The recent attack on this author on the Mumbai airport on 13th February and ransacking of my house and office has created a new interest in the Bohra reform movement. Many people ask me as to who the Bohras are and what the reformists want? Why the priesthood resorts to such violence and suppression of the movement? Why reformists are being so severely persecuted. I would like to deal with these issues in this paper. I am writing this paper not only to answer these questions but also to focus attention of the people on the reform movement.
The Bohras are a Shi'ah Isma'ili sub-sect and number more than a million world wide. As it is well know there is no concept of church in Islam. Each individual is charged with the responsibility to seek knowledge. The holy Prophet is reported to have said "Seeking knowledge is obligatory on every Muslim man and Muslim woman." Thus every individual is ultimately responsible for knowing and discharging the Islamic duties. But the Shi'ah Isma'ili sect is the only Islamic sect (which split into two later i.e. the Nizaris and the Musta'lians, the Bohras being the Must'alians) which developed the concept of priesthood and a church like priestly structure. It would be interesting to throw some light on this aspect.
The Shi'as believe in the doctrines of imamah and nass. According to the Shi'as the supreme religious and political leaders after the Prophet (PBUH) is an imam which literally means a leader. And an Imam cannot be elected but is appointed by his predecessor by divine inspiration. Thus, according to the doctrine of nass, the predecessor appoints his successor through divine inspiration. In other words he determines his successor, not through his desire but as per ilham (through divine intervention). Thus a succession is not an arbitrary one but properly determined. The Imam or the mansus (divinely determined successor) is also believed to be m'asum i.e. infallible. He can commit no error or sin. Like the prophet the imam is protected from all errors. He is a perfect man. It is also believed that at no time the earth could be without an imam - physically present or in seclusion, depending on the political situation.
After the Prophet the Imam is at the top of the religious hierarchy followed by hujjas (literally proofs), du'at (plural of da'i - the summoners to the faith ), ma'dhun (one who is permitted to bring people to the faith) and mukasir (one who breaks the arguments of the opponents and prepares them to enter the Isma'ili faith). This is very rigid hierarchy developed by the Isma'ili Shi'as. It should be noted that the Isma'ili movement was an underground movement for quite some time. The Isma'ilis not only were considered heretics by the mainstream Sunni Muslims but they (the Isma'ilis) also had political aspirations and developed an underground organisation with the aim to capture power. Thus strict discipline and unquestioning submission to the authority became most essential for their functioning. They also devised an oath of allegiance to the authority (we will throw more light on it later) to ensure the loyalty and submission of their followers.
This priestly hierarchy has survived until today and is still equally rigid though historically there has been sea change in the situation. The Imam is in seclusion according to the Bohra belief (in India the Bohras are the followers of the Isma'ili Musta'lian-Tayyabi sect). The Bohras, as they are known today, originated in Gujrat in India in twelfth century. The two Arab Isma'ili missionaries came to Gujrat through Cambay port and converted large number of mostly middle caste Hindus quite a few of whom were traders. There is scholarly controversy about origin of the term 'Bohra'. But a general view is that it is derived from vohra which in turn has been derived from vehwar or vhorwu i.e. to trade. The term vohra became subsequently Bohra. In Gujrat they are still known as Vohras. Some conversions took place outside Gujrat also like in Maharashtra, in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. But basically bulk of the conversions took place in Gujrat. Many Bohras migrated to other parts of India in view of persecution during the period of Aurangzeb. Aurangzeb was governor of Gujrat for some time and some Sunni Ulama, it is believed, complained to him about the 'heretic' (rafdi) sect of Bohras and their head priest (da'i ). At that time the da'i was Saiyyidna Qutbuddin who was martyred at the instance of Aurangzeb for his 'heresy' and thus is popularly known as 'shahid' (i.e. martyr). It was after this persecution that large number of Bohras migrated to other parts of India wherever they found potentialities for trade and political asylum.
