Borhras and reform

Doctrine of infallibility in Islamili tradition

There is great deal of misconception about the doctrine of 'ismah (infallibility) and its precise meaning among the Isma'ilis, in general, and among the Dawoodi Bohras, in particular. The doctrine of 'ismah i.e. infallibility applies only to the Prophet in Sunni Islam and to the Prophet, his legatee (wasi) and imams in Shi'ah Islam.

Among the Shi'ahs again there are several sub-sects like Hanafiyah, Kaisaniyah, Zaidiyah, Imamiyah, Isma'iliyah, Qaramitas etc. Every sect considers its own Imam as infallible. For the Sunnis, as pointed out above 'ismah is only for the Prophet. The Caliphs after him are referred to as rashidun i.e. rightly guided ones but are not infallible. According to the Sunnis the Caliphs can go wrong.

Among the Shi'ahs some prominent sects which exist today are Ithna Asharis and Isma'ilis in India and Zaidis in the Yemen. Among them the Zaidis and Nizari Isma'ilis believe that their Imams are physically present today. The Aga Khan is the Nizari-Isma'ili Imam. But as far as the Ithna 'Asahri and Must'alian Isma'ilis (i.e. the Bohras including the Sulaymani and Alavis) are concerned the Imam is in seclusion.

And according to the Must'alian-Isma'ilis i.e. the Dawoodi and other Bohras the Imam is deputized by the da'i. The Dawoodis have their da'i and the Sulaymanis and Alavis have their own separate da'is. From the Dawoodi Bohras one more sect branched off which believes that the 46th da'i did not validly appoint the next da'i and hence some people popularly known as the Mehdi Baghwalas accepted Maulana Abdul Husain as Hujjah (an office higher than da'i but lower than that of Imam).

Again the question arises what is exact implication of the doctrine of infallibility. Does it mean infallibility in both religious and secular matters or only in religious matters? The sources are not very clear on this. It has not been specifically mentioned in the Shi'ah sources whether the doctrine of 'ismah applies to only religious or also to secular matters. It has been left vague. Some believe that it applies to both the spheres religious as well as worldly spheres.

Only in the Sahih Bukhari, which is a Sunni source we find a hadith that once the Prophet (PBUH) advised some people in Madina to plant the date palm trees in a particular way. But when they planted in that fashion the yield of date fruit reduced. They complained to the Prophet that they followed his advice but the yield was reduced. The Prophet thereupon said that (antum a'alamuna bi umuri dunyakum) you know better in the worldly matters and you plant in a way which is more profitable.

Of course the Shi'ahs may not accept a hadith from a Sunni source though it is not necessary to reject every hadith from a Sunni source either. Even if it is rejected the question is can imam be infallible in worldly matters also? If the question is yes, will his pronouncements in all worldly matters be binding on his followers? And if it is so can an imam be such an expert in all spheres that he will commit no error say in the fields of solar physics, astro-physics, or particle physics; or in the fields of industrial chemistry or agro-industry? Or various diseases like cancer or AIDS?

Obviously it will be difficult to maintain such a position as a viable one. And no one expects ones Imam to be such an expert. He mainly looks towards him as a source of inspiration and guidance in religious and spiritual matters.

There is yet another problem. As pointed out above there are several Shi'ah sects each with its own Imam. And the followers of each sect believe that their imam is ma'sum (i.e. infallible) which means at a time there are many infallible persons. But imam of one sect is a pretender according to the followers of the other sect. Thus for one sect a person is infallible whereas for another sect he is a mere pretender or usurper.

Now the head of the Dawoodi Bohra sect Saiyyidna Muhammad Burhanuddin and his father Saiyyidna Tahir Saifuddin began to claim that they are infallible and that they can never go wrong. This is of course an innovation (bid'ah) that a da'i could be infallible. According to the Shi'ah-Isma'ili sources (or the authentic sources of the Fatimi Da'wah) only an Imam can be ma'sum, not any one below the rank of Imam can claim 'ismah (infallibility) for himself, not even hujjah who is far above the rank of a da'i.

But the Dawoodi Bohra religious establishment has now popularized this and the da'i is being projected as ma'sum. They have not even properly thought of implications of such a claim. I would like to discuss this in details.

It is a well established doctrine of the Fatimids that at a time there will be only one imam and hence at a time there will be only one person who can claim 'ismah for himself. The son of an imam who has yet not assumed the office of imamah during the life time of his father also cannot be ma'sum. He becomes ma'sum only after he assumes the position of imamah after the death of his predecessor. Thus in no case there can be more than one ma'sum at a time.

