Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

Dawoodi Bohras at the funeral of Sayenda Mohammed Burhanuddin. Photo courtesy:

Dawoodi Bohras in turmoil over succession dispute

Vying for power: Old habits Dai hard

As if one Dai were not enough for Dawoodi Bohras. Now they are burdened with two. The dust on Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s grave has hardly settled and his family is at each other’s throats, vying for power. For the past two years there was the Mansoos (successor designate) Mufaddal Saifuddin. He was apparently conferred the Nass (investiture) by Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. But following his death his younger half-brother and deputy Khuzema Qutbuddin has also staked a claim to Daiship. That he was in the running for the post was always suspected. But it is the timing of his announcement that has sent the Bohra world into a tailspin.

The battlelines are drawn, the sons of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (SMB) on one side and the family of his brother Khuzema Qutbuddin on the other. At stake is the Dawat, a quasi-religious fiefdom that commands a staggering financial empire and about a million pliant followers. Dawoodi Bohras, the hapless community, which SMB took so much pride in uniting, stands broken. And betrayed. For almost 100 years they obeyed orders and kept their peace. Their masters apparently could not. If they had a standing army there would be bloodshed. Today as the Dais duke it out, Bohras look on with shame, dismay and disbelief. This nightmare scenario is the stuff of the legends. Even if you tried you couldn’t have made it up.

Yet, this is not the first time the masters have fallen out with each other. Nor will it be the last. Schism it seems has always bedeviled the Ismailis, despite the divine presence of the Imam, hidden or otherwise. Ismaili history is awash with sects created as a result of succession disputes. The Imam is tasked with guiding the faithful, but guiding a smooth transition of power seems to have baffled him - repeatedly and spectacularly. There are any number of Ismaili Imams/Dais today who all invoke exclusive divine right to guide the faithful. To their credit, the faithful have still kept faith.                    

For Dawoodi Bohras that faith is being tested today. Torn between two rivals, history is asking them to make that call again. Doctrinally, it is not their call. Never was. Choosing a Dai was never an option, yet every time there was a dispute and their loyalties were challenged they made their choice. Then as now, the choice is hard to make – at least for those who can think for themselves. But for Bohras that faculty has long been mortgaged to the clergy.

And now that the clergy is split, confusion is rampant. Both contenders claim Haq (Truth) to be on their side. In the flurry of claims and counter-claims, that truth is hard to uncover. But it is important to find some clarity. It is important that people think through this and form an informed opinion. Get united and make an informed choice, if it comes to that. So let’s begin with the dramatis personae: Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, Khuzema Qutbuddin, Mufaddal Saifuddin and the Bohras.

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

Clearly, if SMB had played his cards right the community wouldn’t be in such a mess today. It only takes common sense to know that you can’t leave the crucial issue of succession hanging. But SMB was also the haq na saheb (master of truth) and gayab na jannar (knower of the unknown). Invested with such powers, there is no excuse not to know what was to come. If he had passed on the Nass on Khuzema Qutbuddin (as the latter claims) then why did he do it in private? Why did he ask Khuzema Qutbuddin to not reveal it until appropriate time? And what appropriate time had he in mind? Questions abound, and now that he is dead, they remain unanswered.

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

For commoners it is all too easy to expect a smooth transfer of power. But uneasy is the head that wears the crown. Apparently SMB was caught between conflicting loyalties: the secret Nass to his brother on one hand and his domineering sons on the other. Unwilling to provoke a confrontation SMB chose to remain silent. Couldn’t he foresee that his silence will throw the community in turmoil? Destroy its peace and unity? In his lifetime SMB managed to unite the Bohras but alas could not unite his own family. As a consequence there is a splintered community, which perhaps may yet be his lasting legacy. The devotees of course refuse to blame SMB, arguing that being an infallible Dai he in his infinite wisdom knew what he was doing. Are we to suppose then that if the community is in a mess today there must be some hiqmat (wisdom) in it?                     

