Borhras and reform
Abbas Hamdani, 1926-2019
Torchbearer of a scholarly legacy
Dr. Abbas H. Hamdani passed away, peacefully and at home, on December 23rd, 2019. He was buried on December 26, 2019. He was predeceased by his cherished wife Zubeda (nee Ladkhawala/Sitabkhan) in 2015, and his beloved daughter Amal in 1994. His passing is full of sadness for his surviving daughter, Sumaiya Hamdani, and his grandchildren Ali Hamdani-Shaw, Anisa Hamdani-Shaw Conde, and Zahra Hamdani. It is a sadness that is mixed with gratitude for having known him, and for being inspired by his example.
Abbas Hamdani was a scholar of Islamic history and philosophy who descended from a long line of scholars in the Bohra community and relatives of its da’is. His forefather, Sayyidi Ali b. Sa`id al-Hamdani left his family’s ancestral home in Yemen in the late 1700s, at the invitation of the 39th da`I Ibrahim Wajih al-Din (d. 1754). The da`wa had just headquartered in Surat at that time because the English East India Company was extending its policy of religious toleration to its control of that important trading and manufacturing town. This prompted the da`is to establish a center of learning there. Toward that effort prominent Yemeni scholars like Sayyidi Ali b. Sa`id, were invited to Surat in order to help. He brought with him to India his library of Ismaili texts, and he and his sons and grandsons taught in the Dar al-Saifiya established by the 43rd da`I `Abde-Ali, who also conferred on them hadd titles in recognition of their service to the da`wa.
The sons and grandsons of Sayyidi Ali b. Sa`id al-Hamdani contributed in other ways to the Bohra community. His grandson Sayyidi Fayd Allah (d. 1876) and great grandson Sayyidi Muhammad Ali (d. 1898) were both educators and highly regarded scholars. For Sayyidi Muhammad Ali in particular, the heritage of the Daudi Tayyibi Ismailis was a living tradition, relevant to the needs of the Bohra community. He held learning circles or halqas for male and female students, and preserved and copied, along with women of the family, the Ismaili texts that were the basis of the da`wa’s curriculum, and the training of da`is and `amils for the community. Sayyidi Muhammad Ali’s importance was recognized by the da`is of his time, who regularly consulted him on matters of faith, on matters of succession in the da`I’s family, and helped him to open a new school in Surat (the Madrasa Muhammadiya) for the community. Sayyidi Muhammad Ali had also traveled to Mecca in the 1870s, during a period of confusion after the succession of the 47th da`I Najm ul-Din in 1848, where he taught, and travelled throughout the Middle East, gathering knowledge in the manner of Muslim scholars during Islam’s Golden Age. On his return, Sayyidi Muhammad Ali helped the da`is counter the Mahdibagh movement, just as his great grandfather Ali b. Sa’id had helped the da`wa counter the Hiptia movement in the late 1700s.
Sayyidi Muhammad Ali’s son Faydallah (d. 1969) also contributed importantly to the Bohra community. Like his father, Faydallah was tireless in preserving the Ismaili texts that he inherited from him, and with the help of his sister Safiya, was able to collect manuscripts that had passed to other members of the family. Like his father also, Faydallah was close to and consulted by the da`is, an alliance that was cemented by his marriage to the grandaughter of the 48th da`I, Husam al-Din, Fatima Diya’iya. Yet, during his youth in the late 19th century, the winds of change were blowing through India, as the struggle for independence and reform within the larger Muslim community gathered steam. Bohra tradition, with its rich intellectual heritage that emphasized justice, learning and equality of men and women, naturally inclined Faydallah to participate in these changes. And despite a heritage that connected them to other parts of the Muslim world, Bohras were accustomed to thinking of themselves as Indians. Hence Faydallah enthusiastically supported the cause of Indian independence, corresponding with other like-minded Indian Muslims, and Gandhi himself. Also, the call for national self-determination informed his opposition to the monopoly of power, not just by the British Raj, but also by the da`I’s family, and so he supported and provided testimonials for the efforts of Bohra individuals and industrialists like Adamji Peerbhoy, to counter the da`I’s claims to the jan (souls) and mal (property) of the Bohra community in cases that reached all the way to the Privy Council in London.
Recognizing as well the need for education reform he supported and helped to establish schools for boys and girls using English as the language of instruction (like the City High School in Surat), participated in the All-India Muslim Educational Conference, and served on the board of the Alavi Trust. A friend in such efforts was Fazlehusayn Ladkhawala, whose daughter Zubeda married his grandson Abbas. Faydallah’s embrace of reform on so many fronts unfortunately led to his excommunication and efforts to defame his father Muhammad Ali by the 51st da`I, Tahir Sayf al-Din, whose own response to the changing political climate in India in the early 20th century was to use colonial era laws in order to ensure his monopoly of power as supreme religious authority over the Bohra community and its jan and mal.
Nevertheless, Faydallah persevered while at the same time educating his son Husayn and grandson Abbas in Arabic, Islamic sciences, and the da`wa curriculum. This double legacy was bequeathed first to his son Husayn. Husayn al-Hamdani (1901-1962) joined others of his generation in early 20th-century India in pursuing his higher education in England. After receiving his MA at Bombay University, he traveled to the UK in 1928 and acquired a doctorate under leading scholars like Hamilton A. R. Gibb from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 1931. While in England, and Germany (where he had gone to pursue German language studies), Husayn al-Hamdani made available to scholars for the first time Ismaili texts from the collection of his forefathers, pioneering the academic study of Ismaili Shiism in the west. His own research was equally pioneering. His research and publications on important da`I’s like the Persian Abu Hatim al-Razi from the Fatimid period, the Yemeni da`I Idris `Imad al-Din from the Tayyibi Ismaili community, and the Yemeni dynasty of the Sulayhids in the 11th century, were seminal publications and still referenced today.
