DR SYEDNA TAHER SAIFUDDIN
51st al-Dai al-Mutlaq
His Holiness Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin was born in Surat on August 5th, 1888. He is the 51st al-daʿi al-mutlaq and leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, predecessor and father of the 52nd daʿi the late his Holiness Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and grandfather of the current His Holiness Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the present and 53rd incumbent of the office of al-daʿi al-mutlaq.
EARLY LIFE AND WORK
From his very childhood, he received an excellent education in the holy books of Islam, history and Arabic literature. Heir to a heritage of spiritual thought and practice, philosophic inquiry, scholarship, and administrative skills going back centuries, in 1915 His Holiness assumed charge of the pontifical office of the Dawoodi Bohra community, known as Dawat-e-Hadiyah, at the age of 28. Although young in years, he was rich in attainments like his illustrious predecessors.
At the time of His Holiness’ ascension, the general condition of affairs among the community was fraught with challenges and its coherence was being undermined by a discordant faction within the larger majority. His Holiness assiduously set himself to the task of bringing about unity and advancement of his community by a constructive approach to the problems.
It required the intermingling of some of the greatest qualities of human nature—talent, imagination, tact, sympathy, tenacity, – to rehabilitate a divided community. He was subjected to a number of lawsuits, a few of which had even gone to the Privy Council. Regardless, His Holiness’ leadership and unifying agenda kept the community together and led to it becoming more prosperous under his guidance.
His Holiness was essentially a scholar and a teacher, born as well as made by dint of diligence and perseverance. Among a plethora of tasks and affairs that he looked into for managing his community, his dedication to education was exemplary. In a speech at Kurnool College, he stated:
‘As I have spent most of my life in the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination amongst those of understanding – strengthening its foundations, and beautifying its gatherings – I have found nothing more important, pleasant or agreeable than the hours and days that have passed in this noble and exalted endeavour.’
A major portion of his day’s routine was devoted to teaching and expounding the tenets of the faith. Added to his duties pertaining to the community, His Holiness also served as the Chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University for four consecutive terms. His extraordinary command over the Arabic language and excellence in its literature is evident by the 49 epistles he authored and more than 10,000 verses that he composed throughout his tenure. He is credited with the establishment of 350 co-educational institutes in various parts of the world where his community resided and the renovation of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, the community’s premier seat of learning in Surat.
In accordance with the Prophetic tradition which makes the pursuit of knowledge obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman, he encouraged members of his community to pursue a well-rounded education and even to go abroad for higher educational pursuits.
The Dawoodi Bohras are a community devoted to trade and business and for generations have diversified themselves in both scope and geography. His Holiness being the spiritual head of his community was also a Bohra; and thus possessed all those qualities which were inherent in his community. Merchants, traders and industrialists sought his counsel because they recognised in him a native genius, enriched by long years of varied experiences from around the world. Being a spiritual man, His Holiness never neglected the material and mundane aspect of human life. He was very solicitous about his followers being happy and prosperous whilst also upholding the tenets of their faith.
AN EMINENT PERSONALITY
His Holiness travelled widely in India and visited most of its important cities more than once. These travels enabled him to acquire first-hand information not only about the state of his followers all over India but also about the goings on in the country as a whole. He met most of the prominent religious leaders of every province and the rulers of several Indian states, big and small.
Personalities like Mahatma Gandhiji and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Muslim leaders such as Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Dr Zakir Husain as well as scientists like the late Sir J.C. Bose visited him more than once and discussed with His Holiness the difficult problems that confronted India at the time.
His Holiness did not directly participate in active politics of any kind but this does not mean that he did not take a keen interest in the affairs of the country and the world at large.
He was respected as a scholar of exceptional ability even by members of other communities and was often invited to visit several educational institutions.
TRAVELS AND EXPERIENCES
Throughout his life, His Holiness was committed to the betterment of his followers. To that extent his duties would require him to travel frequently to the places where his followers resided, both in India and abroad. His Holiness is distinguished to be the first dāʿī to travel as far as East Africa and Far East Asia, where Dawoodi Bohras had settled between since the early 19th century. His itinerary during these visits would be dedicated to his followers where a large percentage of time was reserved for one-to-one interactions with them. These would entail sometimes long and animated conversations about their problems and counsel in both spiritual and temporal affairs. Even today, the septuagenarian Bohras of East Africa recall his visit of 1963, just two years prior to his demise, and reflect upon the profound impact it made on their personal and professional lives.
Similarly, his visit to Egypt in 1937 rekindled the historic relationship that the community shares with that land. After the seclusion of the Fatimi imams in the 11th century, he holds the distinction of being the first daʿi to visit Egypt. During his stay there, he was accorded the highest degree of state reception and as a souvenir of his visit, the Egyptian government presented him with a number of Fatimi era gold coins and raiments interlaid with Arabic inscriptions in Kufic script in addition to certain rare manuscripts and other relics. His Holiness also visited the Fatimi-era masjids and expressed his intent to restore them to their original glory—an intent that came true at the hands of his successor, the 52nd al Daʿi al-Mutlaq, Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin who took up their restoration during his time in office.
