Comorian woman of Bantu ethnicity with her traditional facial painting. Comorians use "bwe la mssitzanou," a stone ground sandal wood powder, as a facial cosmetic
According to pre-Islamic mythology, a jinni (possibly Spirit) dropped a jewel, which formed a great circular inferno. This became the Kartala volcano, which in turn created the island of Comoros. The early inhabitants of the islands worshiped nature and, most likely, the moon, which they believed controlled the tides. These beliefs unified the islands. The name "Comoros" actually came from ancient Polynesian, Melanesian and Australian people who settled among the original African population. "Comoros" was taken from the ancient Polynesian word "Chammoras", one of their other settlements and has no Arabic origins as the Arabic scholars are trying to portray.
The total area of the four islands is 785 square miles (2,034 square kilometers). Camoros Island is the third-smallest African nation by area and is a member of African Union (AU). Historians call the volcanic islands of the Comorian archipelago as the “perfumed islands” for their fragrant plant life and are known for their great scenic beauty. The wonderful four islands that constitutes the archipelago of the Comoros Islands- “four small effervescent stones, wedged between the nearby large red island [Madagascar] and the Mozambican coast,”- are Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), Nzwani (Anjouan), and Mahore (Mayotte). Of the three Islands, Mayotte is still not part of the country and retains ties to France. But the Comorian government acknowledge it as their own. The several islets that forms part of the Comoros Islands include Banc du Geyser and the Glorioso Islands.
The old capital of the island of Mayotte and Comoros islands all at th e same time - Dzaudzi, lies on a small rocky island Pamandzi (Petit Terre).
The Union of Comoros islands, which has a population of over 1 million people, once played a major role in the world economy and that of the Indian ocean. Out of the 1 million figure those living in France, Madagascar and the Arab countries are not included. In Mayotte it estimated that the number reached 189,000 in 2010. More than 27% live in urban areas. In 1980, the average density was estimated to be 182.5.
Happy kids from Comoros Islands city of Mayotte
For centuries, they were a major stopover along the mercantile routes from the East towards Africa and to the West. The capital city Moroni is on Ngazidja (Grande Comore) island. In the waters toward the deep blue sea around the islands, lives the famous Coelacanth. It is a unique fish once thought by western scientists to have been extinct for millions of years. But in the second half of the last century, an ichthyologist learned that Comorian fishermen regularly caught coelacanths in the deep waters surrounding the islands of Ngazidja (Grande Comore) and Nzwani (Anjouan). Several specimens have since been preserved and can be seen today in museums around the world.
Former coelacanth fisherman holding an anchor that doubles as a gaff.
There is an abundance of life in the sea around the Comoros. One can find everything from giant whales, sharks, big manta rays, sailfish, sunfish to lobsters, crabs and tiny shrimp. Deep water close to the islands, coral reefs, miles of sandy beaches, plus fresh water streams and shoreline springs provide multiple habitats for the marine life.
A group of women selling fish in a remote village in Comoros Islands
Although Comorians practice Sunni Islam of the Chafeite rite, their social organization is matrilineal and residency is matrilocal. Social life is characterized by a widespread system of exchange, which, in turn, creates customary ceremonies and rituals ( aida, shungu ), particularly the Great Weddings ( ndoola nkuu, arusi ). Everyone participates as a member of a given lineage or age group, or as a member of a gender-specific association.
The islands became a French colony following the Berlin conference of 1886-7 and remained under French political control until 1975 when three of the islands: Ngazidja (Grande Comore), Mwali (Moheli), and Nzwani (Anjouan), declared independence from France. They are now forming the Union Of Comoros with each of the three islands given considerable autonomy. The fourth major island of the archipelago, Maore (Mayotte), continued to be administered by France although Maore belongs within the sphere of the independent nation of the Comoros which has been recognized by the United Nations' General Assembly.
