THE ORIGINS OF ISMAILI IDENTITY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM: A PERSPECTIVE
By Ameer Janmohamed
Special to Simerg
39 Lyncroft Gardens, Hampstead, London NW5
The Jamat gathered at this address for prayers and social assembly from 1948 onwards when Varas Hassanali Kassam Javeri offered part of his residence for this purpose. Seated on Prince Aly’s right is Abdul K. Adatia (K16) – then President, and on his left Mukhi Aziz Nasser (K22) and Kamadia Taj Dhala (K24). Though not mentioned personally in the narrative some members of the Javeri family are also in the picture. They are Shirinbai Javeri (H6), Sadru Javeri (D27), Fatmabai – Shirinbai Javeri’s mother (K12) and Dadi Javeri (P9).
Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah appointed a new Council very soon after this 1952 picture of the Jamat at Lyncroft Gardens.
President: Al Noor (Nick) Kassum (E4), Hon. Secretary: Aziz R.Kassim-Lakha (G8), Members: (Mukhi) Tajdeen J. Hirji (G32) and (Kamadia) Amirali Rahemtulla (D25).
Moving Forward: 51 Kensington Court, London W8
In his biography Africa’s Winds of Change, Al Noor Kassum writes “…the late Aga Khan appointed me President of the Ismailia Council in the UK. Initially, Ismaili residents of the city had no jamatkhana (centre for congregation) and the well-known Javeri family made their house available for prayers. On the instructions of the Aga Khan, I negotiated the purchase of a building, 51 Kensington Court, London, which became a centre for the Ismaili community in England. It housed a prayer hall as well as the Ismailia Social and Residential Club.”
51 Kensington Court was first viewed by the Council in early 1952. They found a large residential property on six floors needing considerable alterations. Professional advice was taken, planning consents obtained, and funds were raised from African Jamats. Acquired in 1951 the Centre was ready for use by March 1953.
According to Al Noor Kassum, “The building was opened on behalf of the Aga Khan by the Begum Aga Khan, Mata Salamat, on 17th. May 1953. She read out a message from the Aga Khan, in which he said:
‘Although very few of you are residents in Great Britain, the moment you are in this country you belong to the fraternity which is known as the Jamat of England; and the Headquarters of this fraternity are now in London’.
“In his message the Aga Khan added that the Centre would be ‘a social and religious centre as well as educational in the highest sense of the word for Ismailis who, for better instruction, for commerce or for pleasure come to this greatest of all cities’. Urging the community to ‘build up a library of Ismaili literature and Islamic studies in History and Cultural and Political thoughts of the past’, His Higheness added, ‘Every one of you must consider this as a home away from home in the true sense of the word; that is where your spirit gets rest from the wear and tear of life’.”
The reconfigured layout of the Centre consisted of reception, lounge and games room on the ground floor and TV room, breakfast room and kitchen in the basement. The second, third and fourth floors comprised of accommodation for 18 residents in single, double and triple bedrooms.
Jamatkhana and the Jamat’s Iconic Lady Member, Bebibai
The Prayer Hall was situated on the first floor and could accommodate up to 75 persons on chairs. It was not unknown to have more like a hundred on occasions with others perching on stairs leading down to the ground and up to the second floors. Prayers were held daily at 6.15 p.m. and 7.00 pm on Fridays. Apparently Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah had suggested that Jamat could sit on chairs instead of on the carpets during the cold months between October and April. Mijalis commenced in late 1953.
No account of Jamati activities at 51 Kensington Court can be complete without mentioning Varasiani Bebibai (H7), who in the words of Mukhi Zaher Ahamed, ‘was a tower of strength for Mukhis and Kamadias’. She was the wife of Abdulhusein Abdulrasul Allidina Visram and with her three daughters, Jenny (O29), Lila and Purviz, was permanently settled in the UK. Other permanent residents were of course Hashamali and Kassamali Javeri. And from the sub-Continent there was Kassamali Lokhandwalla who followed Itmadi Sadrudin Janmohamed as the President of the Council. Bebibai’s daughter Jenny got married to President Sadrudin Janmohamed.
