Reeling under a succession dispute since 2014, the million-strong wealthy community is struggling between conservatism and reform
Lhendup G Bhutia | 03 Feb, 2020
Bohra Muslims at Bhendi Bazar, Mumbai
Devin Stewart stands behind a table in his hotel room whistling a soft tune to himself. A large man in an oversize black suit, he has a somewhat amused expression as he extends courtesies.
“It feels,” he says at some point, “like [I have been through] a very, very long and hard math test.”
Stewart, who was in Mumbai last month, had just spent the last few days in the confines of a courtroom, explaining to lawyers and judges intricate doctrinal texts, sometimes recounting historical episodes stretching centuries, over how successions are conducted in the Ismaili tradition. A professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Emory University in the US, he is one of a handful of scholars who specialise in this field (his primary interest, he explains, lie between the years 1100 and 1400, when the Imams are believed to have gone into seclusion and the institution of the Da’i al-Mutlaqs or Syednas in the Dawoodi Bohra tradition began).
He’d been summoned to Mumbai to clear the doctrinal cobwebs in the row between two individuals claiming to be the correct Syedna, the spiritual head of the small but wealthy Dawoodi Bohra community, in the Bombay High Court. It is a complicated subject, involving theological texts and ancient historical details and terms, especially to lay individuals, at one point even leading one local newspaper to misreport that it was the professor who was going to become the next Syedna.
Stewart’s hotel room today is crowded today. There are at least seven more individuals here, most of them Dawoodi Bohras who support Taher Fakhruddin’s claim to the post. Some of them stand quietly at one corner; one individual takes pictures; another sits right in front of Stewart and me, staring intently as though at the words of the interview in progress. And one individual you cannot see at all, but only hear, his fingers typing the transcripts of the interview furiously into a laptop. It is only when there is a lull in the conversation that you see him, the legs of his chair pushed back, and from behind a lamp, a gold-embroidered topi and a bespectacled face with a slight beard appearing ever so slightly.
Stewart is very careful to not appear biased and he refrains from commenting specifically on the case. Although he is in Mumbai upon the invitation of Fakhruddin, he claims he has been fair and careful to only limit himself to what the doctrinal texts say without leaning one way or another in this particular case.Stewart is very careful to not appear biased and he refrains from commenting specifically on the case. Although he is in Mumbai upon the invitation of Fakhruddin, he claims he has been fair and careful to only limit himself to what the doctrinal texts say without leaning one way or another in this particular case.
“The theory is, even though something [the nass, or the announcement of succession in this faith] was private, and not known to other people, it’s going to become known in some fashion,” he says. “Because the succession of the imams and the Dai’s is preordained, the correct imam [or Dai’] will inevitably be able to convince people that he is the correct [one].”
The dispute between the two claimants to the post arose in 2014 after the death of the 52nd Syedna, Mohammed Burhanuddin, when both his half-brother Khuzaima Qutbuddin (Fakhruddin’s father) and his son Mufaddal Saifuddin claimed to have been appointed the successor.
Burhanuddin had suffered a debilitating stroke three years before his death. And while Saifuddin claimed that his father had appointed him a successor even then, later even going to the extent of releasing a video, when murmurs of whether this was true began doing the rounds, of the 52nd Syedna conferring the nass upon his son in his hospital room. Both Qutbuddin, when he was alive, and now his son Fakhruddin claim that Burhanuddin was too incapacitated to even know what was going on then. According to them, Qutbuddin had been chosen as the successor in secret way back in 1965.Fakhruddin suggests that the 51st Da’i, Syedna Taher Saifuddin, had indicated during his lifetime that he would like Qutbuddin as the 53rd Da’i after the reign of his son as the 52nd Da’i. Hence, Fakhruddin claims, a nass was performed for his father in 1965, kept secret in all probability out of fear that revealing it at that moment may lead to a discord among other aspirants.
