Ismail K. Poonawala in his study at his Los Angeles home.

Ismail K. Poonawala

Bohra scholar who speaks truth to power

by Shaukat AjmeriMar 8, 2013

On a cool December morning I knock on the door of a house in a posh Los Angeles county. A diminutive man opens the door. He is Ismail K. Poonawala, former professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at UCLA. There is renovation going on in the house, Prof. Poonawala apologises for the mess. We make small talk as he gives me a tour of his study, it is lined with books on three sides, the fourth is held up by glass doors overlooking the Pacific Ocean in a distance.

We retire to the kitchen, it’s warm and cozy, and talk over a cup of tea. Prof. Poonawala speaks with a certain gravitas, an attitude that comes from five decades of researching, writing and teaching. He is most famously known for his monumental work on translating and editing Daaim ul Islam. Written by Qadi Noman, the 10th century Ismaili jurist and historian, Daaim is the book of fiqh for Ismailis. For Dawoodi Bohras it is second only to the Quran as a source of Islamic law and guidance.

I remind him that the Dawoodi Bohra clergy does not consider his version of Daaim as authentic. Prof. Poonawala chuckles knowingly, and quips, “Okay, let them publish the authentic version, then.” When Daaim was published 10 years ago, Bohras were forbidden from reading it, but not everyone obeyed. “Whenever I visit my publisher in Mumbai,” he adds wistfully, “they tell me, ‘Professor, it’s people in white clothes who mostly buy your books’.”

Originally translated by Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee, Daaim was completely revised and annotated by Prof. Poonawala. In fact, it almost never came to be published. “Asaf Fyzee was my elder but we were more like friends,” Prof. Poonawala says, “and just before his death when I was visiting him in Mumbai, he requested me to complete this work he had undertaken. I said, ‘I do not promise but I’ll do what I can.’” This was 1981. More than 20 years would pass before the translation saw the light of day. The saga leading to its publication deserves a book of its own. It was a true labour of love. Daaim is much in demand today and has gone into a fifth print, thanks mainly to the disobedient men in white clothes.

Like father like son

Prof. Poonwala caught the bug of Islamic learning from his father Mulla Kurban Hussain, an Islamic scholar in his own right. He had studied in Deoband and other Muslim/Sunni seminaries, and was well versed in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. He also studied in Saifee Daras in Surat, and was awarded the title of al-Faqih al-Jayyid, but unlike the clergy he used his learning for the educational development of Bohras. He started a primary school and slowly brought it up to the secondary level. He also regularly contributed articles to the Gujarati magazine Naseem-e-Sehar, a popular monthly which was widely read in the 40s and 50s. He would hold evening classes at his house to teach Arabic and Islam and other deeni stuff. The house took on the appearance of a madrassa.

In this atmosphere, suffused with learning and scholarship, the young Poonawala grew up. The foundation of his future calling as a scholar of Arabic and Islam was probably laid during those formative years. But it was not just the yearning for scholastics alone that he inherited from his father. He also imbibed from him the quality of critical thinking.

It seems his father was aware of the antics of Sayenda Taher Saifuddin and the money scandals that plagued the Kohtar at that time, and was secretly guiding the reform movement. All this did not escape the notice of young Poonawala who began to sense that all was not well with the community, and increasingly grew suspicious of religion and especially of the Bohra religious establishment.

When he was in high school his father passed away suddenly, leaving him alone to grapple with the doubts that had taken hold in his mind. Determined to find answers for himself he joined the Ismail Yusuf College of Bombay University to study Arabic and Islam.

“During that time in 1953,” Prof. Poonawals says, “along with two of my friends (one of them being Zainuddin Vali) I started writing weekly articles in Mumbai Samachar citicising the highhandedness of the Bohra establishment as well as social customs which were outdated and oppressive. One such custom, for example, was Iddat which required even an old widow to be completely isolated in prison-like conditions for four and a half months. From my studies I found out that this was not an Islamic practice, but was probably influenced by Indian or Hindu customs.”

Autonomy of jamat was another issue they wrote about. Then, as now, jamat committees were handpicked by the local amils, “and those appointed were so called “chamchas” or yes men. We wanted some kind of democratic procedure to elect committee members,” Prof. Poonawala adds. “Financial transparency was also a big problem. There was no accountability for all the dues and fees that were collected from the people and from various gallas. We knew that that money was not being spent on the welfare of community, so we wanted to know where the money was going.”

Killing philanthropy

“The other issue was public charity, the two mosques in Godhra,” he says, “were built by philanthropists who made money through lumber trade. Our musafikhana, jamatkhana and many other community assets were built by such rich families.”

This was true of every town and city where Bohras lived. Rich families would generously give their wealth for the welfare of the community. But such charitable work was frowned upon by Sayedna Taher Saifuddin. “Mullaji told these rich sethiyas,” Prof. Poonawala adds, “you cannot do charity on your own, give me the money and I’ll do it. But of course he would pocket most of the money and little, if at all, was given to the people.”