Administration, Membership and Telegraph Address
51 Kensington Court was designated a Members only institution and was formally called the ISMAILIA SOCIAL & RESIDENTIAL CLUB. A Constitution was formulated with the approval of the Imam. Rules stated that the Club is formed “to advance the general educational interests of Ismaili students resident in Great Britain and other Ismailis from all parts of the world and for that purpose provide for its members accommodation, social and cultural amenities and other facilities calculated to further this object.”
There were other regulations normal for such an institution. Although a Members Only club, Article 28 of the Rules stated that “Subject to the regulations of the Committee, THE USE OF THE PRAYER ROOM AT THE CLUB SHALL BE OPEN TO ALL ISMAILIS IRRESPECTIVE OF HIS OR HER BEING A MEMBER OF THE CLUB.” Revenue was derived from Membership fees, being annually shs 10/6 from students, and shs 21/- from others. Life Membership was £25 per person. Income was also derived from lodgers who occupied the rooms.
The telegraphic address “HAKIKATI” was registered in October 1952. The first Council meeting at the Centre took place on 12th December, 1952.
The day to day management of the Club was vested in a resident English couple, Mr. and Mrs. Ted Connell. They looked after the premises, house-keeping, staff, general discipline and so on. I got to know them rather well in the summer of 1956, when I stayed there for three months off and on. They sometimes talked about some unusual challenges. Dealing with students was fine. They were on unsure grounds when dealing with elderly Ismaili visitors from East Africa and India who were at times in London for medical treatment and in many cases had come to London for the first time. Quite often they were unfamiliar with western style showers and toilets, and the fact that beds had to be made up by a certain time, there was no room service, and there was no cooking of Indian food on the premises and so on. The Connell’s daughter-in-law Pat also served as the secretary to the Council. The Connells are remembered as a sympathetic couple, fair but firm.
The Spirit of Volunteerism
51 Kensington Court proved to be a great boon to overseas Ismaili visitors, whether they stayed there or not. They now had a focal point in the country. They could meet other Ismailis every day, and offer prayers in congregation. Though there was nothing like the infra-structure of committees we are so inured to today, the spirit of volunteerism was alive and well. People seeking doctors’ appointments, advice on accommodation, financial matters, shopping, restaurants, visas and trips to the Continent, Theatres, sight-seeing etc could all rely on Ismaili volunteers, most of them full time students themselves, for guidance.
In some cases needy patients from abroad were even met at Heathrow and transported to the Centre. I was ‘volunteered’ by Mukhi Zaher Ahmed and Jenny Rahemtullah (nee Jaffer) on a number of occasions to provide this service because I had a spacious car and seemed to have all the time in the world. There was no motorway at the time of course. The route to Heathrow and further West was known as the Great West Road.
Needless to say parking was always at a premium, and I remember one particular occasion when I was asked to block the parking spot exactly in front of the entrance to 51 Kensington Court in anticipation of Prince Sadrudin’s visit to the Club. I parked my car on the designated spot day and a half earlier on and finally moved it when Prince Saheb arrived. The picture below above some of us who were privileged to meet Prince Sadrudin on that occasion.
Visits of the Imam
The Centre was blessed with Mawla’s visits on numerous occasions. There is a memorable picture of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah with children of the Jamat during his visit to the Centre on a fine summer’s day on 18th July 1953.
Mawla visited the Centre on 21st June, 1954, accompanied by Mata Salamat and Prince Sadrudin and commented that “…He felt perfectly at home in the Club…” Mawla also graced the Centre with two visits in May 1955. It was during his July 1955 visit that Mawla observed that the Jamat had quite clearly out-grown 51 Kensington Court, and that we should now look for bigger premises. 3-5 Palace Gate was acquired in in early 1957.
It appears that the first wedding to be performed at the Centre was between Amir Alibhai Kassim Lakha (of Mombasa) and Rashida Hassan Kassim Lakha (of Kampala) in 1955. The officiating Mukhi was Zaher Ahmed (from Nairobi) and Kamadia Aly Jamal (from Dar-es-Salaam) (1955/56). The ceremony was a simple exchange of contracts. There was no Nikah ceremony as such. The couple would have undergone a prior civil ceremony to comply with the law on the land.
Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah performed the next marriage to take place at the Centre between Dr. Badrudin Ebrahim (of Colombo, Ceylon) and Nurbanu Gulamhyder Bandeali (of Karachi, Pakistan).
The foregoing illustrates a phenomenon which was quietly taking place as a result of the Centre at 51 Kensington Court. Ismailis from various towns and cities in East Africa and the sub-Continent, who otherwise might never have met, were provided a platform and an environment where they could bond in an almost collegiate environment and ‘old school ties’ were being created by those who were there during the same period. Most of these young men and women had obviously done well enough educationally in their home countries to merit being sent to Britain for higher education and were from backgrounds which made them eligible for leadership roles when they concluded their studies and returned to their home countries.
Interestingly, at a Literary Function organised by the Library and Literary Committee in 1954, Mukhi Zulfikar Nimji was quoted as saying “I have but little doubt that it is this very platform that has to produce our future leading businessmen, political orators and spokesmen for the Community.” A look back at the alumni from 51 Kensington Court in later years, across a number of countries, shows this promise well fulfilled.
Distinguished Visitors to the Centre
One documented occasion in 1954 was the visit of the then Prime Minister of Sudan, Sayed Ismail El-Azhari. He was accompanied by the then Minister of Justice, Sayed Ali Abdel-Rahman El-Amin, the Minister of Social Affairs and National Guidance Sayed Yahia El-Fadli and other officials. They were welcomed by the then Council President Sadrudin Janmohamed.
On occasions the Centre was also visited by Mukhi Sahebs of other European Jamats such as Paris Mukhi Mohamedali Pirbhai (of Madagascar), Brussels Mukhi Adjabali Kassam (of Congo), and Dublin Mukhi Sadru Mussa Jetha (of Zanzibar).
Kensington is one of the more salubrious areas in London. Embassies and Consulates of many countries tend to be situated there, as do the better shops in the Capital. Our next door neighbour, at 50 Kensington Court, happened to be the Chancery of the Imperial Iranian Embassy. Not unsurprisingly many residents of Kensington Court used to refer to the Centre at 51 Kensington Court as the Aga Khan’s Embassy.
Sixty Years: Building a Sense of Identity
51 Kensington Court appears to have been the first Ismaili ‘Centre’ in the Western hemisphere, closely followed by 36 Rue De Prony in Paris. Although it was officially called The Ismailia Social and Residential Club, people always referred to it as the ‘Centre’. It was the focal point of our community from 1952 through 1957. Demands of space made it necessary for the Centre to move to 3-5 Palace Gate, again in Kensington from 1957 until 1985.
From 1985 onwards, The Ismaili Centre, is of course at 1 Cromwell Gardens in South Kensington. Ismaili Centres do not now provide accommodation. Prestigious Ismaili Centres are now being created in numerous cities of the world, and they proclaim to the world the presence of the Ismaili community in their midst.
The Ismaili Centre in London provides me with an identity I am proud of. On occasions I have had conversations with local people who are trying to ‘understand’ me better. They ask me which Mosque I attend. I explain that our places of worship are called Jamatkhanas, literally communal gathering places. Where are they, is the next question. I tell them there are several in London and the UK but the principal Jamatkhana is situated at the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington. Whereabouts in Kensington? I ask them if they know the Victoria and Albert Museum. Of course they do. I tell them that directly across the museum is the Ismaili Centre. The snob in me seldom finds it necessary to explain any further.
Date posted: March 10, 2015
Copyright: Ameer Janmohamed. 2012.
Editor’s Note: We invite your contribution for the Jamatkhana series. Please click on The Jamatkhana: A Place of Spiritual and Social Convergence to read about the series and links to more Jamatkhana pieces.
1. Needless to say, the above account only tells part of the story of 51 Kensington Court. It is based on information I have gleaned from numerous sources, including unattributed documents and some personal knowledge. I would like to thank all my sources especially Zaher Ahmed, Gulibai Tajdin Jivan Hirji (I30), Al Noor Kassum and Badru and Gulzar Jamal for their help.
