KHOJA SHIA ITHNA-ASHERIES IN LAMU AND MOMBASA, 1870-1930
BY ZAHIR BHALOO - PART TWO


Waljee Hirjee
(from C. Salvadori)

 
Mombasa - Khoja settlement in Mombasa dates to 1867 when Waljee Hirjee a prominent Khoja Ismaili merchant of Zanzibar opened a shop at the Old Port. The first Ithna-Asheri to settle in Mombasa was Abdalla Datoo Hirjee. He arrived on the island from Zanzibar in 1882. In 1887 Nazerali Dewji left Lamu and moved to Mombasa to manage a branch of Dewji Jamal & Co. and in 1896 he was followed by his brother Jaffer Dewji.
 
The numbers of Khojas on the island at the time was small. In 1887 the combined Khoja population (both Ismailis and Ithna-Asheris) on the island was estimated at only twenty five compared to around 1,900 in Zanzibar and 385 in Bagamoyo. With the establishment of the Imperial British East African Company (IBEA) in 1888, Mombasa became the chief commercial entrepôt of East Africa. Large numbers of Khojas began to arrive from the old mercantile centres of Zanzibar, Bagamoyo, Lamu and Kilwa; others came directly from India. Khojas who had already established firms in Zanzibar, Bagamoyo or Lamu decided to open branches or shift altogether to Mombasa.
 
For example, in 1893 Dharamsi Khatau called his brother Jivraj Khatau from India to manage a branch of Dharamsi Khatau & Co in Mombasa. Also at this time two famous Bagamoyo merchant princes, Allidina Visram and his Ithna-Asheri nephew Nasser Virji decided to shift their businesses to Mombasa and opened branches in 1895 and 1900 respectively.
 
As Edward Rodwell notes Mombasa was not much of a place in those days. Ndia Kuu and Vasco Da Gama Str. (now Mbarak Hinaway Str.) comprised the main streets. The town boasted few stone buildings. Most of the island was covered by jungle, infested with puff-adders, and leopards roamed about the town at night. Every now and then lions would walk over the ford at Makupa when the tide was low. In 1892 Mombasa was the scene of a celebrated lion hunt in the area where Mombasa Sports Club is now situated. The business of the town was in the hands of a small group of Bhattias, Bohras, Memons and Khojas.


Mombasa, Ndia Kuu, 1895

As the Khoja Shia Ithna-asheri population on the island increased – by 1897 it had grown to about a hundred – arrangements were made to meet at individual houses to perform the ‘majlis’, ‘matam’ and other communal rituals. In 1897 Dewji Jamal & Co bought a shamba called “kitumba” with a small bungalow from Maryam bint Mohamed bin Mbarak Karooso for use as a cemetery. Two years later in 1899 the community decided to build a mosque and imambara. The mosque-imambara was built on a shamba (in Persian “bustan”) worth five thousand rupees belonging to Dewji Jamal & Co. A fund was established and a small mosque-imambara was built which became known as “Bustani” (now Hyderi). Unfortunately towards the end of the same year the Mombasa Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris became caught up in the ongoing communal discord and conflict in Zanzibar and Lamu.
 
According to late Sadak Jivraj Meghji soon after the differences arose a small bungalow was purchased near the Bustani. The disaffected party would gather there to perform namaz and majlis. A madrasa under the charge of a Seyyid Rhemtulla was established to teach the Quran and the Seyyid was paid fifteen rupees a month for his services. However after a year the madrasa was stopped and religious activities were shifted to the house of Mohammed Baqir, a Persian gentleman living in Mombasa. Eventually the leaders of the new Jamat decided to acquire their own cemetery and build a new mosque-imambara.
 
In 1900 Dharamsi Khatau, Jivraj Khatau and Walji Bhanji bought land along present day Haile Selassie Road for use as a cemetery. Three years later in 1903, Dharamsi Khatau, Jivraj Khatau and Jivraj Meghji bought land along Old Killindini Road and a fund was established to build a new mosque-imambara. In 1904 work on the mosque-imambara, named “Kuwwatul Islam” (now Husseini) was completed. Various dignitaries from Zanzibar were invited for the opening ceremony including the resident alim of Zanzibar Seyyid Abdulhusein Marashi who performed the religious ceremony of dedication. Henceforth the Ithna-Asheri community of Mombasa had two jamats: “Bustani” and “Kuwwatul Islam” each with their own mosque-imambara and cemetery. As luck would have it the two cemeteries, although separated from each other by a wall, were right next to each other. When the two Jamaats were reunited on 28 October 1966 under the famous slogan “ek bano nek bano” (be one and good), the wall between the two cemeteries (known then as the “Berlin Wall”), was finally brought down.



 





The Old Bustani (from A.A. Khatau)

 
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