Borhras and reform

Bohras in Kenya - blessed with special attention


In the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa, some 3,000 Bohras live - mostly of the orthodox group. In common with the Bohras elsewhere, they are a persecuted lot. However, compared with their counterparts in India, East African Bohras seem to have fallen into the priesthood's trap far more easily.

In the Bohra world, East Africa is the honeypot - it is where the Kothar earn the most. No wonder, the Sayedna is a frequent visitor to this part of the world, so much that he “considers it his second home”.

In the Muslim world, the first 10 days of the Islamic Year mark the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS). To the Bohra priesthood, it also marks the start of the money-minting season. Two Ashara events with the Sayedna in Mombasa some years ago had totally drained the Bohras out financially and they were dreading the 1419 Ashara event would not be held in Mombasa again. Luckily, Nairobi was chosen as the venue.

After the traditional 10-day Ashara event in Nairobi, the Sayedna paid a visit to Mombasa. Now the priestly class of Mombasa had the task of selecting financial heavy-weights from the community to invite the Sayedna and his crew for ‘ziyafats'. This is the easiest and fastest way for the Kothar to make money. A compulsory ‘gift' of Kenyan Schilling 2 million (US$ 33,000) in cash to the Sayedna for attending the ‘ziyafat' is not uncommon. Most ordinary Bohras would not even dream of earning this amount of money in a lifetime. In return, the host of the party would hope that he is greatly blessed by the Sayedna's visit to his home.

Another money-making tool used by the priesthood is the awarding of titles. On each visit by the Sayedna, or a member of his family, to Mombasa, the outstandingly loyal and well-off among the Bohras are awarded the title of Mullah or Sheikh. For this they have to pay a fixed fee. For the title of Sheikh awarded by the Sayedna himself, the fee is a minimum of Shs 1 million (US$ 16,000). No loyal orthodox Bohra would ever refuse these titles. Besides, it would guarantee them a place in one of the front rows in the mosque.

The richest of the Nairobi Bohras, Sheikh Husseinbhai and Sheikh Saifuddin, owners of the vast glass empire and many other industries, hold the prestigious top posts in the local jamaat. Coincidentally, the top community jobs in the Mombasa jamaat are also held by very well-off persons such as Sheikh Shabbir, owner of a smaller but nevertheless powerful glass empire. Then there are several other powerful and wealthy men around East Africa. But they all have a number of things in common: they own sleek cars; live in posh suburbs; know little about their religion; pretend to be highly spiritual and religious; and they act as puppets of the Amil of the day. Since the Bohras are not allowed to have any say with regard to the appointment of jamaat officials, they will continue to be in office for the foreseeable future.

Then there are the ordinary Bohra folk. Knowing very well the priesthood wouldn't care less for their welfare, they struggle hard to make ends meet. Kenya's hopeless economic situation only makes their problems worse. Some of the poorest Bohra families in Mombasa reside in the Old Town and the conditions under which they are forced to live is horrifying. Many youth are unemployed. Some of these families have served the jamaat with all their hearts for many generations not knowing that they are being exploited by the priesthood.

Given the way things are going in the community, Bohra children from poor families generally have a bleak future. While parents struggle to pay for school fees for their children, the priestly-class take away the little savings they have. Higher education in Kenya is highly competitive but the frequent strikes by students and staff make learning a nightmare. Knowing they cannot afford to go abroad for higher education, many Bohra students give up the quest for learning. The previous Mombasa Amil at one point declared that he would initiate a scholarship scheme. He urged people to contribute, but with the Bohras already paying large sums in various unaccounted taxes to the priests, there was clearly no incentive to contribute and so the scheme failed to materialise.

Private tutoring of religious education is forbidden for Mombasa Bohras and parents have to send their children to priest-led madrassahs. The priests have also set up the Al-Madrassah brand of schools to help them brainwash children into their way of thinking as quickly as possible, especially the concept of blind loyalty to a corrupt priesthood. Bohra parents are pressured to send their children to these schools. All pupils and staff of these schools are Bohras, to ensure that children are not exposed to the outside world.

When a Bohra family has to go through any of the religious rites that accompany an event such as birth of child, marriage, or death, the family have to be prepared to be harassed by the priests looking for the tiniest excuse to refuse them permission. Mombasa's Bohra kabrastan (graveyard) in Nyali is divided into three sections: one for holders of the Sheikh title, one for the ordinary orthodox folk, and one for the not-so-loyal folk. Any deceased whose family is found to have the slightest fault in the payment of taxes is buried in the third section which is noticeably distant from the other two sections. Perhaps the priesthood is trying to impose a social boycott even in death.

The effects of years of welfare neglect and imposition of taxes by the Bohra priesthood in East Africa are now evident. Other Muslim communities, especially the Ithna Asheris, which at one time were no match for the Bohras are now far more successful in business. Even the Memon community now have significant health and educational welfare provisions for its members.

There are a number of reformist Bohras in Mombasa seeking change as do reformists elsewhere. However, the orthodox Bohra leaders have banned any form of contact with the reformist and those who do not obey are subjected to social boycott. Many Bohras have chosen to pay all taxes to the priests to avoid the boycott but do not attend religious functions and feasts. The priests are happy as long as the money keeps flowing in.

Most Bohras know little about the reformists and what they stand for since reformist publications are banned. However, dissent against the priesthood among Mombasa's Bohras is growing and the educated members of the community are aware of the Kothar's un-Islamic practices. The fear of social boycott has kept them silently loyal to the priesthood - but, for how long?