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24 March 2023 / 2. Ramadhan 1444

A Personal Reflection on the Genesis of the World Federation

The official date of the establishment of the World Federation is October 15 1976. However, the genesis is almost a year prior when In October 1975, a delegation from Africa sat down with some elders from Uganda and a group of young Khoja accountants and lawyers on the red carpet of the Hammersmith Imambargah in London.

As the Assistant Secretary of London Jamaat, along with the then Mukhi Saheb Anverbhai Jagani and Anverbhai Pirbhai, our duty, on that dull and damp October day, was to ensure that the delegation were suitably nourished, Khoja style, with steaming hot chai and samosas. As we poured them endless cups of tea, amidst the smoke from Rothmans Cigarettes, I overheard this motley group ponderously reflecting on the predicaments our Community had found itself in the wake of the 1972 Uganda Exodus. Over a thousand souls had now scattered across the globe trying to make a new life in these faraway places. Apart for London and Peterborough, most communities in UK and North America were yet to establish Jamaats and Imambargahs. Yet the Community spirit was strong as mumineen roiled out carpets from the trunks of their cars to sit in rented warehouses, basements or any place that would give them an opportunity and be spiritually uplifted through the recital of Dua e Kumail on Thursday nights. For living in city or town without a Jamaat, a Khoja individual was like a fish out of water and these small gatherings became the oasis of spirituality in the new land we found ourselves.

As I caught snippets of their conversations, an example that has stuck in my mind almost 40 years on, was how Mulla Asgher, then based in Kenya, had to coach volunteers over a crackly landline (No Skype in those days) phone in USA as they attempted to give Ghusle mayyit to a Community member who had the misfortune to die in that remote corner of the world.

Little did I realize then, that history was being repeated. It was just hundred or so years ago when the first lonely migrants had arrived in Lamu and Zanzibar and grappled with similar challenges of making a new life in foreign lands. This time round, the Khojas were once again struggling to settle in Europe and Americas. The challenges were similar as were some occupations. In the UK, the East African ‘dukawalla’ had a new name: “tobacconist”, but the game was the same.

The decades old London based “Ithnaasheri Young Men’s Union” which used to hold Majalis at the East Africa House (Cumberland Place in Marble Arch), had morphed into what we now know as London Jamaat. At the Hammersmith Imambargah, bought with meagre resources, laboriously garnered by elders, championed with extraordinary zeal by the Late Haji Habibbhai Walji, creative tension soon manifested itself between the newly qualified London based young professionals as they engaged with the older and experienced leadership of Uganda Jamaats who longed to recreate the Uganda Experience. But all of us agreed that the sweetest part of it all was the rich condensed milk pink sherbet on Ashura Day after the spicy Khichdo, (Daal Chawal on Ashura came later) as the young and the not so young Jamaat members learnt to accommodate each other. We would still have continued the Khichdo if we knew the egalitarian history of khichdo! It may surprise you to note, that Its origins come from the practice of Jamaats in Kutch and Kathiawad, (in the pre Khoja Pilau era) where Khichdo was a communal meal cooked in the Khoja Dheg. The rich brought the meat and the poor brought the grain. This way everyone felt that they had contributed to Niyaz. It is a vagary of history that the khichdo was elevated to a celebratory meal. But then I could write a ton on the vagaries of Khoja History!

The leaders form Africa, Late Mulla Asgher, Late Abdulrasul Lakha. Murabbi Hassan Bhai Jaffer amongst others impressed upon the UK based leaders in attendance like Late Hasni Bhai Dharamsi, Habib M Habib, Late Husein Nathoo and Nazir Jessa, amongst others, to help replicate the structure of Africa Federation formed in 1946, to form a World body to address the needs and growth of Khoja Shia communities in the USA, Canada, UK, UAE, Far East and elsewhere. The action point that resulted was to form a small team to begin to write a Constitution and then call a constitutional Conference within a year. Soon the London based team led by Habib M Habib in consultation with some leaders in Africa got to work. Of course, armchair critics got to work too. They gingerly opined that Mulla Asgher, the then Chairman of the Africa Federation wanted a bigger ‘Chair’ for himself.

Fast Forward to a year later October 15 1976 - about 40 years ago today - the group met again at the Hammersmith Imambargah. Except this time, they were joined by delegates from Africa Federation and the newly formed Jamaats of Peterborough, Birmingham, Leicester, Toronto Los Angeles and New York. The Vision was lofty. Boldly the 60 dedicated delegates took upon themselves to help and serve this nascent organisation attend to the community’s financial, spiritual and educational needs globally.

Beginning at the beginning

‘Let me begin at the beginning. The concept of the World Federation dawned upon us by the events in Uganda.’ So began Marhum Mulla Asgherali M. M. Jaffer’s inaugural address at the First Constitutional Conference. (First page of the minutes, on page 4 below) Interestingly, of the three-day Constitutional Conference, almost a day was spent on a noteworthy debate. “To call ourselves Khoja or not - that was the question” Hours of passionate discussions took place on the merits of identity, closed membership and the scope of service.

The seasoned African delegation, joined by similarly pragmatic UK delegates leaned towards keeping it within the Khoja, while the enlightened North American delegation wanted to open it to the entire Shia world.

In the end, the WF Founding Fathers (No females were in sight in those days!) came up with a characteristically pragmatic solution. The word Khoja would be retained in the title, to credit the Khojas for initiating it but the membership and services would be open to all.

