Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin

On the occasion of his birth anniversary we bring you an interview with Syedna Taher Saifuddin from 1960.

In this wide-ranging interview His Holiness answers all manner of questions; from religion and science, man’s existence on earth and the after-life, the major problems facing mankind today and even the upbringing and teaching of children.

The Foundation” Monthly, June 1960

Blessings from His Holiness:

“I am very happy to learn that a new journal called “The Foundation” is being started on the occasion of my 75th birthday with a view to spread knowledge about matters of public importance and national progress and welfare. A step in such a constructive direction deserves encouragement. After all, the success and joy of social life depend in the last analysis on the intrinsic quality of the people and any effort, however meagre and modest, to provide an opportunity to improve that quality should be heartily welcome.”

“May this bold venture, with the blessings of God Almighty, realise all its aspirations and successfully serve the cause of the community, the country and humanity!”

Interview With His Holiness
Ashok Rao

It was like being in a princely court, but the court of a prince of religion and learning rather than of earthly sovereignty — of simple dignity rather than of pomp and heraldry. The solemn audience hall was sparingly furnished. One entered it by two flights of stairs, and out in the balcony, one could get an excellent view of the sea in the west sweeping away to Marve.

Saifee Mahal, the residence of His Holiness Syedna Dr. Taher Saifuddin, head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, is a huge, sprawling structure, set in the midst of little gardens and tree-studded open spaces on Malabar Hill. Hundreds visit it daily, most of them being followers of His Holiness in quest of advice and guidance. Not a few have been the occasions when eminent dignitaries of India and of neighbouring countries have been guests there. It was on the eve of his 75th birthday that I called on His Holiness for this interview. Robed in white and seated on a sofa, he exuded old-world charm and friendliness. Three quarters of a century of an active, crowded life seemed to sit lightly on the frail, venerable figure. He had just gone through the first part of his day’s rigorous schedule of prayer, study and instruction, and appeared all the more cheerful and fresh for that.

As one sat looking at him, the 51st vicegerent of the Imams in seclusion, one could not help going back in mind and recalling how the imamat, starting with Imam Ali, son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed, had reigned in glory in West Asia, bringing about a tremendous efflorescence of thought, literature and culture; of how since then all his powers have come to be vested in the da`i-ul-mutlaq; how the da`is, first settling down in Yemen, had reduced the history and philosophic heritage of the Imams to writing, building up a priceless library of rare manuscripts in the process; how circumstances proving unfavourable again, the da`is came to India round about the middle of the sixteenth century, bringing a rare collection of books with them; and how since then they have been guiding their followers to the good life and to prosperity with all their traditional authority from here.

The atmosphere in the audience hall breathed of centuries of history, of heroic conquest of obstacles and courageous constructions and of a ceaseless quest for knowledge, even deeper knowledge. And yet His Holiness Syedna Dr. Saifuddin, who epitomises in himself the spiritual heritage, culture and the accumulated wisdom of a long and illustrious line of da`is, was so warmly human and so disarmingly simple in his greeting that one felt immediately at ease in his presence.

When he gave the ‘go-ahead’ signal with an enquiring look, the first thought that naturally leapt to mind was to ask him how it felt to enter upon the 75th year of his life. The reply was prompt: “Why, I feel exactly as I was feeling about twenty years ago, particularly in work.”

Some idea of the work that he turns even at this age may be had from the fact that he still sticks to a daily regimen of duties that may extend from 18 to 20 hours, packed with prayers, interviews, discussions, decisions on an incredible variety of problems and issues, classes in Islamic lore for members of the family, visits, receiving of distinguished callers and discourses, interspersed with intense spells of reading and writing. However exacting the day’s demands may be and however crowded the programme and however late he may go to bed, he must be up very early on the morrow to offer prayers exactly at 5.30 a.m. in the mosque in Fort, four miles away from home. And then he would be ready for another dizzy round of activities.

Meeting him, one could not resist asking what the secret of this enormous capacity for work was, and how he could talk to so many people about their problems, big and small and not feel tired at all. His Holiness smiled at the question, thought for a while and said, “My concern for the well-being of others is so deep that I never get tired when listening to their problems and trying to solve them. The more such work I have, the more happy I feel. The mental satisfaction I get by performing such duties keeps out fatigue. The mind, after all, has tremendous power over the body.”

