Remembering “the Man with Broad Shoulders”

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He was an effective and visionary leader, a distinguished religious scholar, an inspirational pioneer – one who was widely admired and loved by whoever path he crossed.  March 21 marked the anniversary when the Shia world lost a pioneering personality some ten years ago in the year 2000. He was a person known for his visionary leadership and exceptional mobilization and organizational skills. He was such an exemplar champion on community service and welfare that his welfare projects benefited people far beyond the Shias of the Asian subcontinent descent that included Sunnis, Zoroastrians, and Hindus. To this day, his legacy and social welfare institutions that he help build continue to benefit Shias and non-Shias in India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Europe, and North America. This legendary person was Mulla AsgharAli M M Jaffer, founder of the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Communities, based in London, UK.

Fondly known as “Mulla Asghar”, he was born in 1937 in Mombasa, Kenya, and by the time he turned 23 in 1960, Mulla’s father passed away. He took over his father’s optician business and had already exhibited early signs of an exceptional leader. He demonstrated great interest in serving the community and did so with great zeal, eventually rising up to be the president of the Mumbasa community, also known as “Jamaat”. In 1968, he migrated to Nairobi, Kenya, where he set up a larger optical surfacing plant with his two brothers. Simultaneously, he served as the Honorary Secretary of Africa Federation, an umbrella organization for Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri communities in Africa, and later became President too. Following political turmoil and expulsions by Idi Amin in Uganda, he had to leave Africa, whereupon he migrated to Europe in 1972. In a short period of four years, Mulla Asghar founded the World Federation of Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri Communities in London in 1976. Under the leadership of Mulla Asghar and generous donations from the Khoja community, The World Federation served as an umbrella organization that oversaw a plethora of religious, educational, welfare and socio-economic advancement institutions that served both Shias and non-Shias in Europe, Africa and Asia.

Mulla Asghar’s social and welfare efforts included the Einullah Eye Clinic that provides eye care to the public in poverty-stricken areas like Lucknow, India, and Mianwali, Pakistan. He further established the Zainabiyyah Medical Center, which provides basic medical care and attention to lower income neighborhoods in India. His energy and commitment contributed greatly to the scope and depth of charitable work carried out by the federation. The Zainabiyyah Child Sponsorhip Scheme set up in London continues to help over 10,000 students through their elementary and secondary education in India, Thailand, Africa, and Iraq. He established a Careers and Education Training and Advisory Board (CETAB) to assist professionals with their career planning and advancement. Additionally, he set up several women and senior citizen community projects both on a local and an international scale that spanned from Asia to Africa and from Europe to North America.

Combating poverty also consumed a significant amount of Mulla Asghar’s dedication. Along with the medical and educational assistance programs, he also initiated the building of some 500 concrete housing units for the needy in India. In times of natural disasters, he instigated and mobilized relief efforts to assist the victims of Bam Earthquake in Iran, tsunami in Indonesia, and in times of civil strife, he aimed to help the Bosnia war victims and Iraqis tortured under Saddam Hussein. Perhaps his sympathies for Iraqis were enhanced after his own endurance of torture by Saddam’s notorious Mukhabarat police in 1983. Accused of spying, bringing in Khums money, and carrying a letter from Ayatollah Sayyid Abul Qasim al-Khoei at Baghdad Airport, Mulla Asghar was imprisoned in Saddam’s prisons and tortured to a great extent for several months – an ordeal that he has discussed in detail in his book I Was Saddam’s Prisoner.

Regardless of his encounter with the brutal Baathist Regime, Mulla Asghar and his institution of the World Federation were very close to the office of Ayatollah al-Khoei in London and Najaf. Mulla Asghar sought a great degree of counsel from Ayatollah al-Khoei’s offices on matters ranging from welfare projects to religious edicts. Ayatollah al-Khoei’s admiration of Mulla Asghar’s social work earned him the title of “the Man with Broad Shoulders” i.e. a person who shoulders great burden and responsibility of the community.

One of the traits that made Mulla Asghar such a unique and exemplary leader was that he was very cognizant about religious matters and laws of Islam in all his works. Hence his proximity to the late Ayatollah Al-Khoei, and upon his passing away in 1992, to Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Sistani. He structured all his institutions, starting from the top at the World Federation to the bottom local centers across the UK, on strict Islamic moral teachings, values, and ideologies. He was very particular about matters of Fiqh (jurisprudence), which was also a subject of great personal interest to him. His religious knowledge and oratory as a speaker served him well in spreading the message of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them) wherever he went. He was largely self-taught, widely acknowledged as a religious scholar, and was proficient in six languages – Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, English, Kiswahili, and his native Gujurati. This aided him a great deal in reaching out to vast communities all across the world. He was a champion of interfaith and intercultural dialogue. He has also authored a number of books including Fiqh and Fuqaha and translated Al-Amali by Shaikh al-Mufid, to just name a few. He is also widely credited to have translated the Taudhihul Masail (manual of Islamic laws) of Ayatollah al-Khoei and then Ayatollah Sistani into English.

He was an effective and visionary leader, a distinguished religious scholar, an inspirational pioneer – one who was widely admired and loved by whoever path he crossed. A testament to his legacy can be seen in the numerous medical, welfare, socio-economic advancement, educational and academic works being carried out till today under institutions that he set up. His zeal for helping the community can be very aptly summarized in his famous quote, “I don’t pray for His acceptance of my amaal as much as I pray for the opportunity to serve. And the day He grants me a new opportunity to serve, I believe the previous ones have been accepted. And I hope till my last breath the opportunities are there and when the Almighty calls me back, I will be able to tell my Lord, Thank You for giving me life, Thank You for giving me life.” Indeed did Mulla Asghar serve till his last breath, leaving this temporary world while sitting at his desk at the World Federation office on Monday, March 21, 2000.

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