About the Dawoodi Bohras

Introduction

Dawoodi Bohra Muslims trace their heritage to the Fatimi Imams, direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed, in Egypt. The Dawoodi Bohras throughout the world are guided by their leader known as the al-dai al-mutlaq (unrestricted missionary), who first operated from Yemen and then, for the last 450 years, from India.

The present leader is the 53rd al-Dai al-Mutlaq, His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. Syedna Saifuddin assumed office in January 2014, succeeding his father and predecessor, the 52nd al-Dai al-Mutlaq, His Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin.

 

The Dawoodi Bohras today are generally highly educated, thriving business people and qualified professionals in numerous fields. Aggregating to around 1 million members, the Dawoodi Bohras have settled in over 40 countries across the globe to practice their faith and lead meaningful and prosperous lives. Most Dawoodi Bohra community members live in India with large congregations also in Pakistan, Yemen, East Africa, and the Middle East as well as growing populations in Europe, North America, South East Asia and Australia.

The Dawoodi Bohras are united by a set of centuries old principles; an unwavering commitment to the faith, a genuine love for the countries in which they live, a belief in the value of society, education, women’s empowerment, engagement with other faiths, physical health and well-being, and a responsibility to care for the environment and all creatures that dwell within it. Bohras have always been loyal and law-abiding citizens wherever they live. They have maintained cordial relations with all manner of governments with an aim of fostering harmony and goodwill. From Mughal emperors to the British Raj as well as with modern day political parties, the dais have looked for common ground on which to lay the foundations for mutual understanding that can lead to betterment for all.

The Bohras’ unique blend of religiosity and modernity along with the way they contribute positively towards the development and prosperity of the places they live in gives them a special place wherever they may reside.

Belief in the ahl al-bayt (members of the Prophet Mohammed’s household) as the rightful successors of the Prophet and as guides of mankind is central to the faith of the Dawoodi Bohras. Their traditions, in common with all Shia muslims, proclaim that Mohammed was succeeded by his legatee, Ali bin Abi Talib, who explained and interpreted the revelation received by Prophet Mohammed. Imam Ali bin Abi Talib in turn chose his sons Imam Hasan and Husain as the first two imams to continue guiding the community of believers.

An integral article of the Dawoodi Bohra faith is that an imam descended from the Prophet through his grandson, Imam Husain, always exists on earth to continue the mission of guiding mankind. Son succeeding father, the imam, like the prophet, is believed to be sinless, inerrant, immaculate and sacred, the repository of prophetic knowledge and the final interpreter of religion.

Faith

The foundation of the Dawoodi Bohra faith is based on peace, love and humanity. The Dawoodi Bohras follow the Fatimi Ismaili Tayyibi school of thought. Their faith is based on the belief in one deity; Allah Taʿala, in the Holy Quran as the word of Allah and in the sacred mission of the Prophets and their successors.

They worship Allah for salvation in the hereafter by following the pillars of Islam and adhering to religious practices ordained by the sharia including reciting the Quran, the five daily prayers and fasting during the month of Ramadan.

It is a core belief of the Dawoodi Bohras to adhere to the imam of the time who is the righteous legatee of the prophet. When the imam chooses to seclude himself and retire from public view, his office is occupied by the al-dai al-mutlaq who, like the imam, preserves and protects the faith until his return. The Dawoodi Bohras follow the advice and pronouncements of the dai with unwavering devotion and attend to his call of living a life of piety, peace and harmony.

Heritage

The Dawoodi Bohra community have inherited a distinguished heritage and rich historical legacy which traces to the Fatimi imams, direct descendants of the Prophet Mohammed through Imam Ali bin Abi Talib, son in law of the Prophet, and Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib.

The Fatimi imams, adopting their name from Fatima, functioned first from Medina, spreading over to North Africa and Egypt in later centuries. During the 10th – 12th centuries, they ruled over large parts of the Islamic world extending from North Africa in the west to as far as Pakistan in the east.

The Fatimi imams of every era protected their community and strengthened the religious traditions established by the Prophet. They were inspired leaders, great builders and also lofty thinkers, scholars and writers. Their eras saw unrivalled efflorescence of thought, art and culture. Reigning in glory in Egypt, they founded the city of Cairo, started the celebrated centre of learning, al-Azhar University, which is the oldest institution of its kind in the world and wrote into Egyptian history the unforgettable Fatimi era. Their great kingdoms fostered noble traditions of thought and philosophy, produced and guarded the immense wealth of literature, established the resplendent civilisation and pursued the wise way of life.

In 1132, the 21st in the line of the imams chose complete seclusion, and ever since, the imamat continues to be run in a line of succession from father to son. It is through belief in this line of succession that the Dawoodi Bohras are said to belong to the Shia Fatimi Ismaili Tayyibi branch of Islam. Although the imamat is still functional in seclusion, the 20th imam had instructed his grand emissary, Sayyida Arwa bint Ahmed, the queen of Yemen, to establish the office of al-dai al-Mutlaq to represent the imams and lead the faithful.

The origin of the name ‘Dawoodi Bohras’ is interesting. The right of the 27th Dai Syedna Dawood bin Qutubshah to the office of dawa (mission) was contested by a certain Suleman and the dispute assumed serious proportions. The matter was ultimately submitted to the authority of the Emperor Akbar. He invited Syedna Dawood to Kashmir where the Emperor was encamping and after making necessary investigations, upheld the claim of Syedna Dawood and recognised him as the rightful 27th dai. Akbar’s farman (royal decree) giving this decision is still in the possession of the present Syedna. The followers of Syedna Dawood since began to be called Dawoodi, the term Bohra being a Gujarati word for traders and businessmen.