Following the interview thoughtfully was His Holiness’s eldest son, mazoon saheb, successor-designate to the high office of da`i. Sitting close by, earnest and attentive, was Mr. Y. Najmuddin, His Holiness’s Political Secretary. Other sons too were there, listening to their father’s words as at their daily sabak (lesson), which is a fixed routine at Saifee Mahal.

The talk turned by and by to the community and the progress it had achieved under His Holiness’s far-sighted guidance. Affairs were in a rather unsettled state when he first assumed office in 1915 as a youth of 28. Misconception, doubt and even a touch of scepticism were spreading among his followers under the impact of theoretical disquisition gone awry and sectional, purse-proud ambition running wild. He had no elders to advise him in the family, and some of the older members of the community were falling victims to doubt and indecision. A believer in going to the root of things and working on the foundation, he drew the younger members to himself and started re-educating them in the essentials of the Ismaili tradition, history and philosophic heritage with boundless zest, taking thirty to forty classes a day. Side by side, he set about improving the organisation and working of the d`awat, the time-honoured administrative machinery of the community.

Reminded of those troubled years when he had to face attacks in the press and on the platform and even through courts of law, he talked disinterestedly, without the slightest trace of regret or rancour. He said no more than that a little confusion had arisen in the minds of some of his followers about the basic requirement of cohesive progress and lasting solidarity, i.e., faith in the sanctity of succession and continuity. In his talks, discourses and writings, he had tried to remove this confusion, and he was happy that his efforts had met with success, he added.

Had he anything special to tell his followers on this occasion? He would wish them all happiness, he said. They should live in peace and cheer, keeping themselves engaged whole-heartedly in what concerned them in the social, economic and political fields. One must stick to one’s business, and be absorbed in it. And one must progress steadily though the progress he had in mind was purposeful progress, drawing inspiration and strength from a sound, stable foundation and not yielding to passing whims and fancies.

Inevitably the next subject to come up was the possible upshot of the amazing technological advances being made in the world of today. Were they likely to affect religion and weaken man’s faith in Providence? His answer to the question was prompt and clear-cut. Far from weakening man’s faith in the Almighty, these remarkable discoveries and inventions should reinforce that faith, unravelling, as they served to, the unseen sources of power and undreamt-of glories of God’s creation.

Developing the theme in response to another question, His Holiness said that, viewed from the right angle, there could be no conflict at all between science and religion. Science was just revealing what religion had already accepted. By giving man intelligence and the power of reasoning, God was enabling him to delve deeper into the mysteries of creation and to realise that science was only a means to understand Him better. True science was not something that went beyond the divine design. By using it properly, man could realise his own potentialities and also the potentialities of creation, which process could not but bring him all the more readily and closer to religion.

Continuing, His Holiness said that religion too was based on reason. Any person who devoted himself to earnest meditation on spiritual truths could reason out almost 70 per cent of what religion taught and he would then be convinced that the remaining 30 per cent too could claim to have a rational basis though he was not immediately in a position to perceive it because of his own inadequate mental preparation. So, if one ever sensed any conflict between religion and science, it could only be due to ignorance or incomplete understanding.

The next question was: “What is the major malady of mankind today and how can it be cured?” Mankind, His Holiness replied, was drifting away from its moorings with the result that it felt bewildered, directionless and insecure. A return to the basic, immutable values of life would remove the present sense of helplessness.

Did that mean a return to tradition? Tradition, His Holiness corrected, was not everything that was passed on from generation to generation. What came down had to be scrutinised carefully, and the true and eternal sifted from the spurious and evanescent. A return to the genuine core of tradition would bring peace and stability, he emphasised.

He was next asked what the purpose of man’s existence on earth was when a sense of purposelessness was spreading in the world of today. Pondering over the question for a while, he said that the purpose of life was to live a good life here on earth and prepare earnestly for the life hereafter. The main thing was indeed to prepare for the other life, and if one did so sincerely and even with exclusive devotion, the present life too would be happy, for God’s blessings would be on it. If man realised that he had to leave this earth someday, his mind would be properly focused, and he could go back to life and understand the element of continuity in it.

