Recorded Sermons and the History of Islamic Reform in East Africa


I will study recordings of Muslim sermons to examine changes in East African Muslim congregations and their place within the region’s polities in the 20th-century. Audiotapes have been in use in Tanzania and Kenya (as in many African and Middle Eastern countries) since at least the 1980s as a means of spreading various, but especially reformist, doctrinal viewpoints; in recent years DVDs have become popular. While the recordings date from about the last quarter century, they take stances on issues covering the entire 20th-century, providing rare information on the history of an under-researched but crucial constituency in East Africa’s history. My aim is not only to translate preachers’ views, but to contrast and contextualise them with the historical record, trace how the views were formed, and understand why they are persuasive enough for the tapes to be traded widely and much referred to in religious debate. The result will be an inside view of 20th-century East African history from a perspective that rarely enters Anglophone public discourse: that of relatively little-educated Swahili-speaking Muslims. It will also demonstrate that the way in which apparently deracinated, stock-in-trade Islamist views are deployed and become relevant depends on place-specific societal contexts.

This will be the first in-depth study of the content, as distinct from social context, of the increasingly widespread phenomenon of recorded Muslim sermons in any language. Moreover, it will be the first historical, as distinct from anthropological, study that combines these recordings with other historical sources. It will provide a fresh perspective on East African Muslims’ history, how they have come to construe it, and their current role in the region’s post-colonial states.


Felicitas Becker is an Early Career Fellow at CRASSH, Easter 2012.

Dr Becker did her undergraduate work at Humboldt Universitaet, Berlin, followed by an MA in African area studies at SOAS and a PhD in African history here in Cambridge.  She set out studying the economic and social history of an isolated region of Tanzania, including processes of economic and political marginalisation as well as resistance. Her post-doctoral work focused on the spread of Islam in the same region. It is published by Oxford University Press as Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania. Before returning to Cambridge, she taught at Eotvos Lorand University, Budapest, SOAS and at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.


Her current research interests include Islamic radicalism and reform in East Africa and its relation to similar movements elsewhere; women, families and Islam; political rhetoric and performance, especially in relation to the notion of ‘development’; orality and media, the long aftermath of slavery, and alternatives to the widely-used concept of ‘power’ to describe unequal relationships.

Her publications include the monographs Becoming Muslim in Mainland Tanzania, 1890-2000. Oxford and London: Oxford University Press and the British Academy, 2008. ISBN-13 9780197264270 and Bara na pwani. Historia ya Kusini Mashariki ya Tanzania, 1880 hadi 1985. Ndanda, Tanzania: Ndanda Mission Press, 2004. ISBN 9976 63 672 5. (A Swahili version of her PhD thesis. The title translates as ‘Mainland and coast: the history of southeast Tanzania, 1880-1985.’)


Tel: +44 1223 766886