THE ZANZIBAR KHOJA SHIA ITHNASHRIS- April 1998- Federation Samachar



The Kuwwat mosque/imambara (Junni Misid).


Zanzibar Jamaat’s spontaneous invitation has brought the Supreme Council this year to Zanzibar. Indeed it is a historic occasion as Zanzibar itself abounds in the history of the community. It was here that our forefathers had first landed in the mid nineteenth century abandoning the shores of ‘Kutch’ and ‘Kathiawad’ in look out for greener pastures, and in their own lingo proclaiming Zanzibar as‘Jangbar’.

As the delegates from all over the world alight from the ship they will be carrying with them weighty emotions and hoping to get a glimpse of their ancestral houses in the stone town, the schools where they had studied and the narrow streets and corners where they had played as children. Some may wander at Forodhani, Mnazimoja or even take a drive to Chwakah or Jambiani where many an evening of olden days had been leisured out.

On landing, the ghost stonetown is imbued with nostalgia and traversing through Malindi’s narrow lanes Kiponda Road is reached where the small ‘Sabil’ monument built by Janmohamed Chattu in commemoration of 1300th anniversary of Imam Husain’s martyrdom becomes evident. Opposite it stands the new Fez School building (Ithnashri School) which was built in 1958 by Husain Dharamsi Gangji replacing the old Fez School across the narrow passage, and it is this old Fez School Building which takes one down the memory lane. Today it may not seem of any significance but it was here sometime in the 1870s, away from the Jamaatkhana, that our revered elders used to gather and resolve decisive issues. Eventually their religious zealot paved the way to dissidence from the main Khoja group whose redoubtable leader, Tharia Topan (later knighted and a street named after him), was unforgiving and tolerated no uprising.

It must be noted here that prior to the dissident movement our ancestry had enjoyed the right of adapting itself to all the normal Islamic precedence such as namaaz, rozas, kissas (majlis), niyaz etcetera. It was only later when restrictive measures were imposed and the faithful debarred from performing normal rituals that the revolution within the Khojas erupted, both in Zanzibar as well as India.

The likes of Dewji Jamal invited the faithful to the old Fez School Building where they prayed namaaz, recited majlis and served niyaz. Leading among the revolutionaries were the two Walji Rawji brothers, Mohamedjaffer and Jhanmohamed. Heedless of any threats after receiving moral consent from the British Resident in 1880 Mohamedjaffer built the mosque adjoining the old Fez School Building while the other brother Jhanmohamed procured the Kabrastan Plot at Rahaleo. Obviously the predecessors lie buried at the Khoja Ismaili Kabrastan at Mnazimoja beside the Coopers ground. Incidentally Mohamedjaffer Rawji was buried at the mosque and his grave still lies there. The Sheriff Dewji family went on to acquire a plot at Mkunazini, converted it into bustan where they buried their family members and held majilises on Sundays.


      The revered Dewji Jamaal


According to Marhum Haji Karim Allarakhia’s report “The Kuwwat mosque and early imambara were built by donations from among the original (founding) members of the community which numbered some 250 souls in 1880. The donation included about Rs.8000 which Dewji Jamal and Allarakhia Walli, both formerly of Mumbai, had mobilized from Mumbai. Other large donors were Mohamed Walji Rawji and Walli Nazerali. During this period Jhanmohamed Walji Rawji also bought a piece of land for burial.”

By the year 1881 the mosque was completed and even the Imambara (ground floor level) built by its side. The plot for the Imambara could be obtained through the good office of Major Mohamed Ahmed Khan (Kalbe Ali Khan) who was one of the wazir of Sultan Majid Bin Said. He also initiated the inclusion of Ashhaduanna Aliyun WaliyuIlah in the azan from the mosque. The Imambara was partly financed by Rhemtulla Tejani and carpeted by Mohamed Walli Dharsi. The stage was thus set in Zanzibar in 1881 for the formation of the Khoja Shia Ithnashri Kuwwatul Islam Jamaat, the first ever Khoja Shia Ithnashri Jamaat in the world, with Pira Walli as its first President.

