Borhras and reform

The problems of the Bohra community


Modernisation and change has brought many problems in its wake. The change is hardly ever smooth though we often like it to be one. Many religious communities have gone or have been going through turmoil in this process of modernisation and change.

What is referred to as rise of fundamentalism in world religions in general, and in Islam in particular, owes its rise, among other things, to this tortuous process. No wonder then that the Bohra community has also been witnessing cataclysmic upheavals of late. In a way the problem for this community is probably a shade worse as it is not only tightly-knit but also under the tight grip of the priesthood used to govern the community with an iron hand.

Any community ruled with an iron hand for long develops a psychology of servility. It begins to crawl where it only needs to submit and it prostrates where it has only to bow. The bohras have not only been governed under absolutist rule, they have faced certain adverse historical situation as well. They were, until nineteenth century, a persecuted community considered as it was heretical by other Muslims. Persecution leads to sense of insecurity which in turn results in dependence syndrome on some or the other authority and if this authority happens to be religious, this dependence gets further reinforced. Thus persecution-complex breeds dependence-complex and creates fertile ground for development of authoritarianism.

Today in the bohra community if there is any most major problem it is authoritarianism. Authoritarianism, as is quite natural, refuses to accept doctrine of accountability in any form or any field. The reform movement which started around turn of our century never demanded accountability from the Da'i in the field of religion; it demanded accountability only in secular matters and even that was refused.

I would like my bohra sisters and brothers to understand that a true religious spirit never leads to authoritarianism in any form, not even in religious form. The holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was extremely gentle and polite and never showed any trace of authoritarianism. No wonder the holy Qur'an says about him, “And surely you have sublime morals (Khuluqin ‘azim)”. His sublime morals won him great admiration even from his enemies who too referred to him as al-amini.e. the trusted one. Thus he was gentle, polite and a model of honesty and integrity. No one could accuse him of authoritarianism even in religious matters. It should be remembered that Islam categorically rejects authoritarianism and absolutism even in religious matters. It was not for nothing that the holy Qur'an says, “Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner”( 16:126) . Also the Qur'an has resonantly proclaimed,“There is no compulsion in religion”(2:257).

These are no mere exhortations, it is a serious attempt to build a non-authoritarian, open and democratic culture respecting human conscience and right to believe. The whole Qur'an and the Prophetic traditions are suffused with this spirit, not to talk of the Prophet's conduct which was a model of this most humane culture and tradition. The Bohra priestly establishment's conduct, on the other hand, represents total negation of open, democratic, conscientious and humane religio-cultural model represented by Islam and early Islamic society. The Bohra priestly model is authoritarian to the core. It has no place for democratic openness, let alone conscientious dissent. It is most intolerant and absolutist. It is highly coercive and far from persuasive.

Islam lays great emphasis on reason. All the prophets of Allah rejected those earlier traditions which rested on sanctity of time but did not measure up to the criteria of reason. Whenever leaders of unbelievers (kuffar)referred to their ancestral traditions the prophets exhorted them to use their own reason and bear testimony to the truth from Allah. Many verses can be quoted to this effect from the Qur'an. Prophet Ibrahim Khalilullah defied idol worship of his father Azar and instead followed the course of deliberation, reasoning in keeping with the revelation from high on.

Islam, let us remember, is not religion of blind faith. It calls upon mankind to follow rational faith - synthesis of faith and reason. Even iman bi al-ghayb(faith on unseen) cannot be construed as irrational though it may at the most be described as supra-rational. It is in fact faith in future and its various potentialities as they unfold and of whom we have no knowledge and hence it is described as ghayb (unseen). The Isma'ilis and M'utazilas - two important sects of Islam - laid great deal of emphasis on reason. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Isma'ilis in particular imbibed all the knowledge that was available even outside the Islamic world of the time and incorporated into, and synthesised with, the doctrines of Islam. They acted according to the Prophetic tradition al-hikmah dallah al-m'umin(wisdom and knowledge is lost property of the faithful, it should be appropriated from wherever available). Resa'il Ikhwan al-Safaare an outstanding testimony of all this.

