Facades: Mogul Shiah Jaamay Masjid (1917)
30th Street, Rangoon, Burma.
In our second guest post on a guest city, Mitra Sharafi explores the Masjid of the Mogul community of Rangoon.
Rangoon’s 30th Street is home to the stunning cream-and-black Shia mosque of the Mogul community. The Moguls are descendants of Persian Shia men and their Burmese wives. A plaque in front of the Mogul Shiah Jaamay Masjid lists the founding trustees, who managed the mosque’s affairs after the current structure was built during World War I. Their names reflect their ancestral homes in what is today Iran and Afghanistan. There are Kabulis (from Kabul) and Khorasanees (from the region of Khorasan), Ispahanys (from Isfahan) and most of all, Sherazees (from Shiraz).
When I visited in 2007, the managing trustee of the masjid was Dr. Mohammed Shafi Ata Sherazee, whose Burmese name was Maung Maung Ta. He shared with me his knowledge of the mosque. Dr. Sherazee described it as the grandest mosque in Burma and pointed out the impressive Italian marble staircase at the front entrance.
The mosque is distinctive for its two towering minarets, which are 110 feet tall and which regularly attract engineer visitors, curious to know about the depth and strength of the minarets’ foundations. Inside, three antique chandeliers hang in the congregation hall. They date to the mosque’s founding, and were donated by a Mogul barrister, Mirza Mohammed Jawad, who was a trustee of the mosque from 1917 until 1929. He donated the mosque’s clock, too—also ticking since 1917. The oldest structure in the complex may be a well from 1852. It was built by order of a British colonial official, Sir Arthur Phayre, Commissioner of Pegu Division, at the end of the second Anglo-Burmese war.
The masjid has a rich and colorful history. Its trustees fought a memorable court battle against the trustees of a local Sunni mosque: who was legally entitled to build taller minarets? The mosque and its trustees have hosted religious leaders from the Islamic Republic of Iran since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. A framed portrait of the Ayatollah Khomeini hung in the managing trustee’s office when I visited. Against this somber backdrop, Dr. Sherazee regaled me with stories from his own family history and life. His father and grandfather had both been Persian consuls to Burma. He fought for the Burmese National Army during World War II, then became a successful movie actor, starring in over 40 Burmese films. He had multiple wives and many children. And he wrote a doctoral dissertation at Dublin Metropolitan University: “Myanmar and the Shiah Muslims in Myanmar: The Development of the Shiah Muslims in Myanmar” (2004). It includes his own life story. Dr. Sherazee passed away at the age of 90 in 2015.
The history of the mosque lives as much through its caretakers’ stories as through the masjid’s physical structures.
Mitra Sharafi is a legal historian at the University of Wisconsin Law School. She is the author of Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture, 1772-1947. Follow her on twitter @mjsharafi for the latest in the world of legal studies.