“Coming from Algeria, which is my country, I can tell you that you represent in Muslim world, in Islamic Ummah a very exceptional community, exceptional community for three reasons.” — Professor Arkoun, please click to read article
“Heresiographic literature describes all the sects in Islam from one point of view, the Sunnite point of view, the Shiite point of view, telling that ‘we, we have the truth, and the others don’t have anything’. This is the heresiographic interpretation of Islam which is totally irrelevant for us today.” — Professor Arkoun, please click to read article
BY SHARIFFA KESHAVJEE
Special to Simerg
Editor’s note: In a recent piece for Simerg, Shariffa Keshavhejee enlightened our readers with The Amazing Story of Kundan Paatni: A Graduate of the Aga Khan Nursing School in Nairobi in the 1960s which included rare pictures of His Highness the Aga Khan. In this new exclusive essay, which coincides with the arrival of Mawlana Hazar Imam to East Africa to preside over the Aga Khan University Convocation in Dar-es-Salaam (February 24, 2015), Kampala (February 26), and Nairobi (March 2), Shariffa tells us contrasting tales of midwifery and nursing from decades earlier, including that of her own birth.
Midwife Noor Banu
My friend Mala Pandurang told me of an Ismaili Khoja midwife who delivered three of her children at home in Bukoba. She was called Noor Banu, the only Asian midwife in the locality. Mala’s search to get more information about Noorbanu at the British colonial office drew a blank. She is now looking at links from India to see if any of the midwives came from the nursing institutions started by the British early 20th century. Child birthing was associated as unclean, and hence the Hindu women who joined these professions were of the lower castes. Mala also wants to know if any of the midwives were spinsters/widows.
Zarin Jivanjee and Midwife Asbaimasi
Zarin Jivanjee was born at home in 1943 in Nagara. Her house was a traditional Indian home with a fario (deck) in the center where all activities happened — drying clothes, lentils and making large amounts of food. Midwife Asbaimasi came home. She was old, and well known even by prominent families such as Sir Eboo Pirbhai. Asbaimasi also prescribed herbal medicines for aches, pains, colds, digestive problems, rashes. In her window there was black thread. For each complaint. she would give a thread and a powder. She lived in River Road and had to be summoned at birth. There was a Dr.Anderson but the treatment given by Asbaimasi was more effective and preferred.
Shirinbai, Fatmabai, Roshankhanu and Khatibai
Shirinbai Juma born in 1934 in Jugu Lane. The midwife came home.
Fatmabai was born in Kathiawar, her family came from Harravad. There was a bai who came to deliver at home. She was given five and a half rupees for delivery.
Roshankhanu Jiwa Nathoo was born in 1935 in Kisii. In Kisii too children were born at home The midwife was an old Nubian lady who was very well versed.
Khatibai Mohamed was born in Jugu Lane in the centre of Nairobi. She would go home and the staff would help with the hot water and cleaning up. If there was a miscarriage, she could not remember what would happen.
The Impact of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah’s Farmans
I was told by Dr. Sultan Somjee, the author of Bead Bai, that there was a farman (guidance) of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1877-1957) telling the Ismaili community to take up nursing and not to look down on the profession. Thereafter many Ismaili women trained as nurses that included midwifery. We called them collectively as naaras and not nurse. Fatma naaras was well known in Nairobi. Indeed Somji’s book begins with Birth Stories (Chapter II) told by midwife of old Nairobi, Jugu Bazaar. Now, the Aga Khan Hospitals/University have nursing as priority programmes.
The Story of Shirin
Shirin Cassam Keshavjee was inspired by the 48th Imam’s farman. She joined Witwatersrand University (Whits), South Africa, to train as a nurse and then as a midwife. However she could not practice nursing near her home, being a person of colour.
Fortunately for Shirin, she heard an announcement in the Pretoria Jamatkhana that they were looking to employ a nurse in the Aga Khan Clinic in Kisumu. Lucky for Shirin, her uncle, Habib Keshavjee, was off to East Africa with his family.
So Shirin joined Habib Keshavjee’s family for the trip. She came to Nairobi and proceeded to Kisumu to live with the family of my grandfather, Count Hasham Jamal. Here Shirin was to change the face of midwifery in the Nyanza District. She was the first ever qualified midwife.
