The origins of the name Mwari

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In Ethiopia they began calling God, ‘Jah’, which was derived from ‘YAH’, which was short for ‘YHWH’ the Hebrew name of God.

THE word ‘Mwari’ is a southern African name for God that carries a strong monotheistic appeal. 

There is no plural for Mwari and it is only attributable to the Creator and none else.

The origin and meaning of Mwari is in both Hamitic and Shemitic languages. 

In Venda, Mwari is pronounced as ‘Muari’. 

‘Mw’- equates to ‘mu’-, a prefix that signifies ‘one who-’ in southern negro-Bantu languages like Shona. 

Mu-rimi’ means ‘one who farms’, ‘mu-vhimi’, ‘one who hunts’ and ‘mu-nyori’, ‘one who writes’ and so on.

The ‘mu-’ prefix is used in some Shemitic languages like Arabic in the same way. 

Mu-hammad’ means ‘one who is praised’, ‘mu-jahadin’, ‘one who struggles’ and ‘mu-barack’, ‘one who is blessed’.

The ‘-ari’ in Mwari is from the Shemitic-Hebrew word ‘el’ which stands for ‘god’. 

‘Eli’ is Hebrew for ‘my god’.

Mu-ari/ Mwari would therefore mean ‘the one who is God. 

It is most similar to the Arabic name for God called Allah.

Al’ means ‘the’ in Arabic and ‘ilah’ means ‘god’. 

The combination of the two word components gives Allah which means the God.

The monotheistic nature of both the names Allah and Mwari and their Shemitic origins point out to early Hebrew influence in southern Arabian and southern African cultures and beliefs.

The trace leads to southern Arabia, formerly known as Sheba or Saba, a place that Hebrew people have lived and entered Africa from since as far back as 

3 000 years ago.

At that time when King Solomon of Israel existed, the Sabaeans were Hamito Cushite people. 

These were akin to the Bantu who were at this time still in the Sahara region around Egypt.

The likes of Makeda the queen of Sheba and her merchant servant Tamrin were black Hamitic people. They and the Ishmaelites that lived alongside them were the typical Arabians.

The name ‘saba/sheba’ in the form of shava was of negro-Bantu origins and meant trade. 

The Sabaeans were called ‘vaShavi’ and were known for sailing south-east to Africa to acquire frankincense and myrrh from Somalia and gold and hard wood from Ophir which was in Zimbabwe.

The trading port was in Mazambuko (Mozambique), but the market area was in a place closer to Zimbabwe called Sofala. 

Evidence of this trade appears in the biblical books of 1 Kings 10, 2 Chronicles 10, the surah called Al Naml (the ants) in the Quran and in the Ethiopian book Kebra Nagast (Glory of kings).

The Kebra Nagast and another surah from the Quran called Saba/Sheba further indicate that a Davidic dynasty entered Saba and introduced a very Judaic culture.

These Judaic Sabaeans whose ancestry was rooted in King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Levites and other Israelite nobles spread monotheism in Arabia and Ethiopia.

Sabaeans like Makeda stopped worshipping idols and heavenly bodies like the sun, moon and stars. In Ethiopia they began calling God, ‘Jah’, which was derived from ‘YAH’, which was short for ‘YHWH’, the Hebrew name of God.

In Arabia, the Judaic Sabaeans were of great influence to the Hunafa or Hanif. 

These were Ishmaelite individuals who were seeking their own ways of worshipping God as idolatry, pageantry and so on had eroded the ancestral ways of worship.

At this time, the Sabaeans called the Ishmaelite Arabians ‘zanj’ or ‘zenj’, meaning ‘non-observers of God’s laws’.

Muhammad, before his calling which transformed him into a prophet at the age of 50, was a Hunafa. 

He was also a trader and would travel with the Sabaeans on long caravan routes to distant places like Israel and Syria.

He was taught the saying “la ilah yila Allah,” which meant ‘there is no god but The God’ by the Judaic Sabaeans. 

After establishing Islam, he made this saying one of the five pillars of Islam namely the shahada (testimony).

It is thus not far-fetched to associate the formation of the word Mwari with the Sabaeans who also inspired monotheism in both Ethiopia and Arabia. 

After all, they were known to trade with places like Zimbabwe long back and their descendants can be found among groups like the Sena, Remba and Venda. 

The Remba, for example, have Shemitic tribal names and greetings like Sadiki (Saddiq). 

They have dietary laws that are very Mosaic and observe covenants like male circumcision. 

They also bear the last name ‘Zhou’ which is similar to Yhw (jehu) or Jew, the short version of Yahodah (Judah) meaning God’s praise.

They are also called Sena and Shavi, betraying them as Sabaeans from the ancient Yemenite city of Sena which was between the harbors of Tarim and Sayhut.

Even more so the Remba are called vaMwenye which means ‘foreigners’ yet they are associated with God in titles such as varungu/valungu meaning lords and vanyai meaning messengers.

The Remba also use the word zenj in the form of vashenji when speaking in reference to non-Rembas who do not adhere to their laws and culture.

This is all evidence that indeed the Judaic Sabaeans had influence in the Zimbabwean culture and belief systems which founded what some term the Mwari religion.

Sabaean style buildings, terraces and writing characters can be found in the Great Zimbabwe, Nyanga and Mapungubwe on the walls of the Machema site respectively.

Though the influence of the Sabaeans reached Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa long before Islam, the Sabaeans only started settling permanently in Southern Africa post Islam.

There was a mass conversion of Arabians to Islam which followed during and shortly after the time of Muhammad. 

