Borhras and reform

Reform and social change among Bohras - Part 1


Change is always painful, especially if what involved is faith, intellectual beliefs and traditions. One more aggravating factor is added if the group happens to be closely-knit and dominated by a religious hierarchy with the pretensions of being the sole-interpreter of the tradition and faith.

There is one more factor to be considered: Change need not necessarily involve a forward step for progressive thrust; it may be retrogressive or confined within the sphere of orthodoxy. Modernization, on the other hand, is progressive adjustment to or creative assimilation of the changes brought about by the ongoing social and economic forces in the society as a result of changes in the techniques of production, both material as well as spiritual, the latter involving the changes in the intellectual beliefs.

The Bohra Ulema who challenged the succession of Abdul Qadir Najmuddin, the 47th da'i (religious head) to the high office in 1840, acted though unwittingly, to introduce ripples of change within the set compass of doctrinal orthodoxy. The challenge, though sought to be quietened by liberal distribution of titles and similar other inducements, created tensions leading to change. However, the process of modernization was set into action only later by the precursors of education movement within the community in Burhanpur. The then high priest countered the challenge by ex-communicating the agents of modernization, ostensibly to preserve the sanctity of tradition. More about it below.

Who are Bohras?

The Dawoodi Bohras are a Shi'a Isma'ili sect numbering over a million today. The breeding ground for this dissident sect was non-Arab territories of what was once Babylonia, Assyria and a few areas of Persia, besides Yemen in the south of Arabian peninsula - the homeland of Islamic orthodoxy. Except few Arabs of the Yemenite stock, the Bohras are of Indian origin. Conversion in India having taken place in twelfth and thirteen centuries. Those converted mainly pursued commerce and trade (Gujarati vyahwar and hence a derivative vohra which is pronounced as Bohra in Hindi meaning one who pursues the avocation of commerce) and still it continues to be their chief avocation. Originally of the Indian stock they are also found in the countries of East Africa (mainly Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania etc.) Middle East, Sri Lanka, Bangkok, Singapore, Pakistan, UK, the USA and Canada.

Except for those of Yemeni stock whose number does not exceed a few thousand, all other Bohras speak chiefly Gujarati; like the Yiddish of the European Jewry, the Bohras have also evolved highly Arabicised Gujarati used for religious discourses although their liturgy is mainly in Arabic). Also, being a community of petty traders it is highly tradition bound and conservative and have tradition inspired weltanschauung. Though highly Islamised as compared to the Isma'ili sects like the Khojas, the Bohras have retained much from the native Indian culture. Some elements of Hindu philosophy and mythology have also found some place in their religious lore. One of the saint poets of the Bohras Syedi Sadiq Ali Sahib has even expounded through his didactic poetry a revised version of the theory of transmigration of soul. Their customs have imbibed much from the native soul. The religious heads over the centuries, not only protected their sense of identity, but also imparted to their followers an intense religious feeling.

Since the Bohras were a persecuted lot - they were, more often than not, intensely persecuted by the Sunni rulers of Gujarat who saw in them a heretic rafzi sect - they found their security in clinging to the centre. Thus they developed a strong centripetal tendency and psychological aversion to any centrifugal one. In the circumstances, it was quite natural for the community to evolve such a closely-knit structure as it exists today. Over the centuries of persecution, high priests not only remained a focal point of religious authority, but also, as father figures, provided a sense of security to the community.

However, with the advent of British power things began to change. The community heaved a sigh of relief from the sense of external persecution. Apart from the religious persecution the community had also of late greatly suffered at the hands of the petty rulers and feudal lords who arbitrarily exacted large sums of money from the traders. Under the British, initially at least, the trading communities not only benefited from the expanding overseas commerce but also experienced relative freedom to carry on their trade under the ‘rule of law'. Under the pretty long period of chaos and anarchy as a result of unending feuds between the petty rulers, the British rule provided a sense of relief for the trading communities along the west coast.

