Islamic Voice
Zul-Qada / Zul Hijja 1422
February 2002
Volume 15-02 No:182

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The Best of the Old and the New

The Best of the Old and the New

Maqbool Ahmed Siraj travels to Surat to take a look at the famous Bohra Academy Jamiatus Saifiya, where traditional mores combine with modern amenities and methods to provide a unique blend of education.

By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

Nobel prize winner Mahfouz is not an au thor held dear by Muslims. But the first book I glanced in the glass shelves displaying fresh arrivals in the library of Jamiatus Saifiya was Palace Walk by Mahfouz. There was yet another book that perked my senses. It was Astrology by J. S. Bright. There were more shocks in store. Numerology for Everybody and Teach Yourself Feng Shui welcomed me a few steps away. What were these books doing amidst the heavy tomes on the Quran, Hadith, Fiqh and numerous other Islamic sciences?


Children's getting Islamic Knowledge

A walk through the periodical section had even more surprises. The impressive library receives 103 periodicals. These include Time in English, National Geographic and Arabic version of Newsweek. A large World History Chart greets the visitors in another corner. According to the Librarian, Shaikh Shabbir Ratlamwala, this library stocks nearly three lakh books, a good many of them are in manuscript form and are stocked in a special section with state-of-the-art fumigation and preservation arrangements.


By now you must be curious to know which library I am talking about. Jamiatus Saifiya is a traditional name and any madrassa in the length and breadth of the country could pass off under the name. But this one stands apart. And this is not an ordinary seat of learning. The impressive façade of the madrassa, its squeaky clean courtyard, the well-mowed lawns and the strictly monitored movements give it an aura of its own. The seminary in Surat is the only of its kind, training Bohra students in essential theological disciplines.

Doctrinal differences from Sunni Islam apart, the modern content in this leading Bohra seminary and its curriculum serve as an index of the measures, the visioned Bohra leadership has initiated to impart modern knowledge to younger generation who wish to pursue the theological education and likely to take up the religious leadership. Yes, of course, the students strut about in traditional pill-box caps, sport beards and long flowing white dresses, the trademark of the Bohra identity. But the curriculum equips them to face the world with all modern skills and languages.

It was examination time at Jamiatus Saifiya. The expansive hall had students seated on the floor in a row, all bent over answer sheets. I peeked at a few question papers. The English paper for the first year had asked the students to write a commentary on ‘Lord Tennyson being a corrector and purifier of English society’. The fourth year paper sought a discussion on Robert Frost’s poem ‘Fire and Ice’. Yet another set of question papers had quoted passages on ‘how robotics could improve the efficiency of Industries’ or ‘non-invasive surgery,’ and wanted the students to analyse the language.

Jamiatus Saifiya Campus

Jamiatus Saifiya is the premier theological seminary of Bohras in India. It’s graduates man the network of nearly 400 Bohra schools all over the world. They also act as social workers, run the Trusts and Societies and provide the human input for networking of the community. It was set up 200 years ago by the 43rd Syedna, Abd ali Saifuddin. It imparts a 11-year course for boys and girls who are admitted at the age of 13. The syllabus deftly harmonises the theological and modern sciences. The inmates study sociology, biology, mathematics, economics and law along with the Quran and Hadith. The laboratories are equipped with state-of-the-art gadgets. The kitchen and dining halls offer a visual feast with ultra-modern implements. The swanky hostel has a swimming pool in the ground floor. The building, a few paces away is the girls hostel where swimming pool is in the basement. The city authorities were reluctant to permit the same but were persuaded to grant the same once they were convinced of the needs for strict segregation of sexes under Bohra society. It is only during the final few years that the men and women get together in classes, but are seated separately. The students arrive here from across the globe- from the United Kingdom, Mauritius, South Africa, East Africa, and even the United States.

While the Academy serves as a model to be emulated, it offers food for thought too.
Our Madrasas and educational institutions can progress and offer much more to the young learners if the religious curriculum is blended well with many more courses in sciences, management and computers

The Jamia is part of a larger complex enclosing several Bohra related buildings and monuments in Zampa Bazar in Surat. The architecture is Fatimid, bearing resemblance to buildings in Cairo. The complex encloses the mausoleums of the 42nd and 43rd Syednas which are known as Qubba -e- Najmia and Qubba-e-Aziziya. The devotion to Syedna as the spiritual and religious head of the community plays a pivotal role in the community’s total situation. The strong and visioned leadership that Syedna provides is undoubtedly the greatest strength of the minuscule community in India which has self-admittedly taken to political quietism. The hierarchy and command structure has lent the community a very strong base which works to its advantage in networking. No wonder then that this small community has such strong roots in industry, commerce and trade not only within India, but also in several East African countries and the nations of the West. I am taken to the Masjid -e- Moazzam, stated to be the fourth largest in South Asia. The mosque with separate chambers for women is studded with closed-circuit cameras and is vacuum cleaned every day. According to Quriesh Raghib of the Public Relations office of the Syedna, Surat is almost like a spiritual centre for Bohras. Till the 50th Syedna, the city used to be the seat of Syednas. But the 51st Syedna, Dr. Taher Saifuddin an Arabic scholar of great repute made Mumbai as the seat and Mohammad Burhanuddin, the current Syedna also stays in Mumbai. I am told the students of Jamia often opt for courses such as medicine and management even after studying for 11 years here, which in most cases leaves them at the age of 27 or so. A good number choose business as a career.

The Hifz section in the Mahadul Quran is a real audio-visual treat. It is part of the Mahadul Quran (Quranic Institute) and has an ultra-modern sonic laboratory with walls insulated with wooden panels and complete sonic immunity for voice recording. Hussainbhai Saifuddin who heads the Mahadul Quran informs that the Institute focuses on both tajweed and tarteel in recitation of the Quran. It has adopted the tajweed stylized by renowned reciter from Cairo, Shaikh Mahmoodul Hosary. Here the mood of the tajweed is adjusted with the context of the ayah(verse).

Al Dai Al Fatimi Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin is heir to a remarkable tradition of learning. He is a repository of knowledge that is divine in origin and represents a philosophy of education that has traversed the span of history. He has taken up the task of restoring to his community the philosophies and approach to education that once created an entire civilisation. To facilitate this, he has fostered a renewed zeal and ardour in education by creating educational establishments that incorporate the traditional approaches toeducation with the best that contemporary education has to offer. Al-Jamia-tus-Saifiyah in Surat and Karachi epitomises this orientation, as do many schools of primary and secondary education throughout the Bohra world. This ongoing process of education is to be viewed as a movement on which the value-system of future generations is to be built. It is, as Syedna has often said, a critical and priceless process.


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