This current dispute eventually led to a split not only within the larger communitybut within the two families who are also connected through marriage. Two of Qutbuddin’s daughters married into Saifuddin’s family, one to his son and the other to his nephew, broke off their marriages and fled to the US with their children. A US court later granted the children’s custody to their fathers.
A larger section of the community supports Saifuddin’s claim because—according to Irfan Engineer, a well-known Mumbai-based Dawoodi Bohra activist and the son of Asghar Ali, one of the earliest reformers within the community—he moved quickly to bring community’s various institution under his control. “Mosques, foundations and all the institutions of the community came under him,” says Engineer.
But why hadn’t Qutbuddin and his son raised an objection between the 52nd Syedna’s stroke in 2011 and his eventual death in 2014, when Saifuddin had already begun saying that he had been appointed as the next Syedna? According to Fakhruddin, this was because his father had been sworn to secrecy by the 52nd Syedna. He claims his father hadn’t even told him about the secret nass until after the 52nd Syedna’s death.
Fakhruddin appears over a video interview in a regal white attire. The younger among the two claimants (Fakhruddin is 51, Saifuddin, 73), he presents himself as a less authoritarian figure. He has a following, according to some Dawoodi Bohras, of around 15 per cent of the community. He says many more have pledged their support but fear coming out into the open. After his father’s death in 2016, Fakhruddin took over the case. So while Saifuddin claims to be the 53rd Da’i, according to the rival group, Qutbuddin was the 53rd Da’i, and after Qutbuddin conferred nass upon his eldest son, Fakhruddin became the 54th Da’i.
According to Fakhruddin, not only had his father been conferred a secret nass, throughout the 52nd Da’i’s lifetime, he had indicated that Qutbuddin was going to become his successor. Indications, along with secret and public nass, according to Stewart, have historically been legitimate methods of conferring the title of the next Syedna. “Saifuddin and his brothers, all of them would give respect to my father, as they would give respect to the 52nd Da’i,” he says. They would prostate in front of him and refer to him, he claims, in the manner only reserved for Da’is or future Da’is.
A community spokesperson representing Saifuddin claims that Saifuddin was conferred the nass on a number of occasions, both privately and publicly, thus making him the legitimate Syedna. “The overwhelming majority – more than 99.9% – of the Dawoodi Bohras worldwide, are united in support of and follow His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin as the head of the community. This overwhelming support for Syedna Saifuddin is clearly evident when he travels to towns and cities where Bohras reside all across the world. Bohras gather in thousands, sometimes even in the hundreds of thousands to be with him during religious occasions, and such gatherings are usually covered by the local and national press,” the community spokesperson says over email. “These followers consider Syedna Saifuddin as the natural and legitimate successor of the 52nd Dai, and actively seek to benefit from the Syedna’s guidance and benevolence. The controversy created by the Claimant (Qutbuddinthen, and his son Fakhruddinnow) has no bearing on the faith of these followers… as in their minds there is no dispute whatsoever regarding who the legitimate Syedna is. A very small number of people have chosen to follow the Claimant… and they are entitled to their beliefs. There is no split in the community to the extent that is being falsely and deliberately projected. “
According to the community spokesperson, it is a central tenet of the Dawoodi Bohra faith that witnesses are required for a valid conferment of nass and to claim to the contrary is absurd. “It is important to understand the actual situation prior to and immediately after the passing of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. As has been well documented, about 30 months prior to his passing, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin publicly designated his son Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin as his successor. This appointment was announced all over the world and thereafter, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin operated as the heir apparent or Mansoosfor those 30 months. Moreover, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin was deputed by Syedna Burhanuddin to deliver important sermons and sent to various towns and cities across the world to look into the affairs of the community and provide guidance on his behalf. So from June 2011, all Dawoodi Bohras across the world knew that Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin was to succeed his father as Dai. Hence, when Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin passed away in January 2014, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin took his place as the Dai, as expected,” the community spokesperson says. “In fact, what shocked the community was that many Bohras received an unexpected email from the Claimant on the day of the funeral of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin itself, when the whole community was overwhelmed with grief, claiming that he (Khuzaima Qutbuddin) had in fact been appointed successor in secret and without the presence of any witnesses some 50 years earlier. This was obviously not considered a credible claim because not once during this 30-month period when Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin operated as the heir apparent or Mansoos, did the Claimant in any manner question the appointment of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin as the future successor. In fact, he appeared to have accepted the appointment during that period.”
