Borhras and reform
Bohras in South and South East Asia
The Bohras are a Shi'ah Isma'ili sect, which branched off from main Shi'ah community, known as twelver (Ithna Ashari) Shi'ahs around mid 2nd century of Islam (ninth century A.D.). All Shi'ah sects believe that the Holy Prophet had nominated his son-in-law Ali as his heir both in spiritual as well as political sense.
However, the Sunni Muslims contest the Shi'ah claim that Ali was appointed as heir in political sense. However, most of the Sunnis accept Ali as Prophet's heir in spiritual sense, though not all. The Sunnis maintain that after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) Muslims gathered in the Saqifa Banu Sa'idah and elected his father-in-law Abu Bakr, as political successor and was designated as first Khalifah (Caliph) literally meaning one who comes after. Ali was elected as fourth Khalifah in that order. Those who maintained Ali was designated as his heir by the Prophet were called Shi'an-e-Ali as the word Shi'ah in Arabic means partisan. Thus partisans or disciples and followers of Ali were known as Shi'ah.
The Shi'ahs also believe that Ahl al-bayt (i.e. people of house of the Prophet) are sacred persons and only progeny of Fatima (Prophet's daughter) and Ali could be legitimate political and spiritual successors until the day of judgement (Qiyamah). The Shi'ahs believe in the doctrine of Imamah as against the Sunni Muslims who believe in the doctrine of Khilafah. Khilafah is based on the principle of bay'ah (pledging ones loyalty to a person to assume authority, an elective principle in a limited sense).
The Ithna Ashari Shi'ahs believe that Ali was the first imam after the Prophet whereas Isma'ilis believe that he was wasi (legatee) and not an Imam. According to the Isma'ilis the first imam was Ali's son Hasan whereas Hasan is second Imam according to twelver Shi'ahs. The split between Ithna Asharis and Isma'ilis took place on the question of succession to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (sixth Imam according to twelvers and 5th according to Isma'ilis).
The twelvers maintain that Imam Al-Sadiq was succeeded by his younger son Musa Kazim as his elder son Isma'il died during Imam Ja'far's life time. However, Isma'ilis maintain that though Isma'il died in Imam Ja'far's life time but he was succeeded by Muhammad, Isma'il's son. Thus according to the Isma'ilis Imam Isma'il succeeded Imam J'afar al-Sadiq and Isma'il in turn was succeeded by his son Muhammad.
It is interesting to note that most, though not all, Shi'ahs were non-Arabs and we can call them in terms of Toynbee's term external proletariat of Islam as the Khwarij (seceders) who were mostly Bedouin Arabs as internal proletariat of Islam.1 The Isma'ilis too, to begin with, were mostly of Persian origin. All Top Isma'ili preachers (da'is) were of Persian origin though there were many Arabs also among their followers. However, both in case of twelver as well as Isma'ili Shi'ahs leadership or imamah remained with descendants of the Prophet i.e. they were of Arab origin.
Islam was a revolutionary movement which tried to usher in a new political culture based on values of equality and justice but soon Islamic regimes also developed same old political culture based on dynasties and maintained though coercion and use of power rather than consensus and participation. Dr. Taha Husain, a noted Egyptian scholar, pithily observes:
"..it became apparent that this new government too (the caliphal regime after the death of the Prophet) which was expected to be of a new type at last adopted the same old course and like other old types of governments it too had to be based on vested interests, power politics and a class system in which a small minority of a particular nationality uses as its instrument a vast majority of peoples of different nationalities."2
Thus all though after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) we see disputes about succession between various ruling factions and some of which became reasons for coming into existence of new sects. The Isma'ili sect also came into existence as a result of dispute for succession to Imam J'afar al-Sadiq and once it assumed new sectarian identity, it developed a new set of doctrines to develop its own rationale of a new sect.
All Shi'ah sects were highly persecuted first by Umayyad rulers and then by Abbasids. Thus the Shi'ah sects particularly the twelvers and Isma'ilis had to develop a strategy for existence and hence they adopted what is called the doctrine of taqiyyah i.e. dissimulation. Most of the Shi'ahs tried to hide their real identity and pretended to be following Sunni madhhab (religion).