The Ishmaelites seized seeing themselves as zenj (vashenji) because they had become Muslims. 

This, however, began to threaten Judaic Sabaeans with the risk of religious dilution and led them to flee into Africa where their culture and identity would be retained.

This means the Judaic Sabaeans or vaShavi vekwaZhou first began settling permanently in the hinterland of southern Africa at least three centuries after the negro-Bantu who had entered southern Africa from the Great Lakes Region around Uganda.

There they had succumbed to overcrowding after mass migrations from the Sahara region owing to increased desertification.

Close linguistic links among the southern Bantu groups such as identical grammar and similar diction suggests that their fragmentation into Nyasa, Nguni, Kalanga and other related groups was quite recent and cannot predate the 4th Century CE. 

Prior to the arrival of these former Saharans to Southern Africa were the Bushmen found among the San and the Khoi. 

The Tonga joined these early groups before the negro-Bantu.

The negro-bantu brought into Zimbabwe livestock rearing, cultivation, millet and so on. 

They also carried a distinctive totem culture and are the ancestors of the majority of the contemporary Zimbabwean population.

Some Bantu would mix with the Bushmen to form what the settler Dutch would later call the Hottentots. 

By this time the Mwari religion was already in full effect and the fact that the Mwenye were advisors and priests at the Mutapa court shows that the Sabaeans were known for spirituality.

The Portuguese associated these Mwenye people with the Moors of southern Europe. 

The Mwenye were also the ones who orchestrated the killing of Goncalo da Silveira when he tried to convert the Mutapa to Catholicism. 

The Mwenye or Remba taught male initiation rites to the Venda, Xhosa, Chan’ani and Zulu, among others. 

They were known as Abalala to the Mthethwa who would become the Zulu people and would eventually substitute male circumcision with military training to defend against white settlers and raiders.

This shows that the priesthood of the Judaic Sabaeans and consequently God’s laws were known to the southern Africans long before the Sabaeans permanently settled and lived around them. 

Thus monotheism and the name Mwari indeed have roots in early Hebraic thought that long predates the coming of Western missionaries.

1 COMMENT

  1. This article is very interesting and sheds light in the etymology of many Zimbabwean Shona words. Incidentally, I bumped onto this article as I was researching the meaning of one of the Remba names and it’s original meaning in Kabiru or Hebrew.
    I would like to differ with one aspect of this paper where it asserts that the Mwenye were the priests to the Mutapas of the Rozvi dynasty. Just the name Mutapa means ‘the one who captures or vanquishes’ Left without prefix, it is unclear who the Mutapa or Rozvi (The Destoyers) vanquished. History has it on record who Mutapa conquered. This is derived from Mutota’s honorific title- Mwenye- Mutapa. That presupposes the outbreak of conflict or a military engagement in which one tribe was subdued. Otherwise this praise title would not have been won by Mutapa. In other words, The one who conquered va-Mwenye earned this title due to his heroism which may also imply the formidability of vaMwenye as a tribe in pushing back the comers. VaMwenye as you rightly mention was was the other name of Judaic Sabaeans. Remember such honorific titles like Mwenye- Mutapa defined an individual’s heroic deeds. In this case Mutota earned this title after vanquishing vaMwenye which I believe is an adulteration of vaYemen or those from Yemen. It is my submission that the Rozvi drifted down south and vanquished an established Great Zimbabwe culture made up of VaVenda, VaRemba and VaSena. The very title of Mutapa could actually allude to an unrecorded Yemenite holocaust which precedes Rozvi hegemony on African soil.
    If there was harmony between the two groups and not a relationship of the victor and vanquished how come by the time that Karl Mauch visits the Great Zimbabwe complex he found it not in operation with worship and possibly sacrifices but deserted? I do not believe the decline in trade is the reason because the Mutapa would not have tried to replicate the Great Zimbabwe north of the country. Something must have caused them to desert the place and with that came the decline of a once elaborate kingdom. How do we peek into this possibility? The scattered nature of the Moyo- Rozvi people through out Southern Africa today helps us develop a sense of the vastness of the origins Great Zimbabwe because the Mutapa displaced VaRemba, vaVenda and vaSena most probably through bloodbaths in all the areas that were tributaries of Great Zimbabwe.
    One rather not far fetched explanation can be found in the Rozvi totem which has a line that indicates that The Rozvi at one time of their history suffered divine judgment akin to the one suffered by Egyptians during the emancipation process of the Kabiru or present day Hebrews. The statement says in Shona “VaRozvi vakapera nenda”- The Rozvi who were decimated by lice” This is the only black group of people to have suffered this kind of experience other than the Egyptians. If it’s recorded in their praise totem it means that the magnitude of this decimation by lice must have been phenomenal. While this lice plague is recorded in the Rozvi history, what is glaringly absent in the same totem praise poetry is the Rozvi association with Great Zimbabwe. In other words while The Rozvi occupied the elaborate kingdom called Mutapa, they cannot document in their history what they did not create or build. Most of the prominent tribes of Zimbabwe document significant events in their history as well as achievements in their totem poetry. Great Zimbabwe is not documented as a Rozvi creation and I think academia needs to explore this without a feeling that it would mean that foreigners built Great Zimbabwe because the builders of the structure if VaRemba are still black people but of Semitic descent. What distinguishes the Rozvi however is their military prowess in that they vanquished and occupied but in the long run could not sustain the upkeep of the kingdom.
    I make mention of some of this information in my book ‘The New Millennium Missionary- In pursuit of God’s calling’ by Fortunate Hove – Amazon.

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