Borhras and reform
Bohras and the scourge of social boycott
The Bohra priesthood has resurrected the technique employed by the rich pagan Arabs against the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) and the first converts to Islam: social and economic boycott. When inducements, including the kingship of Arabia, failed to dissuade the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) from his mission and threats failed to frighten the followers, the powerful mercantile class initiated a long period of persecution which eventually culminated in his epochal migration to Medina. In Mecca the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) and his followers were isolated, broken and all commerce prohibited with them. Abu Lahab, an uncle of the Holy Prophet (peace be on him,) even forced his two sons to divorce holy Prophet’s daughters.
History, it appears, has come a full perverse circle. Whereas the Meccans did not persecute their co-religionists, the Bohra priesthood does; and, whereas, Islam was perceived by the former as a threat to their vested economic interests, Islam has been a financial windfall for the Bohra priesthood. The whiplash of social boycott is employed by the clergy to stifle all debate, dissent and disobedience of its diktats as these are perceived as threats to its authority and harmful to its interests. For the supposedly Islamic clergy it is immaterial that social boycott is un-Islamic in origin and uncivilized in practice. All that matters is that it is effective in subjugating the community and promoting its interests.
It is difficult for a non-Bohra to comprehend the nature, totality, and the consequences of the social boycott enforced by Bohra clergy and tacitly connived at by the community. The community’s ethos and its milieu are quite different, perhaps, outside the pale of normal human experience. A Bohra lacks conception of virtues like honour, valour and self-esteem. Blood-ties and friendships are also inconsequential. His overriding concern is to save his skin at all cost. A mere whisper of social boycott is enough to send him groveling before the clergy. He will prostrate and humiliate himself just to save his skin, a Bohra has a paranoid fear of isolation. This fear the clergy exploits.
Though a Bohra’s life is centered round religion, his religiosity is only skin-deep. It largely consists of outward observances. He lacks inner convictions. Piety and spirituality are conspicuous by their absence. History reveals that the community as a whole has practiced dissimulation to save itself. Though this may have ensured its survival, it weakened its moral fibre. Many of the community’s ills are a result of the Bohras’ lack of moral courage. According to a reported tradition, the Holy Prophet (peace be on him) had said, “The best form of jihad is telling the truth to the face of tyrants”. It is because of this defect in its character that social boycott has such biting teeth.
As the community has always been small and circumscribed, it has evolved as parochial and conservative. Still largely a community of petty traders, its interests are materialistic and its aspirations ordinary. As it is still largely semi-literate it is susceptible to manipulation. Overwhelming majority of Bohras do not understand the meaning of the Holy Quran as they have only been taught to read and write the Arabic script (they do not understand Arabic language). As its other scriptures and books are also in Arabic, the community is almost ignorant of its heritage. The clergy has made no efforts to make these available in translations. It considers it a profanity that these should fall in the hands of the uninitiated laity; as if the scriptures and the books contain knowledge of occult sciences and rituals of magical mysteries! It appears as if the clergy has a vested interest in keeping the community ignorant. Whatever little the Bohras know is told to them by the clergy. (And, thereby, of course, hangs a tale).The Bohras are, therefore, not only heavily dependent on the clergy but are almost the clergy’s creatures. They are, consequently, easier to control, dominate and regiment by a well-structured and efficient priesthood. The Bohras greatly respect the clergy’s authority because they greatly fear it. It is mostly out of fear of harmful consequences for themselves that the Bohras comply with the clergy’s inhuman diktat of social boycott.
The social boycott is covertly enforced by the clergy as it cannot do it openly. The power to ostracize a Bohra is vested only in the Syedna and baraat has been made justiciable by the Supreme Court. Further baraat can only be declared on religious grounds only; if a Bohra is guilty of doctrinal heresy. The clergy’s concerns, however, are more worldly than heavenly. Such restrictions and limitations, therefore, are irksome to the clergy. It perceives any challenge to its authority as a threat to its vested interests. As the exercise of authority is arbitrary, social boycott needs to be frequently employed to silence all acts of defiance within the community. The clergy, therefore, resorts to subterfuge and uses the town priest and the local jamat committee to enforce social boycott covertly but quite effectively. The docile and fearful community carries out the clergy’s verbal diktat and “poor” bohra is cast out. The clergy has so successfully isolated Syedna from the community that he is unapproachable for an appeal without the clergy’s intercession. Legal redressal is also not available to him as it is prohibitively costly, takes years and no evidence documentary or otherwise, can be adduced by Bohras. A Bohra is, therefore, totally at the mercy of clergy if, as a cynic remarked, he wants to savor the pleasure of remaining a Bohra.
The principle objective of the social boycott is to break a Bohra, his spirit, his will, his resistance. This it seeks to achieve by rendering him helpless, without any support, any companions and worse within the community. Sooner rather than later he breaks because his mettle is not tough enough. He beseeches the clergy on all fours to be returned to community’s fold, an example to rest of the community not to be foolhardy to defy the clergy. He is not accepted back in to the community until he has been humiliated and publicly disgraced. Quite often he will be directed to beg forgiveness individually from mostly shady members of the jamat committee. This he does. In this manner, chastised, shattered and subdued, the Bohra crawls back into the community. The social boycott has been a thumping success!