Comoros Islands women from Mayotte dancing. Courtesy epinmayotte.canalblog.com
The Comoros Islands are an archipelago of four islands and several islets located in the western Indian Ocean about ten to twelve degrees south of the Equator and less than 200 miles off the East African coast. They lie approximately halfway between the island of Madagascar and northern Mozambique at the northern end of the Mozambique Channel. The archipelago is the result of volcanic action along a fissure in the seabed running west-northwest to east-southeast. The total area of the four islands is 785 square miles (2,034 square kilometers).
The four Islands of making Comoros Islands
Ngazidja is the largest and loftiest island; it rises near its southern end in an active volcano, Mount Karthala, which at 7,746 feet (2,361 metres) is the country’s highest point. Karthala has erupted more than a dozen times in the last two centuries. The capital, Moroni, lies in the shadow of the volcano along the island’s west coast; the town of Mitsamiouli lies on the north coast. North of Mount Karthala is a wide plateau averaging 2,000 feet (600 metres) in elevation. The surface is generally rocky and the soils shallow. There are no perennial streams, and the coast, without large inlets, is ill-suited for shipping.
Mwali is the smallest island of the group. Composed largely of a plateau that averages about 1,000 feet (300 metres) in elevation, the island ends in the west in a ridge reaching more than 2,600 feet (790 metres) above sea level. The valleys are generally fertile, and the hillsides are covered with thick forests. A strong sea swell hampers shipping. Mwali’s chief towns are Fomboni on the northern coast and Nioumachoua in the southwest.
Nzwani is a triangular island rising centrally in a volcanic massif (Mount Ntingui) that reaches an elevation of about 5,200 feet (1,580 metres). Although the soil cover is good, much erosion has occurred, and many areas are no longer arable. There are no good natural harbours. Mutsamudu, on the northwest coast, is the chief town; its port facilities were modernized in the mid-1980s.
Southeast of Nzwani lies Mayotte, the oldest of the four islands. It is claimed by Comoros (a claim recognized by the United Nations General Assembly), but its status is unsettled, and it continues to be a de facto dependency of France.
Beautiful beach of Comoros Islands
The tropical climate has two clearly marked seasons: a cooler, dry period between May and October and a warmer, humid season between November and April. In November the summer monsoon (kashkazi) brings the highest afternoon temperatures—about 91 °F (33 °C). The highest monthly rainfall occurs in January with about 11–15 inches (275–375 mm), and the rainy season is the season of greatest tropical-cyclone frequency. Dry season daily maximum temperatures fall to their lowest, about 84 °F (29 °C), in July. The average annual rainfall varies between 43 and 114 inches (1,100 and 2,900 mm), being highest on the windward northeast sides of the islands.
Rain sinks so deeply into the hardened lava and porous rocks of Ngazidja that wells are difficult to drill. Traditionally, most of Ngazidja’s water supply has come from reservoirs filled in the rainy season and from freshwater springs along the coasts (foumbous).
Less than one-sixth of the land remains covered with forest, and rapid deforestation caused mainly by domestic firewood consumption threatens to reduce the islands’ forested land still more. A coastal zone of mangroves is followed inland by one of coconut palms, mangoes, and bananas up to about 1,300 feet (400 metres), above which a forest zone rises to about 5,900 feet (1,800 metres). Mahogany trees and orchids are primarily limited to the rugged slopes of the mountains. On the highest peaks only broom, heather, and lichens grow. Additional aromatic plants such as frangipani (Plumeria), jasmine, and lemongrass lend a delightful fragrance to the islands.
Woman playing with a giant sea turtle on the Comoros Islands
The official language of the Comoros Islands is Comorian also known as Shikomor or Shimasiwa. The other official languages are French and Arabic. Comorian (Shikomor) is a Bantu language closely related to Swahili. It is by far the most spoken language in the country, 96.9%.