The Mujtahed of the time Sheikh Zainul Abedin Mazindarani was contacted and Agha Sayad Abdulhusain Jawaad Marshi Musawi dispatched to Zanzibar as Residential Alim. He inculcated upon the faithful the true version of the mazhab Shiaism, thus giving momentum to the faith.

There goes an interesting anecdote that once sometime in 1900 Zanzibar was hit by a severe drought. All the communities were called up to pray for the rains. Sayad Abdulhusain assembled all the Ithnashris at 4:00 a.m. in the sahan of the mosque where they said their Fajar prayers and then were led to Mnazimoja where in the open Namaze Istiska was said. As soon as the prayers were over the skies opened and it rained incessantly. Sultan Humud was impressed and wanted to meet in person Sayad Abdulhusain who had to be collected from his residence. The Sultan became so overwhelmed by the presence of the impeccable alim that he accompanied him all the way back to his residence in the chariot ridden by two horses. Such was the grandeur of the old ulema.


Also around that time a leading ulema from Hyderabad, Aqa Sayad Gulamhusain, paid a visit to Zanzibar. His sermons, eloquence and charisma drifted away a section of the community who formed their own Jamaat (Khoja Shia Ithnashri Hujjatul Islam Jamaat). They went on to build their own mosque, a huge Imambara and even acquired a Kabrastan plot across Mwembeladu.

The cynosure of the Hujjat Mosque is its minaret built by Mohamed Rhemtulla Merali (Mamu Hariri). The Hujjat Jamaat also benefited a lot from the generous Datoo Hemani and Nasser Noormohamed whose immense property was entrusted to it. The Datoo Hemani Kanyashara was the school for girls while Nasser Noormohamed Dispensary provided medical facilities. The dispensary was a huge architectural monument but sadly its trusteeship was taken over by the government from the community. The dispensary ceased to operate as the object of the Trust and in its stead today stands an ostentatiously displayed Cultural Centre. There were recreational spots too, Saun Bagh on Hollis Road (once the Dr. Livingstone House) and Kursum Bagh on Kilimamgu, where often a large gathering met, recited majlises and held feasts.

Interestingly the Zanzibaris refer to Kuwwat as Junni and Hujjat as Nai. Those keen on history may know that while the members of the Kuwwat Jamaat consisted mainly of Kutchis with the interlinkage of few Kathiawadis those of Hujjat Jamaat comprised mainly Jamnagris with few Kutchis. In fact, some of those few Junni Kathiawadi families included the prominent ones of Jamalias (Sheriff Dewji), Mammu Walli Dharsi and Rashid Nathani who were originally Bhavnagri/Mavai.

One of the Kutchi was a youthful and enterprising Ali Nathoo who had emerged on the Zanzibar scene in 1886 from the remote Nagalpur. He went on to succeed Pira Walli as the President of Kuwwat jamaat and reined the presidency for a record 23 years. He amassed wealth and his charity knew no bounds. The Kuwwat imambara built upon the old one was fully financed by him and done on a grand scale.

Ali Nathoo’s charity after the First World War and during the famine in Zanzibar was unsurpassable. The British Resident offered him knighthood but he declined the title ‘Sir’. The Resident was so much impressed by his nobility and selflessness that he enquired of him if he could be of service to him. The great man requested for public holidays for 10th Muharram and 21st Ramadhan. His wishes were granted and these two sacred days were marked as public holidays for 45 years from 1920 to 1964. In fact Zanzibar had been the only place besides Iran where 21st Ramadhan was observed as public holiday. Even today Zanzibar has a street known as Kwa Ali Nathoo.


