His Holiness and community members meet with President Halimah Yacob of Singapore

Dr Mustafa Izzuddin

This year it would have been 18 years since a dai al-mutlaq last visited Singapore. The first to visit Singapore was the 51st dai, Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb in 1953, a visit that took place 56 years after Burhani Masjid – still in its original location at 39 Hill Street – was built in 1897.

This masjid, which is one of the oldest in Singapore, was first constructed by Shaikh Abdoolkayom Moola Essabhoy of the firm A.M. Essabhoy at the cost of 20,000 Spanish or Straits Dollar during the time of Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s father, the 49th dai, Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin Saheb. A masjid became necessary after the Dawoodi Bohra community grew exponentially since its earliest recorded settlers arrived between 1875 and 1885. The early Dawoodi Bohras, who were traders and merchants, migrated from India to Singapore before the First World War. They travelled to Singapore with the blessings of the 47th dai, Syedna Abdul Qadir Najmuddin Saheb, the 48th dai, Syedna Abdul Husain Husamuddin Saheb, the 49th dai, and the 50th dai, Syedna Abdullah Badruddin Saheb.

During Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s visit to Singapore in 1953, the original masjid – which was one-storey with a basement – gave way to a three-storey masjid at a cost of between 125,000 and 130,000 Malaya and British Borneo Dollar. The renovated masjid was reopened in 1959 by the then Aamil Saheb Shaikh Abdulkader Khamusi. Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s son, the 52nd Dai Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb was the next to pay a visit in 1979, 26 years after the visit of his father to Singapore (Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin accompanied his father in 1953, but as his Mazoon and Mansoos). Syedna Burhanuddin visited Singapore again 18 years later in 1997 and subsequently in 2000. These last two visits also led, under the tutelage of the then Aamil Saheb Shaikh Zoeb bhai Galiakotwala, to the enlargement of the masjid into the current brand new multi-million dollar 10-storey complex.

When Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb’s son, the 53rd dai, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin Saheb assumed the daiship in 2014, the Singapore Dawoodi Bohras or Singapore Jamaat, under the guidance of two consecutive Aamil Sahebs, made concerted efforts to petition him to visit Singapore. Crucially, the two Janab Aamil Sahebs – Aliasghar Bhaisaheb Khedir Bhaisaheb Zakiuddin and Shaikh Taherbhai Rasheed – laid the groundwork for Syedna to visit Singapore at some point in the near future.

On 11 April 2018, my father and I received calls to make our way to Surat in India promptly as there was a genuine possibility that Syedna could in fact visit Singapore. It was a heavy responsibility on our shoulders, not least because we oversee the public relations matters for the Singapore Jamaat. Guided by our Aamil Shaikh Taherbhai, we were quietly confident that our presentation and subsequent discussion in one of the meeting rooms at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Surat on 14 April, would bear fruit.

A few days after our Surat visit, we did indeed receive the joyous news and date of Syedna’s arrival. Our weekend sojourn in Surat appeared to be a watershed moment and a crucial turning point, augmenting the splendid work that had already been done by other members of the Singapore Jamaat, particularly the immediate past and present Aamil Sahebs of Singapore. It was, in essence, a collective team effort that led to the eventual decision by Syedna to visit Singapore in early May 2018.

History was in the making for the Dawoodi Bohras in Singapore. Singapore would be the first country that the 53rd dai al-mutlaq would visit in the Far East. Singapore could then also serve as a focal point for Dawoodi Bohras from the rest of the region to converge. In addition to Singapore where the community numbers around 800 people, the rest of the Dawoodi Bohras – many of whom were close friends and relatives of the Dawoodi Bohras in Singapore – arrived predominantly from the Far East, namely Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. An official estimate puts the total at 2500 people, majority of whom congregated in Burhani Masjid on 6 May to commemorate the passing of the much revered Maulatena Hurratul Maleka in the early 12th century.

Getting Syedna to come to Singapore was one thing, but hosting him in Singapore was another thing altogether. We were fortunate to have as an Aamil Saheb in Singapore, Shaikh Taherbhai Rasheed, who led by example and experience. It was sheer hard work from beginning to end by both old and young, male and female volunteers from the Singapore Jamaat who rose as one to the occasion and did Singapore incredibly proud. We also appreciated the substantial support and assistance rendered by personnel from the central Dawat office throughout Syedna’s Singapore visit.

On Monday, 3 May at about 9.15pm, Syedna set foot in Singapore, arriving on an Emirates flight from Colombo. He was received by protocol officers from the Singapore Government and High Commission of India. They brought Syedna to the VIP complex where I was privileged and humbled to be the first from the community to welcome Syedna to Singapore, country of my birth and the place I call home.

