Zarina Bhatia (d. July 2021): A Tribute to a Noble Ismaili Social Anthropologist from Birmingham, UK, Who Became One of My Truest Friends

Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
“Surely we belong to God and to Him we return” — Holy Qur’an, 2:156

“Life is a great and noble calling, not a mean and grovelling thing to be shuffled through as best as we can but a lofty and exalted destiny.” — Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1877-1957), 48th Ismaili Imam

Zarina Bhatia (d. July 2021)

Publisher/Editor SimergBarakah and Simergphotos

“Mowla is with us day and night in our heart, thought and prayer. We as Ismailis are most fortunate with Allah’s mercy” — Zarina Bhatia

It is with utmost sadness that I share with you the demise of Zarina Bhatia of Birmingham, England, originally of Kampala, Uganda, at the age of 82. Her funeral ceremony took place on Friday July 30, 2021, at Birmingham Jamatkhana, and she was later buried at the city’s Handsworth Cemetery. She had been unwell for some time and of late wasn’t able to communicate as frequently as was her wish.

Since the launching of Simerg some 12 years ago, Zarina became one of its most ardent supporters. She would comment frequently on articles that were posted in Simerg as well as its sister website Barakah, and would write personal inspirational notes to encourage me in my endeavours. She would always remember my late parents, Jehangir (d. May 2018) and Maleksultan Merchant (Mrs. Merchant, d. January 2021), whom she came to know during their waez and teaching visits to Birmingham during their tenure with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom (ITREB).

I would like to share a couple of important comments that she made on the websites showing her affection for Ismailis around the world. In response to the post titled 1995 Flashback: The Aga Khan’s first visit to Badakhshan, a historic day the Ismailis will never forget, Zarina wrote:

“This article brings tears of joy and spirit of true brotherhood for the Ismaili Jamats of Badakhshan. While we have been so fortunate to have visits, never enough from our Beloved Imams of the Age over decades, these brethren are meeting our Imam-e-Zaman Mowlana Shah Karim al-Husseini for the first time!

My own late Father who was born in a village of Jamnagar in Gujerat in India had described to me his journey as a child of about 8 years old, to the city of Baroda, partly by foot, that took him a few days with his two older and one younger brother along with some Jamati members (his father had already passed away by then) to meet Mowlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, with similar zeal and sentiment. He recalled the Farman Imam made then about importance of educating a daughter, emphasising that with choice between a son if resources were limited, the future was in doing so. With physical health, the son could use his labour and feed the family, but daughter should not be kept at home in illiteracy. We see the significance of this Farman today in Shia Imami Ismailis the world over. Please overlook errors I have made, I am overwhelmed by reading the whole article. May Allah bless you for compiling such moving articles about our Global Jamat scattered across this world we share. Ameen.”

In another letter, in response to Simerg’s article Prayers for Syria, Zarina poignantly wrote:

“Ignorant as I am in Arabic, the English version you have given out of this Prayer (Naad-e-Ali) with beautiful Arabic script that sadly I cannot read, but can hear it and share it with our afflicted brethren not just in Syria but also in Bahrain, Iran and more currently with Shia in Sana’a in Yemen. This, the most powerful prayer of Nade Ali in its entirety rings in my ears and jogs my memory of times when I have addressed it to Mowla.

“Since our young days our parents taught us lovingly while comforting us. When any of us face tribulations, for Mushkeel Asaan we privately recite it [Nade Ali] connecting as if on a direct line, a personal phone call to Ali. He is engraved in our hearts; this supplication is embossed deep down in our soul as the SOS, ultimate call out to help us, to our Mowla Ali present our ‘ghat’ closer than our jugular vein, for example in Ginanic verses: ‘Rome rome maaro Shah vase, jem champa phul manhe vaas…avun Janine bhagatai kijiye …’

“Enough. Words fail me as I bow down my head in Sujjud with all His created human kind. Thank you for the beautiful gift of ‘Nade Ali’ to us, the victims of atrocities, pain and suffering. Ameen.”

Zarina became an elder sister to me, and she promised me that if she ever visited Canada from the UK she would make a special trip to Ottawa. She kept her promise by making that trip in 2015. She travelled on the bus to Ottawa, accompanied by her gracious Toronto host Nadira Lakhani. I was indeed honoured and privileged to receive her and to spend time showing her and Nadira the key tourist points in Ottawa. Before their departure for Toronto, we visited the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building on Sussex Drive.

Zarina Bhatia PhD Social Changes in the Ismaili Society of East Africa with Reference to the Imamat of Four Successive Aga Khans
Zarina Bhatia of Birmingham, England, visits the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat Building on Sussex Drive in Ottawa in 2015 with her Toronto friend and host Nadira Lakhani. Photo: Malik Merchant.

