Borhras and reform
The issues in the Bohra reform movement
Many questions often arise about the aims and objects of the Bohra reform movement. Some even go to the extent of saying that there are contradictory views and confusion.
It was, therefore, decided in the 8th All World Dawoodi Bohra Conference held in Bombay form 22 to 24 February, 1991 to officially publish a note clarifying the objectives of the reform movement. It was therefore decided to prepare this note.
When did the reform movement begin?
If we try to locate the beginning of the reform movement it would also throw some light on the aims of the reform movement. Some people try to trace its beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century when the succession issue after the death of the 46th da'i arose. However, an issue for succession is very much different form the issues involved in a reform movement. The reform movement is one which raises substantial issues about certain traditions and social change, about religious authority and secular authority and functions of each.
If we judge from this social perspective we can trace the beginning of the reform movement to certain issues raised in Udaipur towards the end of the nineteenth century and in Burhanpur in the beginning of the twentieth century. In both these places the issues raised were pertaining to social and secular authority on one hand and religious authority on the other. Can both these authorities be combined into one? Or both these have separate and distinct jurisdiction?
The priesthood in the Bohra community and its orthodox followers maintain that the religious and secular can harmoniously blend while the reformists believe that the two cannot be combined in the present democratic set-up. May be the two authorities blend together during the feudal era which had authoritarian ethos but it is no longer possible in our own times wherein democratic values prevail. Both in Udaipur in late nineteenth century the reformists asserted their secular rights vis-a-vis the Sayedna without, however, challenging his religious authority.
In both the cases litigation followed and interestingly enough in the both the cases contention of the reformists that the high priest cannot exercise coercive authority in secular sphere was upheld in the court. In subsequent litigations - like Chandabhai Gulla case - Sayedna's claim to authority in the secular affairs of the community was rejected outright. It is also interesting to note that before consolidation of the British rule in India, most of the dissensions in the Bohra community were regarding successions to the office of the da'i but after the consolidation of the British rule, there was no dissension about succession but mostly about legitimacy of exercising secular authority. Those who dissented on the succession issue should be referred to as religious dissenters as it often involved religious issues of nass (doctrine of rightful appointment) and those who challenged the legitimacy of da'i's secular authority should be referred to as reformists as in the latter case no religion doctrine or dogma was involved.
What the reformists desire?
Thus reformists are clear that they are not challenging either religious dogmas and doctrines or religious authority. They only challenge the high priest's right to exercise secular authority and also they oppose coercive imposition of religious authority. The Holy Qur'an also maintains that there can be no coercion in religious matters. It proclaims this doctrine in the ringing words “la ikrah fi al-Din” (there is no compulsion in religion). The Quran also proclaims “... the right way is indeed clearly distinct from error. So whoever disbelieves in the devil and believes in Allah he indeed lays hold on the firmest handle which shall never break.”
Thus is will be seen that to accept the right way or the path of error is left to human person after it is made distinctly clear. There is no coercion involved at all. Thus when the reformists oppose coercive imposition of religious authority, they base it on the Holy Qur'an. The Qur'an also requires the Prophet to “Call to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner.” (16 :125). It would thus be seen that coercive imposition of religious authority is opposed to the spirit of the Holy Qur'an.
As for the secular authority the Sayedna has no religious jurisdiction. It may be argued that the da'i in the past did exercise secular authority also and there is some truth in his assertion. But it should also be understood that exercise of secular authority by the da'is in the past was part of their social contract with the community. In other words it was done with the unspoken consent of the community, not against its will. Secondly, it was protective exercise of secular authority rather than coercive exercise. Let me elaborate this a little.
In the past the community faced external threats. There were no democratic channels available then to fight these threats. The high priest, with his high status and prestige in the society, took the community in his protective cover and enabled it, through his prestige and authority, to successfully face the external threats. Also, it is our experience that when external threats are grave, centralisation of power proves more beneficial. The external threat in the case of the Bohra community persisted for many centuries and centralisation of power remained a felt need for a long time. In fact, over a period of time, there evolved an unspoken, unwritten contract between the high priest and the Bohra community which legitimised this exercise of centralised authority.
However, with the advent of the British, and later, with the acceptance of political and social democracy, things changed drastically. Now there no longer existed any external threat and there was no need for the high priest to exercise any secular authority. When the 51st and 52nd da'is not only refused to leave the secular domain to the community but intensified exercise of secular authority and that too increasingly coercively, there began a protest movement against it. As the movement desired change in the social conditions of the community and attempted to define social and religious domains separately, it can be rightfully described as reform movement. The reformists strongly feel that there should be not only complete stop to the coercive exercise of secular authority by the da'i but also he should restrict his religious authority to “wise and goodly words” as described by the Holy Qur'an.
Also, the reformist believe that there is no place for blind and slavish submission to any authority, religious or otherwise. Even the Holy Qur'an lays repeated emphasis on reason and faith and exhorts humankind to think, to brood and to use faculty of reason. The reformists thus refuse to submit blindly to any authority. They call upon their fellow community members and other to exercise faculty of reason which is the highest gift of God. Thus it is very important aspect of the Bohra reform movement. Blind submission is uncalled for not only in secular matters but even in religious matters. The Sayedna and his orthodox followers construe this as defiance of religion; this is untrue.
In fact true religiosity can never be equated with blind submission. True religiosity is a creative synthesis between reason and faith and intellect and intuition. Thus the reformists justly claim that far from disowning religion, they represent true religious spirit. Also, the reformists represent intellectual and philosophical traditions of Isma'ilis as embodied in the epistles of Ikhwanus Safa (Rasa'il Ikhwanus Safa). The Rasa'il Ikhwanus Safa embraced with unique openness of mind all that was best in; the available knowledge in the world. The Imam and the Du'at who compiled the Rasa'il were the most eminent intellectuals of their time. They enriched, through their intellectual contribution, knowledge and encouraged faculty of reason. They never demanded blind submission. The reformists Bohras are true inheritors of Ikhwanus Safa tradition.
