Yahya Ali Omar
- - Sheikh Yahya Ali
Omar [left] Swahili language
scholar and renowned Assistant researcher at the School of
Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London
seen in conversation with the late BBC Swahili Service
presentor Nasor Malik. PHOTO
- COURTESY: FARAJ
honoured member of the waMiji
(the native inhabitant of Mombasa)
- - The death of
Mu'allim Yahya Ali Omar aged 84 has occurred at his London home on the
was buried on the 14/10/08 at the Garden of Peace cemetery
in East London.
death has robbed the Waswahili community from East Africa
and the Waswahili in Diaspora, his friends around the world,
and above all his extended family, of a great and unique
(teacher) Yahya Ali Omar was an honoured member of the
waMiji (the native inhabitant of Mombasa).
A renowned, retired
Assistant researcher at the School of Oriental and African
Studies (SOAS) University of London, who was
- - Swahili
proverb in Arabic script: 'Subira huvuta kheri' (Patience
brings blessings). Design by Mu’allim
Yahya Ali Omar.
in his teaching profession, and who has passionately promoted the
teaching of Islamic studies and advanced the research of the Waswahili
cultural heritage in East Africa.
vibrant work will continue to enlighten many people, and to bring
about greater understanding of the Islamic religion, as well as an
awareness of the Waswahili ethnic identity internationally.
of these subjects were very dear to his heart.
Yahya went to Koranic school in Mombasa at the Anisa mosque.
he attended Madrasa Ghazali Muslim School in the same town.
taught by the famous religious scholars such as Sheikh al-Amin bin Ali
Mazrui - the well known scholar of Islamic Religious science, and the
former Chief Kadhi of Kenya, and also by Sayyid Ali Badawi, and Sheikh
Bereki among others.
a strong Islamic upbringing and Islamic education enabled Mu'allim
Yahya to be a role model to his people, it was the source of his zeal
and endeavours to preserve and enhance the Islamic and cultural
character of the (original) Swahili language and of its peoples.
contribution to bringing about awareness of the Waswahili ethnic
identity was enormous.
a doubt, he contributed a great deal to Swahili Scholarship, a
contribution which was both unique and unequalled.
work can be considered to be of a very high academic excellence.
completing his religious education in Mombasa, Mu'allim Yahya started
teaching Arabic and the Qur'an at the Arab Boys Primary School in
late Mu'allim Ali Jamaadar, and the late Mu'allim Bwanatumu, were
among his colleagues in the teaching staff.
Mu'allim Yahya always spoke highly of his colleagues at the
Arab Boys Primary School, and often with great sadness, that most of
them are already dead.
Yahya has taught many generations of Kenyans and non-Kenyan students.
author of this obituary is also one of the many students who benefited
from his teaching in the 1950s at the Muslim School Changamwe in
to Kenyan independence Mu'allim Yahya, signed and presented a petition
to the Robertson Commission, appointed by the British Government.
petition demanded the respect of Muslim minority rights after
independence, these included:
the continuation of the Kadhi Courts,
the preservation of Muslim educational Institutions, and
protecting Waswahili land rights and their cultural heritage.
guarantee was given in 1961 at the Lancaster House Agreement by the
incoming Kenya Government to respect Muslim minority rights.
Mu'allim Yahya always expressed great disappointment that after
independence, the Kenya Government had acted in bad faith, and in
breach of the Lancaster House Agreement, and at the same time the
British Government, as guarantor, had done nothing to ensure the
enforcement of the Agreement.
coming to London in the 1960s, Mu'allim Yahya worked for the Islamic
Foundation in Nairobi where he translated a book by Sayyid Abul A'la
Maududi entitled, in Swahili -'Mpango wa Maisha katika Uislamu' (1076)
- or in English The Islamic Way of Life.
also edited the translation of the holy Qur'an done by the former
Chief Kadhi of Kenya Sheikh Abdalla Saleh Farsy.
this time he also wrote two publications which were widely read and
these were: 'A Tour of Paradise' Matembezi ya P'eponi' and A Tour of
Hell' Matembezi ya Motoni.
publications are all written in kiMvita, which is the traditional
Swahili of Mombasa.
were also broadcast by the most popular broadcasting service in
Mombasa at the time - Mvita Voice or known in Swahili (Sauti ya Mvita).
Yahya was also a regular contributor to many of its programmes.
closure of Sauti Ya Mvita by the Kenya Government just after
independence, according to Mu'allim Yahya was discriminatory and
same period, he also worked for the Arab League branch in Nairobi as
1970 he came to London to work at the School of Oriental and African
Studies (SOAS) with the support of Professor Wilfred Whiteley.