Zarina was adorned with beautiful virtues, and her motives were pure and upright. She was never afraid to voice her opinion whenever she felt she had to. Throughout her life she remained dedicated to the Palestinian cause, freely discussing their plight and right to statehood. She was also a peace activist and campaigned for nuclear disarmament voicing her strong opposition on the development and distribution of the Trident nuclear programme. She wrote, “Wars cause destruction not only of lives but natural resources. That is why I am an adamant follower of Global Peace and am without reservation a Peace Activist. As a citizen of the world I would like every human being to refrain from wars.”

As a devout Ismaili, she sought to share the Ismaili Tariqah and the work of Mawlana Hazar Imam with her non-Ismaili friends, and encouraged them to learn about the Ismaili faith by sending them pertinent links.

During her trip to Ottawa she shared with me some momentous and unforgettable events in her life, including the blessings that she received from Mawlana Hazar Imam as she embarked on her Ph.D studies in Social Anthropology at Oxford University in 1969.

Mawlana Hazar Imam’s letter of August 16, 1969, sent directly to her Oxford address said: “I send you my best loving blessings in your studies at Oxford” — and then in his own handwriting Mawlana Hazar Imam added — “, and for spiritual happiness and for worldly achievement.”

Later, in 1987, several years after completing her Ph.D, she sent a copy of her thesis entitled “Social Changes in the Ismaili Society of East Africa with Reference to the Imamat of Four Successive Aga Khans” to Mawlana Hazar Imam. He responded with blessings for her success in her career in the UK. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s letter of July 21, 1987 also included prayers and blessings for the souls of her two brothers, Mohamed and Nizar, who had died a few years earlier.

However, she went largely unrecognized by Ismaili institutions, considering her background and achievements dating back to the 1960’s. Despite the indifference shown to her, as well as other personal grief and challenges that she had to deal with during her lifetime, Zarina always remained staunchly devoted to Mawlana Hazar Imam. She wrote to me in an email:

“Mowla is with us day and night in our heart, thought and prayer. We as Ismailis are most fortunate with Allah’s mercy.”

Indeed, as she told me, she kept Mawlana Hazar Imam’s blessings constantly in her heart throughout her life. They were keys to her courage and strength. During her visit to Ottawa, she also presented me with a photocopy of her photograph taken with Mawlana Hazar Imam when he visited her classroom in Kampala in 1959.

On a final note, readers may not be aware that when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Oxford in 1968, Susan Mollar, the renowned feminist and campaigner for multi-cultural feminism, introduced Zarina to the Queen in the Common Room of Sommerville College as an African student from Uganda. A photo of the introduction was taken by the then Central Office of Information in London which ceased to exist in 2012.

This is an insufficient tribute to a true, sincere, honest, simple, straightforward and a highly educated Ismaili murid of Mawlana Hazar Imam. I humbly ask all readers to join me in offering prayers that Zarina’s beautiful and pure soul may rest in eternal peace. Ameen.

Date posted: July 30, 2021.
Last updated: August 5, 2021 (Photo added of Zarina Bhatia’s visit to Ottawa in 2015).

Tributes and condolences: We invite our readers to submit their condolences, memories and tributes to Zarina Bhatia. To pen your reflection please complete the feedback form below or click on Leave a comment.


Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

25 thoughts on “Zarina Bhatia (d. July 2021): A Tribute to a Noble Ismaili Social Anthropologist from Birmingham, UK, Who Became One of My Truest Friends

  1. Malikbhai – what a beautiful tribute to my dear Aunt Zarina. She often mentioned you, Simerg, and Barakah in conversation or correspondence. I am so pleased she had the chance to visit with you during her last trip to Canada in 2015. Your kindness in taking her all around is deeply appreciated and was a distinct highlight of her trip. She was indeed a devoted reader of your websites and as you noted, commented often.

    Yes, she was quite fearless in saying what was on her mind, popular or not. Her trailblazing included early visits to China, to Hunza, to Palestine, and in recent years, she even had the opportunity to visit Uganda, though within a group itinerary which chafed at her independent spirit. She stood up constantly for the underdog, and was a vocal political activist, speaking against what she perceived as injustices and any and all levels, including within our community. Her political friends and compatriots crossed all lines and barriers, coming from all communities, ages, and backgrounds.

    She qualified first as a teacher, and is remembered by students in Kampala — she delighted in her numerous nieces and nephews, and always had a special place in her heart for them, introducing them to so many things.

