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the Message Continues ... 3/80

Newsletter for April 2008



Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12


The Ismaili Imami Shia Khojas in East Africa Before the Colonial Period

  Islam must have been brought down the East African coast by traders from the Arab peninsula within a century or two of the Hijrah. A Muslim civililsation was built up in places like Lamu, Malindi, Gedi, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Kilwa and was flourishing when Vasco da Gama came by in 1498. Seyyid Akhtar Rizvi of Dar-es-Salaam points out that inscriptions on the pillar tombs of Malindi suggest that some of the Muslims settled on the coast were Shiah[8].

Some may indeed have been Ismailïs but there is no evidence for or against. For many centuries Indians from the Malabar coast were trading with the monsoon to East Africa. As Ismaili trader converts moved down from Sind they might well have joined in the maritime trade; but again, of the nature of the case, there is no evidence till the nineteenth century.

When Sultan Sayyid Said of Oman and Muscat set up his headquarters at Zanzibar in I837 he encouraged Indians to come and settle in his domains. He gave them freedom of religion and protection. Both Hindus and Muslims seem to have responded to the conditions he created.

It is interesting that Rai Shamsuddïn Tejpar, at that time President of the Tanzania Ismaili Association, remarked in an interview in 1966 that the Ismailis were coming to East Africa 'about 125 years ago.' So far as Bombay Government was concerned they were persons from British India, their activities brought prosperity to British subjects, they were given some distant protection.

Their religion did not matter much. So faras Sayyid Said was concerned, he was an Ibadi Muslim. his Arabs and Swahili were Sunni of the Shafi school, the Indians were a different cultural, social and linguistic group: it is probable that he took cognizance that some of the wahindi were more Muslim and less kafir (unbeliever) than the others, but he was tolerant to all and promoted undoubted Hindus in his service[9].

As for the Indians in the Sultan's domains, whether they were Hindu, Ismaili or Sunni, they were one group with similar customs, from the same area, engaged in commerce, using the same methods.

A strict Hindu finds his religion inhibited by crossing salt water; a strict old-fashioned Muslim should find his faith inhibited by the need for
usury. It was the bringing by Indians of capital which enabled the Arabs and Swahili to-equip caravans and begin the great journeys to the Lakes and beyond; it was the Indians who made possible the opening up of the routes from the sea through Tanganyika to Lake Victoria and Buganda, to Lake Tanganyika and on to the Congo, up the Ruvuma to Lake Nyassa. The European “explorers". mainly followed those routes opened up by Arabs and Asians. In the circumstances the Ismailis would do well.

As to their journey from the India coast to East Africa, we have not yet come upon a written description. As one prominent Ismaïli remarked. 'our ancestors didn't write much. they even signed with their thumbs.' But there are Ismailis whom we have interviewed who are old enough to have traveled by sail in boats owned by their kinsmen before the stream- and motor-ship stifled the sailing boat traffic.

A boat took many days from Bombay to Mombasa. If they were lucky and the cargo was rice, they did not rack for food and water. But conditions could be otherwise[10]. One can imagine that some of the voyages were not as pleasant and that many died. It must have needed no small courage to undertake such voyages.

The motives of the Ismailis who faced this voyage and the unknown in Africa can to some extent be reconstructed. Their homeland was fertile, but where it faced towards the desert, it was liable to cycles of drought. Throughout the nineteenth century there was an increasing pressure of population on the land, though this was more pronounced at the end of the period.

Some have suggested that there was some persecution of the Ismailis in Gujarat by Sunnis and Hindus; persecution is too strong a word, there may have been social pressure on Ismailis. It is significant that a few Gujarati Sunnis (of whom in the homeland there is no lack) emigrated, and that the 'Patel' (a Hindu group) migration in force is twentieth century. It might be that the Ismailis looked to Africa as a place where they could be free to be themselves, as the Puritans looked to New England. Also, it would seem that in India, East Africa is looked upon as a land of promise.

'Go west young man.'

