Borhras and reform

Fatimid Literature: Creation, preservation, transfer, concealment and revival


One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Fatimid Caliphate is that it was supported by a mission – a Daawa which not only brought the Fatimid state into being but continued to support it and guide it. It is when the Daawa declined and lost its purpose that the Fatimid state fell in 1171.

The Fatibid Caliphate began in North Africa in 909, conquered Egypt in 969, built the great city of Cairo in that year, built a large empire at times rivaling the extent of the Abbasid Caliphate and built great educational and cultural institutions such as the University of Al-Azhar and the Dar al-Ilm.

The ideological literature of the Fatimid period is the Daawa literature. It does not mean that other contributions to science and learning in a purely secular mode were not made, but rather the spirit of intellectual inquiry inculcated by the Daawa; and the freedom of thought to the extent of conflicting points of view in religion and philosophy, in fact encouraged and gave rise to secular learning, for which the Fatimid period is considered as one of the golden age of Islam.

There was freedom of thinking and debating the different issues of society. It was an age of reason, not of blind following and closed minds

In the period of satr (i.e. 765 to 909) during the time of the hidden Imamas there were several councils of dais in different regions – Dais such as Hilwani and Abu Sufyan and later Abul-Abbas, and Abu Abd Allah al-Shii in North Africa. Ibn Hawshab and Ali b. al-Fadl in Yaman, Hamdan Qarmat and Abdan in southern Iraq, the great Persian philosophers – Abu Hatim al-Razi, Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani and later Hamid al-din al-Kirmani in Persia and Central Asia, and an intellectual think tank – the Ikhwan al-Safa in Iraq and Syria. Some of these Dais came down to the period of zuhur, some revolted and put up a rival platform on Qarmatianism. What is important is that there was freedom of thinking and debating the different issues of society. It was an age of reason, not of blind following and closed minds.

The Brethren of Purity or the Ikhwan al-Safa say this in their Rasa’il: “Know that the truth is found in every religion (din) and is current in every tongue. What you should do, however, is to take the best and transfer yourself to it. Do not occupy yourself with imputing defects to the religions of people, rather try to see whether your religion is free from them.” (III, 501) Also, “Acquire knowledge, any type of knowledge, philosophical, legal mathematical, scientific or divine. All that is nourishment for the soul and life for it in this world and the Hereafter.” (III, 538) An ideal individual is described as “excellent, intelligent and possessing insight [as if] he is a Persian in origin, Arab in faith, a hanif in religion, an Iraqi in manners, a Hebrew in tradition, a Christian in conduct, a Syrian in devotion, a Greek in knowledge, an Indian in vision, a mystic (Sufi) in his way of life (sira), an angel in his morals, a leader (rabbani) in opinion, a divine (ilahi) in gnostic knowledge (maarif), and of everlasting qualities (samdani). (II, 376)

It is in this spirit that Fatimid learning, tradition and culture was founded and was manifested in the Daawa literature. I will not go into the details of the different schools of this literature – but will only name these different schools: There were the Haqaiq or philosophical works of dais such as Abu Hatim al-Razi, Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, Hamid al-din al-Kirmani and Jafar b. Mansur al-Yaman. These works are based on ta’wil (or esoteric interpretation) and were taught to a seeker after knowledge (mustajib) in the last stages of his training. They were, however, not secret as it is commonly imagined. The climax of Haqaiq literature is in the K. Rahat al-aql of al-Kirmani. The haqaiq literature consists of the neo-platonic architecture of the universe combined with the Islamic prophetology and further combined with the theory of continuing Imamate.

To another school belong the zahiri literature of law and history, of which the most prominent representative was the famous Qadi al-Numan. To this day his work Daaim al-Islam is our guide to Sharia. It shows that we today in following the Fatimid times, have not abrogated the sharia and in many respects are closer to the Sunnis than the Ithna Asharis.

The third school is that of the majalis or the Compendium literature. These are collections of lectures given by dais at various séances (majalis) of learning. They reflect not only doctrines, history and contemporary events, but also social issues and problems. The two most prominent works are Al-Majalis wa’l-musayarat of al-Qadi al-Numan and the Majalis of the eleventh century Dai al-Muayyad fid-din al-Shirazi.

It is interesting to note what the Dai al-Naysapuri says about the method of the dai’s work. He says that the Daawa is based on three foundations: knowledge, piety and policy.