The Bohras were divided into a few sub-sects. These divisions were not doctrinaire but mainly on the question of succession. Thus those who followed Daud bin Qutub Shah were known as the Dawoodis and those who followed Suleman were known as Sulemanis. Later on there was another sub-division. Those who followed Ali are known as Alawi Bohras who are mostly found in Baroda in Gujrat. In India most of the Bohras are Dawoodis and the reform movement is in the Dawoodi community. The Sulemanis are mainly in the Yemen and are of Arab origin though there are a few in India too and they are of Indian origin. As they are basically form Gujrat the Bohras - be they Dawoodi, Sulemani or Alawi, speak Gujrati. Now many Dawoodi Bohras are found in several other countries like Pakistan, Tanzania, Kenya, U.K., USA, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka etc. Though the priestly establishment does not declare actual population of Bohras they are not more than 1.2 million world wide.
The Dawoodis wherever they are, are the followers of the Bohra da'i. The present incumbent is Saiyyidna Muhammad Burhanuddin who is 52nd in the chain of da'is which began from the Yemen in 12th century. The da'is took over the leadership of the Fatimid Da'wah (mission) after the 21st Imam Taiyyib went into seclusion. It is believed that the chain of imamah continues in the progeny of Imam Taiyyib and the Imam will appear one day and take the command. But as long as the Imam is in seclusion the da'i will continue to lead the mission (Da'wah).
It is important to point out here that according to the Isma'ili doctrine Imam is infallible but not the da'i. A da'i can err. It is true that the doctrine of nass is applicable to the appointment of da'i also i.e. a da'i is appointed by his predecessor. However, as the da'is of the Yemeni period, particularly Saiyyidna Hatim, has made it clear in his book Tuhfat al-Qulub that a da'i is not ma'sum (infallible) and that he has to have more than 100 qualifications for being a good da'i. He has listed all these qualifications in his Magnum Opus Tuhfat al-Qulub. Among those qualifications are being just, compassionate, highly knowledgeable, benevolent, able to debate with people of other religions, should have expert knowledge of other religions and schools of philosophy of his time, should be a good arbitrator, should be capable of loving his followers etc.
The da'is in the past led very exemplary and simple life. They never collected wealth and were mostly in debt. Whatever money they collected from their followers by way of zakat etc. they distributed to the poor, widows, orphans and the needy. They restricted their domain to religious and spiritual affairs of the community and hardly ever interfered in the secular affairs of their followers. They spent most of their time in 'ibadat (worship) and imparting religious knowledge to their followers. It is also true that the Bohras were generally petty traders and given to piety. In India they hardly ever aspired for political power and confined themselves to their community affairs.
Right from beginning the Bohras have been a closely knit community and quite inward looking. Also, it was a persecuted community being labelled as heretic. They were known for timidity and submission. Also, they were particularly known for their honesty and integrity in matters of trade too. Usually they avoided unscrupulous practices. This is what we find in the Bohra historical sources. They were least quarrelsome and were known for love of peace.
But all this began to change with the coming of the British rule. The British rule created ample opportunities for trading communities of Gujrat though it was an unmitigated disaster for the feudal class of Muslim rulers in the North. It is important to note that the mutiny of 1857 was confined to the North and the Muslims in western India, particularly those belonging to trading communities - Bohras, Khojas and Memons, welcomed the British rule as it brought about tremendous expansion of trade. Many of them migrated from interior Gujrat to Bombay as Bombay became a great centre of trade. The Bohra high priest also shifted his headquarters from Surat to Bombay.
The Bohras, like other trading communities, began to accumulate riches and the da'i who shifted his head quarters to Bombay also developed strategies to share the affluence of his followers. It is then that centrifugal tendencies began to emerge in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The high priest, in order to increase his financial share of his affluent followers, to only began to impose new taxes but also tried to tighten his grip over them. It was then that the priesthood began to interfere into secular affairs of the community as it could not have ensured increasing flow of wealth without such an interference and tightening of grip. More the priesthood tightened its grip over the community, greater were the dissenting trends and centrifugal tendencies.
Thus by the turn of the century the 50th da'i Saiyyidna Abdullah Badruddin, alarmed by the increasing trend of secular education among the Bohras, tried to suppress it. He did not allow some educated Bohras in Burhanpur to start a high school and when he did under increasing pressure, imposed rigid conditions and clandestinely issued firman to his Amils (local priests) not to allow Bohras to seek admission in the school. The founders of the school were also ex-communicated. Those excommunicated filed a suit in the Burhanpur court. This case was fought right up to the Privy Council. In early twenties another case was filed in the Bombay High Court by Ibrahim Admajee Peerbhoy, a rich Bohra merchant who challenged the Syedna's authority to purchase property from the income of a mausoleum of a Bohra saint. This case was also fought right up to the Privy Council. Thus it will be seen that As the Bohra high priest tried to tighten his grip over the community dissenting tendencies emerged.
