|By the Will of Allah, if Mulla Asgher were to be resurrected today for a moment and called upon to address the Community, what is he likely to say? Since Mulla Asgher was fond of delivering his Majalis in Urdu. I can only visualize him uttering the following words:
Kab tak sunate rahe' rudade chaman,
Zamana bare shauk se sun raha tha,
Ham hi so gaye dastan kehte kehte!
The sudden passing away of Mulla Asgher has cast a shadow over the Community. Questions are asked "What now after Mulla Asgher?" To many, Mulla Asgher was known as the founding father and President of the World Federation of the Khoja Shia lthna-asheri Muslim Communities with headquarters in London. To others, he was known as renowned Zakir. A learned Scholar and a relentless social worker.
Many among the younger generation know little about his childhood. His early education. When Mulla Asgher ventured into the Community services. His views on the issues affecting the youths of the Community and his thoughts on various aspects of the Community development.
Who was Mulla Asgher and what was his background? I have been asked to shed some light on the various aspects of his early life.
Born in Mombasa on 25Th November 1936. Mulla Asgher is the eldest son of Mulla M.M. Jaffer of Mombasa. His grandfather Mulla Jaffer was a religious teacher in Zanzibar and Pangani.
Tracing the ancestry of Mulla Asgher. Maalim Najaf Tejani of Daressalaam has written: "Grandfather of Mulla Asgher was originally from Bhavnagar and migrated to Zanzibar in 1900. He died in Pangani in the Tanga region of Tanzania in 1918 and is buried there. He had gone to Pangani to teach Islamic education."
"Father of Mulla Asgher was commonly well known as M.M. Jaffer or as Mulla Mohamed. After the demise of his father in 1918, M.M. Jaffer along with H.M. Rashid and Hassanali M. Kermali went to Lucknow in 1920 for religious education. They returned to Zanzibar in 1925. Upon their return, the three wanted to open a night school to impart Islamic education. Zanzibar Jamat did not permit them to do so as the Jamat was already running one such night school. With the assistance of Al Hajj Remtualla Alarakhia Tejani, they were however able to open such a School at a premises known as "Takim's Godown" owned by the Rashid Natha family."
"As the night School Madrasah progressed and enrolment increased demand for a better location for the night school grew. Zanzibar Jamaat had an old mostly disused Imambara, which was used for ladies only during the month of Ramadhan.
"Mohamed Jaffer Sheriff Dewji and Husein Sheriff Dewji who were the Mutawalli (Trustees) of the Zanzibar Mosque/lmambara Waqf sought permission from the then Marjae Taqlid Ayatulla Syed Abul Hasan Isfahani to utilize the disused Imambara as a Madrasah for imparting religious education. This was to be on the understanding that during the month of Ramadhan, the place would be made available exclusively for ladies to continue with their traditional program.
"Furthermore, the Trustees also sought clarification that the students coming to Madrasah in the proposed Imambara be permitted to enter the Imambara with their shoes on. Permission to this effect was granted and the Zanzibar School Faize was thus established in 1928.
"School Faize taught Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Diniyat and Qur'an. It had six higher classes known as 'super classes'. M.M. Jaffer was one of the teachers in the 'super class'. Among the early voluntary teachers who taught at the School Faize, Zanzibar.
It was a unique School in many ways that could be equated as an Islamic Academy.
"In 1932, M.M. Jaffer migrated to Mombasa. In 1934, he married the only daughter of Mohamed Jaffer Sheriff Dewji. Mulla Asgher was born in 1936. M.M. Jaffer visited Zanzibar frequently to recite Majalis. He was very good at 'Nawha' recitations.
"In 1957, The Zanzibar School Faize was shifted to an imposing custom built School premises donated by Husein Dharamsi Gangji family and permission for the transfer of School Faize to the new premises was obtained from Ayatulla Syed Husein Burujardi."
Upon settling in Mombasa, M. M. Jaffer operated as an Optician and all his children are today in optical business. Interestingly, the various grandson of M. M. Jaffer have also joined their parents specializing in optical business operating in London, Nairobi and Mombasa. M. M. Jaffer Optician's shop at Piggot's Place, Mombasa was a central rendezvous, meeting place for visitors to Mombasa, especially for those coming from Zanzibar. It was often jocularly dubbed as the 'unofficial Zanzibar Consulate.'
