Borhras and reform

Understanding Dawoodi Bohra faith


I have no hesitation in admitting that I am not an Islamic scholar. But since I have to defend my faith against un-Islamic practices and innovations introduced by the last two Dais (51st and 52nd), I have tried to understand our Shia-Ismaili-Mustalian-Tayyebi faith through authentic source books and discussion with learned mashaikh. At the age of 68, I want to share my understanding with other knowledgeable readers of this site.

I have come to the conclusion that we, Dawoodi Bohras are Muslims first and then Shia-Ismaili-Mustalian-Tayyebi. Islam is our fundamental faith. All our Shia-Ismaili-Mustalian-Tayyebi doctrines are based on Islamic teachings and Quranic injunctions and whatever is against Islam and Quran can not be the part of our faith.

Fortunately all Muslims undoubtedly believe in the Qur’an, which is our law-giver, and the Prophet of Islam, who is our true guide. Islam as it began, was much more than a formal religion, it was a revolutionary movement which strived hard for radical social changes and threw serious challenge to the vested interests, restructuring the society.

I was wondering how the followers of the same Islam got divided into so many sects and sub-sects? It was the starting point for proper understanding of my faith.

I want to briefly describe only those aspects of the Islamic history which I found interesting and which has bearing on our present Dawat system.

Islam started from Arabia. It soon spread into non-Arab world to north and north-west Africa, Persia (Iran), Central Asia etc. The people who embraced Islam in these new regions were of diverse ethnic and cultural traditions. That gave rise to new doctrines according to then prevailing social, political and economic conditions in those regions. Their social, political and economic aspirations were obviously expressed through religious channels.

The first major split took place in Arabia itself on the question of succession to the Prophet Mohammad dividing Islam into Sunni and Shia Islam. This split also had links with people’s religio-political aspirations.

Shias were mostly of non-Arab stock, slaves captured by Arabs during the wars. The half of the population of Kufa consisted of non-Arab slaves, who considered the Arabs inferior culturally and intellectually and resented them as their exploiting masters. Their resentment was further aggravated when Umayyad rulers adopted highly repressive policies giving rise to vested interests, power politics and a class system in Islamic society. The new converts, mostly non-Arab Persians, did not obtain the equal rights which they expected according to Islam. Their aristocratic patrons treated them with contempt and compelled them to submit to every kind of social degradation. This exploited non-Arab lot was looking for a leader who could liberate them from the clutches of their exploitative rulers.

  1. Hazrat Ali was known for his simplicity, piety, justice and scrupulous conduct.
  2. He and his family members were also seen as the victims of Umayyad’s repressive regime.
  3. He never discriminated between Arabs and non-Arabs in keeping with the true spirit of Islam. He paid non-Arabs their share from Baitul-mal which was denied to them. So Hazrat Ali’s personality found ready appeal among the exploited lot of Persian origin.

Again the Arabs and the Persians had different inborn traditions. Arabs loved liberty and the principle of election. Persians being the subjects of the age-old monarchy were accustomed to slavish submission to their rulers.

Therefore for the Persians the electing the Prophet’s successor was not acceptable. The only principle acceptable to them was of inheritance. (The same slavish submission to the authority exists in the Dawoodi Bohras today who take pride in calling themselves ‘Abde-Sayedna’, Sayedna’s slaves).

Since the Prophet Mohammad had not left any son, for them his son-in-law Hazrat Ali should have succeeded him. For them all the caliphs except Ali i.e. Abu Bakar, Umar, Usman and also Umayyads were usurpers. The incident of Gadire-Khum became very important for them and was quoted again and again. As far as Hazrat Ali is concerned he on one hand participated in the day-to-day affairs of the caliphate with Hazat Abu Bakar, Hazrat Umar and Hazrat Usman without any reservation. On the other hand he dealt very strongly with the Arabs and the Arab army officers who tried to persecute and dishounor war-prisoners. This further created sympathy for Hazrat Ali and his family members among the persecuted lot.

The Persians accustomed to the slavish submission later emerged as Shias (the supporters of Ali) and they developed the doctrines of one Imam succeeding to another Imam by inheritance.