While walking towards the VIP lounge and at the lounge itself, I shared with Syedna how it has been a really long 18 years, how Singapore has changed, and how the Singapore Dawoodi Bohras were waiting in great anticipation of his visit. It culminated in a conversation which I would cherish as an important milestone in my life, as few would have had such an opportunity. The photograph that was taken at the VIP lounge, while, meant to be private, found its way online and went viral. I was not sure what to make of it at first, but accepted this is what happens in a social media age. The upside however is that this photo helped put the Dawoodi Bohras of Singapore on the worldwide Dawoodi Bohra map.

Whilst in Singapore, Syedna ensured that he met every Dawoodi Bohra at the masjid and also travelled to many of their houses nationwide. 70 houses were visited in 7 days, including the heart-touching gesture of visiting the humble abode of my paternal uncle who has been hearing-impaired from birth.

On 7 May, Syedna adopted a white tiger named Keysa at Singapore’s nocturnal zoo called the Night Safari, and on 9 May, he was taken on a private cruise around Singapore. Both these trips were put together by two well-known Dawoodi Bohra business firms in the country.

Syedna also received several dignitaries including ambassadors and prominent local leaders at Burhani Masjid on 5 May. Syedna appreciated the gesture of them making their way to the masjid and thanked them for their continued strong support for the Dawoodi Bohra community in Singapore.

One principal highlight of Syedna’s visit was the courtesy meeting with the current 8th President of Singapore, Mdm Halimah Yacob. This took place at the Istana (palace) on 8 May at 11am. It was a meeting of minds, with a donation made by Syedna, on behalf of the Singapore Dawoodi Bohras, to the President’s Challenge, which has been set up to assist the less fortunate in Singapore.

At this meeting, Mdm President spoke, for example, about how, as a multicultural society, we cherish the common and inclusive space in Singapore, especially if one hails from a minority community. She also acknowledged the manifold contribution made by the Dawoodi Bohra community to the country.

Syedna expressed how impressed he was by the cleanliness and greenery of Singapore as well as the social harmony among the different races and religions in the country. Syedna attributed these fine traits to the resilience of the people of Singapore, and prevalence of a strong and stable government.

On Friday 11 May at 9.45am, Syedna bid farewell to the Dawoodi Bohras in Singapore. He spoke fondly of how his Singapore visit was memorable and momentous, and how the dedication of service, hospitality and affection of Singapore Dawoodi Bohras left an indelible impression on him. Syedna also exhorted his followers to strike a balance between faith and worldly life in their everyday lives.

At 11.15am, Syedna left Singapore for Mumbai on Jet Airways. My father bid farewell at the VIP complex en route to boarding the aircraft. When my father submitted to Syedna to return to Singapore soon, Syedna smiled at him and gently nodded. This was perhaps a sign that Syedna may return soon, while also visiting the other countries in Southeast Asia. Moreover, Syedna restated to my father that his visit to Singapore from start to finish was unforgettable, and that he will pray for the continued social harmony, political stability and economic prosperity of Singapore.

While I remain grateful for having the opportunity to contribute towards making Syedna’s Singapore visit as comfortable as possible from a public relations standpoint, I am happier that the Singapore Dawoodi Bohras had the opportunity to be as close to Syedna as possible. It was also gratifying that Singapore, within Burhani Masjid, became a convenient geographical hub for Dawoodi Bohras in the Far East, and in particular, from Southeast Asia to converge and partake in the barakat as well.

Very importantly, Syedna’s visit from 3 to 11 May 2018 had the transformative effect of bringing the Dawoodi Bohras in Singapore, if not the Far East, closer together as a more unified community in striking a balance between religious and worldly matters. Syedna’s message to his followers during this trip was salient and instructive: Be both a good citizen and a good Dawoodi Bohra Muslim in the country you reside. Contribute to the country of your residence and respect the laws of the land.

Despite being relatively small in size from a country that is the smallest in the Far East, the Singapore Dawoodi Bohras have shown during Syedna’s visit that they can punch well above their weight. They have blazed the trail and led the way to inspire Dawoodi Bohras from other countries in the Far East to follow suit in welcoming Syedna onto their shores, perhaps sooner rather than later.

A Singaporean born and bred, Mustafa Izzuddin received his PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Formerly a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, Mustafa is also a visiting professor at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah Surat and teaches a course on Indians in Singapore at the National University of Singapore.