    Truly a unique and brilliant individual, she constantly challenged convention, if she felt the convention was not justifiable. She always had a soft spot for those facing challenging times.

    Often self-effacing, she would have been both uncomfortable with and delighted at this wonderful tribute. Without doubt, she will be missed.

  2. Thank you for sharing your tribute to our sister in faith Zarina. May her soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen.

  3. May Zarina aunty’s Noble Soul Rest in Eternal Peace, Ameen. I had the pleasure of meeting her a few times whenever I visited Birmingham. There was no streak of pride in her at all, considering that she was literally, a trailblazer.

    I wish I had gotten to know her better (in retrospect).

    Thank you so much for your excellent tribute.

    There will be a great void in the lives of all who knew her and particularly those who loved Zarina aunty.

    We will sorely miss you. 😢

  4. This is such a wonderful tribute with stories that I never even knew about my dear Aunty Zarin. Thank you for sharing her journey this way.

    I will always be grateful for her encouragement and support in my life.

  5. Great tributes to Zarin. She was an amazing lady. I feel privileged to have known her. May her soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen.

  6. A phenomenal lady and a great family friend – especially of our late uncle Badr Dahya who visited her many times in Birmingham while he was working as a Professor of Sociology – she spoke eloquently about their friendship at his Betak (condolence gathering) … always was a pleasure to catch up with her at Birmingham Jamatkhana.

  7. Thank you Malik for the post. It is indeed a fitting tribute to the late Zarina. I met Zarina when I went to Birmingham for my PhD. She became my friend and we met frequently in Jamatkhana. I had also been to her home a few times for lunch and chai.

    She was indeed very passionate about various social issues and we had lengthy talks about some of them as these issues were also close to my heart. As you mention above, she was not scared of voicing her opinion when she believed something was not right. I admired her for that.

    I remember her visit to my home in Toronto. When she called me from Vancouver that she was coming to Toronto, she almost ordered me to book tickets to Ottawa so she could go see Malik Merchant! I therefore booked the bus tickets and we met you, Malik, in Ottawa. Thank you for the lunch and for taking the time to show us around.

    You say above that she went largely unrecognized by Ismaili institutions. I know she felt really hurt by this indifference of the institutions and I am sure some of us feel the same way. I reminded her of the verse in anant akhado which says ‘satpanth saacha ane rikhisar khota and hoyse te khota i khot’. It made her feel better and she would often ask me to remind her of the verse.

    Zarina and I met again in Jamatkhana in November 2019 when I was there for a visit. We didn’t have much time together, as I was leaving in a few days. Today I can say that I am guilty of not being in contact with her since the start of Covid. I pray that Mawla rest her soul in eternal peace, forgive her sins and bless her with his Noorani Deedar. Ameen.

    I also pray for the souls of your missionary parents and all other ruhanis. Mowla rest all their souls in eternal peace, forgive their sins and bless them with his noorani deedar. Ameen.

  8. Even though I didn’t know Zarina, after reading the article, I feel proud and inspired by her. She seemed ahead of her times for her generation, a trailblazer.
    Just like Alwaez Jehanghir and Alwaeza Malek Jehanghir, she has touched many lives. A blessing for those who had a chance to know her.

  9. I knew Zarina Bhatia and her family. In Kampala her family was well known as a talented family. Her late brother Nizar was a musician and another brother Mansoor would have made a good career in acting and writing. In fact Mansoor’s son was in news recently as a composer of music for TV and films.

    I next saw Zarin in Hunza. She was an early visitor there working with women and children. She was brave enough to challenge the disadvantaged role of the women.

    The last time I met her was in Bristol during our Regional day. I did not recognise her until she gave me her name. She took over the command of our kitchen. Her parents were the most humble people who brought up a number of children. Kampala people will always remember the Bhatias. May she rest in peace.

  10. A selection of comments received on the social media:

    Abdul Khakoo: Zarina was a brilliant scholar, teacher and a true faith lover. She always wanted to know about our faith in depth every time I met her. May her soul rest in eternal peace, Ameen
    Laila Pirani: I am devastated. ONE IN Z MILLION. Souls like her are rare. BESIDES HER OWN COMMUNITY, helped all other commitments, & causes. PALESTINIANS ESPECIALLY. Zarina. MAY YOUR SOUL REST IN ETERNAL PEACE.
    Minaz H. Bhatia: Praying for her soul to rest in eternal peace.
    Nizar Makan: May her soul rest in eternal peace in union with our creator.
    Zubeda Bhagat: May hear soul rest in eternal peace, ameen
    Mumtaz N Nasreen: Rest in eternal peace, Aameen Aameen
    Gulnavaz Ratansi: May your soul rest in Eternal Peace Ameen
    Anmole Ali: May her beautiful soul rest in eternal peace…ameen

  11. Her words here, reflect her inner empathy and love for mankind. She was a courageous soul:

    “Enough. Words fail me as I bow down my head in Sujjud with all His created human kind. Thank you for the beautiful gift of ‘Nade Ali’ to us, the victims of atrocities, pain and suffering. Ameen.”

