HUJJATUL ISLAM JAMAAT, ZANZIBAR- Federation Samachar
We were seated at the breakfast table in the lobby of International Hotel, Zanzibar (formerly the Popat Mitha Chambavima Dello) when my sister from the States raised the alarm, "soon we’ll be departing and we’re yet to see Nai Misit (probably the Jamnagris pronounced ‘d’ in misid as ’t’) and visit Nai Chungani. " Thereupon we rushed off.
The early morning showers had left the streets sodden and an overcast sky gave a rather gloomy and sleepy look. Passing through the narrow lanes remarkable for their unevenness, depressive stone houses, shabby graffiti and Indo-Arab multiculturalism we found ourselves amid mounds of the dilapidated Datoo Hemani Girls School that once had been under the trusteeship of Nai Mist. My sister sighed for the school in which she had studied. It was difficult to believe that once this very place was our own Jangbar.
Further down through the gully of Dr. Menezes’ clinic (of the colonial days) and via the once bustling Golarana Dello the Nai Misit minara in all its loneliness glared longingly at us, and also evident was the forlorn ladies imambara evoking sadness. Its memory lingered on.
On the eve of seventh night of Muharram the ladies imambara would be a hive of activities with the organizers busy threading jasmine and rose petals, preparing mehndi, arranging thals and lighting candles. Then little girls carrying green flags, candles and mehndi plates over the sides of which hanged jasmine sehras would walk to and fro while the ladies with thals of fruits, dry fruits, siro and coconut pieces along with boiled grams and sugar lumps moved around encircling the girls, and chanting ‘Mehndi bane Kassimki, Jo lati hai Sakina’. It used to be so ceremonial and moving, and done in grand style. Ah for those days of Nai Misit in Zanzibar!
Nai Misit or Hujjat Jamaat had a mysterious aura about it. Even today to many its foundation remains mysterious. We need to dig deep into this. Basically Khojas are of Hindu Lohana origin from Kutch and Kathiawad converted by Pir Sadruddin into the Muslim Sect of Shia Ismailism. Later dissidence erupted within the Khojas and the devout Shias separated themselves from the rest adopting the truer version of the Shia mazhab-Ithnashrism. Incidentally the Kuwwat Jamaat of Zanzibar was the first ever Khoja Shia Ithnashri Jamaat founded in 1881 when the Khojas of the subcontinent were still facing stiff opposition to establish their separate identity.
The three Nai Alims (left to right): Agha
Muravvij, Aqa Raza and Agha Najfi listening
to majlis by Junni's Husain Rahim.
Initially the Zanzibar Khoja Ithnashries numbered only a few hundreds, and considering their new national and religious status having emigrated from India and also proclaimed the new faith, they ought to have had a strong bond and unity among themselves. It was therefore ironic that they split within eight years.
Perhaps the Jamnagri Khojas had felt insecure as they were outnumbered by the other Khojas who also dominated the Kuwwat Jamaat Committee under the auspices of Seyyed Abdulhusain Marashi. Around that time appeared on the Zanzibar scene Molvi Ghulamhusain (Seyyed Aqa) from Hyderabad, India, whose personality and preaching power emotionally overwhelmed the Khoja Ithnashries, and in particular the Jamnagris who found solace in him. Untowardly a series of unwarranted misunderstandings resulted in the eventual formation of Hujjatul Islam Jamaat. It was the indelible mark. Its initial membership was hardly 100 members and prominent among them were the Jamnagar families of Lakha Kanji, Ali Mohamed Khalfan, Abdulrasool Datoo, Mohamed Sheriff Dewani, Ali Dungersi, Karim Allarakhia, Dewji Dhanji and some others.
A vast plot was obtained in one corner of Sokomohogo/Mkunazini over which the Nai mosque structure found its place and its foundation stone laid in 1890 by none other than Molvi Ghulamhusain. Attached to the mosque were two huge imambaras, for ladies and gents respectively. One of the highest donors was Lakha Kanji who is believed to have spent his entire wealth on financing Nai Misit. Also its kabrastan plot was acquired around Mwembeladu.