However, while the ordinary Isma'ilis practiced taqiyya the leaders went underground to avoid detection by the Abbasid rulers who were hunting for them everywhere. Most of the Isma'ili imams remained underground for a long period of time until Imam Abdullah al-Mahdi appeared and founded the Fatimid Dynasty in 297/909 North Africa.3 The Shi'ah sects believe in appearance of Imam Mahdi who will fill this earth with justice while it is filled with oppression. The Isma'ilis claim that Imam Mahdi appeared in North Africa whose name was Abdullah and founded Fatimid dynasty which is drawn from the progeny of Ali and Fatima.
However, the twelver Shi'ahs believe that Imam Mahdi is still in seclusion and will appear one day when this earth is filled with oppression. They are still waiting for appearance of the Mahdi. Thus Ithna 'Ashris and Isma'ilis though they agree on appearance of Mahdi but differ on whether he appeared or not.
The Isma'ilis also differed significantly from Ithna 'Asharis about their organisational structure. The Ithna Asharis have Imam at the top but then no other hierarchical structure around him. In Imam's seclusion various mujtahids (who interpret and lay down the Shari'ah laws) deputise him. But the Isma'ilis, being an underground movement for quite sometime, developed a well- structured hierarchy with Imam at the top. The Imam is followed by 12 hujjahs (proofs) who in turn appoint number of da'is (summorners). There was whole network of these da'is actively inviting other Muslims to embrace Isma'ili faith. The da'is in turn were actively assisted by ma'dhun (direct assistant to da'I who is also permitted to summon to the faith) and mukasir (assistant to ma'dhun in convincing people for Isma'ili faith being the only right faith).
Thus this tight hierarchy functioned under the hidden leadership of imam of the time (Imam al-Zaman). It is also important to note that Isma'ilis succeeded in attracting well-known intellectuals of the Islamic world, as it appeared to be quite rational and liberal faith to many of them. Intellectuals like Ya'qub Sijistani, Hamidudin Kirmani, Mu'ayyad Shirazi were da'is who actively worked for Fatimid Imams. It is claimed by Isma'ilis that even scholars and philosophers and intellectuals like Avicena (Abu Sina), Ghazzali and others were also at one time Isma'ili da'is. However, it is very difficult to substantiate such claims.
The Shi'ah sects believe in what is called ta'wil i.e. hidden and real meaning of the Qur'anic verses. The Sunnis maintain that ta'wil i.e. real meaning of the Qur'an is known to Allah alone but the Shi'ah sects (both Twelvers as well as Isma'ilis) believe that besides Allah ta'wil is known to Imams through the Prophet and Ali. While Twelvers did not develop science of ta'wil systematically, Isma'ilis did.
The Isma'ili da'is explained each and every verse of the Qur'an, particularly those verses which fall under the category of what the Qur'an refers to as mutashabihat (i.e. those verses which are capable of more than one meaning). The Isma'ilis borrowed heavily from the then popular Greek philosophy and Greek sciences. The Isma'ili da'is wrote several treatises expounding their doctrines and their philosophy.
Their magnum opus is Ras'il Ikhwan al-Safa (The Epistles of Brethren of Purity). It is by any account an encyclopaedic work on Islam. However, there is great controversy about its authorship. Nevertheless the Isma'ilis claim that it was authored by one of their Imams in seclusion who is identified as Husayn al-Mastur i.e. Husayn the Hidden one. Whatever the truth of this claim, one cannot deny significance of this encyclopaedic work.
The Isma'ilis again faced a major schism at the time of 18th Imam Mustansir. His two sons Nizar and Must'ali claimed successionship to the Fatimid throne after the death of Imam Mustansir. Musta'li was supported by the ruling establishment and he succeeded Mustansir as the 19th Imam (for Bohras) and Fatimid ruler. Nizar was driven out and lost to Must'ali in a military confrontation.
