Shaukat Ajmeri

The legacy of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

13-minute read
The funeral procession of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in Mumbai.

The funeral procession of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin in Mumbai.

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd Dai ul Mutlaq of Dawoodi Bohras passed away early Friday morning of January 17, 2014. Tens of thousands of Bohras from all over India – and abroad – converged on Mumbai for the funeral procession. The great crush of people overwhelmed the logistics it seems, and the stampede that followed reportedly killed 20 Bohras. This public frenzy, this mass hysteria, this great gathering and these needless deaths are a fitting legacy of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. His life’s work was on full display on his death: a community transformed into a hero-worshipping mob.

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin lived up to be 102. When alive his birthdays were celebrated with much pomp and ceremony, and festivities went on for weeks. His death will be mourned with even greater fanfare and public display of emotion. In the coming days and months glowing tributes will be paid to his sterling qualities as a leader who shepherded the community to unity and prosperity.

To the outside world Bohras may seem peaceful and prosperous, and to a great extent they are. But there is more to it than meets the eye. What people see is the gloss and glitter. What they don’t get to see is the ugly underbelly of coercion and exploitation. Under Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s watch Bohras have come a long way from being a simple and dignified community to being a disciplined and repressed sect. The followers are kept in check by fear and propaganda, by a system of control and taxation topped with the absolute authority of the Dai.

Some Bohras may disagree with this assessment, and their reaction would be understandable given the ignorance and isolation that has been bred into their psyche – yet another hallmark of Sayedna’s legacy. In the media the Sayedna has always been touted as the ambassador of peace and humanity, although in real, practical terms he has done little to promote these values. Within the community though there might be relative peace, but humanity there is absolutely none. Bohras are treated as slaves and chattle, and are formally designated as such by the misaq (oath of allegiance) they give to the Dai. They call themselves abde and amte Sayedna (slaves of Sayedna). The central administration of the Sayedna, the Kothar is a Byzantine bureaucracy which rules over Bohras with a tight grip. It acts in the name of Sayedna in an elaborate system of command and control, managed by Sayedna’s sons and extended “royal family”.

The ruthless and unaccountable Kothar is another legacy of Mohammed Burhanuddin. Even Bohras who believe in the culpability of the Kothar are at pains to dissociate the Dai from its misdeeds. But their argument doesn’t fly. In either case it proves that either the Dais is incompetent to manage the affairs of the community or incapable of contolling his administration. There was time when there was no Kothar, and Dais were humble. In fact, the very office of the Dai was a historical contingency. It was originally instituted to fill in for the Imam who went into hiding in medieval Yemen at a time when the Fatimid Empire was on its last legs. The Dai’s immediate role then was to keep the community together and, generally, to call people to faith in service of the Imam and Empire. The empire has long since vanished and Imam never came out of hiding. And the mission of calling unbelievers to faith has fallen into neglect and irrelevance.

Removed from its historical context, the office of the Dai ul Mutlaq as absolute leader has been little more than ceremonial. The Dai is the last tenuous link to Imamat, the foundational creed of Ismailis. The office of the Dai keeps the dogma alive, and he still has a role to play in dispensing religion, and in keeping the faithful together. This is what the Dais in olden days had been doing, leading a simple and quiet life and tending to the religious needs of the community.

Mohammed Burhanuddin’s father, the 51st Dai, Sayedna Taher Saifuddin changed all that when he took office in 1915. He resurrected the Dai ul Mutalq title from obscurity, dusted up the Tayyebi dogma of Dai as the vice-regent of the Imam and began to lord it over Bohras like a latter-day Sultan. Under the revised dogma shrewdly cobbled together by him, the Dai was directly linked to Ahl ul Bayt by way of the Imam. The Dai became the Haq na Saheb(Master of Truth) in the absence of the Imam and claimed all the attributes of Ahl ul Bayt, including the attribute of infallibility. The Dai alone had the knowledge and ability to interpret sacred text. This meant Bohras cannot understand religion on their own and hence were forbidden from reading a translation of the Quran and other religious books.

