Early Ismaili Settlers of East Africa First Established a Foothold in Zanzibar

The archipelago of Zanzibar comprising two main islands (Unguja – commonly known as Zanzibar and Pemba) and several smaller ones, has been inhabited for over 20,000 years when the island served as a gateway for traders between the African Great Lakes, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent, and Europe.

In 1503, Zanzibar became part of the Portuguese Empire for almost 200 years. In 1698, Zanzibar came under the reign of the Sultanate of Oman, and subsequently under British rule in 1890. The island became independent in 1963, joining Tanganyika in the following year to form the Republic of Tanzania.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Several communities began to migrate to Zanzibar in the seventh century; the earliest immigrants were Africans followed by Arabs. The Persians, mostly from the city of Shiraz, began to arrive in the tenth century and, over time, became absorbed into the local population. The African-Persian population, who adopted many Persian traditions, came to be known as Shirazi.

Early Ismaili Settlers
The earliest Nizari Ismailis to immigrate to East Africa from the Indian subcontinent first established their foothold in Zanzibar in the 1800s although Ismaili merchants and other traders based in western India had been trading in western Indian Ocean since at least the seventeenth century. Traders used the northeast monsoon winds to travel across the Indian Ocean with their merchandise, often at sea for a month or longer in harsh conditions. When the monsoon winds changed direction to southwest, traders returned home with their wares.

The early Ismailis settlers in Zanzibar were farmers, who were compelled to immigrate due to successive droughts and famines that had caused economic hardships, also provoked by British industrialisation and economic policies. Eventually large numbers of community members of diverse backgrounds began to migrate. Zanzibar came under Omani control following the capture of Mombasa in 1798. When Zanzibar became the Omani capital in 1832, it provided political stability and security as well as enhanced economic opportunities for traders to expand their businesses. India-based merchants became politically and economically important for the local rulers who appointed many of them to the post of chief customs inspectors, including Tharia Topan (d. 1891), Allidina Visram (d. 1916), and others.

Sultan Sayyed Bargash bin Said (d. 1888) seated, centre, with members of his court including Sir Tharia Topan (d. 1891) standing, centre. who served as the Sultan’s chief customs officer and was given the honorary title of Prime Minister of Zanzibar. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

The first Nizari Ismaili jamatkhana in Zanzibar was established in the 1830s, with the appointments of mukhis and kamadias, during the time of the forty-sixth Imam Hasan Ali Shah Aga Khan I (1804-1881). The darkhana of Zanzibar was officially opened by Imam Sultan Muhammed Shah (1877-1957) on August 16, 1905.

Zanzibar Jamatkhana. Image: Khojawiki

During his first visit to the jamat of Zanzibar in 1899, various internal conflicts plagued the jamat, similar to those of the Aga Khan case in Bombay (See Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III forged a distinctive identity for the Nizari Ismailis).

During his second visit in 1905, Imam issued a written set of rules and regulation, which essentially served as the first Constitution for the Ismailis in the region. Within six months, the rule book was issued for the jamat in the subcontinent. This constitution “foresaw a new administration organisation in the form of a hierarchy of councils… At the same time, the first Supreme Council for Africa was established. This council took over the administration of the local jamatkhana, defended its interests against dissenters, and supervised affairs of the [jamat] on the mainland” (Daftary, The Ismailis Their history and doctrines p 525). Subsequently, a similar constitution, with council systems of administration, were issued for the jamat in the Indian subcontinent.

Front inside cover of the Ismaili Constitution issued at Zanzibar in 1905. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History.
First Supreme Council for Africa
First Supreme Council for Africa.
Left to right: top, standing: Mohamed Bhanji, Gulamhusein Harji Sumar Muhamed Rashid Alana, Ali Valli Issa, Gulamhussein Karmali Bhaloo Middle, seated: Pirmohamed Kanji, Visram Harji, President Vizier Mohamed Rahemtulla Hemani, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah al-Husayni Aga Khan III, Fazal Essani, Gulamhusien Bhaloo Kurji. Bottom row, seated: Mukhi Rajabali Gangji, Vizier Kassam Damani, Janmohamed Hansraj, Rai Mitha Jessa, Juma Bhagat Ismail, Kamadia (Itmadi) Jiwan Laljee, Salehmohamed Walli Dharsee, Janmohamed Jetha, Kamadia Fazal Shivji. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

Imam also established Aga Khan School in Zanzibar in 1905. By the end of the nineteenth century, when the interior of East Africa was becoming more accessible through the construction of roads and railways, an increasing number of trading establishments moved from Zanzibar to the East African mainland, resulting in large numbers of Nizari Ismailis moving inland. Living in various colonial constituencies, the Ismailis had to learn the language of the respective colonial powers, adapting their culture to new environments. With assistance from the Imam, Ismailis began to establish roots in Africa.

In 1918, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah established the first Aga Khan Boys School in Mombasa, Kenya and in 1919, the first Aga Khan Girls School, also in Mombasa.

An advertisement poster produced circa 1930 Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

Having lost its importance as the main commercial centre of the region, Zanzibar ceased to be the seat of the East African Nizari Ismaili community.

Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) has invested in development in Zanzibar since 1988. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture has been involved in restoration and revitalisation work in Zanzibar beginning in 1996.

Mawlana Hazar Imam reviewing the restoration works on the seawall that fronts Zanzibar’s Forodhani Park with architects from the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. Image: AKDN/Zahur Ramji

Further reading:
Zanzibar Stone Town Projects 
AKDN in Tanzania
Restoration of Forodhani Park (Inaugurated on July 30, 2009)

Farhad Daftar, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1998
Zanzibar, Encyclopedia Britannica

Contributed by Nimira Dewji, who also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com

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