. The people in attendance numbered about five hundred. The sermon focused on a historical theme, the crucifixion of Jesus. No Christian interlocutor was present, but Christians arrived at the close and explained that they had been held up at a similar event elsewhere.
Ali Kizibwa started the sermon by explaining that the meeting was a “dialogue about all the books” that had been revealed. He demonstrated his knowledge of sacred texts by identifying them and their dates:
Moses, the prophet, sent us the book of the law, meaning the Torah, in 1010 b.c.; other sources state it was in 1350 b.c. We have this book here. The second book is Psalms (Zabur) of Prophet David, to whom it was revealed in 970 b.c. in the country which in the past was called Seif and whose name was changed to Syria. The third book is called the Gospel (Injil), which was revealed to Jesus. The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammed in 610 … These are the books we are using to educate each other the things of God. (Ali Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010)
After presenting the books as sources for the knowledge of God, Ali Kizibwa was ready to approach his topic. He asked Christians present to be ready for an engagement with him on these books. He asked “Was Jesus Crucified on the Cross?” It would appear that he wanted this question answered in reference to the texts that he had presented. He quoted Qur’an 4:157 to build up his case:
Those children of Israel say that we have killed the Messiah Jesus, the son of Mary and the Prophet of God, they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him. But they exchanged him with another person, whom they thought was Jesus. (Ali Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010)
Ali Kizibwa repeated after the reader those sections of the verse that he wanted to emphasize. He repeatedly emphasized that Jesus had not been crucified. He stated that Christians who believed this teaching were in error and would end up in hell unless they embraced Islam. He stated that if the scriptures were interrogated, no evidence would be found for the alleged crucifixion of Jesus. Such a teaching, he argued, was mere human imagination, which had no basis in scriptures (maandiko). He contested the belief among Christians that God had punished Jesus for the sins of others: “God does not act like that,” he stated.
Like the other preachers, Ali Kizibwa quoted evidence from the Bible to say that Jesus had not been crucified. He argued that according to Deuteronomy 19:15, it was important that there be two or three witnesses before passing judgment in any dispute. He applied this principle to the Bible’s testimony on the crucifixion. He requested the reader to open the three Gospel accounts about the crucifixion of Jesus, in Mark 15:28, John 19:14, and Luke and Matthew. Each of the accounts of the gospels provided different times when Christ was crucified, he claimed. Therefore, he argued, the Bible on its own account could not be used as evidence. The meaning of Deuteronomy 19:15 implied that the narratives of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could not be relied upon. In triumph, Kizibwa quoted Qur’an 4:157-58:
That they said (in boast) We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah, but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them.
On the basis of the above reading, Kizibwa argued that it was not Jesus that was crucified but Simon of Cyrene, who had been forced to carry the cross of Jesus. Kizibwa quoted a hadith to support his argument: “God does not oppress anyone.” His main point was that it would go against the just nature of God to punish Jesus for sins he had not committed: that would be tantamount to being oppressive on the part of God. He raised difficulties of using the letters of Paul, stating that they were composed long after the period of Jesus. He ruled out the use of the Old Testament as evidence for Christ’s alleged crucifixion; he argued that the Old Testament was dated before the period of Jesus.
Ali Kizibwa referred to popular songs on the Christian teaching on the crucifixion. At one point, he broke into song: “Walimpiga msalabani, Wakamtemea mate, Yesu alilia Mungu wangu,Mungu wangu mbona unaniacha” (They beat him [Jesus] at the cross, they spit at him, Jesus cried, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me). Ali Kizibwa would have learned this song as part of his training as a Christian. The crowd laughed as he sang. People seemed to appreciate his ability to sing songs typically used within Christian settings; however, after singing, he quickly dismissed the message of the song, calling it rubbish. The song was clearly part of his repertory as a popular preacher, perhaps of some entertainment value.
The substance of Ali Kizibwa’s sermon continued the tone set by the other preachers presented here. Kizibwa had begun by presenting the books through which God speaks to humanity. He suggested, however, that the accounts of the crucifixion in the New Testament were unreliable, and the Qur’an was proof of the true story. He resorted to rhetorical devices to make his point: he repeated parts of texts as they were read, and he sang hymns to dismiss Christian teaching.
