Located at the intersections of anthropology, history, and materiality studies, this paper explores how architectural structures such as clock towers, and objects such as commercially printed diaries – materialities associated with the British industrial age and expressions of Britain’s imperial and colonial ambitions – transformed conceptions of time and impacted knowledge systems amongst Arabic and Swahili-speaking Muslim communities of coastal East Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. The paper argues that not only were clock towers and diaries symbolic markers of British imperialism, colonial expansionism, power and privilege, which also connoted notions of civilization, industry, discipline, rationality, progress, and modernity – these chronometric and chronological technologies and materialities ruptured, altered and regulated the rhythms of black and brown colonised bodies, their social and cultural lives, and the body politic, while also acting as sites of resistance.
Drawing upon materials from the archives of the late Sheikh Mbarak al-Hinawy (d. 1959), an historian, translator and civil servant, who from 1941 to 1959 was “Liwali for the Coast” (chief governor) at Mombasa, the capital of the Sultanate of Zanzibar’s ten-mile coast that was part of the British Protectorate of Kenya, the paper proposes a methodological approach that engages with an archive’s inscribed content alongside the physical properties, presentational forms, styles, aesthetics and design of its objects. Interpreted in this manner, archival objects such as calendars, diaries, files, fastenings and stationery may be put into meaningful conversations with structures, infrastructures and other features of the built environment. This approach is particularly relevant for colonial contexts in which the “materialisation of power relations” was carried out through diverse modalities and at varying scales. Utilizing such an approach allows us to think about colonial-era archival objects and buildings as “colonial assemblages”, develop more nuanced and critical understandings of coloniality’s traces, and make visible the ruptures that it produced.
Zulfikar Hirji (DPhil, Oxford) is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at York University, Toronto. His research explores knowledge production, representation and identity, material, visual and sensory cultures, and critical pedagogies, with a focus on Islam and Muslim societies in a range of historical and contemporary contexts. He has conducted archival, field-based, and community-engaged research in East Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Europe, and North America. His published works include Approaches to the Qur’an in sub-Saharan Africa (2019), Islam: An Illustrated Journey (2018), Between Empires: Sheikh-Sir Mbarak al-Hinawy (1896–1959) (2012), and Diversity and Pluralism in Muslim Contexts (2010). He has also curated exhibitions including Memories of Stone: Landscapes of Prayer, Death and Commemoration in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2017), Cities of the Dead: The Ancestral Cemeteries of Kyrgyzstan—Photographs by Margaret Morton (2015), and Connect, Create, Cairo: Build a City with History and Technology (2014).