Comorian is the most widely used language on the Comoros (independent islands in the Indian Ocean, off Mozambique and Madagascar) and Mayotte. It is a set of Sabaki dialects but with more Arabic influence than standard Swahili. Each island has a different dialect and the four are conventionally divided into two groups: the eastern group is composed of Shindzuani (spoken on Ndzuwani) and Shimaore (Mayotte), while the western group is composed of Shimwali (Mwali) and Shingazija (Ngazidja). No official alphabet existed in 1992, but historically the language was written in the Arabic script. The colonial administration introduced the Latin script, of which a modified version is now being promoted in the country; the Arabic script remains widely used and literacy in the Arabic script is higher than in the Latin script.
It is the language of Udzima wa ya Masiwa, the national anthem.
Comoros Island woman with her kids at the beach
In the words of the Comorian writer Sitti Saïd Youssouf the history of the Island tells a traces of combined African, Arabic, Malagasy, and French influences and were once important in the significant Indian Ocean trade between East Africa and Asian ports such as India and Japan. However, historical and archeological evidence has shown that the first human inhabitants of the Comoros Islands were African and Austronesian settlers who traveled to the islands by boat. These people arrived no later than the sixth century AD, the date of the earliest known archaeological site, found on Nzwani, although settlement beginning as early as the first century has been postulated.
It is believed that Comoros may have been inhabited by people of Malayo-Polynesian descent by the 5th or 6th century A.D and possibly earlier. It must be emphasized that it was diverse group of Bantu people (mostly Swahili speakers) from the coasts of Africa who came to populate the Islands in around 12th A.D. The African Swahili settlers first reached the islands as a part of the greater Bantu expansion that took place in Africa throughout the first millennium.
After the Africans came the Persian Gulf Arab traders, the Malay Archipelago people, and Malagasy people from Madagascar. Though the Arabs came to meet the African people on the Comoros Islands, most Comorian historians mostly of Arabic extraction state that early Arab settlements date to even before their known arrival to the archipelago, and Swahili historians frequently trace genealogies back to Arab ancestors who had traveled from Yemen mainly Hadhramawt and Oman.
In the year 933, Swahili-Arabic scholar and traveler Al-Masudi refers to Omani sailors, who call the Comoros islands "The Perfume Islands" and sing of waves that break rhythmically along broad, pearl-sand beaches, the light breezes scented with ylang-ylang, a component in many perfumes.
In 1154, Arab geographer al-Idrisi depicted the Comoros on a map and mentioned how its sailors sold metal tools for gold and ivory in East Africa. He considered the island more stable and individually prosperous than the busy coastal ports of Mombasa, Zanzibar, Kilwa and Kitao. In the 15th century, the Arab seafarer Ahmad ibn Majid drew the individual routes among these islands.
Sultan Said Ali bin Said Omar of Grande Comore (1897)
Pre-colonial Comoros Islands
According to legend, in 632, upon hearing of Islam, islanders are said to have dispatched an emissary, the navigator Qumralu, to Mecca—but by the time he arrived there, the Prophet Muhammad had died. Nonetheless, after a stay in Mecca, he returned to Qanbalu and led the gradual conversion of his islanders to Islam.
Jumbe-Souli, queen of the Comorian island of Mohéli, with other Comorian women. The woman at the lower left is holding a child on her lap. Photographed in 1863.
Some of the earliest accounts on the island of Comoros were derived from the works of Al-Masudi, that mentions the importance of the Comoro Islands, like other coastal areas in the region, along early Islamic trade routes and how the islands were frequently visited by Muslims including Persian and Arab merchants and sailors from Basra in search of coral, ylang-ylang, ivory, beads, spices, gold, they also brought Islam to the people of the Zanj including Comoros. As the importance of Comoros grew along the East African coast, both small and large mosques were constructed. Despite its distance from the coast, Comoros is situated along the Swahili Coast in East Africa. It was a major hub of trade and an important location in the sea route between Kilwa (an outlet for Zimbabwean gold) in Mozambique and Mombasa in Kenya.