Men and Women in Public Spaces
In the next two sermons, Ali Kizibwa turned again to the Bible to show that Christians should follow Islam. This time, he addressed religious practices in Mumias. This sermon was presented on March 20, 2010, at Nabongo. The event was well attended, with an average attendance of about a thousand people. The sermon involved an engagement between Ali Kizibwa and Moses Lubanga, who worshipped at the Redeemed Gospel Church in Mumias and described himself as “a committed Christian, who would do anything to defend Jesus” (Lubanga 2010).
The theme of the sermon was an argument against the practice of mixing males and females in public spaces. Ali Kizibwa set the mood by asking Muslims and Christians at the event to identify themselves:
May I see how many Muslims are present here? Could I see your hands up? Only Muslims. Put your hands down. And the Christians who love Jesus; may I also see your hands? Don’t be afraid. If you are a Christian and you love Jesus, you are saved. Raise your hand. (Ali Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010)
Ali Kizibwa was satisfied that he had an audience of Muslims and Christians in which he could present his debate. This was a powerful gesture, which identified the two antagonistic parties. He then requested the reader to read a text from Zachariah 12:12. The reader proceeded:
Reader: Zachariah 12:12.
Ali Kizibwa: Eh, what does Zachariah state?
Reader: And the earth shall mourn.
Ali Kizibwa: And the earth shall mourn, not we human beings who mourn in funerals?
Reader: Every person on his own.
Ali Kizibwa: Every person on his own.
Reader: The households of David on their own.
Ali Kizibwa: The household of David on their own.
Reader: And women alone.
Ali Kizibwa: [With emphasis] And women alone! Not in the company with men, as the Christians do. When you sit next to a female and your thighs are close to hers, shall we have a funeral there? When God established boundaries between males and females, did he not have a reason for that? (Ali Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010)
Ali Kizibwa challenged Christians to “give evidence” that allowed the mixing of men and women in public places. He stated that God had commanded males and females to be seated separately during worship, funerals, and other public occasions. He argued that because of the sexual attraction that men and women naturally have toward each other, it was necessary that they sit separately so as to worship God. He argued that to fail to adhere to this divine command would invite God’s wrath on the day of judgement.
At this point, Lubanga stepped forward and told Ali Kizibwa that according to the New Testament, all the ritual laws found in the Old Testament were null and void. He elaborated that with the coming of Jesus, there was no distinction between male and female, Jew and Greek, circumcised and uncircumcised. Ali Kizibwa asked for a specific biblical text to back his argument. Lubanga, clearly unprepared to quote a text, answered that he needed more time to find one. In turn, Ali Kizibwa offered to help him find an appropriate text, eliciting laughter from the audience. “Takbir,” shouted Kizibwa. The crowd shouted back “Allah Akbar!” to Lubanga’s embarrassment. Kizibwa asked him to strive to acquire enough knowledge (elimu) before attempting to engage with him.
Ali Kizibwa now turned his address to fellow Muslims. He stated that some of them were worse than Christians, as they flouted Islamic teachings. For him, Christians could be forgiven because they lacked knowledge, but not the Muslims, who already knew the truth. He described such Muslims as “Muslims by name.” They did not attend daily worship, and they drank alcohol. They were lost and doomed to hell, unless they returned to the true religion.
It is possible to identify the distinctive approach that Ali Kizibwa brought to this engagement. In the first sermon, he indicated the biblical witness of the crucifixion was unreliable, but he always supported his arguments by turning to other biblical verses. He turned to Deuteronomy to support his rejection of New Testament books. Now, he turned to the Bible to support his argument for proper public ritual. The Bible, in his account, was showing that the Muslim practice of separating men and women in places of worship was correct. In his use of the Bible, his goal was to discredit Christianity and persuade Christians to follow Islam, but he always presented biblical texts to make his argument. No doubt, the effectiveness of his presentation relied equally on the drama that he brought to the presentation. He identified Muslims and Christians in the audience, setting up the audience to join his debate. This distinction was necessary in providing him support as he shouted “Takbir,” trumping Christians with his evidence. He repeated the biblical verses as they were read audibly, to great effect. In the end, however, he demonstrated that the Bible provided justification for Christians to be good Muslims.
