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The Story of Tambuka 1728

The Story or Epic of Tambuka (Utendi/Utenzi wa Tambuka) is a Swahili epic poem written by Bwana Mwengo wa Athman in 1728. Also known as Chuo Cha Herkali (the Book of Herakleios or the Battle of Tabuk), the utendi tells of the victories of Prophet Muhammad’s armies against the Byzantine army in Tabuk during the rise of Islam. The text was written in Arabic script, but the author used the Swahili dialect kiAmu in writing the poem. The text contains a few expressions from other northern Swahili dialects, such as the kiUnguja and kiTikuu (kiGunya).  This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Online with World History during that time.

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The Utendi wa Tambuka was written with four vipande (lines) within each stanza. Each kipande (line) has eight mizani (syllables). Each end of the first three lines should rhyme, while the last syllable of the fourth line always in “a.” It also follows that this last syllable is always repeated at the end of the each stanza.

Ali Ibn Abi-Talib is celebrated as one of the heros in the Epic of Tabuk.

 The manuscript begins with Prophet Muhammad’s commemoration of three Muslim soldiers who were killed in battle. It then transitions to the beginning of the poem with an account of Jibril (the angel Gabriel) paying a visit to Muhammad. The angel tells the prophet that God had commanded him and his sahabah (followers) to take Tabuk which, at that time, was held by the Byzantine Empire. It is not clear whether the Hirqal (Herakleios) referred to in the poem was the Byzantine emperor or a governor of the province of Shams (Syria).

The Prophet accepts this mission, and commissions his son-in-law Ali Ibn Abi-Talib to write the accounts of the expedition to Tabuk. Muhammad then writes a letter to the governor of Shams (or the Byzantine Emperor Herakleios) Hirqal telling him to renounce Christianity. The Shahada (the Islamic creed) follows this page, and it then transitions to the commissioning of Ibnu Omar as the bearer of the letter. It also tells of Ibnu Omar’s preparation for the trip and his delivery of the letter to the hands of the Byzantine minister at Tabuk.

The minister just shrugs the letter off and tells the messenger that renouncing Christianity is out of the question. The narrative then skips to the time when Hirqal receives the said letter in his residence in Damascus. He refuses to convert to Islam, and soon the two sides are preparing to go to war. It is followed by a narrative of the battles, and Hirqal’s imprisonment after the Byzantine side was allegedly defeated.

Muhammad’s followers compel Hirqal, his minister, and his friends to convert to Islam, but the offer is met with refusal. The prophet then orders the execution of the Byzantine governor and his companions. The utendi celebrates Imam Ali as one of the heroes of the narrative, along with the Prophet’s companions, Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab.


Picture by: Hakob Hovnatanyan, Public Domain, Link

Green, Roland, and Stephen Cushman, eds. The Princeton Handbook of World Poetries. Princeton University Press, 2016.

“Item Record (Utenzi wa Hirqal).” Swahili Manuscripts Database. Accessed August 22, 2017. 45022a.

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