Islamic perspective

The Badri-Vakili controversy

Forming approximately a tenth of India's large Muslim population, the Shi'as of the country are divided into numerous sects and sub-sects. Little has been written about the Indian Shi'as, most research on South Asian Muslims being distinctly 'Sunni-centric'.

While some literature is available on the Indian Ithna 'Ashari or Imami Shi'as1, other Shi'a groups, such as the Nizari (Aga Khani) and Musta'lia (Bohra) Isma'ilis have long been neglected by scholars of Indian Muslim history and society. Referring to the Indian Isma'ilis, Khan notes that they have 'failed to invoke the interest of scholars involved in the study of Indian history, anthropology or literature', and that their 'importance in the religious culture of South Asia [..] has generally be underestimated'.2

A striking feature of Isma'ili history through the centuries is the frequent occurrence of succession disputes to the office of the Imam or leader of the community, resulting in the setting up of splinter groups led by charismatic personalities. The office of the Imam is considered to be hereditary, running in the line of direct descendants of Imam 'Ali, cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. The Imamate is crucial to Shi'a Islam, for its bearer, or, in the case of some Isma'ili groups, his agent, is considered to be the mediator between God and ordinary believers. Thus, disputes centred round who should succeed a deceased Imam or, in cases of sects that believe that he is in occultation, his deputy, take on charged, sometimes violent, forms. Contenders to the post of Imam or Imam's deputy put forward their own elaborate arguments to substantiate their claims. As the original parent body splits into two, divided between followers of rival claimants to the Imamate or to the post of deputy of the Imam, theological differences begin to develop between them that serve to clearly demarcate them as separate communities. Thus, what often starts off as a dispute between two individuals over an office and the powers and privileges that this office brings along with it, soon develops into a full-blown religious controversy and conflict, which, in turn, serves to clearly mark off the two groups from each other, each claiming to be the true inheritor of the Shi'a tradition.

This article seeks to explore the process of community fracture and the consequent formation of splinter groups in the case of an Indian Musta'lian Isma'ili Shi'a community, the Atba-i Malak, itself a break-away group from the Daudi Bohra community. Disputes over succession to the office of da'i-i-mutlaq or deputy to the Imam, and the control of valuable community resources, we argue, are central to the on-going controversy among the Atba-i Malak. While this is by no means unusual in the history of inter-sectarian disputes among the Indian Isma'ilis, being more of a rule than an exception, what is striking about the Atba-i Malak case is the role of the modern state in the controversy, with the issue having been taken to the Indian courts in order to enforce a decision. The involvement of the courts brings out clearly the central role of the issue of control over communal property and resources in the dispute. By appealing to the courts to intervene, the mundane factors that seem to lie behind the charged religious dispute clearly come into focus. This article argues that while questions of power and property have probably been fundamental in almost all sectarian disputes among the Ismai'ilis, in modern India, with the intervention of the agencies of the state, this is more readily apparent as rival claimants confront each other in the courts, each claiming the right to control of community resources.

The Bohras

The Shi'as owe their origins to a powerful movement of dissent and protest against what was seen as the usurpation of the divine right of Imam 'Ali, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, to lead the Muslim community after the Prophet's death. Succession to the authority of the Prophet being so central to Shi'a faith and identity, the death of Shi'a Imams often proved to be occasions for leadership disputes and the formation of new sub-sects. The first major split in Shi'a ranks occurred on the issue of the succession to the leadership of Jafar Sadiq, the sixth Shi'a Imam. One group chose to support his younger son, Musa Kazim, while the other, smaller, group rallied behind his elder son, Isma'il. The former were later called the Ithna 'Ashari or the 'Twelver' Shi'as, on account of following a chain of twelve Imams. The latter came to be known as Ismai'lis, followers of Isma'il bin Jafar Sadiq. Later, the Isma'ilis themselves split into two major groups, the Nizaris and the Musta'lians, following the death of the eighth Isma'ili Imam, al-Mustansir in 1094 C.E..

India gradually emerged as a major base for Isma'ili missionaries (da'is), and today the Indian Isma'ili communities are among the largest in the world. Isma'ili da'is are said to have reached Sind as early as the ninth century C.E., not long after the first split in the Shi'a community.3 During the reign of the Fatimid al-Mustansir (1035-94 C.E.), it was decided to further strengthen the Ismai'li da'wa (mission) in India by despatching da'is beyond the Indus river to Gujarat.4 Consequently, Gujarat grew into a strong centre of Isma'ili activity in India, and it was here that the Isma'ili dai's, both Nizari as well as Musta'lian, gained the largest number of converts. The Musta'lian da'wa in Gujarat received further impetus in the sixteenth century, with the transfer of the amr, the divine authority to carry on God's mission in the world, from Yemen to Gujarat, where the twenty-fourth da'i-i mutlaq, the head of the community, Sayyedna Yusuf Najmuddin bin Sulaiman (d.1567 C.E.), had taken up residence. Musta'lian preachers were particularly successful in attracting a sizeable number of converts from Hindu trading groups to their fold. These were later called Bohras, the name deriving from the Gujarati word for trader, vohra.

Over the centuries, the original Musta'lian community in Gujarat was racked by severe dissension. Many went over to the Sunni fold, while the parent Bohra community was divided into four major groups, the Daudis, the Sulaimanis, the Hebtiahs and the 'Alavis, each with their own da'i-i mutlaqs, claimants to the post of deputy of the hidden Imam. Apparently, in each case, the cause for the formation of splinter groups was dispute over succession to the office of deputy of the Imam, linked to the great power and control that the bearer of that office enjoys.

