Short history of Shias in Zanzibar
By Agha Mehdi
Question: Agha, your fore-fathers have devoted their lives to serve Madhhabe Ahlul-Beit a.s. Can you relate to us a short history of their services to Shias of Zanzibar?
Answer: Unfortunately our fore-fathers did not maintain a diary nor did the Jamat maintain a chronology or the records of the events in the history and the development of the Khoja community. I shall therefore not be able to give you a detailed history. I shall narrate certain well known developments that occurred which I heard from my grandfather Syyyid Hussein Shushtary.
In 1301 A.H. Marhum Haji Dewji Jamal requested Ayatollah Zainul Abeideen Mazindarani who was the Marja of the time, to send somebody in Bombay and Zanzibar to teach the tenets of religion to those of the Khoja Community who had accepted the Shia Madhheb during that period of that time.
Ayatollah sent Sheikh Muhammad Najafi to Bombay (the well known Mujtahid of Bombay) and Sayyid Abdulhussain Ali Asgher Mar'ashi to Zanzibar . They left by the same ship from Basra. Sayyid Abdulhussain arrived in Zanzibar with his wife, a daughter and two sons.
At that time there were only four Khoja families in Zanzibar who had accepted the Shia Madhab, but many more families went to accept the Madhab and joined the Community.
Four people amongst who were Haji Muhammad Walji and Sheriff Dewji who built the first Shia mosque at Kiponda, Zanzibar.
Agha Sayyid Abdulhussain wrote a letter giving the names of four people and requested the Marja, Sheikh Mazindarani to accept the nominees as the trustees of the mosque. In reply he wrote "my trust worthy Wakil Sayyid Abdulhussain has written to me to appoint these people as Trustees – and I accept and herby appoint them as Trustees.
As more families join the Jamat, hostile behavior from the Ismaili community towards the prospering Jamat increased. Marhum Sayyid Abdulhussain on the way to the mosque had to endure abusive language and was often attacked. They used to pile dirt on him and on many occasions been forced to return home to change his clothes before going back to the mosque.
Sayyid Abdulhussain wrote "sharh" on book Najatul Ibad (4 volumes). Marja of the time Sayyid Kadhim Yazdi Tabatabai was very pleased with his work.
During the reign of Seyid Barghash, there was a famine in Zanzibar . The Sultan requested all the communities to pray for the rain. All the communities went in groups to pray for the rain but famine persisted. He then enquired if any community had not gone out to pray and he was informed that the Shia community had not done so.
He called Sayyid Abdulhussain and requested to pray for rain and the famine be put to an end Sayyid Abdulhussain made the following conditions.
(1) There should not be Fisk or Fujur for three days.
(2) That all people fast for three days.
(3) That all people should make Istighfar.
On the third day he came out in congregation with the Shia community and led the namaz e Istiska at Mnazimoja ground when it started pouring and continued for some days.
Heavy rain continued for many days and the persistent rain was damaging the crops..
The Sultan requested Agha this time to pray that the rain should stop. He agreed and did so. After this incident the Sultan held Sayyid Abdulhussain in very high esteem.
Next to our mosque, a property was being developed, the Sultan and Qalbe Ali Khan (who was from Urmiya Province in Iran) his Commander-in-Chief helped our Jamat to purchase the property for Rupees 65,000. This was to be used as Imambargha. After sometime Haji Ali Nathoo built an extra storey. The Imambargha is still in use until today.
Although Zanzibar was an Ibadhi State , it was through the efforts and influence of Qalbe Ali Khan that Shia could recite "Ashaduanna Amirul Moaomeen Alliyun Walliullah" in the azan openly, without any problem or fear. The first person who recited the first Azan was also a Persian. He was a teacher and was well known as Maalim Maulidi and brother of Bulbul.
An Ibadhi Aa'alim Shiekh Seif Nasser Suleiman Kharusi asked Sayyid Abdulhussain a question in writing about the Shia Akida on Allah. Agha wrote two books in reply which were then printed. (These books were in the library of Sayyid Hussain .All the books from his library were sent to the Supreme Council in Mombassa after the Zanzibar revolution..
Sayyid Abdulhussain wrote a letter to Ayatollah Mazindarani to find a Sayyid youth among his pupils to wed his daughter Bibi Zahra. He selected Sayyid Hussain Habibullah Shushtary (my grandfather). He came to Zanzibar and married Bibi Zahra. The wedding took place at the Musafarkhna of Haji Remtullah Tejani and then the groom left with his wife to continue his studies in Najaf.
In 1322 Sayyid Abdulhussain proceeded to Hajj along with others, where he felt sick and died in Mecca. He was buried at the feet of Hazrat Abu Talib.a.s. at Jannatul Mualla.
Before this Kafela reached Najaf Ayatollah Mazindarani passed away and Ayatollah Mirza Hussain Khalili became Ma'arja.
When the zawwars arrived at Najaf – prominent among them was Haji Remtullah Tejani requested the Ma'arjah to send Sayyid Hussain (the son-in-law of Sayyid Abdulhussain) to Zanzibar to take the place of Sayyid Abdulhussain.
Agha Sayyid Hussain arrived in Zanzibar in 1344 A.H. with his wife and children to serve the community. He too was highly respected by the community for his Taqwa and piety.
He passed away in 1366 and his remains were carried above the head and shoulders of the people all the way to "Chunga Khan" where he was buried.
At the time I was in Kerbala, Marhum Ayatulaah Sayyid Abull Isfahani, the great Ma'arja of the time, kept fatiha khwani for three days ant Najaf and informed me by telegram
(The above as excerpts of an interview by Fidahusai Hameer, Editor of the "Light Magazine with the late Agha Mehdi)
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