There is also a literature about the organization of the Daawa such as the Dai Jafar b.Mansur al-Yaman’s Kitab al-Alim wal-ghulam on the training of a dai; the Dai Ahmad al-Naysaburi’s Kitab Mujizat al-Kafiya on the qualifications of a dai and several early and later works on the hierarchy of the hudud (i.e. the officers of the Daawa such as Bab al-Abwab, the Hujja, the Dai Balagh, the Dai Mutlaq, the Madhun and the Mukasir.)

It is interesting to note what the Dai al-Naysapuri says about the method of the dai’s work. He says that the Daawa is based on three foundations: knowledge, piety and policy. The policy, he says concerns self-discipline, secondly relating to the family and colleagues and lastly to the public. He then says that a dai’s main duty is talif al-qulub – joining of the hearts – bringing the muminin together:

I will not go into here the literature of the Druzes and the Nizaris. There was more of tawil among the Druzes and de-emphasizing the sharia among the Nizaris. The former developed in Syria and Lebanon; the latter in Persia. The former was in Arabic; the latter in Persian.

It is the Taiyibi Daawa of Yaman that is the true inheritor of the Fatimid tradition and learning. When the Fatimid Caliphate was under attack and subversion and it was thought that the great Daawa literature would be lost, at least a part of it was salvaged by the efforts of the Fatimid Chief Dai al-Muayyad and the Yamani Dai Balagh Lamak b. Malik al-Hammadi. Main Fatimid works of the above schools were transferred from Egypt to Yaman. The Yamani Daawa not only preserved the Fatimid works but contributed its own literature in each of those fields. The most prolific and original of the Yamani dais, among many, many other dais, need be mentioned. They are Dai Ibrahim al-Hamidi, his son Dai Hatim al-Hamidi, also Dai Idris Imad al-din al-Anf. Dai Hatim was the great preserver of the Fatimid literature and culture and the patron saint of the Yamani Daawa. The Yamani Daawa had many officers under the Dai Mutlaq who were also called dais and were great contributors to literature such as the Dai al-Khattab al-Hamdani and the Dai Muhammad al-Harithi.

Thanks to the transfer of the Taiyibi Daawa to India the Fatimid and Taiyibi literature was rescued from the attack of Zaydi, Sunni and Ottoman rulers and preserved in India. The Indian Dais welcomed the mashaikh, scholars from Yaman, who brought the manuscripts of this literature to India. One of the great Indian compilers of this literature was Hasan b. Nuh al-Bharuchi. Another scholar was Luqmanji b. Habibullah Rampuri who was given the title of Bab al-Ilm by the 39th Dai. His pupil Abd al-Rasul al-Majdu, also a great scholar was, however, associated with the Hibtiyya dissident movement.

One of the great Yamani scholars responsible for bringing this literature to India was al-Shaykh Ali b. Said b. Ali al-Yaaburi al-Hamdani about whose coming to India, Sayyidi Sadiq Ali, the famous poet of the Bohra community has a qasida. The 39th dai Ibrahim Wajih al-din was responsible for inviting him and patronizing other scholars. It was the 43rd dai Abd Ali Saifuddin (d. 1232/1817) who instituted a daras in Surat where this literature was avidly studied. A learned historian of the time was Qutbuddin Burhanpuri (d. 1826) who wrote his famous Muntazi al-Akhbar. Abd-i-Ali Imad al-din, b. Jiwa bhai Shahjahanpuri (d. 1271/1854) was a mentor of dais, a prolific writer and a consummate politician. Yet another scholar was Yusuf bhai Waliullah b. Abd Ali (d. 1295/1878).

The most respected scholar of the time and the one who did much to preserve Fatimid manuscripts was Muhammad Ali b. Fayd Allah b. Ibrahim b. Ali b. Said al-Yaburi al-Hamdani (d. 1315/1898).

These are but a few names. Those scholars conducted study-circles and were popular teachers. Their students would copy old manuscripts and they would correct them. These manuscripts were given to the teachers as their fees. This system created family libraries of Fatimid literature. Such were the Sayfi, the Wali, the Imadi and the Hamdani libraries. Many of the family libraries have been taken over by the last two dais by coercing the descendants of those scholars and threatening them with ex-communication. Thus the Kothar now possesses the largest collection, but is of no use to the world of scholarship for it has been removed from study. The purpose of this action is to make Tahir Saifuddin and his son Muhammad Burhanuddin the only points of reference for our culture, learning, literature and history. It is a process of throwing a curtain of ignorance over the community.