The Bohras should not only be justly proud of this intellectual heritage but should do everything possible to disseminate it and elevate it to new heights in this age of explosion of knowledge. However, it is very sad, indeed very tragic, that the Sayedna's establishment does everything to negate this proud intellectual heritage and instead inculcate, slavish mentality and blind unquestioning faith. The Daras in Surat (the theological seminary) too, strives to produce theological robots who only act on commands and carry out programmes as fed through software produced by the Sayedna's close relatives, the coterie surrounding him. The trainees at the Saifee Daras are not allowed to raise any questions, let alone approach traditional theology with critical openness and carry out researches in various fields of received theological knowledge. If the Kothar did not have powerful vested interests in perpetrating blind obedience, the Daras at Surat could have become a great and invigorating, stimulating center of Isma'ili theological and philosophical research . The community does have resources for such activities.

Let my Bohra brethren know that the Isma'ili and Fatimi Da'is of yester years were great intellectuals of their time well versed not only in the Isma'ili theology an philosophy but also in comparative religion, in natural sciences, in mathematics and in Greek philosophy which was considered in those days as the highest achievement of human mind. They were not found wanting in any field of knowledge. They could take on any intellectual giant of their time in religious and philosophical polemics. Sayedna J'afar Mansur al-Yaman, sayedna Muyyad Shirazi and Hamid al-Din kirmani are some of the shining examples. Muyyad Shirazi entered into polemics on number of questions with the great poet and intellectual Abul Ala M' arri. It is said that Abi Sina, the great philosopher, was also an Isma'ili, though he never made it public for fear of consequences. Even if he had not been, there were great many philosophers, eminent writers and poets who proudly entered the ranks of Isma'ilis and proclaimed it with sense of pride.

It was not easy to be a Da'i. He had to fulfill more than 100 rigorous conditions to qualify as one. Sayedna Hatim has included these conditions in his celebrated work Tuhfat al Qulubfrom a risalah compiled by Sayedna Ahmad Nishapuri. These conditions are very rigorous indeed. A Da'i has to be most knowledgeable - in fact competent in knowledge of other religions, secular philosophies of the time, physical sciences etc. so that he could enter successfully into arguments with others in order to demonstrate superiority of his religion. A Da'i has to be an efficient administrator, a statesman of high quality, shrewd in worldly matters, polite, gentle, compassionate and wise. There are many more such conditions laid down in the Risalah.

Our Da'i hardly fulfills these conditions. Our ‘Ulama do not have adequate knowledge of their own religion, let alone competent knowledge of other religions, secular philosophies and physical sciences. They have been trained, as pointed out above, only to be obedient robots. It is considered great crime to think, to question and to doubt. Questioning and doubting is most subversive and is severely punished. No wonder than that our community has become intellectually most stagnant. We read Quran not to think and contemplate deeply over its verses (the Quran says that this “Book that we have revealed to thee abounding in good, that they may ponder over its verses and that the people of intelligence may take heed, 38:29”) but to recite only to earn thwab(religious merit).

The bohra religious establishment is today completely devoid of any intellectual vigour and stimulation. It has totally lost the Quranic spirit in other respects too. In my humble opinion there are four extremely significant words in the Quran which represents its real spirit. These words are ‘adl, ihsan , rahmah and hikmah.All these represent essence of any religion and are most essential for building a humane society. You cannot build a humane society without justice, benevolence, compassion and wisdom.

Can kothar claim any of these virtues? Its every act is contrary to these concepts. It is most unjust, in fact outright tyrannical; it has never known benevolence. On the contrary it is so greedy that it has become totally insensitive to others needs, it has no sense of obligation towards others, it only makes demands for itself. Any establishment which is based on injustice, tyranny and greed, loses all its potential for compassion. One cannot expect compassion from those who are completely insensitive to others suffering. And where is the question of wisdom (hikmah) where there is no spirit of ‘adl and ihsan. In fact ‘adl and rahmah(justice and compassion) are twins, one cannot exist without the other. Qur'an lays so much emphasis on ‘adl(justice) that it equates it with taqwah(piety). (5:8). as for hikmah(wisdom) the Qur'an observes, “And whoever is granted wisdom, he indeed is given a great good” (2:269).

As for rahmahit is repeatedly asserted in the Qur'an that Allah is Rahim and Rehman(Merciful and Compassionate). It is thus more than clear that a truly Islamic, imamic and religious establishment, society or rule has to be based on these four fundamental virtues. If it lacks these it is anything but Islamic and humane. We thus appeal to our Bohra sisters and brothers to do everything possible to bring about these virtues and promote them so as to make our religious establishment most Islamic and humane.

