Reform movement gathers forces in the Bohra community
Charges against Bohra religious head range from tyranny to corruption
With a population of just over a million, the Dawoodi Bohras are ethnic Gujaratis, mostly small traders. Last month, when 3,000 Dawoodi Bohras gathered at Udaipur for their 14th world conference, the thrust was on galvanising the ongoing movement against what the organisers described as the draconian rule of their spiritual head or dai-e-mutlaq, Syedna Burhanuddin.
The Dawoodis are one of the many branches of the Ismaili Shia sect. Throughout their history, the Ismailis have faced dissensions over succession to the post of Imam, whom they believe to be appointed by God as the Prophet’s deputy. The Dawoodis believe that their 21st Imam, Tayyeb, who resided in Yemen, went into seclusion, and that in his absence he had appointed a dai-e-mutlaq, a deputy with absolute powers over his followers, to control the community.
Faced with violent opposition from Sunni Muslims, the Dawoodi branch of the Ismailis carried on an underground religio-political movement in Yemen. But when Sunni opposition became severe, the 24th dai shifted to Gujarat. Following this, missionaries of the sect made numerous converts in Gujarat, particularly among Lohana traders (called Bohras in Gujarati). The Dawoodi Bohras, the largest of the various Bohra groups, are followers of the 27th dai.
The present dai, Syedna Burhanuddin, is the 52nd in line. Today, he finds himself in the centre of a brewing controversy, faced with angry protests from reformist Bohras amidst allegations of corruption.
In his address to the Udaipur conference, noted Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer, general secretary of the Central Board of the Dawoodi Bohra Community, recounted how the Syedna and his cronies have consistently sought to scuttle the reformist movement, not hesitating to use force in many cases. In an interview with this writer, Engineer spoke of the total control that the Syedna imposes on his followers, including demanding that they prostrate before him, although in Islam prostration is to be made only before God.
He referred to Burhanuddin’s father, Tahir Saifuddin, the 51st dai-e-mutlaq, who in a statement made in the Bombay High Court even declared himself to be “God on earth” (Ilah-ul-ard), a claim that is unambiguously unIslamic. He added that the Bohras are made to believe, quite contrary to Islamic teachings, that entry to heaven is dependent entirely on the Syedna’s goodwill.
The chief guest of the conference, social activist Medha Patkar, linked the struggle of the Bohra reformists to the wider struggle for social justice, stressing the need for internal democracy within religious communities and for challenging the autocracy of self-styled religious heads.
Syed Shahid Mehdi, former vice- chancellor of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia, characterised the Syedna’s dictatorial powers over the Bohras as ‘religious apartheid’. Tahir Mahmood, former chairman of the National Minorities Commission, castigated the Syedna for making exorbitant demands on the Bohras and for allegedly making claims for himself that even the Prophet Muhammad had never done.
Noting how the reformist Bohras were being hounded by the Syedna for speaking out against their oppression, he called for a law to protect religious dissenters.
Over three days, dozens of Bohras expressed their anguish at the oppressive practices of the Syedna and his vast family of around a thousand members. Abid Adeeb, president of the Udaipur Dawoodi Bohra Jamaat, spoke of how the present Syedna levies a number of taxes on the Bohras that had no sanction in Islam.
Through his representatives or amils, he said, the Syedna extracts several crores of rupees from his followers annually, demanding payment on almost every conceivable occasion. Even prayer spaces in Bohra mosques in the month of Ramzan are now up for sale, he revealed.
He felt that opposition to the Syedna’s exploitation was mounting but those who dare to do so are immediately excommunicated. Adeeb recounted numerous cases of excommunicated dissidents being forced by the Syedna to divorce their spouses.
The reformists had taken the issue of baraat, the power of excommunication that the Syedna claimed for himself, to the courts several years ago, but the case was still pending. He noted that various political parties were hand-in-glove with the Syedna, owing to the vast economic clout that he wields and the votes he can deliver, because of which these parties are, he alleged, indifferent to demands for reform. He pointed out that the Syedna even had close links with Narendra Modi, despite the fact that Bohras, along with other Muslims, had suffered immensely in the anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002.
He also claimed that the Syedna routinely paid various Sunni Muslim institutions money so as to project himself as a pious Muslim as well as to buy their support and their silence on his un-Islamic practices and exploitative ways.
Likewise, he said, the mainstream media, which routinely sensationalises Muslim issues, had largely ignored the scandals that abound in the Bohra religious establishment. “The Syedna spends vast sums of money to place advertisements for himself in the newspapers, and I would not be surprised if the Syedna’s men pay some mediapersons hefty sums to keep off writing on the corruption of the Bohra
religious establishment or to praise the Syedna,” he added.
Zainab Bano, president of the Bohra Youth Association Udaipur, spoke of the origins of the reformist movement in Udaipur in the 1970s, recounting the torments they have had to suffer over the years as a result, including being beaten up by Burhanuddin’s men, forcibly divorced from their spouses, banned from Bohra mosques and denied access to graveyards.
She pointed out that the present Syedna had invented new titles for his sons and daughters, styling them as ‘princes’ (shehzada) and ‘princesses’ (shehzadi). He had, she added, appointed key members of his family as amils in towns with a sizable Bohra population, and many of them had amassed vast fortunes by levying a host of taxes on Bohras and through shady deals.
Saifuddin Insaf, 70, one of the pioneers of the Bohra reformist movement, and editor of the reformist journal Bohra Chronicle, traced the degeneration in the Bohra priesthood to the 47th dai, Abdul Qadir Najmuddin, great-grandfather of Syedna Burhanuddin, who had established hereditary rule.
In order to dispossess the Bohras of the numerous trusts that Bohra philanthropists had set up across the country, the present Syedna had gone so far as to claim to be their sole trustee. The reformists had challenged this claim in the courts years ago but, Insaf lamented, the verdict was still pending.
Insaf revealed that in order to impose total control on the Bohras, the Syedna insists that no Bohra can pray in a mosque or marry without his permission. “This is a complete violation of Islamic teachings. It is a tool to ensure complete slavery. If a Bohra marries without the Syedna’s permission, the marriage is considered illegal and the offspring of that union illegitimate,” he explained.
He spoke of how Tahir Saifuddin had invented a new rule demanding that every Bohra adolescent give an oath of allegiance (mithaq) to him, rather than, as in the past, to the Imam who is believed to be in seclusion. This new oath insisted on complete surrender to the Syedna’s will, and required that every Bohra declare himself to be the “slave of the Syedna” (abd-e syedna). The present Syedna, he said, continues with this mithaq, which he castigated as “wholly unIslamic”.
Next month, Burhanuddin turns 100 and lavish preparations are underway to celebrate his centenary. Conference participants revealed that instructions have been sent to every Bohra family to cough up a substantial amount of money to fund his birthday revelries. Speaker after speaker also spoke of battles behind the scenes between rival factions among Burhanuddin’s several brothers and sons to succeed him as head of the vast empire he controls once he dies since he has not as yet revealed his successor. When that happens, they do not rule out the community splintering into rival sects, which would only be in consonance with the Ismaili historical tradition.
Sikand is a sociologist and critic