The Atba-i Malak Jama'at

The current controversy among the Atba-i Malak is rooted in the formation of the community as a splinter group of the Daudi Bohras. According to Bohra belief, the line of Imams still continues, although in hiding, following the occultation of al-Mustansir, their eighth Imam. In the absence of the visible presence of the Imam, the da'i-i mutlaq, who is believed to stay in regular touch with him, administers the affairs of the community as his deputy, supervising the da'wa on his behalf. Over time, the institution of the da'i-i mutlaq spawned a well-organised clergy among the Bohras. Belief in and obedience to the deputy of the Imam is a key tenet of the Bohra faith, for it is held that 'for attaining salvation..[it is necessary to] believe in and give [an] oath of allegiance to a religious [and] spiritual leader'.5 Given the vast powers that the da'i-i mutlaq enjoys, not just in spiritual matters but also in the daily lives of the laity, it is hardly surprising that several splits have occurred among the Bohras on matters of succession to the post of dai-i mutlaq. Thus, on the death of the twenty-sixth da'i-i mutlaq, Sayyedna Daudji Burhanuddin bin 'Ajabshah in 1591 C.E., the community split into the rival Daudi and Sulaimani factions; following the death of the twenty-eighth Daudi da'i-i mutlaq, a group of dissenters under one 'Ali bin Ibrahim (d.1637 C.E.) set up the 'Alavi jama'at; and, on the death of the thirty-ninth Daudi da'i-i mutlaq, Sayyedna Ibrahim Vajihuddin in 1754 C.E., another splinter group, the Hebtiahs, came into existence. It was over a dispute about the succession to the forty- sixth Daudi da'i-i mutlaq, Sayyedna Muhammad Badruddin, that the Atba-i Malak jama'at was formed, separating itself from the main Daudi Bohra community.

Following the death of Sayyedna Muhammad Badruddin in 1840, Sayyedna Najmuddin (d.1885) and then his brother, Sayyedna Husamuddin (d.1891), held the post of da'i-i mutlaq of the Daudis, but they did not receive the support of the entire community. In 1891, on the death of Sayyedna Husamuddin, his nephew, Sayyedna Burhanuddin (d.1906), was accepted by most as the next incumbent to the post. However, he had to face stiff opposition from a group of influential Daudis who challenged the validity of the nass, or divine appointment, that he claimed to have received. They also accused him of gross financial irregularities in administering the wealth of the community6, going so far as to call him a 'pseudo-religious head'.7 Leading the opposition to Burhanuddin was one 'Abdul Hussain bin Jiwaji, a small trader, owner of a paint shop in Bombay.

'Abdul Hussain claimed that the amr, God's command to carry on His mission, had actually been transferred to him, and not to Burhanuddin, and sought to suitably interpret the Qur'an and the Sahifa and the Nasihat, key Bohra religious texts, to prove his case. He maintained that following the death of Sayyedna Muhammad Badruddin in 1840, the amr had been passed on for a period of fifty-two years through four successive mumalikin or da'is in seclusion—Sayyedna Rahmat Malak, Sayyedna Muhammad 'Ali, Sayyedna Hebatullah and Sayyedna Adamji Tayyebji.8 The last mentioned was 'Abdul Hussain's father. 'Abdul Hussain claimed to have received the amr from Maulana Musa, whom he referred to as a hidden Imam descended from Imam 'Ali. He declared that he was in direct communion with Maulana Musa, and said that the latter would be followed by three hidden qa'ims or Imams of the 'period of unveiling' (daur-i kashf) after him, Maulana 'Abdullah Humayun, Maulana Harun and Maulana Hakim, who, through their deputies, would unveil the hidden secrets of Islam to the faithful.9

'Abdul Hussain assumed for himself the exalted titles of malak ('angel') and hujjat-al qa'im ('the proof of the qa'im). According to him, he had been sent by God to herald the arrival of the qa'im, who would usher in the 'period of the unveiling'. He divided the history of the world into three periods, covering a total of sixty thousand years. The first, lasting three thousand years, was the 'period of lethargy' or daur-i fatrat. The second period, lasting seven thousand years from Adam through various prophets, including Muhammad, till his own advent, he said, was the 'period of the veil' (daur-i satr). The third era would be the 'period of light', which would be ushered in with the arrival of the qa'im, whose deputy (hujjat-i qa'im) he claimed to be. His own period, which he termed the akhir-uz zaman, the 'last days' of the 'period of the veil', would last for ten years, following which the much-awaited qa'im would manifest himself.10 To mark the dawn of the 'new age', he replaced the Islamic hijri calendar with what he called the 'Abedi calendar, its first year corresponding to 1891 C.E. or Ramadan 1308 A.H., the year in which he issued his proclamation of being the hujjat of the coming qa'im. This was meant to be a powerful, emotive symbol, clearly setting him and his followers apart from the Daudis, establishing themselves as a separate community, the chosen people of God, or so 'Abdul Hussain claimed.

