Borhras and reform

On the Dawoodi Bohra Reformist Struggle: Interview with Abid Adeeb

The Dawoodi Bohras, ethnic Gujaratis, are a roughly million strong group of the Mustalian branch of the Ismaili Shia Muslims. They are controlled by an elaborate hierarchy of priests, headed by the dai-e mutlaq, who claims to be the representative of the 21st imam of the community, who is believe to have gone into seclusion or ghayba in the eleventh century. Faced with stern Sunni opposition, the 24th dai of the community shifted to Gujarat in the twelfth century. The present dai, Syedna Burhanuddin, is the 52nd dai of the community, and this year he will celebrate his 100th birthday.

For several years, a number of Bohras have been speaking out against the corruption and oppressive practices of Burhanuddin, also accusing him of levying a number of taxes on the community and various other un-Islamic practices. The Bohra reformist struggle was launched in Udaipur in the 1970s, and today has spread to different parts of the world where Bohras live. Last week, some three thousand Bohras gathered at Udaipur to participate in the 14th World Dawoodi Bohra Conference in order to galvanise the movement against the Syedna's oppression.

In this interview given to Yoginder Sikand for, the chief organiser of the conference, Abid Adeeb, President of the Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat of Udaipur, and Vice-President of the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, the international federation of reformist Bohras, speaks about the ongoing movement against the Syedna's oppression that, lamentably, has received little media attention.

Q: You are among the pioneers of the the reformist movement in Udaipur, which later spread elsewhere. How did it all begin?

A: As a young man, in the 1950s, I saw for myself how the Syedna and his Kothar, the Bohra religious establishment, were crassly misusing religion to make money by fleecing the credulous in the name of Islam. I saw, even at that young age, how it was all about money and nothing to do with religion, although religion was routinely invoked to legitimise this big business. I saw how when people refused to pay up to the Syedna and his cronies, they were cruelly insulted. And that is why I decided to speak out.

In the mid-1960s, a group of young Bohras in Udaipur had started a group, called the Saifi Imdadia Committee, to help needy members of the community. We collected old textbooks to give to students, and unused medicines to donate to the poor. Gradually, our work for empowering the community bore fruit, and we helped a lot of young Bohras to go in for higher education. A Bohra trader in East Africa helped us with money for our projects. This was not liked by the Syedna and his men. They did not want us to progress, to get educated, because they feared that this would undermine their influence and authority. The Syedna instructed us to stop working with this Bohra trader, calling him a 'hypocrite'. We refused to listen to this order. We said we could not call someone who helped the needy in our community as our enemy. The Syedna's men even offered me money to relent, but I refused to accept it. Gradually, some Bohra youths began to see through the tricks of the Syedna, but, barring myself and a few others, they were too scared to speak out for fear of being excommunicated.

In the 1970 municipal elections in Udaipur, we in the Saifi Imdadia Committee decided to field four candidates, including myself, but the Syedna and his men opposed us and fielded four other Bohras, who were their henchmen, instead. Because of the community work we had done, and also because we had helped a number of Bohras who had been hit by a wave of communal riots, we won the elections, and the four candidates of the Syedna lost. The Syedna took this to be a personal insult. Some time later, we organised a joint Eid-Diwali function to promote communal harmony, as Udaipur had just then been rocked by deadly communal violence, in which many Bohras suffered greatly. The Syedna issued an order denouncing this, labelling us as kafirs for organising a function to celebrate what he called a kafir festival. But we refused to relent.

By this time, a number of educated Bohra youth, thoroughly fed-up of the corrupt ways of the Syedna and his Kothar, set up a group of their own, the Bohra Youth Association, to work for the educational and empowerment of the community. To help Bohra families establish and expand their businesses, we established the Udaipur Urban Cooperative Bank. This the Syedna took as a threat to him and his authority, and he issued a farman calling for the banning of both our association and the bank. He even sent a letter to the Reserve Bank of India, asking it to inquire into our bank's affairs. The Reserve Bank sent a team and found that the allegations against the bank were false, and they gave us a certificate of approval. Now the bank is one of the most successful cooperative banks in Rajasthan, with more than a dozen branches. So, the Syedna's machinations to stop the mounting resentment against him within the community failed.

