Faith of The Dawoodi Bohras

Shaikh Tyebally A. Davoodbhoy, M.D.H.

India is the home of many religions and religious toleration has been the charateristic feature of Indian civilisation. Those who led the fight for Independence in India, always laid great stress on religious and communal amity and accord. To achieve and safequard this aim, every religious community was guaranteed by the Indian Constitution the fundamental right to practise religion according to their faith and to manage its own affairs in mattes of religion. Secularism as envisaged in the Constitution is to build up a fellowship of believers not by subordinating individual qualities to the group mind but by bringing them into harmony with each other.

This farsighted policy of our Constitution makers has helped to preserve and strengthen the integrity and unity of the country. In the context of our Constitution, secularism has come to mean an attitutde of five and let live developing into an attitude of live and help live.

The solidarity of the various institutions of civilised society need to be preserved and strengthened. This is brought about through maintenance of discipline which is vital. Members of society as well as of religious communities had to be worthy of the rules of governance applicable and could not be allowed to infringe such rules on whim and fancy. Religious communities secure the observance of their proper religious rites and practices by a policy of religious discipline which rules out heresy, apostasy and schism.

The identity of a religious denomination consists in the identity of its doctrines, creeds and tenets which ensure the unity of the faith professed by its adherents and the identity of the religious views are the bonds of the union which hold them together as one community. Otherwise it would be a mere incongrous heap of, as it were, grains of sand, thrown together without being united. Each of these individual and isolated grains would differ from every other and the whole would form a nominally united but really unconnected mass. The Dawoodi Bohra denomination is included in the world Muslim Ummah that numbers millions. They comprise of followers of the Fatimiyeen Imamas, who founded kingdoms, fostered noble traditions of thought and philosophy, produced and guarded an immense wealth of literature, established a resplendent civilisation and the wise way of life with Islam as the bedrock. The Bohra denomination is the grouping of believers on the basis of the voluntary acceptance of a faith and a code of beliefs, tenets, conduct and way of life; peoples of many nationalities and colour under one religious banner, accepting the benevolent leadership of al-Dai-al-Mutlaq. Each community member is free to choose to remain within the fold or opt out of it. There is no room for doubt, confusion or compulsion. Each follower enters and remains in the fold of his free choice. No one is constrained. The surrender to the faith and behaviour in consonance with the religious code needs to be made with the fullest consent of the seeker. Membership is not inherited by birth. The child, after reaching puberty, has to receive the religious oath of fealty (Misaq) to be enrolled as a follower. The Dai, in his sole and absolute discretion is the arbiter of who is to be accepted as a follower.

The Dawoodi Bohras believe that there is one God (Allah); that Prophet Mohammed (SAW) is his Rasul (Messenger); that Moulana Ali (AS) is the Vasi of Prophet Mohammed (SAW); that Moulana Ali (AS) was succeeded and will be succeeded in perpetuity by his direct male descendants as Imams; that the 21st Imam went into seclusion, and that there is on earth today and will always be an Imam by regular unbroken chain of succession, who heads and governs the ‘Dawat’ which is the mission of Allah on earth; that the Imamate shall continue in the direct descendant of the Prophet (SAW) and the Dawat shall be permanent until the Day of Reckoning, the two being inseparable; that during the period of seclusion of the Imam, the Imam’s Vicegerent and Representative, namely al-Dai-al-Mutlaq appointed by ‘Nass’ (declaration) heads and governs the ‘Dawat’ exercising the full authority and powers of the Imam; that during the period of seclusion there have been 51 such Dais-al-Mutlaq from Syedna Zoeb (AQ) to Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb (AQ) and that Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS) the present Dai-al-Mutlaq, is the 52nd in an unbroken chain of succession extending over 850 years.

Inspired and encouraged by their supreme leaders the Dais-al-Mutlaq, members of this enterprising community travelled to the shores of Africa and the lands of the Far East, over two centuries ago in search of new avenues of trade and commerce. Likewise, after World War II, they migrated to the U.K., Europe, U.S.A., Canada and Australia. The enterpreneurs took with them their rich community heritage and under all circumstances, refused to be separated from that which was the source of their very existence and fount of their spiritual and religious nourishment. The Dai-al-Mutlaq is constantly in touch with the believers, and keeps each of the Dawoodi Bohra world centre an active nursery of religious strength and discipline by identifying with their needs, hopes and aspirations. He is the catalyst who preserves the identity of the denomination.

Neither materialism nor the heresy of modernism are allowed to weaken the spiritual will. The Dai is the sentinel. He warns against passing intellectual fashions and tempting fads. The Dawoodi Bohra believes in the complete authority of the Dai over all areas of his life.