After the arrival of the Portuguese and the collapse of East African sultanates, the powerful Omani Sultan Saif bin Sultan began to defeat the Dutch and the Portuguese. His successor Said bin Sultan increased Omani Arab influence in region especially when nearby Zanzibar came under Omani rule, and Comorian culture, especially architecture and religion also exhibited features that were unique to the plurality of the region. Sultans on the Comoros a large community of rival rulers controlled much of the islands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
By the time Europeans showed interest in the Comoros, the traditional Muslim, Swahili and Arab heritage islands began to adopt to the changes introduced by European colonization. More recent western scholarship by Thomas Spear and Randall Pouwells emphasizes black African historical predominance over the diffusionist perspective.
European contact, colonialism and independence
Portuguese explorers first visited the archipelago in 1505. By the year 1506 the Portuguese landed on the islands and began to challenge the Bajas (Bantu Muslim chiefs) and Fanis (lesser chiefs). In the years that followed the islands were sacked by the forces of Afonso de Albuquerque in the year 1514 by the Portuguese. The ruler of the Comoran Muslims barely survived after hiding in an extinct volcanic crater and despite the inadequacy of their cover, the Portuguese miraculously never found them. In the year 1648 the islands were raided by the Malagasy pirates, they sacked Iconi, a coastal trading hub near Ngazidja after defeating the weak Sultan.
In 1793, Malagasy warriors from Madagascar first started raiding the islands for slaves, and later settled and seized control in many locations. On Comoros, it was estimated in 1865 that as much as 40% of the population consisted of slaves. France first established colonial rule in the Comoros in 1841. The first French colonists landed in Mayotte, and Andrian Tsouli, the Malagasy King of Mayotte, signed the Treaty of April 1841, which ceded the island to the French authorities.
In 1886, Mohéli was placed under French protection by its Queen Salima Machimba. That same year, after consolidating his authority over all of Grande Comore, Sultan Said Ali agreed to French protection of his island, though he retained sovereignty until 1909. Also in 1909, Sultan Said Muhamed of Anjouan abdicated in favor of French rule. The Comoros (or Les Comores) was officially made a French colony in 1912, and the islands were placed under the administration of the French colonial governor general of Madagascar in 1914.
Comoros Islands women
The Comoros served as a way station for merchants sailing to the Far East and India until the opening of the Suez Canal significantly reduced traffic passing through the Mozambique Channel. The native commodities exported by the Comoros were coconuts, cattle and tortoiseshell. French settlers, French-owned companies, and wealthy Arab merchants established a plantation-based economy that now uses about one-third of the land for export crops. After its annexation, France converted Mayotte into a sugar plantation colony. The other islands were soon transformed as well, and the major crops of ylang-ylang, vanilla, coffee, cocoa bean, and sisal were introduced.
Agreement was reached with France in 1973 for Comoros to become independent in 1978. The deputies of Mayotte abstained. Referendums were held on all four of the islands. Three voted for independence by large margins, while Mayotte voted against, and remains under French administration. On 6 July 1975, however, the Comorian parliament passed a unilateral resolution declaring independence. Ahmed Abdallah proclaimed the independence of the Comorian State (État comorien; دولة القمر) and became its first president.
The next 30 years were a period of political turmoil. On 3 August 1975, president Ahmed Abdallah was removed from office in an armed coup and replaced with United National Front of the Comoros (UNF) member Prince Said Mohammed Jaffar. Months later, in January 1976, Jaffar was ousted in favor of his Minister of Defense Ali Soilih.
Ikililou Dhoinine, President of the Union of the Comoros
At this time, the population of Mayotte voted against independence from France in two referenda. The first, held in December 1974, won 63.8% support for maintaining ties with France, while the second, held in February 1976, confirmed that vote with an overwhelming 99.4%. The three remaining islands, ruled by President Soilih, instituted a number of socialist and isolationist policies that soon strained relations with France. On 13 May 1978, Bob Denard returned to overthrow President Soilih and reinstate Abdallah with the support of the French, Rhodesian and South African governments. During Soilih's brief rule, he faced seven additional coup attempts until he was finally forced from office and killed.
