Ismail Attarwala

Courage to live by his principles

Today, Ramadan 15, 1437H, is the first death anniversary of Ismail Mohamedali Attarwala. Today is also being celebrated as Father’s Day in the Western World. On this occasion it is only appropriate that we remember his contribution and commitment to the reform movement.

Ismail Attarwala, the first son of Mohamedali Hibtullahji Attarwala, was born in Udaipur in a Dawoodi Bohra family. He spent his childhood in Udaipur and was brought up in Bohra ways. At the age of about 12 years he moved to Bombay to join the family business. While working he managed to continue with his education. Under the capable guidance of his teachers such as Samiullah Khan and principal Hatim Sahab at Saifee High School he became fiercely independent in his thinking and developed his leadership skills. He was religious and God-fearing and had acquired a deep understanding and knowledge of Islam and the Fatemi Dawat which fostered in him an immense love for Hazrat Ali and the Ahlal Bayt Tahereen.


Ismail Attarwala

Having left Udaipur at a young age there was a deep sense of loss and longing for his family and his home. In the decades leading up to the Sixties the economic well being of Bohras in Udaipur was in major decline. On the other hand, during the same period the power of the Kothar was on the rise. The Sayedna commanded extreme respect and an unbidden following in Udaipur in those days. But it all changed with the revolt that followed in the early Seventies. The epicentre of the revolt was the the local municipal election. In the election the Bohra Youth, an association of young educated and liberal Bohras, fielded four candidates. The Kothar which already disliked Bohra Youth opposed the candidates and put up its own candidates, who were handily defeated. This ballooned into a rebellion when the Kothar tried to have its way. Ismail Attarwala along with other leading families of Udaipur were suddenly thrust into a lifelong confrontation with the Kothar.

He and the other community leaders from Udaipur considered the municipal election as a secular affair in which the clergy had no part to play. The clergy on the other hand considered it as an affront to their hegemony. After the brutal attack on Udaipur Bohra women and children in Galiakot, the the distance between the rebels and loyalists became unsurmountable. That marked the beginning of the new phase of the reform movement, and Udaipur emerged as a frontline leader.

Ismail Attarwala found himself in the role of president of Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat, Mumbai and he had the full support of Noman Contractor. With the knowledge and experience of Noman Contractor and the groundwork set up by Ismail Attarwala, they made a formidable team in Bombay and opposed the Sayedna’s diktats in a multitude of manners. In Bombay a number of other Dawoodi Bohra community members from Udaipur and elsewhere came together to form a formidable opposition. An old newspaper, The Bohra Chronicle was revived under the editorship of Ismail Attarwala and with the able help of Taher Bhai (Al Burhan) and Mohsin Nagri. Many other volunteers also contributed, and the paper began to be subscribed by many from India and abroad. Under his editorship The Bohra Chronicle gained popularity and widespread respect.

Seeing the increasing support being given to the reformist movement, Ismail Attarwala travelled to many regions of the world to talk to like-minded Bohras. Notably the groups in the UK and Canada and the Far East were highly supportive of the reform movement. Fazalhusain Kapasi from the UK, Husain Hamadani from Canada and A .T. Hasanally from Thailand were the prominent individuals who joined forces with the movement. Under the umbrella of the CBDBC (Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community) the first All-World Reformist Dawoodi Bohra was held in 1977 in Bombay. Despite Sayedna protest and fierce opposition the conference was hugely successful. All of this required time and energy apart from funds to sustain and grow the reform movement.

Throughout this period Ismail Attarwala devoted a very large part of his time and effort and personal funds to the reformist cause and this affected his business, the same business for which he had left his home all those years ago. His family faced threat and had to be constantly protected, as he himself was under 24-hour police protection for years. He and his children along with close relatives were targets of physical assault by the goondas of the Kothar many a time.

His mother having to live under constant fear had a brain stroke and eventually succumbed to it. This was one of the many prices he paid for his principles. His daughters were unceremoniously and publicly thrown out of their school. After almost 15 to 18 years of total devotion to the reform movement, his neglected business began to suffer and his livelihood was threatened. Ismail Attarwala was a master perfumer and his creativity was cramped. Other than his immediate family and a brother he now faced another battle from within. This battle almost destroyed him, he almost went bankrupt. His businesses were dissolved, his extended family no longer supported him. From among reformists only a few stood by him as his life began to crumble.

But he had the positive attitude and acumen to re-build his business. Needless to say, from that point on the reform movement assumed a less important role in his life. His family and his children, who by now were past their school years and becoming young adults supported his ideals and beliefs. Unfortunately, during this time many things changed. His guide and mentor, Noman Contractor was no more. Like him the young men who had stood by him were not so young any more, the times had changed rapidly and the reformist leadership had stagnated. His ideas were no longer considered relevant. One young man’s efforts of decades were being laid to waste. The fearless, independent young man who had become a thorn in the side of the Kothar had aged. The clergy had become very strong, both financially and socially. It had very efficiently managed to sideline the entire reform movement. There was a dearth of fresh thinking, new ideas and younger members were needed at the helm to take the movement further.

True to his beliefs, Ismail Attarwala continued his efforts on the side to educate and empower the young. The Kothar could be kept at bay only by an educated and financially independent Dawood Bohra community. He believed education and financial independence would break the hold of the clergy over the community. He donated computers to the Udaipur Jamaat to support their educational program and offered financial support to the young in their pursuit of higher education. Although he did not find much backing for his vision, till his last days he continued his efforts. He had even coined an equation for success: T x T = T (squared), meaning Taalim x Tijarat = Taraqqi (squared). Enterprise backed by education leads to success.

In his later years he was diagnosed with a late stage cancer. He battled the disease and survived against great odds, even to the surprise of his oncologists. On returning from his visit to the USA where he spent time with his children and grandchildren he fell seriously ill. Once again he was fighting a major battle. This was his last battle. He passed away peacefully on the morning of Ramazan 15, 1436 (July 01, 2015) surrounded by his loved ones, his children and grandchildren.

Ismail Attarwal will be remembered as person who was God-fearing and simple, a man who was a devout follower of Imam Hazrat Ali, and like him was passionate about justice and freedom of conscience, and had the courage of conviction to live by his principles. May Allah grant him a choicest place in Jannah.