Thursday, May 20, 2010

The New Ahlebeyti Muslims – A revealing experience.


The burly Iraqi Faris el Husseini in traditional Arab gown stands out amongst mostly Indonesian crowd at Jakarta International Airport and after introductions, upon knowing I am an East African Khoja, Husseini instantly starts conversing in very acceptable Kiswahili, startling me. Husseini, you see, spent 3 years in Arusha, Tanzania so is quite good with the language. I am in Indonesia on my way to Zamboanga City, Philippines to inspect the first Shia mosque project in the country. We head towards the city where Aagha Seetanis liaison office, which Husseini manages, is located.

The traffic is horrible, simply horrible; drivers in Jakarta must have infinite patience for apart from an occasional blast of horn, the traffic is reasonably orderly and disciplined. I immediately compare it to home city mayhem of Mumbai; it amazes me that that my hearing is still functioning fairly after 2 years of ghastly Mumbai street exposure. The Ahlebeyt (A) Center in downtown Jakarta is a nice 2 story building where Husseini puts in considerable tableegh efforts. Thsee combined tableegh efforts of many worldwide groups in Indonesia are startling; anywhere between 3 to 5 million Indonesians identify themselves as Ahlebeyti Muslims.

Now remember the term “Ahlebeyti” for this is the identifying difference from our cousins Ahle Sunna. The Ustaads (not Sheikhs, Aaghas etc used elsewhere worldwide) who graduated from Qum or elsewhere are identified as Ustaads and a very subtle, gentle approach is adopted in spreading Shia Islam. Indonesians are generally very gentle people; they will avoid any form of confrontation and by and large understand and accept the family of Prophet Muhammed (S). There is no bad mouthing of any personalities, rather, the values and benefits of Ahlebeyt (A) are stressed, analyzed and disseminated; a very powerful and effective method indeed. One day, a local Indonesian visited Husseini and harshly demanded to know if Husseini was a Shia. He replied negatively but stated he was an Ahlebeyti upon which Husseini was warmly embraced and kissed by the man. Go figure.

I visit a fine new home of an Austrian gentleman, an owner of 3 fine restaurants in Jakarta that night; we have been invited to bless the home with Hadees e Kisaa and dinner. A new convert to Shia Islam, this pleasant man whose head competes for lack of hair with mine, is interesting company, for I have not met a convert to Shia Islam from Western Europe before. Also in attendance are 8 orphans that Husseini cares and educates; a pleasant evening indeed.

Next day I visit a distant village where a plot of land has been purchased to build a community center by Husseini and his group. The volcanic soil of Indonesia matched that of Arusha in Tanzania and I see and sense many similarities with by birth country. Indeed, Husseini serves me with fried muhoogo (cassava, yucca) at his home for dinner! Afterwards, we drive to the airport to pick up Abbas Muljiani, one of CAI’s ardent supporters who is joining me for the rest of my trip.

Day 2 is spent spending time (and battling traffic) with local Shia groups in and around Jakarta, including an impressive Iranian setup called Islamic Culture Centre (ICC) -; very active in translation and publishing of Islamic works. There is a Dua e Komail session at Hussieni’s setup - Islamic College of Advanced Studies (ICAS) -; where we get to meet and interact with local Indonesian community converts. A dinner is hosted in our honor at this centre by a distant cousin of Abbas Muljiani who has lived in Jakarta for a long time. Hassanbhai is a content man in Indonesia, likes it here, what with guaranteed halal food and Islamic environment. We have a good Pakistani dinner and meet some young Ustaads who explain briefly how they work in the communities and even lead prayers in Sunni mosques. They are interested in knowing about Afghanistan and explain how all events are subdued including the Aashura which is otherwise an event with emotional outbursts. They also mention that there are almost no Shia women who want to work overseas as ‘maids’. There appears to be less Wahaabi type opposition to Ahlebayti tabligh; hijaab is a little odd in Indonesia for women carry a sort of hijab which is slipped over when praying in a mosque. With more literature, Ustaads, websites in local languages, Shia beliefs can be expected to grow over the coming years.

Day 3 we visit a local school headed by a local Shia family and are escorted by Ahmed Afzal, a soft spoken, perpetually smiling man who manages the school (born in Afghanistan but lived in US for a long period and married to an Indonesian), where the teachings of Ahlulbayt (A) are introduced in an academic environment. Abbas John, an Indian national working in Jakarta kindly takes us around this last afternoon before we are driven to the airport for our flight to Manila by Husseini late at night. All very nice and a pleasurable experience.


The 4 hour early morning flight to Manila is eventless, except trying to figure out when exactly Fajr time set in. We are met at the airport by our good host, a long term businessman and resident. A Saturday, it is a rest day for us for we have been awake almost all night flying.