Initially there was nothing like a president but trustees or mutwallis, and a mukhi, who were powerful and held in very high esteem. It was only later on the formulation of the constitution that the post of president and other office bearers came into being. Some of Nai’s presidents included Abdulrasul Hassan Virjee, Abdulrasul Khalfan, Abdulla Khalfan, Ahmed Lakha, Ahmed Datoo, Ramzan Khamis Damji, Anwer Hassan Virjee, Hussain Hassam Nasser, Yusuf Hassam Nasser, Mussa Ghulamhussain Lakha, Yusuf Salehmohamed, M.A.Rasool, Hussain Remtulla, Pyarali Giga, Akbar Nasser Thawer, Yusuf Karim Allarakhia, Jaffer Karim Jetha and Abbas Mohamed Sheriff.
Such was the intensity of misunderstandings between the Nai and Junni members initially that they not only boycotted each others mosques but even avoided to enter into wedlock. There was even dispute over a certain property. After the Second World War things improved and when Nai’s president Abdulrasul Khalfan died in 1944 while still in office, both Nai and Junni in rare unity, closed business on the funeral day.
The Nai folk with his sobriety exuded a lot of discipline. Some Nai progeny rose to great prominence. Ahmed Abdulrasul Lakha and Anwer Hassan Virjee became members of the Zanzibar Legislative Council, Ahmed Abdulrasul Datoo was made the Commissioner of Customs and Abdulrasul Dewji Dhanji the Secretary at the Secretariat.
Nai Misit assumed this air of nobility, a la Shahi Darbar, which some mistook for snobbery. There was an event, which produced a strong feeling of dissatisfaction among a few members over a sensitive issue, and this even resulted in a few prominent families like Nasserali Fazal Sheriff, Mohamedali Fazal Sheriff, Yusuf Nanji Kara and Takki Nanji Kara (Takki Dactar) joining the Kuwwat Jamaat.
However nobody could deny Nai Misit's discipline which lent quality to it. Its best example was the office downstairs. Rajabali Nathoo (Rajju) was Nai Misit’s head clerk and Saleh Issa its accountant. Nai Misid’s religious activities and immense properties demanded lot of administrative and accounting work. All credit therefore to them, in particular the indefatigable Rajju whose almost 40 years of devotion and dedication inspired real admiration and respect for him. The board downstairs would be promptly chalked with notifications of the events and also listings of various expenses. It was just remarkable. Even today some of the records still lie about there. Interestingly Rajabali Nathoo was a Kutchi, and so were a few of the Nai Misit office bearers (Mutwalli/Mukhi/ Kamrio/President) like Khamis Damji, Ramazanali Khamis Damji, Hassanali Khamis Damji and Yusuf Salehmohamed Karachiwala, and the man who gave Nai Misit its fabulous minara, Mohamed Rhemtulla Merali (Mammu Hariri), too. They all had linkages with the Jamnagris.
The long flight of wooden steps ascending to the corridor and imambara generated an awe inspiring feeling. The corridor gallery from the top viewed the ample sahan beneath it. The immensely oblong imambara with its row of windows provided Nawabi spectacle resembling those of Luknow and Hyderabad. The imambara would be whitewashed regularly and its spacious floor lay with brand new Persian and Kashmiri carpets of varied colours and designs, and also with straw mats. Its ceiling displayed its row of fans, elaborate lights and gorgeous chandeliers with the captivating range of engravings and tinkling glass pendants. The front corner occupied probably the largest replica of the Karbala mausoleum with zarihs of Imam Husain and other Shohadas donated by Ismail Subzali Thawer.
Muharram was always emotionally charged. The imambara emanated air that was filled with the fragrance of attar, udi, asmini and roses. Noticeable from the second night were the white alams of varying size fixed to the two embroidered horizontal black velvet banners in such a way as to project a semi circular shape, and placed on either side of the mimber. On the fifth night appeared bigger alams with varieties of panjas, like those seen in Hyderabad imambaras and probably brought over from there, and wrapped in colourful satin and velvet with silver and golden threading that gave them a glittering look. The audition, the colour, the pattern, the effects and the fragrance provided splendors to the fully packed imambara, and its audience spellbound, listening to the majlis. What glory! From seventh night onwards the laash, alam and julo shabihs took shape, and awaited with fervency. The gam and the wailing thereby heartrending.
