Borhras and reform
Dawoodi Bohras - Borhras and reform

What makes Bohras such blind followers?

Some of us wonder why such dogmatic and blind following of the Da'i among the Bohras? Even highly educated and wealthy Bohras display such blind following. Is it so in the case of Bohras alone or is it a general trend among people?

Many tend to think that the Bohras have special psyche and no matter what you do they are going to follow the Da'i blindly and dogmatically. I think this is partly true and partly not. The matter is extremely complex involving many factors and without appreciating all those factors involved we will not be able to understand why Bohras are so submissive to religious authorities.

Before we analyse the reasons of submissiveness on the part of Bohras it is highly necessary to throw some light on the nature of religious authority and doctrine the Bohras follow. It also definitely influences the religious behaviour of the Bohras.

The Ismaili Shi'ah sub-sect evolved as a secretive sub-sect for number of reasons. Firstly, the Isma'ili Imams had to go underground for fear of being detected by the Abbasid intelligence agents and spies. Even the most trusted network of da'is was not able to know the identity of the real Imam. Also, Shi'ahs in general and Isma'ilis in particular, practised taqiyyah (dissimulation) and did not disclose their real religious beliefs. And, like any other underground movement, the followers of the Isma'ili sect had to pledge their absolute loyalty to the Imam or the network of da'is appointed by the Imam. And it was for this reason that the da'i of the particular jurisdiction used to take strict oath of allegiance (mithaq) from his followers. Of course the mithaq was taken in the name of Imam of the period (imam al-zaman).

Thus it was demanded from every Isma'ili that he or she should submit to the authority of the da'i and Imam unquestioningly. The Isma'ili religion also stressed on the hidden meaning of the Holy Qur'an (ta'wil), not to be disclosed to the uninitiated. Only those at the advanced stage of learning could aspire to know the hidden meaning. The ta'wil could be taught only to those who would accept it unquestioningly.

The Isma'ili religion, unlike mainstream Islam, is based on the concept of hierarchy and each authority at the lower echelon has to submit to the one at higher echelon. There cannot be any compromise on that. These religious authorities are known as hudud in the Isma'ili terminology. The had (plural hudud) at upper echelon demands total obedience from the had at lower echelon. Thus the Isma'ili religion is religion of obedience and submission to the authorities. No dissent is permitted. There is no culture of openness and democratic discussion.

This has been unique to Isma'ili religion and one can say this does affect the Bohra psyche to some extent. However, it should also be made clear that human behaviour is hardly determined fully by religious beliefs. Human behaviour itself is quite complex and is determined by several factors - social milieu, cultural practices, self-interests, familial context and religious beliefs. Also, some individuals are liberal and open-minded and some tend to be very orthodox and rigid. Individual character, though determined by social milieu and family upbringing, does play crucial role.

All of us also share common traits with other human beings and in that respect we are no different. All human beings need psychological props and sense of belonging. Thus socio-cultural, religious and national identities play an important role in our lives as human beings. Without sense of belonging a human being becomes rudderless. And Bohras are historically a highly well knit community. It is in this respect that ex-communication or barat (social boycott), as every Bohra knows, becomes highly effective instrument of enforcing obedience on the part of priesthood.

Thus most of the Bohras fall in line for fear of social boycott and for fear of loosing sense of belonging. Most of the Bohras live in small or middle-sized towns and being very few in number (few scores of families in every town), this sense of belonging becomes very acute indeed. In such small sized communities dependence on the community and inward discipline becomes much more important for an individual. For priesthood also it is much easier to enforce discipline in smaller communities. Among Sikhs too one who is declared tankhayya (outcaste or ex-communicated) has to fall in line soon.

In the case of Bohras there is an added factor: they happen to be a trading community and a trader values peace above all and is most reluctant to involve himself in social or religious conflicts. The traders try, as much as possible, non-confrontationist postures. And so do Bohras. They prefer to submit than to fight. After the British came in India and a professional middle class began to emerge among the Bohras in bigger towns there began to emerge some signs of dissent. It is therefore important to note that modern reform movement began only at the turn of last century. Court cases were filed and consciousness for social accountability took shape.

However, this professional middle class was never very strong and this class also was not totally independent as it emerged from among the trading class. Thus this class also remained quite dependent on trading class though it did develop a measure of autonomy. But it could hardly sever its umbilical cord from its trading past. In most cases even nuclear families did not develop except in very big cities. Many Bohras continued to live in joint families thus individual members being subject to family discipline. One will find several instances of individual members inwardly supporting reform movement but having no courage to take open stand for fear of consequences within the family.

