Borhras and reform
An open letter to Sayedna Saheb
Dear Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin Saheb
May Allah give you a long life
I am addressing this letter to you not as an individual. It, in fact, represents the point of view of thousands of Bohras, even those who are not formally reformists. The Bohras are going through a great turmoil both social as well as religious, under your leadership as a 52nd Da`i al-Mutlaq.
In religious hierarchy of the Isma`ili-Musta`lian-Tayyabians' religion the position of Da`i al-Mutlaq is of utmost importance. The community of Dawoodi Bohras have always shown immense faith in this august position. And their faith was never betrayed by the Da`is in the past.
As you know the community of Bohras passed through very critical times also particularly during the last phase of 17th century. The Bohra Da`is were even imprisoned and martyred. But they withstood all these trials and tribulations with great courage and fortitude and continued to provide religious leadership to the community. They led, without any doubt, an exemplary life of simplicity and truth. They remained steadfast and sabir-u-shakir (i.e. patient and thankful to Allah). They exemplified the Qur'anic surah 103 The Time (Al-`Asr): "By the time! Surely man is in loss, except those who believe and do good, and exhort one another to Truth, and exhort one another to patience." To be steadfast on the path of Truth and patience is repeatedly emphasised by the Qur'an and our Da`is embodied these teachings of the Qur'an.
As pointed out above, most of the Da`is considered life of simplicity as the most virtuous life and in this they trode the path of Panjatan (Five Holy Bodies). All of them lived an exemplary life of simplicity. They often starved and wore patched clothes. The holy Prophet often slept on camel skin and had pillow stuffed with palm date leaves. His daughter Hazrat Fatima used to grind corn with her own hands and did not have any servant to help her. The Prophet loved her most dearly and yet did not give her a slave girl from Bait al-Mal (state treasury) to help her out for domestic work as the holy Prophet thought it was not justified.
Hazrat Ali, most important personality of Islam next to the holy Prophet, used to have only dried crumbs of bread and vegetable as his meals even when he was a ruler of the greatest empire of the time which included the parts of two greatest and mightiest empires of the world i.e. Byzantine and Sassanid empires. He had such mighty resources at his command that he could have led luxurious life envied by the Caesar of Byzantine or Sassanid empires. But, as a man of Allah, an exemplifier of Islamic way of life, he chose to live on dried crumbs of bread and wore clothes with as much as 70 patches. Most of our Da`is also followed this glorious example of simplicity. But now this is not even mentioned in your sermons.
Who knows better than you that the Holy Prophet was city of knowledge and Ali its door. Islam gave greatest importance to knowledge and equated it with light and ignorance with darkness. The Prophet of Islam was embodiment of revelational knowledge (`ulum-i-wahi) also known as `ulum-i-ladunni which was passed on from chest to chest, heart to heart. Our great Da`is like Syedna Qadi al-Nu`man, Syedna Hamiduddin Kirmani, Syedna Muayyed Shirazi, Syedna Idris, Syedna Hatim, Syedna Khttab and several others were glorious inheritors of this knowledge. They wrote copiously on these `ulum and we all are proud inheritors of that knowledge.
And who knows better than you that our Imams while in seclusion (mastur Imams) like Abdullah al-Mastur, Ahmad al-Mastur and Husain al-Mastur faced great challenge from the Abbasid caliphs but never gave in and Imam Husain al-Mastur, along with his du`at wrote the encyclopaedic work Ikhwanus Safa which is highly valued by all. It is a great treasure of knowledge of the time be it about diniyyat or philosophy or mathematics or music. A risalah (an epistle) was compiled on all these subjects and altogether there are 52 epistles. What an irony that though the Bohras are inheritors of this glorious epistles (rasa'il) they are so ignorant about it all. The Rasa`il created a stir in the world of knowledge in those days and specially with their rational approach and method of discussion. The Abbasid Caliphs who were busy transferring Greek knowledge into the Islamic world were also stunned by the depth and breadth of knowledge contained in these rasa`il.
However, you have kept the Bohras totally ignorant about this treasure trove. Some might have heard its name but most are not even aware of the existence of these rasa'il. It is the western scholars who are working on them and doing research about them but you and your establishment has done absolutely nothing. These Mastur Imams (i.e. Imams in seclusion) had no resources whatsoever with them and they were facing all kinds of difficulties and still they composed these rasa'il. And what a contrast that you with all the wealth at your disposal and Jami`ah Saifiyah which your establishment never tires of projecting as a university, are doing next to nothing to popularise this treasure trove.
What an irony that while these rasa'il spread rational thinking throughout the world at that time the Bohras are being made to believe in all sorts of superstition by your establishment under your leadership. The whole emphasis is on constructing mausoleums of Da`is and Walis rather than creating institutions of higher learning and disseminating rational knowledge. Crores of rupees are being collected from time to time to construct rozas (mausoleums) but not a penny is spent on any research and educational institutions. These rozas also become centres of cash offerings and hence a rich source of income for your establishment. It is highly regrettable that a knowledge-based dynamic Isma`ili religion has been transformed into a superstition based stagnant religion.