Fortunately the Hamdani family defied the Mullaji and made its collection of manuscripts available to both internal and foreign scholars thus opening up again and reviving the study of Fatimid literature and placing them at the disposal of modern research.

All the monies collected for a communal charity were his personal property. The class of Bhaisahibs of his family were now superior both socially and spiritually to the rest of the community.

I shall come back to this process again. It is of much relevance now to mention a traumatic event in our history that ushered in a religious tyranny and changed our tradition and culture. The 46th Dai Muhammad Badr al-din died in 1256/1840 without a nass (designation). The day before announcing the nass he was heavily poisoned and died instantaneously. The 47th Dai Abd al-Qadir Najmuddin succeeded him without a nass. He went about introducing a new organization of the community. The officers of the Daawa were now not the mashaikh (i.e. the Ulama) of the community but a class of Bhai Sahibs related to him. The Ulama faced with this dilemma arrived at a compromise. The Dai accepted that he was not a true dai but only a nazim (organizer) to save the community from falling apart.

The Ulama in turn did not mind making a public show of allegiance to him as a dai. Najmuddin was succeeded by his brother Husamuddin who became the next dai in 1302/1885 then by Najmuddin’s son Burhanuddin in 1308/1891, who in fact confirmed in writing his position only as a nazim. This was also the understanding of the next dai Badruddin, son of Husamuddin, who became the dai in 1323/1906. He suddenly died as a result of the shock that his designated, Tayyib b. Burhanuddin, was poisoned. Tahir Sayf al-din b. Muhammud Burhan al-din b. Abdul-Qadir Najmuddin assumed the position of the 51st dai without a nass in 133/1915 because his predecessor had not designated him and had not changed the original nass on his elder brother Tayyib.

It is during his time that the internal peace of the community was broken, not only because he insisted on his position as a valid dai mutlaq, denying the understanding about being a nazim, but also declaring that he is the sole proprietor of all waqf properties of the community; and all the monies collected for a communal charity were his personal property. The class of Bhaisahibs of his family were now superior both socially and spiritually to the rest of the community.

There were dissident movements before the event of 1840 – i.e. the breaking of the nass, such as the separation of the Sulaymanis from the Daudis, the Sunni Bohras, the Alia, Nagoshia and Hibtiyya movements that could be explained by the external pressures on our community from the Gujrat subedars of the Mughal emperors. The successions of Najmuddin and Tahir Saifuddin, however represented not an external cause but an internal usurpation. A tyranny had descended on the community which was not encouraged to prosper economically but coerced into submission, by extortion, breaking up of their businesses and families, physical violence and even murder by fanatical hoodlums and goondas.

In addition there was the systematic confiscation of the Daawa literature. It is now claimed that the Daawa encourages modern education. That education is devoid of the community’s knowledge of its past history. It is claimed that daras libraries contain Fatimid literature. These studies were made by scholars despite Mullaji’s locking up the manuscripts in his Kothar from manuscripts available from other families such as that of the Hamdani’s, the Zahid Ali’s and the Fyzee’s.

There are certain choke points in the life of an individual such as birth, confirmation (mithaq), khatna, marriage, burial, or stay in a musafarkhana, where an individual needs the Kothar’s help. These are the occasions to extort monies. A community member is asked to take raza (permission) at every step of his life. He is exhorted to change even the names of his children because with new names comes more salam money. A ridiculous example of extortion is to take a non-returnable deposit for growing a beard.

Raza (or fash) was given by a dai to a subordinate officer. It was not necessary for an individual member of the Daawa (i.e. a mumin) to have fash for any action of his.

A few words must be said about the institutions of mithaq, raza, and excommunication. Our Fatimid literature shows that Mithaq or Ahd was given to a Dai on accession to his office or on maturity of a child or on accepting a new convert. The oath was not renewed year after year or on one occasion after another. The oath affirmed the sharia and did not pledge jan (body) and mal (money) to the Dai. The type of oath taken now is a humiliating abject submission. Such oaths were not given even to the Imams.

Raza (or fash) was given by a dai to a subordinate officer such as amil to carry out his duties. It was not necessary for an individual member of the Daawa (i.e. a mumin) to have fash for any action of his. This has now plagued the community like an addiction to a drug and the profits of such an addiction go to the Kothar.

Now about excommunication – it was never there. Daawa means invitation – to include a person in the community; not to exclude him. In early days of the Indian Daawa when a rich individual wanted to donate a charity to the community, he would do it by salam, i.e. the blessing of the Dai. If the Dai was displeased with that individual he would not accept that the charity be done through him. This was called salam bandi. The salam was not the property of the Dai and the charity was a waqf for which accurate account was made public. Now salam is given to the Dai and all his entourage.