How could reason accept the possibility of an after-life? Could His Holiness give a homely illustration to demonstrate the continuity of life? His reply was that a man in life could be compared to a traveller who had reached a particular stage. If he looked back, he could realise that he had travelled so far; and looking forward, he would have to conclude that he had to travel further. The process of evolution had to go on, His Holiness said. If one lived one’s life in the service of man and God, one would get all the assurance and faith to move further.

His Holiness has been not only an ardent advocate of education but also an indefatigable teacher himself all his life. Even now he holds regular classes in Islamic scriptures and Arabic lore for all the members of his family, young and old, not excluding even his own brothers. In fact, for three to four hours every morning, Saifee Mahal is more a buzzing academy of learning than a home.

Answering a question about his experience as a teacher, His Holiness said that he was convinced that teaching increased one’s own knowledge.

His method of instruction was to reach as close to the young as possible, he explained. He would start teaching them about concrete things, things close and familiar to them, and then take them on step by step to the higher rungs of knowledge. One must first judge the mental capacity and receptivity of the learners, and adjust the process of instruction accordingly, he added.

His Holiness’s devotion to children is proverbial. However busy the day and however pressing his engagements, he must spend some time with them and, when eating, nothing seems to give him so much pleasure as to have a child romping about and coming now and then to him for a wee bite. He is absolutely against the use of any form of force or compulsion on the young whatever the provocation. In his discourses, he always stresses the need of training and correcting children with love. And he has let it be known that if any mother beats her child, she would be causing as much pain to him as if she had beaten one of his own dear ones.

When asked about this in the course of the interview, he admitted as much and said that he had even gone so far once as to ask children to complain to him if their mothers ever dared to raise their hands against them. A child, acting promptly on the advice, did come to him with a complaint, His Holiness said. The mother was duly summoned and admonished not to do so again.

Continuing, he said that he had never had any occasion to regret the application of love even when children were in the wrong. They had responded to his treatment most satisfactorily. And he could not recall a single instance of failure. In answer to a further question, His Holiness said that his devotion to children was something inborn which, however, had been fully vindicated by his experiences so far. Surprising as it may appear to some seemingly harassed teachers in nursery classes, His Holiness holds that the tiniest of scholars are the easiest to handle and the most delightful to teach.

His Holiness has decided views on the present system of education. When drawn into a brief discussion, he said that he had been a critic of the educational order even in British times, and he did not see much reason to change his opinion since the advent of Freedom. The prevailing system, he remarked, was cumbersome, ill-conceived and ill-directed. While the curriculum was groaning under the weight of several unnecessary subjects, it was deficient in some necessary ones. Giving a constructive turn to the talk, he said that he would like the emphasis to shift definitely to practical training and technical instruction useful for everyday life. Purely academic studies could be of advantage only to a few while the vast majority had to plunge into life’s stern struggle as soon as they left school.

As for the laxity of discipline among the young, he said that the present social set-up was primarily to blame for this state of affairs. Parents, teachers and the taught had all to bear responsibility for the sad development, and the remedy had to be found in the wider context of public thinking, social philosophy and code of behaviour.

His Holiness has had the unprecedented distinction of being thrice elected Chancellor of the celebrated Muslim University of Aligarh, an office which was once the exclusive prerogative of Governors of Provinces and Rulers of States. His elevation to the Chancellorship was the first signal recognition accorded to scholarship and learning as such in the annals of the University.

Asked about his experiences at Aligarh, Dr. Saifuddin said that during his very first official visit there, he had insisted that he should have enough time to meet the students. He wanted them to come close to him and lay bare their difficulties. He had since stuck to this practice with the result that the students now looked up to him more as a kind father than as their Chancellor. It was of the utmost importance that young students, separated from their parents, should have something to replace the home atmosphere and affection they missed while at their studies, His Holiness emphasized.

An acknowledged authority on Arabic language and literature, His Holiness sees a bright future for them. But he feels that the outmoded, involved expressions of the past should yield place to simpler, easily understandable ones and that every attempt should be made to keep out slick, cheap phrases of modern coinage. The language should be at once simple and chaste.