SOAS he worked together with many Swahili scholars, a few of whom are
Jan Knappert, Joan Maw, Torben Anderson.
also worked very closely with professors from the USA, notably
Professors Carol Eastman, Carol Scotton and Professor Swartz M.J with
whom he produced many publications, one of which is entitled -
'Relationship Terms and Cultural Conformity among the Swahili of
it is in the fields of linguistics, anthropology, Swhili studies or
semantics all who came into contact with Mu'aalim Yahya are deeply
indebted to his insight, analysis and wide ranging, and unparallel
him many books would not have been written.
Yahya has played a leading role in the field of advancing Swahili
studies and research and the establishment of the data bank consisting
of large collections of material on Waswahili culture, education,
history, and Islamic education at SOAS.
always expressed great admiration that British institutions have a
good reputation in preserving public records, and he was able to use
the researching facilities to promote his work.
Yahya has also done considerable research in collaboration with
another British Swahili scholar and his very close friend P.J.L.
best known publications include: The word for 'God' in Swahili, 'New
Year's Day in Swahili-land' (Siku ya mwaka) with special reference to
Mombasa, and 'The tailors of Mombasa', being a nineteenth-century
satire from central Swahili-land (Shairi la washonao nguo wa Mombasa),
and 'The observance of Ramadhan in Swahili-land with special reference
the areas in which Mu'allim Yahya strove to maintain and enhance the
Islamic character of the Swahili language and its peoples were in his
work in modifying the Arabic script for writing Swahili.
mindful of the missionaries' original intention to introduce the Roman
script in order to de-Islamise the Swahili language, and being
sceptical of the claims that the Romans script is 'a better linguistic
vehicle' for communicating the Swahili language, he showed thorough
analysis, originality of thought and innovation in his modification of
the Arabic script to fully convey the whole range of sounds and
meanings of the Swahili language.
was using his most convincing argument stating that, Arabic script is
being used in places like Gambia, Hausa people in Nigeria, and Urdu in
Hindustani, Malay language in Malaysia, then why the same toleration
of teaching Swahili in Arabic script to the Muslims in Kenya has been
suppressed with impunity.
Yahya did not rest after publishing his paper, but despite being no
businessman, invested considerable time, money and energy in producing
posters with Swahili sayings using his Arabic Swahili script.
such postal is shown below.
disappointed that these did not become popular and that greater
interest was not shown in the script (except as an academic
Mu'allim Yahya worked with many academics on topics using Standard
Swahili - he had no choice - he was not a proponent; rather he valued
the grammatical and cultural essence and purity of the Swahili
language as spoken by mother tongue speakers, the Waswahili.
contended that one of the ways of preserving the cultural and Islamic
character of the language was through the use of his Arabic script for
the challenges of his legacy to we, the Waswahili, is the take up and
use of this script to preserve our linguistic heritage and culture.
Yahya is going to be missed by the Waswahili community, and by the
a man with a great international reputation in his profession.
well known and well-loved and highly respected and valued by his
students and his colleagues at SOAS.
will also be missed by many scholars who have collaborated with him in
the publication of books, articles and pamphlets.
as the famous Swahili proverb says - (kufa kufaana), meaning in
English - "Death has its advantages too, i.e. it benefits those
what we have inherited from Mu'aalim Yahya is not material wealth at
all but something more substantial.
now for us to continue his work, to implement his aspirations, and to
accomplish his mission.
Yahya was very friendly, hospitable, and welcoming towards anyone
visiting him at his London house.
always selfless, worrying and supporting the less able members of his
extended family in Kenya and non-family members.
he respected his friends and treated them with great care and
also showed great interest in learning about other cultures.
tried to keep in touch with the news in Kenya, particularly about
Muslim organisations and about any event taking place regarding
Najib Balala MP for Mvita constituency in Mombasa, and a cabinet
member of the Kenyan Government, while serving in his previous role as
a Minister for Gender Sports culture and Social Services on his visit
to London also had consultation meeting with Mu'allim Yahya regarding
the progress of Swahili educational project.
Yahya was very pleased in meeting Hon. Najib Balala and found their
meeting very positive and constructive.
Mohamed Hyder from Kenya visited him at his house recently, and
attended his funeral.
Yahya found this visit by an old friend, and another Swahili scholar
also to be very useful in exchanging information about development in
Yahya has left a great and rich legacy of knowledge on Islamic
education and his work on the Waswahili cultural heritage.
harmless, and believed in the virtue of peace and humanity, a man of
principle and great believer in promoting his work regardless of
monetary gain, as one famous writer says:
art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe."
how many writers today believe in what they write ?
Almighty Allah bless him in peace - Amin.
Mohamed Swaleh, Chairperson
The Waswahili Community Trust, London, U.K.