Then, the Syedna used the most dangerous weapon that he has in his armoury—baraat, or excommunication. He declared that all of us—several dozen people—to be out of the Bohra fold. No Bohras could have any social relations with us. We could no longer even meet our relatives, not even speak to them on the phone. He even ordered that our marriages had been dissolved, and so dozens of men and women who dared to challenge his authority were automatically divorced. We were banned from the Bohra mosques. He issued a farman saying that no Bohra could pray in a Bohra mosque without his permission or raza, and this rule continues till today. And, to strengthen his control over the community he declared that he was the sole trustee of all the many Bohra trusts all over India. Shortly after, in order to deviously project himself as a pious Muslim, and also to drive a wedge between the reformists and his followers, he issued a fatwa making it mandatory for all Bohra men to wear a special sort of cap and for Bohra women to wear a distinctive form of burqa, although this was not the case before.

For several years we reformists here in Udaipur were faced with heinous oppression. Numerous Bohra businesses were destroyed as employees who dared to question the Syedna's dictatorship were forcibly thrown out of their jobs. Scores of Bohras were denied the right to be buried in Bohra cemeteries, and there were several cases in which the police had to be called in to allow deceased Bohras to be buried. Three times curfew had to be imposed to prevent clashes in the town as the Syedna's cronies attacked us.

By the early 1980s, news of the reformist struggle in Udaipur spread to other parts of India. Elsewhwere too, increasing numbers of Bohras were fed up of the corrupt ways of the Syedna. Some of them dared to speak out, and were inevitably excommunicated. But the vast majority were and are forced into silence for fear of being ex-communicated, although they know well the rampant corruption of the Syedna and his establishment.

To spearhead the Bohra reformist struggle, every three years the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, the international body of reformist Bohras, of which I am the Vice-President, organises a conference to campaign against the corruption of the Bohra priesthood. Because of the vast political and financial clout that the Syedna wields, political parties and the media are loathe to touch him. But we have to continue to speak out.

Q:The Syedna is regarded by the Bohras as dai-e mutlaq, or absolute guide of the community, and you say that he is misusing this position to enrich himself. Is this a new development? Doesn't the very position of dai-e mutlaq lend itself to abuse because of the totalitarian powers that go with it?

A: The Bohras believe that before their 21st Imam went into seclusion, he established the institution of dai-e mutlaq to protect the community and to guide its affairs at a time when the Ismailis were being hounded by their Sunni opponents as heretics. In that historical context, the institution of dai played a key role in keeping the community together. It implied merely religious control, but the present Syedna's father, the 51st dai, Tahir Saifuddin, changed it to mean total control over every aspect of the Bohras' lives. He claimed to be 'the master of their lives and properties' (jan-o-mal ka malik)! And the present dai continues in that tradition set by his father. This is what we are against. We say that this is a total abuse of the position of dai, that this is a new innovation that has no sanction in our religion. What we are saying is that the Syedna has deviated from our religion, that we want the dai to be our religious leader but not to exceed the bounds of a dai, in accordance with the established principles of our faith. But the Syedna and his cronies persist in spreading misinformation about us, wrongly accusing us of being against religion, and of being heretics.

To set the record straight, corruption among the dais did not start with Syedna Burhanuddin. The story goes back to the 47th dai, Abdul Qadir Najmuddin, who established the hereditary rule of a single family that still continues. He was the great-grandfather of Burhanuddin. There are terrible stories alleging how he came to power by removing the 46th dai. Some even claim that the 46th dai was poisoned. Corruption and rampant nepotism began with Najmuddin, who filled the Kothar with his men. The 51st dai, Tahir Saifuddin, father of Burhanuddin, went to enormous lengths in corruption. He dispossessed rich Bohras of their wealth. He even commanded the Bohras to prostrate before him, although sajda or prostration is, in Islam, meant for God alone. In a statement before the Bombay High Court, he even declared, in complete violation of Islam, that he was God on earth (ilah ul-ard). Scores of irate Bohras instituted cases in the courts against him for his corrupt practices.

In Tahir Saifuddin's time, between the two world wars, a small number of Bohras witnessed considerable economic prosperity. Some of them won lucrative government contracts. Many migrated abroad and prospered. And so, new avenues were opened to Tahir Saifuddin to make money. He imposed new taxes on the Bohras, many of which have no sanction whatsoever in Islam. Today, the Bohras have to cough up money to the priests, to the Syedna and his amils or representatives, on every conceivable occasion, including birth, marriage or opening a new business. If they refuse, they can easily be excommunicated. Tahir Saifuddin, and then, after him, his son Burhanuddin, have become immensely rich in this way. Burhanuddin lives and behaves like a king. He styles his sons as shehzadas or 'princes', and his daughters as shehzadis or 'princesses'. This has no sanction at all in our religion. Burhanuddin's extended family is almost 1000 in number, and most of them are exceedingly rich. But this is not their hard-earned money. Rather, they have fattened on the taxes they extract from the Bohras, for which they refuse to provide the community with accounts. They care nothing at all for the poor in the community, who, too, are forced to part with their money. This entire family, which was once poor, now has assets worth thousands of crores! I can't even begin to explain and recount the terrible, criminal scandals, financial and moral, of the family.