She was appalled at the state of the women and the new born child. Her kind hearted and soft spoken manner brought mothers from all over the district of Nyanza, Homa Bay, Kindu Bay, Kissii, Kimlili, and all the way from Kampala too!
She explained early care of the child, sanitation, breast feeding, sterilization, diet of mother and child. Shirin then married my cousin, Amir Shamji. Thus began the liaison. Now there are five Keshavjees, married to five Jamals!! Shirin Shamji (nee Keshavjee) lives in Toronto.
‘Laxmi’ Jenab Nanjee
The following story was narrated by Jenab Nanjee to her daughter-in-law, Nuri Abdul, daughter of Madatali Suleiman Verjee
“I was born in Jugu Lane now called Gulzar Street on Sunday, August 20, 1930. It was my grandfather’s house, Madatali Suleiman Verjee. It was customary to go to your parents house at the time of birth.
“My mother was in her final days of pregnancy. She was ready now to go to her parental home for Khoro Bharavo. Khoro is the lap. Bharavo is to make full. This is a ceremony filled with abundance on the lap of the new mother. A special prayer is recited and the expectant mother’s mother prepares a coconut and some sweet meats to take to Jamatkhana to make sacred this time of birth. The new mother usually wears green as a symbol of plenty and of happiness.
“A European nurse, a qualified midwife was asked to come home for delivery. This was a privilege of the wealthy. ( I wonder what happened to the not so wealthy)
“I was born on a Sunday. My grandfather was very happy and pleased that a ‘laxmi’, a daughter was born to his daughter. Sometimes a daughter was a bad omen. Suleiman Verjee saw this as a sign of prosperity. He gave me the first gursurdhi jaggery mixed with water. A sweet drink to bring sweetness into my life. He gave me the name of Jenab, a name of one of the wives of the Holy Prophet Muhammed (s.a.s).
“My mother and I stayed at my grandfathers house for a month. This was so that my mother could be helped with my first initial upbringing and that my mother would regain her strength. At this time the family visited my mother and she was given many gifts called ‘chati’.
“Customarily it was significant that Mrs Suleiman Verjee was given such good care, received many gifts and that she had the care of a qualified midwife. Jenub, now 82 lives in Nairobi.
“Now the course offered by Aga Khan University in East Africa is call Nursing and Midwifery. It leads the way in East Africa. It offers undergraduate, and graduate programmes as well as conversion and professional and continuing education courses.
“The nurses can achieve international standard, even when they are studying and are mothers. They study as they work.”
The Story of My Own Birth
I now share the story about my birth in Kisumu on June 1, 1946. We lived in Jamal Building facing Lake Victoria. The building was constructed on Main Street Station Road in 1945.
Now that she was full term, my mother Khatija had to move to the downstairs room. She could not deliver her baby in the upstairs room, where there was a great deal of traffic of the extended family. Besides older children Zeenat and Amina, she had a brother-in-law Amirkaka, sister-in-law Nasirbanu and of course her in-laws, Bapaji and Ma. The downstairs room was called ‘Nichlo room’.
It was already embarrassing moving down. In 1945, women or men never talked about pregnancy, welfare of the mother and so on. Expectant mothers were covered by a long dress and a pachedi (shawl) would be drawn over the head in the presence of Bapaji or any male relative.
So Khatija, my mum, was all prepared with clean sheets and extra americani sheeting for the baby. No early preparation was made for the baby. It was a bad omen to do so. No layette, no baby showers!!!
It was before 4 a.m on 1st June. Khatija hoped that Bapaji would go for his early morning prayers, so that she could ask my dad to get Sherabai Hirji, the midwife.
Sherabai was smart. She was also cheerful and kind. In her white uniform, she inspired confidence. She was very good at delivering but she did not keep medical notes such as the baby’s weight, height, and temperature. However, my mum was relieved to see the arrival of Sherabai, who was a friend and well known to the family. Seeing my mother out of bed she admonished, “What are you doing out of bed? You are so close now, get into bed!”
As if to help, my mother said “Let me get the hot water and the sagri….open brazier, jiko.” She got another reprimand, “You are doing no such thing.” Sherabai organised the water, sheeting and towels. She was familiar with the household having brought into the world Amina and Nasirbanu just a few years earlier.
Thus I was born in the presence of midwife and nurse. Sherabai then organized a brick, which would be heated on the jiko and placed on the mother’s stomach to keep it in shape.
