Borhras and reform

The Bohras: Religion and spirituality


The Bohras are convert from Hinduism to the Shi'ah Isma'ili sect of Islam. The conversion took place mainly in the twelfth century A.D. in Gujrat in India.

The converted were mainly from the Hindu middle and upper castes and mainly from the castes engaged in trade and commerce. The conversion was mainly result of the work of some Arab missionaries from Egypt and the Yemen. Also later on the indigenous converts undertook the missionary activities in other contiguous regions like the areas that today constitute Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharastra. Thus today the Bohras in India, mainly live in these areas and number around 8 to 9 lakhs. They are mainly engaged in small trade though now a newly educated professional class is also coming into existence. Here in this article we will mainly deal with their religion, belief-system and spiritual practices.

Religion and religious beliefs

The Bohras who later split into number of sub-sects like the Jafariyas, Daudis, Sulemanis, Alavis etc. are mainly Isma'ili branch of the Shi'ah Muslims.Like all other Muslims they believe in tawhid (i.e. oneness of God ), risalah (i.e. the prophethood ) and accept Muhammad( peace be upon him) as the last Prophet of God. They accept the holy Qur'an as the revealed word of Allah and all their beliefs, like all those of other Muslims, is based primarily on it. Thus far, they have everything in common with other Muslims.

However, like other Shi'ah Muslims, they believe that the Prophet's son-in-law ‘Ali was both spiritual as well as temporal successor of the holy prophet and that the Prophet himself nominated him, under direct injunction from Allah, as his spiritual and temporal successor. That it was an ordinance from Allah to appoint ‘Ali as his successor, the Ismailis invoke the Quranic verse 5:67. The verse says, “O Messenger, deliver that which has been revealed to thee from thy lord, and if thou do (it) not, thou has not delivered His message. And Allah will protect thee from people. Surely Allah guides not disbelieving people”.

The other Muslims popularly known as Sunni Muslims interpret this verse very differently. For example, Imam Raghib, the noted lexicographer of the Quran, says referring to the meaning of ‘ismah( i.e. protection), “ The ‘ismat or protection, of the prophets is God's protection of them, in the first place, by characterising them with purity of essence (i.e. creating them pure from every sin in their very nature), then by granting them help and keeping them firm (in trials), then by sending down tranquility upon them and by protection of their hearts( against evil).” In Ruhul Ma'ani by Saiyyid Mahmud al Alusi, also we find similar explanation that their protection means their protection from sins from among all people. (For these citations see Maulana Muhammad Ali, Holy Qur'an (Lahore, 1973 ), pp -262).

However, the Isma'ilis insist on the hidden meaning of this verse and maintain that through this verse Allah required His messenger to convey to the believers the message that Allah desires ‘Ali to be appointed as the heir and successor to the Prophet and that on conveying this message if a section of the People (nas) oppose you out of their jealousy or ambition, then Allah will protect you against them. The Shi'ah and the Isma'ilis maintain that the holy Prophet was worried that if he nominate, ‘Ali as his successor, some of his close companions who aspire to become his political successor, would vigorously oppose him and he, for this reason, was hesitating to declare ‘Ali as his wasi (i.e. legatee). After this verse was revealed, the Shi'ahs maintain that holy Prophet gathered all Muslims while returning from the last pilgrimage (Hajjah al wada' ) at a place called Ghadir al Khum and raised 'Ali until his armpit was revealed, and he said, “Ali is the mawlah (master ) of those whose mawlah I am” and then he prayed to Allah that Thou love those who love ‘Ali and Thou consider Thine enemy those who consider ‘Ali their enemy.

The Sunni Muslims also vouch for the authenticity of this hadith but conclude that the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) appointed ‘Ali as his spiritual successor, not a temporal one. These differences between the followers of the Prophet led to the first major schism in Islam. Muslims now split on this question of successorship to the Prophet into two sects i.e. the Sunnis and the Shi'ahs. The Sunnis adopted the concept of Khilafah (i.e. elected temporal successorship to the Prophet) and the Shi'ah Muslims evolved the doctrine of imamah i.e. spiritual and temporal leadership after the Prophet. The Isma'ilis, who branched off from the Shi'ah Islam, stressed the concept of wasayah (i.e. legateeship) of ‘Ali, in addition to the doctrine of imamah. The Shi'ahs though accept the concept of wasayah, consider wasayah and imamah as two separate catagories. ‘Ali, according to the Shi'ah Muslims, is the first Imam in the chain of twelve Imams (hence they are called twelver shi'ahs ) and according to the Isma'ilis ‘Ali was wasi and not Imam. According to them Hasan, the elder son of Ali, was the first Imam in the chain of Imams.