Also like his father Faydallah, Husayn al-Hamdani was also involved in the educational reform efforts and independence movements in India. He returned from England to teach in new and independent colleges in Surat and at Ismail Yusuf College and Bombay University in Bombay. While at Bombay University he became recognized for promoting the study of Arabic and Islamic Studies, and made available Ismaili texts to scholars like Asaf A. A. Fyzee, who published on Ismaili law and subsequently became India’s Ambassador to Egypt. After Partition, Husayn al-Hamdani was invited along with Muhammad Asad (formerly Leo Weiss) and Fazlurahman to direct the Islamic Reconstruction Ministry in the newly formed Pakistan. In 1950 he was appointed to the diplomatic corps, traveling to Egypt to establish the embassy of that country there. While in Egypt, Husayn al-Hamdani published the history of the Tayyibi Ismaili Sulayhid dynasty in Yemen, whose most notable ruler was the queen Arwa (aka al-Sayyida al-Hurra). This brought him to the attention of the Yemeni embassy and he became its cultural attache, while also teaching at Cairo University’s Kulliyat Dar al-`Ulum at the invitation of Egypt’s Minister of Education, Taha Husayn. Among his students at Cairo University was the well-known scholar of Ismaili history, Dr. Ismail Poonawala. Husayn al-Hamdani also married an Egyptian lady, and his family expanded with the birth by her of three sons: Faydallah, Saba, and Ma`d Yakrib al-Hamdani. Ma`d survives and resides in the Yemen, and his son Amro has been active in promoting Husayn Hamdani’s works in Yemen.
The commitment to scholarship, educational outreach and political engagement continued in the life of Husayn’s son, Abbas Hamdani. Educated in the da`wa curriculum by his grandfather Faydallah, Abbas followed in his father’s footsteps, attending Bombay University at the precociously young age of 16, where he acquired an Honor’s Bachelor’s degree in Arabic and a Law Degree. He then journeyed to England to pursue his doctoral degree at his father’s alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. It was en route to England aboard a steamship in August 1947 that Partition occurred, and on arriving Abbas Hamdani followed his father’s example in choosing Pakistani citizenship. Like his father again, Abbas Hamdani’s doctoral thesis was on the works of an important Fatimid da`I, al-Mu`ayyad fi’Din al-Shirazi.
But perhaps more than his father and grandfather, Abbas Hamdani was engaged in the political changes and events of his lifetime, among them: the Partition of India, and anti-imperialists struggles taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, he suffered the dire consequences of imprisonment for his political beliefs in Pakistan. Nevertheless, he was able to secure teaching positions at Sindh and Islamia Colleges in Karachi, from 1951-1962. Ultimately however, he sought refuge in Cairo, like his father before him, where he could pursue research and teach free from the harassment he experienced in Pakistan. He spent the next decade at the American University in Cairo, counting among his students Egyptians who became recognized authorities in Islamic history at that Institution, prominent scholars like Paul Walker and Farhad Daftary, Director of Academic Research at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, who corresponded with him from Iran.
In 1969 Abbas Hamdani was invited to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and then appointed at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1970, from which he retired after 30 years of teaching. Other students he taught there went on to become known scholars in a variety of fields ranging from Islamic History to Women’s Studies. A testament to his inclusive attitude, he was recognized by both Indian and Pakistani students at UWM for excellence in teaching and service. His Yemeni heritage and engagement with contemporary events in the Middle East led to his recognition as an outstanding Arab-American, as it did to the university’s Institute of Peace. And among his students were members of other faith organizations with whom he launched an inter-faith dialogue that is reviewed in a forthcoming book on Muslim-Christian dialogue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Throughout, Abbas Hamdani published over 60 articles and 4 books on a range of topics dealing with Islamic history and philosophy, Islamic contributions to Atlantic voyages, and current events in the Middle East and North Africa.
His passing clearly came as God willed at the end of a long and fruitful life. But his passing is nevertheless a loss, not only for his family, but also for the Bohra community. He represented arguably the last generation that inherited the religious and intellectual tradition that used to characterize the Daudi Tayyibi community and its scholars, who were at the same time cosmopolitan in outlook and engaged in the society around them. Rather than specializing in an intellectual tradition as a mark of difference, or shunning that tradition as irrelevant to the times and its needs, Abbas Hamdani and his forefathers took great care to study it, preserve it and share it. Sayyidi Muhammad Ali taught from it, Shaykh Faydallah consolidated it, Husayn shared it, and Abbas donated it to the Institute for Ismaili Studies for public use. For them, this long and rich tradition of the Daudi Tayyibi Ismailis was the foundation for greater understanding, greater engagement, and action for change, just as it had been for the Ismaili Shia during the Golden Age of Islam and the Fatimid caliphate. A fitting tribute then to his legacy would be the pursuit of knowledge about the Bohra or Daudi Tayyibi Ismaili tradition among current and future generations of Bohras, for its own sake, as well as a basis for greater understanding about Islam, and greater impetus for engagement as Muslims.
* Dr. Sumaiya Hamdani received her B.A. from Georgetown University and M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University in the field of Islamic history. Her book, Between Revolution and State: the Construction of Fatimid Legitimacy (I.B. Tauris 2006) examines the development of legal and historical literature by the Ismaili Shi’i Fatimid state. Her research has also included articles and reviews in the fields of Shi’i thought, Islamic history, and women in Islam. Her teaching interests include Islamic, Middle East, and world history. Her current research examines the construction of identity in Muslim minority communities in South Asia during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Dr. Hamdani has served on advisory boards of the Middle East Studies Association, the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, and the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies, among others. She also founded and was director of the Islamic Studies program at George Mason University from 2003-2008.