Holding out an uplifting hand

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Young men given tools by Syedna to pursue a living

Young men given tools by Syedna to pursue a living in Aurangabad

Altruism, philanthropy and charitableness are the watchwords of most religions. They are the foundations on which every major creed has based itself. It is not by accident that worldwide aid organizations have their roots in religious institutions wishing to do what they deem to be the will of God in holding out a hand to their fellow man and creation. The Red Cross and the Red Crescent are perhaps the easiest examples to illustrate this with –their very symbols, the cross and the crescent, harking back to their Christian and Islamic roots.

The Prophet himself enshrined philanthropy in his faith as among the finest acts of worship. For example, the penance for deliberately missing or breaking a Ramadan fast includes serving 60 needy people a full meal.

Hashim AS, a forefather of the Prophet, was well-known for providing food to pilgrims. (The bread, rice and meat mix he served became synonymous with his name – hashmo – and today denotes the mixing of rice and meat which is often done at the end of a shared meal and is an age-old Bohra tradition). Imam Ali AS provided for the people of Kufa from the harvest of his fields for the daily meals to break the Ramadan fast and his grandson, Imam Ali Zainulabedin AS provided food to a 100 homes; ensuring that extra food was prepared every day which he secretly delivered in a skin carried over his shoulder deep in the night.

This altruistic tradition continued with the du`aat mutlaqeen the most famous instance of which was Syedna Abdeali Saifuddin’s RA sheltering of 12,000 Bohras taking refuge in Surat from the drought and famine that had struck the Kathiawar and Nagar regions of Gujrat at the time. He housed, fed and clothed them for a full year whilst at the same time providing them with the tools to enable them to earn their livelihood. He created a system by which whatever they earned was put away; at the end of the year this accumulated money was handed over to them as they left Surat to return to their homes.

In the modern era the Dawoodi Bohras have been fortunate in that, on the whole, they have been a prosperous group – the result of placing a strong emphasis on education. Nevertheless, there remain those whose material circumstances are less than adequate. The community has tried to redress this in manifold ways, from the central D`awat office sending money as Ramadan gifts to those most in need, to instituting bodies mandated to oversee grants and interest-free loans for medical and educational purposes, as well as pilgrimage.

The housing scheme Faize Enayatil Amakin al-Anwar, has so far provided – at heavily subsidised rates - over 11000 new homes for those living in cramped or decrepit conditions. It is a stand-out achievement of the community which has seen 100 collective projects completed and 27 currently under construction aside from over 7000 individual houses that the scheme has provided for. At an even grander level comes the 0.6 billion dollar, not-for-profit, SBUP (Saifee Burhani Upliftment Project) a pioneering showcase smart city project now well under way in Mumbais Bhendi Bazaar.

The giving jewellery and good clothes to the lesser well-off and the launch of the Faizul Mawa’id al-Burhaniyah common kitchen are other permanent welfare initiatives the late Syedna inspired and which the current Syedna has expanded upon. Faizul Mawa’id has no less an ambition than to provide a daily meal to every single member of the community, with the aim of ensuring no-one goes to sleep on an empty stomach. Beyond this boon, a secondary benefit has been enabling housewives to participate further in education, career and business, by easing the burden of daily cooking.

Other schemes such as Mahad al-Hasanat al-Burhaniyah provide counselling and educational scholarship funding. In tandem with the Burhani Centennial Higher Education Trust, over 400 students have taken advantage of free advice and funding for further education in the last two years.

The above efforts form part of a multi-pronged and continuous drive which, over the years, has alleviated the financial hardship of thousands. 2016 however has witnessed a decided gear shift –in particular, a more intense effort to tackle poor housing. In the early part of the year, the students of Aljameatus Saifiyah were sent out to cities, towns and villages to survey the housing conditions of Bohras. Assisted by the local jamaats the army of teachers and students identified homes where living conditions were poor and implemented repairs and even relocated families. Homes were cleared of clutter amassed over decades, old and decrepit furniture removed, carpets and utensils were replaced, tiling, guttering, plastering, painting and other repair works were carried out. Space utilisation was optimised, bathrooms were upgraded and pest control measures deployed.

8 months on - building on that initial success - an even more co-ordinated project is now under way. Spearheaded by His Holiness's second son, Shahzada Taha bhaisaheb Najmuddin, the community has been called-to-arms to identify and survey more homes in critical need of restorative work. Local amils have gathered experts: architects, builders, doctors and businessmen to survey homes, outline works and draw up estimates. The surveying has been comprehensive, taking into account not only each householders dwellings but also their livelihood, health, educational level and marital status – all with a view to providing tailored help to uplift individual households. And these home repairs have now formed part of a more holistic view, which subsumes a comprehensive vaccination programme for children, as well as ensuring that their secular and community-based education is taking place in a formal school environment. Furthermore, trees are being planted, playgrounds erected and marriage guidance offered for those of an appropriate age.

In one unique planning measure students and d`awat officials are spending days (and in some cases nights) with families in their homes to see how exactly they are managing in their day-to-day lives. In one such example a group of 4 young men hailing from the Yemen are monitoring individual homes in a suburb of Mumbai – Marol. Elsewhere young ladies are spending time in homes in and around the city of Surat in Gujarat. The intent is for them to get first-hand experience of the difficulties and challenges these families are facing every day, how they cope with them and how they might be alleviated.

During mid-December and the commemoration of the death anniversary of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin RA a great many Bohras converged on Mumbai from around the world and were called to meetings with their zone delegates where the survey reports they had prepared were discussed and any additional requirements were agreed upon.

Finally a short-list of 1105 critical homes across 216 towns and cities around India has been drawn up, their costs determined and funding through a combination of the central d`awat, local jamaats and individual contributions is being provided.

This gargantuan task will mobilise a large swathe of the community: those who have requisite skills or can offer financial assistance, or even just the willingness to volunteer – they will all come together in assisting those less fortunate than themselves. Their aim is nothing short of achieving the goal set by the late Syedna Burhanuddin RA, who told his community to, “...uplift another to such an extent that that person is then able to uplift someone else.”