The major split between the Shi'ahs and Isma'ilis took place in the second century of Islam on the question of successorship to Imam Jafar al-Sadiq (who was 6th Imam of according to the Shi'ahs and 5th according to the Isma'ilis). The Twelver shi'ahs (known as Ithna' Ashari shiahs) accepted jafar al-sadiq's younger son Musa Kazim as the next Imam while the Isma'ilis accepted his elder son Ismail (who died in the life time of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq ) as the next i.e. sixth Imam. In both the cases i.e. succession to the Prophet Muhammmad (PBUH) and to Imam Jafar al-sadiq, though the dispute was of succession, it resulted in development of very different theologies. Though there is much in common between the Twelver Shi'ahs and the Isma'ilis, their theological differences are no less significant. Both the Ithna' Ashari and the Isma'ilis theologies developed along very different lines. However, as both were the persecuted minority sects in the world of Islam, their mutual relationship, unlike between the Sunnis and the Shi'ahs, never became conflictual and antagonistic. The common bond with the family of the Prophet ahl al-bayt was so strong that the differences on the question of successorship to Imam Jafar al-Sadiq remained secondary.

Despite these differences on the question of succession either to the holy Prophet or to that of Imam Sadiq, the fundamental beliefs in tawhid , risalah, finality of prophethood etc. remained common. There never was any compromise on these beliefs. Not only this, the ritual system i.e. prayer (salah ), fasting (saum), charity (zakah), pilgrimage (hajj) and jihad also is common. However, the Ithna' Asharis add walayah (love of ‘Ali and family of the Prophet) to these five pillars (da'a'im ) of Islam and the Isma'ils further add taharah (which implies both bodily and spiritual cleanliness). Thus according to the Sunni Islam there are five pillars of Islam while according to the Isma'ilis (of whose the Bohras are an Indian offshoot), there are seven pillars of Islam . It is after these pillars that that principal book of Isma'ilis jurisprudence is known as Da'a'im al-Islam. This book is the most fundamental to the Bohras as far as their religion, their beliefs and their spiritual practices are concerned. This book is also the principal source of Isma'ili hadith literature. Be they ritual practices or spiritual practices of the Isma'ilis in general, and the Bohras, in particular, this book has great significance. This book has been written by a great Isma'ili Da'i (a Missionary, a summoner to the faith) Sayedna Qadi al-Nu'man. We will speak more about the office of da'i little later. However, it is important to note here that the Qadi was one of the intellectual giants of the Isma'ili stream of Islam. He was a jurist, a theoretician, a theologician, a historian and a judge. He was the chief qadi of the Fatimid rulers (the Isma'ili Imams who ruled over Egypt from 3rd to 6th century Hijrah belonged to the progeny of Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet and hence known as Fatimids).

He also wrote a book on the hidden meaning of the pillars of Islam which is known as Ta'wil al-Da'a'im al-Islam in which he explains away the hidden meaning or the real meaning of various Islamic rituals like the walayah, taharah (cleanliness), prayer, fasting, hajj, zakah and jihad. It is very important to study this book to understand the real significance of the spiritual practices of the Bohra Muslims.

Before we throw light on the Bohra spiritualism it is important to note that the Bohras, particularly the Daudi Bohras, are a very closely-knit community tightly controlled by the high priest (da'i) and are both highly Islamised in their religious practices and highly Indianised in their cultural practices and ethos. The ordinary Bohra is highly conscious of his separate identity and is made to jealously guard it by the priesthood. The priesthood makes every effort, not only to keep to tight spiritual control over the community but also keep it separate from the Islamic mainstream. The present high priest Muhammad Burhanuddin has gone to another extreme in cutting the Bohras off from not only Sunni but also from the Shi'ah Muslims. Any contact with the other Muslims, the high priest thinks, will loosen his control over the community.

The Bohra religion and spiritualism

We have briefly discussed above the main features of the Ismaili religion. We would now discuss hereunder the sources of its spirituality. The Daudi Bohras are highly religious people. They adhere to their religious practices and are highly Islamised. However, there are some peculiar characteristics of Bohra religion which mark them out from other mainstream Muslims. It is necessary to understand these characteristics in order to understand the sources of spiritualism of the Isma'ili Shi'ahs. All Shi'ah Muslims in general believe in t'awil (i.e. hidden meaning of the Quranic verses). That the Quranic verses have hidden/original meaning the Shi'ahs deduce from the Qur'anic verse 3:7 which is under : “He it is who has revealed the Book to thee; some of its verses are decisive - they are the basis of the Book- and others are allegorical . Then those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part of it which is allegorical, seeking to mislead, and seeking to give it (their own) interpretation. And none knows its interpretation save Allah, and those firmly rooted in knowledge...”.