The faculty of reason harmoniously blends with freedom of conscience. The reformist Bohras thus uphold freedom of conscience. The Bohra high priest on the other hand ruthlessly suppresses freedom of conscience. Naturally blind submission cannot go hand in hand with freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is noblest and highest achievement of human development. It cannot be sacrificed at the altar of any authority. The reformists consider it as cardinal doctrine of their movement.
The reformists also uphold human rights and human dignity. In fact there can be no freedom of conscience without concept of human dignity and human rights. Violations of human rights is an integral part of authoritarian cultures. The reformists are, therefore, totally opposed to any form of authoritarianism and mental regimentation. Their whole fight is against authoritarianism. The revolt by the Bohra youth in Udaipur in 1973 was a challenge to this authoritarianism. They fought to uphold their rights and freedom of conscience. Subsequently our sisters and brothers in Bombay, Ghodra, Surat, Ahemdabad, Lathi, Bhavnagar, Aurangabad, Hyderabad, Malegaon and several other places took up the fight. The Bohra high priest adopted, like any authoritarian ruler, highly coercive measures to suppress the fast spreading movement. However, he failed to suppress the voice of human conscience. Bohras from several other countries such as the UK, Pakistan, Thailand, USA, East Africa, Canada, Sweden, Mauritius etc. joined in to strengthen the reform movement.
The doctrine of accountability is as fundamental to the Bohras reform movement as freedom of conscience. If fact one cannot go without the other. It is authoritarianism which rejects accountability to the people. The reformists take the doctrine of accountability in its widest sense. It is social, religious, political as well as financial accountability. The Sayedna imposes worst kind of socio-religious authoritarianism and hence there is no question of their accepting doctrine of accountability. What is worse, he refuses to accept even financial accountability. He and his family members collect millions of dollars every year from the community in a most coercive manner. The money so collected is never accounted for.
The reformists maintain that the money so collected does not belong to the Sayedna or his family and cannot be appropriated by them. The money should be spent on the welfare projects and uplift of the poor and needy and must be accounted for to the community through proper institutions. The Sayedna and his family cannot take away even a paisa from it. In fact the Sayedna's family has collected huge fortunes over several decades and use repression against the community to stifle any criticism, for such blatant misappropriation of community funds.
The reformists maintain that even the Prophet of Allah (PUBH) never refused to give account whenever anyone asked. Hazrat ‘Ali too readily revealed accounts whenever anyone raised any doubt. How can then a da'i, an humble servant of the Prophet maintain that he is not accountable to the community. Every pie collected from the community must be accounted for by the Sayedna or any other member of his family and staff. The zakat money should be spent on the poor and needy, widows and orphans, for discharge of debts of indebted and travelers and in other manners in the way of Allah as laid down by the Holy Qur'an.
Baraat and Raza
The high priest earlier used to declare excommunication against anyone who questioned the functioning of the priestly establishment and other community institutions. But when the Supreme Court in its judgment delivered in 1962 made excommunication justicable in the court, Sayedna found it almost impossible to resort to it. He then devised another way - - baraat -- social boycott which is declared orally without any written record to escape rigors of law. He has been using the weapon of baraat most unscrupulously. His minions of course resort to it even more arbitrarily. It is being done to terrorise the community into submission. The reformists say that it is un-Islamic and strongly violative of human rights. The reformists have raised this issue from various public fora and also has drawn attention of the Central Government and has submitted memoranda to various prime ministers and presidents of India demanding law against it. Though the government has not enacted any law so far the reformist campaign against baraat has created strong public opinion against it and has generated sympathy for its victims.
Similarly, the reformist Bohras are against the use of raza (permission) from the priesthood for any religious or secular matter. The priesthood declares baraat against any person who does anything without the Kothar's permission and this includes even daily prayers, marriage, divorce and funeral rites. Neither in Islam nor in modern democratic society there is any place for such enslavement of human beings to other human beings. Freedom of conscience as stated above, is most fundamental and anything violative of it would be totally opposed. Thus the reformists oppose the concept of raza. It was introduced for instilling discipline by previous dai's and not for establishing total control over the lives of people which is what the present da'i has done. Raza thus has no place and must be thrown out. Every person who is sufficiently knowledgeable should be free to perform all religious rites like daily prayers, nikah(marriage oaths), namaz-e-janazaa (funeral prayers) and similar other things without any prior permission from any authority.
The reformists oppose nominated jamaat bodies. They want elected jamaat bodies and insist that election should be through universal franchise and both men and women should have right to vote. This is being practiced by the reformists wherever they are in sufficient numbers to form jamaat. In places like Udaipur, Malegaon, Aurangabad, Hyderabad, Bombay, Birmingham and Leicester in UK and other places jamaats are elected through universal franchise. The Central Executive Committee and other office bearers of the Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community are also elected every two years. The accounts of funds collected and spent are audited and made pubic regularly by the reformists trusts and jamaats.
Thus it will be seen from above that the reformists stand for social reform and change. They are opposed to authoritarianism, religious or secular, are votaries of democratic functioning and stand for human rights, freedom of conscience and doctrine of accountability. They totally reject coercive imposition of religious edicts in keeping with the Qur'anic spirit. They oppose social boycott and raza as un-Islamic practices and violative of human rights . They stand for true religious spirit and are sincere followers of Islam and Isma'ili, Must'alian creed. They consider themselves as true Dawoodi Bohras and have never challenged any well established religious doctrines. They are thus not involved in any religious controversies of theological nature. Their aim is to usher in social reforms.