Back to search

Knowledge is Richness beyond Wealth

An investigation into the private library of Mahmoud Mau inspires new research on Islamic intellectual history and the Swahili poetic production of coastal Kenya.

Langoni area, Lamu island, 350 km from Mombasa, Kenya: this is where Mahmoud Ahmed Abdulkadir - known by everyone as Ustadh Mahmoud Mau - was born and has lived ever since. Unless he is out distributing the Friday Bulletin to community members or delivering his Friday sermon at the Pwani mosque, Lamuans need only knock at his door to find him in his library. Ustadh Mau is the imam of the oldest mosque on Lamu. He is also a Swahili poet known throughout Kenya, an esteemed teacher, a follower of the Shafi‘i school, and a Salafist. The bakery that he inherited from his father - the son of a Hanafite originally from India - is now run by one of his sons. Mahmoud Mau leads a very humble existence, imbued with the social philanthropy and morals that are reflected (and voiced) in his modus operandi and vivendi.

As he says about his library in an interview, Mahmoud Mau’s joy lies in his books and this joy permeates his library: “Books are my joy; this is why I have set apart this space for myself, so that I can be alone with my books.”

Let's educate our children'
In March 2018, in response to my question of whether knowledge reflects wealth, Mahmoud Mau explained that knowledge is richness beyond wealth (“elimu ni utajiri kuliko mali”), because whatever you take from knowledge, it only continues to grow, whereas when you use your wealth, it becomes less and less. Fearing that Muslims are losing their knowledge, he states, “Tusione elimu ni ghali”, “Let’s not think that knowledge is pricey!” By reciting a Qur’ānic verse, he reminds his audience that there is no better gift than the knowledge that parents impart to their children: “Let’s educate our children, so they may be properly educated.”

(This post has been written for the ASCL Africanist Blog and the Leiden Islam BlogAnnachiara Raia is a University Lecturer and researcher at the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, Faculty of Humanities, and at the African Studies Centre Leiden.)

Read further from the African Studies Centre Leiden University