The Ismaili concept of taawil (esoteric knowledge) came as a juicy, god-given maxim, and the clergy squeezed it for all it’s worth. It declared that even if Bohras read the translation they will only get the zaahir (apparent) meaning of it and fall into error. The batin (hidden) meaning, the real understanding can only come from the haq na saheb and the aalimstrained by him in this esoteric system of knowledge. That system, as seen in the last 100 years, has served the priesthood well.

Bohras today know little about their religion, Islamic history, Ismaili renaissance, Fatimid traditions, its great thinkers and their very own Bohra heritage. Their religious knowledge comes from a single source, tightly controlled and systematically dispensed. They lap up what is fed to them at the sermons by the Sayedna and his clergy, and at weekly sabaqs(lessons) where their indoctrination begins right from childhood.

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin

Thus weaned on ignorance and isolation, a Bohra today has no idea that when he falls insajda (prostration) before the Dai he is committing shirk (attributing a partner to Allah) and violating the most fundamental tenet of Islam. He has no idea that when he folds his hand and bends his back and grovels before any two-bit shahzada he is violating the Quranic principle of equality and dignity. He has no idea that the doctrine of walayt (love of Ahl ul Bayt) does not give him the licence to worship the Dai. He has no idea that the act of hanging pictures of Dais in his home, shop and office and carrying it around in his wallet amounts to idol worship. He has no idea that every penny he gives to the Sayedna is part of Bait ul Maal (House of Money) and must be spent on the welfare of the community, just the as Amir ul Mumineen, Maula Ali used to do. He has no idea that Muhrram is a time to commemorate the tragedy of Karbala and remember the sacrifice of Imam Hussain, and not a time to hear paeans to the glories of the Dai. He does not know that it does not behoove a spiritual leader to go on lavish African safaris and hunt animals for sport. He does not know that a masjid is a house of God and does not need to be waqfed by the Dai before a mumin can start praying in it.

A Bohra today practices Islam more in violation of than adherence to its principles. His Islam is a caricature horribly gone wrong. He and his ilk were not always like this. They are the product of a fantastic social (and religious) engineering. Bohras used to be a liberal, easy-going people who blended in with the others in terms of dress and behaviour. Today they have a strict dress code for men and women, and have become inward-looking and aloof. The religious garb has also become the social garb and their lives have increasingly come to revolve around religion as defined and interpreted by the Sayedna. The secular has merged with the religious, and the boundary between public and private lives has been erased. The old adage mulla ki daud masjid tak (the priest only knows the way to the mosque) has come to be lived by Bohras on a daily basis. But their run to the masjid is less for prayer and more for singing praises of the Dai. He is the lord and master of the Bohras’ mind and spirit. And most importantly, their material wealth.

The Kothar collects tens of millions of rupees every week through wajebat, salams, najwa, ziyafats, gullas and a host of random schemes designed to part Bohras with their money. There is not a single encounter between a Bohra and the clergy that does not involve money changing hands. The financial empire of the Sayenda and the “royal family” is built on the backs of Bohras. Its foundation was laid by the 51st Dai who on taking office slowly and systematically brought all the trusts and money-generating sources of the community under a central control and instituted all kinds of compulsory taxation for which Bohras continue to shell out to this day. Former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai described his rule as “government within government”.

This government is also a law unto itself. All the wealth is tax free and unaccounted for. It’s not that the high-handedness of the high priest has gone unchallenged. Right from Sayedna Taher Saifuddin’s time there have been voices of protest. From the Burhanpur school case to the Chandabhai gulla case to the usurpation of Adamji Peerbhoy’s properties to the reformist uprising in Uganada jamat in the early Sixties and to the most enduring revolt in Udaipur in the early Seventies – the regimes of the last two Dais were mired in controversy and corruption. Educated and enlightened section of the community challenged the Dais and their innovative ways. But dissent was crushed ruthlessly every time as it mainly came from disgruntled individual and families who lacked support from others.