The Bohra theologians claim that Imam Mustansir had nominated Musta'li as his successor as the next Imam and ruler. The Nizaris (also known as Isma'ilis or Agakhanis) reject this claim. Nizaris maintain that Nizar was the successor and Imamate continued in his progeny. Both Isma'ilis and Bohras are found throughout South Asia and South East Asia. Both interestingly are trading communities, particularly in South and South East Asia. And in South Asian Muslims these two Shi'ah Isma'ili communities are the only trading Muslim communities, besides Memons, who are Sunnis.
These trading communities are hardly interested in theological issues and elaborate hidden meaning of Qur'an developed by the da'is who were leading intellectuals of the day. The Khoja Agakhanis and Bohras today are an obedient lot to the priestly hierarchy developed by the Isma'ilis in medieval ages. It is interesting to note that Islam as such has no concept of priesthood, much less any priestly hierarchy. However, all Isma'ili sects, all of them, Agakhani Khojas, Druz of Lebanon and Bohras, which are surviving sects, developed priestly hierarchy.
The Bohras, who were themselves divided into several sub-sects like Sulaymanis, Aliyas and Dawoodis, have more elaborate priestly structure. The Dawoodis, the most major sect among all in South Asia, have retained the structured developed by the Isma'ilis, in their earliest time. The Aliyas too, a small sub-sect, numbering around 12000 are mainly based in Baroda, an industrial city in Gujarat. They are also basically a trading community.
The origin of Bohras in India
After declining of Fatimd Empire in Egypt, the seat of Fatimi Da'wah (Mission) was transferred to the Yemen where Fatimids could retain their political influence. Here It should be noted that when the Isma'ilis were ruling in Egypt their empire was called Fatimid Empire but they kept separate identity of their religious establishment which they called Fatimi Da'wah i.e. Fatimid Mission. The reason for maintaining separate religious mission was that the majority population of Egypt was Sunni and they did not share their religious beliefs with their rulers.
Along with their Empire the Fatimd Mission also lost its value in Egypt and hence they thought it fit to transfer the Da'wah to the Yemen where they retained political power. The ruler of Yemen, Hurrah Malika Arwa', a woman of great wisdom and administrative skills, supported the Fatimid rule and retained her loyalty to Fatimi Imams and hence for this reason Fatimi Da'wah was also transferred to Yemen. It remained there for about 4 centuries and when the Fatimids lost power in Yemen after Turkish invasions, the Da'wah (mission) was transferred to India in sixteenth century.4
In fact the Mission had established its contacts with Indians right at the time of Imam Mustansir, the 18th Isma'ili Imam in 12th century A.D. Two Arab missionaries, Da'I Ahed and Da'I Abdulla came to Gujarat and succeeded in converting a large number of people to the Isma'ili faith. However it is very difficult to determine as to how many Hindus converted to the Must'alian Isma'ili faith on the hands of the two Da'is Abdullah and Ahmed. There are no documents available. Every thing is wrapped in myths. The whole account of conversion to the new faith is mythological account and not historical, in the books of Fatimi Da'wah in India.
However, what is certain is that those who converted were mostly from middle caste Hindus, the trading castes though some converted from upper caste Brahmins also as the surviving surnames like Travadi (Trivedi) etc. show. But instances of such upper caste conversions to Musta'lian faith are very rare. Also, one can only surprise as to what led the middle caste Hindus to embrace this faith.5
There is also as debate among scholars as to how the name 'Bohra' came into being. Most common consensus is that trading caste a section of which converted to the new faith is that the members of the trading caste were known as Vohras which itself has been drawn from vehwarvu (i.e. to trade) and vehwar (trade). In northern parts of India 'va' becomes 'ba' and thus vohra became Bohra.6
The Bohras kept on splitting and first major split took place in the early period of Bohra history i.e. in 15th century during the reign of Ahmed Shah, son of Muzaffar Shah. One Ja'far, who himself was an Indian covert to the Isma'ili faith, aspired to be deputy Da'I in India and when he couldn't get the office of deputy Da'I, he converted to Sunni Faith and took away with him large section of Shi'ah Bohras who were then known as Sunni Bohras.7 They ended to be rural cultivators as against city traders - Shi'ah Bohras.8
Thus in Gujarat we find both Si'ah Isma'ili Bohras and Sunni Bohras. Sunni Bohras, some of them, are in trades too. But there is not much in common between the two except Gujarati language and traces of Gujarati culture. In religious sense Sunni Bohras are much closer to other Sunni Muslims and have no priestly hierarchy. Also, they (Sunni Bohras) far outnumber the Dawoodis today. That shows a large chunk of Shi'ah Isma'ili Bohras converted to the Sunni faith as they had patronage of Sunni rulers while the Isma'ili Bohras were a persecuted lot.