In 1942, with his father-in law, Mohamed Jaffer Sheriff Dewji, M. M. Jaffer established the first Huseini Night School at Mombasa and served as its Principal. Initially the Huseini Night School operated from the offices of Sheriff Dewji & Sons, Mombasa. The night school was meant for students who joined other Schools for their secondary education after leaving Ithna-Asheri primary school and as such were deprived of further Islamic education. The Community' sd primary School had a Madressa section providing Islamic education along with the normal academic education.
As enrolment in the night school grew and the office accommodation proved inadequate an established School premises located in the Old Town of Mombasa was acquired on rent for the Night School. Among the early teachers at the Huseini Night School, Mombasa was Mulla Abdulrasul Mulla Hassanali, Amir Karim Hirjee, Hajiali Jafferali Devraj, Amir Abdulrasul Dewji.
A powerful orator, with very good command over Urdu language, Mulla M.M. Jaffer was at his best in rendering sermons of Hazrat Ali in Arabic in strong melodious voice and effectively translating them in refined Urdu. He was also known for his enthusiasm in azadari. At the Huseini Night School, teaching of Fiqh and the Islamic history were his speciality. Tuesday nights were devoted to open lecture/discussion class for the senior students who he conducted in which he mostly dwelt on current topical issues. He was known to be a forthright and outspoken person. On matters of fiqh and religious principles, he would unhesitatingly take a firm public stand. At one stage, he also served as President of the Bostani Jamaat, Mombasa.
That Mulla Asgher inherited some of the traits of his father is understandable. Like father like son. Mulla Asgher also followed the footsteps of his father, his grandfather and his maternal grandfather in actively pursuing the development of Islamic education for our progeny.
Mulla Asgher received his academic education at the Ithna-Asheri Primary School, Mombasa, which, in those days operated from a small building adjoining the Huseini Mosque / Imambara complex and ran classes up to primary Std-IV. Today, this School has expanded into a full-fledged primary and secondary School in an expansive School-building complex providing education up to '' levels.
After completing primary education at the Ithna-Asheri School, he joined the Mombasa Technical High School for his secondary education and studied up to Form IV ('O' Levels) - Senior Cambridge examinations as it was known then. For his second language in his final exams for the 'O' levels, he took Urdu instead of Gujarati. For a Gujarati speaking boy to opt for Urdu as his second language was a novel experience in a predominantly Gujarati speaking society.
At a very young age Mulla Asgher involved himself in social activities. He first joined the Ithna-Asheri Young Men's Union Debate & Education Section. His interest in the educational welfare of the students started at this very young age. He devoted his free time in the evenings in conducting coaching classes for the primary and the secondary School students. With Abdulrazak Molu, Musa Firdousi, Amirali Peermohamed, Abbas A.M. Jaffer and Hassan G.A.D.Musa they formed Hyderi Cultural Group. Private tuition for weak students was expensive and not within the means of many parents at that time. This welfare group targeted such students. Mulla Asgher, Abdulrazak Molu and Abbas Jaffer officiated as teachers on voluntary basis. The other three members looked after the administrative side. Nominal fees were charged to pay for stationery and books. The classes were held at the Huseini Night School premises located within the compounds of the current Hyderi Imambara, Mombasa. Later on he also taught at the Huseini Night School.
Sajjad Rashid, former Chairman of the Mombasa Jamaat, recalled at the condolence meeting preceding the 58Th session of the Supreme Council meeting of the Africa Federation held at Mombasa on 21st April 2000, "Ask any Mombasa-born member of the community of my age group and you will be told that his first contact with the late Mulla Saheb was either at the evening tuition classes or at the night school or both." At School, Mulla Asgher took keen interest in school debates and often led the School team in inter-school debating competitions. He was also a regular participant in the monthly open lectures and debating programs organized by the Debate and Education Section of the lthna-Asheri Young Men's Union which were held within the compounds of the Huseini Mosque and attracted good attendance.
While working with his Father in his optical shop, Mulla Asgher also utilized his spare time to pursue religious education. He enrolled himself as a private student of the late Chief Kadhi of Kenya, Sharif Ali Badawy to study Arabic language. At the same time according to Mulla Abdulrasul Mulla Hassanali he learned Farsi in his association with his father and Mulla H. M. Nasser. He also associated with the various Ulema transiting through Mombasa. He further improved his command over Farsi language by reading and relentless practice. For his professional training, he later went to India for a short course in Opthalmics.