Another notable President of the Kuwwat jamaat was Husain Allarakhia Rahim, the Public Prosecutor with the Zanzibar Government and hence referred to as PP. He went on to become a Magistrate in the High Court. Husain Rahim was dedicated to serving Islam and the community. After the Second World War he introduced the Ithnashri Voluntary Corps with Ibrahim Husain Shariff as its Chairman, Ali Jivraj as Secretary and Abbas Tejani as Treasurer. There were other Presidents too of the Kuwwat jamaat and these included Husain Sheriff Dewji, Fazel Nasser Mawji, M.D.Kermali, M.A.Saleh, Husain Nazarali, Abdulrasul Khakoo and Sherali Ahmed Ladha.


Husain Rahim (Left) and M.D.Kermali (Right)


In regard to Resident Alims Agha Sayad Abdulhusain who passed away in Mecca in 1905 was succeeded by his son in law, Agha Sayad Husain Habibullah Shustari Musawi. Sayad Husain was a very pious and humble man. He was also the most popular having remained the Residential Alim for 40 years till his death in Zanzibar in 1945. He was buried in Chunga Khan along Rahaleo, the burial ground for the Aghas and Bahrainis. There after followed Agha Sayad Mohamedhusain Nashirul Islam Musawi, Sayad Jabir Hassan, Tahzibul Hassan and a few others.

Agha Husain and Agha Abdulhusain had built up big families. The household of Aghas in Zanzibar was their progeny and held in very high esteem by the Khoja Ithnashris. Also there were Shia Bahrainis.They had a mehfil known as Matemni in Kiponda.Their Alim was Sayad Abbas who was famous for his Kiswahili idiolect.

Zanzibar as compared to other towns in Africa had the highest population of Khoja Ithnashris and they numbered almost 5000, as a result of further conversion and the influx of more arrivals from Kutch and Kathiawad. Such had been the impact of Zanzibar on the community that eventually Kiswahili became the mother tongue (not necessarily the ancestral language but the language one speaks and thinks in) of most of them though with typical dialect and intermixture of Kutchi here and there.

In fact the settlement on the mainland Tanganyika, Kenya and Uganda took place much later, sometime after 1920s though the Coastal towns of Bagamoyo, Kilwa, Tanga, Mombasa and Lamu had small settlements earlier.

The Zanzibaris were well known for their imandari, azadari and khatardari. The building referred to as old Fez School Building was transformed into school in 1928 after the consent of Sayad Abdul Hassan Isfahani was sought. To begin with it had three tutors in M.M.Jaffer(Mulla Asgar’s father), H.M.Rashid and Hassanali Rashid who themselves had earlier been sent to Luknow by a samaritan, Husain Rashid Nathani, for dini talim. The Fez became a full fledged night school where besides dinyat the languages Arabic, Farsi and Urdu were taught. Absulrasul Alidina Saleh became its first principal followed by Gulamhusain Sachu Lalji, Mohamed Jivraj and Mohamedhusain Sachu Lalji. The school had some highly knowledgeable malims in Agha Mehdi Shustari (grandson of Agha Husain), Mohamedjaffer Nathani (Malim Miya), Gulamhusain Peera, Najaf Tejani, Ahmed Issa and many more. During daytime Malim Maulidi, Malim Rajabali (Malim Rajabu) and Mulla Suleman (Mulla Karo) rendered selfless service providing koranic lessons to the children.


The old Faiz school where the dissident movement had gained momentum and eventually leading to the formation of the first ever Khoja Shia Ithnashri Jamaat in the world.


The publication of dinyat and various mazhabi kitaabs by Mohamedjaffer Sheriff Dewji and the periodical Salsabil by Gulamhusain Mohmed Walli Dharsi and Mohamed Jivraj enlightened Zanzibaris and enhanced their imandari. As a matter of fact it was Salsabil which provided impetus to Federation inviting articles on it and offering prizes. All these were printed at Fazal Jhanmohamed Master's 'Husaini Printing Press' that was established in 1901. The press published the Sunday weekly 'Samachar' that was leading in imparting publicity to the Khoja Ithnashris.