We find H.H. Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah regularly recommending emigration to the inland areas of Africa to the young men: no doubt wise leaders in the community had seen the wisdom of the emigration from the beginning.[11]

It bas been possible to gatber some oral biographical material regarding a few of the Khojas who lived in East Africa in these early days. A certain Jairam Shivji Bhatia was made Customs Master by Sultan Sayyid Said soon after he came over from Muscat to Zanzibar.

Jairam already had a flourishing business on the island and he established agents in the ports of the mainland. His Cutchi relations and friends came to assist him[12]. Even though he was himself a Hindu (though one meets Sivjis and Bhatias in East Africa today who are Ismaili and Ithna-ashari), his associates included Ismailis. An old Ismaili informant who prefers not be named told Azlz Ismail in 1966 that in those early days it was very difficult for an outsider to distinguish an Ismaili. He wore the same kind of clothes, had the same kind
of names, kept diwali, sang gits, danced garba and rasda like anyone else from Cutch and Gujarat. He said that khoja at this time was used in the sense of 'trader.'

It looks as if rite newcomers usuallv went first to Zanzibar and there worked in Ismaili firms till they had gained some experience, some capital and some Swahili. Then they moved over to the mainland and bartered for African goods brought to the coasts, and sold supplies to caravans, guns, gunpowder and shot to hunters and local potentates and leaders who could buy. Those who were really bored went further inland and we hear of the Indian merchants in places like Kazeh (Tabora). Careful sifting of oral evidence at Tabora makes it reasonable to suppose that some were Ismailis.

According to Rai Shamsuddïn Tejpar there is some evidence that the "Müsa Mzurij' who helped Burton and Speke at Tabora was surnamed 'Kanji.' If so he was very probably of the Ismaili-ithna ashari group. At Mombasa an old and reliable Ismaili gentleman told .Aziz lsmai1 (in 1965) that Müsa Mzuri had corne from Surat about 1820 to join a business already established in East Africa by his brother: the two then penetrated inland.

Sir Tharia Topan who had worked for the firm of Shivji Jairam Bhatia look over the Customs for a time. He had great influence with Sultan Sayyid Barghash and helped the British to negotiate the end of the slave trade. This gentleman was definitely a follower of H.H. the Agha Khan, for he contributed richly to the legal expenses in the Khoja case and was rewarded with the title of ‘Vizier' by the Imam[13].

ln the later part of the period under review, mission station records become available at places like Bagamoyo (Holy Ghost Fathers), Masasi, Muhesa, Msalibani and Korogwe (Universities Mission to Central Africa) ln these we hear now and then of the local mhindi or Indian duka-keeper (shopkeeper). In one case, the U.M.C.A. books for Magila name a mhindi who
keeps coming into the picture -Jetha. He greatly helped the mission, supplying his needs, making gifts, obliging it over questions of land. Local oral tradition has it that he was Ismaili[14].

It would seem that as soon as a few Ismailis had gathered in a place they became conscious of themselves as a jamaat. They met to pray, to sing, to carry on their business and social life. They met in each other's houses or in a shelter outside, they would put aside a room as a jamàatkhana then go on eventually to a building. The natural leaders among them would begin to function as kamaria and mukhi. It is difficult to establish when dues began to be sent back to the Imam, presumably a person paid the same dues as he had paid in India, if necessary, when he got back to his home jamatkhana. But no doubt local arrangements were made very early on.

We saw that Zanzibar was paying in 1865, presumably men going to the mailand sent dues to Zanzibar for forwarding and gradually a territorial organization was built up. We shall see below how the system was organized later, but we can be fairly sure that in the early days Zanzibar played a central and vital role and later arrangements were in a sense a dividing up of Zanzibar's jurisdiction. Short visits to Zanzibar in 1960 and to Bombay and Karachi in 1965 and 1971 were sufficient to show that there was a good deal of' documentary evidence in both places which could give us fairly full answers to a great number of historical questions[15].

A personal visit to the Agha Khan in Paris in 1965 elicited the information that the archives of the Imamat were being reorganized and he hoped great parts of' them would be made available through a study Institute he intended to set up. This Institute is at this lime beginning operations in London.

courtesy: Agha H. Jafri





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