Nai Misid's external view, unlike yester years when it used to be whitewashed on regular bases.
The emotionally charged Muharram at Nai Imambara.
The climax was Ashura day when amid cries of ‘Ya Husain’ Imam Husain’s laash shabih with two pigeons placed on it and Zuljanah wrapped in blood splattered white cloth adorned with arrows, armour shield and a heavy pure gold sword would be brought in to the imambara. Thereafter the alams would be removed and brought into the middle while the circum saf moved around briskly. Later the alams gradually one by one would be taken away and lowered through the imambara window onto the sahan below where they were declothed, their panjas detached, and wrapped in a white cloth like kafan over which attar was sprinkled (alam thanda). It was so emotional and moving. The dim lit Shame Gariba saddened the proceedings further culminating in a processional rite of ‘Wa Askara’ yells by the small girl with her hair loosened and a kuza in her hands while the other ones holding candles walked behind her. The older boys carrying flags followed and the audience chanted ‘Ay Shiaun imshab, shame garibanast’ in unison. The joint recital ‘ Bade katle shah garduse atithi sada, shamia bastando bazu Zainabo Kulsum’ by Husain Datoo and Yusuf Karim Allarakhia marked the end.
Another eventful month was Ramadhan. On entering Nai Misit there is another smaller staircase on the right leading to the mosque, which is on the lower level compared to the imambara. After dipping the legs into the water the larger marbled hoz (fountain) containing an attractive black fish and reflecting light blue water is reached, and from where we step onto the sahan that leads to the beautifully architectured mosque which always reminded of Ramadhan when it would be humming with excitement and buzzing with activities. As usual after darsa, dua would be recited. Thursday nights feasted off dakhu consisting of pilao or bhunni khichri and dahi (curd) right there in the sahan unlike the amaal nights when the nyaz were held in the imambara. On the amaal nights the packed mosque and sahan echoed with the chants ‘Astagfirullaha rabbi wa atubu ilayh’ and leading among those who chanted the loudest were the elders Habib Karani, Ramazan Khamis Damji and Musa Datoo. It had a vibrating effect. Even today when an old timer visits the mosque it ought to remind him of those nights, and the echo felt. On the 23rd night 100 rakat namaaz was as good as a must and during its half session fresh orange juice and tea served. The shabe kadr amaal stretched up to 27th Ramadhan when Ismail Subzali Thawer traditionally volunteered dakhu as well as iftar for both Nai as well as Junni members.
The ample sahan outside the beautiful architectural mosque.
The hauz for wuzu
The minara, built in the 1940s and raised on the corner of the sahan is Zanzibar’s landmark and in fact one of its highest structures. It was built by Mohamed Rhemtulla Merali (Mammu Hariri) in memory of his wife (a la Tajmahal built by emperor Shahjahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz). The minaret commanded a spectacular view. The devoted Habib Karani climbed up to its top twice daily, noon and dusk, to deliver the call for prayers (azan). The minara would become the centre of attraction on the eve of eid when many climbed it to sight and view the new moon. Even then the dakhu spree did not end. The final one came on the eid night itself from Jaffer Mohamed Sheriff Dewani and later Hassanali Dossa who treated the gathering after the eid amaal with biriani na halua (later pilau and halua). On eid morning after the eid namaaz the humble Agha Muravvij would mildly start his khutba in Gujarati with the delivery "Aje eidno divas che, aje khushino divas che". The khutba was followed by ziyarate Varisa by the lovely voiced Hassanali Dhalla. Then began the usual eid greetings in the mosque and the sahan with mostly the kissing of hands among each other rather than the mere shaking of hands.
Another event celebrated with great festivity in the earlier days was eide Zahra or the ninth Rabiulawwal khushali. A grand feast used to be held at Saunbaag on Hollis Road which was under the trusteeship of Nai Misit. Saunbaag was a recreational spot where many community members gathered on khushalis and holidays, recited maulud and held feasts.