The social boycott of a Bohra is like the tentacles of an octopus. There is no escape, no mercy apart from total surrender. The clergy’s single-minded devotion to break a recalcitrant Bohra is like usury (riba), it devours what it feeds on. A non-Bohra will not believe and cannot conceive the methods employed by the clergy to enforce social boycott. If a Bohra has “displeased” the clergy, he will denied raza (permission) by the clergy to discharge his religious obligations and fulfill his social needs. Raza is a very breath of a Bohra’s existence, the axis around which his life revolves. He and his family (guilty by implication) will be denied the use of jamatkhanas (community dining-halls) and musafirkhanas (community guest-houses). His co-religionists will not invite him to feasts or any social functions. He will not be able to marry his children and his brothers-in-faith will not lend a helping hand to bury his dead.
This is the first degree. If this is not sufficient to bend a Bohra, the screw will be twisted one more turn. Pressures will now be mounted on the “sinning” Bohra’s parents, children and relatives to disown him under threat of similar boycott. An aged mother will be coerced to leave the home of his only son, an only daughter not to visit her dying father. Unbelievably they do it. The daughter, her husband and their children will not even attend his last rites. His children, not staying with him, will be boycotted if they do not disown the father. All his other relatives will similarly shun him to escape being cast out of the community. He will be ruined if he is dependent on the community for his livelihood. A Bohra will have to be tough not to surrender to the clergy at this stage.
This is the second degree. Even if this does not bend him, the screw will be turned again. The ultimate tightening of the noose. His wife will be coerced to divorce him and remarry. If his daughter has not disowned the “sinning” father, her husband will be coerced to divorce her. His house will be ransacked. If he is vocal, murderous attempts will be made to silence him and in joyous celebration of his death, night will be lit up and cracked open with burst of fire-works. Even in death a Bohra does not find release. His dead body will be dishonored, his grave dug up and his remains littered on the streets. For the supposedly Islamic clergy, nothing is sacrosanct, nothing is inviolable. Strangely it does all these in the holy name of Islam! Unbelievable but true! As Allama Iqbal said “yeh ummat kharaafat mey kho gai hai” (this community is sunk in perversity).
There is no exaggeration in what has been stated, no untruth. Innumerable instances bear witness to the inhumanity of the Bohra priesthood. But as Koestler once remarked, “statistics don’t bleed”. However, it will be edifying to illustrate what has been said by a couple of unfortunate examples. A young Bohra returned to India from the Gulf to get married. His father, a road-side mechanic, was not in the “good books” of the clergy. Permission was granted to the son for nikaah on the condition that his father does not attend it. The son agreed. On the marriage-day his father was seriously injured, hit by a truck. The son requested the priest for the postponement of nikaah. The son was not only rebuked but directed to celebrate the marriage with grater joy and festivity. He was ordered not only not to visit his father in the hospital but also to consummate his marriage! Marriage was, accordingly, solemnized. The morning following the suhagraat, when he opened the window of his bed-chamber, he saw a dead body being brought for burial as his house happened to be adjacent to the grave-yard. His father had died during the night.
A lady doctor was happily married to a man she loved for ten years. They had two children. However, her brothers and mother had greatly annoyed the clergy. The local town priest ordered her not only to disown them but publicly curse (laanat) them. She refused to do so. Her husband was asked to divorce her. As he vacillated and resisted, his sisters were threatened with divorce. The sisters and their mother started harassing and torturing the lady doctor. As she was a lady with self-respect, she could not bear the humiliation. She left her husband with her two children. A happy family was ruined.
Social boycott is wielded for the most trival reasons. Failure to sport a beard or wear a rida (veil), in defiance of clergy’s diktat, is enough to annoy the clergy. (Many young Bohras grow beard when their marriage is impending. They get rid of it immediately the nikaah ceremony is over). Unknowingly attending a cosmopolitan marriage-feast where an “undesirable” Bohra is present is an excuse enough to punish the “offending” Bohras. Reading newspapers and periodicals proscribed by the clergy, publishing letters and articles, selling your property contrary to clergy’s wishes, expressing a dissenting opinion, the list can be stretched ad infinitum and ad nauseam. The clergy does not tolerate ANY challenge to its authority. That in short is the raisone d’etre for social boycott.
Social boycott has not only brutalized the clergy but also desensitized and dehumanized the community. In pursuit of its dubious ends the clergy has greatly damaged the community’s psyche and smothered all the nobler sentiments which give meaning and substance to man’s life on earth. Holy prophet (peace be on him) who came as a mercy to mankind has been given short shrift and the compassionate religion of Islam defiled and defamed. The Dawoodi Bohra community is a community in name only. “what is amiss with these people that they hardly comprehend any discourse?” (The Holy Quran, 4:78).