Several disgruntled Daudis, resentful of what they saw as Sayyedna Burhanuddin's financial irregularities, gathered around 'Abdul Hussain. According to one source, these included some 'learned young masha'ikh (spiritual leaders) as well as several rich and enterprising merchants'.11 Owing to severe opposition from the Daudis, in 1891 'Abdul Hussain and his followers shifted their base from Bombay to the town of Nagpur, where they set up their headquarters. 'Abdul Hussain now formally severed all tied with the Daudis, setting up his own community, giving it the name of the Atba-i Malak or 'the followers of the malak'. With funds collected from his disciples, 'Abdul Hussain acquired a large plot of land on the outskirts of Nagpur, where he established a commune which he christened Mahdibagh or 'the garden of the Awaited One'. Expansion of the commune now began in full earnest, and in a short while several houses, a mosque, a jama'at khana (community centre), a madrasa, a clinic and a vocational training centre were set up there.

Split in the community's ranks

'Abdul Hussain died in 1899 C.E., following which the Atba-i Malak split into two rival groups, each led by a claimant to the leadership of the community. Central to this dispute, as in the case of numerous earlier splits among the Isma'ili Shi'as, was the issue of control of community property, particularly the ownership of the sprawling Mahdibagh commune in the heart of rapidly expanding Nagpur town. The two rivals for the leadership of the jama'at were Khan Bahadur Ghulam Miyankhan and 'Abdul Qadir Ibrahimji Chimthanawala, both of whom had been close disciples of 'Abdul Hussain and had been entrusted by him with important responsibilities during his lifetime.12 In 1894, 'Abdul Hussain had appointed Ghulam Hussain as the hijab-i malak ('the veil of the angel'), conferring upon him the title of badr ud-din ('the moon of the faith'). Ghulam Hussain later went on to claim that 'Abdul Hussain had appointed him as his 'religious successor to carry on the religious mission and all secular, temporal affairs of the Mahdibagh institution'.13 It was claimed by his followers that shortly before his death, 'Abdul Hussain had publicly proclaimed him as his successor by passing on the amr to him by nass.14 On the other hand, while on his deathbed, 'Abdul Hussain is also said to have entrusted 'Abdul Qadir as the vakil or guardian of his property.

On 'Abdul Hussain's death, Ghulam Hussain assumed the leadership of the Atba-i Malak community, and, it is said, initially, 'Abdul Qadir, too, offered him the oath of allegiance (mithaq, ahad). However, nine months later, differences between the two became so acute that Ghulam Hussain was led to expel 'Abdul Qadir from the community, forcing him to leave Mahdibagh along with his supporters.15 They now took up residence in Shantinagar, then a locality on the fringes of Nagpur town, and here they set up a small colony, a poor replica of Mahdibagh, which they christened Qa'imibagh, 'the garden of the qai'm'. Despite being expelled from Mahdibagh, 'Abdul Qadir persisted in his claim that, having been appointed by 'Abdul Hussain as the vakil of his property, the leadership of the community and control over the Mahdibagh colony was rightfully his because, he insisted, 'Abdul Hussain had transferred the amr to him by nass.16 This claim was rebutted by Ghulam Hussain, who continued to maintain control over Mahdibagh. For their part, followers of Ghulam Hussain insisted that 'Abdul Hussain had appointed 'Abdul Qadir simply as the guardian of the 'spiritual prosperity' of his family, and not as the owner of the community's property or as the leader of the jama'at.

The central point of contention, then, was leadership of the community and control over the vast properties of the jama'at, but, as in most earlier cases of Shi'a splinter groups, this gradually took on a religious colour, with each group evolving its own interpretations of 'Abdul Hussain's mission to serve its own purposes, passionately hurling accusations of infidelity against each other. The followers of Ghulam Hussain, who, on account of his having been given the title of badr ud-din, styled themselves as the Atba-i Malak Badr jama'at (henceforth, Badris)17, claimed that Ghulam Hussain had been divinely appointed as the hujjat of the Imam of the 'age of light', the qa'im.18 To them, the much awaited qa'im had, in accordance with the announcement of 'Abdul Hussain, already arrived but was presently in occultation. He was said to have a staff of twenty-six officers to assist him, including one bab ('gate'), one da'i ul-balagh ('missionary') and twenty-four hujjats ('proofs'), two of them being 'Abdul Hussain and Ghulam Hussain. They believed that 'Abdul Hussain, the malak, and Ghulam Hussain, the badr ud-din, were, in essence, of the same spiritual stature, and that they had 'joined themselves with the Imam of the time, the qa'im, received the dignity of hujjat al-qa'im ('proof of the qa'im') and inaugurated the succession of the kashfi daur-i mutlaqin ('the period of unveiling')'.

Since there can be only one hujjat present in the world at any one point in time, 'Abdul Hussain, it was believed, had bestowed the status of the hijab ('veil') of the malak on Ghulam Hussain.19 Thereafter, 'Abdul Hussain went into seclusion and his spiritual mission was carried forward by the hijab. The hidden qa'im, so the Badris believe, administers the affairs of the world and carries forward the da'wa through the head of the community, with whom he is said to be in constant communication. Ghulam Hussain, the hijab, died in 1922, and he was succeeded by his cousin, Dr.Liva-i Haq as the first da'i-i mutlaq of the Badris. He, in turn, was followed as head of the community by Khan Bahadur Muhammad Ibrahim Riza, son of Ghulam Hussain, and, after his death, by Riza's son Hasan Nurani Malak. The present da'i-i mutlaq of the Badris is Amiruddin Malak, son of the late Hasan Nurani Malak.20

