Foundation, NJ U. S. A
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
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.
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. 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.
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