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
“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 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).
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