Sadly, I was yet another female child. This did not auger well for my mother, nor for the family. Nevertheless, there I was, plump and full of life, to be loved by all the family in Kisumu till a year later we moved to Mombasa.
Date posted: Saturday, February 21, 2015.
Copyright: Shariffa Keshavjee. 2015.
About the writer: Shariffa Keshavjee is a philanthropist and an entrepreneur with an objective to help women empower themselves. Raised in Kisumu, she considers herself a “pakaa” Kenyan. She is now based in the nation’s capital, Nairobi. Her other interest is in visual arts where she delights in painting on wood, silk and porcelain using water colours, oils and acrylics. She also likes writing, especially for children, and bird watching.
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Links to a selection of articles by Shariffa Keshavjee on simerg and simergphotos:
Editor’s note: Mawlana Hazar Imam has arrived in East Africa to preside over the Aga Khan University Convocation in Dar-es-Salaam (February 24, 2015), Kampala (February 26) and Nairobi (March 2). We are pleased to publish the following excerpts from his speeches on the profession of nursing.
EXCERPTS FROM MAWLANA HAZAR IMAM’S SPEECHES
I. 1981…Inauguration of the Aga Khan School of Nursing, Karachi, Pakistan
“The School of Nursing’s primary mission is to raise the standards and standing of the profession itself, so that it is accorded the recognition and prestige earned and deserved by the women whose working lives are dedicated to the demanding and honourable task of caring for the sick. We are confident that the nurses in our hospital will be rewarded with respect, appreciation and remuneration that their integrity and loyal commitment justify. The key note to the School’s philosophy is excellence.
“Let me end by addressing directly the first Aga Khan School of Nursing students. Here today, you like me, are at the beginning. You are starting your chosen professional training. The opening of your School is for me the beginning of a new major philanthropic medical complex. My purpose is to make possible the development of your career, but you must achieve. If you fail, I have failed. If you succeed, Pakistan will be rewarded.” 
II. 1996…Baccalaureate Address at Brown University, Providence, USA
“The Aga Khan University was founded thirteen years ago in Pakistan with planning assistance from Harvard. It was the first private self-governing university in that country of 125 million people. Medical Science was the initial field of engagement. As Pakistan had one of the lowest ratios in the world of nurses to doctors, and the nursing profession was mired in mediocrity, social unacceptability and low pay, nursing became our priority. With the assistance of McMaster University in Ontario, a curriculum was designed and a School of Nursing launched. In addition to becoming a leading academic institution, it has transformed the role of women in society by providing them with new educational and professional opportunities.
“This solution to some of Pakistan’s most pressing health care problems, which has also enhanced the social self-worth and professional status of women in the country, may soon be replicated in other areas. Under the university’s international charter, the nursing school now envisages the creation of an Institute of Advanced Nursing Studies in East Africa to extend the same professional and societal opportunities to the women of Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and further afield.” 
III. 2001…Archon Award Ceremony, Copenhagen, Denmark
“It is particularly meaningful to receive this recognition from Sigma Theta Tau with its record of focussed dedication to the global advancement of nursing. I have long felt the enhancement of the nursing profession to be absolutely critical to the improvement of health care in the developing world, and the Islamic world. The way forward was to professionalise, to institutionalise, and to dignify this great profession.
“More than twenty-five years ago, these were some of the central concerns that led to the establishment of the Aga Khan University in Karachi and its School of Nursing. Universities have the unique capacity for forming the human resources necessary for all fields of human development.
“The School of Nursing was the first academic programme offered by the Aga Khan University for a combination of reasons, some universal in nature, and others particular to countries like Pakistan. It is generally accepted that high quality health care, both in institutional as well as community settings, cannot be provided effectively without capable nurses to support physicians and other health professionals. But Pakistan suffers from an acute shortage of nurses. Even now, there are four physicians for every nurse whereas the international norm is at least five nurses to every physician. In addition, because women constitute an overwhelming number of nurses in the developing world, the Board of Trustees of the Aga Khan University felt that the School of Nursing could foster the enhancement of nurses, and women professionals more generally, empowering them, and increasing their standing and effectiveness in society.