Critical thinking is most fundamental to any change. No revolution or social change is possible without freedom to think, criticise and evaluate. Freedom of conscience is most fundamental to modern democratic society. It is this freedom which Sayedna's establishment is trying to prevent. They see nothing but subversion in it. This is not only against the spirit of modern democracy, it is totally opposed to the Qur'anic spirit too. The Qur'an gives option even between imanand kufr(faith and unbelief) through its doctrine La ikraha fi al-din(there is no compulsion in religion). It leaves it to the conscience of the believer though warning him of the severe consequences of kufr(unbelief). we should, therefore, refuse to submit blindly and unthinkingly to Kothar (Sayedna's religious establishment). A truly faithful is also a truly fearless creature. Faith and fearlessness are integrally connected. Only those who lack integrity of faith are fearful. Deliverance from exploitation cannot come without fearlessness.

When Prophet Shu'aib and his followers were threatened by the arrogant chiefs to be thrown out from the town they fearlessly replied : “Indeed we should have forged a lie against Allah, if we go back to your community after Allah has delivered us from it. And it is not for us to go back to it, unless Allah, our Sustainer please....”(7:88-89). We should have iron determination and fearlessness of Shu'aib and his followers. If our religious chiefs boycott us let them. We who have firm faith in Allah and His guidance, His Prophets, angles, Day of judgment, should not be fearful of such boycott and firmly refuse to return to the community of those who violate the Qur'anic spirit in every conceivable manner.

We are great inheritors of Fatimi D'awah and its glorious traditions. Its intellectual contribution to Islam and humanity has been second to none. Its intellectual achievements can make anyone proud. It led humanity from darkness of blind obedience to the light of creative thinking. It is our duty today to enrich this tradition and not shame it by blind submission to the forces of darkness and exploitation. The Fatimi Imams had established al-Azhar, then Islamic world's greatest institution of learning and had furnished it with the collection of best books then available in the world. The scholars of the world used to flock to it for higher learning.

Unfortunately we have forgotten these traditions and are not even aware of our intellectual heritage. Let us create institutions of higher learning and come out of the Jamatkhana syndrome. The institution of jamatkhana has been continuously reinforced in last few decades to distract our attention from other pressing problems and to create a disgraceful culture of obedience. Thanks to it we have fallen far behind in higher learning though at one time we were the leaders in that field. I do not say that the institution of Jamatkhana be abolished altogether; it may have some purpose to serve in a small community of small businessmen. However, it should not become our obsession. All our resources should not be put only in that basket. There are other and more useful baskets inviting our attention.

There is also shameful levels of poverty in our community today. Thousands live in hutments or ramshackle houses. Hundreds are unemployed and many more on fringes of illiteracy. They too deserve our urgent attention. There are enough charitable institutions in the community but all have slipped under the control of Sayedna's authority. The Quran strongly condemned hoarding of wealth by the Jewish ahbar(priests). The Quran says admonishingly, “O you who believe, surely many of (the Jewish) priests and monks eat away the property of men falsely, and hinder (them) from Allah's way. And those who hoard up gold and silver and spend it not in Allah's way - announce to them a painful chastisement”(9:34).

Our priests are also guilty of eating away people's properties and hoarding hordes of money and living a life of vulgar luxury when thousands are living on fringes of poverty. Yet, strangely enough, the community has been putting up with such state of affairs. Not only this, we go on giving them more and more money. This plunder must stop right away. The collection of zakat and other dues should be made by a democratically responsible body and resources so collected must be spent on welfare of the poor and needy and on building institutions of research and higher learning. The priesthood should be paid their wages for their religious services, and no more. It is their due. The control of all the properties vested in the community should rest with community. The priesthood should have no control over it.

All the ills we are suffering from today is on account of centralised control in the hands of the priesthood. In fact it has become virtual owner of all that which rightfully and legitimately belongs to the community. We have made the priesthood so powerful that we have become powerless so much so that we are being treated as utter slaves and nothing but blind submissions demanded from us. In other words we are ourselves responsible for this state of affairs. It is for us to liberate ourselves. The reformists have shown the way. They have also provided a democratic model which has been functioning now for several years. It is now for the community to break the shackles of slavery and veer round the reformists. Fatimi Da'wah has been imprisoned by powerful vested interests. Let us liberate it from the clutches of exploiters and make it a dynamic institution that it once was.

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