January 17, 2014, was a sad day for Fehmida Chipty. That was the day the Dawoodi Bohra community’s religious leader, the 52nd Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, passed away in Mumbai. Thousands of Dawoodi Bohras made their way to Saifee Mahal in South Mumbai to get a last glimpse of their revered leader known for uplifting the community and encouraging modernity and trade. But, adding to Fehmida’s grief, a bitter succession battle emerged on that very day. The 52nd Syedna’s half-brother Maulana Qutbuddin as well as his son Mufaddal Saifuddin both claimed to have been chosen to be the next Syedna. Qutbuddin, however, left the south Mumbai premises and shifted to Thane overnight, while Saifuddin took charge as the community leader. Soon Qutbuddin filed a case in the Bombay High Court claiming he was appointed as Mazoon and conferred the “Nass” (to become the next Syedna) as far back as 1965.
The Syedna succession case has been heard on an expedited basis since June 2014 and he has appeared before the court about eight times, answering over 500 questions. He passed away in March 2016 and now his son Taher Fakhruddin has decided to carry on with the matter and seeks to be appointed as the 54th Syedna. He too has appeared and answered over 1,400 questions about the succession technicalities and evidence.
Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin.
The Dawoodi Bohras, numbering over a million across the world, with more than half of them in India, are Shia Muslims originally hailing from Gujarat. Mostly a community of traders, they are known for their cuisine and sartorial identity. Educational standards are generally high in the community, for both men and women, and their religious establishment is known to be quite wealthy with several properties across the globe. Because of the Syedna controversy, everybody in the community now has to choose sides or await the judgment.
It hasn’t been easy for Chipty, one of the outspoken ones who supported Qutbuddin and now stands with Taher, because, as she puts it, “being part of the community and participating in its religious activities was an integral part of her family’s life, but it no longer happens”. “On January 17, 2014, I lost the only spiritual father I had known since my childhood, the 52nd Dai al Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb,” she says. “I vividly recall the time of his death as emotionally devastating. On the same day I mourned the passing of the leader who had been my guiding force in faith, I also learned that there were two people who claimed the position of the next spiritual head of the community. In the turmoil that ensued, I searched for truth by asking questions, listening and praying. This quest led me to the firm conviction that his successor was Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin Saheb, a beacon of knowledge, kindness and truth. Searching for the truth and living by it is not always easy, but to me it is the essence of integrity and faith.”
Maulana Qutbuddin passed away in March 2016.
According to a spokesperson for Saifuddin, the overwhelming majority of the community is united in his support. “This is clearly evident when Syedna travels to the towns and cities across the world where Bohras reside,” says the spokesperson, who didn’t wish to be named. “They consider Syedna Saifuddin to be the natural and legitimate successor to the 52nd Dai, and actively seek to benefit from his guidance and benevolence. There may be an extremely small number who have not accepted him as the leader of the faith, and as such they are entitled to their beliefs.”
Every Syedna has appointed a successor in his lifetime. While it may seem that the procedure to appoint the successor is fairly simple, this has turned out to be a complex case involving legal corroboration of evidence. “Our belief is that the Syedna appoints his successor by divine inspiration,” says Taher. “My father testified in court saying the 52nd Dai appointed him as the successor. This appointment was acknowledged through words and actions by many senior people of the community. Saifuddin himself conveyed to me some 30 years ago that he believed my father to be the successor of the 52nd Dai. I have seen him numerous times performing certain actions of respect in public for my father that are only accorded to the Syedna or Syedna-to-be according to our faith.”
Confirming the same procedure, Saifuddin’s spokesperson makes the contrary assertion. “We cannot comment on the case as it is sub-judice. However, the procedure for the appointment of the Syedna is well established. The successor to the office of Al-Dai al-Mutlaq (Syedna) is chosen and specified exclusively by the incumbent, in the presence of at least two witnesses, in a religious procedure called Nass. The 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, conferred Nass on Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin on a number of occasions, both privately and publicly,” he says.
Legalities and technicalities will be debated and decided upon by the high court in the coming months, but it is allegations of deciding a narrow-minded path for the community that has come under scanner. In the past, the Bohras have been accused of the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). Now there have been reports about Saifuddin advocating practices such as compulsory wearing of rida, asking women to study home science and increase in Zakat amounts. The spokesperson, however, says there is “no compulsion or coercion of any sort” involved in any of this. “As the temporal and religious head of the community, it is Syedna’s duty to counsel and encourage his followers on adhering to the tenets of the faith, but it is up to the followers to choose how they want to include his counsel in their lives. There are no consequences—religious or social—for those who choose to express their faith in other ways,” he says, adding that many women are granted scholarships by the community’s administration for further studies in various fields every year.
Taher, however, alleges that Saifuddin’s dispensation curses banks and forbids people from taking loans. “It’s hypocrisy as they put their own money in the banks and lease their property to the banks that he (Saifuddin) curses,” says Taher, who owns a ranch, manages a hedgefund, and divides his time between the US and India. “For marriages, the caterers are blacklisted if they don’t comply. There’s such persecution all the time, and people are feeling harassed. He goes to the extreme of telling men of the community to throw their wives out of the house if they don’t wear the hijab. He even indicates in his sermons to go against the law of the land regarding the FGM issue. I do not approve of many of these actions. All these are against the values and faith of our religion. The scale of religion is one of piety, goodness, knowledge, honesty, sincerity and truthfulness. This has changed with the scale of money.” Several community members did not wish to speak about the ongoing battle in the court and the other allegations.
By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber in Mumbai