Following his expulsion from Mahdibagh, 'Abdul Qadir set up his own community, which, owing to his claim of having been appointed by 'Abdul Hussain as his vakil, he named as the Atba-i-Malak Vakil jama'at (henceforth, Vakilis).21 Like Ghulam Hussain, 'Abdul Qadir also sought to interpret the Atba-i Malak tradition and to create new doctrines in order to support his claim of being the rightful heir to the legacy of 'Abdul Hussain. Thus, he claimed that it had been revealed to him that he was the manifestation of a certain Imam Humayun who, 'Abdul Hussain had apparently predicated, would be the first qa'im or Imam of the 'period of unveiling'. It is interesting to note that, in contrast to 'Abdul Hussain, who claimed merely to be the hujjat of the qai'm, 'Abdul Qadir claimed to be the qa'im himself. He designated his two younger brothers, Hasan 'Ali and 'Isabhai, as manifestations of the two other qa'ims of the 'period of unveiling' that 'Abdul Hussain had spoken about, Maulana Harun and Maulana Hakim respectively.22 In order to clearly set his followers apart from the Badris and to further press his claims, he announced a new calendar for his community, introducing, in place of 'Abdul Hussain's 'Abedi calendar, the Humayuni calendar, the first year of which corresponded to 1900 C.E..

'Abdul Qadir died in 1911, and was succeeded by 'Abde 'Ali Ibrahimji (d.1927), and then by 'Abdul Razzak (d.1960), son of 'Isabhai, who, in turn, was succeeded by his son, Imdad 'Ali. The present head of the Vakili community is Tayyebhai Chimthanawala, son of Imdad 'Ali, who is regarded by his followers as the 'Living Imam', the qa'im and the sahib-i'amr, the guardian of God's mission in the world.

The present Badri-Vakili controversy

The bitter dispute between the two branches of the Atba-i Malak, centred as it is on issues of leadership and control of large community resources, is thus several decades old. It would probably have received little attention outside the narrow circle of the Atba-i-Malak but for an attempt on the part of the Vakilis, led by Tayyebhai Chimthanawala, to forcibly enter the Mahdibagh colony in early 1998. This led to the matter of the ownership and control of the colony being taken to the courts, and in the proceedings that followed the two parties were forced to make clear their religious views and doctrines of which few outsiders had, hitherto, been aware.

In February 1998, the Vakilis announced that they were planning to hold a religious congregation (majlis) at the century-old Masjid-i Ibrahimi, an imposing mosque located within the premises of the Mahdibagh colony that is presently in the possession of the Badris. Fearing violent resistance from the Badris, they applied to the local police for special protection. At the same time, Badris from Nagpur, Hyderabad, Ujjain and Vishakhapatanam sent an urgent messages to the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, warning him of the 'threat and criminal intimidation to commit trespass' by the Vakilis and of their plans of 'forcibly and illegally entering the holy mosque'.23 They argued that because the Vakilis did not follow the Islamic shari'ah and did not observe the 'external prayers' (zahiri namaz), there was no valid reason for them to enter the mosque, claiming that this showed that their only purpose in wanting to organise a majlis there was to attempt to wrest control from the Badris of the entire Mahdibagh colony, a sprawling estate of some twenty-four acres, complete with a mini golf course, swimming pool, tennis court, grand gardens and several mansions.

The matter of the legal ownership of the Mahdibagh colony has been with the courts for decades, and several cases have been instituted in this regard till date.24 In order to bolster their own claims to the ownership of Mahdibagh, the Badris argued that, given the nature of the beliefs and practices of the Vakilis, they clearly fall outside the fold of Islam and so have no right to claim access to the mosque in Mahdibagh or to any other part of the colony. They maintained that for over a century no Vakili had set foot inside the colony and that, therefore, there was no question of changing the rule in future. They argued that the Vakilis had 'promulgated, announced and followed their own religious faith, beliefs, rituals, customs, etc., which are not only distinct [from] but antagonistic to the fundamental principles of Islam and the religious faith and beliefs of Shi'a Muslims'.25

In order to clarify their case before the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, the Badris drew up an extensive list of points on which they differed from the Vakilis, attempting to show that while they themselves were 'proper' Muslims, the Vakilis were well beyond the pale of Islam, and, hence, had no right of access to, leave alone control over, Mahdibagh. They contended that while they 'strictly believe in and follow Almighty God—Allah', the Vakilis 'have no faith [in Allah], do not follow Him', and, instead, 'proclaim that the Day of Judgement has come and the injustice of cruel Allah is over'. While they claimed to strictly observe the 'pillars' of Islam, including fasting (roza), prayer (namaz), the pilgrimage to Makka (haj), the poor-due (zakat) and rules of bodily purity (taharat), they insisted that the Vakilis 'do not believe in and never follow any principles of the shari'at-i islam [the Islamic law]', because, according to the teachings of their sect, 'these fundamentals of Islam are revoked and abolished'. Thus, while the Badris have their own mosques, the Vakilis do not, because they are said to believe that a mosque is simply 'a structure of bricks and mortar'.

