Mistakes: an opportunity to pass experience
Death presents upon the departed a dubious honour: Those left behind see the departed through the inverted prism of sainthood where all mistakes come together and become light rather than what they remained in life: Insaan: the one who forgets.
‘Sainthood is conferred when either an award is launched in your name. Or an award is given to you posthumously. I am too poor for the former. And too early for the latter. “And so ended another conversation with Mulla Bashir Rahim who was born in Zanzibar on Friday, 31st July, 1931 (15th Rabi-ul-Awwal, 1350 AH) and died on Saturday 10th April 1999 (24th Dhual Hijjah, 1419 AH)
The period September 1998 to April 1999 was when I learnt many things about life in Dar-es-Salaam, Bashir was diagnosed with bowel cancer and for over 7 months he had been in and out of the hospital. He was nocturnal: For him the day was spent sleeping (or as he would say, conversing with my Lord) and the night spent in conversation with His creations.
And because he was the Resident Alim of Wessex Jamaat, there was no shortage of visitors. He didn’t have to worry about an audience. As I had the post-midnight duty to cover, it was a chore to get Bashir to sleep. However, as nights passed, I gave up that task and started to look forward to his recollection of the journey down memory lane that became my educational lane.
My first lesson was to learn of the only litmus test of a true Zanzibarian or Jangbari. Not only their birth took place on that hallowed island but also the community conferred upon them a nickname ONLY known to those born there. It was a code of ‘unconscious energy’ that opened the doors of support and compassion. I could only but envy the power of this energy when I saw Bashir smile as childhood friends from yesteryears showed up at the hospital to bid him farewell. Very few would trek a four hour return journey to Portsmouth from London for a 20 minute visit to a hospital bedside.
For example, did you know there was a seating arrangement in our Dar-es-Salaam Imambargha based on a strict protocol? Only bearded elders who wore long frock coats and caps or were leaders of the Jamaat sat against the walls on the sides. The rear wall was occupied by other grown-ups. Children in short pants sat in the centre right in front. Behind them sat youngsters in long trousers but without jackets. Then came the jacketed youths and young men. By mid-forties the frock coats disappeared. In fifties the ubiquitous bush shirt came into vogue.
Did you know that until about early fifties, on every Wiladat of a Panjetan, there would first be the usual ceremony in the mosque? On the following day there would be a celebration called “Melavdo” in Dar-es-Salaam and “Khushali Ya Bankdo” in Zanzibar. On these occasions there would be speeches by youngsters and often a play or two. Memories of yesteryears.
As a youngster, Bashir’s role model was Satchu Gulamali Abdulrasul Satchu, a fiery speaker and a visionary with revolutionary tendencies. He used to publish a magazine called “Inqilab” and invited Bashir to contribute articles. Satchu and Bashir organised the youths to form a society aimed at free discussion. They formed “Kumar Mandal” and met every other Saturday evening. The debates at the meetings would at times lead to vociferous arguments but each one of them had their say. Once a month they would get an external speaker and this gave Kumar Mandal credibility and prestige. They even had the first President of the East African Federation come to give them a talk.
In 1946 a constitutional conference of the East African Federation of the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaats was convened in Dar-es-Salaam. Delegates came over from all over East Africa.
The youth of Kumar Mandal were convinced that the Federation would solve all the community problems and all their hopes were pinned on it. They collected twenty-five shillings from their spending allowances and contributed the princely amount to the Foundation Fund. Kumar Mandal was wound up in 1948.
In 1950, Bashir travelled to London to read Law. He passed his bar exam in December 1952. He had to wait until his 21st birthday before he was called to the Bar. In the meantime, he read in chambers with the famous Sir Dingle Foot. It was in the United Kingdom where Islam and its inner meaning got manifested to Bashir. The Universe had a reason for this…Some 35 years later, Bashir realised this.
Did you know Zanzibar Jamaats were the pioneers in East Africa to organize Hussain Day whereby dignitaries from the Government and other communities including the Sultan of Zanzibar attended these events? These events were widely publicized in the local magazines and newspaper, including Radio Zanzibar. A common phenomenon amongst the cosmopolitan population in Zanzibar Island they lived together in harmony and with dignity. The respect accorded for the other’s religion, faith and culture prevented the building of a wall using any of those as a base
The ultimate tool to bring down a wall was a common language spoken by all Zanzibarian: Swahili. It built strong interfaith relationships. It strengthened personal faith and prevented any walls built around religion, faith or culture.
It’s in such society when there is universality language the virtues become universal. And in those days that’s what Zanzibar was all about.
In 1954 a few friends persuaded Bashir they should form a community youth organisation which would bring under one umbrella all the youth activities. From this emerged Ithna-Asheri Union.