Mulla Asgher took keen interest in the Theosophical Society of Momabsa. The majority of participants in the Theosophical Society were Hindus, with very few Muslim participants. He also attended the interfaith meetings organised by the Christian Missionaries. I recall an occasion in 1960s' when Mulla Asgher addressed such a meeting at the Star of the Sea School, Mombasa. Among those present were late Dr.Jafferali Assaria, Mohsin A-M.Jaffer, writer and a few others from the Muslim community. Most of the participants were Christians, among them priests and Nuns of the Catholic order. In his talk Mulla Asgher dwelt on the Question of human dignity, the spirit of Islamic brotherhood and the impact of the philosophy of Tawheed on the development of human outlook and character. To illustrate his point of view he gave an example of an illiterate Muslim 'turn-boy' of a transport truck. Despite the vast difference in their economic status, this poor 'tum-boy' did not feel within himself to be in any way inferior to his educated truck driver or to his rich owner of the transport firm. He further went on to explain how this poor illiterate person carried himself with dignity and felt so contented and at ease in the company of the educated and materially far better off individuals. In fact because of his faith in Allah, in many ways the illiterate poor turn-boy even considered himself superior to the non-believers. Mulla Asgher then related some Kiswahili colloquial expressions to underline how such minds worked. The impact on those present was palpable. Interest in interfaith meetings continued even after he migrated to U.K. He encouraged the Islamic Education Board of the World Federation to mingle with other Muslim Communities and also with non- Muslims. Mohsin Jaffer, Chairman of the I.E.B and Dr. Sibtain Panjawani, Secretary General of the W.F. often narrate examples of such outreach endeavors to generate better understanding among followers of different faith and denominations.
All through his life it was this audacious approach which made Mulla Asgher brine into fruition many projects worldwide. Once he was convinced that the cause was worthy and he had been able to elicit initial support from the Community, he would go ahead and plunge in with a commitment. Convinced that divine help would ultimately be forthcoming for a just cause, at the same time he had much respect and confidence in the generosity of the Community members. There are numerous examples in his life when he proudly exalted the virtue of the philanthropic nature and the generosity of the Community members for which he felt so proud.
Mohsin Jaffer recalls that a leading Irani Alim from Mashad once told him that they admired the spirit of the Khoja Community when it came to their spirit religious zeal and public charity. While there are many tremendously rich Irani nationals who often contribute handsomely to given causes, a unique feature which this venerable Alim had noticed of the Khoja community was that they were driven by religious zeal. The Khoja community did not rely only on traditional select few rich individuals for donations. "Your Community has developed a culture of paying 'huquq' and donations to worthy causes. Unlike in other communities, a broad cross section of your community members, rich and poor join hands to contribute regularly according to their capacity. This is unique." It is probably in recognition to this generous spirit of the Community members that Mulla Asgher often used to proudly proclaim: "If you disagree with me criticize me as a person. Do not undermine my Community." It is however sad to note some times that some idle-do-gooders from among the Community members with nothing constructive to contribute to the society, while away their time preoccupied in one common denominator; community bashing. Some tend to derive almost sadistic pleasure as a result! The English saying: "you do not have to cut your nose to spite your own face" rings true!
In 1976 when the World Federation came into being, few community members living in Africa, Europe and the Americas knew much, if at all anything, about the condition of their compatriots in the sub-continent of India and Pakistan.
Mulla Asgher, first as President of the Africa Federation and later as President of the World Federation, re-established links with the sub-continent. He personally traveled through India in the Maharashtra Province, Gujarat, Kutch and Kathiawad. Hyderabad, Bihar and also to the northern most parts of Pakistan where the highly backward and neglected followers of the Shia faith lived. As a result of his initiative, some awakening was brought about in the sub-continent. The dispersed communities Khoja Shia lthna- Asheri communities scattered in Gujarat were united under the banner of The Gujarat Federation. Later on, it led to the formation of The Kutch Federation and development projects took off in an orhabised pattern.
Today, the lthna Asheri Community living outside the sub-continent of India has found its "Roots" and the problems of the Community in the sub-continent have become an important feature in the activities of the World Federation.
What was the state of the Community in India until recently? How links were established with the sub-continent? What led to the formation of the World Federation?
Today a small Community of barely over 100,000 spread out from the Western shores of the Pacific to Hong Kong and the Australia in the east, that at one stage risked losing its identity has since emerged as an organized and united community working together to renew links with each other and extend co-operation to other communities in the spirit of Islamic brotherhood, friends and relations, who were otherwise lost to each other have rediscovered common identity and renewed old links for the better future of their progeny.
Related articles: In Memory of Late Mulla M M Jaffer