The goodwill and intellectual ingenuity fostered by Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s leadership earned him the respect and hospitality of several leaders of his places of visit. The governors of provinces of of what was then British India had always shown consideration for the status and dignity of His Holiness; as per the custom of that time, one of the regal titles associated with him was ‘First Class Sardar of the Deccan’. Perhaps Malcolm Macdonald, the Governor General of Kenya, in a tribute to His Holiness at a public reception, said it best:
‘I am very happy indeed to preside at this reception in His Holiness’ honour, for I have had the great pleasure of meeting him in various parts of the world; first in Singapore, afterwards in India, and now in Kenya. In every one of these lands as in numerous other countries also, considerable populations of his industrious and devoted followers are inspired by his own example of dedicated living and every time I meet him, I am captivated by his gentleness, his charm, his wisdom and his benevolent saintliness.’
A LEADER FOR HUMANITY
Although His Holiness was the leader of a minority in India, he maintained amicable relations with the highest leadership of his time. The revered Indian icon of freedom, Mahatma Gandhi, was close to him and had once called upon him at his residence at Saifee Mahal to seek consultation before departing for the Second Round Table Conference in London.
Similarly, the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru frequently met with His Holiness and upon his invitation inaugurated the community’s premier educational institute, Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah in Surat. He also attended His Holiness’ dedication of Saifee Villa to the nation. Saifee Villa was the landmark property owned by His Holiness where Gandhiji had taken lodgings on his historic Salt March (also known as Dandi March) in 1930.
On the occasion of the celebrations of His Holiness’ Golden Jubilee, the honourable S. Radhakrishnan, who served as the second President of India, had the following to say:
‘I have no doubt that your great leader who has guided your destiny for the last fifty years and who combines in himself spiritual dedication and social humanism will do his utmost to work for the consolidation of society, for the bringing together of man and for making this world a home of humanity.’
His Holiness’ era was an epoch-making period for his community, but was also interspersed with critics of all kinds. The chief accusation against him was his so-called unbending orthodoxy, his rigid insistence on the observance of all the old modes and injunctions of life. He was blamed for not moving with the times.
His Holiness did not believe in a reformism which sought to strike at the very roots of those who set out to reform. It would inadvertently end in the destruction of the reformer as well as the reformed.
The core principles of the daʿwa remained unchanged. But all the necessary reforms required by the spirit of the times and the circumstances of the modern world had been positively adopted and introduced.
His Holiness had always been open to accepting new ideas beneficial to the prosperity of his followers whilst not compromising their core values. A distinguished ruler of an Indian state prior to Independence once said to His Holiness that it is necessary to move the faith with the times. In reply, His Holiness expressed his conviction in making the times move with the faith.
Great men have often resisted the current and changed its direction.
His Holiness however, was one of those rare men who rode the current and also retained their individuality for the good of the whole community. His approach was resonant of the Fatimi philosophy stated in the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity: ‘of (safeguarding) the time-tested old and (embracing) the beneficial new.’
CONTRIBUTIONS TO SOCIETY
As a devout Muslim, His Holiness took keen interest in the affairs of all Islamic countries and contributed with kind and counsel to important causes within them.
On a visit to Iraq in 1934, he was apprised about the sedate structural condition of the shrine of Imam Ali and Imam Husain at Najaf and Karbala respectively. His Holiness readily agreed to replace both of them by newly made structures prepared in India in gold and silver by expert artisans.
His Holiness performed the pilgrimage of Hajj in 1937, where he was accorded the status of State Guest by King Ibn Saud’s government. After his return to India, His Holiness presented a distinctive kiswa (curtain) to adorn the walls of the holy Kaʿba which remained inside the precincts of the structure of the holy Kaʿba for many years.
Being a patron of education, His Holiness devoted premium time and effort to undertake this noble endeavour. He established a separate Department of Education in the administration that ran as many as 225 schools accommodating nearly 25,000 students during his tenure. He encouraged aspirants from the community to pursue advanced and technical instruction and granted scholarships to that end for studying both in India and abroad.
His Holiness made a novel contribution to the repairing project of Masjid al-Aqsa in Jerusalem, where his name has been inscribed on a wall in Kufic script as a sign of acknowledgement.
HONOURS AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Syedna Taher Saifuddin was conferred Doctor of Theology by Aligarh Muslim University on April 15th, 1946. In 1953, he accepted the chancellorship of AMU, which he was elected to for four consecutive terms from 1953 to 1965. He was the longest-serving chancellor in the university’s history.
Syedna was also honoured by Karachi University who conferred him with a Doctor of Laws degree in 1955. He was also voted among 100 Greatest Indian Muslims of the Twentieth Century in an opinion poll run by Milli Gazette.
Shortly after his demise on March 18th, 1966, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, his son and successor, established His Holiness Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin Memorial Trust with the aim of providing scholarships and grants for education as well as financial aid for medical purposes to both individuals and institutions alike.