Salam bandi deteriorated into excommunication, making a person an outcast. This became jamat bahar with social ostracism and inciting the community against that person which sometimes led to murder by fanatical assassins – as it happened in the case of Mulla Abbasbhai Aurangabadi who was burnt with acid.

When excommunication was banned by law in India – a new method was adopted called baraa. We read about it in Yamani Daawa literature. It meant disassociation by the Dai from a subordinate officer who did not fulfill his duties. That is fash or raza was withdrawn. He was not excommunicated. And this did not apply to any individual member of the community. Now Bara’a has become a weapon to strike one down who does not abjectly surrender his jan and mal to the Dai.

Extortion is in the form of several taxes. There is zakat, then sila-fitra, then sabil, then haqqun-nafs, then nazar maqam, then khums and several donations of every hue and color – all unaccountable property of the Dai. Without a safai-chithi, i.e. a certificate of payment of all that, an individual is not allowed to marry, nor can he be buried in a qabrastan by his relatives.

The reform movement in the Daawa is against all those abuses – against a religious tyranny. It is a movement to free a mumin from this bondage. A history of the reform movement goes on and on from the defiance by the sons of Sir Admiji Peerbhai to Chanda Bhai gulla case to Burhanpur Durgah case to the agitation in Dahod and Godhra and Udaipur and Malegaon and many other places; to East Africa’s ouster of the Mullaji for illegal money-laundering, to the valiant leadership of Nomanbhai Contractor, members of the Pragati mandals, to martyrs like Abbasbhai Aurangabadi, to the lifelong suffering of Shaykh Faizullabhai Hamdani and his family; also the family of Ismailbhai Luqmani, of Fazlehusenbhai Lakdawala, to many unsung heroes of the movement whose sacrifices are legion. The climax of this is the life-long struggle of Asgharbhai Engineer. The movement has had many conferences before for soul searching till we now have come here today.

There are, however, many difficulties in our way. The mosques, the madrasas, the mazars, the musafarkhanas, the clinics, the qabrastans and the waqfs are mostly in the control of the Mullaji. We have tried to share them and failed. We have struggled for social reform without challenging the Mullaji’s spiritual leadership. This is our Achilles heel. Our modernization and technological advance, particularly in the new world and the new age is rivaled by the blind followers of the Mullaji. It was wrong to set up new separate spiritual leaderships – such as Sunni, Aliya, Nagoshia, Hiptiya, Mahdibaghwala, Pidribaghwala and Urtaliswala, etc., for these in turn became new platforms of religious tyranny. So where do we go from this impasse?

I humbly submit that we go back to the first reform which was based on our history – i.e. challenge the position of Mullaji’s daiship because in history after the event of 1256/1840 it was a usurpation. The dais were accommodated as nazims (organizers) by the learned mashaikh, but they have turned out to be nazims for their own interest.

We need to forge new institutions based on our past history, culture and literature and yet modern enough to have mosques, schools, qabrastans, banks, charities, scholarships, orphanages, sanatoriums, hospitals of our own, to help out our brethren in time of need, at marriage, burial, etc., to become independent; to use our modern technology for the service of the people and not for the service of the Mullaji. Our institutions should be apolitical and non-sectarian and open to all.

In absence of these we can always use the institutions of other Muslims – Sunnis and Shiite alike who will surely welcome us. Parsis did that. They served themselves and the larger community beyond them, without losing their identity and culture. This is the only way we can take pride in our Fatimid history and achievements, and it is a humanitarian and rational course.

Coming back to the Fatimid literature, we have noted that it was confiscated by Tahir Saifuddin, and the community was not allowed to see or read it except in limited and selected passages at the daras meant to train a class of loyal bureaucrats. In the 1930’s this literature began to surface from the libraries of scholars such as Dr. Husayn Hamdani, Ambassador A.A.A. Fyzee, and Dr. Zahid Ali. European universities and scholars such as Ivanow specialized in it and the last two Aga Khans patronized publications and research. We have reached a point where the Kothar will not be able to hide that literature anymore, and therein lies our hope.

This lecture was delivered on the occasion of the World Dawoodi Bohra Conference, 2001, Ontario, Canada, on Friday, August 3, 2001. The conference was organized by the Association of Progressive Dawoodi Bohras of Ontario.

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