    May Zarina’s soul rest in eternal peace. May others continue her vision and endeavour to express the best of themselves, as Zarina pledged to do, in her lifetime, following the guidance of the Imam-of-the-Time.

  12. I never had the privilege to meet this noble lady but from what I read, she was an exemplary lady and an inspiration, may her soul continue to rest in peace ameen

  13. Thank you for your fitting tribute Malik Merchant.

    Zarina was a remarkable and amazing member of Birmingham Jamat . She enjoyed singing ginans and we all loved listening to her.

    She performed voluntary service in an unconditional way and helped many vulnerable members of the jamat. It is true, her iman and love for Mawlana Hazar Imam was very strong.

    A kind hearted unique Ismaili who will be missed by our Birmingham Jamat.

    We pray her soul rests in eternal peace. Ameen. 🙏🙏

    • This reminded me of our Mowla’s words that there are some he sees with his eyes and others that he sees with his heart. And such are many who are under seen but not in our Mowla’s eyes . Such people don’t even get worldly titles because they hold the highest title in Mowlas’s eyes 🙏🏽

      Pray her soul reach the abode of peace without any obstacles. Ameen

  14. Dear Malik,

    What a fitting tribute to the life of Dr. Zarina Bhatia who must have been a lovely murid of our beloved Imam. I did not know her but I am pleased to learn that Zarina came to know your lovely parents during their waez and teaching visits to Birmingham.

    Your heartfelt eulogy about Zarina brought back to life her Ismaili spirit which every practicing Ismaili lives by. Your parents were a beacon of light to many Ismailis over many years but in the seventies and eighties their visit to the midlands, where we also lived, was comforting, uplifting and hope sustaining for all the Ismailis there but especially for the Ugandan Ismailis.

    Thank you Malik for honouring Zarina’s memory but also the memories of your truly exceptional parents. May their souls rest in eternal peace. Ameen!

    Insha’Allah Parin and I too will meet you in Ottawa one day!

    Ya Ali Madad.

    Amir Kassam,
    London, UK

  15. What a fitting and beautiful tribute to Zarin. She was a member of our Birmingham Jamat and I am proud to say that she had a beautiful send off. She will be sorely missed by her friends throughout the world. What a remarkable lady. Our Birmingham Jamat won’t be the same without her. May she fly high and be at peace! Ameen 🙏

  16. I came in contact with Zarina Bhatia in Birmingham UK … she had a heart of Gold … she helped many women from other communities as well as myself. I still remember her words to me “don’t give up my dear it doesn’t matter what people think and say … just remember Mowla is always with you” …

    May her soul rest in eternal peace Ameen

    Zarina auntie you will always be missed and remembered

  17. A beautiful tribute, Malik, to Zarina. She comes across as a wonderful woman and a pioneer. Probably among the first Khoja Ismaili woman to have received her PhD. I have visited Birmingham for work many times and I wish I knew of Zarina and had met her. You wrote that Zarina always carried Mowla in her heart. I have no doubt she is with him.

  18. What a lovely tribute!
    Her life echoes humility, compassion and an aura of a spiritual soul.
    May her soul rest in eternal peace 🙏

  19. Your posting of today on “Zarina Bhatia (d. July 2021): A Tribute to a Noble Ismaili Social Anthropologist from Birmingham, UK, Who Became One of My Truest Friends.”

    Although I never came into personal contact with Late Zarina Bhatia I can relate to her amazing achievements and her remaining staunchly devoted to our most beloved Mawla and her statement that Mawla is with us day and night in our heart, thought and prayer. We as Ismailis are most fortunate with Allah’s mercy”. Alhamdulillah.

    During the mid-60’s to mid-70’s when I was involved as the Education Secretary with the Aga Khan’s Department of Education for Tanzania in Dar es Salaam, I had the good fortune of seeing a few copies of Mawla’s communications to various students studying in the UK and the USA during those years – similar to the ones sent to late Zarina Bhatia in August 1969 and again in July 1987 when she completed her Ph.D.

    Heartfelt condolences from our entire family to the family of Late Zarina Bhatia. Ameen.

  20. Zarina Bhatia. Fond memories of our discussion on all issues pertaining to world affairs and faiths. Rest in eternal peace. I will miss you.

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