Africa, a continent of natural wonders, stunning expanses and majestic wildlife that in many ways sits at the heart of the world and at the centre of its civilizations.
It has captured the imagination of explorers and adventurers, writers and poets, fought over by empires and walked upon by prophets.
Standing out from its most magnificent features is the world’s longest river, The Nile which springs from Kenya’s Lake Victoria and then twists and turns its way upwards through Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea.
It is the river that courses through the ancient city of Cairo, founded by the Fatimi imam al-Mu`izz as the capital of the Fatimi Islamic Empire. This empire was renowned for its advances in knowledge, the arts and sciences, its resplendent architecture and its multi-cultural diversity. It was here that the Ismaili tradition of scholarly learning took root; a tradition faithfully adhered to by the Bohras today.
Today, that tradition of learning founded on the banks of The Nile in Cairo, finds a new expression in the founding of Al Jamea tus Saifiyah in Nairobi, in Kenya; the country from where The Nile begins. It has been a journey of almost a millennium and one that has taken us from Africa, to Yemen, to India and now back once more to Africa again.
After the Fatimi Imam went into seclusion it has been the tradition of the Du`aat Mutlaqeen to personally oversee the teaching and instruction of students who come to them in the search of it. Numerous instances of this are recorded in the historical tomes of the community – such as the epistles of the Du’aat and narratives such as Muntaza al-Akhbar.
In Yemen for example, the third Da`i, Syedna HatimRA, gave sermons and lectures in a cove on a mountainside ledge known as ‘Kahf al-Na`eem’ in Hutaib; situated high in the mountains of Haraaz. Later, after the seat of the D`awat had moved to India, the Du`aat continued this tradition of personal instruction, even during times of persecution. For example, in Ahmedabad, an important historical center for the Bohras, these lectures would sometimes take place on rooftops or underground – away from the prying eyes of hostile rulers.
Some years later, the 34th Da`i Syedna Ismail BadruddinRA took an oath that if he were to become the Da`i, he would cater to the lodging and boarding requirements of all the students who came to him. Upon becoming Da’i he established a centre in Nawanagar (today’s Jamnagar) giving free boarding and lodging to the students – at a cost said to have been 200,000 Mahmudi of the time – from his personal funds. Not only did he himself keep this promise but it has also been kept by every subsequent Da`i since his passing in 1085AH/1674AD – close to 350 years.
Today all students, faculty members and their families of the four Aljamea campuses (Surat, Mumbai, Karachi, Nairobi) are provided cooked meals at lunch and dinner every day of the week throughout the academic year. This is a total in excess of 3000 individuals.
Elsewhere, Syedi Abdulqadir HakimuddinQR – mazoon of the 38th da`i Syedna Ismail BadruddinRA established similar schools in Ujjain and Burhanpur again providing for all lodging and boarding for students.
Then, in 1225AH/1810AD, the 43rd da`i, Syedna Abdeali SaifuddinRA expanded and institutionalised this instruction of students by establishing Al-Dars al-Saifee in Surat where no less than 200 students were maintained. Instruction was imparted on, among other subjects; theology, Arabic literature, mathematics and philosophy as treated by classical Arabic writers.
It was exactly a century later that the 51st da`i Dr Syedna Taher SaifuddinRA ascended the throne of d`awat and in 1381/1961 he completed the revamping of the Dars in Surat. Reflecting the changing of the times and in keeping with the Fatemi philosophy of preserving the ‘old and enduring’ whilst incorporating the ‘new and beneficial’ ; new educational practices and contemporary subjects were welcomed with the inclusion of courses in English, sciences and the humanities.
Significantly, Syedna Taher SaifuddinRA invited the first female students to study in the institute as equals with their male peers. At the time female student numbers were sparse, they entered in small numbers and at advanced ages and often left after a short span. Up until the 1980s those that completed the eleventh year of the course would be in single figures if at all but today the ladies equal the gents and an increasingly large number of them stay the whole course for full graduation.