The community spokesperson claims what Fakhruddin and his father seem to have done istoform a new sect with their own set of beliefs and a small number of followers. “These followers have chosen to accept Taher Fakhruddin as their leader and that is their choice. They freely hold religious and social gatherings at the Claimant’s residence in Thane as well as a few other places… They do not mix with or attend functions organised by the followers of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, so there is no question of them being boycotted or ostracised. As far as the rest of the Bohras are concerned, which includes all the clergy, the lecturers of the Bohra seminary, Al-Jamea al-Saifiyah, the trustees and managers of hundreds of trusts that run the Jamaats of the community and general community members at large, they have, right from the very beginning all followed Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin,”the community spokesperson goes on.
According to Stewart, when a Syedna picks his successor and performs a nass, he cannot later change his mind and do a nass in favour of another candidate. This would mean, in this particular case, if a secret nass had been performed in 1965, all subsequent ones in favour of another candidate would be doctrinally considered null and void.
Even if a secret nass is a legitimate method of picking a successor theologically, one only known to the conferrer and the conferred, how does one prove whether such an event even took place in a court of law? Fakhruddin appears annoyed at the suggestion that it might be difficult to prove such a thing. “The question in the court is about our faith and our doctrine, right,” he says. “And according to our doctrine, if a private nass can happen, to [which] my father testified in court,and by way of indication the 52nd Da’i indicated that in [his] sermon. So legally speaking, actually, I would say the evidence is being put forward very, very strongly by us.”
Given the nature of this manner of successions—sometimes done secretly and sometimes by way of indications—Stewart points out there have been several such disputes over succession in the past leading to splits within the faith.
“The interesting thing about this case is that this is like living in medieval history,” he says.
THE DISPUTE between the two claimants comes at an interesting time for Dawoodi Bohras. Estimated to number around a million, a majority of them on the western coast of India in Gujarat and Mumbai and easily discernible by the ridahs (colourful burqas) the women wear and the white kurtas and skullcaps embroidered in golden colour, Dawoodi Bohras are known to be a tightly knit trading community. But increasingly, more people appear to be questioning the hold of dogma over the community, be it the prevalence of regressive practices such as female genital mutilation or khatna or the control of Syednas. There have been online campaigns, a court case (over female genital mutilation currently pending in the Supreme Court) and the formation of progressive groups.
According to some progressive voices within the community, Saifuddin has been particularly controlling as a leader, pushing for a much more conservative interpretation of the faith. Two years ago, an unusual edict was issued, asking people to give up Western-style lavatories in favour of the Indian-style commode. People began to show up at homes on quite a few occasions, checking on toilets and sometimes breaking them if they chanced upon a Western toilet. Defendants of the move explained that this was just an advisory and not compulsory. But there have been several more such advisories, from stipulating that weddings must only take place in community halls to regulations about the manner in which mehendi can be applied upon brides to the number of dishes that can be served by caterers.
“[Saifuddin] has also been very business-minded. Collection drives have increased, the prices of everything from entry into mosques to taxes [levied by the clergy upon the community] has increased,” Engineer says. “People are not happy at all.”