Office of the al-Dai al-Mutlaq

The al-dai al-mutlaq is the representative of the imam who has been deputised the role of leading the community through the times and administering their affairs, both secular and religious.

The dais have, in the last nine centuries, played a central role in moulding the lives of the Dawoodi Bohras and contributing to the progress of the community. They act as mentors and guides for the community. Their piety and disciplined life, erudition and scholarship, judicious guidance and leadership have defined the office of al-dai al-mutlaq.

The dais have steered the community through difficult periods and provided a sense of direction and purpose that have kept them united throughout history. The dais constantly devote themselves to the task of educating their people, ameliorating their condition, teaching them arts and sciences for their enlightenment and the development of their minds. They preach religion, virtue and devotion to Allah for the salvation of the soul. The community follows the directives of the dai and abides by his counsels in different spheres of life, engendering a fulfilling and meaningful life for the Dawoodi Bohras wherever they may reside.

The first dai, Syedna Zoeb bin Musa was appointed in 532/1138 in Yemen. By this time, the community of believers had become comparatively small in number, residing almost entirely in Yemen and India. They were no longer part of a flourishing empire, but a minority group practicing their faith in solitude. Isolated from the historical movements in the hub of the northern middle-east, they were neither the direct beneficiaries of the affairs of the Islamic world, nor victims of its calamities. Twenty three dais operated from their mountain bases in Yemen for over four centuries. Despite the turbulence of the times, having to face the onslaught of persecuting armies, the dais persevered in their mission to lead the faithful and preserve the faith. They diligently taught their followers and wrote profusely to elaborate upon and elucidate the knowledge bequeathed to them by the imams.

In India, a sizable community of followers had existed since the 5th/11th century, even before the seclusion of the imam. After seclusion, they remained loyal to the dais in Yemen and the more eminent among them used to visit Yemen and stay with the dais for long periods, obtaining first hand knowledge of the traditions of their faith and observing how the affairs of the community were managed.

Then it was decided about 450 years ago to transfer the seat of the dawa, the administrative apparatus of the dai al-mutlaq, from Yemen to India. Apart from the ties of friendly intercourse, exchange of thought and culture and trade that had existed for centuries between India and Yemen, what settled the choice of this country was the devotion of the followers in India. Since then, the dai al-mutlaqs, deriving their authority from the Fatimi imams, have been functioning on Indian soil and guiding their followers to the good life, to loyalty and dedicated service to the land of their adoption and to peace, harmony and goodwill to all.

Culture & Traditions

Language

The Dawoodi Bohras have their own language called the Lisan al-Dawa, which is derived from Arabic, Persian, Urdu and Gujarati. This language was developed when the mission first came to Gujarat through missionaries from the Fatimi Empire about a thousand years ago.

Lisan al-Dawa takes its basic syntax and structure from the Gujarati Language but a large part of its vocabulary and its script is Arabic. Like Urdu, these elements give it an Islamic dimension that has allowed the transmission of the Quranic and Arabic values to a people distant from the land or Arabia.

To the community, it has given a medium to articulate its religion and heritage while simultaneously allowing it to continue with the language and norms of the land of their abode. Arabic continues to be the community’s language for religious works and literature, the language aspired to by the learned, but Lisan al-Dawa is its language of sermons and its medium of official and day to day communication.

Dress

Dawoodi Bohras maintain a distinct form of community attire. Men of the faith traditionally wear a predominantly white three-piece outfit and a cap with golden designs called a topi. Women of the faith wear a two-piece dress called the rida distinguishable from other forms of the hijab by its bright colours, decorative patterns and lace.

Cuisine

The Dawoodi Bohras are proud of their culinary reputation. Joining each other for meals is a particularly well known Bohra custom and therefore they have a unique system of communal eating in groups of eight or nine people seated around a thāl or a particularly large metal plate.

Each course of the meal is served for the people around the thal to share. The custom strengthens the family unit and the sense of solidarity between the people eating together. Traditional Bohra meals are often shared with local friends and neighbours while imparting a multi faith message of unity and peace.

Trade Practices

Bohras remain a trading and business community renowned for their honesty, fairness and trustworthiness. In olden times, in the days of the nawabs, Bohras would be invited to take up residence in the towns under their rule. The rulers were of the view that prosperity would follow due to their industrious nature and entrepreneurial spirit.

Their sound business ethics were well known then and continue to be the hallmarks of Bohra traders today. They inspire such confidence in the general populace that many prefer doing business with them; knowing that they will not be short changed in their dealings.

Women in the Bohra community play an equal role in pursuing an education and having thriving careers in a range of industries including healthcare, teaching, academia and business.

Majlis (Congregations)

The majlis is an age-old tradition in which Dawoodi Bohras gather for the remembrance (zikr) of Allah. It is conducted in a well defined form and a specific sequence of recitation developed over the centuries, and is held on the important dates of the Islamic calendar.

Besides their religious significance, such gatherings engender a social togetherness that fosters a spirit of fellowship and brotherhood. In a special form of the majlis, called the waaz majlis, an orator delivers a sermon encompassing a variety of subjects ranging from Quranic sciences, history, theology to social sciences.

Ziyarat

The Bohras regularly perform the obligatory pilgrimage of Hajj to the holy city of Makkah al-Mukarramah (Mecca) and the shrine of the Prophet in Madina. Alongside these, they pay their respects to the Prophet’s close family and one of the most potent ways of expressing love for them is by visiting the shrines of these revered leaders, which is also a part of the Bohra religious tradition.

The late His Holiness Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin and Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin constructed tombs and sepulchres at such sites as a mark of esteem and love for them. Similarly, they have constructed mausolea in various parts of central and western India in devotion to the various dais and spiritual sages whom the community revere and look towards for intercession in their daily affairs.