The words al-rasikhun fi al-'ilm (those firmly rooted in knowledge) who know t'awil besides Allah are, according to the Shi'ahs, the Imams in the progeny of ‘Ali and Fatimah. The Isma'ilis, a sect to which the Bohras belong, particularly attach great importance to the doctrine of t'awil and they see hidden meaning in each and every verse of the Qur'an. This original or hidden meaning is known only to ‘Ali and Imams in his progeny. They are al-rasikhun fi al-'ilm. They can teach this knowledge to a selected few from amongst the believers. True spiritualism, as far as the Bohras are concerned, lie in the initiation into this hidden knowledge m'arifah coupled with the practice of zahiri (manifest) Shari'ah. According to the Isma'ilis, mere practice of zahiri shari'ah without marifah is a futile exercise, devoid of meaning and spirit. The Isma'ilis lay great stress on t'awil and m'arifah . It is the core, the gourd, while shari'ah by itself is a mere shell, a manifestation. They also distinguish between a muslim and a m'umin: the former is one who outwardly professes Islam without being aware of its real significance while the latter is one who is true believer, who is aware of real meaning and spirit of religion and also has m'arifah (knowledge ) of the significance of various hudud (i.e. the right place of every religious office in the divine hierarchy).

The concept of hudud - the divine hierarchy - is the core concept of the Isma'ilis. It is maintained that one who dies without the m'arifah of hudud (the hierarchy) lives in vain. Allah will not accept from him/her whatever he/she did in practicing the injunctions of shari'ah.

It is interesting to throw some light on the concept of hudud as evolved by the Isma'ilis. According to the Isma'ilis the first who was created by Allah was 'uqul (i.e. the first intellects). Then the first one who accept uluhiyyah(Divine Existence) was designated as ‘aql-I-awwal (i.e. the first intellect), then second one to accept as ‘aql-al-thani (second intellect), and then sab'ah al-uqul (seven intellects). The last intellect to accept Divinity was designated as ‘aql-i-ashir (tenth intellect) also known as ‘ashir-e-mudabbir i.e. the tenth intellect who manages this universe.

It is very important in the Isma'ili theology to assign every authority hadad its rightful place in the hierarchy. One who exceeds ones limit, is a rebel and it is a cardinal sin. Real shirk (in the Qur'anic terminology associating partners with Allah and it is cardinal sin) is associating one hadad with another thus transgressing its rightful place. It is the duty of a m'umin (i.e. true believer) to have proper m'arifah of these hudud and not to transgressing its rightful place. It is the duty of a m'umin (i.e. a true believer) to have a proper marifah of these hudud and to transgress their respective position in the hierarchy. It is this m'arifah which is real source of spiritual life in this world.

The Isma'ilis have also evolved a doctrine of what is called a mathal and mamthul i.e. the resembler and one who is its counterpart in this world. For the intellects in the other world, its representatives mamthul are there in this world i.e. the hierarchy in the spiritual world is replicated in our own physical world. The holy Prophet is at the apex of this hierarchy, followed by his wasi(legatee) ‘Ali who is succeeded by Imam. As the prophet is the seal of all prophets and there shall be no other prophets after him, and hence no wasi after ‘Ali, the hierarchy after ‘Ali is headed by an Imam from his progeny. Thus the hierarchy (dajarat) of hudud in this physical world is as under: The Prophet- wasi - Imam and in the absence of the prophet wasi Imam will be the mamthul (representative) of ‘ashir-e-mudabbir or the Tenth Intellect on this earth.

The Isma'ilis evolved another hierarchy after the holy prophet and wasi were no more among the people. As pointed out the Imam will head this hierarchy and will have Da'i (a summoner to the faith), ma'dhun (one who is permitted to run mission under the supervision of Dai) and mukathir (one who assists the ma'dhun by entering into religious polemics with non-Isma'ilis and convinces them of the truth of the Isma'ili doctrines). The mukhatir is in turn assisted by number of masha'ikh (religious preachers). And, during the period of seclusion of Imam, (called daur-al-satr) it is Da'i who heads the hierarchy. The current period of seclusion (as far as the Bohras are concerned and to the seclusion of other Isma'ilis i.e. the followers of Aga Khan) and hence the present hierarchy of D'awah al-Hadiyah (i.e. rightly guiding mission) is headed by the Da'i. The Bohras believe that the twenty first Imam, Imam Taiyyib went into seclusion after his father and twentieth Imam was assassinated and that imamah continues in his progeny and one day the Imam on earth will appear when suitable conditions prevail. But until then the D'awah Hadiyah or also known as the Fatimi D'awah will be headed by a da'i . The present da'i is the fifty second in succession and this chain of dais will continue until Imam himself appears to set things right on this earth.

