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Shiite Sects in Kenya, South Africa

The Kenyan Shiite community which basically originated from Asia is composed of two main Shiite sects: The twelvers (Ithna-asharis) and the Ismailis (Aga khans and Bohora).

The word “Shiite” or “Shiism” is driven from the Arabic word “Shii’ah” which means the supporters, lovers, adherents, followers or defenders of a certain person (Ibnu Manzur, 2009: Vol. 8: 188). The term is shortened from the historical title “Shii’at-Ali,” means “The Party of Ali” which was named after the supporters of the fourth caliph in Islam, Ali (600-661 CE), during his battles with his opponents in Arabia between 656 and 661 CE.

According to the general perspective of Muslim historians, the name did not exist technically in early days of Islam due to the fact that there were no denominations among Muslim community in those days though Shia scholars disagree with this view; saying that Prophet Muhammad is the one who laid down the foundation of Shiism; by appointing his cousin-in-law, Ali Ibnu Abi Talib, as his legal religious successor at a place near Mecca, called: Ghadiir Khum, in his way to medina, after completing his farewell pilgrimage in 632 CE (Aal-Kashiful-Ghitaa, 1990:118-125).

Shia Muslims believe that just as the prophet is appointed by God alone, only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to his prophet. They believe God chose Ali to be Prophet Muhammad’s infallible successor as the first Imam (Religious Leader) of Islam. They argue that Prophet Muhammad designated Ali as his successor before his death, as every Imam should designate his successor before his demise.

They state the belief that the Islamic leadership [Imamate] should have stayed within the Prophet’s own family, among those specifically appointed by him, or among Imams appointed by God Himself, adding that the Imam is sinless by nature, and that his authority is infallible as it comes directly from God (Al-Shahrastani, 2007:Vol.1:171). As a result, Shia Muslims often venerate their Imams as saints and perform pilgrimages to their tombs and shrines in quest for divine intercession; as they do to Karbala, Al-Najaf (Iraq), Medina (Saudi Arabia), Cairo, Damascus, Mashhad and Qum (Iran). Throughout history, Shia Muslims have not recognized the authority of elected Muslim leaders, choosing instead to follow a line of Imams which they believe have been appointed by the Prophet Muhammad or God Himself.

 

The Kenyan Shiite community which basically originated from Asia is composed of two main Shiite sects: The twelvers (Ithna-asharis) and the Ismailis (Aga khans and Bohora) as follow:

The Twelvers (Ithna-asharis)

The Twelvers (Ithnaasharis) are the major Shiite sect in the Muslim world. They have been given this name in accordance with their belief in 12 Imams from the family of Prophet Muhammad. They say that all of them have been appointed by God to be the Imams (leaders) of Muslim nations after the death of Prophet Muhammad until the Day of Judgment (Mughniyeh, 2009:15).

This is the list of their Imams and related information as follow:

  1. Ali Ibnu Abi Talib (600-666 CE). According to Shia, he was the rightful successor (Imam) of Prophet Muhammad. However, the Sunnis acknowledge him as the fourth Caliph. He was assassinated in Kufa, Iraq, by a Kharijite (rebel) member, Abd-al-Rahman Ibnu Muljam, who slashed him with a poisoned sword. He is buried at Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf, Iraq.
  2. Hassan Ibnu Ali (624-670 CE). He succeeded his father in 666 CE as the caliph in Kufa, and on the basis of peace treaty with Syrian Governor, Mu‟awiya Ibnu Abii Sufyan, he conceded power in favour of Mu‟awiya. Died in Medina and buried in its Al-Baqii‟ cemetery.
  3. Hussein Ibnu Ali (626-680 CE). He is the younger brother of the said Hassan. Opposed Ummayad Caliph, Yazid I, and planned to fight against him. As a result, he and some of his family were later killed in the Battle of Karbala by Yazid’s forces in 680 CE. After this incident, the commemoration of Husayn Ibnu Ali‟s death has become a central ritual in Shiite identity. His head was cut off and sent to Damascus but the rest of his body buried at Karbala, Iraq.
  4. Ali Ibnu al-Hussein (658-712 CE). Succeeded Imamate from his father Hussein. Born, lived in Medina and buried in its Al-Baqii‟ cemetery, Saudi Arabia.
  5. Muhammad Ibnu Ali (677-732 CE). Succeeded Imamate from his father. He was famous legal scholar. Buried in Medina‟s cemetery, Saudi Arabia.
  6. Ja‟far Ibnu Muhammad (702-765A CE). Born in Medina and considered by Shias as one of those whom established Shiite Ja’fari jurisprudence and Theology. Died in Medina, Saudi Arabia.
  7. Musa Ibnu Ja‟far (744-799 CE). Is the seventh Imam for Shiite Twelvers while their fellow Ismailis reject his Imamate and claim that his elder brother, Ismail, was Ja‟far‟s legal successor. Buried in Al-Kadhimiyyah Shrine in Baghdad, Iraq.
  8. Ali Ibnu Musa (865-817 CE). Lived during Abbasid caliphate and made crown prince by the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Ma’mun, but later sacked him following to disapproval by the ruling family. Died in Mashhad, Iran, and buried at Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad, Iran.
  9. Muhammad Ibnu Ali (810-835 CE). Shias called him Al-Jawwad because of his generosity. Buried in Baghdad at Al-Kadhimayn Shrine near his grandfather‟s shrine.
  10. Ali Ibnu Muhammad (827-868 CE). Strengthened the network of deputies in the Shia community and sent them instructions, and received in turn financial contributions of the faithful and their religious vows. Died In Samarra, Iraq.
  11. Hassan Ibnu Ali Al-Askari (846-874 CE). Lived during the tenure of the Abbasid Caliph, Al-Mu‟Tamad, and buried in Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, Iraq.
  12. Muhammad Ibnu Al-Hassan Al-Mahdi (868-still alive according to Shias). Twelvers Shias state that he is the last Imam in their Imamate’s chain; saying that he is their current Imam and the promised Mahdi, a messianic figure who will return before the end of the world. They believe that he is living in occultation since 872 CE (Aal-Kashiful-Ghitaa, 1990:145-152).

Twelvers live as minority in most parts of the world, but form majority in Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.

In Kenya, they number originally about 3,000-4,000. Most of them live in Mombasa, Nairobi, Kisumu and some major cities and take their religious instructions from their religious leaders in Iraq or Iran.

At Mombasa, they maintain a charitable institution called “Bilal Muslims”. The town also hosts the seat of the Supreme Council of the federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Jama‟at of Africa representing about 17,000 people (Holway, 1973:298).

Unlike Ismailis, the ithna-ashariya carry out active missionary works not only among non-Muslims but also among Sunnis; seeking to convert them to Shia Islam. This conversion works intensified significantly after Khomeini‟s Islamic Republic of Iran was established in 1979; where they mounted their propagation activities through media, press, educational institutions, charitable works and direct diplomatic financial support from Iran Embassy in Nairobi and managed to convert some sunni youths from Sunnism to Shiism (Ojede, 2000:17).

Ismailis

The Ismailis are Shiite sect which split from Shiite Twelvers‟ sect after the death of the sixth Imam, Ja‟far al-Baqir, in 765 CE, where they declared that the succession should be passed through Imam Ja‟far‟s eldest son, Ismail, which the name “Ismailis” has driven from, while Twelvers recognized his younger brother, Musa Al-Kadhim, as the seventh Imam due to the fact that Ismail had died while his father was a live (Al-Baghdadi, 1975:62).

Within this group, there was yet another disputed succession in 1094 CE. After the death of Fatimid caliph, Al-Muntasir, The army leader in Egypt, Badr-al-Din al-Jammali, recognized the late caliph‟s younger son, Al-Musta‟li, as Imam, whilst the easterners in Syria recognized his eldest son, Nizar. The followers of Nizar have continued to the present time with yet another disputed succession in 1310 CE producing a small sect in Syria called Nizariyyah (Al-Maqrizi, 1998:Vol. 2:34-35).