This transformation of Al-Dars al-Saifee was commemorated with a new name; Al-Jamea-tus-Saifiyah , ‘jamea’ being the Arabic word for university and ‘Saifiyah’ paying due tribute to the efforts of both Syedna Abdeali SaifuddinRA and Syedna Taher SaifuddinRA in the formation of the institute.
The 52nd da`i, Dr Syedna Mohammed BurhanuddinRA continued and augmented the modernization initiated by his predecessor. He provided the campus with the latest technology and facilities and, in 1396AH/1976AD, established an institute dedicated to the study of the Quran, its text, arts and sciences; known as Mahad al-Zahra. It was given a state of the art language laboratory that was used for language improvement as well as for enhancing the quality of Quranic recitation, a first in Quranic education.
In 1404AH/1983AD a new campus of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah was established in Karachi by His Holiness which mirrored its sister academy in Surat. During this period, a complete renovation and refurbishment process was also undertaken for the Surat campus.
Nearly 30 years later, on the occasion of his 100th birthday, His Holiness announced the establishment of a third campus in Nairobi, Kenya. It is this campus that is set to be inaugurated in Rajabul Asab of this year of 1438AH (April 2017). Thus, an educational movement that traces its heritage to the Fatemi imams of North Africa and Egypt, returns to the continent of its origin.
In his Golden Jubilee year, Syedna Burhanuddin’s son and designated successor, Syedna Mufaddal SaifuddinTUS announced – on his behalf – during the discourse on the occasion of Syedna Taher Saifuddin’sRA urs mubarak (death anniversary) ; that another campus of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah would be constructed in the suburbs of the Indian metropolis of Mumbai in Marol. The original intent of a campus in Mumbai had been proposed by the 49th da`i Syedna Mohammed BurhanuddinRA and this wish was now brought to fruition by his grandson and namesake the 52nd da`i.
Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, Nairobi, Kenya
The new campus in Nairobi has been under construction for 5 years and its architecture is intended to be a representation of multiple periods of the community’s history using elements and design motifs from North Africa, Egypt, Yemen and India.
One enters towards the Mahad al-Zahra Quran Institute through a huge portal inspired by Baab al-Nasr, one of the four gates of Old Cairo. It is flanked either side by side entrances that replicate another of those gates; Baab al-Tawfiq.
As one exits the Mahad from its other side one enters the large courtyard at its centre evoking the Fatimi masjids of Cairo. The courtyard is flanked to the east by a 700 seat auditorium and the students’ eating hall, on its facing side by a masjid and to the west an assembly hall and 4-storey library. A landscaped garden brings a dazzle of colour with Alexandrian palm trees standing ornate and proud among the grassy verges and bordering fountains – just one of the many landscaped areas within the campus. Two minarahs from Al-Anwar masjid stand tall either side of the masjid; all decked out in pristine white.
The Arabic scripts on major facades and walls celebrate the community’s Islamic heritage with Quranic verses, hadith and quotes and couplets from the Du`aat.
The entire concourse has been laid out to enable one to walk ‘shoeless’ from one end of the campus to another using a series of covered walkways, corridors and bridges.
The campus will features science labs, arts and crafts studios and a recording studio. It will have smartboards in all classrooms along with the latest in internet connectivity. There will also be an indoor swimming pool, gymnasium, games room, sports pitches for soccer and cricket and courts for racquet sports, volleyball and similar games. Archery and horse-riding are offered as well.
The planners have gone to great lengths to ensure harmonious integration of the campus with the existing Saifee Park neighbourhood in the Langata area of Nairobi to strengthen the feeling of community.
The campus has been designed to meet the environmental and sustainability requirements needed for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)accreditation. This includes rain water harvesting, composting, solar heating and photo voltaic panels for energy production.
Passive ventilation has been incorporated in almost every single building. Additionally the buildings maximise the use of natural light by means of large-scale glazing throughout.
The entire campus faces towards Mecca which is all but due north from Nairobi. The sun will rise each day over the girls’ residences and set each day over those for the boys. In between is a search for knowledge, time spent in prayer and the quest to be the best of service to one’s fellow man.