A Spiritual Landmark for the Dawoodi Bohras

Al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar: The Masjid of Imam al-Hakim in Cairo

Since the day we restored al-Jami' al-Anwar, the community has become replete with bounties and blessings
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd al-Dai al-Mutlaq and head of the Dawoodi Bohra community

Al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar, also known as the masjid of the Fatimi Imam al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in Cairo, holds immense cultural and religious significance for the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community.

Built in the early 11th century, its comprehensive restoration led by the late His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in 1980—coinciding with the start of the 15th Islamic century—marked a pivotal moment for the community, heralding a spiritual, cultural, and architectural renaissance.

Construction and History

The construction of the al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar was initiated by the Fatimi Imam al-Aziz in 990 and completed by his son Imam al-Hakim in 1012.
Fatimi Kufic Script running along the Interior walls of the masjid
Fatimi Kufic Script running along the Interior walls of the masjid
Fatimi Kufic Script running along the Interior walls of the masjid
Fatimi Kufic Script running along the Interior walls of the masjid

Over a thousand years old, al-Anwar is the fourth oldest masjid in Cairo, and the second Fatimi masjid to be built in the city after al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar (b. 972). The masjid covers an area of 13,560 square metres, with the iconic central courtyard occupying 5,000 square metres. 

Al-Anwar is considered an important architectural and religious monument as the only existing Fatimi masjid in Cairo that showcases original contributions made by the Fatimi imams to masjid architecture: a projecting, monumental portal, a tripartite dome configuration and a raised transept referred to as the majāz. It is also the oldest masjid in the world to have two minarets erected together at the time of its construction.

The masjid’s unique inscriptions and novel epigraphic forms, in addition to its architectural features, reflect aspects of Fatimi faith and doctrine. Al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar is noteworthy in its visually prominent inscriptions in Fatimi Kufic script spanning its portal, minarets and walls. Quranic inscriptions are embellished by other arabesque designs, ranging from elaborate foliation to geometric patterns

A photograph of al-Jami' al-Anwar by celebrated English photographer Francis Frith from the 1850s.
An aerial view of the former state of the masjid.
Al-Jami' al-Anwar formerly in a state of dilapidation and ruin.
A museum was located in the middle of the courtyard of al-Jami' al-Anwar.

In addition to the spiritual meaning the inscriptions held for followers of the Imams, these features and inscriptions also became symbols that unified the public under the prosperity of Fatimi rule and, for Muslims, created an environment of Islamic spirituality and worship.

For many centuries following its construction, al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar retained its primary purpose and functionality as a place of worship, albeit with periods of disuse and deterioration interspersed with several major restoration projects by Muslim leaders in Egypt in the 14th, 15th, and 19th centuries.

Subsequently, however, with the passage of time al-Anwar reached a dire state of dilapidation, neglect and ruin, and all but ceased its function as a masjid. The arrival of Europeans in Egypt, particularly, in the 19th and early 20th century, saw the masjid’s precincts being made to serve, at different times, as a fort, stables, a museum, a warehouse, and a school. Various conservation projects were also attempted during this period, recognising al-Anwar as a key Islamic monument within Historic Cairo—and it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

A complete restoration of al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar was only achieved with the involvement of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and the Dawoodi Bohra community. Prior to the restoration, the community had begun to build a relationship with the Egyptian leadership and people, largely due to the construction and dedication of darihs (ornamental grillwork structures made from silver and gold placed over the burial places of members of the Prophet’s family) at the venerated shrines of Imam Husain and Sayyida Zainab in Cairo. Syedna Burhanuddin had also been presented with an honorary doctorate from Al-Azhar University in 1966 as well as the Order of the Nile by President Mohammed Anwar Sadat in 1978

20th Century Restoration of al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar

It was in 1937 that the 51st Dai Syedna Taher Saifuddin visited Cairo and, dismayed by the condition of al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar, declared his intent to restore the masjid. Decades later, this vision was realised by his successor, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, with the approval of the Egyptian government and Egyptian Antiquities Organization. 

A primary goal of the project was restoring the Fatimi masjid to its original state as far as possible; the scale, layout and form of the renovated structure, therefore, are nearly exactly the same as when the masjid was first built. The renewal of inscriptions, epigraphs, and ornamentation adhered to the original designs where extant—otherwise, elements taken from or inspired by authentic Fatimi epigraphs and designs taken from other structures were used, such as the ‘Tree of Life’ design replicated from the mihrab of al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar. 

Beginning in 1978, the restoration project was prefaced with an intensive cleaning programme personally led by Syedna Saifuddin as the first step in restoring the sanctity of the masjid. This paved the way for further work, which included extensive research, planning and design, with numerous site visits by Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. 