The Shiite Ismaili sects in Kenya are further divided into two other small sects as follow:

A: Aga Khans

The Aga Khans are a group of Shiite Ismaili sect which belongs to Nizariyah Shiite Ismaili sect. they are the followers of The Aga Khan, who is originally from Pakistan but resides in London and Paris and visits Kenya and East Africa occasionally. They are about 10,000 of them in Kenya and to them, His Highness, Karim Aga Khan, is the 49th Imam in this line. His followers are known as in East Africa as Ismailis or Khoja. According to the Aga Khan‟s directives, Ismailis are supposed to adapt to whatever country they live; thus why they profess total loyalty to the existing regime wherever they are and stay away from political matters (Ojede, 2000:16).

Ismails in Kenya are organized under three provincial councils at Nairobi, Mombasa and Kisumu. In addition, there is supreme council for Kenya, and the executive and supreme councils for Africa, all with offices in Nairobi. The community has large business activities in Kenya with modern hospitals in Nairobi and Mombasa open to all communities. Education is organized under the provincial councils with a number of nursery, primary and secondary schools in major cities as well as The Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi (Holway, 1973:298).

Aga Khan manages several media, press, finance, tourism and service institutions such as: NTV, Daily Nation, Jubilee Insurance Company, Diamond Trust Bank – Kenya [DTB], Serena hotels and resorts.

B: Bohora

Bohora belongs to Musta‟liyah Ismaili Shiite sect which recognizes the son of Fatimid caliph, Al-Musta‟li, as the legal successor to his father, Al-Muntasir, in 1094 CE, contrary to Nizariyah Ismaili Shiite sect -which Aga Khan belongs to- that recognizes Nizar as legal successor to Al-Muntasir in 1094. The followers of Al-Musta‟li followed his succession down to the 21st Imam al-Tayyib, who as an infant was – as they say – “taken into concealment”.

The Bohoras believe that their Imams, successors to Al-Tayyib, are living in total secrecy somewhere, and will reveal themselves on some future occasions. In the meantime, the community is ruled by lines of deputies called Dai al-Mutlaq (The absolute preacher).

The current deputy is in the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq, His Holiness, Mufaddal Saifuddin. He succeeded his father, the 52nd Deputy, Dr. Muhammad Burhanuddin Saheb, who died in Bombay, India, on 17th January, 2014. Dr. Saheb did many occasional visits to Kenya for the interests of his community (Jali, 1986:228).

Disputes in the succession of Dais have caused many schisms among Bohora community. One of these disputes in 1588 CE has divided the community into two sects as follow:

A: Dawoodi Bohora

They are exclusively from India and led by their spiritual leader who resides in India, His Holiness, Mufaddal Saifuddin, who inherited the imamate from his deceased father, Dr. Muhammad Burhanuddin Saheb. All Bohoras in Kenya and East Africa are Dawoodi Bohoras with a number about 7,000 – 8000 member and divided into different sub-groups. They engage primarily in trade and crafts and set up a number of primary and secondary schools which are financed by their Burhani foundation.

One of their most important leaders was Alibhai Mulla Jevanjee, who came to Kenya from Gujrat, India, late in the 19th century and founded a business empire dealing primarily in metal and glass – the chief business interests of the Bohora to this day. In 1905, Jevanjee was appointed by British government as the first non-white member to represent the interests of the Indians in the Legislative Council (Legco) which was established by British administration the same year (Ojede, 2000:16).

B: Sulaymaniya Bohora

They reside in Yemen and South of Saudi Arabia and their current spiritual leader is Sheikh Hassan al-Muzamini who lives in Najran, Southern of Saudi Arabia. The members of this sect who are in Saudi Arabia and Yemen are mainly from Bani Yam tribes that have significant population in both Saudi Arabia and Republic of Yemen (Jali, 1986:229).

The selection taken from “Kenyan Shiite Community: A Socio-Historical Perspective” By Mohamed Sheikh Alio.

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