The persecution of Shi'ah Bohras continued until the Moghal period and according to the Bohra accounts one of their Da'is, Sayyidna Qutbuddin was martyred by Aurangzeb, the then Moghul Governor of province of Gujarat, who later became Emperor of India. Though the Bohras originated in Gujarat and their mother tongue is Gujarati, many of them were forced to migrate out of Gujarat to various other parts of India.
Thus one finds Dawoodi Bohras in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, besides Gujarat and also in some trading centres like Calcutta (now called Kolkata), Hyderabad, Chennai (formerly called Madras), Bangalore and some other cities in the South like Cochin, Calicut etc. We will throw more light on this later.
The second major split among the Bohras took place in 16th Century during the period of Moghul Emperor Akbar. Their arose dispute between two aspirants for Da'iship i.e. Dawood bin Qutubshah and Sulayman. The Dawoodis maintain that Dawood bin Qutubshah was rightfully appointed as Da'i by his predecessor Dawood bin Ajabshah but Sulaymanis claim that it was Sulayman who succeeded as Da'I and his followers were known as Sulaymanis whereas those followed Dawood bin Qutubshah were known as Dawoodi Bohras.
Sulaymani had few followers among Indian but a large number went with him in the Yemen and most of the Bohras in India followed Dawood bin Qutubshah in India. The Dawoodis claim that the dispute went to Moghul Emperor Akbar and that Akbar ruled in favour of Dawood bin Qutubshah. While the Sulaymanis refute this claim.9 Anyway the Dawoodis are the largest among Bohras in India. Thus in India we find three sub-sects of Bohras in today - Dawoodis, Sulaymanis and Aliyas. Sulaymanis are concentrated in Hyderabad where their deputy Da'I lives and Aliya Bohras live mainly in Baroda in Gujarat where their Chief Da'I lives.
The Dawoodi Bohras call their religious establishment as Fatimi Da'wah of which a Da'I is the head. All three sects of Bohras mentioned above do not differ substantively in religious beliefs and have same priestly hierarchy - Imam at the head but in seclusion and da'I al-Mutlaq (da'I who enjoys absolute power in the absence of Imam whose appearance is awaited) followed by ma'dhun al-Da'wah, next in hierarchy and followed by mukasir al-Da'wah.
However, this hierarchy is now more formal than real. During the active period of Da'wah in Arabia this hierarchy had definite functions. A mukasir used to convince Sunni Muslims and convert to the Islma'ili faith and ma'dhun used to usher him into da'wah by administrating a pledge in Arabic called mithaqi. It was essentially an oath of secrecy, more political in content than religious though it was couched in religious terminology.
Finally a Da'I would then impart him the knowledge of Isa'ili faith in degrees graduating from ordinary believer to one who was taught the 'ilm al-haqiqah i.e. knowledge of top- secret Isma'ili faith. Of course very few converts to Isma'ili faith could achieve this prestigious status. Also, a Da'I used to be in charge of an area and he headed the mission in that particular region.
Now Imam is believed to be in seclusion and only one da'I called da'I al-Mutlaq commands absolute authority throughout world wherever Dawoodi Bohras live. The Madhun and Mukasir have no specific function to perform as there is no longer any missionary activity. No one is any longer invited to covert to Dawoodi Bohra faith. Only in cases of marriage between a Dawoodi and non-Dawoodi, non-Dawoodi spouse is coerced into conversion. The Da'wah these days only protects the religious beliefs of the Faith.