On Sunday, we drive to Malaccan with Cairoden (Khairudeen) Dimasangca (another Qum graduate active in tableegh efforts) where a donor has sponsored 10 new Shias sustain their flea market businesses. Along the way, we stop at the Ministry of Energy where we meet an interesting gentleman. This man, who heads the Ministry was a rebel with Moro Liberation Front and got this job as part of peace agreement with the government of Philippines. He has translated the holy Quraan in the local dialect of Maranao, a tremendous feat accomplishment. The blackboard in his office is covered with ayaats from the Quaraan and several Quaraans stacked on his desk. A devout Ahlebeyti Muslim, he radiates powerful energy and oratory powers of persuasion in excellent English; a gem that Allah (S), in His wisdom has strategically blessed and placed.

This community in Malaccan, headed by an Abdulrehman was a thriving business community in the island of Mindanao when they were attacked by Wahaabi elements one rainy day while worshipping at a makeshift mosque. The entire community lost their homes, all burnt to the ground, including the mosque and Abdulreman lost a young son; killed. Everybody in the clan fled to Malaccan, Manila and took refuge in a flea market where they started up a flourishing business under the patronage of a sympathetic mayor. Read their story here:

Fate tested them once more in early 2009 when devastating floods wiped out their small business fortunes and they were penniless and homeless twice over in 2 years. Abdulrehman survived by sleeping 3 nights on a single supporting beam of the market while others fled to higher grounds. After they regrouped, Abdulrehman’s Imam found CAI website and appealed for help. I was fortunate to visit Philippines in October that year and was blessed once more to secure a donor who readily helped.

We are greeted by the beneficiaries of the sponsor program and spend some time going through their stalls, encouraging them to refrain from trades that involve music and movies. The sponsored businesses have received a loan of USD1,000 which they must repay in 10 monthly installments. Every month, a new beneficiary gets USD1,000 from repayment of the installment; this way we will insha’Allah cover the entire 70 plus individual seeking assistance; eventually. The community has a makeshift mosque within the flea market where we pray Zohar and then feast on a homemade delicious lunch. We fly to Zamboanga City the next day.

We are met at the airport by the trustees of Imam Mahdi (A) mosque project, headed by their Imam and mentor, Abu Mahdi, a Qum graduate. This first ever Shia mosque in the Philippines is well under construction; busy with construction equipment strewn about. Unfortunately, the old building used as a mosque/madressa and everything else had to be demolished to make way for the masjid so we study and discuss the project at our hotel room. Along the way we stop at a fruit market that had stunned me last visit and this time around was no exception. As a fruit lover, this market is paradise with an array of color and every fruit imaginable on sale; we (I) splurge.

At the hotel, expectations and budgets are set, suggestions offered. CAI donor is footing the entire bill for the first phase of a comprehensive mosque cum hawza / madressa project so they are still in need for considerable funding. Channel 41 at the hotel beams a lecture by Abbas Virjee (Abbasbhai had just met him on his Muscat – Doha flight few days ago!); we were pleasantly very surprised. Lawrence Martin Ebojo (now Qasim) manages to download videos through internet at night and deliver to the local cable operator to broadcast, here, in a remote part of Philippines. Subhaan’Allah, the planning of Allah (S) and the miracles of internet! Abbasbhai may be able to help with a CD duplicator and provide additional broadcasting material. We have a greasy dinner of fried chicken / fish at a local Muslim owned restaurant and retire for the night.

Next morning, we hire a motor boat and ride about 40 minutes to the Island of Santa Cruz where clusters of new convert Shia Muslims live. A poor community that relies exclusively on fishing, these are remarkable people; even in the mist of poverty, a small mosque beckons; inside, a blackboard boldly, proudly proclaims Imam Ali (S) wilaayat. We tour the island and come across a tiny open shack with cracked and torn thatched roof - a school; children actually learn here! Abbasbhai kindly agrees to put in a more permanent roof and repair the structure somewhat.

We meet a young girl skillfully breaking open nasty looking live Sea urchins with poisonous needle like projections and extracts the flesh; these probably sell for about 200 pesos for an entire bowl. Considering this to be possibly an important source of income, Abbasbhai does not have the heart to advise her Sea urchin flesh may be haraam to consume or sell. After touring the island some more, we return to Zamboanga City for a leisure, delicious lunch after salaat at Abu Mahdi’s home (with more fruit included, of course).

CAI has started an Education sponsorship scheme as there are many children who are unable to pursue further education due to funding; small amounts required as evidenced by detailed forms filled shown to us over lunch and insha’Allah, 22 students will benefit immediately.

It appears Philippines will insha’Allah have aalims who can be expected to impart the right knowledge over the medium term for increasing the number of Ahlebeyti followers in the midst of a nation where women mostly wear are scantily dressed and exploited but hunger for the truth and safety that Islam offers.

It is to the airport in the evening and to Manila that night for a midnight flight to Dubai and Dar es Salaam for me; Abbasbhai will fly later tomorrow evening to Muscat via Doha. For us who are fortunate to be able to travel far and wide, these trips are eye openers to Allah (S) vast earth, and its diverse global Muslim communities, particularly her ever budding and expanding Ahlebeyti followers. Just imagine, I believed we Khojas were “it”. Subhaan’Allah.

Please click here to view some sample photographs of our trip:

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The day Emirates ruined Helena's mascara.