The austere personality, discipline and administration of the Dai keeps the believers animated, contented and on the straight path. Authority is maintained, accepted and respected for centuries because of the legitimacy of the creed. So the confidence and reverence of the followers is preserved, increased and vitalised. Belief in the presence of the Dai in the pivotal role is the bedrock upon which the structure of the entire community is built.

The modern age has destroyed or weakened many religious groups and regimes. Increasing trade, the rise of resources, economic development, shift of wealth and power, improved communications, growth of schools and universities and the healhy advance in science and technology produced and spread new ideas which the existing authority could never fully control.

Ecnomic changes, new social forces and fresh ideas all combined to challenge the authority. But the Dawoodi Bohra Community has withstood all and continues to not only maintain its identity, but grows stronger in faith and also in material wellbeing. This is because of the sensitive and multifaceted role of al-Dai-al-Mutlaq in the evolution of the community, who is loath and averse, as a religious duty, to countenance a change in fundamental Islamic principles.

Today, world-wide there are approximately 470 centres of the Dawoodi Bohra Community. Each is governed by a constitution bestowed by al-Dai-al-Mutlaq. Each centre is autonomous, having community institutions like a Masjid, musafirkhana, madressa, school, community hall, clinic etc. The community has for its use and benefit approximately 700 Masajid, 137 Musafirkhanas, 52 Mazars, 26 Hospitals, 50 Libraries, 75 Bachat Yojanas, 21 Maternity Homes, 15 Housing Societies, 400 Community Halls, 3 Boarding Houses for orphans, 350 Schools and 4 Colleges.

For propagating and preserving the Dawoodi Bohra faith, the community has Al-Jamea-tus-Saifiyah, Arabic Academy at Surat and Karachi to train teachers and leaders. The Academy has earned international fame and recognition as the centre of Islamic educational and cultural activities. In addition, al-Dai-al-Mutlaq has established several public charitable trusts like the "Saifee Foundation", "His Holiness Dr. Syedna Taher Saifuddin Memorial Foundation" and the "Burhani Karzan Hasanah Trust". All of them are doing excellent work in India, Pakistan, U.K., Sri Lanka and East Africa. The corpus of all these trusts is contributed exclusively by the community. However, the benefits go out to all human kind without distinction of align, creed or colour. Likewise, in India alone the community is the beneficiary of over 2000 public trusts and wakfs.

The small Dawoodi Bohra Community has built up these resources and attained this enviable pride of place due to the uninterrupted stewardship and continuous vigilance of Doat Mutlaqeen who have been an ever-flowing source of inspiration and guidance and have helped unobtrusively but effectively in fostering and strengthening the fundamental unity of purpose which is the keystone of the Dawoodi Bohra entity.

Dawat-e-Hadiyah for centuries, has applied the Fatimi philosophy to all the human problems, approached them in a perceptive manner, blended them with the essentials of the times so that the best in this world could be ensured hand in hand with eternal emancipation which was the end purpose of human destiny and Allah’s divine will.

Al-Da-al-Mutlaq’s spiritual mission and the efficacy of his administration is one of the bonds that hold the community together as one entity. Al-Dai-al-Mutlaq enforces the purity of the follwers and preservation of the entity. He expounds and interprets the law applicable to the faith which interpretation is final and binding. The management and administration of all properties, institutions and affairs of the community wherever situated is controlled and administered by al-Dai-al-Mutlaq or under his authority and written permission and approval. Al-Dai-al-Mutlaq is the Sole Trustee of the property of the community by virtue of his position as al-Dai-al-Mutlaq. The august position of al-Dai-al-Mutlaq and the salient features of the Bohra faith were confirmed by judicial pronouncements of the Privy Council and the Supreme Court of India. Both these judgements are now followed by courts in India and the world.

The Privy Council in a landmark judgement going to the very roots of the faith of the Dawoodi Bohra held that the 51st Dai-al-Mutlaq, the immediate predecessor in the office of the present Dai-al-Mutlaq, was the rightful successor in office and that unquiestioning faith in the Dai as the Head of the community is part of the creed of the Dawoodi Bohras.

The Supreme Court of India has pronounced in its judgement (AIR 1962 SC page 856 at page 870) per Rajagopala Ayyangar, J. as follows :
"It was the accepted tenet of the Dawoodi Bohra faith that God always had and still has a representiative on earth through whom His commands are conveyed to His people. That representative was the Imam. The Dai was the representative of the Imam and conveyed God’s message to His people. The powers of the Dai were approximated to those of the Imam …"
"The Dai-al-Mutlaq was not merely a religious Leader – the religious head of the denomination but was the trusteee of the property of the Community."

