Students seated for shafahi - viva voce

The Inauguration of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, Nairobi – A Personal Perspective

In mid-April, my father and I arrived in Nairobi from Singapore. It was our first trip to the city, although I have been there in transit en route to Mombasa for Ashara when I was a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics (LSE). We were attending the inauguration of the brand new Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah (Jamea) campus located in Saifee Park in Langata, a suburb of Nairobi, and also to observe the shafahi (viva voce imtehan / examination) of Jamea students. I was happy to make this long distance trip because I have been guest teaching in Surat Jamea for the last couple of years, and I was keen to witness first-hand a significant historical moment in Jamea education and scholarship.

Undeniably, it was a productive and worthwhile visit. My immediate reflection was that of the architectural marvel of this new campus. Although still under construction in some parts, it was already fairly noticeable that the Nairobi campus, with its avant-garde design, houses an institution that is a blend of traditional Fatemi and modernist architecture; and boasts state-of-the-art facilities including a spacious ceremonial hall, a futuristic auditorium and a four-storey library. Taken together, these would make Nairobi Jamea conducive for studying, teaching and research. As an academician, I found the hardware to be well-thought-out and well-suited for a modern-day educational institution.

My second reflection relates to the software of Nairobi Jamea. During my short stay, I was able to interact and network with a number of educators who make up the faculty in Nairobi Jamea. I found them to be diligent, insightful, hospitable and above all, humble and down-to-earth. The students are therefore in good hands as regards their Jamea educational journey. A top-notch educational institution requires a combination of superior hardware and premium software, and Nairobi Jamea, despite its infancy, embodies both, in my view. I am also in no doubt that Nairobi Jamea will radiate the familial ambience of a closely-knit and values-driven epistemic community.

My third and final reflection concerns the shafahi itself where I was seated in the Ewaan, the hall in which the annual Jamea examinations take place. It is always a heart-warming feeling to see the students you have met and taught striving for excellence and achieving the pinnacle of their education. As a political scientist, I have had the humbling privilege of teaching political science to the graduating 11th standard class in Surat Jamea and conducting workshops on thesis-writing (maqala). As such, it was gratifying to see, in close proximity, a couple of the students on the first day of the shafahi braving the intimidating atmosphere, and providing intelligent and cogent answers to challenging questions from the four rectors of Jamea in a calm and composed fashion. Not even the viva voce in defence of my PhD dissertation came anywhere close to the shafahi. Without doubt, the graduating students were fully deserving of their rite of passage into the world of applied knowledge through their prospective service as practitioners or educators.

Looking ahead, one salient litmus test for Nairobi Jamea is whether its education will be able to equip the graduating students adequately to face the modern secular world. Will they be able to straddle the rich Fatemi Islamic tradition and more conventional secular education and worldly possessions? Will they be able to strike a balance or discover a middle path between being conservative and progressive at the same time? Will they be able to craft and employ a smart approach of civic diplomacy to resolve real-life conflicts or difficult problems? Are they sufficiently confident and competent to practise good public relations not just within but also outside the Dawoodi Bohra community? Are they tech-savvy enough to traverse cyberspace and benefit from the use of information technology in this age of globalisation? Do they embody an entrepreneurial mindset and possess the skill-set to conjure up innovative business concepts and launch start-ups? Can the graduating students think, and think critically and creatively? Can the very same students write effectively, not just to themselves but more for the wider public?

My hope is that, with the new Nairobi campus alongside the more established Surat and Karachi campuses (and another in Marol), the above honest and sincere questions can be used as a guide to further enrich the educational journey of the Jamea students, irrespective of their nationality. It is no doubt a collective effort and shared responsibility – educators, students and parents alike – to ensure that Jamea continues to remain reputable and germane to the modern world which we as Dawoodi Bohras live and work in, without needing to compromise on the rich Fatemi tradition of knowledge that guides us as Dawoodi Bohras under the able leadership of the Dai al-Mutlaq.

In my part of the world, we call the communal spirit of helping one another and cooperating as a community gotong-royong or the embodiment of the kampong spirit. It is a selfless approach aimed at cultivating a more communitarian identity. In a proverbial sense, it takes a village to raise a child or as approximated in Swahili, “Asiye funzwa na mamaye, hufunzwa na ulimwengu”. I anticipate Nairobi Jamea being an educational village and a knowledge hub for its students.

I have come full circle from being a guest student in Surat Jamea where I had taken some classes for around two weeks before the millennium to being a guest educator at Surat Jamea for the past two years in the new millennium. I have always relished my conversations with students, whether back home in Singapore or in Surat Jamea. So perhaps if an opportunity arises, and my schedule permits to travel from Southeast Asia to East Africa, it would be an absolute pleasure to contribute to the discourse in Nairobi Jamea, India’s gift to Kenya by the Dawoodi Bohras.

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin is an adjunct professor at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, Surat. He teaches at the National University of Singapore and is writing a book on the Dawoodi Bohras of Singapore.