Khuzema Qutbuddin

Khuzema Qutbuddin, sadly, has come late to the party. What puzzles everyone is the timing of his declaration. If he knew he was the next Dai why didn’t he speak up when Mufaddal Saifuddin came into the picture two years ago? Wasn’t that the most appropriate time? The matter would have been settled when SMB was still alive. But by then SMB had suffered a stroke that had rendered him speechless (his yen for silences now seemingly found an ally in a failing body). There is a speculation though that if Khuzema Qutbuddin had laid his claim then, the clique around the Dai would have issued a denial in the name of the Dai. Sidelined and much vilified already, probably Khuzema Qutbuddin didn’t want to take that chance.

Khuzema Qutbuddin

Khuzema Qutbuddin

Even so, there is the matter of Nass itself. He claims that it was done in private some 50 years ago, but there are no witnesses and there is no documentary proof. His website makes a detailed and painstaking case for his claim. Much of the evidence it offers is circumstantial and ritualistic, as to how he was loved and honoured by the Dai and how his rutba (position) as Mazun inherently also made him the Mansoos - and he offers many instances where he was treated as such. In an open letter to Mufaddal Saifuddin he declares:

“I write with the conviction that I am with Truth, that I am the 53rd Da’i. If there is anyone who wishes to put forward a different claim, I am ready to debate with him and conduct with him a ‘mubahala’ (standing in front of God and beseeching God to send his wrath on the one who is wrong). ‘And God is our witness to all we say’ (Quran Yusuf 66, Qasas 28).”

Mufaddal Saifuddin

Will Mufaddal Saifuddin take up the challenge? He has not so far and is unlikely to anytime soon. He is in a position of power and controls all the trappings of power:  the infrastructure, the administration, and most importantly, the purse strings of the Bohra world. In the past two years while Khuzema Qutbuddin was nursing his secret, Mufaddal Saifuddin has come to establish his legitimacy as the successor. He went on a whirlwind tour around the world amassing money and loyalty from unsuspecting Bohras. Whenever possible he appeared in public with his ill and incapacitated father by his side as a prop. For all intents and purposes he was the next Dai, and Bohras had come to accept him as such.

Muffadal Saifuddin

Mufaddal Saifuddin

Until Khuzema Qutbuddin dropped a bombshell. The response from Mufaddal Saifuddin’s camp is one of aggression and arrogance. Khuzema Qutbuddin has been dismissed as the Mazun-e-Dawat, declared a munafiq (hypocrite), even a shaitan (devil) and has been cursed and called worse names than any reformist muddai (renegade) ever was. And he is family, their uncle and a Mazun-e-Dawat to whom, till the other day, they all pledged loyalty through misaq and whose name appeared in rukku chitthi (letter of recommendation) which every dead Bohra took to the grave as a passport to heaven. Today that guarantor of heaven is facing hell.                   

From his nephew Mufaddal Saifuddin. The latter’s claim to Daiship is based on the Nass conferred on him in an ICU at a London hospital. This was soon after SMB had suffered a stroke. He had lost his speech and being in the ICU he probably was not in the best state of health and mind to do anything, leave alone name a successor. As witness we are told there were Mufaddal Saifuddin’s brothers. It was a Nass-e-Khafi (private). So to quash suspicion, the brothers orchestrated an elaborate Nass-e-Jali (public) ceremony at Raudat Tahera in Mumbai. SMB sits through the entire ceremony like a lifeless dummy oblivious to bowing and scraping and salivating that’s going on around him. He doesn’t utter a word, and the Nass statement is read on his behalf by Dr. Moiz Bhaisaheb.

The Bohras

Betrayed and battered, they are the clueless victims in this game of throne. The issue of Nass has set their nerves on edge. Every home, every shop, every gathering and every WhatsApp message is abuzz with gossip and rumour. What are they supposed to do?  They need guidance and clarity. It is time for Bohra scholars and intellectuals to speak up and show the way. The clergy has totally discredited itself. Outside intervention is necessary to help settle this dispute peacefully and amicably. Bohra scholars like Isamil K. Poonawala and Abbas Husayn Hamdani and other intellectuals and learned people must come forward and take a stand in the interest of the community, its unity and its future. The issues of welfare, fairness and social justice for Bohras must be the topic of debate. Not the power struggle of the high and mighty. At this historical juncure the community and its elders must come out with a manifesto of demands. Whoever accepts those demands must become the Dai. The people have the power to force the issue.