“Today, the AKU School of Nursing takes pride that:
“More and more women are coming forward to join the profession. By adding programmes that lead to Bachelors and Masters Degrees in Nursing for the first time in Pakistan, the School is providing opportunities for career advancement that were out of reach for nearly everyone in the profession in the country.
“The School of Nursing has become an important resource for policy dialogues with the government and the nation’s Nursing Council. It has assisted in the review and reforming of nursing policies, and the curriculum for nursing education for the country as a whole.
“The School of Nursing is also in the vanguard as the Aga Khan University launches its first programmes outside Pakistan, in fulfilment of the provisions of its charter as an international university. The School is developing an initiative in Advanced Nursing Studies regionally in Eastern Africa, responding to the needs for advanced training in Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya.” 
IV. 2014…House of Commons, Ottawa, Canada
“The nursing school’s impact has been enormous; many of those who now head other nursing programmes and hospitals in the whole of the region — not just Pakistan — are graduates of our school.” 
Date posted: Friday, February 20, 2015.
Last updated: February 21, 2015.
 Speech at the Inauguration of the Aga Khan School of Nursing, Karachi, Pakistan, February 16, 1981.
 Baccalaureate Address to the Class of 1996 at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 26, in the Meeting House of the First Baptist in America, near the Brown University campus in Providence, Rhode Island, USA.
 Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the Archon Award Ceremony of Sigma Theta Tau International, Copenhagen, Denmark, June 7, 2001.
 Address of His Highness the Aga Khan to both Houses of the Parliament of Canada in the House of Commons Chamber, Ottawa, February 27, 2014.
“To my overwhelming surprise the lift door opened on to the fifth floor where I was in charge. There they were, the Aga Khan and the President. I was honoured and awed. I felt like the luckiest person on earth. I met all the dignitaries and escorted them through the impeccable ward of which we were so proud.” — Kundanben Paatni
“If self-effacement is achieved, the foundation of unity will have been well and truly laid…Be guided by the lives of men like Hasan bin Sabah and Pir Sadar Din.”
“Unity and self-effacement are the greatest contributions we can make individually to the rest of the community.
“By self-effacement, I mean the forgetting of oneself sometimes and making one’s personal interests subservient to those of the largest number. If self-effacement is achieved, the foundation of unity will have been well and truly laid. For, at present, it is the consciousness of one’s self-importance and dignity which is making people forget their duties and responsibilities, and indulge in petty squabbles and bitter trivialities.
“The welfare of the Ismailis is so near and dear to my heart that I cannot light-heartedly bring myself to overlook the weak points of the community. It is by recognizing our own faults that we can hope to improve. Let us realize that in the matter of helping our brethren we have much to learn from our sister communities, and that if we ever hope to achieve what we have set out to, we must resolutely follow the principles of the faith, be guided by the lives of men like Hasan bin Sabah and Pir Sadar Din and concentrate on the two most important principles of life — namely, Unity and Service of the Imam-e-Zaman and Community.” – Ismaili, India, February 2, 1941.
“Customs come and go and here is one custom from my childhood…” Please Click for Shariffa Keshavjee’s Essay on Paan
Editor’s note: While I constantly think of my mum, Alwaeza Maleksultan J. Merchant, as she continues her recovery at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, near Vancouver, from an open heart surgery some 5 weeks ago, I felt I should re-post her excellent piece on Varas Ismail Gangji that she contributed as part of Simerg’s highly acclaimed “I Wish I’d Been There” series. Her photo, left at image below, was taken by my brother, Alnoor, when he visited her at the RCH a few days ago. To read her inspiring piece, please click on the photo or on Varas Ismail Gangji: The Turning Point
The reference by the Persian Ismaili Missionary, Fida’i Khurasani, of the distribution of healing water by Imam Islamshah (a.s.), the 30th Ismaili Imam, is significant, as the practice of drinking water blessed by the Imam is frequently attested in Ismaili Ginans and continues to form part of the Ismaili tradition to this day.
The use of such consecrated water is widely practiced in several religious traditions. Many Twelver Shi’a, for example, dissolve the dust of Karbala where Imam Husayn (a.s.) is buried, or that of Najaf, the resting place of the Imam ‘Ali (a.s.), and drink the resulting healing water (Aab-i Shifaa) as a cure for illness, both spiritual and physical.
