Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

A Manifesto on behalf of the Dawoodi Bohra Community

Succession disputes, i.e., claims and counter-claims, are a familiar theme in Islamic history. As soon as the Prophet breathed his last in 10 H./632 C. E., the Muslim community was divided on the question of his succession as the leader of the community or of the proto-Islamic Medinan state that had evolved during the last years of the Prophet’s life. In contra distinction to the Sunnis the Shia asserted Ali’s succession both in political as well as in religious spheres. This had grave consequences, at least in theory, such as over the interpretation of the shari’a (religious regulations laid down in the Qur’an and the Sunna) or its alteration if necessary.

Any radical interpretation of the shari’a remained merely at the theoretical level; but, from time to time, antinomian tendencies did surface. The Shii theory of the Imamate with the principle of a clear designation of the (spiritual guide) successor (commonly called al-nass) had crystalized during the lifetime of the Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. However, soon after the latter’s death in 148 H./765 C.E.  his sons claimed the imamate for themselves. Because of this his followers were divided and they came to be known as the Twelvers/Imamis and the Ismailis respectively. This chasm has persisted to this day. It is a fact of history that the Shia, especially the Imamis and Ismailis, despite the principle of nass (designation of the successor), themselves divided several times over throughout their long history. Just to cite one example, the major split among the Ismailis (also called Fatimids) occurred following the death of the imam-caliph al-Mustansir (d. 487 H./1094 C.E.) that greatly weakened the Fatimid empire. It was the origin of the Musta’li-Tayyibi daʿwa (which later on became known as the Bohras) and the Nizari (known as Aga Khani) communities of today.

The chain of the da'is (da’i muṭlaq - with full authority) in Yemen starting with Sayyidna Dhu’ayb in 526 H./1130-32 C.E. and continuing in India, was also not spared of this cancer. In short, the Musta’li-Tayyibi community was split into Sulaymanis, Dawudis and Alawis over the very same issue of succession. Another serious crisis that threatened the Dawudi community occurred in 1256 H./1840 C.E. when the 46th da’i Sayyidna Muhammad Badruddin died without nominating his successor. The four prominent masha’ikh (scholars) of the time led by Abd-e Ali Imaduddin kept the information from the community (for the benefit of its unity), met privately and decided to nominate Abdul Qadir Najmuddin, the then holder of the rank of mukasir as nazim, an adjuster, for administrative purposes only. It was agreed that he would abstain from claiming the spiritual position of the da’i and it title da’i mutlaq. Without going into the ugly details as to how authoritarian rule was imposed on the community by Sayyidna Tahir Saifuddin and his successor Sayyidna Muhammad Burhanuddin, it should be reiterated that Yusuf Najmuddin, the son of Tahir Saifuddin, publicly acknowledged in an interview published in the Karachi English daily the Dawn that his father was simply a da’i nazim.

We the undersigned are intimately familiar with the literature and tradition of the Musta’li-Tayyibi da’wa, and are therefore speaking from a position of authority on the matter of succession and various other issues. There is a formidable extant literature outlining the role and duties of a da’i, from three important periods of Ismaili history: the pre-Fatimid, the Fatimid, and post-Fatimid (Tayyibi) periods. This literature (is edited & translated) defines the refines the da’wa organization’s role and leadership over these critical phases of its evolution, i.e., before the Imam’s appearance, during their rule in the Fatimid period, and after their presence in the period when the Tayyibi da’wa was established. What this literature emphasizes and justifies is a distinctly spiritual role for the da’is in their capacity as most knowledgeable. Therefore, able to interpret the imam’s tradition for the guidance of the community and the administrative duties involved in providing social welfare and officiating over social rites (birth, marriage, and death) of the communal members.

The British colonial period led to another phase in the evolution of the da’wa. It was radically different than the previous ones, and involved a fundamental paradigm shift. Whereas before, the da’wa served an imam in hiding (pre-Fatimid), or a living imam (Fatimid), or an absent imam (Tayyibi phase) through the traditions of the Ahl al-Bayt left behind, in the mid-19th century the da’wa under Abdul Qadir Najmduddin assumes a role no longer subservient to the hidden imam, rather the da’wa stands in for the imam, arrogating unprecedented powers to himself. This transformation was achieved with the tacit cooperation of British colonial authorities and upheld in colonial courts as legal. The obvious reason was that the British sought to maintain control of the various communities in the Indian subcontinent through the indirect rule of “native leaders/princes.” Our da’is were thus given princely titles, state privileges, and occasionally subsidies to enforce obedience to colonial authorities by their communal members.

What is striking is that the relationship of mutual benefit that had developed between the colonial authorites and the da’i’s family continued post-independence by Tahir Saifuddin and his son Muhammad Burhanuddin. Strangely enough it was upheld by the Indian Republic. Several colonial laws have remained on the books, the most contentious having to do with communal law. Both the above da’is were happy to exploit the nervousness of the Indian government in countering religious minorities despite many attempts by individuals from the community to appeal directly to the State as enfranchised citizens whose rights under the law were being violated by their communal leaders. The hesitation by the Indian State, and “ignorance combined with blind faith” of the community regarding their own religious tradition have conspired to bring about the idiotic importance of the succession crisis faced by the community today.

Egregious usurpations of enormous powers have enabled this family to function as pseudo-imams, and as a state within a state. Morarji Desai, the chief minister of Bombay and then the Prime Minister of India, was the first to use this expression for the Bohra Mullaji. Hence, the various permissions and fees that amount to a separate legal regime, and taxation administration oftentimes in direct contravention of Islamic principles and of state law and taxation regarding freedoms of behavior and declaration of charitable contributions, and hence the use of excommunication a punishment, in the same manner that a state judges certain crimes to constitute treason, jail or kill individuals so deemed.