The Sayedna saw private acts of charity as a threat to his prestige. Having assumed the role of Ilha ul-ard (Lord of the World) of Bohras he could not allow lesser mortals to become benefactors and steal the limelight from his halo. Slowly and shrewdly his administration manipulated its way into all the trusts and associations in India, Pakistan and East Africa, and either dissolved them or brought them under his direct control. Many rich families that opposed his moves were ex-communicated and publicly denounced for daring to challenge his authority. That was the beginning of the end of charity among Bohras, and that shameful legacy continues to this day.

“Let me stress,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “that the issues we raised were about social and administrative matters. We were not questioning religion or the religious authority of the Dai.” Nonetheless, the clergy would portray all dissent as “enmity against dawat” and increasingly and desperately tried to keep Bohras in line. While the majority complied, Sayedna Taher Saiffudin continued to face challenges from educated Bohras right from the time he took office. That opposition culminated into the first reformist conference, the Bagasra Sammelan in 1957. Prof. Poonawala and friends attended it. Noman Contractor was the leader of the movement. “We were the pioneers of the reform movement and we were there when history was being made,” he adds proudly.

When he left India soon after the conference, the reform movement had gained a real momentum. Those were heady times and there was a sense of euphoria, reformists thought they would see the results in a few years. But that was not to be. “My departure,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “marked the end of my active participation in the reform movement. But my heart and mind were always with the cause, and I kept in touch with friends and reform activities.

He went to Cairo first to master Arabic, because “all our source books are in Arabic and it made sense to learn the language if I wanted to understand Islam. There I had the good fortune of meeting Husayn al-Hamdani. He was from the well-known Hamdani family, had studied in London and was fluent in Arabic, Persian and German. He was a very progressive thinker like Zahid Ali and Asaf Fyzee – the other two great Bohra scholars who were educated in the West. They all eventually returned to India and tried to educate the community but the community was not ready to accept them.”

Scholars under attack

Prof. Poonawala speaks fondly and admirably of these scholars. He rues the fact the Bohra establishment not only shunned them but also tried to discredit them. “Zahid Ali remained unaffected by the attacks of Mullaji,” says Prof. Poonawala, “as he lived away in Hyderabad. He wrote two major works Tarikh-e Fatimiyyin-e Misr (History of the Fatimid Egypt) and Hamare Ismaili mazhab ki haqeeqat aur uska nizam (Our Ismaili madhhab's true origins and its organization) in an attempt to describe our history and its origins objectively as depicted by the historians and awaken the Bohras from the clutches of the religious establishment. It is a critical evaluation of Shiite Bohras' history and their belief system. If he had not been in Hyderabad I suspect Mullaji would have made an attempt on his life and gotten rid of him.

Books of Ismail K. Poonawala

Some of the books of Ismail K. Poonawala.

“Asaf Fyzee was a Sulaimani Bohra from the prominent Tayyebali family,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “which participated in India’s freedom movement. Mullaji of course could not touch him. He was a leading expert in Islamic and Ismaili law in India, principal of the Law College in Bombay and later was appointed Vice Chancellor of Jammu and Kashmir University. He was also India’s ambassador to Egypt.

“These Bohra scholars,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “were my idols. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Husayn al-Hamdani became my mentor. He taught in Surat College, then in Ismaili Yusuf College, Bombay. He later migrated to Pakistan and was appointed as Cultural Attache to Pakistani Embassy in Cairo. He was also granted Yemeni citizenship by the Zaydi Imam/ruler of Yemen. In Cairo he was invited by Dr. Taha Husayn, a famous dean of Arabic literature and Minister of Education to teach Fiqh al-lugha (philosophy of a language) and Persian language and literature at the Teacher's Training College attached to the Cairo University. This was a big deal. To appreciate it you have to know that Arabs normally don’t appoint non-Arabs to teach them their own language. This was a great achievement not just for him but for the whole community. But instead of embracing him, our religious establishment ex-communicated and attacked his family.

“This came about because Husayn al-Hamdani’s father Faizullah Hamdani was a classmate of Mullaji, they grew up together in Surat. Faizullah Hamdani knew what Mullaji was up to, and was the first one to testify against him in the Chandabhai Gulla case. Mullaji returned the favour by attacking the Hamdani house and boycotting the family.”

Husayn al-Hamdani knew Prof. Poonawala’s father and was glad to discover that the son too possessed progressive outlook and was open to new ideas. He persuaded him to take up Ismaili studies, for he thought that Ismailis had an obligation to study their own heritage which was misunderstood by other Muslims. Prof. Poonawala says he is greatly indebted to his teacher for inspiring him to study Ismailism. He wrote his dissertation on Syedna Khattab bin Hasan, the Mazun of the first Tayyebi Dai ul Mutlaq, Sayedna Zoeb bin Moosa.

