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Kenyans Mark Islam Founder’s Birth

June 6, 2002

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LAMU, Kenya (AP) _ Galloping donkeys and fervent prayer marked the anniversary of the birth of Islam’s founder Thursday, as residents of this nearly 1,000 year-old Kenyan town celebrated the festival of Maulidi with a Swahili feel, mixing African drums with Arabic verses from the Quran.

``This is our Islam, Swahili Islam,″ said Muhammad Siad, a 50-year-old businessman from Malindi, a small town south of Lamu.

Maulidi, an Islamic holiday celebrating the prophet Muhammad’s birth, reached its crescendo Thursday in Lamu, a collection of tightly-packed stone houses set on a small island off Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast.

Maulidi is celebrated throughout the Islamic world at varying times and in different ways. In Lamu, it’s a four-day festival laced with Swahili culture _ a blend of Arab and African styles and mores that have mingled along the eastern African coast for centuries. The exact date of Muhammad’s birth is not known.

Lamu’s Maulidi attracts pilgrims, like Siad, from countries as far away as Yemen and the Comoros, an archipelago off the coast of Mozambique.

The racing of traditional sailboats called dhows and Swahili dancing are all nice draws _ ``it brings the tourists,″ said Ahmad Binsumeit Badawy, a leading member of Lamu’s Riyadha Mosque, the center of the Maulidi celebrations.

But for the devout, the real draw of Maulidi in Lamu is the town’s reputation as a center of Islamic learning and the one-time home of Habib Swaleh, a revered 19th century Islamic scholar, said to be a descendent of Muhammad.

Swaleh, the descendent of a Yemini family that had settled in eastern Africa, came to Lamu in 1866 and attracted a following of locals with his impromptu Koran readings and prayers accompanied by drums, tambourines and flutes in this coastal city.

Lamu retains an ancient feel. Men in long robes and women wearing headscarves still walk along the town’s narrow streets. Intricately carved doors and window frames still adorn the stone houses.

Before the British arrived just over a century ago, the ports on East Africa’s coast _ Mombasa, Dar es Salaam and Lamu _ were ruled by the sultan of Oman, who lived in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania.

And Islam’s influence is just as strong as it has been for centuries _ a fact that was clear each night during Maulidi, as the faithful filled the more the 20 mosques hidden away in the warren of narrow streets and alleys.

Outside the mosque, there was traditional dancing _ segregated by sex, as Islamic custom demands _ and a donkey race along the town’s harbor.

Hundreds of people lined the street for the race. Children chased the awkward galloping donkeys as competitors urged them on.

If Hajjnoor Al-Khatib’s donkey had been more cooperative, he might have won.

But just before the finish, the lanky 15-year-old leaned back a little too far, the donkey bucked and he slipped off the animal’s back.

``Allahu akbar!″ _ God is great _ he shouted and laughed, before dusting himself off and chasing after the donkey.

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