Al-Istifada al-Ilmiyya: The Dawoodi Bohra Tradition of Learning

al-Istifada al-ʿIlmiyya has become an annual educational event drawing large numbers of community members from countries around the world.

For the past six years, the birthday celebrations of His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, the leader of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community, have been marked by a season of learning and growth. It is when thousands of community members from across the globe travel to Surat, India, for the occasion named al-Istifada al-Ilmiyya, which is a series of educational seminars and sessions reflecting a time-honoured Fatimi educational system.

Al-Istifada al-Ilmiyya, at its heart, is inspired by the Islamic tradition of continuously seeking knowledge—made mandatory by the Prophet Mohammed for every Muslim man and woman. Fatimi texts mention the obligation of pursuing knowledge, even if one must overcome great difficulties. Acquiring knowledge and putting it into practice ultimately leads to a fulfilling and purposeful existence; it is a process that continues throughout one’s life ‘from the cradle to the grave.’

A History of Fatimi Pedagogy

From the advent of Islam in the early seventh century, Muslims sought knowledge by congregating to listen to the Prophet’s sermons and addresses as well as frequently gathering to hear and discuss revelations of the Holy Quran and its teachings. These traditions were continued by his progeny, with many Muslims—including notable scholars and jurists—gathering at the imams’ homes as well as in masjids to attend sessions of learning, ranging from Islamic theology and philosophy to jurisprudence.

In Fatimi-era Egypt, numerous methods of education included Friday sermons, public halqas (large groups gathered in circles of learning and discussion) in the masjids, and formal instruction from texts on theology, Quranic interpretation and Islamic law. In 975, the Fatimi Imam al-Muʿizz established Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest universities in the world still in operation. Al-Azhar became renowned throughout the Muslim world for the quality of its education while providing free boarding to its students.

Exterior of the Al-Azhar Masjid, the chief centre of Islamic learning in the world in Cairo, Egypt.
Al-Jami' al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt, one of the chief centres of learning in the Islamic world.

Similarly, in 1005, the Fatimi Imam al-Hakim founded the House of Knowledge in Cairo, which attracted intellectuals from all over the world. The varied subjects taught and researched there included history, literature, jurisprudence, lexicology, grammar, astronomy, law and medicine. The institution and its comprehensive library of thousands of works were open to all.

A key teaching method in the Fatimi era was the majalis al-hikma, special sessions of learning attended by followers of the Fatimi Imam, both men and women. The word majlis, meaning a seating place or assembly, invokes the modest comportment of the attendees sitting respectfully on the floor of the masjid or palace hall in the pursuit of knowledge.

The majalis (sessions of learning) of the eleventh century Fatimi daʿi and scholar Syedna al-Muʾayyad al-Shirazi in Cairo, Egypt are particularly renowned. Appointed by the Fatimi Imam Mustansir to undertake the spiritual and educational upbringing of his followers, he conducted a special session every Thursday in Cairo for specific audiences, including high-ranking members of the Fatimi daʿwa, or mission. Such was their zeal for learning that he conducted 800 sessions, attended by large numbers, in the great hall of the Imam’s palace. The contents of the session would be approved by the Imam each week and sent back with his official seal to be read during the sessions.

The 800 sessions defined the Fatimi tradition of learning for centuries to come, employing dialectic and philosophical discourse to elaborate upon consequential themes in Fatimi theology and philosophy. Its eight-volume compilation—known as al-Majalis al-Muʾayyadiya—is considered a seminal theological and philosophical text of the Fatimi era, esteemed and studied to this day by Dawoodi Bohras as well as other Ismaili communities. 

Learning in the Era of the Da’is
Al-Hutaib al-Mubarak in the mountains of Haraaz in Yemen, where the 3rd Dai Syedna Hatim lived and taught in the late 12th century.