“My thesis,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “started with the satr period and what came to be known as silsilat u duat al mutlaqeen (the chain of Dais). With the help of Husayn al-Hamdani I edited Khattab’s diwan, it was considered a major secret book of Dawah. In olden times Dai’s permission was needed to study such works. But that system was not meant to deny knowledge but to make sure that students were properly prepared to receive it.

“Also, there were certain secrets that could not be revealed to the uninitiated. But like everything else, our clergy has distorted this requirement into one of denial and control. They don’t want people to know the truth. Our important religious literature is hidden away. Khattab’s book was found in our reformist Ismaili collection. Khattab was not only a poet and a literary figure but also a warrior. My goal was to reconstruct his life - a life full of family tragedy, drama, betrayal and religio-political wars of the time.”

Absolute power

The thesis was published by the most celebrated press in Cairo called Dar al Maarif in 1967. Khattab, according to Prof. Poonawala, was one of the key figures in supporting and promoting the Ismaili-Tayyebi Dawah in Yemen. Without Hurratal Malika Arwa, Sayedna Zoeb bin Moosa and Khattab bin Hasan the fledgling Tayyebi Dawah would not have survived those turbulent times.

“Hurratal Malika,” continues Prof. Poonawala, “was given the highest rank of Hujja of Yemeni Dawah by Imam Mustansir. After the death of Imam Amir and occultation of Imam Tayyeb, she created the seat of Dai al Mutlaq. This was necessary for the betterment of the community. Because the community was there – and in the absence of the Imam –a leader was needed to keep it together. Yes, it is true that Dai ul Mutalq could be interpreted as one having absolute power but it is not a blank cheque. There are certain qualities and qualifications to becoming a Dai.”

Not surprisingly, the last two Dais have been using this title - and the authority that comes with it – to do as they please but if one looks at recent history, their claim to being Dai al Mutalq are misplaced. “It is well known,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “that the 46th Dai Syedna Mohd. Badruddin died in 1840 without explicitly appointing his successor. So what was to be done in this situation? This was similar to what Hurratal Malaika faced when Imam Tayyeb went into hiding. The community was there and it needed a leader. So after Sayedna Badruddin’s death, four leading scholars got together and appointed Syedna Abdulqadir Najmuddin, the then Mukasir, as the new Dai. Please note that he was appointed as Dai al Nazim, a caretaker Dai, and not as Dai al Mutlaq.”

This is a controversial issue, and widely murmured among those who know Bohra history. But their number is dwindling, much to the delight of the clergy which violently suppresses inconvenient truths. The most famous victims of this violence are the four learned sheikhs who were booted out of the jamea in the early 70s. “Sheikh Ahmed Ali Raj and other three ustads,” says Prof. Poonawala, “dared to raise this topic and see what happened. But the interesting thing is that Yusuf Najmuddin admitted in an article in Dawn newspaper of Karachi that his was father was Dai al Nazim, not Dai al Mutlaq. It is all there if you care to check, but nobody cares in our community. Also you must know that history is always written by the victors. Saddam is gone but the history of Iraq is being written by USA, Shaitan al Buzurg (the great satan). Similarly, our dominant clergy is writing our history.” And also rewriting our doctrine, one might add.

After finishing his studies in Cairo, Prof. Poonawala went to the University of California in Los Angeles to do his PhD in Islamic studies. Like his idols he always wanted to go to the West because according to him whatever may be its faults, the West is the “Makkah of religious scholarship as far as research and methodology are concerned.” At UCLA the leading Orientalist Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum was his teacher. His dissertation was on Qadi Noman and his Al Urjuza al Mukhtara on the question of Fatimid Imamat. He edited and wrote a critical introduction to the Urjuza. The dissertation was published by the McGill University in Canada, where Prof. Poonawala also taught for three years. From there he moved on to Harvard where he worked on the most ambitious project of his career: The Biobibliography of Ismaili Literature.

Against the grain

“I finished this work in two years,” he adds, “and it was published by UCLA in 1977. This in my view is a major contribution to Ismaili studies. The book includes a brief sketch of every major Ismaili literary figure, with reference to all the sources – ancient as well as modern. What is also notable is that for the first time extant Ismaili books were listed with information about their location - in public libraries around the world or in private collections. This Biobibliography is the starting point for anyone interested in Islmaili studies. Now I’m in the process of revising it as new material and sources have come to light. It will take another year or so to get it published.”

Prof. Poonawala’s has written a number of scholarly books and tens of articles about Ismailis, the Quran and the early intellectual history of Islam and shiism as well as about modern challenges to Islam. He continues to research and write, but at a more relaxed pace now that he’s free from the demands of academia. Having undergone multiple bypass surgeries, he takes life easy nowadays. “I’ve proved the prognosis of my doctors wrong,” he says, “and I’m still here, by the grace of God.”

Fiercely independent in thought, he does not cater to the masses or follow any particular intellectual fashion or faction. He is not afraid to go against the grain of accepted belief, and expresses views that at times border on the iconoclastic. But that does not bother him. That is the job of a scholar. He knows what he is talking about. Pursui