The DA`I AL-MUTLAQ
The ‘al-dāʿī al-mutlaq’ or ‘syedna’ is the sovereign leader of the Dawoodi Bohras and guardian of the Fatemi ‘Daʿwat’ (religious mission). He is the religious leader, temporal guide and both spiritual father and mother to the community.
His dominion is not one of terrestrial boundaries but a reign over hearts. The words of the 47th dāʿī to his successor embody this love when he counselled him on how to continue caring for the followers by saying, ‘I have nurtured them with great love and affection, when they asked for water, I gave them milk.’
The dāʿī represents the imam who is in seclusion and he has full and absolute authority to administer the Daʿwat in his stead. The dāʿī is most commonly addressed as ‘Syedna’ and is the source of guidance for Bohras in all spiritual and worldly matters.
The first dāʿī, Syedna Zoeb bin Musa al-Wadʿī RA, was appointed in 532AD (1138AH) in Yemen and since that time there have been 53 dāʿīs. At the time of the first dāʿī the community of believers resided almost entirely in Yemen and India.
Twenty-three dāʿīs operated from mountain bases in Yemen for over four centuries. In the face of persecuting armies, the dāʿīs persevered in their mission to lead the faithful and preserve the faith. They expended great efforts in imparting knowledge through sermons, discourses and writings both in poetry and prose. The likes of the 3rd dāʿī, Syedna Hatim Muhyuddin RA and the 19th dāʿī, Syedna Idris Imaduddin RA wrote numerous works, including a complete history of the Fatemi imams and dāʿīs.
In India, a sizeable community of followers had existed since the 5th/11th century, even before the seclusion of the imam. After seclusion, they remained loyal to the dāʿīs in Yemen and some of them used to visit Yemen and stay with the dāʿīs for extended periods, learning the traditions of the faith and observing how the affairs of the community were managed. The dāʿīs in Yemen also appointed representatives (wālis) in India who attended to the affairs of the community there. Eventually, the increased devotion of the followers in India lead to the transfer of the seat of the Daʿwat.
In 946/1539, Syedna Yusuf Najmuddin RA of Sidhpur, India, was chosen as the 24th dāʿī, and with him, the seat of the Daʿwat moved to India, where it has remained to this day. The Bohras began to be known as ‘Dawoodi Bohras’ in the 11th/16th century for their allegiance to the 27th dāʿī, Syedna Dawood bin Qutubshah Burhanuddin RA in whose time a schism divided the community.
The dāʿīs bore the responsibility of office through the centuries in a spirit of dedication to the imam. When it became necessary for the protection of the mission of the imam and the wellbeing of their followers, they bore hardships of imprisonment and banishment. In Ahmedabad the 32nd dāʿī, Syedna Qutubkhan Qutbuddin RA lay down his life when he was asked to recant his faith or be executed.
In this way over the last nine centuries, the duʿāt (singular: dāʿī) have played an integral role in the lives of Dawoodi Bohras. They have been patriarchs and paradigms of the Islamic way of life in each era. Their piety and disciplined life, erudition and scholarship, judicious guidance and leadership have upheld the sanctity of the office of The dāʿī al-mutlaq. By making difficult decisions to adapt to the changing times yet remaining true to their faith, they steered the community through difficult periods which, at times, threatened its very existence.