2. I admit to having a somewhat sentimental connection with The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea which goes back to my stay at 51 Kensington Court in 1956. I began attending the Kensington Rotary Club as a visiting Rotarian whenever in London. We met on Thursdays at Derry & Tom restaurant on Kensington High Street. I moved to the UK for good in 1973, acquired the business Whiteman’s Dairy on Holland Street, off Kensington Church Street, and was soon invited to join the Kensington Rotary Club. I became Club President and was invited to lay wreath at the Memorial on Kensington High Street in November 1981. The Club honoured me with a Paul Harris Fellowship at a ceremony in the Mayor’s Parlour in Kensington Town Hall in 1984. The Ismaili Centre came into being in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in 1985. I was privileged to serve as a Director of the Zamana Gallery at the Ismaili Centre for a number of years. We were always warmly supported by Kensington Town Hall.
About the Writer: (Alijah) Ameer Kassam Janmohamed is the author of A Regal Romance and Other Memories and the three volume set of of AKJ Collection of Cynical Wisdom. His wonderfully written A Regal Romance, published in London in 2008 by Society Books, is a rich tapestry of vividly told personal and family vignettes from 19th century onwards as well as insights of life in Kenya before and after independence. Mr. Janmohamed has a vast record of services to his credit. He was initiated into the Rotary club in Mombasa when he was a youth, and subsequently got elected as President and later as District Governor of Rotary International, a position which covered nine African and Indian Ocean countries. He continued to be involved with the Rotary after he moved to London, UK, in 1973, and acted as the President of the Kensington Club in 1981/1982. Today, he is the oldest surviving member of this chapter.
Within the Ismaili community he has served as a past Governor of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and director of the Zamana Gallery, both in London. In Mombasa, he served in the capacity as Kamadia and Mukhi of the Chief Jamatkhana between 1962 to 1966, and later served as the President of the Mombasa Provincial Council from 1968-1971. He was also a director of the Diamond Trust. He is an alumnus of the Aga Khan High School, Mombasa.
Readers are invited to read the following fine pieces by Alijah Janmohamed on this website:
The Review Process and Presentation of Recommendations to Mawlana Hazar Imam for a New Ismaili Constitution in Africa
The Faith of My Forefathers contributed for Simerg’s special series I Wish I’d Been There.
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Many grateful thanks for this wonderful tapestry from the annals of the UK settlement, which is edifying for those who like me joined the Canadian settlement from Africa outside of the UK route. Reminiscent of the international students centre at the U. of Toronto which was for many “home away from home in the true sense of the word” and the spirit received respite and rest from the wear and tear of life lived far from home.
Dear Mr Janmohamed,
Thank You for archiving the Javeri residence as a place where the jamat used to gather for prayers.
I am the great grand son of Chief Vazir Javeri and son of Vazir Ameerali and Noorbanoo (Dadi Javeri) Rahimtoola.
Would love if you have any more images and history to share with me about my maternal family.
Looking forward to hearing back from you.
I printed and gave this article to Shirin (don’t know her surname but assume it is Visram) who lives in London and she is the great, great, great grandaughter of Varasiani Bebibai, the wife of Abdulhusein Abdulrasul Allidina Visram.
I was in London from April 1956 to April 1957. My sister and I went to Jamatkhana at 51 Kensington Court. Zaher Ahmed was Mukhi then. Babibai often took us to her home and gave us Indian food. She knew my parents from Mbale, Uganda.
We had the good fortune to visit Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah and Mata Salamat at Yakimoor in Cannes. The Imam was not well, but he till invited us to his personal home. We had his photographer take our picture with the Imam in his wheel chair and had it mailed to my father. This visit with Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah and Omme Habibe (Mata Salamat) who showed us the grounds of Villa Yakimour is one of the most precious memories of my life. It is still vivid in my mind.
In 1957, 3-5 Palace Gate became Ismaili center and we stayed there for two weeks before returning to Mbale, Uganda. I recognize both 51 Kensington Court and 5 Palace Gate
The 48th Imam passed away in July and Prince Karim became our 49th Imam. I attended his coronation in Kampala.