The last Imam will be known as Qa'im al- Qiyamah i.e. one who will set up the day of judgment and with him the daur al-kashf (i.e. the period of revelation) will begin. In this period all believers will be truly spiritual persons and would be perfect in spiritual practices (mutrad). These spiritually perfect persons will need no outward control of Shari'ah and hence shari'ah for them will no more be obligatory . In the Isma'ili theology, shari'ah is called siyasat al-nafs i.e. a device to control one's self and one's desires and once one achieves self control through spiritual practices, one does not need such outward control and in daur al-kashf everyone will achieve this much desired control though spiritual perfection, this outward control takalif-e-shari'ah will no more be obligatory. But until the onset of daur-al-kashf, the shari'ah practices will remain obligatory.

Another important aspect of the Isma'ili or Bohra spirituality is absolute obedience to the hudud(religious hierarchy). Thus a Bohra can perfect his/her spirituality only if he totally submits himself/herself to the authority of the Prophet, wasi, Imam and da'i. Any transgression is strongly disapproved of and seriously interferes with spiritual perfection. Saiyyidi Sadiq Ali, a nineteenth century Dawoodi Bohra poet, has laid great emphasis on m'arifah i.e. knowledge of, and obedience to, the hudud in his poetry called Nasihat (Advice). No spiritual perfection is possible, according to him, without inculcating these qualities in one self. Mere observance of Shari'ah practices will not lead to true spiritual perfection, according to him.

However, a word of caution is highly necessary here. The present da'i, Sayedna Mohammad Bhuranuddin, and his religious assistants, are wrongly exploiting this doctrine of knowledge of, and obedience to, the hudud. This doctrine relates only and only to the spiritual sphere. It was devised by the Isma'ili authorities for spiritual perfection of their followers. It was close to the concept of bhakti in India wherein not only complete obedience to God but absorption in Him is the goal of the bhaktha. The sufis also had evolved this doctrine in their own way and called it fana fi' Allah i.e. one's destruction in God.

Be it the bahkti or the sufi practice, the ultimate aim was spiritual perfection for ultimate salvation, perfection to the extent that the bhakt or ‘abd (servant) becomes part of the Ultimate Being. The Isma'ili or the Bohras in India also evolved a similiar doctrine in their own way. The ultimate aim of a m'umin (spiritually perfect being) is to be absorbed in the being of ‘ashir-e'mudabbir (i.e. tenth intellect) as one cannot go higher than that and it is the ultimate spiritual salvation. The complete absorption can come only through complete identification and hence the need for complete obedience.

Thus it will be seen that this concept has nothing to do with the obedience in non-spiritual matters. Such obedience will interfere with spiritual perfection. The present da'i and his entire establishment unfortunately has totally given up the spiritual pursuit and have been after this worldly gains and are exploiting the Isma'ili doctrines devised for spiritual perfection and ultimate elevation to the status of ashir-e-mubaddir, for personal and his worldly interests. It is for this reason that a serious cleavage has appeared in the Dawoodi Bohra community and the reformists are challenging the wrong practices imposed on the Bohras by the present da'i. A da'i, in the Isma'ili religious hierarchy, holds the highest position in the absence of Imam who is mamthul(representative) of 'ashir-e-mudabbir in this world.

Such a being should strive to achieve spiritual perfection so as to elevate himself to the highest and the august office and guide his followers in spiritual matters. However, as the sufi movement degenerated at the hands of those sajjada nashins who gave preference to worldly pursuits to the spiritual pursuits of their great masters, the Bohra da'i and his establishment also degenerated into such material pursuit sacrificing their spiritual goal. Such a leader cannot demand total obedience as stressed in the isma'ili spiritual literature.

Like in other religious groups the ordinary Bohras have no proper knowledge of their religion and they are often exploited because of their ignorance. It is also to be emphasised that blind faith can never lead to spiritualism, let alone to spiritual perfection. Blind faith is the product of ignorance and ignorance leads to darkness, not to light. Thus spiritual perfection is possible only with enlightened faith and enlightened faith borne out of deep knowledge. It is for this reason that the Isma'ili tried to achieve a balance between m'arifah (knowledge) and spiritual devotion. Spiritual devotion loses its very purpose if it gets bogged down in the worldly mire.

The Bohras were once considered highly spiritually devoted people. However, their religious leadership has totally led them astray. They can now neither achieve material success (as the high priest intensely exploits them) nor can they achieve spiritual perfection.

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