In contrast to Soilih, Abdallah's presidency was marked by authoritarian rule and increased adherence to traditional Islam and the country was renamed the Federal Islamic Republic of Comoros (République Fédérale Islamique des Comores; جمهورية القمر الإتحادية الإسلامية ). Abdallah continued as president until 1989 when, fearing a probable coup d'état, he signed a decree ordering the Presidential Guard, led by Bob Denard, to disarm the armed forces. Shortly after the signing of the decree, Abdallah was allegedly shot dead in his office by a disgruntled military officer, though later sources claim an antitank missile was launched into his bedroom and killed him. Although Denard was also injured, it is suspected that Abdallah's killer was a soldier under his command.
A few days later, Bob Denard was evacuated to South Africa by French paratroopers. Said Mohamed Djohar, Soilih's older half-brother, then became president, and served until September 1995, when Bob Denard returned and attempted another coup. This time France intervened with paratroopers and forced Denard to surrender. The French removed Djohar to Reunion, and the Paris-backed Mohamed Taki Abdulkarim became president by election. He led the country from 1996, during a time of labor crises, government suppression, and secessionist conflicts, until his death November 1998. He was succeeded by Interim President Tadjidine Ben Said Massounde.
The islands of Anjouan and Mohéli declared their independence from the Comoros in 1997, in an attempt to restore French rule. But France rejected their request, leading to bloody confrontations between federal troops and rebels. In April 1999, Colonel Azali Assoumani, Army Chief of Staff, seized power in a bloodless coup, overthrowing the Interim President Massounde, citing weak leadership in the face of the crisis. This was the Comoros' 18th coup d'état since independence in 1975. Azali, however, failed to consolidate power and reestablish control over the islands, which was the subject of international criticism. The African Union, under the auspices of President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, imposed sanctions on Anjouan to help broker negotiations and effect reconciliation. The official name of the country was changed to the Union of the Comoros and a new system of political autonomy was instituted for each island, plus a union government for the three islands was added.
Azali stepped down in 2002 to run in the democratic election of the President of the Comoros, which he won. Under ongoing international pressure, as a military ruler who had originally come to power by force, and was not always democratic while in office, Azali led the Comoros through constitutional changes that enabled new elections. A Loi des compétences law was passed in early 2005 that defines the responsibilities of each governmental body, and is in the process of implementation. The elections in 2006 were won by Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi, a Sunni Muslim cleric nicknamed the "Ayatollah" for his time spent studying Islam in Iran. Azali honored the election results, thus allowing the first peaceful and democratic exchange of power for the archipelago.
Colonel Mohammed Bacar, a French-trained former gendarme, seized power as President in Anjouan in 2001. He staged a vote in June 2007 to confirm his leadership that was rejected as illegal by the Comoros federal government and the African Union. On 25 March 2008 hundreds of soldiers from the African Union and Comoros seized rebel-held Anjouan, generally welcomed by the population: there have been reports of hundreds, if not thousands, of people tortured during Bacar's tenure. Some rebels were killed and injured, but there are no official figures. At least 11 civilians were wounded. Some officials were imprisoned. Bacar fled in a speedboat to the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte to seek asylum. Anti-French protests followed in Comoros (see 2008 invasion of Anjouan).
Since independence from France, the Comoros experienced more than 20 coups or attempted coups.
Following elections in late 2010, former Vice-President Ikililou Dhoinine was inaugurated as President on 26 May 2011. A member of the ruling party, Dhoinine was supported in the election by the incumbent President Ahmed Abdallah Mohamed Sambi. Dhoinine, a pharmacist by training, is the first President of Comoros from the island of Mohéli.
Traditionally, seaborne trade played an important role in the Islands' economy. Today, agriculture is the principal economic activity with crops grown both for domestic consumption and export. The major food crops are cassava, coconut, bananas, rice, sweet potatoes, pulses, and corn. Vanilla, ylang-ylang, cloves, and copra have been the major export crops.
The Comoros were the world's leading producer of the essence of ylang-ylang, an oil widely used in the perfume industry. The Islands were also the world's second-largest producer of vanilla. The market demands for these products have decreased significantly in the past decade, however. In 1996, for example, there was a 60% drop in the value of vanilla and exports declined by 42.7% from the previous year. During the same year, the volume of ylang-ylang essence declined by 15.8% and the value of the exports dropped by 24.6%.
