Celebrations held by the global Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community are often marked by vibrant processions that showcase the community’s culture and faith. Rooted in Islamic tradition and Fatimi history, these processions are a vital part of the Dawoodi Bohras’ cultural calendar.
In many cultures, parades and ceremonial processions have a long history; religious, military, solemn, and celebratory processions have taken place throughout the world since ancient times. Some historical cities had specially constructed streets whose foremost function was to serve as an avenue for processions.
Ceremonial Processions in Fatimi History
The ceremonial and celebratory mawkibs, or processions, of the Fatimi imams, who ruled over North Africa and Egypt in the 10th through 12th centuries, are renowned for their splendour and majesty. The processions provided occasions for the Fatimi imams to display gratitude for the divine bounties bestowed on them, as well as opportunities for all citizens, especially followers of the imams, to see the imams and observe the glory and power of the Fatimi state.
In the year 972, following the conquest of Egypt, the Fatimi Imam al-Muʿizz entered his new capital city, al-Muʿizziyya al-Qahira (Cairo), travelling west from the Fatimi capital in North Africa, in an awe-inspiring ceremonial procession. It included the imam’s family, courtiers, ministers, troops and attendants, and the empire’s treasure—including a hundred camels carrying gold bars shaped like millstones and hung one on each side of the camels, displaying the Fatimi empire’s prosperity and splendour.
Every year, during the inundation of the Nile river, whose waters were essential for the fertility of Egyptian soil, the Fatimi imams rode in grand cavalcades to open the dams of major irrigation canals which carried water to the land. The ceremony signified the position of the imam in maintaining the prosperity of the land. By the mid-eleventh century, the procession and ceremony—which included the recitation of the entire Holy Quran—comprised tens of thousands of horses, camels, and mules with golden and ornamented saddles; thousands of soldiers; drums and trumpets.
The annual processions in Cairo for the Islamic festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, in particular, are well-documented. The imam would ride to and from the eidgah (vast open prayer grounds where special Eid prayers took place) in a mawkib (procession) of courtiers, statesmen and soldiers. Similar processions took place on Fridays in the holy month of Ramadan, when the imam would visit congregational masjids, such as al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar and al-Jamiʿ al-Anwar, for the Friday prayer. In accordance with Islamic tradition, on these occasions the imam would wear elaborate attire and carry a ceremonial sword.
As historical accounts illustrate, a select entourage would ride in mounted procession with the imam, who was the focal point of the mawkib, while the rest of the procession would walk. All participants wore their best attire, such as robes of embroidered silk, and took great care to maintain their proper positions in the procession. Horses, led by hand, often bore ornamented saddles. Recitation of the Quran was a prominent feature of these ceremonies.
In a Friday procession in 990, the Fatimi Imam al-ʿAziz rode to al-Jamiʿ al-Azhar under a golden parasol, girded with a sword and carrying a royal staff, accompanied by five thousand men. An Eid al-Adha mawkib of the Fatimi Imam al-Zahir in the early 11th century, chroniclers describe, included his troops, elephants and giraffes, gilded banners and drums. The imam wore a silk robe with a matching ʿimama (turban), held a staff and wore a sword, while a courtier carried a parasol, embroidered with gold, over his head.
During the early 12th century, the people of Cairo and neighbouring Fustat themselves decorated the streets on which the Friday procession of the Fatimi Imam al-Amir advanced. Members of each occupational group spent three days and nights selecting their choicest goods and drapes to display for the decorations. On some occasions, the imam would sit in the belvedere of the Fatimi palace to watch a military parade. The procession would pass beneath the belvedere to attain the blessings of the imam’s gaze. 1
Processions in Contemporary Dawoodi Bohra Culture
Today, the Dawoodi Bohra community continues to honour the historical tradition of the mawkib—or procession–of the Fatimi era. The 51st daʿi His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin revived the Fatimi tradition of Friday processions. Today, His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin takes part in this procession after leading afternoon prayers on Fridays, shaded with a parasol while participants melodiously recite devotional verses.
Dawoodi Bohra weddings are also occasions for celebratory processions. Marriage processions typically entail the bridegroom and young children of the families mounted on horses, accompanied by the festive sounds of musical instruments. Weddings in the family of the daʿi, as well as Rasm-e-Saifee, a collective marriage ceremony initiated by Syedna Taher Saifuddin, also include grand processions attended by thousands of community members.
The most elaborate processions, however, take place on Milad al-Nabi, the birth anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed, and on the joint birthday celebrations of the late His Holiness Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and his successor, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. All over the world, Dawoodi Bohras celebrate these occasions by participating in jubilant processions, often featuring marching bands playing joyful tunes.
On the historic occasion of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s 100th birthday in 2011, the celebrations included a resplendent procession through Mumbai’s iconic Marine Drive. The highlight of the grand procession was Syedna Burhanuddin himself, traveling in a regal horse-drawn carriage adorned with flowers and a parasol, while mounted flag-bearers rode ahead. Many thousands of community members lined the streets or watched from nearby buildings to witness the landmark event.
Today, on the occasions of Milad al-Nabi and Syedna Burhanuddin’s birth anniversary, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin continues to preside over grand celebratory processions, often seated on a specially constructed viewing stage reminiscent of the belvedere of the historic Fatimi palace. The processions, exuding joy and community spirit, march towards and pass in front of Syedna’s stage.
These processions include intricately decorated, themed floats and banners as well as cultural displays prepared by Bohras from different countries, in addition to athletic demonstrations such as martial arts and meticulously prepared displays made by and featuring community children. Various musical bands representing local Bohra communities and educational institutes, including Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, give vibrant and lively performances throughout the procession which are often the culmination of months of regular practice. Different regional and occupational groups walk in the procession, including members of Syedna’s family, professors and students of Aljamea and other institutes, and community groups from Yemen, Egypt, East Africa, North America, Europe, and several Indian cities and regions.
The elaborate displays and floats, and indeed the procession itself, are a celebration and visual representation of the recent milestones achieved by the community, as well as a manifestation of their philosophy and the teachings of Syedna. Such representations, for instance, include creative displays showcasing community members’—and especially children’s—enthusiasm to memorise the entire Holy Quran, and the considerable strides made by the Dawoodi Bohra community kitchen initiative, Faiz al-Mawaid al-Burhaniyah, in meeting its goal of providing daily nutritious meals to every Bohra household.
Those with the honour of marching in the procession wear their best attire. For community members, seeing Syedna during these celebrations is a cause of immense joy as well as a source of blessings.
The meanings held by these celebratory processions—for participants and onlookers alike—are manifold. In addition to expressing the Dawoodi Bohras’ joy and felicity, the occasions foster community spirit; the celebration of their values and achievements kindles a sense of pride in their Dawoodi Bohra identity.
- Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo. State University of New York Press, Albany, 1994.