The meeting acknowledged that emergence of a Khoja diaspora upon the eviction of Asians from their Ugandan homes under Idi Amin, the Africa Federation was inundated with requests from Khojas globally - for Islamic literature, Aalims, marital advice, educational and other services. This would now be attended to by the newly formed World Federation. The spirit at the conference was optimistic and at the same time awe inspiring. Manzoor Kanani as part the delegation from Africa, who went on to serve as Vice President decades later recalls, “As I sat in the Conference on that Saturday October 16 1976, I wondered how were we going to do this? Where would the money come from? Did we really have the capacity to undertake such a mammoth task?”

Muhsin Dharamsi, then a youthful civil engineer full of vigour, (which remains unabated even today) envisioned the framework of the organization that he as Secretary General a few years later, enshrined in the administrative machinery which served us in good stead for years and established a strong foundation upon which the edifice stands today. His meticulous insistence on the conduct and documentation of conference was legend as was his color coded filing system. Over the many years, his penchant for files was such that any free wall at the humble secretariat at Stanmore would be embellished with shelves and soon one would see files upon files on it. The running joke at the secretariat was: don’t stand still otherwise Muhsin will build a shelf in your back thinking it is another wall. But the current humble secretariat office is grand compared to the first office at Meralis’ in Rayners Lane. Starting from a few box files housed at the residence of the First Secretary General Anwarbhai Jagani, it progressed to the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet in the small back room of my Travel Agency on London’s Holloway Road and subsequently thanks to the generosity of Mahmud P K Merali, offering a whole room at the subsidised rent of 25 pounds a week, which he sometimes forgave as the Secretariat could not afford to pay.

As the saying goes – nature abhors vacuum. No sooner it was established, expectations rose and requests began coming from areas as far off as Vancouver, the Bahamas and Bangkok. Once established, the World Federation faced two immediate if ambitious tasks. One was to raise the balance of funds from zero. Along with Khums monies, donations were the primary source of revenue in the first term, with less than £100,000 received by end of 1979.

Secondly, the Office Bearers realized the need to assess each particular situation and to that end the Late Maulana Syed Amir Husain Naqvi was assigned to tour the Jamaats in America, Europe, Canada and the Far East and produce a detailed report of each area. Thereafter, with limited funds, the unenviable job of prioritising requests began.

Strategically, (without even using the word), the WF’s first two terms (1976-79, 1979-1982) were dedicated to alleviating the abject poverty of the East and the paucity of religious services and Centers in the West. Removing disease, poverty and illiteracy within India was the pressing priority.

The Khojas of Africa, who had hardly ever looked back to where they came from, found two champions whose personal friendship and the passion to serve the Community bridged the chasm across the Indian Ocean. They were none other than Mulla Asgher and Late Gulamali Bhanji (Bapu). Alhaj Aunalibhai Salehmohamed, a rare soul who had migrated from Dar es Salaam to Surat, became the third in this triumvirate to begin the World Federation's journey of service in India, joined by many emerging leaders from Gujarat and Mumbai.

In conjunction with the Masoomeen Trust of Bombay headed by Gulamali Bhanji, housing complexes, madrassahs, masjids, imambarghas and medical treatment camps were funded and run. After attempts to create an All-India Federation floundered, the Gujarat Federation was set up in 1979 with the unified objective to uplift the Khoja community of Kutch and Kathiawad. Initial temporary relief in the form of handouts soon made way for capital schemes of investment in housing, education, agriculture and job creation. To alleviate poverty, the first ‘Samuh Lagna’ was organized in 1978, with painstaking efforts by the then Vice President, Late Haiderbhai Haji. Weddings in a culture steeped in Indian tradition remain crippling burden on poor families and hence, at times prevented marriage altogether. The WF and Gujarat Federation organised ‘Samuh Lagna’ – an event to host multiple weddings at a go at little cost to the wedding parties, arranging as many as 80 weddings at a time during its early years.

Soon, inspired by our Canadian brethren, and in particular Late Gulamabbas Sajan, the Zainabiya Child Sponsorship Scheme was inaugurated in 1981, to sponsor the poor to educate themselves out of dependence. The ZCSS scheme began humbly, sponsoring 9 children at the cost of 50 cents per child/day in 1981. Muhsin Dharamsi, who in his inimitable style has created detailed paperwork for the scheme at the Rayners Lane secretariat was taken aback when Mulla Saheb, wagging £500 challenged us all “Here – Take this and let’s start NOW, and stop just talking about it.”

In spite of limited resources, but with dogged persistence the WF helped fund many imambargha projects in the West with significant financial support from generous donors in East Africa. Even more pronounced was the need to disseminate Islamic education to the youth in the West. Indeed the very first committee of the WF was the Islamic Education Subcommittee, which then became a fully-fledged Islamic Education Board in 1980. Its brief was to enhance Islamic learning in the west through the provision of Islamic literature, correspondence courses, training of Aalims and teachers, reviewing of teaching techniques in madrassahs and utilising of audio-visual aids.

Today, 40 years on, history testifies, that indeed successive leaderships and at least three generations of volunteers continue to be true to the mantra “We exist to Serve”. The World Federation’s accomplishments are an acknowledgment of the vision of the Founders some 40 years ago. The trajectory has had its successes and challenges as we continue to move on.

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