Together with Marhum Jaffar M. Jaffer (J. M. Jaffer) and a few volunteers, they formed the annual Hussain Day. This group then decided it might be fruitful to have a Hussain Day Committee taking in members from other Muslim communities, with an intention to unite the communities towards a common goal of spreading the mission of Imam Hussain (AS). They set up the All Muslim Hussain Day Committee and held Hussain Day every year for nearly two decades. They invited senior officials and politicians to speak on the occasion. They would invite the Governor, or the Chief Justice and, after the independence, the Vice-President or a senior Minister to preside.
Bashir was quite forthright in his later years of life. Many who knew him well would say the talent rarely left him. One day while at hospital, Bashir asked me to no longer come to see him. I was shocked! When I asked him why, his reply was terse: “I am dying but I see death in your eyes.” A highly treasured learning that left a permanent mark.
Once, in his conversation with His creations, he shared how he had made many mistakes in his life. He then paused and the conversation was changed…
Afterwards, when we were alone, I quipped: “Why did you not share these mistakes with the wider audience?” At the next gathering of His creation, he was ready with his list of errors.
In his younger days, Bashir was unhappy with the emphasis on the ritual of azadaari at the expense of the spiritual message of Imam Hussain. He shared how he spoke to several friends of this and they convinced him that the best course would be to mobilise a ritual to explain the spiritual element. He understood that the rituals were a coalescing factor and the community could fragment if it lost the rituals. For this reason, he felt azadaari should be encouraged. He explained how meaningless it was if we did not at the same time imbibe the message of Kerbala.
Bashir worked with his good friend, Gulam Mahdi Haji, who was then the circulation manager of Tanganyika Standard, began to take out a special supplement on every Ashura Day to explain the tragedy of Kerbala and Imam Hussain’s message to mankind.
Did you know Dar-es-Salaam was just catching up with Zanzibar? it was two community print media companies who established the printing press in Zanzibar: Hassanali Fazel Master in Shangani area in about the years 1940’s, and Anwar Ahmed Ladha in Sokomuhogo in the early 1950’s. Here began the publishing of articles on the tragedy of Kerbala, the newspapers were “Samachar” and “Zanzibar Times” respectively.
Bashir shared with his nightly audience on how looking back he was wrong to have harboured reservations against the important ritual of azadaari. The ritual helped to disseminate the message of Imam Hussain amongst Muslim as well as the wider community.
In the late 1950s, with the dawn of independence for many African countries, there were emerging issues of tribalism. With the Mau Mau movement active in Kenya and Uganda having many tribal problems the three East African countries could very likely go through political development of dissimilar strategies. One of the leading lights of our community, Marhum Jaffar M. Jaffer and several leading members of the community in Tanganyika including Marhum Ebrahim Sheriff Dewji, Marhum Dost Moledina, Marhum Mohamedali Sheriff, Marhum Satchu Gulamali and Marhum Gulam Haji, called a conference of the Tanganyika Jamaats to safeguard the interest of Tanganyika. They formed Tanganyika Territorial Council under the aegis of the East African Federation of the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Jamaats. Bashir was entrusted with the task of drafting a constitution for this organisation. The Executive Council of the East African Federation recognized this institution at a later stage.
Another of his mistakes was how he differed in his opinion about educating girls from his favourite uncle Maalim Jaffer Rahim. I never thought of Bashir as someone who once espoused the thought that girls from our community should not pursue higher education. He did, but then changed his mind. He wrote in his journal: “In retrospect, I must admit that perhaps Jaffer was right in insisting upon our girls being educated in the West. At the same time, those were the days when the West neither understood nor was conducive to Muslim girls observing Islamic traditions.”
In 1954, Bashir married Sugra, daughter of Rajabali and Mariam Datoo, of Nairobi. He always said his was a love-marriage. Sugra used to have her own last word in such conversation: “Don’t you need two witnesses to attest to that and I am only considered half a witness.”
At an earlier conference of the Federation Bashir had moved to establish an Education Board to process applications for scholarships for further studies, maintain a supervision over the progress of the students and make recommendations to the Executive Council. The resolution was carried and Bashir was elected to be the Board’s first President.
Bashir served the community for over four years in various capacities. Towards the end of 1959, he felt disappointed at the imperceptibly slow rate of progress, if any. Bashir felt that there was little he could do to improve the community from the top. And he walked away from serving the community in any formal way.
This, he told me once, was the gravest mistake of his life.
Bashir’s career within the civil service began on 1st August 1960 when he was sworn in as Resident Magistrate. After doing a stint as Deputy Registrar of The High Court and acting Registrar for a long period, he was appointed the Senior Resident Magistrate, Dar-es-Salaam.
In 1967 Bashir was appointed Chief Parliamentary Draftsman and Counsel to the Speaker. This meant drafting all the Bills for Parliament and often there were more than sixty a year. He was also the secretary of the Legislation Committee of the Cabinet.
Although his duties kept him very busy he got very close to the President and all the Ministers. The Arusha Declaration of 1967 meant a series of nationalizations of all the major means of production and this meant complicated legislation. In addition, whenever the Attorney General was away Bashir was made the acting A.G. and this meant attending cabinet meetings advising it on legal issues.