As regards the Qur'an, the Badris insisted that while they themselves 'firmly believe in it', the Vakilis do not, and that they actually 'severely disrespect the Holy Book'.26 Given these 'heretical' beliefs of the Vakilis, then, the Badris insisted that there was no question of them being allowed into the Mahdibagh mosque or attempting to stake a claim over it. 'The entry of our enemies into Mahdibagh colony will amount to opening [the] flood-gates of sewage into a garden of heaven', they warned.27 Summarising their case against the proposed entry of the Vakilis into the Masjid-i-Ibrahim, they declared:

Any person or group of people who do not believe in Almighty God Allah, treat the Holy Book—Qur'an—as rubbish and with utter disrespect, who have abandoned [the] basic fundamentals [and] beliefs of [the] Islamic shari'at, who do not offer namaz, who do not observe roza's [sic], who usurp the high exalted religious position of the Imam, [and] whose so-called leader insulted the founder of our sect by considering himself of a higher rank, shall always be considered by members of our community as infidels, heretics and renegades. Entry of such hostile people in our holy mosque, especially when they do not perform namaz and consider the mosque as [simply] a structure of bricks and mortar, can never be tolerated. It will deeply hurt the sentiments and feelings of our community.28

In order to galvanise public pressure against the Vakilis and to have them declared as non-Muslims, the leaders of the Badri community contacted various Sunni and Shi'a leaders and institutions all over India, seeking to build up a solid Islamic bloc against the Vakilis. In their request for a fatwa from these authorities on the Vakilis, the Badri leaders repeated the same accusations against their opponents, portraying them as enemies of Islam. The request for a fatwa was generally framed in the following words:

We wish to bring to your notice the existence of a certain jama'at in Nagpur which goes by the name of Chimthanawala, who believe that the fundamental pillars of Islam such as iman (faith), namaz, roza, zakat and haj are not essential, and who disbelieve in the Holy Qur'an and [God forbid} regard it as a useless book. Moreover, the leader of the said jama'at calls himself the 'Speaking Qur'an'. Can such a jama'at be recognised as being part of the fold of Islam and can its followers be regarded as Muslims?. Sir, we would request you to issue a fatwa on the religion (din) and faith of this jama'at, based on the pronouncements of the Holy Book and the sunnat of the Prophet, may peace and Allah's blessings be upon him.

Not surprisingly, given the way the request for fatawa was framed, important Sunni and Shi'a authorities, in their replies, declared the Vakilis as non-Muslim heretics. Thus, for instance, in his fatwa, Sayyed Ghulam Hussain Raza Aqa, a leading Ithna 'Ashari Shi'a scholar, principal of the Hauzat-ul Murtaza madrasa and president of the Majlis-i 'Ulama-o Zakirin, Hyderabad, declared that if the Vakilis do actually deny the need for namaz, they should be considered as 'disbelievers and would rank among the polytheists'.29 Another Ithna 'Ashari Shi'a scholar, Sayyed Qalbe Sadiq of Lucknow, issued a fatwa declaring that the Vakili sect is 'beyond all doubt outside the pale of Islam, and can, in no way, be included among the Shi'as'.30

If it was probably for the first time ever that a Bohra sub-sect turned to Ithna 'Ashari scholars for assistance in an inter-sectarian battle with another Bohra group, it was also perhaps unprecedented that a Shi'a sect would seek the support of Sunni 'ulama in what was, after all, an internal Shi'a affair. The issue was framed in such a way by the Badris as to make it appear that the Vakilis were a sinister anti-Muslim group, whose challenging of certain basic Islamic beliefs and practices held in common by all Muslims, both Sunnis and Shi'as, posed a threat to them all. Thus, several leading Sunni 'ulama were approached by the Badri leaders for providing fatawa on the Vakilis, and most of them responded by unhesitatingly branding the Vakilis as anti-Muslim heretics.

Thus, for instance, the Deputy Mufti of the renowned Dar-ul 'Ulum madrasa at Deoband declared that if the allegations of the Badris were true then the Vakilis were undoubtedly 'out of [the] Islamic fold'.31 Muhammad Manzur Rizvi Amjadi of the Dar-ul 'Ulum Amjadia, Nagpur, stated that because they allegedly deny the fundamental pillars of Islam, the Vakilis are 'infidels without any doubt', adding that 'having religious relations with such people is forbidden'.32 Likewise, Maulvi Sana-ur-Rahman, Chief Qazi of Ujjain, declared that the Vakilis, far from being Muslims, were 'in fact, enemies of Islam, hypocrites and apostates'.33 Armed with fatawa from these and several other Sunni and Shia ulama, the Badris sought to deny the Vakilis access to Mahdibagh, and to stave off their attempts to wrest control over the complex, by having them publicly declared as non-Muslim heretics.

Islam, the Shari'ah and the Vakili faith

As can be surmised from the fatawa that they had elicited from various Muslim authorities, the Badris sought to prove that the Vakilis could not be considered Muslim owing to their alleged rejection of the Islamic law, the shari'at. The debate regarding the shari'ah is an old one in Bohra circles and long precedes the formation of the Atba-i Malak community. According to Engineer, early Isma'ili cosmology developed a belief in major periods of time (daur), each of which would have its own law-giver or pronouncer (natiq), who would lay down the divine law for that period. Since the natiq addresses common people, he speaks in 'plain language', without any allegorical references.

However, he appoints an executors of his will (wasi, asas) who reveals the esoteric and hidden truths of the faith (ilm-i batin) to the spiritually elect few (muminin). The wasi is followed by a chain of Imams, who organise the da'wa on the basis of the esoteric teachings that they receive from their master. The daur of a natiq comprises the period of the rule of six Imams, with the seventh being appointed as a new natiq, who either proclaims a new shari'ah, abolishing the previous one, or else cancels the external manifestations (zahir) of the shari'ah of the preceding natiq (ta'atil-i shari'ah), giving a new interpretation to it on the basis of its 'hidden secrets' (asrar-i batin).34

The early Isma'ilis believed that the Prophet Muhammad was preceded by five natiqs, the prophets Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, each having cancelled the shari'ah of his predecessor, introducing a new one in its place. Muhammad, as the sixth natiq, appointed Imam 'Ali as his wasi or inheritor.35 Imam 'Ali, in turn, was followed by a chain of six Imams, the last being Imam Isma'il, who brought the daur of the Prophet Muhammad to an end. After him, the seventh Isma'ili Imam, Muhammad bin Isma'il became the seventh natiq. Whether or not he is believed to have actually cancelled the shari'ah of Muhammad has for long been a matter of acute controversy in Isma'ili ranks.36 Apparently, some Isma'ili sub-sects believed that he had actually done so, and had, consequently, inaugurated the 'period of unveiling'.