Azadari in Zanzibar was second to none. People from outside travelled to Zanzibar during the months of Ramadhan, Muharram and Saffar specifically to participate in the azadari. The Zanzibar shabihs and julus assumed a pattern of their own and were later adopted by the other Africa jamaats, some of which even emulated the staging of ‘Husain Day’ that used to be an annual event observed with solemnity at Old Fort (Portuguese Fort) at night. It was attended by a mass cosmopolitan public and among the dignitaries included the Sultan and the British Resident, and its proceedings broadcast live on Sauti Ya Unguja (Radio Zanzibar).

The majlises by Mulla Abdulhusain Mohamed Walli, Abdulrasul Lakha, Abdulrasul Datoo, Hassanali Dori, Ali Khakoo Rajpar, Fateh Ali, Abdulrasul Dewji, Husain Rahim, Ahmed Lakha, Ahmed Datoo, Mohamed Sheriff (Master Sheriff), Gulamhusain Peera, Raza Panju and the bandh (rhythmic melody) reciting three generation of Mulla Raza Kasam, Hassanali Raza and Jaffer Hassanali Raza were heartrending. The koran and dua recitation by Malim Abdulrasul Bandali, Sheni Juma and Murtaza Bandali had ethereal quality.


The packed audience at the Junni Imambara listening to majlis by Allama Akil Turabi-1960


Majlis by Akil Turabi at Mehfile Shahe Khurasan 'Kiwanjani'-1960

The majlises resounded on microphone from various mehfils. It was at Taziakhana under the watchful supervision of the fervent Kassamali Mohamed Walli Dharsi(Bha Kassamali) that azadari was at its most stimulant. Another ardent azadar was Abdulla Saleh of Mehfile Shahe Khurasan (Kiwanjani) where saf matam continued long after midnight.

The mehfil at Mtendeni run by Abdulrasul Peera and frequented by the members of the other sect joining their dissident counterpart came to acquire the name Mehfile Private. Interestingly the Hazrat Abbas’ ladu occasion that we observe annually is an event that dates back to the Ismaili days (Abbasali ja laddu) and to date given lot of sanctity by them. Likewise the official positions Mukhi and Kamrio are traditionally Khoja designations to which we adhere even today.

The opening of the Haji Rhemtulla Tejani Dharamsara (guesthouse) was inaugurated by the British Resident in the year 1900. The dharamsara was meant for the guests visiting Zanzibar. The dharamsara in usage today was in fact the Bewakhana (house for widows) built in 1932 by Mohamed Alarakhia Shivji (Mamu Chiku).

When it came to khatardari the mahemangiri (hospitality) of the Zanzibaris was exemplary and their khana (food) sumptuous. The imambara kitchen was catered by Gulla Dawood whose delicious Khoja cuisine of kalio pau (aab ghosh) and khichro (haleem) still gets talked about. The pavement outside the Imambara was the famous barza Imamwaro, and the road alongside converted into ‘Khushali Bankro’ (spread over with wooden benches and chairs) on the occasion of khushalis.

Even in the field of sports the community did not lag behind. Husain Rahim was a respected member of Zanzibar Sports Control Board and made Chairman of its Cricket Sub Committee in 1933. Zanzibar Ithnashri Gymkhana is said to have existed long back and had a formidable cricket team. Mulla Raza Nathani, Maalim Mohamedjaffer Nathani, Sherali Megji, Gulamali Kermali (Kabana), Noorali Jessa, Gulamhusain Dharamsi, Baker Tejani, Akbar Gulamhusain and Bashir Nassar featured prominently in cricket. Even the mainland stalwarts like Amir Yusuf, Yusuf Kermali, Amir Gulamhusain, Bashir Tejani and Mohamed Nathoo had learnt and begun their cricket careers from Zanzibar. The Gymkhana also had football as well as volleyball teams.



The Sultan Sayed Abdallah bin Khalifah, the British Resident & other dignitaries at the  Husain Day at Zanzibar's Old Fort.

