Celebrating 65th Imamat Day and centenary of Town Jamatkhana

Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) Diplomatic Representative of the AKDN in Kenya Dr Azim Lakhani (centre, grey tie) hosted the UN Resident Coordinator Dr Stephen Jackson (centre, red tie) at the historic 100-year-old Town Jamatkhana (Khoja Mosque) on April 5, 2022.

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation

What you need to know:

  • The Aga Khan Development Network has a substantial presence in Kenya; 11 Agencies employ more than 15,000 people, 99 per cent Kenyan.
  • In recent years, His Highness has established a number of Ismaili Centres globally – symbolic markers of the permanent presence and values of Ismaili communities around the world.
  • The 65th anniversary of His Highness the Aga Khan’s Imamat and the centenary of Town Jamatkhana are emblems of heritage and of a legacy of over a hundred years.

While much of modern public discourse around migrant communities focuses on current global circumstances, and the latter part of the 20th century, it is worth reflecting on legacies that have endured over decades, indeed centuries, and learn from their longevity, contribution and impact. Today, we celebrate the 65th anniversary – Imamat Day – of the installation of His Highness the Aga Khan as the 49th Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Ismaili Muslims. This year the Ismailis and the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in Kenya are also celebrating the centenary of Town Jamatkhana (colloquially known as Khoja Mosque) in Nairobi.

In Islam, spiritual and material quality of life are inextricably connected. His Highness sees improvement of material quality of life as intrinsic to the Imam’s mandate. He founded the AKDN to deliver on this and is its Chairman. Under his guidance, leadership and vision, AKDN has grown into a global Network with a presence in 33 countries, with investments in multiple sectors including health, education, social development, economic development, financial services, infrastructure, industry, media, tourism, culture and the environment.

The vision of the Imam for Kenya goes back to the first days of his Imamat and to the country’s independence. The Imam’s endeavours are dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Kenyans, and the opportunities available to them, particularly those most vulnerable – regardless of faith, gender, race or tribe. AKDN has a substantial presence in Kenya; 11 Agencies employ over 15,000 people, 99% Kenyan. Over 175 programmes and initiatives contribute some Sh115 billion annually to Kenya’s economy.

Address current issues

This established presence is constantly evolving to address current issues, for example: A substantial financial and material contribution to Kenya’s Covid pandemic response; environment and climate change endeavours operating under an international directive towards a 2030 net zero goal; Nation Media Group’s evolving strategies in the context of the digital era; Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi at the forefront of cutting-edge science and technology, for example, the PET scanner and cyclotron for diagnosis of cancer, heart and brain conditions; Jubilee Insurance and Diamond Trust Bank leading in the transformation of digital financial services; Industrial Promotion Services’ leadership in industry and infrastructure; and Aga Khan Foundation’s programmes working in partnership with hundreds of civil society organisations.

In recent years His Highness has established a number of Ismaili Centres globally – symbolic markers of the permanent presence and values of Ismaili communities around the world. Incorporating spaces for social and cultural gatherings, intellectual engagement and reflection, as well as spiritual contemplation, they are bridges of friendship and understanding to enhance relationships among faith communities, government and civil society. While Town Jamatkhana is not a designated Ismaili Centre, it has functioned as such.

A number of diverse public events have been hosted at Town Jamatkhana in the past few years, including the Rays of Light Exhibition, which outlined the history, lineage and work of the Ismaili Imams and the Imamat; Fragile Beauty, Prince Hussain Aga Khan’s exhibition of marine photography to raise awareness around protection of marine ecosystems; the inaugural roundtable of the AKDN Environment and Climate Committee, chaired by Prince Rahim Aga Khan; most recently, an AKDN-UN roundtable to discuss various existing and new collaborations between our respective Agencies; and panel discussions around the environment and the future role of media in a digital era.

The venue has been an ideal backdrop to host significant stakeholders from government, the diplomatic corps, civil society, and academia. Over 5000 guests and visitors, including Hon. Keriako Tobiko, Cabinet Secretary for Environment, and Dr. Stephen Jackson, the UN Resident Coordinator to Kenya, has recently experienced and remarked on the grandeur and historical legacy that this national gazetted monument represents.

The history of Ismailis in Kenya is mostly documented and recorded through oral tradition. The anecdotal memories shared by descendants of the early pioneers sketch a portrait of the role and impact of the Ismaili community in Kenya over the last hundred and fifty years. Sultan Somjee, an Ismaili ethnographer, writes that early settlers built prayer and social halls that helped to anchor them in the new land they had arrived in. The first stone Jamatkhana built in Kuze, Old Town Mombasa, was opened in 1888 and his great grandfather was its custodian in 1898. Like the Ismaili Centres today, the historic Jamatkhanas were places for the community to worship, socialise, and cultivate social and cultural bonds.

Suleman Verjee

The family of the notable pioneer, Suleman Verjee, who were donors to the Kuze and Town Jamatkhanas, described the events that led to the construction of Town Jamatkhana in 1920. The new building replaced a more rudimentary Jamatkhana nearby that had been in use since the inception of Nairobi. This transition was the special desire of the 48th Imam, His Highness Aga Khan III, and it signified the permanence and aspirations of the Ismaili community in East Africa.

Guided by His Highness Aga Khan III, Ismailis made substantial investments in health and education, as well as donated to social development initiatives. Allidina Visram, renowned for his trade caravans that extended from the East African coast to the interior, built the first Jamatkhana in Kisumu in 1905, and the Allidina Visram High School in Mombasa (fondly remembered by generations of Kenyans), in 1923.

Suleman Verjee, Allidina Visram and Rahimtulla Walji Hirji, formed the first Social Service League around 1917. This and other initiatives, such as the establishment of the first Aga Khan Sports Club in 1931 and development of housing cooperative societies, stabilised the community socially and economically.

The 65th anniversary of His Highness the Aga Khan’s Imamat and the centenary of Town Jamatkhana are emblems of heritage and of a legacy over a hundred years. Much of this has been achieved through partnerships with the government, international organisations and others. These partnerships continue to strengthen, and we are grateful for the support provided through them.

Dr Azim is the Diplomatic Representative of the Aga Khan Development Network in Kenya.