Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

Reformists and their religious beliefs

It is often maintained by the Bohra priesthood and their orthodox followers that the reformists have gone astray and in some extreme cases some orthodox fanatics even maintain that the reformists have abandoned their religion. Is it really so?

Certainly not, if one goes by what the reformists themselves believe. But what is worse is that on the other extreme some reformists themselves have certain doubts about their beliefs and practices and often describe the orthodox Bohras as constituting the 'mainstream'.

This position is also erroneous. No section of the community, much less the orthodox, can privilege the mainstream for themselves. In my opinion the reformist stream of the Dawoodi Bohra community is also the mainstream. We should not give that privilege to the orthodox only. What is the logic behind describing the Orthodox Bohras as mainstream? Is it their beliefs and practices? Or, is it their number? If it is beliefs and practices, as I would show shortly, there is hardly any difference between the two. Both are followers of the Fatimi Da'wah, both accept the Shi'ah-Must'alian-Tyebi line of the Fatimi D'awah and both accept the chain of Da'is.

Is it then numbers? Not quite so. If this logic of numbers is accepted, then only the Shi'a Ithna 'Asharis among all Shi'a sects would be accepted as mainstream Shi'a and among all the Muslims the world over, only Sunni Muslims will constitute the mainstream of Islam. In fact any body of believers by themselves constitute a mainstream. Each sect and sub-sect of Islam constitutes mainstream in its own right. Any community is constituted around a set of beliefs and practices and that body of followers of those beliefs and practices becomes a mainstream in its own way. So this argument of mainstream is quite misleading, to say the least.

Another important question is in what way the orthodox and reformists differ from each other? Do they differ in fundamentals of faith or in subsidiary matters? Are their differences based on usul (principles) or in furu'at (i.e. secondary matters). As pointed out earlier there is no question of differing in fundamentals or in matters of usul. All of us - orthodox or reformists subscribe to same fundamentals of faith and even accept the office of Da'itoo. There is much misunderstanding on this question among our orthodox friends. They think that we reject the office of Da'i. It is far from true.

The reformists give as much importance to the office of a Da'i as the orthodox Bohras. The office of a Da'i is an integral part of Fatimi Da'wah. The orthodox Bohras should not misunderstand the reformists on this issue. There is lot of misinformation campaign against the reformists by the vested interests. We also do not differ from each other even on the question of nass. The doctrine of nass has been quite fundamental to all the Shi'a sects. It is as fundamental to the reformists as to the orthodox Bohras.

The real difference between the orthodox and reformists is not on the question of the office of the da'i but on obedience to da'i. The orthodox have been made to believe that unquestioning and absolute obedience to da'i is part of our faith. Also, these days the da'i has been almost elevated to the position of divinity through clever manouverings of the Kothar. The reformists oppose this and consider it as deviation from the basic Isma'ili doctrines. Here the doctrine of 'ismah (infallibility) is very central.

The orthodox have been made to believe that along with the Imam, a da'i also enjoys the status of infallibility. The reformists believe, on the other hand, that the 'ismah is only for nabi, wasi and imam and not for the da'i. The reformists have very sound scriptural basis for this position. The authentic books written or compiled by the great da'is and da'i al-du'ats (i.e. chief da'is) during the time of imams have not ascribed the status of 'ismah for the da'is. Even hujjah who is suppose to be much above a da'i has not been favoured with this status.

Also, it is important to discuss the implications of the doctrine of infallibility. Does it mean infallibility in religious as well as secular matters or only in religious matters? There is nothing to show in our resources to show infallibility in secular matters too. Our sources emphasise infallibility only in religious matters. However, the Kothar now has made the orthodox believe that infallibility applies to secular matters or worldly matters also. Thus the orthodox and the reformists differ on this issue. Firstly, the reformists do not accept the doctrine of 'ismah for the da'i and they believe that 'ismah is restricted to only religious matters and does not apply to worldly affairs.

Though this difference is not fundamental but has certainly grave consequences. Firstly, if the da'i is accepted as ma'sum (i.e. infallible) then absolute obedience to him can be legitimised. Secondly, and this is more important, if the doctrine of infallibility applies to worldly matters as well then absolute obedience to the da'i becomes necessary even in worldly matters also. The Kothar has popularised this doctrine of infallibility for da'i and that it applies to in religious as well as worldly matters. Thus they have been able to sell this doctrine of infallibility to the orthodox and thus succeeded in making absolute obedience to the da`i a religious necessity. Of course, as pointed out before, there is no scriptural basis for such a belief and yet the orthodox, lacking any knowledge of Isma'ili sources, have accepted it unquestioningly.

The reformists, it will be seen, are much closer to the Isma'ili sources than the orthodox. The reformists reject the very idea of blind, unquestioning or absolute obedience to any religious or worldly authority in the absence of imam who is supposedly in seclusion. His authentic religious guidance is available in the form of various books written or compiled during and under the supervision of imams. For example the books compiled by the great Isma'ili da'is like Syedna Qadi Al-N'uman, Syedna Hamiduddin Kirmani and Syedna Muayyad al-Shirazi are available for our guidance. All these da'is wrote their works during the times of various imams like Imam Mu`iz li Dinallah, Imam Hakim bi Amrillah and Imam Mustansir Billah. Also, the great da'is like Syedna Hatim and others who wrote during the period of seclusion of imams are also available for our guidance. More such instances can be given.

The reformists draw their inspiration and guidance from these authentic sources of their religion. If the present da'i changes, or is made to change by those around him, the teachings of religion as found in these source books, he cannot claim obedience. Obedience to truth is more fundamental than obedience to authority. Allah has made it our individual responsibility in the Qur'an to follow the truth rather than the authorities. This is very fundamental doctrine of the holy Book. Those who believe in obeying the authority at the cost of the truth are deviating from the teachings of the Qur'an.