The history of Zanzibaris is littered with emotions. They were simple, peace loving and God fearing people. There was immense brotherhood and people cared for each other.The standard of education was extremely high and the community boasted of a number of intellectuals. Economically people were contented and mostly Ithnashris worked in Government Offices where administration was excellent. Those who had business retained only minimum margin of profit that resulted in very high purchasing power and generally a good standard of living. The Ithnashris mostly resided in Malindi and Kiponda though a sizable number also occupied the Hurumzi, Mkunazini and Gamboo areas. There was no fear of theft or hooliganism and ladies could even walk all alone after midnight.

The dream of peace always beckons and never remains forever. The sad events of 1960s led to the exodus of the community and its members dispersed here and there. Mohamedali Ismail Dharamsi, Abdulrazak Chandoo and Hassanali Husain Ali Nathoo despite tiny jamaat and hardship endeavored to preserve the legacy and traditions of Kuwwat jamaat. Likewise today’s bench of officials is also doing its needful but the glorious Zanzibar is mere history now.


The Kuwwat Jammat Committee.


The Zanzibar Khoja Ithnashri Volunteers-1961

Seated l to r - Harub bin Abdullah,  Abdulla Fundikira, Mohamed bin Abdullah, Mohamed Shamte, J.M.Jaffer

Standing l to r - Unidentified, Police Inspector, Mohamedali Sonara, Abbas Chattu, Husain Rahim, Yahya Shustari, Akber Jessa, Muslim Jivraj, Husain Bachu,  Mohamed Jivraj, Abdulhusain Jaffer, Gulamhusain Saleh.

The majority immigrants of the 19th century and their descendants having settled in the towns of Zanzibar, Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Mozambique and Madagascar adopted these countries as their home. They lost all the traces of relatives and other contacts in India after three generations. It was the hospitable nature of the indigenous people and the cosmopolitan policy of the government of the day, a legacy which still continues, which gave the community the confidence of staking its future for good or worse in these countries and cultivate loyalty towards them.

Of the former Zanzibaris who have since settled in UK, USA and Canada they still find themselves attached to Zanzibar culturally. They speak Kiswahili among themselves when they meet in the mosque for prayers and majlises. The photo albums fattened by the old photos taken in Zanzibar are some of their precious possessions with sentimental attachment. It is said that one belongs to where one’s pleasant memories are and these are the childhood ones. Those who have settled abroad from Zanzibar find that they still belong to Zanzibar. Those with means do visit the island to refresh the past while others continue to cherish the fond memories.

It need be stated that in the absence of any record or archives it was not easy to compile a definitive list of events or to logically construct a coherent narration for what must be the most extraordinary Khoja Shia Ithnashri Jamaat. It has its paradoxes and surprises as well as moments of glory and despair. Its contents have been based on personal experience and interviews with a few elders of Zanzibar origin. Here mention must be made of Maalim Najaf Tejani who was of immense help furnishing information, providing photographs and also clarifying certain intricacies. We thank all of them.


The Zanzibar Khoja Ithnashris-1949

Back row l to r - Mohamedali, Raza Manji, Unidentified, Unidentified, Abbas Versi, Abdulla Maskati.

Standing(2nd row) l to r - Mohamed Hasham, Unidentified, Mehdi Lalji, Unidentified, Mohamed Bachu, Husain Nathoo, Anwer Rahim, , Unidentified, Mohamed Walji, Abbas Marvan, Ramzan Mukhtar, Babu Hirji, Kassamali Versi, Ibrahim Manji, Ahmed Juma, Yusuf Ratani, Abdulrazak Chandoo, Gulam Jacksi, Mohamed(Mandazi), Akber Kallu, Anwer Ladha.

Seated l to r - Pyarali Rahim, Akber Jessa, Gulamhusain Saleh, Fazal Nasser Mawji, Baker Walji(Master), Mohamedhusain Ahmed, Sultan Meghji.

Front l to r - Mohamed(Matoto), Muslim Dungersi, Gulam Jivraj, Raza H.D.Kermali, Asghar Pira Hirji,  Husain Walli







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