His Holiness has had close and cordial relations with eminent leaders of the country, continuing to this day. When asked about his associations with them, he said that he always approached them as a sincere friend, and his feelings were invariably reciprocated. He wanted to add that such relations were not confined to the topmost leaders only. He was in constant touch with people of all ranks in other walks of life too.

The Dawoodi Bohra community, though chiefly concentrated in India, has sizable numbers living in other countries, notably West Asia, Africa and South -east Asia. His Holiness is the first da`i to undertake extensive tours to meet them in their places of adoption and give a personal touch to traditional links.

Giving impressions of these visits, His Holiness said that what had struck him most were the close and friendly relationships that Indian settlers there had developed with the local people and the manner in which they were cooperating with them for the common good. This had given him great joy, and he had never missed an opportunity of impressing on them the need of keeping up such relations and identifying themselves more and more with the local people and their interests.

Asked whether he had any message to give his followers in those countries on the occasion of his birthday, he said that he would repeat the sentiments that he had expressed with regard to his followers in India. The fact that some of them were somewhat removed in space from him could make no difference whatsoever to his love and affection for them.

With a large and ever-growing family, His Holiness puts one in mind of a kindly patriarch of the good old days. Asked how he liked this role, he smiled and said that it was a pleasure. Every one of the adult members had his allotted sphere of work wherein he was autonomous and independent. This made for harmony, he remarked. All of them, working devotedly in their own fields, came to him with their individual problems which he was always happy to attend to. While loving all alike, could he be described as being little partial to the young? His reply was a ready nod.

His Holiness is a voracious reader, his preference being for books on philosophy and history and occasionally on science. As for writing, he is equally devoted to prose and poetry. Any place and any spare time, snatched even while moving about in his car, is good enough for him to turn out a prose piece or a poem, the main theme being philosophy.

It may not be so well known that among the many endowments that His Holiness enjoys is a phenomenal memory, capable of recalling whole passages read but once, indicating where exactly a particular reference in point occurs in a weighty volume or describing the minutest details of a scene witnessed decades ago. It is largely a gift, he says, though he has developed it further by a regular system of observation, trying to retain what is valuable and eschew the rest. Discrimination and earnest concentration on essentials is the secret of a good memory, he adds.

In answer to another personal question as to how he could manage with so little sleep and sometimes none at all, he said that he loved his work immensely and that, when engaged in it, the thought of rest never came to him. He had been following this routine for so many years that it had become second nature with him. Would he advise others to follow suit? No, he would not ask them to sleep as little as he did, but then they ought not to sleep longer than necessary either.

On the subject of health and long life, his view is that there is much to be said for a well-regulated, disciplined routine, with plenty of hard, absorbing work thrown in. But one must leave off one’s work when one’s mind is on the point of getting tired. He is for moderation in food, exercise and rest.

Asked whether he had played any game in his life, he shook his head. He could remember having watched a football game or two in his younger days. His only exercise, he remarked, was saying namaz (prayer) at the stipulated hours, while his relaxation was no more than change of work. Nevertheless, he would commend sports and also exercises like walking and the like to others though, of course, within limits.

Could he recall some occasion in his life which he could describe as the happiest or most memorable? His reply was that such occasions had been so frequent and so many in his experience that he could not single out any. In answer to another question, he said that the guiding motto of his life and work had been taqwa which, liberally interpreted, means piety – obedience to God and practising what one preaches.

The most striking impression that His Holiness’s personality produces on an observer is that of rare serenity and a quiet inner joy radiating through his smile. What could be the secret of such a frame of mind? His Holiness’s reply was: “Forbearance with what one does not like and thankfulness for what one likes.”

The interview had lasted nearly three hours, with a few interruptions when some prominent citizens called to pay their respects to him and when some followers came in for his blessings and advice. Throughout he was composed, sitting in the same posture, earnest and yet relaxed. There was not the slightest air of tension or impatience associated with hard-worked men about him, albeit he works harder than most. He almost seemed to be in an airy realm of his own, a realm of purity and grace and of beauty of heart and mind, far removed from the fret and fever of the workaday world.

And his concluding words were: “I pray for the good of all, my followers and mankind as a whole.”