A primary goal of the project was restoring the Fatimi masjid to its original state as far as possible; the scale, layout and form of the renovated structure, therefore, are nearly exactly the same as when the masjid was first built. The renewal of inscriptions, epigraphs, and ornamentation adhered to the original designs where extant—otherwise, elements taken from or inspired by authentic Fatimi epigraphs and designs taken from other structures were used, such as the ‘Tree of Life’ design replicated from the mihrab of al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar. 

Several noteworthy events took place during the restoration, such as the discovery of a stone fragment of the masjid’s original foundational inscription, followed by locating and identifying its other existing pieces, such as from the Islamic Museum of Art in Cairo. The text of the fragments that remained missing was completed based on the pieces which were located and this led to the reinstallation of the original foundational inscription. Another key discovery was a well in the masjid’s courtyard, which was utilised for the project’s water requirements and then retained, with a dome-shaped structure built over it. 

Today, over 40 years after its restoration, al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar continues to hold great meaning and significance for the Dawoodi Bohra community.
The well discovered during the restoration works.

The process of renewal and restoration of the masjid was termed ihya—literally, bringing to life—signifying a complete revival of form and function. This was befitting as the community’s ultimate purpose behind the restoration of al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar (and the subsequent restoration of other Fatimi masjids such as al-Jamiʿ al-Aqmar) was for the masjid to resume its original function as a place of worship, as the Fatimi imams had intended. More than simply conserving a historical monument, the restoration was inspired by Islamic values and Fatimi historical and philosophical traditions—and was itself understood as an act of worship and the continuation of a living spiritual tradition.

The discovery of a stone fragment led to the discovery of some of the missing pieces which were sourced together to form the entire script of the original foundational inscription.
The ‘Tree of Life’ design in the mihrab of al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar

Inauguration: A Pivotal Moment

The last few weeks prior to the inauguration of the masjid by the President of Egypt, set for the start of the 15th Islamic century in Muharram 1401H (November 1980), saw the project’s most intense period of activity with the arrival of thousands of visitors from the Dawoodi Bohra community, including the students and faculty of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah (the community’s premier educational institute), who volunteered their services during the crucial final stages of construction and preparation. 
At the dawn of the new Islamic year, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin conducted Ashara Mubaraka sermons every day from the beginning of Muharram to the 10th of Muharram, commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Husain, true to the spirit of Fatimi tradition. An unprecedented number of about 10,000 community members attended the sermons and participated in congregational prayers in al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar—an event that signified the revival of the sacred masjid.
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin accompanies the then President of Egypt, Anwar Sadat, during the inauguration ceremony in al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar.
Thousands of community members bore witness to the landmark inauguration event in Cairo.
At the dawn of the new Islamic year, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin conducted Ashara Mubaraka sermons every day from the beginning of Muharram to the 10th of Muharram. Commemorating the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson Imam Husain, true to the spirit of Fatimi tradition. An unprecedented number of about 10,000 community members attended the sermons and participated in congregational prayers in al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar—an event that signified the revival of the sacred masjid.
The discovery of a stone fragment led to the discovery of some of the missing pieces which were sourced together to form the entire script of the original foundational inscription.
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin delivering a sermon during Ashara Mubaraka in Cairo.
On November 24th, 1980, the masjid was officially inaugurated by the President of Egypt Anwar Sadat. Thousands of Bohras along with government officials and scholars and clerics from Al-Azhar University were present. The President was received by Syedna Burhanuddin, followed by a tour of the masjid, prayers, Quranic recitation, and a brief ceremony in which Syedna thanked the government for the opportunity to revive the historic masjid.
Before
after

An Enduring Legacy

The restoration of al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar was a turning point for the Dawoodi Bohra community, heralding a revival of faith and culture. It was marked by a renewed commitment to Islamic tenets and values as well as a reconnection with the community’s Fatimi heritage and cultural roots. In 1978, coinciding with the commencement of the restoration project, an international educational gathering called al-Multaqa al-Fatimi al-ʿIlmi took place in Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah in Surat, where Bohras resolved to commit to Islamic cultural and ethical principles in all aspects of life, including attire, language, and business practices.

The restoration also brought about a renaissance of Fatimi art and architecture for the community. Al-Anwar’s architectural features, epigraphs and designs, along with those from other Fatimi masjids, began to be used in Dawoodi Bohra masjids and in other community edifices such as mausolea.

 

Dawoodi Bohra masjids across the world are adorned with Fatimi design elements from the masjid of Imam Hakim. The Husaini Masjid in London is one such example.

Not only was al-Anwar a precedent for the restoration of several other Cairene Fatimi monuments by the community, it was followed by the construction of many new Bohra masjids and community centres worldwide, in addition to the restoration of Ahl al-Bayt shrines, mausolea, and other historic masjids such as that of Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib in Kufa. 

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