How to Worship
The next sermon by Ali Kizibwa was similar to the previous one in its focus on ritual. It was preached on March 19, 2010, at Nabongo. The interlocutor was David Manya. In this sermon, Kizibwa again began by quoting from the Bible. He quoted Matthew 4:10: “Jesus said, Away from me, Satan; it is written, worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.” Kizibwa then argued that the term worship gave the notion of prostrating, which Christians do not do. Ali Kizibwa continued:
Those who prostrate bear a mark on their faces because of touching the ground daily. Where is your mark, if you worship in the correct way? You’re opposing God. Jesus says people should prostrate before God. (Ali Kizibwa, Mumias, 2010)
In addition to use of the Bible, Kizibwa cited evidence from the Qur’an. He asked the reader to read Qur’an 48:26. As the reader proceeded to read, Kizibwa, in his usual style, interjected to emphasize certain passages:
Reader: Muhammed is a prophet of God and together with him are those with good hearts before … They come together among themselves, and you will see them prostrate before God together, looking for the blessing of God and his promise. Their marks …
Ali Kizibwa: The person who prostrates has a mark, listen.
Reader: … are on their faces.
Ali Kizibwa challenged Christians to convert to Islam so as to learn how to worship God properly. David Manya intervened at this point and objected to the emphasis on the need for prostrating while praying. He observed that what was important in worship was the internal disposition of the worshipper, not his external action. He criticized Ali Kizibwa for preaching about the need for one to have a sign on his forehead as evidence that he had prostrated himself. He did not stop there, but turned to the preacher: “Ali Kizibwa, show me your mark!” The crowd burst out in laughter.
Ali Kizibwa continued to prove his point by quoting from the Bible, then leading with the Qur’an. He paid attention to good rhetorical skills in presenting his sermon. The interlocutor’s point was equally valid, and unseated Kizibwa’s confidence in the public. The crowd, including the Muslims, appreciated that Kizibwa did not have a mark to show his devotion. Nevertheless, his sermon demonstrated the biblical foundation on which Muslim preachers were entering the public sphere.
These sermons display certain salient features. All the preachers used the Bible extensively, and in varied ways, to support their arguments, but they interpreted it from Qur’anic perspectives. In the first sermon, Wangulu used evidence from the Bible to support his argument that Jesus was human, not divine. Kizibwa’s approach to the Bible was a variant of the previous preachers. He began by rejecting the reliability of the Bible, demolishing it as a source of evidence. Interestingly, however, he kept returning to it for evidence on other points and in other preaching locations.
Second, in their attempts to use the Bible, the preachers’ plans were disrupted by Christian interlocutors who presented objections to the use of textual sources and offered alternative interpretations. Sometimes the interlocutors demanded evidence from different textual sources; sometimes they completely rejected the interpretations given. They challenged the preachers’ positions, citing historical evidence. Most of these engagements ended without a clear winner; however, Muslim public preaching was a staged debate, reflected in the setting of the scene, the placing of interlocutors, and the call by Muslims to argue and prove themselves.
The preachers, unsurprisingly, given the length of the public presentations, deployed various rhetorical approaches. They repeated verses of the Bible and the Qur’an as they were read in public. With such repetitions, they emphasized points that they wished to make. They sang Christian songs to match their appeal to biblical texts. While singing, they changed their voices and body movements to emphasize certain points. They engaged with the audience, inviting people to argue. They relied on the audience for support, as they would publicly call out “Takbir” and the Muslims present would respond “Allah Akbar.”
Public preachers and their sermons represent new religious authority. All the preachers I interviewed were former Christians who now seek positions of authority in society. Their claim to authority is based on their apprenticeship and their understanding and application of religious texts. Their religious encounters were varied, but impelled them to begin preaching. The preachers used their knowledge and experience of Christianity to make claims for the superiority of Islam on the basis of the Bible. More orthodox Islamic preachers supported their arguments by relying on an authoritative discursive tradition from the Qur’an and the hadith, but the sermons at Nabongo demonstrated attempts to locate a foundation in the Bible for Islamic arguments. As former Christians, the preachers readily used the Bible to support their positions, with liberal references to the Qur’an. The foundation was the Bible, though the theology was Islamic. Ali Kizibwa was the most vociferous opponent of the biblical narratives relating to Jesus, but he repeatedly returned to the Bible in support of his Islamic arguments. The Christian interlocutors asked questions and challenged the Muslim preachers’ use of textual sources; however, the preachers overcame this challenge in staged events by using rhetorical devices. In staging their sermons, they used the Bible, Christian beliefs, and songs. This approach proved effective in their work, even though Christian interlocutors and many in the audience remained unconvinced.
