Borhras and reform

The taming of the Bohra community: paying fealty to a priest.

Bohra clergy: the myth makers of our time


It is typical of our age that it considers the creative myths of antiquity as fairy tales when its myths are far worse: destructive and demonic. The Nazi myth of racial superiority and communist myth of a classless society were nightmares, destroying nations and communities. The capitalist myth of lasting prosperity through conspicuous consumption is equally destructive and wasteful of world's scarce resources. These and other similar myths have subserved narrow and sectarian group and class interests. Exploitation of a community for power and pelf is the concealed aim for the invention of these myths.

The Bohra priesthood's, more likely its advisors', study and understanding of modern history cannot be faulted. it has also evolved and popularised a body of myths that has successfully promoted its worldly interests. A largely semi-literate and credulous community has lapped up these myths. However, unlike other modern myths, the Bohra clergy's myths are rooted in exploitation of the religion of Islam. It has made the community believe that its myths have Quranic and other scriptural sanctions. As the community is almost totally ignorant of its scriptures (including The Holy Quran) it is helpless to explode these myths.

A handful of people who have dared to defer from the clergy's interpretations of The Holy Quran and other scriptures, the community's history and its traditions, have been branded as muhdith (evil-doers and innovators). By projecting them as the enemies of the Dai (spiritual head) and the Dawat (mission), they have been cast out of the community by enforcing a social boycott against them. A largely self-centered, fearful and docile community complies with the clergy's verbal diktat of social boycott and avoids these people like the plague. The voice of these handful of people, therefore, is a cry in the wilderness, unheared and unknown. The clergy also brainwashes the community against these persons through its efficiently organised network of Aamils (agents or local town priests) and the advantage of a public platform.

Its gamut of myths has enabled the Bohra clergy to maintain a coercive grip on a largely superstituous and spineless community. Through the exploitative abuse of these myths, the clergy has held the community to ransom. It has amassed a fortune whose liquid and cashable assets only are estimated at a staggering Rs 5 billion. It is almost unbelievable that it has created a financial empire of such a magnitude by exploiting a community of hardly a million. The hold of these myths, therefore, on the mind of the community can hardly be overestimated. What are these myths?

Riba or Usury

Riba has been expressly prohibited in Islam. However, there is no agreement among Muslim theologians and scholars whether riba should be interpreted to mean banking interest as we know it or usury as was widely prevalent in the pre-Islam Arabia. Though the spirit of the Quranic verses indicate riba to mean usury, we do not wish to dispute with the learned Ulamaas. The fact is, interest-bearing transactions, at all levels, were widely prevalent among the Bohras till the eighties. Till then the Bohra clergy tacitly and by deliberate default connived at it. Around that period, however, the clergy, suddenly and summarily, prohibited interest, declaring it unIslamic. It began to enforce its edict with not an entirely disinterested rigour and ruthlessness unheard of before. Apart from the question of interpretation of riba, therefore, it is necessary to examine in some detail the alleged motives for the Bohra clergy's precipitate volteface.

Many translators and commentators on The Bounteous Koran render riba as usury. Dr. M.M. Khatib whose translation, from which we quote, is authorised by the ancient and renowned Al-Azhar university, Cairo, also translates riba as usury. Chambers 20th Century Dictionary defines usury as : "the taking of (now only iniquitous or illegal) interest on loan", and interest as : "premium paid for the use of money". From the definitions it is apparent that the difference between usury and interest is of kind not degree. Usury is defined as iniquitous (this word in Arabic often occurs in The Bounteous Koran) and illegal; whereas interest is defined as compensatory. The Holy Quran repeatedly exhorts mankind to reflect, comprehend, and understand by using the God-gifted faculty of intelligence.

The first reference to riba in The Bounteous Koran occurs in the Meccan sura, "The Greeks". "And what you give in usury that it may increase the wealth of men, will never increase with God". (30:39). Divorced from historical context, riba here can be interpreted to mean either usury or interest. Significantly it can be interpreted as either condemnatory or prohibitive. However, in the subsequent Medinan verses on riba, the prohibition is absolute.