Some animal husbandry is undertaken by individual farmers and a small scale fishing industry exists. Coelecanth specimens provided some income for fishermen and the government. This fish was thought by western scientists to have been extinct for 70 million years but has been caught by local fishermen for years. At one time it was sold to the local government and resold to museums and research centers all over the world.
There is a small tourist industry on the Islands which had been recently promoted by South African interests. For information about this industry and others in the Comorian Union, contact the Chamber of Commerce in Moroni (Tel. +269 773 0958).
France has been the major trading partner of the Comoros. The Islands have a relatively large negative trade balance and the government has been for many years dependent upon external aid. A number of countries in the past have provided this aid with France being the dominant donor.
The currency of the country is the Comorian franc. Its value is tied to the Euro at 492 Comorian francs to 1 Euro. There are banks on the islands of Ngazidja, Nzwani, and Maore but no bank on Mwali. The banks are open Monday through Friday mornings.
Market at Comoros Island
Division of Labor
Children help their parents collect water and wood; girls often work inside the house, while boys work outside. Men and women share agricultural work; men cut down trees and are in charge of money-making crops, while women tend to the food-producing fields. Men fish in canoes or in small imported motorboats, and women sell the fish. Women fish at low tide, using a piece of fabric as a net or a plant that releases a substance that paralyzes small fish. Traditionally, wealthy women do not work in the fields but do kitchen work or embroidery.
Comorians engage in formal and informal commerce. Construction materials and automobile parts are sold by Indian merchants. Comorians prefer civil service jobs that provide clean, satisfying, and regular work to farm labor, which they view as dirty, tiring, and unreliable.
Land Tenure and Property
Three legal land systems coexist: customary oral law, the Islamic title to property, and modern identification. Land used to be split among families in the absence of the concept of individual property: land was community property, and its use was sufficient to allow people to live on it. On Ngazidja, these undivided properties are handed down to the girls but may be used by their brothers or husbands to provide for the household.
Classes and Castes. Society is made up of three classes. Princely descendants of the ancient sultans trace their lineage back to Arab immigrants who married into local leaders' matrilineal families. The title of sharif , a descendant of Muhammad, is handed down through the male line. Farming families are organized in a local hierarchy that reflects their role in the foundation or development of the village. In the cities, fishermen form a separate and socially inferior class, although they can be wealthier than other city residents. Descendants of the African slaves, who arrived in the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries, live in distinct neighborhoods or villages. The lifestyle of the urban Arab aristocracy in Ndzuani differs greatly from that of the farming population.
Symbols of Social Stratification. The great wedding ceremony identifies accomplished men, who wear a ceremonial coat and a special scarf on Fridays and in some villages enter the mosque through a special door. At Ngazidja, only women who participate in great weddings can wear the bwibwi , a black garment. Village women often wear great wedding jewels to work. In the cities, the size of the house a family builds for its daughter reflects its wealth.
Comoran women with faces smeared yellow by the herbal lotion popular in the islands attend a welcoming ceremony for Said Larifou in Foumboni village, Comoros Islands April 21, 2005.
CREDIT: REUTERS/RADU SIGHETI/FILES
Government. The president is assisted by the Federal Assembly made up of forty-two representatives and a supreme court. Religious opinion on legal matters is given by a mufti or a council of ulemas.
Although the constitution specifies that an elected official should rule each island with the assistance of a cabinet, a governor is appointed and works alone. In 1998, a temporary government was supposed to organize elections, which never took place. In April 1999, Colonel Azali Assoumani took power, and appointed a civil government (State Committee) and a State Council largely staffed by the military, with the goal of bringing about an agreement between the islands to establish a new form of federalism.
Leadership and Political Officials. Relations between the government and local leaders (accomplished men) depend on family and local ties. Political parties are more like personal networks than political movements, and electoral campaigns are directed toward and dominated by the accomplished men, who tell their constituents in the village how to vote.
