Author: Shaukat Ajmeri
Publ: Mawenzi House Publishers
Reviewer: Zarina Patel
This is one of those novels which you start reading and cannot put down. It has a story line and a plot, it has love and passion, it has scenic descriptions of actual geographic areas and the splendours of Mother Nature, it has suspense. It is a chronicle of our times; the characters are contemporary and global, from India to the USA. The narrative is embedded in a small Shia Islamic sect known as the Dawoodi Bohra which traces its roots to Yemen, and was established in Mumbai, India in the 16th century. Today it is spread internationally and has a sizeable presence in East Africa, the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and the Gulf states.
Akbar and Rukhsana are two childhood friends growing up in Udaipur, India; their middle class families have built successful retail businesses and live a block apart on the same street. The families interact regularly and the women of the households have a warm, sisterly relationship. They usually attend the community functions together and keep themselves socially up-to-date. As the years go by the childhood friendship blossoms into true love and both family and friends assume that Akbar and Rukhsana will beget a family of their own. Fate, however, intervenes and changes the script, leaving the reader apprehensive yet eager to know the outcome.
But Keepers of the Faith is not just an enthralling tale – it is historic. The author, growing up in Udaipur, was ten years old when he witnessed the inhuman Galiyakot incident and its repercussions. Though ostensibly a work of fiction the book narrates an actual account of the use of religion by a patriarchal and corrupt leader (the Mowlana) and his coterie to bind and captivate their ‘followers’ to be their cash cows. The contrast between the innocent and pure emotions of the two lovers and the ugly and corrupt tyranny of the Mowlana and his goons could not be more stark. The humiliation of Shabbir as he stoops to kiss the Mowlana’s feet tells it all.
The religious belief is that the true leader of the Bohras, the Imam – a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, has been in seclusion for the last 800 years. The Imams of the Fatimid Empire were inspirational leaders, lofty thinkers and eminent scholars. In the 12th century the Empire declined and the reigning Imam went into seclusion, having appointed a Dai to represent him; it is claimed that since then a chain of Dais has performed this duty.
The early Dais were Shia Islamic scholars in the Bohra tradition; trusted trustees of the community’s religious education, welfare and wealth; ascetic and pious. However, as has happened in every organised religion today, greed and self-interest has infected faith and ‘money’ has become the new God. The Dais have become Imams and are worshipped as ‘Mowlanas’; the storyline of Keepers of the Faith is woven around the fatwas of the Mowlana and their impact on the everyday lives of its Bohra followers: the dress codes; the taxes levied on the living and the dead; the threat of ex-communication; circumcision of the girl child; marital, family and lovers’ relationships being torn apart; the ban on men shaving their beards ….. the rules are endless and oft times laughable! All propagated in the name of religion. The outcome is a mentally enslaved community; a minority well-educated and internationally situated, the majority increasingly impoverished and backward, trapped by communal boundaries.
Of course with every act of oppression comes resistance and the radical (or infidel) must resolve the contradiction: Is defying the Mowlana equivalent to renouncing his/her Faith? This conundrum exists globally in many different spheres of human existence, Keepers of the Faith gives us a refreshing insight into one such scenario. Some of the Mowlana-inspired events may seem incredible – as a member of that community I can vouch that they actually happened.
For much too long these truths have been hidden from public knowledge; Shaukat Ajmeri must be commended for having lifted the veil; no doubt others will follow. The book, however, does not expose the large number of disaffected followers who, except for a few, are too afraid to speak out. Farzana Doctor is the author of Seven - a book which relates the experiences of a seven-year old girl who is forcibly circumcised without any prior knowledge. Keepers of the Faith should be the first of many more such revelations rendered in such riveting stories.