The Bohras too now enjoyed greater prosperity and religious freedom.. The sense of external danger receded giving rise to greater sense of confidence among the individual members of the community. Thus the individual felt stronger vis-a-vis the community . This led to generating centrifugal tendencies, Cohn has observed in the case of Thakurs:

With the coming of the British....the basis of the solidarity of the group was cut away: they no longer had to cooperate from fear of outside subjugation...?

This, as noted by Theodore Wright Jr. also applies equally well to the Dawoodi Bohras. At the turn of the twentieth century some prominent Bohras of Burhanpur sought to establish a modern educational institution though it involved the risk of earning the displeasure of the chief Pontiff. The pontiff was not in favour of permitting modern educational as he feared - perhaps rightly so - such a course would lead to dilution of his authority as well as religious orthodoxy. But, inspired by the modern western thought, these individuals strove very hard to establish the educational institution of their dream. Thus the process of modernization led to tension within the community. The process of modernization and change, it must be noted, leads to weakening of traditional authority and emergence of new power centres. This in other words, leads to struggle for power which is usually waged in ideological terms namely need to preserve tradition sanctioned by religion vis-a-vis to usher in a modern scientific outlook.

When the 51st pontiff succeeded to the high office, he sought to assert his authority by crushing the modernist opposition. He aggressively used the weapon of ex-communication to discipline his opponents: However, greater prosperity and economic resources induced sense of individual autonomy and human dignity and spread of western education further strengthened these tendencies. The individual, in the western value-system, is the core and measure of all values. Thus many individuals came forward from among the Bohras to contest the authority of the high priest. Law suits were filed in the British courts to compel the pontiff to honour the ‘rule of law'. This meant eroding his traditional authority. Thus the process of change led to great tensions within the community.

The Pontiff was very shrewd. To counter the elitist challenge he vigorously strengthened his authority among the backward and illiterate Bohra masses who were mainly petty traders as pointed out earlier. He pretended to possess powers not claimed earlier by other Da'is by reinterpreting the Koranic verses. He made ingenious use of t'awil (esoteric meaning of Koran which forms an integral part of the Shia Ismaili faith, unlike other Muslims) to claim powers for himself what are ascribed to the prophet, his executor (wasi) ‘Ali and the Imams from the progeny of ‘Ali. Such claims passed muster among the Bohras as traditionally they have been having great respect for the authority.

This strategy coupled with his determined bid to crush opposition by the use of the weapon of ex-communication paid him rich dividends. Soon the ranks of opposition began to deplete and many individuals among whom were prominent businessmen as well as legal luminaries and other eminent professionals apologized to the high priest and withdrew from the movement for reforms. What had begun as a great challenge to the high priest ended in a meek opposition by a few isolated families. The modernised elite - this needs to be emphasised here - championing the cause of individual dignity, liberal thinking and democratic functioning failed to carry the Bohra masses with it. Used to authoritarianism for so long, the backward masses of the Bohra community responded far more vigorously to reinjection of orthodoxy and greater degree of authoritarianism. Modernization, with all its attendant thought structure, it seems, was not the felt need or the desideratum of the community at that stage. It was for this reason that despite the final victory in the court case, the Adumjee family remained isolated in the community.

The chief Pontiff making clever use of the doctrine of esoteric teachings not only successfully claimed extraordinary powers for himself, he also began ruthless exaction of taxes (both sanctioned traditionally as well as some levies introduced by him) and amassing wealth. Rejecting the doctrine of accountability he claimed as the sole trustee and the only master with whom all the powers have been vested. Also, he made clever use of his newly acquired power of the purse to buy political influence. He acquired power of the purse to buy political influence. He made strategic donations in the thirties to win over some muslim politicians in his fight against the reformist challenge. The reform leaders could have hardly matched the resources of the high priest as they had to fall back on their own limited personal resources. The strategy is still being followed with a degree of success by the pontiff and his family.

