Looking out from the central courtyard, Mahad al Zahra peeks out above; from the south

Peace Campus

The Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah campus in Nairobi seeks to propagate universal brotherhood and love that are central to the Dawoodi Bohras, writes MOHAMMED WAJIHUDDIN on Speaking Tree

We drove past the Nairobi National Park, the verdant green forests and beautiful valleys, and entered Saifee Park, a sprawling gated Dawoodi Bohra colony dotted by lavishly built bungalows. Across the Saifee Park sits Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, the stone and glass structure housing the seat of learning and spiritualism rooted in the Fatimi Islamic philosophy.

The imposing building shines like a jewel in the crown of Nairobi. Religion Of Peace. After the previous night’s drizzle, the air was chilly, but the afternoon sun, piercing through the cold breeze, kept the temperature at bearable level. But what really soothed the nerves was the sight of hundreds of students taking the Aljamea’s annual 10-day oral examination. Dressed in traditional libas-al-anwar, white saya kurta-pyjama and caps, the students filled up the huge ceremonial hall while the four examiners, all rectors of the Aljamea, sat on a platform facing the examinees, who were seated on the floor.

The students showed their capability in the memorisation of the Quran and grasp of subjects as varied as Newton’s gravitational force and facets of the Fatimi faith. On the upper floor, from behind a glass-panelled barrier, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq or spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohras, quietly oversaw the activities below. The whole experience lifted the spirit and we bathed in the unseen sea of divinity. But then the Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah’s campus in Nairobi, Kenya, the heart of east Africa, is not just a state-of the-art architecturally stunning institution that blends the ancient with the modern.

It also evokes memories of the educational and spiritual movement begun by the Fatimi imams who ruled a huge chunk of the Islamic empire during the 10th to 12th centuries and left an indelible mark on the world’s intellectual arena. It was during the same intellectually fertile Fatimi era that the famous al-Azhar seminary was set up. But then that’s another story. So why have the Dawoodi Bohras built a multimillion dollar educational, spiritual institution in Nairobi? The noble mission was hammered home by the Syedna himself, while he inaugurated it in the presence of the Kenyan president, Uhuru Kenyatta on April 20 this year.

“The Aljamea fosters among all its students the love for the country they live in. It promotes love, peace and harmony among communities,” he said. The youthful Kenyan president, besides extolling the charity work done by the Syedna-guided Bohras, also said: “Islam is not a religion of violence. It is a religion of peace and some elements are trying to defame it. I hope this institution will spread the message and work in the spirit of universal brotherhood.”

As I walked through the sprawling 14-acre campus that houses a mosque, a Quranic institute, a ceremonial hall, library, an auditorium, classrooms, male and female residences, what impacted me most was the tranquillity.

The beauty was not just in the building’s spectacular architecture. It also radiated from the famed Fatimi values and cultural ethos that the campus preserves and propagates. Sacrifice and social justice are central to the Shia faith and the Bohras, too, are an offshoot of the larger Shia faith. Like the other Shias, the Dawoodi Bohras, too, believe that Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, succeeded him and became the first Imam. The succession, according to the Shia belief, ran in the Prophet’s family alone.

While most Shias believe this succession continued till the 12th Imam named Imam Mahdi (these Shias are, therefore, also called the Twelvers) the Bohras believe that the imamate or appearances of the imams continued till the 21st Imam, Imam Tayyib, went into seclusion. Subsequently, the Imam was replaced by the Dai or the one who invites people for noble work. “The Dai is central to the Fatimi faith. He represents the Imam on earth and guides the community according to the instructions of the Imam who is in seclusion,” said Mustafa Abdulhussain, a Manchester-based senior Dawoodi Bohra community member who has written extensively about the Fatimi faith.

Abdulhussain explained that the Dai, as a temporal head of the community, is the sole custodian of all trusts that control mosques, madrasas, jamaat khanas and educational institutions. Since the Dai leads the community from the front, lives a pious life and charts out the roadmap for the community, it is not surprising that the Aljamea’s Nairobi campus was conceptualised by the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd Dai. On the occasion of his 100th birthday in 2011, Syedna Burhanuddin announced the Aljamea’s new campus in Nairobi; its other campuses are in Surat, Karachi and Mumbai.

“The Aljamea emphasises a holistic approach to knowledge. We don’t hold prejudice against other sources of knowledge,” said Adnan Abidali, a teacher at the Aljamea. “The Aljamea provides a launch pad to its students who embrace universal values. Many of our students have gone on to become successful professionals like doctors and architects. ” It is this emphasis on universal values of love and brotherhood that attracted scholars, activists, diplomats, architects and faith leaders — cutting across religions and nations — to the Nairobi campus’s recent inauguration.

Braving humidity and heat, hundreds of people patiently waited in the ceremonial hall for the Kenyan president. A group of Aljamea’s students presented eulogies to the Syedna in Arabic and Gujarati. One particular community member eulogised the Kenyan president in native Swahili. The Aljamea’s Nairobi campus is not just a milestone in the history of the Dawoodi Bohras, but is set to become a magnet for all those who seek spiritual nirvana, albeit nuanced in the Fatimi faith. Since the word ‘Fatimi’ finds its origins to Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, the primacy of women in the Bohra scheme of things cannot be overemphasised.

No wonder, a significant number of students here comprise girls, and women representation is quite visible in all walks of life of the Bohras. Next time you visit Nairobi, don’t confine yourself to just safaris, visits to giraffes’, crocodiles’ and baby elephants’ centres. Do visit the Aljameatus-Saifiyah too. It is a feast to the eyes, balm to the soul and it nourishes the mind.