Emirates flight 725 from Dubai to Dar es Salaam begins with hassles; the aircraft is parked quite a distance away from the main terminal and we have to ride a bus to reach it. Funny no, you never have to do this when traveling to say, Europe or the Americas or somewhere exotic; just one of the things that make me go hmmmm. Then, there is a mix-up with my seat assignment although a tall, pretty face with impeccable makeup that goes with a name tag of Helena quickly, effortlessly resolves. We take off on time but when the seat arm reveals the folded entertainment screen, it is all scratched up. So very unlike Emirates, but we are going to Africa, so it makes me go hmmmm. I have flown from Zamboanga City to Manila in the Philippines then to Dubai and now am on my way to Dar; this has been almost 20 hours with stopovers, so I am sleep deprived and tired. I console myself I will sleep and do not need the screen anyway. Still, the whole affair makes me go hmmmm.

Food's not bad for economy although the service is wanting with banging of trays and the crew more interested in hurrying up everybody than having them enjoys a culinary experience Emirates brags so much about. Sleep afterward is fitful and as comfortable as any economy class will allow. When we begin initial descent about 5 hours from takeoff, the pilot comes on the intercom loud (but then, this could simply be my aging ears) and with a terrible accent tells us there is heavy rain and thunderstorms over Dar and to prepare for bumps on the way in. As I am seated in an exit row, Helena sits facing me all buckled up, pretty as a princess, the toils of 5 hours of serving and smiling unrevealed.

The pilot is right, the aircraft bumps and dances as we final descend towards Dar; the wheels are let loose and I see the grainy outline of runway from the screen in front of me. Just as I think I will feel the jar of tires on asphalt, the aircraft shudders, changes course and pulls up, up, up, gaining rapid altitude. As everybody scratches their heads in nervous bewilderment, the pilot comes alive and informs us he aborted landing because he saw a chopper hovering over the runway cleared for landing. Eh? Is Dar Air Traffic Control sleeping? How can a jumbo jet be cleared for landing when there is other traffic on an active runway, even by Tanzanian standards? This far-fetched excuse makes me go a nervous hmmm.

We go around and begin descent once more; it is totally dark outside, I cannot see a thing. The sour weather temperament outside is matched by my tense and nervous fellow travelers; even the toddler in middle bulkhead seat who has spent last 5 hours bawling off her voice coarse on and off is subdued at her mother’s bosoms. I strain to make out the runway on the screen but see nothing but dark gray and rain. Again, anticipating the jar of tires for landing, I brace myself but its repeat of the first attempt; the pilot reverses thrust, pulls up at the last second and we are airborne once more. The pilot apologizes; says he could not see the runway so aborted the landing. Strange, pilots in India land aircrafts all the time during monsoon months so this is new to me.

We circle once more, this time at a much lower altitude; the pilot says he has requested landing from the opposite direction as the visibility is much better that end. There is pin drop silence in the cabin, only the changing tone of the aircraft throttles and flapping of wing-flaps making any difference. When the wheels are released for this third time, I realize we have a good chance of touching down. Visibility is much better and I can clearly see the runway on the screen; I relax, others relax, Helena and I share a relieved smile. But I can sense an anomaly in the engines tone; call it a sixth sense or just experience from hundreds of take off touchdown experiences over the years. Then I realize the problem, the idiot is too fast! Now, I am no pilot but I can tell as an experienced traveller, the pilot is too bloody fast! I clearly see the stripes on the runway flying past; yes he is much too fast; I start reciting the sahaada. Sure enough, the thrust reverses once more and the aircraft takes such a steep vertical climb, I see, sense and feel terror in me and others around; Helena’s face could not be whiter and her lips a thin tight line. The miracles and flaws of makeup.

There is no word from the pilot for quite some time; I see faces with fear in deep prayer, trembling lips rapidly moving, inviting divine relief perhaps. Inordinate thoughts invade my rational thinking as I pray as well and wonder if I’ll ever see my daughter or family again. When the pilot does speak, he sounds frustrated, says sorry, he had to abort again but does not give reasons why. He says he called headquarters in Dubai; they want him to land in Dar so we’ll circle around for about an hour to see if the skies clear else we fly to Mombasa; an hour away, that’s all the fuel we have. I’d rather we go to Nairobi or Kilimanjaro, these weather systems tend to affect entire coastal areas and what happens if we can’t land in Mombasa as well? We’d have no fuel left!

There is a rush for washrooms as nervous bladders press for relief; I join this line. As we circle around, I chat with Helena about her flying experience. She is from Czech Republic and has been flying as cabin crew for 3 years and but has never been through 3 aborted landings. Why, she has never experienced an aborted landing ever; this fact depresses me further. I can see she is depressed, worried, it shows on her face; so it is I that assure and speak with confidence I do not feel. Then, after about 40 minutes, the wheels come down this forth time and we make textbook landing to tumultuous applause and even lauder clapping and whistling when we come to a full stop. Alas, Helena is too overwhelmed to celebrate; her face is a crumpled mess; fat white tears stream down her face smearing her mascara; she sobs and tries to stop damage to her perfect face at the same time, very unsuccessfully.

I am relieved; look forward to nyama ya kuchooma, Natasha chicken, muhoogo, khunaazi, madafu…..