In the verses revealed in Medina where also lived many Jews with whom money-lending was largely a way of life, riba has been denounced and prohibited in unambigious words. "Those who devour usury shall not arise except as he arises, whom Satan has confounded by his touch. That is because they said, Trafficking is just like usury. And yet God has permitted trafficking and forbidden usury. He who has received an admonition from his Lord and refrains, shall have what has already passed, and his destiny shall be to God. But he who reverts, shall be the dwellers of Fire; in it they shall abide forever. God blots out usury, but shall augment alms, and God loves not any impious and sinful". (2:275-276).  And again, "O you who believe, fear God and waive what is remaining of usury if you are believers. But if you do not, then let it be known that there shall be war from God and His Messenger". (2:278-279).

The language here is passionate, thunderous, charged with the drama of history in making. It also warns of impending retribution for the impious and sinful. The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) was deeply disturbed by many "impious and sinful" practices common in the highly commercialised milieu of the then Meccan society. In verse after verse The Holy Quran denounces excessive profiteering, amassing of wealth, hoarding and speculation beside riba. In the sight of God, impiety and sinfulness consist in exceeding the limits. Prophet Moses is commanded thus : "Go to Pharaoh; he has exceeded the bounds". (20:24). And again, "Go you both to Pharaoh for he has exceeded the bounds". (20:43). And yet again, "Eat of goodly viands that we have provided you, and do not exceed therein lest My wrath befalls you". (20:81).

On riba The Bounteous Koran further says; "O you who believe, devour not usury, doubling and redoubling and fear, for perhaps you will prosper. And be wary of the fire that shall be prepared for the unbelievers". (3:130-131). This is a significant verse, assertive and perspicuous. It is in the nature of fire to double and redouble by devouring what it feeds on. Hell is also Fire. Tabari, in Tafasir-al-Tabari (vol.vii, pp 204-205), while explaining this verse on riba says that it refers to the usury of the jahiliya or the pre-Islamic period. If the borrower, then, could not repay in time, the lender would double the amount. Thus an amount of 1000 would become 2000 the next year; and 2000 would become 4000 a year after that so on. A modern Islamic scholar Fazlur Rehman, quoting extensively from Imam Qayyim, also interprets riba as usury.

In another significant verse on riba, The Bounteous Koran says: "For the iniquity of Jews, we forbade them goodly viands that were lawful to them; and for their barring many from God's path and their taking usury, when they were forbidden to do so, and their devouring people's wealth unjustly". (4:160-161). The effects of all iniquities, devouring other people's wealth unjustly and riba is denial of even what is lawful. The "goodly viands" not only signify physical nourishment but also symbolises spiritual sustenance, the heavenly manna. The iniquitous, the hoarder, will not only lose his lawful night's sleep and rest, but he will be debarred from God's mercy and blessings. Perversity will abound ("Our Lord our misdeeds prevailed over us, and we were a perverse people” - 23:106). Grace will be denied. That is what is Gehenna. The spiritual impoverishment, the corruption within, ("sickness in their hearts" - 24:50), will manifest in disharmony and discord, in social conflict and upheaval, in exile.

The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) has said, "All communities suffered from discord; my community will suffer discord, arising out of wealth". These words were, indeed, prophetic. Within thirty years of Holy Prophet's death, discord, arising out of wealth, manifested in the Islamic world culminating in the tragedy at Karbala.

Reverting to Bohra clergy's sudden and rather "mysterious" edict prohibiting interest in 1980s, it is a fact that unitl it came in conflict with The Bombay Mercantile Co-operative Bank Ltd., it was clergy’s protégée Bank. It is also a fact that Syedee Mukasir Salehbhai Saheb, the third in Dawat's heirarchy after Syedna and Mathun, inaugurated the Bhindi Bazar branch of the Bank in Bombay. The reasons for the confrontation can only be surmised. If what is suspected in the community is to be believed, the clergy wanted its nominees to be appointed on the Bank's Board of Directors. According to another "rumour", the Bohra clergy asked the Bank to advance a huge loan to one of its henchmen. It appears that the Bank could not or was not in a position to "oblige" the clergy on both counts. The Bank, therefore, in its "foolhardiness" incurred the alleged displeasure of the clergy and invited its wrath.