As pointed out before, all Bohras converted in Gujarat and hence they remain linguistically and culturally rooted in Gujarati language and culture. Wherever Bohras are they speak Gujarati and follow Gujarati culture. In all the countries of South and South East Asia they speak Gujarati, even in Arab and Western countries they continue to cling to Gujarati language and Gujarati culture. Today Dawoodi Bohras are found, besides India, in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, Dubai, Kuwait, Bahrayn, the Yemen, Kenya, Tanzania and Mauritius, U.K., USA, Canada, France as far as West Asia, Africa and Western countries are concerned and in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia as far as South East Asia is concerned. In all these countries mentioned above Dawoodi Bohras are migrants from India except in Yemen where there are some Dawoodis who are ethnic Arabs and their mother tongue is Arabic.
While the common Bohras speak Gujarati the clergy uses what is known as Da'wat ni zaban i.e. language which is mixture of Gujarati and Arabic and contains great deal of theological terms in Arabic. All sermons (wa'z) are delivered in this Da'wat ni zaban which is hardly followed by ordinary Bohras. All communications sent by Kothar (Bohra religious establishment) are also in this language. The clergy uses this language throughout the world, even in western countries like U.K., USA and Canada.
The Kothar, even when sending communication in English sprinkles it liberally with Arabic words. Recently, after the reform movement created a storm in the Dawoodi Bohra world, personality cult was greatly reinforced by the priestly hierarchy. The Da'i is generally addressed as Saiyyidna - an Arabic term meaning 'our master' and all da'is historically were addressed by this honorific right up to 51st Da'I, father of the present incumbent who is 52nd in line.
However, since reform movement since 1970s created turmoil in the Dawoodi world, clergy issued instructions to address him as 'aqa mawla' i.e. our lord and our master, such honorific are generally used for Allah (aqa is Persian word and mawla is Arabic one). The ordinary Bohras are described as mu'minin and they are supposed to be slaves ('abd). The earlier da'is never called their followers as 'abdI (slave). Now highly loaded terms are used for the da'i who is treated almost like a god on earth. Another term used is Huzura'la (in his august presence). Thus a deliberate attempt has been made by the present da'I to cultivate a culture of slavery and giving high priest a status, which even the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) never claimed. A glance at the website www.mu'iin.com is enough to establish this.
The Bohras, as pointed out above, are a mercantile community. But they do not undertake trade prohibited by Islam. It must be said that as far as Bohras (of all sects) are concerned, traditionally they have been meticulous followers of Islam and their book of jurisprudence is known as Da'a'im al-Islam which was written by Sayyidna Qadi al-Nu'man, who was the chief Qadi (judge) during the 14th Fatimi imam Imam Mu'iz. This is standard work of jurisprudence for all Isma'ilis. Though Isma'lis are Shi'as, their jurisprudence tends to be closer to the Maliki School of jurisprudence.
Thus the Bohra merchants do not deal in wines and liquors, cigarettes and other tobacco products (as against other Muslims tobacco is strictly prohibited among Bohras unlike other Muslims). They generally trade in hardware, glass, clothes, jewellery, gems, diamonds, paper, food grains, automobiles and automobile spare parts, ball bearings, arms, etc. which are Shari'ah permissible. Now some of them also deal in computer and computer technology. In South and South East Asia they are generally in these businesses. At one time Bohras were universally known for honesty and fare trade practices. However, it is difficult to say this in today's world. Also, they are seldom involved in crimes, underworld activities and smuggling etc. even today. Also, they tend to be peace-loving community and do not generally take part in politics or support opposition parties. They try to buy their peace by generally supporting ruling party.
In India they were traditionally supporting the Indian National Congress and hardly ever they participated in freedom movement. They kept away from all such activities. And in post-independence period they supported the ruling party. However, now in India in the changed political conditions, they support the Hindu rightist party like the BJP wherever they come to power. Thus they have established cordial relations with the BJP rulers in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan where BJP is in power. It is known fact that the Bohra high priest donated liberally to the BJP kit in Gujarat to fight elections despite horrible carnage of Muslims in Gujarat in which the Bohras also suffered extensive damage in terms of life and property.
