Borhras and reform

Bohras in South and South East Asia


The Bohras are a Shi'ah Isma'ili sect, which branched off from main Shi'ah community, known as twelver (Ithna Ashari) Shi'ahs around mid 2nd century of Islam (ninth century A.D.). All Shi'ah sects believe that the Holy Prophet had nominated his son-in-law Ali as his heir both in spiritual as well as political sense.

However, the Sunni Muslims contest the Shi'ah claim that Ali was appointed as heir in political sense. However, most of the Sunnis accept Ali as Prophet's heir in spiritual sense, though not all. The Sunnis maintain that after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) Muslims gathered in the Saqifa Banu Sa'idah and elected his father-in-law Abu Bakr, as political successor and was designated as first Khalifah (Caliph) literally meaning one who comes after. Ali was elected as fourth Khalifah in that order. Those who maintained Ali was designated as his heir by the Prophet were called Shi'an-e-Ali as the word Shi'ah in Arabic means partisan. Thus partisans or disciples and followers of Ali were known as Shi'ah.

The Shi'ahs also believe that Ahl al-bayt (i.e. people of house of the Prophet) are sacred persons and only progeny of Fatima (Prophet's daughter) and Ali could be legitimate political and spiritual successors until the day of judgement (Qiyamah). The Shi'ahs believe in the doctrine of Imamah as against the Sunni Muslims who believe in the doctrine of Khilafah. Khilafah is based on the principle of bay'ah (pledging ones loyalty to a person to assume authority, an elective principle in a limited sense).

The Ithna Ashari Shi'ahs believe that Ali was the first imam after the Prophet whereas Isma'ilis believe that he was wasi (legatee) and not an Imam. According to the Isma'ilis the first imam was Ali's son Hasan whereas Hasan is second Imam according to twelver Shi'ahs. The split between Ithna Asharis and Isma'ilis took place on the question of succession to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (sixth Imam according to twelvers and 5th according to Isma'ilis).

The twelvers maintain that Imam Al-Sadiq was succeeded by his younger son Musa Kazim as his elder son Isma'il died during Imam Ja'far's life time. However, Isma'ilis maintain that though Isma'il died in Imam Ja'far's life time but he was succeeded by Muhammad, Isma'il's son. Thus according to the Isma'ilis Imam Isma'il succeeded Imam J'afar al-Sadiq and Isma'il in turn was succeeded by his son Muhammad.

It is interesting to note that most, though not all, Shi'ahs were non-Arabs and we can call them in terms of Toynbee's term external proletariat of Islam as the Khwarij (seceders) who were mostly Bedouin Arabs as internal proletariat of Islam.1 The Isma'ilis too, to begin with, were mostly of Persian origin. All Top Isma'ili preachers (da'is) were of Persian origin though there were many Arabs also among their followers. However, both in case of twelver as well as Isma'ili Shi'ahs leadership or imamah remained with descendants of the Prophet i.e. they were of Arab origin.

Islam was a revolutionary movement which tried to usher in a new political culture based on values of equality and justice but soon Islamic regimes also developed same old political culture based on dynasties and maintained though coercion and use of power rather than consensus and participation. Dr. Taha Husain, a noted Egyptian scholar, pithily observes:

"..it became apparent that this new government too (the caliphal regime after the death of the Prophet) which was expected to be of a new type at last adopted the same old course and like other old types of governments it too had to be based on vested interests, power politics and a class system in which a small minority of a particular nationality uses as its instrument a vast majority of peoples of different nationalities."2

Thus all though after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) we see disputes about succession between various ruling factions and some of which became reasons for coming into existence of new sects. The Isma'ili sect also came into existence as a result of dispute for succession to Imam J'afar al-Sadiq and once it assumed new sectarian identity, it developed a new set of doctrines to develop its own rationale of a new sect.

All Shi'ah sects were highly persecuted first by Umayyad rulers and then by Abbasids. Thus the Shi'ah sects particularly the twelvers and Isma'ilis had to develop a strategy for existence and hence they adopted what is called the doctrine of taqiyyah i.e. dissimulation. Most of the Shi'ahs tried to hide their real identity and pretended to be following Sunni madhhab (religion).

However, while the ordinary Isma'ilis practiced taqiyya the leaders went underground to avoid detection by the Abbasid rulers who were hunting for them everywhere. Most of the Isma'ili imams remained underground for a long period of time until Imam Abdullah al-Mahdi appeared and founded the Fatimid Dynasty in 297/909 North Africa.3 The Shi'ah sects believe in appearance of Imam Mahdi who will fill this earth with justice while it is filled with oppression. The Isma'ilis claim that Imam Mahdi appeared in North Africa whose name was Abdullah and founded Fatimid dynasty which is drawn from the progeny of Ali and Fatima.

However, the twelver Shi'ahs believe that Imam Mahdi is still in seclusion and will appear one day when this earth is filled with oppression. They are still waiting for appearance of the Mahdi. Thus Ithna 'Ashris and Isma'ilis though they agree on appearance of Mahdi but differ on whether he appeared or not.

