Prayers Uttered Down on Paper: A Stylistic Analysis of Swahili Devotional Lyrics
In Swahili poetry, praising God through blessings and salutations finds aesthetic expression in a plethora of genres, particularly mashairi, utendi and takhmis. In this article, I will draw attention to a lesser-known rhymed poetic genre known as gungu “songs,” in shairi verse form, dating to the turn of the nineteenth century. Different from other well-known, fully devotional Swahili compositions such as Sayyid Aidarus’s Hamziyya or al-Būṣīrī’s Qasida Burda, the texts that will be analysed are a selected group of short devotional quatrains belonging to a vast manuscript that otherwise chiefly comprises war poetry as well as dance and wedding songs. While, on the one hand, the presence of devotional lyrics in this extensive poetry collection attests to the legitimacy of religious subject matter in popular lyric poems, the verses also offer an opportunity to reflect on literary prayer (dua) and its architecture, lyrical tone and imagery, in comparison with longer classical Swahili religious compositions, where dua is also interpolated. Is there a set of shared Swahili or Arabic formulas for naming, praying to and praising God that can be found in all of these genres? Can the Qur’an be considered as the sub-text the poets drew on in making their texts speak of the divine? A stylistic analysis, looking at patterns, formulaic dua and devotional speech acts of these yet-unedited short devotional lyrics, will provide the criteria by which I will compare excerpts from other Swahili poetic genres, inquiring how Islamic prayer is woven in between their lines.