Also, since the intensification of reform movement among the Dawoodis, the Bohra high priest tried to develop cordial relations with Sunni Muslim 'Ulama as well as political leaders by generously donating to their organisations to buy their political support against the reformists. As one American political scientist Theodore Wright Jr. put it aptly, the Bohra priesthood manipulates democracy outside the community to frustrate the attempts for democracy inside the community.
The Bohras follow the same pattern of non-interference in politics in other countries also and maintain strict neutrality. They have maintained this pattern in South East Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia also apart from other Asian and African countries where they have had long presence.
Religious and community life of Bohras
The religious and social life of the Dawoodi Bohras is woven around masjid and Jamatkhana (community hall). All religious functions and even social ones are held in Masjid and Jamatkhana. They do not allow other Muslims in their mosque (with few exceptions of course). Jamatkhana is used for community dinners. It is interesting to note that unlike other Muslim communities - Shi'ahs or Sunnis - Bohras organise large number of community dinners. For them any pretext is good enough to organise such dinners.
The present da'I has increased number of such community dinners. Community dinner is organised on all first 10 days of Muharram to observe martyrdom of Imam Husain in Kerbala in Iraq. Then now all 30 days of Ramadan, the fasting month, community dinner is organised after iftar (breaking of fast), Earlier only on few occasions in Ramadan such dinners were organised. These dinners have been made obligatory for Bohras wherever they are including in countries other than India.
Also, the Bohras have to pay several taxes (generally seven) to the Bohra high priest. No Bohra can escape payment of these taxes. The Bohra da'I appoints his representative wherever there are more than a dozen families of Bohras in India or abroad. These representatives are known as 'amil (literally governor). These clergymen are trained in a Bohra seminary in Surat in Gujarat and are appointed through centrally controlled system. A whole religious bureaucracy has developed in the head office in Bombay which controls religious and social life of Bohras throughout the world.
These 'amils collect tithes from Bohras especially on 23rd of Ramadan and if anyone defaults, these taxes will be collected on the occasion of marriage and funeral. In centrally controlled Bohra community no marriage or funeral rites can be performed without the permission of priesthood. The local priest's raza (permission) is needed to marry or to bury ones loved ones.
The entire system of payments has now been centrally computerised. As one politician put it in India the Bohra high priest is the most organised one among all Muslim sects. Undoubtedly it is very true. His 'amils are given a quota of fund in every city which he is supposed to collect and remit to the central fund of the priesthood. The local 'amil is often forced to coerce local Bohras to pay up.
Now to discipline recalcitrant Bohras the priesthood has started identity card system in three colours - green, yellow and red. One who pays all taxes demanded and is also quite obedient to the local priest is given green card, one who pays but not regularly and also raises questions of and on, is given yellow and one who is in arrears and is recalcitrant is given red card.
One who possesses green card faces no problems and can enter any Bohra mosque and jamatkhana or any mausoleum of Bohra saint. One with yellow card is also allowed but may face problems at times but one with red card is not invited to dinners and is treated with contempt. There is also system of social boycott, generally exercised by high priest or local priests against one who is suspected of reformist sympathies. One who is boycotted may have to separate from his wife and children or parents, if he does not apologise and submit unconditionally to the priesthood.
All reformists are barred from entering Bohra masjids and Jamatkhanas and mausoleums. The community today is divided into orthodox and reformist Bohras and they are not permitted by the priesthood even to intermarry. If any intermarriage take place, the guilty would be immediately put under social boycott and face all consequences. Thousands of Bohra families have been thus divided and even disintegrated.10 Thus there is great atmosphere of fear and terror in the community. Though a large number of Bohras have sympathy with the reformists, no one dares to express it publicly. They express their support only in strict privacy.
This atmosphere of fear and terror, surprisingly exists in other countries as well be they in South East Asia or Africa or western countries. Everywhere the Bohra priesthood has successfully established its firm grip. No one, be it in Singapore, America or England or Hong Kong, can express opinion in favour of reform movement, let alone meet or maintain any contact with reformist leaders. On doing so, her/his 'green card' will be taken away and he/she or his/her family will suffer.