The 51st Da'i Syedna Tahir Saifuddin further tightened his grip over the community. He marginalised the Bohra 'Ulama and concentrated all powers in his hands be they religious or secular. He assumed office of da'i in early twenties when the first world war began. The Bohra merchants earned extraordinary profits during this period. The da'i, therefore, imposed new taxes over the community to draw part of the profit. He explored all other sources from the community to enrich himself and his family. He also took all community resources under his control. He also invented new doctrines that all properties owned by the Bohras belonged to him and that they were mere munims (account keepers) on his behalf. He was shrewd enough to devise some titles which were awarded to the neo-rich Bohras in search of recognition to earn money as well as their much needed support for his increasingly authoritarian ways.
Many eminent Bohras like judges, advocates, doctors, teachers and rich merchants and others had joined the reformists challenging the authoritarian ways of the da'i. He, through awarding titles on one hand, and through the threat of ex-communication, on the other, broke the unity of the reformists. In fact the threat of ex-communication worked with disastrous consequences in the well-knit small community and most of the ex-communicated Bohras showed resolve to continue the fight. Thus ex-communication became the chief instrument of persecution in the hands of the Bohra high priest. Now his authority was supreme and no one, except handful of reformists, challenged his highly authoritarian ways.
The community was totally subjugated to him. He adopted un-Islamic ways. He forced the Bohras to perform sajda (prostrating) before him which is strictly prohibited in Islam except before Allah. He also claimed in the Bombay High Court before Justice Martin that "I am god on earth" (ilah al-ard) which is even more objectionable from Islamic point of view. He also wrote in his compilation in Arabic Risalah Ramdaniyah that anyone who recites the Kalimah (the Islamic confession) without accepting him as religious guide it will not be accepted by Allah i.e. one can be true Muslim only if one accepts the Bohra da`i as ones religious head. There was great stir against this among the Muslim `ulama who condemned him unanimously. Number of `ulama issued fatwas against the Bohra da`i were issued which were compiled in a book by Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a noted Islamic scholar and the keeper of the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Awliyah in Delhi. Since the name of the Bohra da`i was Saifuddin (the sword of religion) Khwaja Hasan Nizami called his compilation as Saif bar Din (i.e. sword on religion).
The Bohra da'i also invented new doctrines totally alien to Islam. He began to maintain that no one can lead congregational prayer without his permission and if anyone does, it will not be accepted by Allah. Similarly any nikah performed (solemnisation of marriage) without his permission it will be illegitimate and any child born of such a union will be illegitimate too. In fact one Bohra couple whose marriage the da'i refused to solemnise as it had reformist sympathies filed a suit in the court of law and the da'i had to take back his firman describing the marriage as illegitimate. But the couple remained ex-communicated and its social life was ruined.
Thus the da'i's authority became so supreme that even Allah had to consult him before accepting some ones prayer or haj or marriage - a totally absurd proposition. Every Bohra had to declare himself as the slave of syedna (abd-e-syedna). One had to print this even on the marriage invitation card. The marriage would be disrupted if 'abd-e-syedna was not printed on it. Thus it would be seen that a strong element of authoritarian rule was established in the Bohra community. The whole community became totally subservient to the high priest. The community surrendered its autonomy to the family of the da'i. It began to function as 'state within state' as Morarji Desai, the then He Minister of the Bombay State in 1948 described him while introducing a bill Prevention of Ex-communication Bill. He also said that the Bohra high priest enjoys 'monstrous powers'. He continues to enjoy these powers until today. His powers, if anything, have increased. He has successfully manoeuvred, as an American political scientist Theodore Wright Jr. has written, the external democracy to frustrate the internal democracy within the community.
