Dawoodi Bohras - Features

Three great Bohra scholars of 20th century

Dawoodi Bohras  are not used to reading "Borha" and "scholar" in the same sentence. So it may come as a surprise to learn about these three great Bohra scholars (two Dawoodi and one Suleimani) of the 20th century. Many of us have not heard about them because independent studies and research into religious knowledge is actively discouraged by the Bohra priestly class. It considers religious knowledge as its exclusive domain, and as such zealously controls all our great Ismaili and Fatimid literature. Those who show any sign of indpendent scholarship are ex-communicated and banished as heretics.

But those whose love for knowledge is pure and ture do not care about preistly edicts. Dr. Ismail K. Poonawla, himself an ex-communicated Bohra scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies, profiles these three eminent scholars here and highlights their contribution to and advancement of Ismaili and Fatimid studies.

Zahid Ali (1888-1958)

He was born in Hyderabad, Deccan, to a distinguished family. His father was a learned shaykh and a prominent leader in the community. He received his early education in the Dar al-Ulum madrasa in Hyderabad and later in Saify Daras, Surat. After obtaining D.Phil. in Arabic from Oxford University he joined Nizam College, Hyderabad, as a professor of Arabic and later became vice-Principal of the College.

He was fluent in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English. His access to an extensive range of Ismaili primary sources (in manuscript form) enabled him to produce three widely acclaimed works of research.

1. A critical edition in Arabic with commentary of the Diwan of the famous Fatimid poet Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi (Cairo, 1933).

2. History of the Fatimids in Egypt, written in Urdu (Hyderabad, 1948). (Tarikh-I Fatimiyyin-I Misr)

3. The True Nature of Our Ismaili Faith and its Organization, in Urdu (Hyderabad, 1954). (Hamare Ismaili mazhab ki haqiqat awr uska nizam) It is a compendium of Ismaili doctrines as professed by the Bohras.

Zahid Ali published these works at a time when the Bohra religious establishment ruled with an iron fist and maintained very strict control of doctrinal secrecy even from its own community. As a result he encountered great hostility and was excommunicated.

His son, the late Abid Ali, on my advice, moved the entire collection of Ismaili manuscripts from Hyderabad to Los Angles and donated it to the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.  The catalogue was published by the Institute in 2003.

Husayn al-Hamdani (1901-1962)

He was born in Surat to an illustrious family of scholars whose genealogy goes back two centuries to the renowned scholar Shaykh Ali b. Sa’id al-Hamdani of Haraz, Yemen, who was invited to India by the thirty-ninth da’i Ibrahim Wajih al-Din. Shaykh Ali brought with him from Yemen a large collection of Isma’ili manuscripts. Since then the family has continuously maintained its scholarly tradition and its private collection of Ismaili manuscripts, one of the finest, has benefited innumerable scholars. Al-Hamdani received his early education from his father Shaykh Fayz Allah and obtained an MA in Arabic from Bombay University. He then traveled to England and received his Ph.D. from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. After his return he joined M. T. B. College in Surat and then was appointed Professor of Arabic at Ismail Yusuf College, Bombay. He taught there from 1932 to 1948. Then, he moved to newly- created Pakistan and was appointed Cultural Attaché at the Embassy of Pakistan in Cairo, Egypt. In 1950 he was appointed Professor of Persian and Semitic philology at the College of Dar al-Ulum in Cairo by the renowned scholar Taha Husayn, then the minister of education. Soon he was appointed Cultural Attaché of the Yemen Embassy in Cairo, and was honored by the then Imam/ruler of Yemen with Yemeni citizenship.

He was fluent in English, Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Gujarati, German, and French. Besides those languages he had acquired good knowledge of ancient Semitic languages and pre-Islamic South Arabian script. His numerous articles, such as “The Life and Times of Queen Sayyeda Arwa,” “History of the Ismaili Da’wat and its Literature during the Last Phase of the Fatimid Empire,” “Some Unknown Isma’ili Authors and Their Works,” “The Letters of al-Mustansir bi’llah,” “A Compendium of Isma’ili Esoterics,” were pioneering works as they introduced the whole range of secretly preserved Ismaili literature, once thought to have been destroyed, to modern scholarship. Among his major works is The History of the Sulayhid Dynasty and its Doctrines in Arabic (Cairo, 1955). During the last years of his life he was engaged in preparing a critical edition of Razi’s Kitab al-Zina, a dictionary of Arabic-Islamic terms. Before he died he had finished one fourth of it and it was published in two parts (Cairo, 1957-58).

Hamdani family had one of the richest collections of Ismaili manuscripts, but unfortunately it was divided among the family members. A sizeable portion was preserved by Fayd Allah in Surat. A number of good manuscripts from this collection were in the possession of Husayn al-Hamdani when he moved to Cairo. After the latter’s death when his son Professor Abbas Hamdani moved to Cairo and I helped him to retrieve those manuscripts. Subsequently, this whole collection was moved by Abbas Hamdani to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, and was donated to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. Its catalog was published in 2011.

Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee (1899-1981)

He was born in Matheran, near Poona, to a well-known Tyabjee family of Sulaymani Bohra. His grandfather Tyabjee, the merchant prince of Bombay, visited Europe in 1853, and was one the first Muslims in Bombay to send his sons to England for education. Following the family tradition Fyzee studied at Cambridge University and was then called to the bar. On his return to India in 1926 he practiced law in the Bombay High Court. In 1938 he was appointed the Perry Professor of Islamic Jurisprudence and Principal of the Government Law College, Bombay. In 1949 he was appointed as India’s ambassador to Egypt. The last public office held by him was that of vice-chancellor of Jammu and Kashmir University. In recognition of his long and innumerable public services the Indian government honored him with the title “Padma Bhusan” in 1962.

He started his scholarly career with the publication of Introduction to the Study of Muhammadan Law in 1931. The first edition of his Outlines of Muhammadan Law, published in 1949 and followed by several subsequent editions, still remains the best introduction to the Anglo-Muhammadan law of the Indian subcontinent. However, it should be noted that the first chapter entitled “Introduction to the study of Muhammadan law,” is dated as it was written almost half a century ago. His various articles on Isma’ili law and its founder Qazi Nu’man were pioneering. Da’a’im al-Islam, the most important Isma’ili law book, was edited by him (Cairo, 1951-61). The fruits of his research are summed up in Compendium of Fatimid Law (Simla, 1969). He was a great advocate of change in Muslim personal and family law. On reinterpretation of Islam his short volume A Modern Approach to Islam (Bombay, 1963) is quite remarkable.  He is considered an eminent scholar of Muslim law in the Indian subcontinent.

Professor Fyzee donated his collection of Ismaili manuscripts to the University of Bombay, where it is preserved and a descriptive catalogue was published in 1965.

* A personal note by Ismail Poonawala, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles: I was acquainted with the works of Zahid Ali through my father Mulla Qurban Husayn while I was young. My father corresponded with Zahid Ali until he died in 1952. I studied with Husayn al-Hamdani in Cairo, 1960-63. I came to know Asaf Fyzee in California when he was a visiting professor at UCLA, Law School, in 1965 and since then I maintained regular contact with him until he passed away. I cherish wonderful memories and conversations with him at lunch or dinner times at his home in Bombay.