Each Bohra, on reaching the age of puberty has to give what is called mithaq (oath of allegiance). Its text is originally in Arabic but has been translated in lisan al-Da'wah i.e. highly Arabicised Gujarati which hardly any Bohra understands. He/she simply keeps on saying 'yes' wherever needed. This oath of allegiance, originally devised by the Isma'ili Da 'is when the Isma'ili movement was underground. Those who converted to the Isma'ili movement had to agree to these rigorous conditions of loyalty to the imam. However, later it just became a mere tradition, a religious rite.
But when reform movement became strong in mid-seventies and the Bohra high priest feared loosing grip over his flock, he began enforcing it literally once again. The mithaq which was taken in the name of imam, now is taken in favour of da'i. Earlier da'is never tempered with it and always took it in the name of imam. Here are few extracts from the text of the mithaq:
"..that he will love him who lives the Imams, and will be hostile to him who is hostile to the Imams, that he will sever his connection from their enemies, that he will show sincerity to God and His favourites (i.e. Imam), and that if he will break the covenant then the same thing will be imposed upon the breakers of the oath.
"And if the Imam of the time or his Daee call upon you to war against the enemy then you should make the war. You should help with your life and property. Any person transgressing those engagements of the Daee he is outside the pale of religion, whether he be great or small, whether he is a close relative or distant one. You shall not have any intercourse with him. You shall not correspond with him openly or secretly. You shall not do any act calculated to be friendly to him. And by no manner or means or pretence you shall see the enemy of the Daee. Enemy of the Daee is your enemy. Say yes.11
These conditions of the covenant are being literally imposed and reformists have been declared as enemy of the faith. The reformists, of course, have not challenged the basic tenets of Dawoodi Bohra faith. They adhere to these tenets like any other Dawoodi. But they have challenged the Da'i's authority to interfere with secular life of his followers, their business, their political rights, their educational activities, their right to marry and their right to run charitable activities. They also maintain that the da'I is bound to render accounts for the tithes collected and spend them on the welfare of the communities, not on himself and his family and extended family.
The Bohras all over the world are under obligation to follow the priesthood's dictates and dare not show any sign of dissidence. If they do so, it will be at their own peril unless they are ready to break off from community and all family ties.
The Bohras have migrated to different countries especially of South and South East Asia in search of better trade prospects. The Bohras being basically a trading community look for better trading prospects and migrate to any such countries where they find better trading prospects. This since 19th century they migrated to East Africa, particularly Kenya and Tanzania which were also British colonial countries.
Similarly they migrated to Malaysia in South East Asia which was also a British ruled country. They were in Singapore too as then it was part of Malaysia. They preferred port cities in 19th century, as there are always better prospects of trade in port cities. In India too, many Bohras had migrated to Bombay from Gujarat when it was developed as a port city by the Britishers. Earlier they were in Surat in large numbers as during Moghul period it too was a port city. However, Surat port became dysfunctional when Bombay developed as a main port city.
In South East Asia they are in substantial numbers in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore but very few in Indonesia. In Thailand they are concentrated mainly in Bangkok which is a big trading centre. They are found in few other cities of Thailand also like in Chenmai. In Thailand some of them have married local Thai women converting them to the Bohra faith. These Thai women take part in all religious rituals in the Bohra mosques but without understanding anything as the Amil speaks only in Gujarati.
The Bohras are forbidden to marry non-Bohra women but when they do, they convert her to Bohra faith and is administered oath of allegiance at the time of conversion. Only after her conversion nikah (marriage ceremony) can be performed. A Bohra male or female cannot marry any other Sunni or twelver Shi'ah man or women also. They can marry only on condition of conversion. Besides nikah all other ceremonies pertaining to marriage are of Gujarati origin. These ceremonies have less to do with Islam but more to do with Gujarati local culture to which the Bohras adhere.
The Bohras have constructed their own mosques in all the countries they have migrated with attached jamatkhana where community dinners are organised. Though they have to follow the local laws for registering the mosque, it is always dedicated to the Da'I instead of Allah, as in the case of other Muslims. Without dedicating the mosque to the Da'I it is considered soulless and offering prayer in it will not be acceptable to Allah, as if Allah needs Da'i's permission to accept prayer.
In Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia too they follow these practices, though they may not declare it publicly. In Sunni mart countries like in Malaysia or West Asian countries, they practice taqiyya (dissimulation) as pointed out above. The Da'I, presently Sayyidna Muhammad Burhanuddin, keeps on visiting these countries and collect hefty sums of money by way of salam (personal offerings). Each Bohra has to invite him to his house for Bohras what is called ziyafat (Arabic for hospitality) and Da'i's men negotiate the amount for salam which is usually in several hundreds of thousands of local currency (dollar, Singapore dollar, Ringget, Baht etc.). On one visit he collects millions in local currency. Then that money is transferred to India or to some designated country. They engage expert financial expert as their advisors as to how to avoid paying taxes and how to transfer money from one country to another. Sayydina Muhammad Burhanuddin was caught smuggling money from Tanzania and was externed from their by the Tanzanian Government. Once present da'i's uncle Ibrahim Zainuddin was caught with diamonds and other precious stones in his turban on 20th April 1957 trying to smuggle them from Sri Lanka. At another time Yusuf Najmuddin, brother of present da'i was caught smuggling Kenyan money on 17th March 1977 and once the present da'i himself was caught and deported from Tanzania on 15th August 1968.
After such bad experiences they engaged financial experts to advise them how to manage their financial affairs. Since Bohras are trading community and make lot of money in profit, they either voluntarily or through coercion pay great deal of money to the priesthood. Theirs is one of the richest families in India. Also, in various countries they have invested lot of money in real estate in the names of different members of family.
In every country they have their jamaat which is fully controlled from the central religious establishment of the Da'I in India. In South and South East Asia the Bohras are very prosperous community in Sri Lanka where they mainly deal in precious stones, in Malaysia, Singapore and Pakistan. In Pakistan and Sri Lanka they have political connection and give money generously to politicians to buy peace for themselves. The priesthood maintains high-level political contacts in these countries. In India too the high priest has contacts right up to highest level of governance, besides bureaucracy and high officialdom.
Bohras are generally a closed community and quite centripetal in attitude. Centrifugal tendencies are highly dreaded. Outsiders think they are highly prosperous and well- disciplined community but it is not whole reality. There is lot of poverty among Bohras, especially in India but not so abroad. The discipline also is more coercive one and comes at a high price. There is no internal freedom and is centrally controlled. The reform movement mainly is aimed at ensuring freedom of individual and abolish collective slavery to priesthood.
1: See Asghar Ali Engineer The Bohras (Bombay, 1993) PP-2
2: Dr. Taha Husayn, Al-fitnat al-Kubra, Vol. II (Urdu tr. by Abdul Hamid Nu'mani, (Ajmal Press, Bombay, n.d), p-307) Eng. Tr. by the author.
3: See Sumaiya A. Hamdani Between Revolution and State - The Path to Fatimid Statehood (The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2006)
4: AAA Fyzee "A Chorological List of the Imams and Da'is of the Must'alian Isma'ilis, JBBRAS, 1934, x pp-11/12. See also The Bohras op.cit. pp-114
5: We find the official account of conversion in the book called Mausam-e-Bahar written by Shaikh Muhammad Ali Ibn Mulla Jiwabhai, Vol. III, (Bombay, nd.)
6: See Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Vol.IX, Part II, Gujarat population, Muslims and Parsis, Bombay Government Central Press, 1899, p-24.
7:We find its account in Akhbar ad-Du'atal-Akramin (Progressive Publishers, Surat 1975) and also Mian Bhai Mulla Abdul Husain, A Short Note on Daudi Boras, (Gulzar-e-Daudi), Progressive Publications, Surat, 1920
8: See Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, op.cit. p-24-25
9: see The Bohras o.cit.pp-116-117.
10:For further details see The Bohras op.cit. pp- 165 to 281.
11: Vide para 88 of THE JUDGEMENT IN SUIT NO. 941 OF 1971 IN THE High Court of Judicature of Bombay.