He visited Mbale in November, and stayed at our brand new house in Mbale. My father Ibrahim Mitha was the council president. Mawlna Hazar Imam performed engagement ceremony of me and my sister Gulshan on November 5th. I was married to Dr. Mohamed Gulamhusein Jiwa Bhatia on Dec 21 1957. Gulshan married Sadrudin Abdulaziz Pirani.
She was one the first three women council presidents.
Thank you for reviving my precious neories of our beloved late Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah.
Nabat Bhatia nee Mitha
Mashallah Mashallah. Mawla aap ko Salamat rakhy
aap ki mehnat, mohabbat & aqeedat ko mera Salam.
Accomplishments by our Imams that no one can match! Let us all resolve to attend Jamatkhana regularly so that it is always full.
Absolutely amazed at the wonderful pictures and excellent write-up!
Absolutely marvellous that Ameerbhai has managed to bring to life such memories of the first “known” Ismaili settlement in the UK. It is a pity that such articles are short and do not give the full impact of those early days.
But much enjoyed to read this article and hope many more will follow.
Thank you Ameer for putting this piece of our London Ismaili history on record. In the past I have had to correct many Ismailis who believe that 3-5 Palace Gate was the first Centre and Jamatkhana in London. Now I can refer them to your excellent article.
Thanks for the article and the above Comments. I shall forward these to my nephew Shamir Bhatia in Vancouver as we indirectly knew Zul Nimji. As for me, I first visited London in 1964 as an undergraduate from Makerere University of East Africa, as one of backpackers! I stayed at 3-5 Palace Gate for a few weeks in one of the rooms offered there while I was sight-seeing and spent some time in Cambridge and Oxford. I then joined University of Oxford in 1967 as a postgraduate when it was converted to the only Jamatkhana in London. I remember a person called ‘Tooty’ who was the care-taker and a Babybai from Visram family who was a very devoted lady in the Jamat. Dr Alimohamed Rajput phoned me filling-in a lot of information about the former. The Jamatkhana at Palace Gate brings me a lot of memories as I used to pray whenever I came from Oxford and later from Birmingham. I remember when the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington was built and now it is the Darkhana. I visit it from time to time when I travel from Birmingham, where I reside now.
I am amazed at the wonderful photos and very thankful to the author for the wonderful article. I have not been to this jamatkhana but I did attend the jamatkhana at 3 – 5 Palace Gate once before it too ceased to be a jamatkhana and our centre.
Thank you once again.
I was one of the few people in 1957/8 when we had didar at 51 Kensington Court. I was studying in Cardiff but had come to London during summer holidays.
All of us, the alumni of 51, Kensington Court are grateful to you for taking the time and trouble to document some of the historic material.
I have remarkably nostalgic memories of that wonderful place where I offered my first prayers in the UK and where I spent three weeks as a resident in 1954, during my first year of studies in the UK. However, my fondest memories are during my term as Kamadia of the London Jamat with Zul Nimji as Mukhi. The most outstanding events then include the visit to the Club and Jamatkhana by Imam Sultan Mohammad Shah accompanied by Mata Salamat and Prince Sadruddin on Nawroz day 1955, if my memory serves me right. It was on that occasion that the Imam graciously bestowed his first titles to the Jamat leaders. I recall Al Noor Kassum and Sadru Janmohammad receiving the title of Vazir and Itmadi respectively. Sadru was by then the President of the Ismaili Council. Zul Nimji was bestowed the title of Alijah (he had already served as Kamadia for one term) and to my utter surprise, the Imam blessed me with the title of Huzur Mukhi and then two months later the title of Alijah when on my completing the term.
The Jubilee Balls of 1954 and 1955 were again remarkable for the opportunity they provided for outreach and also for our young Jamat to learn from the experience of organizing these events.
Finally, the history of 51 will not be complete without recalling the wonderful role that Badru Eboo played in organizing the social life of the club. Every month, we had socials at the Centre and many were black tie affairs. We all became good dancers with the lessons Badru and one or two professionals enthusiastically gave with Al Noor Cassum as our role model male dancer.
I have much more to say but let this suffice for the time being.
With my warm regards,