Bashir was appointed Legal Consultant to the Late President Nyerere. This allowed him to keep reasonable hours. In 1978, President Nyerere posted him in the diplomatic service overseas. He was posted to Brussels as Minister Counsellor and then as Minister Plenipotentiary.
Bashir started reciting majlis in Brussels, in Urdu, a language that he loved, more than English. The lecturer coming from Charleroi, some 60 kms from Brussels was stranded. One hour later with the niyaaz scheduled to arrive in an hour, the organizer knew delaying the majlis would mean the time for mataam would decrease. Incidentally, salaah was always delayed until mataam had finished and niyaaz was consumed. Bashir was asked to recite Surah Yaseen. The audience ended up listening to a majlis on reciting salaah on time. Both mataam and niyaaz got delayed. Frankly, I was surprised there wasn’t a commotion. When I asked Bashir years later what saved us that day, with a glint in his eye, remarked: “Obviously salaah.”
In September 1986, Bashir took the post of Religious Instructor for Wessex Jamaat for which this very land had prepared him for. The Universe does operate in unique ways. He lectured, taught in madrasah, launched tafseer classes and officiating marriages and funerals. Wessex Jamaat became his home; its members, his family; and it’s centre on Wickham Road, his abode. He launched interfaith and worked for the promotion of better understanding between the Muslim and Christian communities.
With wit and persuasion, Bashir convinced the Chairman of the local trust on the importance of halal food for Muslim patients. He stressed to the Chairman he did this very selfishly as he saw himself as user. The Chair of the Environment Committee of the local council was also persuaded as to why Wesssex Jamaat needed the same number of graves as its members (at that point). He told her he saw himself buried there. This way, as the community’s religious instructor, he would be of some assistance to his parishioners. The straight face with which he delivered that presentation resulted in the chair allocating 120 plots when the membership barely crossed 50. When asked by a fellow Councillor why almost two and half times the number of the population, the Chair, wanting the last word, said that Mulla Bashir had perhaps not included those yet to come. At that statement, Bashir provided a point of clarification to the Councillors: whilst there, his service would be open to all.
Bashir was once asked by a parent to convince the head teacher of a local Catholic school to allow his daughter to wear a head-scarf. Bashir arrived at the school only equipped with his pipe and pouch filled with tobacco. As his driver that day, I was hoping that a former lawyer would be more prepared. Trying to be a dutiful son, I refrained from making any remarks. As we entered the school, the headteacher greeted Bashir who promptly asked to be given a tour of the school and the Church affiliated to the school. The headteacher was pleased to see such enthusiasm from a Muslim Priest. He proudly showcased the school and the nearby church. We saw numerous portraits of different saints and Mary with baby Jesus.
Inquisitive as ever, Bashir asked the significance of different saints. We learnt how one could expeditiously complete the selling of one’s property by burying the Cross of St Christopher on the West side of the property. Having his emblem in one’s car could protect it from any harm. Bashir immediately requested for the emblem of St Christopher. The headteacher looked ecstatic. Bashir quietly murmured: “It helps to cover all one’s bases.”
Bashir insisted to see all the portraits of Mary either with or without baby Jesus. The headteacher summoned the librarian to bring any portraits from there. Hoping to get his first revert ever, the headteacher face glowed. We were shown over 70 portraits. At the end of the tour, Bashir bid the headteacher farewell and thanked him for the hospitality. The headteacher was surprised. He remarked he had arranged for Bashir to meet the School Governor and three members of the board to discuss the school’s decision not to allow the young girl to wear the head-scarf. Bashir remarked: “Would Mary be welcomed to your school?” The headteacher scoffed replying” Obviously yes.” Bashir replied: “I saw 70 portraits of Mary and incidentally in all of them Mary was wearing a scarf.”
Nothing Bashir did before Wessex ever gave him the joy or satisfaction he got from his avocation at Wessex Jamaat. His final entry in his journal before he left for the hospital was revealing. “I have made many mistakes in my life. I am glad I made those mistakes. I am grateful to Allah for the opportunity of being able to pass on the experience of my mistakes to my children as well as my community in Wessex. They say to err is human. Nothing is more productive than errors realised and acknowledged and having an opportunity to seek Allah’s gracious forgiveness and mercy.”
Source of the article/photographs: By Br. Yasin Bashir Rahim, Wessex, U.K.
A humble request from Archives Section:
We request all our readers to remember Marhum Mulla Bashir Rahim and all past leaders, volunteers and social workers of our community for their great contributions devoting their valuable time and resources for the greater interest of our community worldwide.
May Allah (SWT) grant them maghferat and place their souls amongst His chosen ones – Ameen. Please remember them with Sura-e-Fateha.
AFRICA FEDERATION ARCHIVES SECTION