The Bank was not only boycotted but picketing and demonstrations were organised before Bank's premises in Bombay. At times, it is alleged, these demonstrations became even violent. Many Bohras not only closed their accounts with the Bank and withdrew their deposits, but Bank's Bohra employees, it is alleged, were coerced to leave their services also. Court cases ensued. The Bank obtained a stay against demonstrations and picketing before its immediate premises. The Bank also obtained an injunction against The Anjuman-e-Shiat-eAli, Bombay, an organ of the Bohra clergy, restraining if from directing the Bohra in Bombay to boycott the Bank. It appears that the injunction was violated. The Bank initiated contempt proceedings and the Anjuman-e-Shiat-e-Ali had to publicly express regrets and desist from covert and overt acts harmful to Bank's interests.

It is is believed that these acts were aimed to cripple the Bank and force it to comply with the Bohra clergy's wishes. That the clergy did not succeed is another matter. The Bank prospered and many Bohras continued to patronise it. In 1979 Ayatollah Khoemenie came to power in Iran and there began what is popularly known as the “new resurgence in Islam". It is believed that the Bohra clergy perceived in this "resurgence", a fresh opportunity to throttle the Bank with other incidental spin-offs beneficial to it. It issued its now famous edict prohibiting interest for Bohras. It created quite a stir and hit the national headlines. Bohras panicked as the edict was sought to be rigorously enforced through social boycott of recalcitrant Bohras.

The Bohras are a fearful and submissive lot. They fear the clergy as they greatly dread isolation within a small and close-knit community resulting from social boycott. Throughout the Bohra world, therefore, there was a rush to encash term-deposits and liquidate bank borrowings. Saving accounts were closed and even life insurance policies were surrendered. The Bohra clergy was riding the tide. It made compulsory for the Bohras the growing of beards and wearing of the rida (veil). It projected itself as the uncompromising champion of Islam throughout the Muslim world. Though it did not achieve its alleged objective to paralyse The Bombay Mercantile Co-operative Bank Ltd., the edict paid the clergy handsome dividends as we shall see later when we discuss another myth, khidmat(service).

Here it would be relevant to briefly describe the economic and financial condition of the community and the Dawat (Mission). The Bohras are overwhelmingly traders, mostly petty banias. They were, therefore, till recently, never very rich or even rich. Consequently the Dawat, which is funded by the community, was frequently in financial straits, except in the last few decades when the community also began to prosper. Dai-el-Mutlaq (spiritual head), on occasions, therefore, had to borrow money on interest from Hindu banias to defray the expenses of Dawat. The 51st Dai-el-Mutlaq, Late Syedna Dr. Taher Saifuddin Saheb, predecessor and father of the present Syedna, a pragmatic and able administrator, in 1953, even approved of Dawoodi Bohra Merchants Association in Calcutta charging interest on loans, of course, in a hidden or latent form. He is on record as having said that he also paid interest. Interest was, therefore, never a contentious issue until recently. As T.S. Eliot said, “Between appearance and reality Falls the shadow”.

Mithaq or The Oath of Allegiance

A formal declaration of allegiance to a body of doctrines, constitution, a leader (though risky. witness: Adolf Hitler.) is, perhaps, necessary and may be desirable. It may even be a necessity in a particular historical situation as was the case with the underground Ismaili movement against the repressive and unIslamic Umayyads. (The Ismailis are the precursors of the Bohras). After the fall of the Umayyads they successfully challenged the might of the Abbasid empire and established Fatimid rule in North Africa and Egypt in the tenth century A.D. The Ismaili movement was essentially religio-political in character. As it had to function secretively to wrest power from the Abbasids, a strict oath of absolute allegiance to Imam (the su