Zanzibar was really amazing. While Junni was reputed for Julus, Husain Day and Khushali Bankro, Nai was renowned for its inner extravaganzas. One of those was the Hazrat Abbas nyaz that had to coincide with the Hindu month of Asad. It was customary of Nai or the particularity of the traditionalist Jamnagris. In fact on that day Nai would be bursting with curiosity and projected a different look as the gathering abounded in Junni members. In the earlier days the sumptuous thal contained as many as seven types of mithai – ladu, mesu, jalebi, santa, gagan santa, monthar and the garnished gevar along with vara chatni and biryani or khao saag. What jahojalali! All those who donated towards the nyaz fund would later receive mithai in accordance with their contribution, the higher the contribution the more the mithai. Rajabali Nathoo and Mohamedali Merali accompanied by the workers Musa and Mbrisho who carried those big kikapus (baskets) went from house to house delivering the mithai packet.
Namaze Juma at the beautiful Nai Mosque
The Nai Minara commands a
largest replica of the
Kerbala Mausoleum occupying the pride
of place at the Nai Imambara
The extraordinary Nai kitchen located downstairs at the back was an institution in itself. It gave off a fragrant aroma. With its dhegs, kitchenware and cutlery, and its chief chef Musa and assistants Mbrisho, Hamisi and others, it was bustling with activity all the time. The workers peeled away vegetables, grinded spices and grains, received fresh supplies of meat deliveries and carried out all sorts of cooking activities. Once the food was cooked the crane lifted up the dheg through a hatch made for the purpose onto the corridor at the far end of the imambara, and Rajabali Nathoo and Mohamedali Merali would then dish it out. The Nai kitchen served mouth watering delicacies, which to this very day remain unmatched, be it the delicious khichro, tasty kalio or appetizing biryani. One of Nai’s specialties was its saffron sharbat served with nyaz during noontime and which we used to sip from the thick and colored metallic bowl, another Nai Misit peculiarity. Also peculiar were the dark brown coloured metallic mugs for drinking water, and the solid metallic thalies in which food was served.
Throughout the twelve nights of Muharram thalies were served at Nai Misit, either siro dengu or kalio pau. The afternoon nyaaz provided other varieties including the ever popular daal gosh. Notable among those who served included the father and son pair of Karim Allarakhia and the jovial Gulam Karim Allarakhia. Even aged 80 and plus Karim used to be so active and hectic running here and there that he shamed the youths. There were other elders also like Mukhi Fazal Kassam Chandoo or Mukhi Fazal Megji or Mukhi Nasser Thawer or Mukhi Ismail Virjee who with a bucket of saag moved round the imambara. There was even the Abbas Volunteer Corpse. What is heartening today is that even 40 years since then the volunteers Murtaza Ahmed Lakha and Jaffer Rajabali Nathoo can still be seen wholeheartedly serving nyaz till the very end, wherever they may be.
Then there was Yusuf (Chuchu), another of those Karim Allarakhia sons, who specialized in sharbat. His preparation of thick creamy milk (sharbati ya maziwa) and juices made from oranges and madafu came to acquire a taste of their own. The highly flavoured hot tea, coffee and cocoa were served in beautiful Chinese or English cup saucers which on different occasions varied in size and shape. On khushali nights attar would be applied to the hands and the solid silver container with burnt udi (sandalwood) in it taken to one and all who raised their hands over it palming the fragranced smoke which spiraled upwards. The children would look pleased with the handkerchief presented to them. Indeed everyone had his presence felt, and towards the end offered hot saffron milk stuffed with pistachio and almonds in a colorful cup saucer or the choicest ice cream with wafers in a glass goblet. It was a shahi treatment that lent credibility to the status of Nai Misit and its arty crafty crockery.
One of the contributors to Nai Misit’s immense wealth was Nasser Noormohamed Kasmani who boosted its coffers tremendously. At one stage Nai Misit had about 100 houses under its trusteeship of which more than 50 belonged to Nasser Noormohamed. No doubt Zanzibar’s Hujjatul Islaam Jamaat then was the richest jamaat in the Khoja Ithnashri world.