Social Problems and Control. The fundamental social unit is the village or city neighborhood. On Ngazidja, the classification of the male population into age and traditional groups gives each person a role in the village hierarchy. Customary oral law ( ada na mila ) includes sanctions against disrespect toward elders, disobedience, theft, and adultery. Until a fine is paid in money or cattle, a convicted person is banished, and he and his family are cut off from the village's social life. Men convicted of incest are dragged across the village in a shaming procession. If a crime has been committed, the criminal's village may be banished by the regional leaders. Customary law and Muslim law are carried out by the cadis (Islamic judges) in matters of personal rights and inheritance. Modern courts try penal cases.
Marriage, Family, and Kinship
Marriage. On average, men and women marry two to four times but sometimes much more often. Very few men are polygamous and even then have no more than two wives at a time. The great wedding must be held in the village and within the family so that the wealth being exchanged remains within the community. It must be the woman's first wedding even if it is celebrated years after a religious marriage took place. Only the husband may repudiate his spouse, although the wife may provoke him to make that decision.
Domestic Unit. Residency is matrilocal. The domestic unit is dominated by the mother's relatives, including children from earlier marriages and other people for whom the mother is responsible. Some family members eat in the household but sleep elsewhere. Transfers of children within the family occur frequently. If he is from the same village, the father often visits his mother's and sisters' houses.
Inheritance. When she marries, every woman is given a house and arable land. On Ngazidja, land owned jointly matrilineally and passed down through women, may be sold only to escape dishonor. Personal property is handed down by declaration or testament; Islamic law is rarely invoked.
Kin Groups. On Ngazidja, one belongs to one's mother's lineage, called the "belly" or "house," which has its own name. On the other islands, matrilineal transmission is less formalized but one still lives with one's maternal family. Patrilineal transmission, which is of Arab origin, exists on Ndzuani, and three sharif lineages live in the islands.
Infant Care. The birth of a child is considered a divine blessing. A child is always held by adults or by its brothers and sisters. Children are rarely scolded, though rowdiness is sometimes criticized. Chronic malnutrition affects a third of children below age three; this situation is worse in Ndzuani.
Child Rearing and Education. Familiarly nicknamed "Mom" and "Dad," children are trained for their future roles at an early age, especially girls, who do heavy domestic work. A boy's circumcision at around age four is celebrated by prayer and a special meal. All children attend a religious school, where they memorize the Koran. The instructor, often a local parent, is a respected educator. French secular education favors urban residents and men. Public education is disorganized, and private schools open their doors when teachers at public schools go on strike. Boys enter into the age-class system between ages fifteen and twenty. Pubescent girls are watched closely because pregnancy eliminates the possibility of a great wedding.
Higher Education. There is one school of higher education in the capital. Students must go abroad for training, often at their own expense, because scholarships are scarce. Arab countries pay for Arabic–language education and theology, but access to desirable jobs in the administration requires a French diploma.
One must respect and greet one's elders regardless of their social status. A woman may not go out without a head veil. The wife eats in the kitchen with the children; the husband eats at the dinner table or in the living room, where he may invite a parent or friend. Master in his wife's house, a man must behave with dignity and authority
According to the 2006 estimate by the U.S. Department of State, roughly 98% of the population in the Comoros are Muslim. Islam and its institutions have helped to integrate Comorian society and provide identification with a world beyond the islands' shores. Most adherents are Arab-Swahili or Persian, but there are also people of Indian descent.
Local legend claims Islam was brought to the islands during Muhammad’s lifetime, brought by two Comorian nobles, Fey Bedja Mwamba and Mtswa Mwandze, who visited Mecca. Historical evidence suggests Arab merchants and exiled Sunni Persian Shirazi princes first introduced the religion. Islam has long played a central role in the Comoros. Ruling families learned Arabic, performed Hajj, and maintained ties with other Muslim communities, such as Kilwa, Zanzibar and Oman. Several Sufi tariqa, including the Shadhili, the Qadiriya, and the Rifa'i, are also active.