In India, an offering (Nyaz) is conducted at many Muslim homes with great respect and devotion. Verses of the Holy Qur’an are recited on the death of Muslim saints in whose name the Nyaz is held, and the person who performs the ritual of Nyaz keeps some water and food aside while reciting the Qur’anic verses. By association with the recitation of the holy verses, the food is considered to become sacred and is shared with those present and even sent to friends and relatives. Whoever partakes of the Nyaz is considered fortunate since Nyaz is associated with barakat or blessing.
The Ismaili emphasis on the spiritual aspect of this healing is clear from the names used to designate the water, which include Light (Nur) and ambrosia (Amiiras, Aamiijal) and Nyaz. Their use of the blessed water is also distinctive in another regard. It is taken in the name of the Imam of the Time (Imam-e-Zaman), who is always physically present on earth.
In the old prayer associated with this ritual, preserved in many of the manuscripts, the water is sanctified with the following formula when poured into the vessel:
Pure is the water, pure is the wind
Pure is the earth, pure is the sky
Pure is the moon, pure is the sun
Pure is the Lord’s vessel, pure is the Lord’s name
By the name of the Lord, pure becomes the Lord’s congregation
In the remainder of this long prayer, the primordial existence of a manifest divine authority is repeatedly evoked. The lineage of this authority is traced through the cosmic ages and is ultimately affirmed to be vested in the living Imam of the age. The sections of the prayer end with a declaration that the Imam is alive and eternally present.
At this point the reciter of the prayer would announce the word farman, to which those in attendance would reply Shah-Pir-a reaffirmation of their allegiance to the command (Farman) of the reigning Imam (Shah) and his representative (Pir).
The current practice is similar, but the expression Shah-Pir has been replaced by Ya Ali-Ya Muhammad.
In this manner, the community members voiced their allegiance, in the words of Nasir al-Din Tusi, not solely to the command, but to the Commander of their time, the Possessor of the Command.
Date posted: January 11, 2015.
Originally aired on PBS to a word-wide audience exceeding 150 million people
“CANDID, THOUGHTFUL AND VISUALLY STUNNING” – Los Angeles Times
Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s) changed world history in 23 years and continues to shape and inspire the lives of more than 1.4 billion Muslims around the world.
Simerg is pleased to make available for its readers around the world a link to the film, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, that was originally aired on PBS to a world-wide audience exceeding 150 million people. The internet age is a blessing of our time that, through outstanding movies such as this, we are able to learn more about the wonderful and noble qualities of Prophet Muhammad. In his Presidential Address to the Seerat Conference in 1976, His Highness the Aga Khan had asked:
“In the face of this changing world, which was once a universe to us and is now no more than an overcrowded island, confronted with a fundamental challenge to our understanding of time, surrounded by a foreign fleet of cultural and ideological ships which have broken loose, I ask, ‘Do we have a clear, firm and precise understanding of what Muslim Society is to be in times to come?’ And if as I believe, the answer is uncertain, where else can we search then in the Holy Qur’an, and in the example of Allah’s last and final Prophet?”
His Highness continued:
“The Holy Prophet’s life gives us every fundamental guideline that we require to resolve the problem as successfully as our human minds and intellects can visualise. His example of integrity, loyalty, honesty, generosity both of means and of time, his solicitude for the poor, the weak and the sick, his steadfastness in friendship, his humility in success, his magnanimity in victory, his simplicity, his wisdom in conceiving new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam, surely all these are foundations which, correctly understood and sincerely interpreted, must enable us to conceive what should be a truly modern and dynamic Islamic Society in the years ahead.”
Some of these examples from the Prophet’s life come alive through this ground-breaking PBS film, which takes the viewers from the ancient Arabian sites where Prophet Muhammad’s story unfolded to the homes, mosques, and workplaces of some of America’s estimated seven million Muslims. The Los Angeles Times called the film “a candid, thoughtful, flowing, visually stunning film,” while The Catholic News Service commented that the Prophet’s biography offers viewers fresh insights into the spiritual foundations of Islam.
Readers can watch a preview of the film as well as the the full-length movie by clicking on the following image:
PLEASE CLICK: Ameer Kassam Janmohamed (1931-2014) or photo for tribute.
PLEASE CLICK: “Conversations on Three Continents”
PLEASE CLICK: Remembering Rai Hussein Khanmohammed of Burma
Date posted: December 31, 2014.