As for the Bohras, some scholars have remarked that while they recognise the need for ordinary believers to follow the external dictates of the shari'ah, this does not apply to the spiritually 'elevated' elite. Yet other scholars opine that according to the Bohras, the seventh natiq had, through his tawil or esoteric interpretation of the faith, revealed the inner secrets of the shari'ah, transcending the mere external form of the law in order to grasp its spirit.37 According to these scholars, Muhammad bin Isma'il did not reveal a new shari'ah of his own to replace that of the Prophet Muhammad. He might have not cancelled the external or zahiri shari'at of the Prophet, but, in its place, 'emphasised its hidden meaning for the superiors in the religious order'.38 Engineer, however, insists that the mainstream of the Daudi Bohras have 'so far always observed the teachings of the Islamic shari'at meticulously', despite their belief in its 'esoteric interpretation'.39

The dispute between the Vakilis and the Badris needs to be seen in the context of the ambiguity about the role of the shari'iah in Isma'ili tradition and history. Apparently, there exists some confusion as to whether or not the founder of the Atba-i Malak community, 'Abdul Hussain, actually believed that the shari'ah of Muhammad had been abrogated. Writing in 1980, Engineer remarked that the members of the Atba-i Malak community believe that with the death of 'Abdul Hussain, the daur-i kashf had dawned and that it was thus 'no longer necessary to observe the manifest practices of shari'a'. He added that they believe that 'what is necessary [..] is to understand the hidden (batini) meaning of prayer, fasting, haj, zakat and the Koranic verses'. Accordingly, he wrote, 'the followers of this sect do not pray or undertake fasts during the holy month of Ramadan or perform haj'.40 Engineer did not, however, specify which particular group among the Atba-i Malak these observations applied to.

Indeed, he made no mention of the split in the community's ranks. Engineer's remarks, it must be noted, do not fit the description of the Badris, as they duly observe the external shari'ah and the various Islamic rituals, while also, at the same time, stressing the inner dimensions or the spirit of the law. For instance, while observing the injunctions of the shari'ah regarding ablutions and bodily purity (ghusl, wazu), they believe that the 'greater purification' ('ala taharat) is the 'purification of the self' (taharat-i nafs). Moreover, they believe that 'Abdul Hussain has commanded them to observe the sunnat of the Prophet as regards obligatory prayers (farz namaz) but has done away with the need for them to offer supererogatory prayers (nafil namaz). They believe that with the advent of the qa'im following the death of 'Abdul Hussain, the 'age of veiling' has come to an end, and in the new 'period of unveiling', the hidden secrets of Islam have now been revealed.

Engineer's remarks seem more applicable in the case of the Vakilis. In contrast to the Badris, the Vakilis believe that with the advent of the qa'im, the Imam of the daur-i kashf, in the form of 'Abdul Qadir, the external shari'at has been done away with.41 Thus, deposing before the court in Nagpur, Vakili leaders maintained that 'all the rituals which are to be observed during the period ['of veiling'] need not be observed during the period of kashf'.42 The present Vakili leader, Tayyebhai Chimthanawala, is on record as having admitted that although the external rituals of the shari'at were indeed followed at the time of the Malak, 'Abdul Hussain, after his death the 'period of unveiling' has dawned, as a result of which the Vakilis no longer 'follow namaj [sic], haj and other symbolical rituals and tents [of Islam]'.

He contended that 'attending [the] mosque [to] offer namaj [sic], fasting during the month of Ramzan and haj are all symbolical tenets' and that these are not to be observed during the 'period of unveiling'. He claimed that the 'period of veiling' came to an end with the death of 'Abdul Hussain and that, subsequently, the first qa'im, 'Abdul Qadir, had 'abrogated or abolished' the shari'ah of Muhammad.43 In this way, the Vakili head carefully sought to distinguish himself and his followers from the Badris and attempted to put forward his own claim to Islamic authenticity in the face of stiff opposition from the combined forces of the Badris and various other Muslim groups.

Thus, what initially began as a dispute over the succession to the leadership of the community finally resulted in the creation of two bitterly antagonistic sects, their mutual rivalry serving as an underlying factor for their own separate identities. Appeals to the courts as well as to the wider Muslim community only added to the process of cementing and formalising the split. The issue of the shar'iah, adherence to the external rituals of Islam, in particular, emerged as central in this process of community self-definition and as the litmus test, for the Badris and the Shi'a and Sunni Muslim groups whose assistance they sought, for defining what it means to be a Muslim. As such, these were new factors in what is undoubtedly a historically familiar feature of sectarian development within the broader Isma'ili fold stemming from competing claims to authority and leadership of the community. As the Badri-Vakili dispute so strikingly suggests, mundane interests and competing claims over access to power and community resources, often lie beneath rival interpretations of religious tradition and authenticity, resulting in fissiparous tendencies that ultimately result in the creation of new sects. In this sense, the development of new formulations of tradition must be located firmly within the changing social context within which they appear.