A Da`i, as pointed out above, is supposed to be the inheritor of this rich tradition of knowledge. Many Da`is mentioned above were not only proud inheritors of this rich tradition but also further enriched it immensely. Syedna Muayyed Shirazi was described as "mountain of knowledge difficult to climb" by no less a person than Imam Mustansir bi'Allah, the 18th Isma`ili Imam. Many other Da`is of the period of seclusion (i.e. daur al-satr) also contributed richly to spread knowledge. But now our Da`is, including yourself, are busy making money and singing songs of self-glory rather than disseminating knowledge. The sermons (wa`az) now are nothing but an unabashed attempt at self glorification. Now you as a Da`i claim all that they were advised by Syedna Hatim never to claim. Even mithaq (oath of allegiance) which was, as mentioned by Syedna Hatim in his Tuhfat al-Qulub, an instrument of loyalty to faith and Imam is being used as an instrument of loyalty to the Da`i which is totally wrong.It is very unfortunate that going against the tenets of our religion you and your father Syedna Tahir Saifuddin saheb even claimed 'ismah i.e. infallibility. In Isma`ili faith infallibility is for the Prophet, his wasi (legatee) and imams. It can never be claimed by others. This very fundamental of our tenets is being suppressed and false claims are being popularised. You have gone even further. You insist that all Bohras declare themselves to be your slaves (`abd), something which even the Holy Prophet did not insist. The Prophet of Islam, the Messenger of Allah (PBUH), even did not allow his companions to stand up when he came and you want the Bohras to perform sajdah before you! Sajdah before any human being is strictly prohibited in Islam.
Not only that your father started claiming that he is god on earth and that it is more meritorious to circumambulate his palace than Ka`abah! And that it is more meritorious to kiss his hand than to kiss hajar al-Aswad! Please tell me can a da`i make such fantastic claims? No Da`i before your father made such claims. The Qur'an talks of takrim of all children of Adam and you want to reduce them to a status of utter slavery. No Imam ever treated his followers in this manner. A mu`min Ð a true believer has been described as precious jewel (yaqut- emerald) in 'ilm al-ta'wil and these mu`mins are insulted in your court day in and day out.
If your establishment is out to spread such culture of slavery what can be expected of you? How can we expect that a new culture of democratic rights and human rights would ever be respected by your establishment. You not only intellectually live in the past though enjoying all the thinkable and un-thinkable luxuries of the present, you have pushed the entire community in the medieval era. You project yourself as king - sultan al-Bawahir and call your children as princes and princesses and your residential quarters as palace in this democratic era. How can one expect you to imbibe democratic tradition and spread enlightenment among the Bohras. You are spreading a culture of slavery and slightest dissent is punished severely. You describe yourself as Aqa Maula (the Master, the Lord), a language full of medieval ethos. Needless to say, it is utterly un-Islamic because Islam believes in equality of all faithfuls and dignity of believers.
The Messenger of Allah believed in complete transparency and accountability. He never refused to account for what was distributed among the believers and took for himself what he gave to others. Yours is opposite case. You take away everything for yourself and your family, which entirely depends on the funds coercively collected from the community, even by stopping burial of the dead. You refuse to distribute even Zakat funds among the thousands of Bohras living below poverty line. The Zakat amount, contrary to the Qura'nic injunctions, is used by your establishment for luxurious living and worldly pomp and show. Needless to say, you refuse to account and completely disown the doctrine of accountability.
A leader of the community has to have futuristic vision and should serve the community selflessly for its betterment. You never framed schemes and ever planned for the progress of the community. You and your establishment are busy planning for your and your family's future. You have accumulated phenomenal wealth even ignoring and violating country's taxation laws. You always try to buy off some Muslim and non-Muslim political leaders and manipulate external democracy, as an American scholar Thodore Wright Jr. so succinctly put it, to frustrate internal democracy within the community.
You will admit that under your leadership the culture of violence has spread among the Dawoodi Bohras. At one time the Bohras were considered most peace-loving community and one could almost swear by their peaceful behaviour. However, now they are considered quite violent. They are repeatedly provoked to violence by your establishment and they attack and kill reformists, ransack their houses and offices and even try to terrorise journalists and newspapers. Your establishment has become notorious in this matter.
The Bohras were never known to be fanatics and fundamentalists. They were always known for their openness and liberal outlook. You have, in imitation of some Muslim countries, created worst kind of fundamentalism among the Bohras. They have deviated from true religion of Islam and have been made to worship you like god. It is not Islam but a personality cult. No Da`i earlier had coerced the Bohras to follow their dictates as you do under threat of ex-communication. Even the concept of ex-communication does not exist in the language of Da`wat.
It is for these reasons that the reformists have been fighting for. The reformists, true to their faith of Islam want to usher in equality of all believers and their dignity. They also want transparency and accountability following the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet and practices of five holy bodies (Pnjatan). The reformists want to inculcate respect for human rights and freedom of conscience in keeping with the Qur'anic declaration that "There is no compulsion in matters of religion (la ikrah fi' al-din) and you want to suppress all human rights and treat Bohras as your slaves (`abd-e-Syedna). The reformists believe in culture of dialogue and you believe in issuing dictates, firmans and punishing the dissenter. The reformists want to encourage intellectual culture and you consider it as a threat to your authoritarian culture. An authoritarian culture is always anti-intellectual culture.
We pray to Allah to provide us the right guidance and give us courage to stand by Truth with patience. We pray to Allah to grace us with His Mercy so that we can serve entire humanity along with our community. The reformists urge upon you to follow the true path of religion of Islam and live an exemplary simple life and serve the community and humanity as a true leader with great vision. The reformists have always believed in democratic values in social and political matters and have tried to practice the doctrines of accountability and transparency. We have been struggling for these values and will continue to struggle for these values Insha Allah.
Asghar Ali Engineer
March 18, 2001