The Federation

Marhum Mulla Asgherali M M Jaffer
re published by the kind courtesy of the permission of the World Federation
As the community grew in size and number, at the East African Coast, and at the remote
interior, a need to obviate the difficulties caused by dispersion became a focus of attention.
From early thirties of this century and onwards, writers and thinkers began to promulgate an
idea of forming a central organisation to which these Jamaats would be affiliated, thus instilling
a sense of common belonging and creating a social interaction.
Among the first thinkers who wrote about the need of a common platform was Marhum
Abdulhusein Sachedina “AZAD”, editor of the Gujarati monthly, “MUNADEE”. “MUNADEE”
means ‘a herald’. In 1932, this reticent but profound thinker wrote an editorial in his monthly,
appealing to leaders of major Jamaats to awaken and rise to the changing times. He can be
safely called the first visionary who saw the ailing society, and suggested a remedy with clarity.
His powerful pen heralded a new era.
Marhum Azad had a style which was quite appealing. With almost complete command over his
subject, he wrote poetically, gracefully and with enviable coherence. In this editorial which he
penned in 1932, he says:
“lthna-Asheri Society today is overwhelmed by layers of backwardness and retrogression.
These layers have been building up for the last several years, and continues even today. The
horizon is bleak and dark, and nowhere is a ray of light to be seen. The ship of our community is
drifting aimlessly and helplessly in a vast ocean, and none can predict when it will perish against
the rocks. This is not a figment of imagination by a poet, or empty, fictional verbiage by a writer.
Those who care to spare a moment or two to make an appraisal, will agree that our words
portray an exact and accurate picture of the prevailing situation.”
And then he proceeded to enumerate the ills of our society, condemning the time worn,
sometimes outlandish, traditions and social norms which he believed must be shunned. He
described how the community was scattered in the remote parts of East Africa, gradually
becoming disorganized, losing contact with the mainstream of the Ithna-Asheri society. Mincing
no words, he held the leaders of the major Jamaats responsible for the pathetic state of affairs,
“Progress without reform and organization is difficult. We need a strong, fortified set of laws
which should bring about order and discipline in all our Jamaats, big and small, and should open
up the stifled path of progress and advancement. This has got to be our goal, and the easiest
way to achieve this is to form a Central Council of the Shia Ithna-Asheri Community in East
he wrote. In response to this editorial, Marhum Abdulhusein Nurmohamed wrote a letter which
was published in “MUNADEE” in January 1933.
He supported the editorial, and gave a detailed programme for such a Central Council, should it
ever be established. The letter shows that he clearly saw the use of such an organized, central
body, and that he was gifted with a sense of direction to which, he thought, the community could
be led. No wonder he was elected the first President of the Central Council when it was finally
formed twelve years later .
Marhum A. H. Nurmohamed was a public figure, his services extending beyond the precincts of
our community. Amiable, soft- spoken, polite and affable, he was a master of his temperament,
in every sense a gentleman, who could keep his head while others around him lost theirs. He
laid the foundation masterfully, and left his marks as a farsighted and dedicated leader. Tribute
must be paid to his able Honorary Secretary, Marhum Haji Gulamhusein Nasser Lakha who
stood by his side through all the teething troubles of the early days. Marhum G. N. Lakha,
despite his tendency to act as one in a secondary position, was the hub of the wheel.
In 1945, the leaders of the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaats of East Africa met In
Dar-es-Salaam to approve the idea, and form an adhoc committee for a Constitutional
Conference which was convened in the ensuing year, again at Dar-es-Salaam. In 1961,
Jamaats in Somalia, Madagascar, Mauritius, Zaire and Mozambique were brought under the
wings of this Federation, and the central organization , metamorphosed from East African into
African Federation.
The second President of the Federation was Marhum Haji Abdulrasul Haji Nasser Virjee.
Though he hailed from a pioneer family which had once established its trade branches all over
East Africa, he was little known outside Mwanza where he lived. Behind the veil of reticence and
aloofness, was a man gifted with the philosophical attitude, staid habits and clear, incisive
thinking. He was a man of few words. In his inaugural Presidential address delivered at the
second Conference held in Mombasa in 1949, the values in his life emerge clearly defined and
his words show him as a figure towering high, a lone traveler, a detached spectator. His term of
office was short and uneventful. History may judge him as a right man in the wrong place.