We began this article by raising the question of why and how the process of fission has, historically, been so particularly noticeable among the Isma'ilis, resulting in the formation of numerous splinter groups, each claiming to be the one true jama'at carrying on the mission of Muhammad, 'Ali and the Imams after him. The death of an Imam or head of the community generally provided the occasion for a split in community ranks, with rival contenders vying with each other for the post. These personal disputes, in which power, authority and control over community resources assumed a central role, led to the formation of rival sects, each led by a claimant to the post of Imam or his deputy.

Typically, the disputes were portrayed in religious terms, and gradually, over time, these religious differences hardened to draw neat barriers between the rival sects, thus setting them apart from and against each other and providing them with a strong sense of separate identity. The Badri-Vakili dispute clearly shows how competing and contradictory understandings of Islam must be seen in relation to disputes over authority and control of community resources. The complex linkages between worldly interests and competing religious beliefs highlight the fact that religious change cannot be properly understood without placing it in the wider context of the dynamics of social change.

Modernity has had important consequences for the process of splintering and sectarian formation that we have pointed to. As the case of the Badri-Vakili dispute so clearly illustrates, the secular courts have stepped in as final arbiters, as contending groups appeal to them to intervene. Whether this means a relative decline in the authority that the leaders of the sects enjoy among their followers is a question that needs further investigation. What is particularly interesting here is how appeal to the courts has forced the rival factions to explicitly declare the beliefs and tenets of their faith, these having been, hitherto, by and large, closely-guarded secrets amongst most Ismai'li sects. This, in turn, has had important consequences for the way in these groups seek to relate to other Muslim communities.

In order to receive a favourable decision from the courts, not only did the Badris have to openly declare their beliefs, but also used sought to reach out to other, hitherto shunned, Muslim groups, in order to build a united front against the Vakilis. What is particularly striking about the Badri-Vakili dispute as it unfolded over time was the use of the shari'ah as a marker of Muslim identity and its deployment as a device to exclude the Vakilis from access to community property. A common adherence to the shari'ah, despite differences in matters of interpretation, was appealed to by the Badris in order to garner crucial Shi'a and Sunni support in order to have the Vakilis declared as non-Muslims so as to prevent them from attempting to lay claim to the Mahdibagh colony. Sectarian disputes, the rival interpretations of Islamic tradition and the notion of what being a Muslim actually is, as the Badri-Vakili case so strikingly suggests, need, then, to be understood in relation to the complex interlinkages between worldly and religious concerns.

Yoginder Sikand is the editor of Qalandar - a monthly magazine on Islamic inter-faith issues. He can be reached at,