Today, as in the past, the Dawoodi Bohra Community under the infalliable guidance of their Dai remains stead-fast to the teachings of al-Quran-e-majeed, the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) and Imams (AS). They continue to cherish and remember the martyrdom of Imam Husain (AS) in Kerbala (Iraq) whose supreme sacrifice is the very essence and foundation of their religious being and continued spiritual sustenance. In this way the Bohra entity will guard its worldwide reputation of being a distinct well-knit and united entity dedicated to progress based on the strict observance of Islam, the last revelation of the eternal and unique truth, whose divine message encompasses all of human life.

Like all other religious communities, there is a minuscule within the Dawoodi Bohra community that is unable mentally to subscribe to the code of beliefs and discipline of the faith and to the leadership and authority of al-Dai-al-Mutlaq. It became active in the time of His Holiness Dr. Syedna Taher Saifuddin, 51st Dai-al-Mutlaq. He entered upon the high religious office at the age of 28 years. Monied interests, unwilling to accept the Dai’s authority relied upon their wealth and in turn set in motion a movement of antagonism against the young new incumbent.

His Holiness 51st Dai-al-Mutlaq faced his opponents with cam determination. He knew that this misguided microscopic group of dissenters had as their objective the desire to mislead the community, egged by the power of the purse. They challenged His Holiness and filed successively forty-seven legal suits. However, His Holiness took up the challenge and in every suit his stand in matters of basic importance and the future of the community proved to be sagacious.

Every defeat suffered by the opponents isolated them more and more from the rest of the community. Infuriated they renewed the opposition making the methods of their hostility subtler and fraught with communal danger. Defeated in courts, they tried to draw the Government on their side with false representations and countless memoranda incorporating allegations of various kinds against the person of His Holiness and the administration of the institutions of the community by him.

The methods now resorted to were to exploit the religious susceptibilities of sister communities with the sole aim of bringing about a climate inimical to the secular character of the Indian nation and attempting to destroy the peace and amity existing between different sects and nationalities. To some extent these vile attempts were successful in contributing to communal distrubances. The same vile attempts were undertaken in other lands, particularly the countries of East Africa and the Republic of Madagascar.

Dissenters have arisen in all religions and will continue to do so in the future. In the Bohra history dissenters arose from time to time. Each group proclaimed its own code of beliefs, seceded from the mainstream and set itself up as a separate religious entity. This is a natural and necessary corollary to the act of dissent. But present day dissidents denounce the faith and refuse to secede and on the contrary demand that the faith be changed to suit their whims. A majority is sought to be oppressed by a ragbag element and an attempt is being made to interfere with the fundamental rights of a majority.

As far as the community and the Dai-al-Mutlaq are concerned, they have repeatedly proclaimed that the doors to the community fold are always open.

The mission of al-Dai-al-Mutlaq has exercised the utmost tolerance and compassion. The community always is prepared to be compassionate and charitable. However, what the breakaway group desires is to dilute the fundamental religious beliefs, tenets, and code of ethics which have been evolved over the last 1400 years.

As far as the activity of the breakaway group in Kenya and Tanzania is concerned, in the initial stages, officialdom and the Governments were drawn sympathetically by the well-prepared and camouflaged propaganda material presented. However, the mask was soon unveiled and the Governmentof Kenya wrote to His Holiness the Dai-al-Mutlaq in 1977 as under :

"I am confident the problem of your followers in Kenya will be resolved. The breakaway group who style themselves “Progressives” shall lead their way and leave the rest to practice their faith. I have told them so and as you say we shall have to accept the reality officially."

The Bakwata (Department of Religious Affairs, Government of Tanzania) in Tanzania came to the same conclusion :
" As Bohras are a religious sect, and not a political body, its affairs are run according to the faith of their sect. Anyone who is not happy with the affairs of the community is free to select one of the many other sects of Islam and to follow it. The aggrieved person is also free to form his own sect.
Bakwata is not entrusted with the duty to interfere with the internal matters affecting the belief, and faith of a sect. Each sect has full freedom of administering its own religious matters according to its stipulated rules and procedures, provided those do not contravene the laws of the country."

Principal Secretary,

In India, the breakaway group continues to draw upon the solicitude and attention of officialdom and others, unaware of its intentions. They are taken in by slogans of ‘reforms’, ‘human rights’, and ‘religious democracy’. But the belief, faith adn the unity of the Community stand as a bulwark against such misleading and false propaganda of the traducers. Those who honour religious steadfastness know that His Holiness and the Community, even though falsely accused acted with dignity and restraint, and though belittled and defamed, were dignified and when challenged, were generous. The Community manifested at all times its generous spirit with conduct that was dignified.

Published by the Department of Statistics and Information
Dawat-e-Hadiyah, Badri Mahal, Dr. D. N. Road, Fort, Mumbai – 400 001.
October 1992