Now if the Bohra Da'i claims 'ismah for himself, there will be two ma'sums at a time, one imamuz zaman (imam of the time) and another da'i. All Bohras believe that this earth cannot exist without a ma'sum imam. Then how can a da'i be ma'sum? Da'i, at the most claim that he draws inspiration from imam of his time who is ma'sum. But if a da'i also claims to be ma'sum then either he believes there is no imamuz zaman from whom he draws inspiration or he is pretending to be ma'sum.

So either the belief in existence of a ma'sum imam is not correct or da'iÕs claim is not correct. A ma'sum cannot draw inspiration from another ma'sum. That is why it was maintained by the source books of the Fatimi Da'wah that there can only be one ma'sum at a time.

The Yemeni da'is who were hopeful of coming into the contact with the imam of the time, never exaggerated the posittion of the da'i. A da'i was always thought to be merely deputizing for the imam until he reappears one day. That is why Saiyyidna Hatim, a prominent Yemeni da'i, maintained in his magnum opus Tuhfat al-Qulub (Gift for the Hearts of the Faithfuls) that a da'i should not ascribe misaq for himself and he should take misaq only for the imamuz zaman.

But the present da'i has violated this prescription of Saiyyidna Hatim and ascribes misaq to himself. Thus he maintains that this misaq is both for the da'i as well as for the imam which is wrong.

Also, no other Indian da'i ever claimed the status of 'ismah for himself. During the conflict between Saiyyidna Pir Khan (around 1648) and his follower Yusuf a question arose whether a da'i can err and Yusuf maintained that Saiyyidna Pir Khan had erred, da'i not being ma'sum. This was very serious matter. If a da'i can err, how can he guide the community on the right path?

A discussion followeed. Some Bohra 'ulama then maintained that in the presence of an Imam a da'i can err but in the period of satr i.e. during the occultation of an Imam, it is da'i who guides the community and so he cannot err during the period of satr. But there cannot be two infallible persons at a time and Imam does exist though in occultation, a da'i cannot be ma'sum.

So a new doctrine of da'i being kal ma'sum (i.e. like ma'sum) was invented and it was since the time of Saiyyidna Pir Khan Shujauddin that the doctrine of kal-ma'sum came into existence. But even according to this new doctrine a da'i is not infallible but just like infallible. A da'i after all has to draw guidance from an imam of the time and obviously a ma'sum cannot draw inspiration from another ma'sum.

The other aspect of the question is also important that is whether the doctrine of 'ismah applies both to religious and worldly affairs or only to religious affairs. The Holy QurÕan requires the Prophet to consult his companions in important matters (wa shawirhum fi'al-amr, 3:159).

Here the question arises if the Prophet is infallible in all matters including the worldly matters also why Allah requires him to consult his companions in important matters like strategies of war or techniques of war etc. And we have a number of occasions on which the Prophet consulted his companions and accepted their counsel. Such consultation becomes superfluous if the doctrine of 'ismah is applied to all spheres of action.

This leads us to the conclusion that the doctrine of 'ismah is to be understood properly.

Firstly, it should be applied to the Prophet, his wasi (i.e. legatee Ali) and imams from the progeny of Ali and Fatima.

Secondly, it should be taken in broad sense of guidance based on religious values, even if secular matters are to be included.

The Qur'an has laid down certain fundamental values like justice, equality, compassion, brotherhood, benevolence etc. An Imam will give guidance to his followers in secular matters too, on the basis of these values. No one, for example, will consult imam, say, about a problem in nuclear physics. He cannot be competent to deal with it. But one can consult him on the question whether a nuclear bomb be manufactured or not.

An Imam, firmly grounded in Islamic values, can give his guidance on the basis of these values to manufacture a nuclear bomb or not. But he cannot certainly guide as to how to manufacture the bomb. Inerrancy by the imam can be ensured in matters of value-guidance, not in technical matters. It is an important distinction which should be made as far as true guidance from imam is concerned.

In fact an Imam is an embodiment of these values being from the progeny of Ali and Fatima. He is brought up in the cradle of these values. Another area of inerrancy is the honesty and integrity of his character. An Imam is faultless in every way as far as his character is concerned and he is guided by nothing but the fundamental values of Islam as indicated above.

All his pronouncements are based on these values and his guidance is perfect from this point of view. Infallibility itself is, basically, a value concept and is applicable in terms of value-guidance. Thus ImamÕs guidance can not be sought for technique of producing a thing but certainly for producing it or not (whether it will be beneficial or harmful for humanity).

Similarly an Imam can decide to fight a war or not (in terms of values) but if it is decided to fight a war it will be for experienced generals to decide on the strategy and techniques of fighting a war. This is a vital difference which one has to keep in mind as far as the concept of infallibility is concerned.

We call imams as ma'sumin because they had no lust for power, no desire for wealth and no weakness for luxury. They were honest to the core and their integrity was acknowledged even by their worst enemies. They stood, lived and died for higher values.

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