Thus emergence of new middle class did not help much as it was neither strong nor fully autonomous. Thus it will not do to think that modern education by itself will bring about desired change. Social behaviour, as pointed out, is much more complex and determined by several factors. Human behaviour is not finally determined by modern education alone. Moreover the modern education, at least in India, is not designed to develop critical consciousness among its recipients. It is designed more to conform to authorities than to critically evaluate its worth. It is hardly intellectually stimulating.

Our educational institutions are more centres of acknowledgement rather than centres of knowledge. And add to this the fact that Bohras hardly send their children for university education. Also, they are hardly interested in humanities or subjects like philosophy. They are more interested in subjects, which would boost their knowledge and efficiency for their trading activities. Such education lays least emphasis on developing critical consciousness.

There is another important factor which needs to be taken into account: the Bohras are minuscule minority within Muslim minority in India (and abroad too). It being so, it feels more insecure than other larger minorities. More insecure one feels, more inward-looking one tends to be and more dependent on conformity to the authority. The Bohras have lived with persecution mania for centuries in India. And this has certainly taken its toll. Modernity is too recent in this respect and culture of modernity has hardly struck roots among them. Recurring communal riots in which Bohras as traders sustain much greater economic losses than other Muslims drive them further into community's fold and make them more impervious to forces of change. More insecure one feels, more conservative one tends to be.

Role of the priesthood

The Bohra priesthood is highly organised one, to say the least. It may deny benefits of modernity to the community but itself uses all most modern methods of organisation to keep the community under control. It has certainly devised new methods of indoctrination including what it calls daris (a wrong word according to Arabic language). Daris is very effective way of brainwashing, particularly youth and women. The ignorant are given totally distorted information about religious doctrines with a view to reinforce authority of the present religious hierarchy. It seeks to legitimise present authoritarian power-structure which privileges the da'is family above all others in the community. It projects the family as Royal Family, which has the right to rule. Even the Holy Prophet's family never claimed such privilege.

The Da'i's family has now taken away autonomy of the 'amils (local priests) and the 'ulama who enjoyed complete autonomy earlier. Even the sermons they deliver during Moharram (wa'az) are now totally controlled by the da'i's family. Now the sermons are nothing more than lavish praises for his family and his so called achievements. This is proving very effective for brainwashing particularly the youth and women.

Also, various youth and women's committees have been formed to give them limited role to develop a sense of participation in community's affairs. The members of these committees are carefully chosen for their loyalty and also for their ability to control any dissent and even to terrorise the dissenting members. The youth particularly acts as storm troopers of the ruling hierarchy. Da'i's birthday (salgirah) or his father's death anniversary ('urs) is celebrated on grand scale and advertisements worth lakhs of rupees are inserted in major and minor newspapers thus trying to influence the minds of people as the rulers in the past used to do.

The priesthood also buys off politicians with money and votes. It maintains contacts with key politicians of all political parties, including the Shiv Sena and the BJP, the known minority baiters. These leaders are invited to da'i's palace on special occasions. Thus as an American scholar Theodore Wright Jr. put it, the priesthood manipulates outside democracy to frustrate democracy within the community.

The priesthood has eminently succeeded in following two-pronged strategy of imposing thought control within the community and manipulating the political leaders to deny reformists any support from outside. This has paid rich dividends to the ruling da'i. These strategies were evolved mainly during the period of 51st da'i and it has been much widened and deepened during the period of the present Da'i.

Today the priestly hierarchy is much more stronger thanks to the NRI factor. Like the communal outfits like the VHP the da'i receives tremendous money in pounds and dollars from those Bohras who have settled in UK, USA , Canada, Hong Kong and other countries. Money is transferred often through hawala and other illegal means. In fact the priesthood has established regional headquarters in UK and USA.

The Bohra NRI's also face identity crisis like other Indian NRI's in these foreign lands. They feel quite alienated in these countries and compensate their sense of alienation by inclining more on the community. As VHP exploits the NRI's feeling of alienation for funds the Bohra high priest is not far behind. NRI's have added immensely to the wealth of the Bohra high priest. More wealthy he becomes more power is added to his formidable establishment.

The reformists are struggling consistently in view of all these formidable challenges. Their success lies not in becoming equally powerful like the Bohra priesthood (in fact it will be their defeat) but in consistent efforts to promote humanism and true Islamic values of truth, compassion, justice, equality, human dignity and democratic functioning. The reformists value openness and accountability and reject rigidity, dogmatism and narrow-mindedness. For them this struggle is success itself.