Post-Partition phase

The Pontiff had stood by the Muslim league on the eve of partition and paid a little price for it immediately after it. The congress Ministry headed by the late B.G. Kher in the then Bombay state - passed a bill preventing ex-communication. The Act (prevention of ex-communication Act) was challenged by the Pontiff in the Bombay High Court unsuccessfully but later successfully in the Supreme Court which struck it down on a technical ground by majority judgment upholding the Act. However, the high priest lost his privilege to use the power of ex-communication arbitrarily as a rigorous procedure for the same was prescribed by the court in the interest of natural justice and also the scope of ex-communication was confined to religious dissent only.

However, the high priest lost no time in building up his bridges with the new national leadership. Donations and superior organizational skill- demonstrating his command over the Bohra votes once again stood him in good stead. The students of modernization have to reckon with the fact that the political democracy in a backward situation can be highly successful maneuvered by the well-organized and powerful vested interest for their own ends. The Bohra priesthood had the shrewdness to exploit this situation to its maximum advantage.

The pontiff, through some Muslim leaders, established political contracts with Nehru and in turn exploited this contact at the highest level to consolidate his position within the community. There is another contradiction which must be taken note of by the perceptive students of modernization and social change in India. The Bohra Pontiff, in order to win support of the political leadership, swore by secularism and democracy but ironically enough, denied his community the benefits of these modern concepts.

Within the community, he enforced strict orthodoxy (within this frame he refused to entertain the idea of separation between the religious and secular authorities advocated by the reformists) and regimentation frustrating any attempts at introduction of democratic reforms. Thus it is one of the most successful attempts of maneuvering external democracy in a backward country in order to frustrate internal democracy within a backward community. Perhaps these are the hazards of making democracy functional in backward situation dominated by powerful vested interests.

Role of Muslim politics

To win prestige among the Muslims in India the Bohra Pontiff, in mid-fifties, announced, what could be described as the most strategic donation to the Aligarh Muslim University and won its coveted chancellorship. This proved to be a well-calculated step to boost his position in Muslim politics in India. This brought him in intimate contact with the eminent Muslim leaders two of whom later rose to the august position of President of India. These contacts have been of immense help to him in meeting the challenge of reform leaders. These leaders have exercised subtle or open pressures on the Government not to take any step against the Pontiff although there is strong public opinion in favour of doing so.

The present Pontiff (52nd in succession) advised by his brother and political adviser Y. Najmuddin, has sought to forge much closer alliance with Muslim politics in India. He has even sought, although not with much success, to exploit the Islamic fundamentalism to his advantage. We will throw more light on it later. First we shall deal with the Muslim politics as it is being harnessed by the Bohra priesthood to thwart attempts at social reforms within the community. The fact that the Muslim leaders are themselves striving hard to oppose any change or reforms has greatly helped the Bohra high priest.

The substantial issues of Muslim politics in India today are three:

  1. that the government should not interfere with the Muslim personal law or, in other words, the Shariah Act of 1937 as enacted by the British Government should be perpetuated. This clearly implies that the laws pertaining to Muslim marriage, divorce or inheritance should not be changed
  2. that the status of Aligarh Muslim University as a minority institution should be statutorily recognized and
  3. that Urdu be given its rightful place in those states where there are sizable number of people speaking that language.

As far as Indian Muslims are concerned these are highly emotional and identity-bearing issues. In the present situation - which has been creation of Muslim politicians themselves - no Muslim politician can climb up the political ladder ignoring the potential of these issues. Which in other words means that in the present socio-political milieu no one aspiring to assume leadership of the Muslims can talk of any social change or reformation even within the Islamic framework. Not only that, no Muslim leader is prepared to seriously consider proposals to stop misuse of various provisions of the Shar'iat law as it operates in India strictly in the spirit in which it was revealed by the law-giver.

We have thrown some light on these issues as today they have important bearing on the Bohra reform movement. The present socio-political milieu as described above has been fully exploited by the Bohra Pontiff and his political adviser. Y. Najmuddin has established close link with the Muslim Personal Law Board. He was even elected as the treasurer - perhaps looking to his finance-providing capacity. These close links have been forged with the Muslim Personal law Board in order to create an impression - albeit deceptive - that the issue of Muslim Personal Law is inalienably connected with the practices being imposed by the Bohra Pontiff on his followers. It would be quite in order to throw light on the immediate