One of the properties under Nai Misid’s joint trusteeship was the magnificent Nasser Noormohamed Dispensary. The functioning and administration of the dispensary was testimony to its discipline. Mohamedali Merali and the bespectacled pipe smoking Alimohamed would attentively peer through the thick register and pick the patient’s card from the large pile of cards, and also deliver the respective number tag that had to be strictly adhered to. There was no favouritism. The smiling doctor checked with caring intention. He hardly injected and there was no commercial motivation. The dispensary was charitable and the charges minimal. The complicated illnesses of today were not heard of or for that matter x-rays or blood tests. The common prescription was puri (powder) and the white or coloured medicine. The compounders Ismail (a Khoja Ismaili), Husain (Madawa) and Fida Mamu Molu would then carefully grind the tablets into puri, prepare the coloured mixtures into medicine and label the doses on the bottle. The fever vanished within no time. The most arduous job was Hasani’s, the ever efficient male nurse whose small room was at one end of the dispensary. He would apply colourful medicine on a cut or a boil, and then bandage it up with his unique way of tightening the knot. He would even hand over a small pack of malam (ointment) if prescribed. If the bandage had to be changed on regular bases he would vigorously clean the wound. The cut or boil healed in a few days time. The dispensary was meant for all Khojas.
For that matter the members of the other sect also frequented Mehfile Muhibbane Husain at Mtendeni, which thus came to acquire the name Mehfile Private. It was also run by a member of the other sect, Abdulrasul Pira, who converted only later on joining Nai Misit, and hence the mehfil came to be associated with Nai Misit. Eventually the mehfil was managed by the residents of Alladinjo maro who held majlises there in the late afternoons of Muharram.
A group of Bahrainis ascending
the long flight of wooden
stairs on their way to Nai Imambara
Downstairs at Nai Imambara the
water taps for washing hands
Another mehfil to be served with the members of Nai Misit was Mehfile Panjatan located on the outskirts of the stone town. It was run by Ali Kermali initially and later the brothers Mohamedali and Abdulrasul Karim Jetha. Its evening majlises in Muharram recited by Mulla Suleman (Mulla Karo) were well attended. The mehfil’s specialty was vara chatni nyaaz. However, the favourite of all was its delicious muthia, which drew a bigger crowd. Another striking feature of Mehfile Panjatan was Mohamedhusain Kermali Dharamsi (Babu Dharamsi) standing beside the water filled drum and graciously offering water in the metallic cups. From there many packed themselves inside Mohamed Pira’s (Golo Tumbo) matwana to be dropped at Junni Chungani for majlis and chai na Marie biscuit.
The Nai members always exalted at the majlises of the three generations of Seyyed Aqas, Ghulamhusain, Nisarhusain and Raza. I vividly recall Seyyed Aqa Raza’s visits sometime in the late 1950s and later in the early 1960s when his highly emotional rendition had the Nai imambara vibrating, and the congregation spellbound. It was extraordinarily out of this world. Strangely Seyyed Nisarhusain was succeeded as peshimam by the majestic Agha Seyyed Najafi Marashi who became associated with Nai Misit when he happened to be the son in law of Agha Seyyed Abdulhusain Marashi. Eventually came the humble Agha Muravvij who unlike all the other Aghas of Zanzibar had no inherent connection whatsoever with Seyyed Abdulhusain Marashi or Seyyed Husain Shustari.
The progeny of Nai Misid pioneers pictured around 1925 at 'Saun Baag.'
Back row (l.tor.) Jaffer Ali Dungersi, Mohamedali Merali Rhemtulla, Rajabali Nathoo, Musa Datoo, Ahmed Abdulrasul Lakha, Ahmed Datoo, Mohamedali Rhemtulla Merali (Mamu hariri) and Musa Gulamhusein Lakha.
The majlis reciters besides Seyyed Aqas through Nai Misid’s long history included Abdulrasool Lakha, Abdulrasool Datoo, Dewji Dhanji, Hassanali Dori, Abdulrasool Dewji, Ahmed Lakha, Ahmed Datoo, Mohamed Sheriff (Master Sheriff), Raza Karim and Sheni Lakha. In Muharram the services of Mustafa Bhallu and Abdulrasul Bhallu (Datchu) of Junni were sought to fervently lead the saf matam.
