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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