Finally, the sermons were staged as debate and contestation. The public preaching places served as debating rooms, where preachers, supporters, and opponents assumed their positions. The preachers framed questions for debate and produced evidence to prove their points. Irrespective of the merits of their arguments, Da’wah took the form of a public duel.
The article has demonstrated that public preaching is now part of the fabric of the society in Kenya in general, and in Mumias in particular. Drawing from fieldwork findings, it demonstrates that the activities of the Muslim preachers sometimes led to tension and violence among followers of the two faith traditions, and sometimes generated tensions with state officials (the district commissioner and the police) responsible for maintaining law and order. The preachers and their sermons provide evidence of growing discursive battles taking place between members of the two faith traditions. The preachers cited legitimate truth in both faith traditions in support of Islam as the only way to salvation. Several Christians interviewed during the course of the fieldwork clearly felt unhappy with these initiatives, which they viewed as offensive to Christianity; however, a few Christians looked forward to these events, largely as an opportunity to argue with Muslim preachers and prove them wrong. These Islamic preachers significantly affect interfaith social relations and state policy.
This article recognizes Muslim preachers as religious actors in the public sphere. By closely examining their biographies and sermons, this contribution identifies a distinct kind of public discourse. It thus complements previous reflections on religion in the public sphere. Public preaching is a religious event performed as an exercise of Da’wah, which takes on a specific form at the behest of these preachers, who dominate religion in Kenya’s public life.
Muslim public preachers represent a new kind of religious authority; all are former Christians, whose goal is to occupy positions of religious authority. Without any formal training in Islamic religious sciences, they base their claims on their own experiential encounters. All have undergone a period of apprenticeship, involving more extensive study of the Bible than of the Qur’an. Their leadership is not based on a new interpretation of Islamic texts; instead, they exercise various forms of biblical hermeneutics, basing their arguments for the supremacy of Islam on selective use of biblical texts-some (with support from the Qur’an) to verify the truth of Islam; others, to demonstrate the unreliability of the Bible. This is one of the novel findings of this fieldwork.
In their use of the Bible, the Muslim preachers come face to face with Christian interlocutors who challenge their use of textual sources; however, the preachers overcome these challenges by deploying rhetorical techniques, including the repetition of sacred texts as they are read, songs, body movements, and dialogue with listeners. This approach often proves effective as debate, but the Christian interlocutors and audiences remain unconvinced. The ineffectiveness of this approach is evidenced by the fact that no conversions to Islam result, at least not publicly. Though challenged to accept the illogicality of their faith and convert to Islam, the Christian interlocutors and their followers do not respond to these invitations. The preachers do not reflect at all on the absence of conversions after their sermons, perhaps because such reflection would have diminished their otherwise unequalled debating abilities.
On some occasions, the sermons end in tension and violence, forcing the police to intervene. The preachers challenge the impartiality of the state in a Christian-dominated political order. The engagement between the preachers and the state points to the marginalization of Muslims in a region dominated by Christians.
One may conclude that Muslim public preaching as Da’wah constitutes public debate and public demonstration more than it represents a call to join Islam. I did not see a single conversion to Islam during my research; the preaching, the rituals, the rhetoric, and the arguments were not designed to entice or invite response from the audience. The sermons served more to reaffirm Muslim identity in a Christian-dominated area. The purpose of public preaching was to demonstrate that Islam is the truth. And the truth of Islam, in their view, is endorsed by the Bible and affirmed by carefully deployed rhetorical strategies. For Muslims, the foundational role of the Bible-or perhaps it is antifoundational but has a still dominant role-underlined the marginality felt by these preachers and their audiences.