  • The most comprehensive study of the Indian Ithna 'Asharis is Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi's A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isna 'Ashari Shi'is in India (2 vols.), Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi, 1986.
  • Dominique Sila-Khan, Conversions and Shifting Identities: Ramdev Pir and the Isma'ilis in Rajasthan, Manohar, New Delhi, 1997, p.29.
  • Farhad Daftary, The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1995, pp.118-19.
  • Asghar Ali Engineer, The Bohras, Vikas, Ghaziabad, 1980, p.100.
  • Letter from members of the Badri Bohra community, Nagpur, to the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, 12 February, 1998, p.6, Badri Community Files (henceforth, BCF).
  • Engineer, op. cit., p.137.
  • Isbate Kashf, Nagpur, 23 March, 1998, p.14.
  • The general Daudi belief is that the amr was passed on to Sayyedna Najmuddin, and, from him, through five successive da'i-i mutlaqs down to the present incumbent, Sayyedna Muhammad Burhanuddin. The followers of 'Abdul Hussain claim, however, that after the death of the forty-sixth da'i-i mutlaq, the amr went into seclusion for a little more than half a century as the 'period of veiling' was drawing to a close.
  • Thus, Maulana 'Abdullah Humayun , who, although in seclusion, was considered to be the first qa'im in the 'period of unveiling'.
  • Judgement of Amiruddin vs. Mukhtar Jafarbhai Chimthanawala and the Charity Commissioner, Maharashtra, Second Appeal no.132 of 1992 U/s 100, Bombay High Court, Nagpur Bench, BCF.
  • Quoted in Engineer, op.cit., p.138. The author added that after the setting up of the jama'at in Nagpur, these masha'ikh realised that 'Abdul Hussain was 'a pretender, a man of poor knowledge' and that his religious mission was actually 'a pretence to organise an assembly for worldly gain'. Having soon discovered that the Nagpur jama'at was a 'purely worldly joint-stock association for the advantage of the select few', they left the jama'at and returned to the main Daudi fold (Engineer, op.cit., p.13).
  • 'Abdul Qadir's sister, Fatima Bai, was married to 'Abdul Hussain. After 'Abdul Hussain's death, she joined hands with 'Abdul Qadir in opposing Ghulam Hussain. Both 'Abdul Qadir and 'Abdul Hussain were originally from the village of Chimthana, near Nagpur.
  • Letter from members of the Badri community, Nagpur, to the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, 12 February, 1998, p.2, BCF.
  • Petition drawn and filed for the petitioner in Amiruddin vs. Mukhtar Jafarbhai, Salimbhai M.J. Chimthanawala and the Charity Commissioner, Maharashtra, Special Leave Petition (Civil) no.25004 of 1996, in the Supreme Court of India, Civil Appellate Jurisdiction , BCF.
  • It was claimed by the Badris that although 'Abdul Qadir had earlier pledged allegiance to Ghulam Hussain, he was 'disgruntled with the fact that he did not get any religious rank'. Consequently, it is said, he 'invented the false theory of being appointed as the Vakil'. Badris stress that 'there is no religious rank as Vakil in the religious sect or religious tenets of [the] Shi'a Isma'ilia Tayyebi Dawoodi Bohra community' (Written statement of the defendant in Maulai Tayyebhai Saheb Maulana Razzak Chimthanawala and Others vs. Maulana Hasan Nurani Malak Saheb, Special Suit no. 143 of 1967, Court of the Joint Civil Judge, Senior Division, Nagpur, BCF.
  • Petition of the Plaintiffs in Maulai Tayyebhai Saheb Maulana S. Razzak S. Razzak Saheb Chimthanawala and Others vs. Hasan Nurani, in Special Civil Suit no.143/1967, Court of the Civil Judge, Senior Division, Nagpur , BCF.
  • Also called Mahdibaghwalas.
  • Badris claim that 'Abdul Hussain, having been divinely appointed as hujjat of the Imam, was in search of someone to share that responsibility and status with, and, in the course of this search, met with Ghulam Hussain in Bombay. He then appointed him as the badr ud-din and a co-hujjat of the Imam. Ghulam Hussain's followers claim that on five separate occasions 'Abdul Hussain publicly declared Ghulam Hussain to be his qa'im-i muqam, successor to the rank of the hujjat of the qa'im.
  • Written statement of the defendant in Maulai Tayyebhai Saheb Maulana Razzak Chimthanawala and Others vs. Maulana Hasan Nurani Malak Saheb, Special Suit no. 143 of 1967, Court of the Joint Civil Judge, Senior Division, Nagpur, BCF.
  • Today, the Badris number some one thousand. Their main concentration is in Nagpur, and smaller numbers live in various towns in western India and abroad as well. Local level congregations are led by 'amils or deputies of the da'i-i mutlaq. There are presently five 'amils, on each for the Badris of Ujjain, Hyderabad, Vishakhapatanam, Dubai and the USA. Most Badris are well qualified, middle-class professionals.
  • Also called Chimthanawalas or Pidribaghwalas. They today number some three hundred, and are found mainly in Nagpur. Many of them are engaged in producing traditional medicines.
  • Because of this, the Badris of Nagpur declared that 'Abdul Qadir and his brothers had 'in fact, usurped the exalted title, post and position of Imam, which is a great sacrilege'. They added that by doing so, they had 'assumed the position which is higher and greater in rank that that of Moulana Malak Saheb ['Abdul Hussain] himself, which is a [sic.] blasphemy which cannot be tolerated as it is a great insult to the founder, Moulana Malak also' (Letter from members of the Badri community, Nagpur, to the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, 12 February, 1998, p.7, BCF).
  • Letter from members of the Badri community, Nagpur, to the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, 12 February, 1998, p.1,BCF.
  • The first case concerned an application filed before the District Judge, Nagpur, by Dr. M.A.Hussain, son of the Vakili leader, 'Isabhai Chimthanawala, claiming that the Mahdibagh colony should be registered under the provisions of the Waqf Act. The matter reached the High Court, Nagpur, which then turned down the appeal. Since then, several more cases contesting the ownership of Mahdibagh have made their way to the courts. For details, see the letter from members of the Badri community, Nagpur, to the Commissioner of Police, Nagpur, 12 February, 1998, pp.3-4 , BCF.
  • Ibid., p.4.
  • Ibid., p.5.
  • Ibid., p.9.
  • Ibid., p.10.
  • Fatwa on the Vakilis issued by Sayyed Ghulam Hussain Raza Aqa, Hyderabad, 7 March, 1998, BCF.
  • 30 Fatwa on the Vakilis issued by Sayyed Qalbe Sadiq, Lucknow, 20 July, 1997,BCF.
  • Fatwa on the Vakilis issued by the Deputy Mufti, Dar-ul 'Ulum, Deoband, 3 Muharrum, 1418 A.H., BCF.
  • Fatwa on the Vakilis issued by Muhammad Manzur Rizvi Amjadi, Nagpur, 10 June, 1997, BCF.
  • Fatwa on the Vakilis issued by Sana-ur-Rahman, Ujjain, 20 February, 1998, BCF.
  • Engineer, op.cit., p.43.
  • While the Ithna 'Asharis begin their chain of twelve Imams with 'Ali, the Isma'ilis start their chain from Imam 'Ali's son Hussain, regarding Imam 'Ali as the wasi of the Prophet.
  • Engineer, op.cit., pp.43-45.
  • Engineer, op.cit., pp.55-57.
  • Engineer, op.cit., p.46.
  • Engineer, op.cit., p.58.
  • Engineer, op.cit., pp.138-39.
  • Interview with Tayyebhai Chimthanawala, present head of the Vakilis, Nagpur, August, 1998.
  • Judgement of Amiruddin vs. Mukhtar Jafarbhai and the Charity Commissioner, Maharashtra, Second Appeal no.132 of 1992, U/s 100, Bombay High Court, Nagpur Bench, 7 October, 1996, BCF.
  • Judgement in Maulai Tayyebhai Saheb Maulana Razzak Chimthanawala and Others vs. Hasan Nurani, Special Civil Suit no.143/1967, in the Court of J.H.Bhatia, Joint Civil Judge, Senior Division, Nagpur, BCF