Faced with the challenge of the reformists, Burhanuddin once in a while makes a big show of donating some small sums of money ostensibly to the poor, but most of even this meagre amount does not reach the intended beneficiaries because the money is eaten up by his henchmen, particularly the amils, whom he has appointed in every town where Bohras live.

Q: You have been struggling for years to highlight the oppression and corruption of the Bohra priesthood. What has the reaction to your struggle been from political parties? Have they supported the cause?

A: Political parties are simply too scared of taking on the Syedna. In fact, there must certainly be some sort of give-and-take, including exchange of money, between the Syedna and various political parties, a relationship that works both ways. In this way, the Syedna keeps the parties happy and they refuse to take any action against him, despite clear evidence of his oppression ad corruption. They remain silent on the enormous corruption in the Bohra priesthood for fear of losing Bohra votes. It is common knowledge that the Syedna has a very good relationship even with Narendra Modi, the man behind the 2002 Gujarat anti-Muslim genocide.

Let me illustrate my claim about the give-and-take relationship between the Syedna and political parties with an anecdote. Many years ago, when VP Singh was a Minister in Rajiv Gandhi's cabinet, a delegation of Bohra reformists went to meet him. He very categorically told the delegation that parties give many influential Sunni Muslim maulvis money and, in turn, the latter supply them with Muslim votes, but that the case of the Bohras was exceptional—in their case, the Syedna provided parties with both money and votes.

Q: I am always struck by the fact that while the Quran stridently opposes the institution of priesthood, the maulvis, who function like clergy or priests, continue to enjoy a vast influence among Muslims. Of course, in the Bohra case this is even more extreme than among the Sunnis. How do you account for this?

A: In the Sunni case, part of the reason for this has to do with widespread illiteracy and poverty, and the consequent lack of true knowledge of Islam. So, people blindly believe, without thinking, whatever they maulvis tell them, wrongly taking that to be the real Islam. Many maulvis conveniently twist religion to bolster their own authority and worldly interests. It's all a question of their vested interests, not piety. If people understood Islam really as it is, they would know how important it is to think for themselves—the Quran repeatedly stresses this. They would know that Islam does not countenance priesthood.

But many mullahs don't want people to know all this as it would undermine their authority. And so they conveniently distort Islamic teachings to suit themselves. They do not want people to understand Islam as it really is. This is not a new development, of course. It goes back to early times, when people started fabricating hadith reports on a massive scale and falsely attributed them to the Prophet simply in order to promote their vested interests. Lamentably, when the reformists point all this out, they are quickly branded by the clerics as heretics, simply because what we say undermines their authority and worldly interests.

Q: If, as you allege, the present Syedna is so terribly oppressive and corrupt, why don't the reformists simply leave the Dawoodi Bohra community, especially given the fact that most Dawoodi Bohras, despite possibly being aware of all this, still regard him as their religious leader and so will probably not support your cause?

A: That is precisely what the Syedna wants, because if we take such a step we will cease to be Dawoodi Bohras and then shall have no standing or right to criticise his ways from within. In this way, Burhanuddin he can continue with his dictatorial and corrupt ways free of any internal pressure. We reformers are followers of our religious tradition and are pained to see how it is being misused. Why should we abandon our faith just because some people are misusing it? Instead of seceding from our community, like some dissenting groups have in the past, we want to reform it from within. That is why we say that we recognise Syedna Burhanuddin as the dai-e mutlaq, but we insist that he should not exceed the limits of the dai-e mutlaq by claiming, as he does, to be the 'master of our lives and property'. Instead, as in the case of the dais before the 47th dai, he should confine himself to purely religious roles. He must cease forthwith the un-Islamic taxes he imposes on us and the financial scandals, which have turned him and his vast family into billionaires. He should give us proper accounts as to how the enormous wealth that he earns from us is being used. He must also cease un-Islamic practices such as forcing Bohras to prostrate before him and claiming that if without his assistance or if we incur his wrath, Bohras will be doomed to hell. We refuse to stop speaking out because Islam tells us to stand up for what is right and true and to denounce oppression, even if some people wrongly seek to justify oppression in its name.

A regular columnist for, Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.

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