According to reliable reports in English newspapers and various rumors and gossip circulating on social media and internet, the community is made to believe that Khuzemabhai Qutbuddin is a liberal while al-Mufaddalbhai Saifuddin is an authoritarian autocrat. In our view this is merely a smoke-screen and the contestants have not come out with any clear manifesto supporting such claims.

The central message of the Qur’an is socio-economic justice which is bluntly violated by the Bohra religious establishment. It would be helpful if the effort to counter the trend set up by Nujmuddin, whose descendants are currently vying for power began the process of arrogating unprecedented powers to himself, by first marginalizing the scholarly elites of the community whose historical role had been to vet the most knowledgeable for the position of the da’i. His successors continued this effort, and through seminal court cases, such as the Chandabhai Gulla Case and the Burhanpur Dargah Case, argued that they had sole and non-transparent control over communal properties and funds. Thus equipped with both money and legal justification, the da’is were able to monopolize knowledge, preoccupy the community with new rituals, obligations, and realign the community away from learning and trade. For example, Mufaddal has put “roti-making” and the pursuit of professions that while profitable enough to tax would not allow the growth of financial empires that would allow Bohras to challenge the resources of the da’i’s family or kothar (administration which resembles medieval fiefdom).  

It really does not matter who the da’i-nazim is, but what is important is that a new charter about his (after the precedent established by Sayyida Arwa, founder of the Tayyibi da’wa in Yemen) jurisdiction, as it were, needs to written. Therefore, for the future prosperity and progress of the Bohra community we cannot support either candidate for the position of a nazim unless they pledge publicly the following short list of overdue reforms in social and religious spheres. These demands and forcible collection of all the taxes are fully documented and enumerated in the Nathwani and Tewatia Commission Reports. We think that the following should be kept in mind.

  • that he is only a Nazim Da’i  (administrator) and not a Da’i Mutlaq (with full powers)
  • that he is prepared to accept all past and future charities as waqf properties of the community with an independent authority and financial transparency, and that he should not claim to be the sole trustee as claimed by Sayyedna Tahir Saifuddin and his successor;
  • that he would accept democratic constitution of all the local jamats and for the Central Jamat Board to be elected directly by the community, and that this body should be consulted by him in all matters affecting the welfare of the community;
  • that he will abolish all non-Islamic collection of taxes called wajebat and several other taxes at the time of death, such as ruku’ chiththi (recommendation letter that the deceased has paid all his dues and should be welcomed to paradise), etc.; 
  • that there should be no baraat (excommunication) of an individual member or a family of the community, which is a form of religious tyranny… membership of a community is a voluntary thing;
  • that he will put an end to conferring honorary titles based solely on payment of large sums of money;  
  • that he should abolish restrictions on dress, both for men and women;
  • that there should be no payment of so-called deposits for men to grow beards;
  • that the crude rules of iddat be reformed bringing it in accord with the Islamic principle;
  • that there should be an end to feminine khatna (circumcission) which is a form of female genital mutilation is therefore un-Islamic;
  • that a council of scholars and a database of da’wa literature be established; the community scholars should have easy access to da’wa collection of manuscripts both in Surat and Mumbai and that it is a community property; acquisition of religious knowledge is not a monopoly of the clergy or a specific group; all the manuscripts need to be properly catalogued and special steps be taken for their preservation;
  • that a fund/trust be set to support future generation of young Bohras pursuing the study of Tayyibi Ismailism and related fields, or to pursue legal advocacy and revision of detrimental statues and laws that serve as justification for the da’is hold on power;
  • that reforms in the educational institutions (madrasas, and the seminary at Surat) should be carried out and for that purpose a committee of highly qualified scholars be established; 
  • that the custom imposed by Tahir Saifuddin to obtain raza (permission) for each and every petty matter is against the teachings of Islam and should be abolished;  
  • that he should declare his predecessors’ claim to have authority over the  jan (soul) or mal (property) of a member of the community as totally against the basic Islamic teachings and bring it to an end;
  • that he should be easily accessible to any member of the community and listen to his/her complaint and access should not be controlled by a coterie of henchmen around him, in short, there should not be either an iron or bamboo curtain around him;
  • that efforts should be directed towards building a civil society that not only includes the admirable charitable, educational, and social welfare organizations, but also an alternative religious or scholarly elite to prevent the attrition of Bohras to other branches of Islam, and provide the progressive spiritual guidance that is sorely needed.

All the above are basic human rights and supported by the long tradition or sunna and many precedents of the Dawudi Tayyibi Ismaili da'wa. They should constitute the charter of the community and constitution of its organization or da'wa. A duly elected Central Council should be authorized to add more stipulations as it deems fit.  As nazim, the Da'i should provide enlightened spiritual (rather than religio-political) leadership, based on knowledge acknowledged by the scholars of the community, communal harmony, and tolerance within the community.  He or she (in keeping with the precedent set by the founder of the Tayyib Ismaili da'wa, Sayyida Arwa) should furthermore seek the acceptance rather segregation of the community from non-Ismaili Muslim and non-Muslim communities, and the states which govern them, which should be allowed to govern members of the community directly as individuals rather through the da'wa as it currently functions as a state within a state.

January 28, 2014

Signed by
Professor Emeritus Ismail K. Poonawala,
Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, USA

Professor Emeritus Abbas H. Hamdani,
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, USA

This is an electronically generated copy, hence signatures are not required.