by Marhum Mulla Asgherali Jaffer
(Extracted from ‘Outline History of the Khoja Shia Ithnasheri Community in Eastern Africa – published courtesy the World Federation)
The earliest attention paid to the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris dates back to the days, of Sheikh Zainul Abedeen Mazendarani in Iraq. Those were the formative years, when certain Khojas had broken away from the Aga Khan after realizing that their beliefs and practices were not in accordance with Islamic tenets. It is related that a group of Khojas led by Dewjibhai Jamal came to Iraq to pay their homage to the shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussain. While in the presence of Sheikh Zainul Abedeen Mazendarani, they were asked if they had already performed Haj. In an answer which displays the then prevalent attitude, and which remains characteristic of the followers of the Aga Khan even today, they said that they believed that the Ziyarats of Imams took precedence over Haj. A gentle admonition from the Ulama of Iraq awakened the Khojas to the Truth they did not know, with the result that they made a vehement appeal to Sheikh Zainul Abedeen Mazendarani for a tutor to be sent to Bombay. A certain Indian student, Mulla Qadir Husein, was sent by the Sheikh to India in 1873 for the purpose of teaching the Khojas the fundamentals and the obligatory rituals of Islam according to the Shia Ithna-Asheri school. This Mulla stayed in Bombay and remained in service for 27 years, a period which is historically important, though tumultuous, in the development of Shia Ithna-Asheri faith among the Khojas. Some of the students of Mulla Qadir Husein then travelled to Zanzibar, and were responsible for the propagation of faith among the Khojas in East Africa.
The Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris in Eastern Africa will ever remain indebted to the constant attention of Ulema of Iraq and India for their religious training. The Maraje’ of Taqleed sent their representatives to East Africa with a mission to teach Fiqh, to publish the Amaliyyah in local languages, to write religious tracts and treatises, and to preach from Mimber. The speed with which these representatives adapted themselves to the local surroundings is amazing. Some of the Ulema from Iraq are known to have learnt Gujarati and Urdu so as to enable them to communicate with the masses with ease and facility. Their command over these languages, though not very impressive, was tolerable. A group from amongst the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris, who formed he majority of Shi’te population in Eastern Africa, soon became able to preach and teach religion to the members of the Community, and to write scholarly works on various religious topics in their own language. Apart from this tangible result, there is another influence of these earlier Ulema, which is subtle and tenuous. They were men of piety, probity and virtue. Their simple living, zeal and dedication and their clean, immaculate and distinctive record of services to Islam, all had a tremendous impact upon the minds of the Shias. In this implicit manner, these Ulema provided a life style and ethical rigorism agreeable to Islamic code of conduct and behaviour.
Earlier in this century , beginning from the later part of the second decade onwards, the Madrasatul Waezeen of India started sending their missionaries to East Africa. These missionaries were men of profound learning, specially trained for preaching and propagating the faith. They toured East Africa, visiting various Jamaats of Shia Ithna-Asheris and prepared a comprehensive report of their own activities. But the nature of these visits was expeditious, protracted for a few months during which time some of them extended their visits to as far south as Madagascar, and northwards to Somalia. In the early thirties, the need for resident Ulema was felt, and Jamaats of East Africa, Madagascar and Somalia decided to have such services on a permanent basis. The great learning institutions of India, like Nazmia Arabic College and Madaris of Lucknow, Jawadia Arabic College of Benaras and others came to their rescue. The sympathetic and patronizing regard by the great divines of India, Aqa-e-Najmul Millat Syed Najmul Hasan Saheb, Taba Sarah, Aqa-e-Nasirul Millat Syed Nasir Husein Saheb, Taba Sarah, Aqa-e-Baqirul Millat Syed Mohamed Baqir Saheb, Taba Sarah, and later on, Aqa-e-Syed Zafarul Hasan Saheb Taba Sarah, Mufti Syed Ahmad Ali Taba Sarah and Aqa-e-Syed Muhammed Taba Sarah, has left an indelible imprint upon the developments of Shia Ithna-Asheri school in these parts of Africa.
The earliest record of services by a resident Aalim is to be found in Zanzibar where Agha Syed Abdulhusein and Agha Syed Husein Shushtari were sent by Agha-e-Yazdi and Agha Syed Abul Hasan Isfehani from Iraq. Later on, we find Ulema from India serving as resident Molvis in centres like Mombasa in Kenya, Dar-es-Salaam in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Mogadishu in Somalia and Morondava in Madagascar. Other smaller Jamaats followed in the wake, and by 1958, there were more than 25 Ulema stationed in East Africa, Somalia, Mauritius and Madagascar. Needless to say that these men of learning from India and now also from Pakistan, gifted with fluency of Urdu and an eloquent style, equipped with enough of what one might call ‘a Khoja experience’ gained from Bombay and at times Gujarat, enjoyed great popularity. Thus, one can safely infer that Shi’ite practice and piety in Africa was a strategy carefully and lovingly managed by Iraq and India, gradually turning it into the spontaneous movements of the masses.