(However this rule was not applicable to the post of Dais. Any ordinary Bohra who was the most learned and was known for his simplicity, piety and just conduct was chosen and raised to the office of Dai, not by inheritance or by election but by Nass inspired by Imam and publicly declared. Hindu Raja Sidhraj Jaisingh who converted was raised to the post of Dai and had nine Dais from his dynasty. Now since last two Dais’ time because of huge concentration of wealth at the center, this system of appointing outsiders to the post of Mazoon, Mukasir and Dai is abandoned and these posts have been confined to just one family without much regard for their literary and ecclesiastical qualifications.)

The rebellion movements against Umayyad, after the tragedy of Karbala, were spontaneous outburst and failed miserably. The failure after failure had its own consequences. The Shias split in various sect and sub-sects, moderate as well as extremists. Ishna Asharis were (and are even today) the largest Shia group but as they could not evolve a close-knit underground organization their challenge was not effective.

On the other hand the Ismaili Shias could organize their movement in proper manner through a secret network. Therefore they could challenge the Abbasids most effectively and establish Fatimid rule ultimately. The propagandists (Dais) were appointed by the Imams to carry out the work of this secret network. These propagandists (Dais) used to work secretly and most skillfully for the Imam. (As Ismaili Shias were the precursors of the Bohras, the concept of Dawat and Dai remained in this sect even after the downfall of Fatimid sultanate and seclusion of the Imam.)

Ismaili movement also succeeded because it had its own well-defined religious ideology and it worked with religious-cum-political rather than only political aim. Based on Islamic ideology and Islamic spirit the Ismaili doctrines were constituted on the philosophy and higher learning (marifa). It is to the credit of Fatemi Imam that they never compromised on their doctrines under most difficult times. The Ismaili propagandists (Dais) very carefully spread their network in areas where unrest was found but never participated in the revolts.

Imam Jaferus-Sadiq’s father, Imam Baaqir was the grandson of Imam Husain and his mother Umme Farah was the granddaughter of Hazrat Abu Bakar. Imam Jafer was the most outstanding scholar of Islam as well as modern philosophy and sciences. More than 400 books on Mathematics and Chemistry were written under his guidance. He also had great political wisdom as he had seen the reigns of nine Umayyed rulers and two Abbasid rulers and was fully aware their designs.

Imam Jaferus-Sadiq initiated the practice of taqiyya (secrecy). Since then taqiyya has become a part of all Shia sect. Whereas the Arabs were traditionally and temperamentally not suited for secretive underground functioning, Imam Jafer could organize a successful well-knit and secret organization. This was necessary in then prevailing hostile political situation.

Though Ismaili movement was initiated by Imam Jaferus Sadiq it emerged and derived its name from Imam Ismail, his eldest son in 128 Hijri in Iraq, Kufa and Persia.

Imam Mohammadul Makhtum had to adopt certain strategy due to the controversy over his father, Imam Ismail’s death. Imam Mohammadul Makhtum founded the concept of period of concealment, (dawras-satr) and ‘period of freedom’ (dawre-kashaf) and introduced the new doctrines of Tawil.

Dawras-satr means: The time when one has to propagate and practice the Ismaili doctrines secretly and continue observing the shariah laws and practices openly.

Dawre-kashaf means: The period when the shariah gets abrogated and there is no danger in propagating and practicing the Ismaili doctrines in open.

Dawoodi Bohras keep on insisting on Dawras-satr whereas Agakhanis and Mehdi Baugh Bohra believe in Dawre-kashaf and believe that the shariah has been abrogated and hence it is no longer necessary to follow shariah rituals.

Tawil means the esoteric hidden meaning of verses of Qur’an.

(As Ismaili movement was a progressive intellectual movement which believed in the creative assimilation of the Islamic teachings and non-Islamic teaching thus widening the scope of the Arabian Islam and enriching it with non-Arabic thought, one must understand this Ismaili doctrine in depth before passing judgment on the intentions of Ismaili Imams.)

(In India initially under Hindu rule Bohra Dais were carrying on their activities unhindered. After Muslim power in Gujarat Ismaili Shias were suppressed and persecuted and were once again compelled to adopt the practice of “taqiyya”, secrecy for self protection. Thus the mission of the Dai changed from that of propaganda to protection . The Dawoodi Bohra Dai was no longer a missionary or propagandist. With that the post of Mazoon and Mukasir also became insignificant. But on the advent of British Raj in India Ismaili Bohras could freely practice and preach their religion and the strict conditions of a secret organisation were no longer applied.)