The Isma'ilis also differed significantly from Ithna 'Asharis about their organisational structure. The Ithna Asharis have Imam at the top but then no other hierarchical structure around him. In Imam's seclusion various mujtahids (who interpret and lay down the Shari'ah laws) deputise him. But the Isma'ilis, being an underground movement for quite sometime, developed a well- structured hierarchy with Imam at the top. The Imam is followed by 12 hujjahs (proofs) who in turn appoint number of da'is (summorners). There was whole network of these da'is actively inviting other Muslims to embrace Isma'ili faith. The da'is in turn were actively assisted by ma'dhun (direct assistant to da'I who is also permitted to summon to the faith) and mukasir (assistant to ma'dhun in convincing people for Isma'ili faith being the only right faith).

Thus this tight hierarchy functioned under the hidden leadership of imam of the time (Imam al-Zaman). It is also important to note that Isma'ilis succeeded in attracting well-known intellectuals of the Islamic world, as it appeared to be quite rational and liberal faith to many of them. Intellectuals like Ya'qub Sijistani, Hamidudin Kirmani, Mu'ayyad Shirazi were da'is who actively worked for Fatimid Imams. It is claimed by Isma'ilis that even scholars and philosophers and intellectuals like Avicena (Abu Sina), Ghazzali and others were also at one time Isma'ili da'is. However, it is very difficult to substantiate such claims.

The Shi'ah sects believe in what is called ta'wil i.e. hidden and real meaning of the Qur'anic verses. The Sunnis maintain that ta'wil i.e. real meaning of the Qur'an is known to Allah alone but the Shi'ah sects (both Twelvers as well as Isma'ilis) believe that besides Allah ta'wil is known to Imams through the Prophet and Ali. While Twelvers did not develop science of ta'wil systematically, Isma'ilis did.

The Isma'ili da'is explained each and every verse of the Qur'an, particularly those verses which fall under the category of what the Qur'an refers to as mutashabihat (i.e. those verses which are capable of more than one meaning). The Isma'ilis borrowed heavily from the then popular Greek philosophy and Greek sciences. The Isma'ili da'is wrote several treatises expounding their doctrines and their philosophy.

Their magnum opus is Ras'il Ikhwan al-Safa (The Epistles of Brethren of Purity). It is by any account an encyclopaedic work on Islam. However, there is great controversy about its authorship. Nevertheless the Isma'ilis claim that it was authored by one of their Imams in seclusion who is identified as Husayn al-Mastur i.e. Husayn the Hidden one. Whatever the truth of this claim, one cannot deny significance of this encyclopaedic work.

The Isma'ilis again faced a major schism at the time of 18th Imam Mustansir. His two sons Nizar and Must'ali claimed successionship to the Fatimid throne after the death of Imam Mustansir. Musta'li was supported by the ruling establishment and he succeeded Mustansir as the 19th Imam (for Bohras) and Fatimid ruler. Nizar was driven out and lost to Must'ali in a military confrontation.

The Bohra theologians claim that Imam Mustansir had nominated Musta'li as his successor as the next Imam and ruler. The Nizaris (also known as Isma'ilis or Agakhanis) reject this claim. Nizaris maintain that Nizar was the successor and Imamate continued in his progeny. Both Isma'ilis and Bohras are found throughout South Asia and South East Asia. Both interestingly are trading communities, particularly in South and South East Asia. And in South Asian Muslims these two Shi'ah Isma'ili communities are the only trading Muslim communities, besides Memons, who are Sunnis.

These trading communities are hardly interested in theological issues and elaborate hidden meaning of Qur'an developed by the da'is who were leading intellectuals of the day. The Khoja Agakhanis and Bohras today are an obedient lot to the priestly hierarchy developed by the Isma'ilis in medieval ages. It is interesting to note that Islam as such has no concept of priesthood, much less any priestly hierarchy. However, all Isma'ili sects, all of them, Agakhani Khojas, Druz of Lebanon and Bohras, which are surviving sects, developed priestly hierarchy.

The Bohras, who were themselves divided into several sub-sects like Sulaymanis, Aliyas and Dawoodis, have more elaborate priestly structure. The Dawoodis, the most major sect among all in South Asia, have retained the structured developed by the Isma'ilis, in their earliest time. The Aliyas too, a small sub-sect, numbering around 12000 are mainly based in Baroda, an industrial city in Gujarat. They are also basically a trading community.

The origin of Bohras in India

After declining of Fatimd Empire in Egypt, the seat of Fatimi Da'wah (Mission) was transferred to the Yemen where Fatimids could retain their political influence. Here It should be noted that when the Isma'ilis were ruling in Egypt their empire was called Fatimid Empire but they kept separate identity of their religious establishment which they called Fatimi Da'wah i.e. Fatimid Mission. The reason for maintaining separate religious mission was that the majority population of Egypt was Sunni and they did not share their religious beliefs with their rulers.