Short of this it is obvious how this drama will end.  The claim of one is as good as the other’s. From all accounts it seems Khuzema Qutbuddin is a learned and erudite man, well-versed in the literature and history of Dawat. His family is well-educated and some of them have been to Harvard and have earned PhDs. He is known as a simple man, interested in the welfare of the poor and is averse to the extravagance that has become the culture of the present-day clergy. On his website, Khuzema Qutbuddin promises transparency and easing of restrictions. He wants to provide autonomy to jamats and is in favour of education and progress of women.           

What he is promising is very tempting, much like the politician who wants your vote. His new-found love for freedom and progress is all very well. But let us not forget that for 50 years he has been part of a system of privilege and entitlement. He and his highly educated family lived off the wealth of common Bohras. As Mazun-e-Dawat he was complicit in the Dawat being turned into a tyranny, and did nothing to ease the plight of Bohras as they were bilked and humiliated by the Kothar. It is too late and a bit rich for him to now come out swinging as a champion of progress and liberalism.  

Dawoodi Bohra women

Dawoodi Bohra women. Photo courtesy:

Mufaddal Saifuddin on the other hand has everything going for him. The issue of Nass is passé. For him and most of his followers, that train has left the station. The challenge before him is to keep the flock loyal to him. He can always count on the blind following of the majority but with Khuzema Qutbuddin holding out an enlightened alternative, Bohras might be tempted. So far what they have seen of Mufaddal Saifuddin is not pretty. His policies are haphazard and hare-brained, designed to keep Bohras backward and ignorant. He wants women to spend their lives in the kitchen making roti. Yet he takes away that privilege from them by launching a half-baked lunch scheme that has left women with nothing to do, has turned the community into a giant soup kitchen and young children into errand boys delivering dabbas. He is atrociously inarticulate and lacks the refinement and demeanour befitting a Dai. He is quick of temper and loose of tongue. All he can offer is the orthodoxy and more of the same. This reality is all too familiar.

The other reality is hovering on the horizon. There is a hope, a possibility of a different future, a better future. Bohras do not have to live the way they do. A world of dignity, freedom and peace of mind is possible. A world free of mullahs picking their pockets all the time is possible. A world where their religion is not compromised and their Islam not subverted is possible. A world where their children can grow up to be educated, modern and proud of their heritage is possible. A world where they can hold their heads high and be counted as ashraf al makhluqat  (the best of creation) is possible.                   

The possibilities are endless. Which of the two can best deliver on this promise? Caught between the devil and the deep sea, the Bohras have hard choices ahead of them. In the meanwhile, the propaganda machinery of the Mufaddal camp is in full swing. Reports of threats and intimidation are rife. People are being called to aamil’s residence to pledge loyalty; kihdmatguzars (volunteers) are making nightly calls door-to-door demanding signatures on blank papers. All kinds of pressures are being brought upon people to swear allegiance to Mufaddal Saifuddin. The community is in a grip of fear, confusion and disarray. If they do nothing, in all probability Mufaddal Saifuddin will prevail. And once again Bohras will submit to fear and pressure, having come tantalizingly close to making history.

Before long the issue of Daiship will subside, Khuzema Qutbuddin will disappear into the sunset and hopefully the community may yet not split. But as a sweet comeuppance, the “royal family” certainly has. The wives, brothers, fathers, sons, mothers, uncles, aunts, daughters of Qasr-e-Aali (Taher Saifuddin’s family) are now at daggers drawn. For years they heartlessly imposed barat (excommunication) and drove families apart. Today they get the taste of their own medicine. Allah is all seeing and all knowing.