As part of their research into the Bohri community - their presence and history in Karachi - for the Oral History Project, the CAP interns paid a visit to the Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah. Many thanks to ex-intern Shabbir Terai for organising the visit.
All photos by Nadir Siddiqui
As part of the Oral History Project at the Citizens' Archive of Pakistan, all of the interns went to visit Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah. The experience reminded me of a school field trip - fun and educational. The teachers who gave us the tour were very friendly. We were taken to an ornately-decorated mosque and a large air-conditioned hall with a beautiful water structure where all the students read the Quran. Overall, it was an amazing place and a great outing.
When I found out we would visit a university this Friday, it seemed like just another mundane trip to an educational institution. As soon as I reached Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah I was thrilled to see how good the environment was. The university’s architecture was very well planned and aesthetically-pleasing. I was very interested in the room with seven Zawaiyas(angles/corners). Six Zawaiyas contained books related to Islam, Bohri traditions and other subjects. All six Zawaiyas reflected a specific period of time and were in a chronological order starting from Zawia-e-Akhwan-ul-Safa to Zawia-e-Al-Hind showing different phases of the Bohri community and how their religion spread throughout the world. The seventh corner in the room housed the Quran.
Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah is located in K.D.A Officer’s Housing Society. This is a branch of the main campus located in Surat, India, which is the main hub of religious education for Bohris. The institution was built around 1962. Education is free for Bohri students as the university is primarily funded by Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin. At the moment students from eighteen different countries are studying there.
As we walked in, we were greeted by the sight of bearded men in flowing white robes reciting Quranic verses under their breath as they paced in the wide spaces with their gazes lowered. At this time in Pakistan’s history, such an image is particularly resonant. However, as we quickly learned, the university was the furthest thing from our contemporary conception of an Islamic seminary. The students and teachers did not bear the remotest resemblance to the stereotypical angry fanatic. The institution is truly international, with students from eighteen different countries residing in their especially landscaped, beautifully-designed dormitories. The languages of instruction are Arabic and English, for religious and secular learning respectively, and the subjects taught range from Islamic jurisprudence to psychology and litigation. The institute practically buzzes with the hum of learning.
The inside of Al Jamea-tus-Saifiyah came as a complete surprise. It does not boast a fancy location, but a tour of the University is all it takes to change your perspective. 'Tradition-meets-modernity': this, according to our guide, was the idea behind the construction and establishment of the institution.
Fully carpeted dorm rooms, an ornate fountain stationed right in the centre of the building,a cricket pitch, football field, basket ball court, 25-meter swimming pool with crystal clear water, centrally air conditioned buildings, a gold-plated set of doors, soft green grass, unrealistically clean, organised, peaceful and quiet... it is far from the idea that most people will have of the institution as a centre for religious education.
The visit to Jamea-tus-Saifiyah felt like a visit to a foreign country: one unaffected by problems of poverty, pollution, discord and enmity.
The best place by far was the Jamia Hifz ul Quran. Built primarily as a religious sanctuary where students could read and memorize the Quran, it was truly a treat for the eyes, mind and spirit. There was a beautiful pond of sparkling water surrounding a carpeted island lined with pebbles. The walls were decorated with soothing blue and green patterns. There were cushions and pillows near every Rehal (Wooden Quran-holder), so students could sit comfortably and read the Holy Book. It was the prettiest, most serene place I had ever visited.
When I was told that we were going to a Bohra community's university called Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah as a CAP intern, I felt really excited as it provided me with an opportunity to learn more about the Bohra view on religion, culture and lifestyle. The institution was inaugurated by the-then President General Zia ul Haq in 1984 and is fully funded and sponsored by their spiritual leader who currently is the 52nd Dai or “Syedna” (the most learned amongst them). One really appealing thing to me was the canteen set up for the staff and the University students. It is called the “Mawaid” (eating place). Around 5-7 people shared each Dastarkhwan, with a tray full of food in the middle. The cafeteria is very neat and clean and the food is offered two times a day free of cost. We toured the university for three hours but didn't feel like leaving it.
Bohras are a very close-knit community. Prior to my visit, I did not realize how a community could function without integrating with other ethnic groups. My view and biased thoughts towards close-knit communities changed within an hour, after visiting Al Jamea Tus Saifiyah. The University caters to the Bohra community, providing them with everything ranging from free education to a bed to sleep on during the night.
The university has a very diverse student body with Bohras from America, England, Australia and many other countries. The school is surrounded by Bohra families houses, eliminating the need for tall walls which results in students feeling more free. The students are thus more amenable to abiding by the rules they must follow in order to remain at the University.
All buildings within the school face the Qiblah. The institution also houses a small garden which contains all the fruits mentioned in the Quran. This particular garden really took me by surprise. During my childhood I have visited many religious places for Ziarat and have not witnessed such a garden. The garden had fruits such as olives, figs, dates and pomegranates. Overall, my experience at the University took me by surprise because I would have never imagined being infatuated by a place targeting only one community.