Along with their Empire the Fatimd Mission also lost its value in Egypt and hence they thought it fit to transfer the Da'wah to the Yemen where they retained political power. The ruler of Yemen, Hurrah Malika Arwa', a woman of great wisdom and administrative skills, supported the Fatimid rule and retained her loyalty to Fatimi Imams and hence for this reason Fatimi Da'wah was also transferred to Yemen. It remained there for about 4 centuries and when the Fatimids lost power in Yemen after Turkish invasions, the Da'wah (mission) was transferred to India in sixteenth century.4

In fact the Mission had established its contacts with Indians right at the time of Imam Mustansir, the 18th Isma'ili Imam in 12th century A.D. Two Arab missionaries, Da'I Ahed and Da'I Abdulla came to Gujarat and succeeded in converting a large number of people to the Isma'ili faith. However it is very difficult to determine as to how many Hindus converted to the Must'alian Isma'ili faith on the hands of the two Da'is Abdullah and Ahmed. There are no documents available. Every thing is wrapped in myths. The whole account of conversion to the new faith is mythological account and not historical, in the books of Fatimi Da'wah in India.

However, what is certain is that those who converted were mostly from middle caste Hindus, the trading castes though some converted from upper caste Brahmins also as the surviving surnames like Travadi (Trivedi) etc. show. But instances of such upper caste conversions to Musta'lian faith are very rare. Also, one can only surprise as to what led the middle caste Hindus to embrace this faith.5

There is also as debate among scholars as to how the name 'Bohra' came into being. Most common consensus is that trading caste a section of which converted to the new faith is that the members of the trading caste were known as Vohras which itself has been drawn from vehwarvu (i.e. to trade) and vehwar (trade). In northern parts of India 'va' becomes 'ba' and thus vohra became Bohra.6

The Bohras kept on splitting and first major split took place in the early period of Bohra history i.e. in 15th century during the reign of Ahmed Shah, son of Muzaffar Shah. One Ja'far, who himself was an Indian covert to the Isma'ili faith, aspired to be deputy Da'I in India and when he couldn't get the office of deputy Da'I, he converted to Sunni Faith and took away with him large section of Shi'ah Bohras who were then known as Sunni Bohras.7 They ended to be rural cultivators as against city traders - Shi'ah Bohras.8

Thus in Gujarat we find both Si'ah Isma'ili Bohras and Sunni Bohras. Sunni Bohras, some of them, are in trades too. But there is not much in common between the two except Gujarati language and traces of Gujarati culture. In religious sense Sunni Bohras are much closer to other Sunni Muslims and have no priestly hierarchy. Also, they (Sunni Bohras) far outnumber the Dawoodis today. That shows a large chunk of Shi'ah Isma'ili Bohras converted to the Sunni faith as they had patronage of Sunni rulers while the Isma'ili Bohras were a persecuted lot.

The persecution of Shi'ah Bohras continued until the Moghal period and according to the Bohra accounts one of their Da'is, Sayyidna Qutbuddin was martyred by Aurangzeb, the then Moghul Governor of province of Gujarat, who later became Emperor of India. Though the Bohras originated in Gujarat and their mother tongue is Gujarati, many of them were forced to migrate out of Gujarat to various other parts of India.

Thus one finds Dawoodi Bohras in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, besides Gujarat and also in some trading centres like Calcutta (now called Kolkata), Hyderabad, Chennai (formerly called Madras), Bangalore and some other cities in the South like Cochin, Calicut etc. We will throw more light on this later.

The second major split among the Bohras took place in 16th Century during the period of Moghul Emperor Akbar. Their arose dispute between two aspirants for Da'iship i.e. Dawood bin Qutubshah and Sulayman. The Dawoodis maintain that Dawood bin Qutubshah was rightfully appointed as Da'i by his predecessor Dawood bin Ajabshah but Sulaymanis claim that it was Sulayman who succeeded as Da'I and his followers were known as Sulaymanis whereas those followed Dawood bin Qutubshah were known as Dawoodi Bohras.

Sulaymani had few followers among Indian but a large number went with him in the Yemen and most of the Bohras in India followed Dawood bin Qutubshah in India. The Dawoodis claim that the dispute went to Moghul Emperor Akbar and that Akbar ruled in favour of Dawood bin Qutubshah. While the Sulaymanis refute this claim.9 Anyway the Dawoodis are the largest among Bohras in India. Thus in India we find three sub-sects of Bohras in today - Dawoodis, Sulaymanis and Aliyas. Sulaymanis are concentrated in Hyderabad where their deputy Da'I lives and Aliya Bohras live mainly in Baroda in Gujarat where their Chief Da'I lives.

The Dawoodi Bohras call their religious establishment as Fatimi Da'wah of which a Da'I is the head. All three sects of Bohras mentioned above do not differ substantively in religious beliefs and have same priestly hierarchy - Imam at the head but in seclusion and da'I al-Mutlaq (da'I who enjoys absolute power in the absence of Imam whose appearance is awaited) followed by ma'dhun al-Da'wah, next in hierarchy and followed by mukasir al-Da'wah.

However, this hierarchy is now more formal than real. During the active period of Da'wah in Arabia this hierarchy had definite functions. A mukasir used to convince Sunni Muslims and