The Dawoodi Bohra community traces its spiritual heritage to the Prophet Mohammed SAW and his wasī (legatee) Amirul Mumineen Maulana ʿAli AS, continuing through their successors, the imams.
These imams first inhabited Medina and later established the Fatimi Empire of North Africa and Egypt.
It had been presaged by the Prophet that his descendent the ‘Mahdi’ would emerge near the turn of the 3rd century Hijri. According to the Taiyyibī Ismailis this was the rise of al-Imam al-Mahdi Bi Allah AS who set out for North Africa and established his capital in Tunisia, ruling over its adjacent territories.
He was succeeded by three Imams and the fourth, the celebrated al-Imam al-Muʿizz li dīn Allah AS, established his seat of authority in Egypt.
These imams came to be called Fatimi after Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Mohammed SAW and the consort of Imam ʿAli AS, to whom they trace their ancestry.
The Fatimi Imams founded the City of al-Qahira (Cairo) and established the renowned centre of learning, al-Azhar University, which is the oldest institution of its kind in the world to exist to this day. This period in Islamic history had an unrivalled efflorescence of thought, art and culture which owed everything to the Fatimi Imams who were inspirational leaders, great builders, lofty thinkers and eminent scholars.
The empire eventually went into decline and the 20th Imam, al-Amir AS was assassinated. His successor, Imam al-Tayyib AS forsook the trappings of empire and went into seclusion in 1132 A.D and thus from Egypt the centre of Fatimi authority and activity was shifted to Yemen in Arabia.
When the 20th imam decided that the time had again come to keep away from the public eye, he made elaborate preparations for enabling his successor to go into seclusion at the appropriate moment and also for the preservation and continuation of the Fatimi tradition in Yemen.
For this purpose he directed his grand emissary in Yemen, the Sulayhid queen al-Hurra al-Malika RA, to establish the al-dāʿī al-mutlaq (lit. the unrestricted missionary), a vicegerent of the imam who was to function as his deputy over the daʿwat (mission) with absolute authority during the time of seclusion.
His office undertakes that he would take care to appoint a successor in his own lifetime and that he would always carry on his mission in the name of the imams with all the authority and power inherent in that high office.
The chain of dāʿīs (pl. duʿāt) has continued without interruption to this day. The first to enter upon the august office in Yemen was Syedna Zoeb RA. In all 23 duʿāt functioned in Yemen before the seat of authority was shifted to India.