Shaukat Ajmeri’s ‘Keepers of the Faith’ illustrates the realities of love and life

By Mariyam Quaisar, Living Arts Editor

“Keepers of the Faith,” published last April and written by author Shaukat Ajmeri, tells the tale of two Bohri Muslims, set in India and the United States. Mixing elements of history, sociology, romance, and drama, Ajmeri eloquently and efficiently highlights the struggles of Bohras in India and how the lives of two lovebirds unfold. 

Dawoodi Bohras are a sect within the Shia branch of Islam. Originating from Yemen, the religious denomination spread across various parts of the globe over the past several decades. The priesthood of the sect, Sayedna, enforced rules upon the Bohra community that some obliged by and others rebelled against, creating Youth versus Shabab or, as it is stated in the novel, Loyalists versus Radicals. 

Sayedna’s demands, including charging his followers money and requiring his permission to allow them to participate in events like births, deaths, marriages, and misaq (ceremony to enter adulthood), caused havoc within the community. Sayedna declared that those who passed away would need a written note from him to go to heaven, however, without a solid financial standing, one would not get said note. These rules, among others, pushed the Radicals to refuse to support him and his demands, causing the divide. Radicals were excommunicated, denied access to religious structures, and shunned. 

About 100 miles out of Udaipur, Rajasthan (Udaipur being the main setting of the novel), many Bohras went for pilgrimage at a dargah (shrine) in Galiakot. In the novel, Ajmeri illustrates the violent happenings at this sacred space where Sayedna decided to punish those who did not support his rules. Ajmeri’s detailed descriptions of the attacks against women, the chaos of those trying to survive, and the pain felt by those seeing their loved ones hurt or die, put the reader directly into the scene so they can feel the horror. 

The conflict at Galiakot, with followers of Sayedna ruthlessly attacking the Radicals, caused the divide between Radicals and Loyalists to deepen, and get far more dangerous. Families, friendships, and relationships began to split between those who supported Sayedna and those who did not. Fighting in streets, blood smeared on roads, deaths, and tragedy surged in the Bohra community. 

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Among all the disarray, Ajmeri beautifully tells the story of Rukhsana and Akbar. Ajmeri’s realistic story follows two children as they grow up alongside each other, fall in love, are torn apart, and eventually come back together. The novel follows the harsh fate of Rukhsana and Akbar throughout the revolution, as Akbar’s family belongs to the Radicals and Rukhsana’s is loyal to Sayedna. 

Despite their undying love, Rukhsana’s father will never allow her to be with Akbar. He ships Rukhsana away to live with her aunt, while Akbar resides in Bombay achieving his dreams of becoming a writer. Rukhsana is married off and settles in the United States with a strong devotee of Sayedna, having two sons and despising her husband. Rukhsana’s life as a wife in an unhappy marriage illustrates the reality of loveless relationships and the hardships many women go through, within the Bohra community and outside. Akbar marries as well, and resides in Bombay with his wife and daughter. 

Don’t worry though, Akbar and Rukhsana’s paths cross again many years later, proving the strength of their love. They meet again and are forced to make difficult choices in response to their current situations and familial commitments. 

Ajmeri’s telling of Rukhsana and Akbar’s heart-wrenching love story pulls readers through a rollercoaster of emotions: butterflies, goosebumps, tears, hope, heartache and so much more. Ajmeri paints a beautiful, vivid picture of their lives as they individually continue their journeys, never forgetting about each other along the way. 

“Keepers of the Faith” is a story filled with meaning. It is a page turner, and highly recommended to those who enjoy a tragic love story paired with historical realities unknown to many.