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“Suu ulimwengu bahari tesi [This world is a tempestuous sea],” laments the poet Sayyid Abdallah bin Ali bin Nasir (1720-1820) in his poem Al-Inkishafi, in which he seeks a stable point in the stormy ocean of historical upheavals. Al-Inkishafi has been translated as “The Soul’s Awakening” (Hichens), as self-examination or revelation. Against the backdrop of a depiction of the economic decline of the Pate sultanate at the end of the seventeenth century, the poem dwells on the vanity of earthly life and worldly pleasures and questions the presence of the self in the world and whether the self can withdraw itself from the world in search of a transcendent stable point.
The poem arose in the context of an ongoing poetic discourse along the East African coast, where Sufism and religious asceticism found expression in poetry, and my paper reads it alongside other poems from this period as evidence of the constitution of introspection, interiority, and a new kind of self-consciousness. I will specifically examine the role of attention in this process. In addition to being a cognitive filter that removes confusion and error from thought and ensures the self—a relational construct arising from the interaction of reason, passions, and the world—constructs an adequate intellectual representation of the world, attention acquires ethical and pragmatic connotations in facilitating the self’s resistance to temptation as well as its focus on salvation. It is, effectively, only thanks to attention that the self is able to discriminate both cognitively and morally and, crucially, to maintain agency through exercising control over its desires and actions.
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