The Qur'an requires every individual to use his intellect, his 'aql, to reason out and accept the truth. Thus 'aql plays very important role in the cognition of truth. Qur'an lays emphasis on truth-based guidance than on authority-based guidance. The orthodox Bohras violate the doctrine of the Qur'an and fall for authority-based guidance. For them the present da'i's authority is far more important than the Qur'anic truth. This is very crucial difference between the orthodox and the reformists.

Since the orthodox consider authority more important than the truth, any deviation from the dictates of authority is considered as cardinal sin. Naturally the Bohra priesthood denounces the reformists in no uncertain terms. The social boycott emanates from this approach. Those who do not follow the authority are deviants and one must refrain from interacting with them lest the faithful's thinking should be polluted. For the reformists truth is more fundamental than authority. It is obedience to absolute authority which leads to authoritarian culture and slavish mentality. Truth and freedom go together whereas authoritarianism and slavery are found to be in consonance with each other.

This can be seen in the implications of the practice of misaaq also. Because of authoritarian culture being promoted by the Kothar, misaaq, has become an instrument of slavery. It is important to note that misaaq was a quasi religious and quasi political instrument. In the early days of the Isma'ili movement, misaaq was an instrument of acceptance of religious as well as the political authority of the Fatimi imams.

Syedna Hamiduddin Kirmani has rightly described it in one of his risalas as both religious and political in nature. It was for this reason that the text of misaaq was not incorporated in any work of Isma'ili da'is. Misaaq is no more necessary to enforce political authority of Imam. It is its religious component which is important in the present circumstances. And it is also important to note that since the real religious authority lay with the imam - and not with the da'i, the misaaq can be given or taken only for imam, not for the da'i. Syedna Hatim makes this abundantly clear in his classical work Tuhfat al-Qulub.

The most fundamental aspect of misaaq is acceptance of the Qur'anic teachings on one hand, and, walayat (i.e. love) of ahl al-bayt, on the other. Every Bohra, orthodox or reformist, accepts both without any reservation anyway. All Bohras swear allegiance to Qur'anic teachings and the Holy Prophet and his family. This is what misaaq is all about. But today misaaq has become more fundamental than the faith itself. It is so because for Kothar it is a powerful instrument of promoting authoritarian culture. The reformists reject all forms of authoritarian culture.

It is also important to note that authoritarian culture promotes, among other things, intolerance and rigidity. The reformists, on the other hand, believe in tolerance and coexistence with different sects and sub sects of Islam, on one hand, and, with different religions of the world, on the other. They reject the concept of rigidity and intolerance. They also uphold the concepts of democracy and human rights in secular and political matters. This is direct result of rejection of authoritarian culture.

For more than quarter of a century the reformists have struggled hard for their democratic and human rights while upholding their religious beliefs. For them democracy and human rights are quite fundamental to human dignity and Allah has upheld human dignity in the holy Qur'an when it declared "And We have honoured children of Adam" (17:70). And it will be seen that the authoritarian culture denies human dignity which Allah has accorded to every human being. Thus the reformists uphold the Qur'anic teachings when struggling for human dignity which can be ensured only by respecting the right to freedom.

This, in a way, is a fundamental difference between the orthodox and the reformists. The reformists believe that Allah's commandment to mala'ik (i.e.angels) to bow before Adam was to bow before human dignity. Human beings are above angels as they carry the burden of Allah's amanah (trust). Otherwise sajdah is only for Allah and not for any human being. The orthodox are made to perform sajdah before the da'i and the da'i claims that it is sajda-i-'ubudiyyah (i.e. worshipful bowing before the da'i) and not sajda-i-t'azim (i.e. respectful bowing before the da'i).

Needless to say the reformists totally and categorically reject this un-Islamic practice of bowing before any human being. Syedna Qadi N'uman has clearly said in his Kitab al-Himmah that the practice of sajdah before imam only amounts to what he calls taqbil al-ard i.e. kissing the earth before imam. But the da'i today insists that it is worshipful bowing before him. What Imam himself did not claim a da'i is claiming.

The reformists do not believe in inflicting their point of view on anyone, not even on the orthodox Bohras.They accept the right of orthodox also to believe and practice what they want. Similarly, they do not want others to inflict their viewpoint on them or to coerce as Kothar does, to accept its authority on pain of social boycott. The reformists resent when the orthodox treat them as not being Dawoodi Bohras. The reformists maintain that they are true Dawoodi Bohras and adhere to the doctrine of their faith. No one else can decide on their behalf whether they are Dawoodi Bohras or not.

Another point of difference between the reformists and orthodox is that the da'i is accountable for all the funds he or his agents collect from the community, particularly for the zakat fund. Zakat must be spent as per the directives of the holy Qur'an. The orthodox, on the other hand, believe that he is not accountable to any human being. He can spend the zakat amount as he likes.

Reformists also do not like da'i's conspicuous style of living. He styles himself as Sultan and lives like a king. His whole family lives in luxury and his children and other relatives consider themselves as being superior to other Bohras. They describe themselves as ones belonging to `royal family'. The holy Prophet (PBUH) and his family lived extremely simple life which was exemplary for all of us. Syedna's lifestyle is in sharp contrast to that of the Prophet (PBUH) and his family. The Prophet (PBUH) and his ahl al-bayt never used money from bayt al-mal for themselves and always accounted for the public funds most meticulously. The reformists want the da'i and his establishment to follow this example.

These are the issues on which the reformists differ from the orthodox. It will be seen that there are no differences between them as far as religious doctrines are concerned. And even then they are being severely persecuted by the da'i and his establishment. They want to be left to themselves to pursue their beliefs sincerely. But the reformist movement hurts the vested interests and hence they want to root out the reform movement.