It is not my intention to pronounce any judgment on the role played by these later Ulema; nor do I feel qualified. In the course of time, however, as the Molvis grew familiar with the local environment and attitudes, as their recruitment became centrally controlled, governed by a unified contract, and also due to the human element involved on either side, the Molvis and the laity, a set, rigid and defined pattern of their role emerged. This was restricted to leading daily prayers, occasional preaching, solemnizing marriages and divorces, last rituals for the dying or the dead, exorcising those overtaken by the evil spirits, amulets and divining. The brunt lay squarely on the shoulders of the Khoja Shias who expected nothing more, and upon those Molvis who found this a comfortable and convenient vocation.
With the passage of time, some thinking Khoja Shias became aware and conscious of this dismally monotonous role played by the Ulema, and were rudely awakened to the need for change. This progressive element began to express itself articulately and persuasively. The sudden shift of attention occurred chiefly because of two reasons. First, a wind of change had started to blow across the continent of Africa; the indigenous Africans demanding freedom from the inhuman yoke of colonization. To a casual observer, this may be a just another political movement. But this was, in fact, a stage set to change the very fabric, structure and attitudes of the society, – especially that of non-African origin – and Khoja Shias were no exception. The narrow vision of the world, engendered by the jealously guarded bounds of communal entities, must change to a wider and broader ‘ perspective. Secondly, and more important, was the dichotomy caused by the limited role of the Ulema. People were religious if they attended the daily prayers – the preachings during Ramadhan and Muharram, paid handsome donations to one or another religious cause; but beyond the precincts of the Mosque and the Imambada, there was a territory foreign to the Ulema; which by mutual understanding was not to be invaded or trespassed.
Discussing the second reason that I have advanced, mention must be made of the effects of the modern World. And when I refer to the modern world, I speak of the revolution in thought, politics and economics which radically altered the material and social conditions and the consciousness of people whose way of life was structured by them. The picture of the world presented in contrast with the influential development all around, was neither relevant nor recognizable. The dichotomy, therefore, was a dichotomy by contradiction; a disjunction had been created, and people were no longer living their beliefs.
The demands made upon the Ulema and the Community at large were very clear. The handful thinkers of reform wanted them to recognize that Religion and social order were interwoven, to an extent that it was not clear where one ended and the other began; that modernity had come in a package, not available in its separate components and therefore it called for an appraisal and adoption within the limits of Shariah; that a detached existence of Ulema among the people they supposedly served was outmoded; that the proper response for any behaviour considered to be irreligious and undesirable was not for merely impute moral responsibility to the doer, but to locate the cause of action by empirical investigation of the social and psychological circumstances of the individuals; that the message of Ahlul Bayt was not an exclusive preserve of any one community, group or class.
As these novel ideas suffered the pangs of labour, a young Aalim from India set his feet on land in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. With an analytic bent and genius, vast knowledge and readiness to meet with the new challenges, this young Aalim was destined to set the wheels of change moving. He was Maulana Syed Saeed Akhtar Razavi. Whether he himself was aware of the new directions to which the Shia Ithna-Asheri Community of Eastern Africa was being led by his efforts, and , whether his efforts were intentional and thus motivated, is difficult to ascertain. But that his arrival heralded a new era in the Shi’ite Society of East Africa is indisputable. Among the Ulema who now remained to discharge their set role, he was perhaps the first to walk down briskly from the elevated pedestal of mere adoration. Maulana set himself to learning Kiswahili, the lingua franca of Tanzania and Kenya, and language of adoption in Uganda, Zaire, Coastal parts of Madagascar, Comore Islands and boundaries of Somalia. With great diligence, he perfected his English. He was now equipped and prepared to meet with the new demands in which he himself was a fervent and ardent believer. This was indeed very important; for the new venue of service was not imposed upon him; it was charted by himself.
The impressive performance by Maulana Razavi received a great impetus from the society which was now becoming fully aware of the creeping changes all around. Whether the East African Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris contributed to the making of Maulana what he became is a matter of meticulous study. One thing is certain. No great and substantial change is wrought in a vacuum. While some of the members of the Khoja Shia society remained wary and scrupulous about the missionary undertakings beyond the community, the impact of the protagonists and their influence had a distinct effect on the majority. From this group of thinkers and enthused men, Maulana gleaned enough support to proceed. It is safe, perhaps, to assume that the exercise was reciprocal. Society was preparing to countenance the demands of the changing times, viewing the role of Ulema in a different perspective and becoming alive to its responsibilities towards Allah and His message. This was undoubtedly conducive to an unforeseen situation. Maulana Razavi set out to meet the challenge, and in so doing, demonstrated his talent and genius which made him famous throughout the Shia world as a dedicated missionary and a scholar of great repute. It is for this reason that in certain thinking quarters of the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris of East Africa, it is firmly held that they must be given the due credit for having discovered Maulana Razavi .