The most vigorous and active President of the Federation was Marhum Haji Ebrahim Husein
Sheriff Dewji. He hailed from a family which is known for its religious services, and for its
devotion as well as brilliance.
At the end of 1958, the Federation needed a redeemer. Marhum Haji Ebrahim then provided a
leadership which has remained unequalled till today. Unfortunately, he was also one of the most
misunderstood leaders of our community. Or was it all because of envy which he evoked ?
There was hardly any challenge he could not meet, hardly any hostile strategem he could not
surround, hardly any difficulty he could not surmount. He died in 1964 at the age of 41, while
still in office.
The path blazed by Haji Ebrahim needed a sustainer. Marhum Haji Mohamedali Meghji, who
succeeded Haji Ebrahim as a President, was a man of matchless calm and composure. Despite
his advancing age and frail health, he proceeded to work for the Community with devotion and
diligence. He jealously guarded the seeds sown by his predecessors, nursed them and saw
them bloom before he died in 1973 while still in office.
The ability to create an effective unified organization of nearly 72 Jamaats, further enabled the
Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris of Africa to grow from a conceptually static and arid society into the
one more vigorous and discursive. Anew hierarchy placed greater responsibilities upon the
leaders, giving them a wider perspective. New paths were blazed, and new venues of services
were explored and adopted. Among the pronounced features are the centralization of Funds,
controlled movements of Molvis, unified syllabus for all Madressas, providing assistance to the
needy, planning economic upliftment of the less fortunate members, and giving educational aid
to those intending to go overseas for religious as well as secular higher studies. The growth of
closer ties between the individual members of the constituent Jamaats, commercial as well as
social, was, of course, a natural outcome of the increasing interaction, acquaintance and
contact brought about by frequent meeting of the Federation. The Federation works through the
instrumentality of the Supreme Council which meets every year , and the tri-annual Conference.
The administrative ability and discipline generally displayed by this community has been looked
upon with great admiration by the sister communities in Africa. Of particular interest is the
appreciation shown by the Maraie’ Taqleed like Ayatullah Syed Muhsin Et-Hakirn Taba Sarah,
and Ayatullah Syed Abut Qasim El-Khui in diverse manners. The Khoia Shia Ithna-Asheris were
frequent visitors to the holy shrines in Iraq and Iran, and to the great Mujtahedeen there.
However, it was quite apparent that this acquaintance was peripheral and very formal. The first
intimate relationship between the Marja’ of Taqleed and the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Community
of Africa and their recognition as an active and united Shia people were visible during the times
of Ayatullah El-Hakim, when the then President of the Federation, Late Haji Ebrahim Husein
Sheriff Dewji made a detailed representation. The Community will ever remain grateful to
Ayatullah El-Hakim and Ayatullah El-Khui for their spiritual guidance and for their continued care
and concern.
Whether the establishment of the Federation was a sign of far-sightedness of the leaders, or a
mere fear of decadence, or result of a sense of insecurity felt in an adopted land, is a very fine
point of scholastic sociology; especially so, one would think, in contrast with the parent Jamaats.
of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris in the sub-continent of India who, in spite of their greater number
and dispersal, never federated. One thing, however, is certain. The Federation prepared,
inadvertently though, the Khoja Shias of Africa to find a new role in the World which was rapidly
changing with the technological advance, scientific outlook, and political upheavals.
Beginning from 1964 with the revolution in Zanzibar, the demands upon the Federation became
greater. It had to undertake the unprecedented task of rehabilitating the displaced and uprooted
members, caused by political changes. And so, in 1972, when Asians in Uganda were asked to
leave the country for good, the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri settlement in Uganda disappeared. This
dismemberment, besides causing untold miseries to the affected families, placed the Federation
face to face with a hitherto unconceived situation. The great one-third limb was now amputated,
and while World agencies and governments came to the rescue of the Ugandan refugees on
humanitarian basis, the Federation set itself busily to assist its Community members dutifully.
Needless to say that Shia people from Africa thought of migration. This time the reasons were
political rather than economical. In the wake of Uganda exodus, Khoja Shias from other parts of
Africa girded up their loins to pre-empt anything similar happening to them. Within a space of
four years after 1972, many Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris of Africa found their new homes in
England, the U.S.A., Canada, other European countries, the Middle East- with a section of them
back home in India or Pakistan. Their ties with the Federation of Africa gradually became
weaker, despite being constantly haunted by the memory of the Sweet and happy days in
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