Hassan ibn Issa, a 16th-century Shirazi chief who claimed descent from the Islamic prophet Muhammad, encouraged conversion and constructed numerous masaajid. In the 19th century, Sheikh Abdalah Darwesh initiated the Shadiliya tariqa in the Comoros. Born in Grande Comore, Sheikh Darwesh traveled throughout the Middle East and later converted Said Muhammad Al-Maarouf (d. 1904), who became the Shadilya’s supreme guide. Sheikh Al-Ami ibn Ali al-Mazruwi (d. 1949) was the first of the region's ulama to author Islamic literature in Swahili. Al-Habib Omar b. Ahmed Bin Sumeit (d. 1976) studied in Arab countries before serving as teacher and qadi in Madagascar, Zanzibar, and, after 1964, the Comoros.
Hundreds of mosques are scattered throughout the islands, as well as numerous madrassah. Practically all children attend Quranic School for two or three years, usually starting around the age of five; there they learn the rudiments of Islam and Arabic linguistics. When rural children attend these schools, they sometimes move away from home and assist their teacher in working his land. In 1998, a new Grand Mosque, financed by the emir of Sharjah, was inaugurated in Moroni. The tombs of Islamic holy men and founders of ṭarīqah are frequently visited on religious occasions.
Comorians follow religious observances conscientiously and strictly adhere to religious orthodoxy. During colonization, the French did not attempt to supplant Islamic practices and were careful to respect the precedents of sharia as interpreted by the Shafi'i school of thought. All Muslim holidays are observed, including Id al-Adha, Muharram, Ashura, Mawlid, Laylat al-Mi'raj and Ramadan. Mawlid is marked by celebrations culminating in a feast prepared for the ulama. Many women wear the chirumani, a printed cloth worn around the body. Comorians often consult mwalimus or fundi and marabouts for healing and protection from jinn. Mwalimus activate jinn to determine propitious days for feasts, have a successful marriage, conduct healing ceremonies, and prepare amulets containing Quranic ayat.
Comoros Island woman
Zanzibar's taarab music, however, remains the most influential genre on the islands, and a Comorian version called twarab is popular. Leading twarab bands include Sambeco and Belle Lumière, as well as star singer Mohammed Hassan. Comorian instruments include the 'ud and violin, the most frequent accompaniment for twarab, as well as gabusi (a type of lute) and ndzendze (a box zither). Sega music from nearby Mauritius and Réunion is also popular.
Modern musicians include Abou Chihabi, who composed the Comorian national anthem and who is known for his reggae-tinged pan-African variet music, reggae/zouk/soukous fusionists like Maalesh and Salim Ali Amir, Nawal, Diho, singer-songwriters and instrumentalists.
Comorian cuisine is a mix of East African root-based stews and Indian Ocean (in particular South Asian and Indonesian) rice-based curry dishes. Locally grown spices such as vanilla, coriander, cardamom, and nutmeg figure heavily in regional cuisine, as do fresh fish and mutton. French styles have also influenced the Comorian table.
Death and the Afterlife
People bury the dead according to Islamic rites that exclude women and organize special prayers for the third, ninth, and fortieth days of mourning. Seeing one's dead parent in a dream informs a person about that relative's happiness, facilitating prayer.
Photos from Comoros Islands: Courtesy http://epinmayotte.canalblog.com/
Here, all these women and girls are dressed in the same way as the rest of their group for a traditional dance. They're dancing deba, a dance where they move their hands about - it's also known as the "hand dance" - and sing religious songs, often relating the Prophet's life. Each group usually has between 25 and 50 members.
Another traditional female dance is mbiwi. They chant together, then they sit in a circle and tap two bamboo sticks (mbiwi) together in complementary rhythms. A rhythm I've often heard is cha-CHAK-a-cha-CHAK. Two of the ladies in the circle will then get up and dance facing each other, wiggling hips and bottoms faster than a Western mind can imagine.