Fakhruddin himself makes some of these allegations, especially about Saifuddin’s sermons regarding the role of women. “He says that women should stay at home and [husbands should] put them in the corner of [the] house so [they] don’t have to worry that [their wives are] cheating [them],” he says. “They should not work in call centers and education [should be] only in home science.” When asked thecommunity spokesperson representing Saifuddin claimsFakhruddin is distorting information in an attempt to defame Saifuddin. “The facts are quite the opposite and we are proud of the role that women play in our community,” the community spokesperson says.“Many women in the community are professionals and many pursue careers in medicine, IT, teaching, as well as a number of other varied fields. Many run their own businesses… Whatever counsel Syedna gives the women of the community is in keeping with the tenets of the Dawoodi Bohra faith and its cultural ethos, and being the Dai al Mutlaq it is his duty to do so. It is also important to note that Dawoodi Bohras have a proud tradition of gender equality, tolerance, and education for both boys and girls. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin continues to stress the importance of education equally for both men and women. The Bohras accept that the Claimant and his few followers are entitled to their views, however misguided they might be. As a community we are not going to be distracted by such controversies from doing positive and meaningful work…”
Engineer however points out that what Fakhruddin is doing is only offering better terms. “He is the weaker party, so he is trying to win over people by offering better terms. He may appear less socially regressive but he still upholds the doctrine,” he says.
Syednas haven’t always been such powerful figures. “During the Mughal era, the community was quite poor, even Syednas,” says Engineer, pointing out that this was because they were a Shiite group (while the Mughal emperors were Sunni). The community became prosperous during the British rule. Syednas became all-powerful figures in the early 1900s during the lifetime of the 51st. “He proclaimed that he was the owner of the body, mind and soul and the property of all the people [in the community]. He gradually brought all institutions, mosques, funds and trusts under him, took away religious books from people saying they may read it out of context and brought in the concept of raza [permission] where people have to seek his permission for everything,” Engineer says.
He also tried to influence elections, a practice, which Engineer says, continues till today. The 51st also introduced the practice of wearing the ridah and topi, Engineer explains, to make the distinction between Dawoodi Bohra and other Muslim groups more discernible. Any disagreement within the community was not taken well. Those who rebelled were socially boycotted.
“He essentially made everyone his slave,” says Mujtaba Lokhandwala, a former professor from Pune. “And this slavery continues till today.”
Lokhandwala likens Syednas and their followers to a cult. Over the years, according to him, increasingly more people from the community are beginning to optout. Three years ago, he formed a group called Bohra for Change. The group, now consisting of over 1,200 members, exists both as an online support group and one which meets periodically. He describes it as a place of Dawoodi Bohras, just one that does not serve the cult of Syednas. Many of the members have joined the group secretly, he says, still working up the courage to risk social boycott by opening up about their feelings. “You have to remember,” Lokhandwala says, “The community is still primarily a trading class, one that is dependent upon social networks, and hence very vulnerable to any form of social boycott.”
But as larger swathes of the community enter more professional jobs, Lokhandwala explains, their vulnerability is decreasing. There are two avenues where boycotting is exceptionally debilitating: finding a marriage partner and burying a loved one.
Lokhandwala wanted to address that with his group, seeking matches for arranged marriages from within the group and supporting one another when burial grounds for Dawoodi Bohras are denied to those who have turned their backs upon the clergy. “With more people choosing their own partners [within the community] the issue of finding a partner is no more such a big problem,” Lokhandwala says. The other is still a work in progress.
Around 19 years ago, when Engineer’s mother passed away, although he suspected his mother would be denied space in the burial ground for Dawoodi Bohras in Mumbai, he says he wanted to experience it for himself. “I was asked [by the caretaker of the burial ground] if I paid my taxes. When I said ‘No’, giving my explanation that there was no accountability [about the use of the money], I was refused,” he says. She was interred instead at a Sunni burial ground. When his father passed away in 2013, he had him also buried in a Sunni cemetery. “In that moment of such grief, however strong your commitments, it is exceptionally difficult to fight over it,” Engineer says.
A few years ago, when Lokhandwala’s father died, he faced a similar situation. Known to often speak against the community’s practices, he always finds himself—as is often the case with rebels in the community—uninvited to family gatherings and events. This time he was being barred from entering the cemetery at his father’s funeral.
Lokhandwala decided to not let it be. He reached out to the police and threatened to have a case registered under Maharashtra’s then newly instituted social boycott law, the Maharashtra Protection of People form Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act.
“They had no choice,” he says. “They had to let me in.”