The nature of doctrines that evolved very much depended on the ultimate aim. Ishna Ashari Shias had no immediate agenda for political power because they believed that the twelfth Imam would emerge one day from the cave where he is hiding and therefore they could not evolve the complex religio-political doctrines like Ismaili Shias. But for Ismailis it was essential to organise a close-knit resistance movement. Thus we do not find very rigid conditions for absolute submission to the supreme authority of the Imam in any other Shia sect except in Ismaili sect.

The Ismaili movement was a religious mission with a definite political end. As Imam remained in hiding for the protection from prying eyes of the Abbasid rulers, the Dais played a very important role in the organising activities in the regions under them. They appointed two more functionaries – Mazoon and Mukasir.

Mukasir was required to be thoroughly conversant in the knowledge of the religion and beliefs and the weaknesses of opponents whom he wanted to convert. He was required to argue with them cautiously in order to create doubts in their mind about their religion and beliefs. He would start debating on some principle of shariah or contradictions in the apparent meaning of Quranic verses and wait for their further interest in the matter.

Mazoon would pursue the matter with them to overcome their doubts and then reveal the inner meaning or explain the contradictions and impart them further knowledge of the Ismaili doctrines. After thorough screening they would be allowed to have an audience with Dai who would then take the oath of allegiance (Misaq) from them.

Misaq had two parts. The first part had religious and the second part had political significance. Two historians Maqrizi and Bagdadi have given the text of this covenant in their books.

The first part giving a firm religious basis drawn from Quran begins with:

“The praise be to God who created all the creatures for his worship ……..and connected belief in His unity with obedience with the one whom He appointed His vice-regent on the earth………………This Misaq is a mark of respect and honour to Him. ….One who breaks it, God will punish him/her and one who fulfils what he/she promises, God will reward him/her. He took the covenant from Adam and it continued……...”

It had been made very clear that the practice of taking oath began with the Prophet Adam and after Prophet his Wasi and after him his Imams, whose obedience has been enjoined on human beings by God. It has been taken willingly and with one’s own free will. It is not forced on anyone.

Once a faithful took this covenant and affirmed his support to the movement voluntarism was replaced by compulsion as then the second part assumed political character. The faithful were now required to maintain all religious as well as political secrets of the mission. Thus the second part began with:

“And you will obey the Imam and anyone whom he orders you to obey, you will never defy him, never cheat him, never deceive him. ……..You will love whom he loves, and treat as enemy whom he declares as his enemy, fight him whom he fights with ……Say Yes."

“You will not establish contact with his enemy either through a letter, message, hint, signal, sign and inclination or trick whatever the reason or cause; Say yes."

"If anyone breaks the oath; whatever he owns from the property, assets, real estate, wealth, jewels, agriculture………………will be seized and distributed among poor and needy Muslims……………All his wives will be treated as divorced……….Say yes.”

Thus we see in the first and second part the absolute loyalty of supreme authority of Imam was must for two reasons. One, because Imam was believed to be infallible and two, to ensure the success of this underground movement for political end.

But the form of Misaq which Dawoodi Bohras have today is a version which has undergone many changes. This Misaq in two parts was a necessary for the movement which was underground then. Also, a highly centralized structure was also a political necessity for Fatemi Imams to achieve their goal and establish political power.

Misaq is not practiced by any other sect of Islam except Dawoodi Bohras who are descendants of Ismailis. As we have seen for Ismailis it was political necessity of a close-knit underground movement in the then hostile conditions.

Today the movement is no longer underground; the earlier mission of Dai, Mazoon and Mukasir to convert people of other faiths to Ismailism no longer exists.

The first religious part of the Misaq states that “Allah took the covenant from Adam and it continued…….” Nothing wrong in giving the oath to Allah. But today’s Misaq altered by Sayedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb is oppressive as it binds the followers to submit to a total surrender not to God but personally to Dai. Today’s Misaq is the most effective sanction for all kind of inhuman behavior which has changed the character of this decent, peace-loving and caring community. After the establishment of British rule in India and then the advent of Independence there remained no fear of persecution of Dawoodi Bohras and hence this oath of loyalty to central authority is no more essential.

Therefore the enforcing of the rigid conditions of second part of the Misaq of political significance and that too for Dai must be strongly opposed.

Similarly, the retaining the same centralised secretive structure of Dawat must be strongly opposed.

The fact is that till the 5