In the very early days veteran Karim Allarakhia excelled at the recitation of jiski majlises held at the deceased’s residence on the night of the burial and attended by almost everyone. The death announcement was heralded by the Jinnah capped, half khaki trousered and powerfully voiced Dharamsi’s frightful and loud cry of "Makamte halo bhai" which sent shudders down our spines. Downstairs at the residence white cloth would be covered on the wall or furniture and matanga held for three days attended by the community members who paid their respect reciting the qoran juzu. There was nothing like a mayyat committee at Nai Misit. Individuals merely volunteered to give ghusle mayyat and notable among them were Husain Mhegji and Ladhu Gariali. The ghusal was normally given at the residence and also the janaza cortege proceeded from the house rather than the mosque. The lonely widows with no kith and kin or no means of support were made to live in bewakhana located in a corner of Kiponda/Malindi built in 1932 by a prominent Nai member Mohamed Allarakhia Shivji (Mammu Chiku).
The marriage ceremonies called for elaborate preparations and ceremonies like veeaji majlis, mandvo, maulud, doodhpino, vannai, sargas, cheracheri, ponkhnu, bukhbharani, shindha, sattaro and chandar. Also udi, asmini vanjas, dalias, vikubas and langilangis consumed aplenty by the family members, friends and acquaintances. On the wedding night the garlanded groom was escorted to the mosque for nikaah and then back to his house by a large group chanting asalamualaik under the direction of Maalim Saif. In the very early days the groom was made to wear sherwani and golden satined pagri (turban), hold a sword and ride on a horse, and also the jamaat elderly made to wear the pagri. The ladies gathered at the bride’s residence from where at around midnight they accompanied the heavily clad bride to the groom’s house. It was a slow march through the Zanzibar gullies and the neighborhood awakened by the ever youthful Bi Remi led mamas’ loud shrieks and cheery singing of ‘maso maso manangu usimone maso’. The mamas also carried over their heads the precious dej that included costly ornaments. And imagine that without any form of security! That was Zanzibar at its best.
We were entirely lost in the past and right there before us stood the desolate Nai Misit. It was haunting and provided fundamental pathos. Our eyes were filled with tears. Cruel time had brought the end to the glory in Nai Misit. Its great decors may still be there but the old touch is missing, in fact they are now falling into decay. Its tiny jamaat, which is reduced to almost nonentity, still abides by its legacy and traditions. It is run by Abbas Mohamed Sheriff and patronized by Zulfiqar Habib Karani who from Dar es Salaam finances nyaaz every now and then. The small attendance comprises mainly Bahrainis but that liveliness of the past when there were almost 1000 members remains no more.
Time was running short and we had to reach Nai Chungani. In the olden days we walked towards Mwembeladu hospital from where a narrow lane took us to the kabrastan. That route is gone now and we had to be driven to Gamboo Police Station from where one elderly African man escorted us to the site of the once Nai kabrastan which had a number of graves on both the sides of the narrow passage that passed through it. We visited it every Thursday, Ashura evening and the early mornings of eid. In the past there stood the sheltered spot in a corner where namaze janaza was performed. On Thursdays hadise kisah and marshia were recited there and chai na samosa served when the neighboring African children collected themselves to fetch their share. By its side was the well from where the caretaker Mze Husaini drew water into the buckets to be poured over the graves. Around there were trees and their leaves fluttered, and the birds twittered. All of that remained no more and the entire site transformed. In its place is laid a new mosque built by the nearby African residents. All the graves had disappeared except one or two broken ones with their bricks scattered here and there, and that was where we recited fateha and yasin.
As we sailed off from Zanzibar its picturesque scenery was apparent and even affording us the view of the Nai Misit minaret in the far distance that seemed to bid us adieu. Interestingly today the majority of Zanzibar Ithnashries, wherever they may be, are in complete ignorance of their ancestry. What an irony that the Zanzibar influence after three generations succeeded in obliterating the supposed ancestral feud but failed even after the lapse of six generations to resolve the Nai-Junni differences. We are about to see the millennium end and seemingly the concerned authority also intent on Nai’s merger. Whatever that is, it is a humble plea from the old timers to whosoever to preserve its sanctity and guard its memorabilia.
What a remarkable history! Just like its Junni counterpart Nai also has its paradoxes and surprises. Its contents have been based on insights and reminiscences. My thanks to Brother Sajjad Musa Lakha and my brother Husain for some of the recollections. And of course to my old mother who from her bed keeps visualizing Nai Misit with nostalgic recounting of its glory. May God bless them.
The crane that lifts up the dheg through a hatch from the Nai Kitchen.
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