A more organised challenge to the Kothar began to take shape with the Pragati Mandal conference in Bagasra in 1957 and culminated into a full-blown revolt in Udaipur in 1972. In Galiyakot that year Bohra women and children were beaten and molested by the Kothar’s goons in the presence of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. The women appealed to him to save them but he looked on silently. His silence, and complicity, that day changed the course of Bohra history. The reform movement had officially arrived, and Udaipur became the center and cynosure of dissent. The mishandling of the Udaipur event and subsequent development is another blot on the leadership of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. The problems were allowed to fester, with the Kothar refusing to talk about the grievances and always insisting on absolute surrender.

Till today the reformist demands:

  • accountability and transparency in Kothar’s financial dealings
  • jamat-level autonomy
  • end to the system of baraat (ex-communication)
  • end to the innovative misaq designed to keep Bohras in thrall of the clergy

remain unacknowledged and unaddressed. The whole reform movement is dismissed as a ridiculous encumbrance. The Bohra orthodoxy has made it clear that Sayedna’s writ runs large and is absolute. And common Bohras have come to believe it to be so. They have been told that the Sayedna as Dai ul Mutlaq can do no wrong. His every utterance is guided byhikma (wisdom) and his every act is inspired by ilham (promptings of the hidden Imam). Sayedna Taher Saifuddin claimed to be ilha ul lard (god on earth) in a court of law, and his son claimed to be natiq ul Quran (the speaking Quran) and haqiqi Kaaba (The real Kaaba). Such tall claims and numerous tales of miracles are the staple of Bohras’ religious diet. And they have come to digest it all without a burp.

Under the rubric of Dai’s infallibility his every act was explained away. Even his public apology for having caused a riot in Mumbai when he publicly condemned Islam’s first three Caliphs; even when he consorted with anti-Muslim leaders like Bal Thackeray; even when he invited the culprit of Gujarat riots Narenda Modi to masjid and honoured him with a shawl and money; even when he doled out titles of shaikhs to known crooks in exchange for money.

To be fair though, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is also a positive side to it. Under Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s leadership Bohras have become a cohesive, homogenous and close-knit community. Highly disciplined, organised and obedient, the Bohras act in unison, in one voice. Over last 50 years during the Sayenda’s reign numerous development works have been completed; musfirkhanas and majids have been built and renovated. Hospitals and schools have been built. But the funds for all this have come from the community – from the pockets of Bohras, rich and poor. In the end though, everything ends up being from the Sayedna, the result of his blessing and his khushi (pleasure). Logistics of Haj and ziyarat in various parts of the world are very well orgainsed. Wherever Bohras go they find a place to stay and eat for a price of course and as long as they have asafai chitthi (certificate of dues paid).

Being a trading community Bohras are largely prosperous and most attribute their well-being to the blessings of the Dai. They don’t mind paying “taxes” so long as they can be part of the “club” wherein their social and religious needs are fulfilled. The excesses of the clergy and its shenanigans often do the rounds of the Bohra gossip mill. In their profit-loss calculus, business-minded Borhas have figured out that it is profitable to pay up and buy peace. They rationalise that corruption is everywhere so why make a fuss about this particular one. For them distortion of religion or loss of self-respect or humiliation meted out by the Kothar comes with the turf. Just another hardship of life. The alternative is too horrible for them to consider. By temperament, by culture and by indoctrination they have learned to grin and bear it.

There is little hope that things might change for the better with the new Dai, Aliqadar Muffadal Saiffuddin. In fact, ever since he was given the Nass (succession) and has been acting as the Mansoos, he has shown his true colours. For one, he lacks the charisma and oratory skills of his father. For another, his pronouncements so far have proven to be retrograde and regressive. He is bad news for women. He wants them to be confined in the home and is not in favour of them working and joining professions. And not to be left behind in miracle-making, he has claimed to have talked to his dead brother in his grave and has claimed that Imam Hussain (AS) in his last moment in Karbala prayed for 51st and 52nd Dais.

Even if we discount extreme poverty among Bohras in the slums of Mumbai and other smaller towns and villages of India, the Dawoodi Bohra community has done well for itself. Bohras today are pious and prosperous even if totally beholden to a ruthless clergy. But the question is, can Dawoodi Bohras claim to be a Muslim community which is true to Islamic principles and its Fatimid heritage? Materially they seem to have done well. But have they done as well spiritually? Honest answers to these questions will determine the real legacy of Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, and the future of Bohras.