The Indian democracy, like democracies in other countries of the developing world, is fragile in many respects. The Indian society is fragmented along castes, sub-castes and communities and sub-communities and each caste and sub-caste or community or sub-community, is a vote bank for the politicians. Those who control these castes and communities also control their votes and can easily negotiate deals with the powers that be. The Bohra high priest controls not only votes but also enjoys great deal of financial power to oblige politicians. He can earn support of secular parties like the Congress and that of communal parties like the BJP and the Shiv Sena at the same time. Except the Left parties, he enjoys rapport with all political outfits. Since the reformists cannot mobilise political or financial support, they get politically isolated. When this author was attacked recently all political leaders, those of the Congress, BJP and Shiv Sena, rushed to support the Syedna and easily bought his version that I had 'insulted him' and that I tried to 'attack him'
More than non-Muslim political leaders a section of Muslim leaders are ever ready to oblige him. They bow with bender knees before him and issue a statement against reformists he wants them to issue. It is very painful to see that how a section of Muslim leaders, throwing even all principles of Islam also to wind can oblige the Bohra high priest. It is so even in other countries of South Asia like Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Recently the Bohra priest of Sri Lanka tried to unsuccessfully block my entry into Colombo and it was pity to see that the Muslim ministers of Sri Lanka were putting pressure on the governmental machinery not to let me in. However, they did not succeed. The civil rights groups of Sri Lanka strongly protested against my attempted humiliation at the airport.
We would also like to throw some light on what the reformists want? The high priest often alleges that the reformists are anti-religion. This is, needless to say, a baseless allegation. In fact it is just the opposite. The reformists are basically fighting against anti-Islamic and anti-human practices of the Bohra da'i. The reformists want the Syedna to reform his anti-Islamic ways - forcing the Bohras to perform sajda before him, to claim to enjoy the divine powers on earth, to claim that he enjoys divine attributes Qadi al-Hajat, Ka'bat al-Musallin,etc.
The reformists want him to follow the true teachings of Islam and not to make these pretentious claims. Also, as a religious head, the reformists argue, his duty is to provide religious guidance and not to enforce it on his followers. He enforces his so- called 'religious edicts', quite controversial in nature, and threatens with ex-communication anyone not following them. In eighties he issued an injunction against the bank interest and forced many Bohras not only to close down their accounts and withdraw their fixed deposits but also to resign their jobs in the bank. Many families were very adversely affected by such undemocratic injunctions.
The reformists have maintained that the Bohra priesthood have been violating the democratic and human rights of Bohras. The reformists are upholders of principles of human rights and civil liberties and respect for human dignity. They stand for non-interference in secular affairs of individuals. They also stand for transparency and accountability. The priesthood rejects these principles outright. The two commissions of inquiry headed by retired high court judges and appointed by premier human rights organisations of the country inquired into the allegations of serious violations of human rights in the Bohra community at the hands of the priesthood - The Nathwani Commission and Tewatia Commission upheld the allegations of violations of human rights. The Nathwani Commission observes, in the concluding chapter of its report, "Our inquiry has shown that there is large-scale infringement of civil liberties and human rights of reformist Bohras at the hands of the priestly class and that those who fail to obey the orders of the Syedna and his Amils, even in purely secular matters, are subjected to Baraat resulting in complete social boycott and frequent physical assaults."
The conditions have worsened after these inquiries. The Bohra priesthood continues to be on the offensive to maintain its highly authoritarian grip over the community. The Bohras, as pointed out earlier, were highly peaceful and peace-loving community. The high priest, in order to maintain his grip over it, uses a section of the community, to perpetuate violence against the reformists. Thus the high priest and his cohorts have created a culture of violence in the community. Also, the tolerance level has touched almost zero. No opposition, even in secular matters, is entertained. One must obey the orders of the priesthood unquestioningly. The Bohras are being taught to use highly abusive language against the reformists. This abusive language against the reformists is used in religious sermons inside mosques. The Bohras are incited through such abusive language to attack the reformist leaders. As the protestants were burnt at stake during medieval ages, the reformists are made targets of violence.
It is this culture of violence that the reformists are fighting against. The individual rights are sacred and cannot be violated, the reformists believe. The right to dissent and disagree is very fundamental right in democracy. This right should not be allowed to be trifled with to maintain the quality of democracy. It is this right which is really in danger in the Bohra community. These rights cannot be crushed in the name of religion. It is totally against religious spirit itself. No religion denies the autonomy of individual. "And surely", the Holy Qur'an says, "We have honoured all children of Adam." (17:70) It is this honour that the reformist Bohras are struggling to uphold.