After the seclusion of the Fatimi imams, Yemen, the seat of the al-daʿi al-mutlaq (representative of the imam during seclusion), became the centre of learning for community members. They sought knowledge through the daʿis’ sermons, lessons, treatises and poetry—including asking questions through written correspondence. They often overcame great challenges, traversing rocky terrain and high altitudes, to learn from the daʿis, with many making the arduous journey to Yemen from the Indian subcontinent. 

Throughout later centuries, after the office of the daʿi moved to India, the Bohra community continued their tradition of seeking knowledge from the daʿis in India and attending their sessions of learning and sermons. Men and women often went to great lengths to attend asbaaq, or lessons, taught by the daʿis and other qualified scholars—even, during times of persecution, congregating in the middle of the night in their quest for learning.

His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin in his study at Saifee Mahal, Mumbai
His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin in his study at Saifee Mahal, Mumbai

In the 20th century, Dawoodi Bohras continued to seek spiritual education with great zeal—the 51st Daʿi His Holiness Syedna Taher Saifuddin took up the seemingly impossible task of teaching upto 27 lessons a day to different groups, often stretching late into the night. To accommodate the growing number of students devoted to the pursuit of  knowledge and in response to the needs of the time, he expanded al-Dars al-Saifee, an institute of learning built over a century earlier by the 43rd daʿi, into a world-class academy—Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah—as a manifestation of the educational legacy of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

Thousands of community members attend the annual Ashara Mubaraka event to listen to the sermons of His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin

Today, many thousands of Dawoodi Bohras congregate to listen to Ashara Mubaraka sermons, attend lessons and even participate in the annual examinations of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, an educational experience for all. Reflecting the community’s conviction that knowledge and education is the foundation of their faith, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin states, ‘Education is one of the most important obligations upon humankind, and no matter the effort expended in its pursuit, it can never be considered sufficient.’ Its purpose and essence, His Holiness teaches, is to benefit one's fellow humans.

Al-Istifada al-Ilmiyya

Beginning in 2017, al-Istifada al-Ilmiyya has become an annual educational event drawing large numbers of community members from countries around the world. The event is hosted by the community’s leader His Holiness Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, the community’s premier educational institute, in Surat, India. Al-Istifada represents the traditional educational system of the Dawoodi Bohras. While many attend lessons throughout the year in their local masjids and community centres, participants of al-Istifada dedicate these days solely to the pursuit of knowledge and personal growth.

Community members partake in the traditional sabaq session during Istifada Ilmiyah at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, Surat
Community members partake in the traditional sabaq session during Istifada Ilmiyah at Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, Surat

Students, professors, and alumni of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, as well as community officials, from educators and administrators to amils (leaders of local Bohra communities), travel from around the world to attend al-Istifada and further develop their professional and interpersonal skills as well as hone their knowledge. Attendees also comprise Bohra men and women of all ages and backgrounds, many of whom have pursued higher education in numerous fields and include successful professionals, educators, businesspeople and home managers. 

True to Fatimi philosophy, the educational experience is a holistic one, including life-skills seminars, health checkups, sports and other events. The primary event in the busy week-long schedule is the daily asbaaq classes, for which several large groups are formed according to the level of the texts being taught—spanning from morning to midday with breaks for tea and lunch. Each group studies a variety of texts on Fatimi theology, philosophy and Quranic interpretation.

The Khaimat al-Riyazat, Aljamea's sports facility teems with sport enthusiasts through the evening
The Khaimat al-Riyazat, Aljamea's sports facility teems with sport enthusiasts through the evening

Evenings—and often nights—see the attendees participate in organised or freestyle sports and exercise on Aljamea’s sports grounds, while afternoons are filled with special educational seminars and programmes tailored for women and men.  The seminars cover various self-improvement and administrative skills such as communication and teaching methods as well as organisation and management skills. Al-Istifada culminates on the day of the late Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin’s birth anniversary, on which Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin delivers a sermon attended by tens of thousands of community members.

Honouring the traditional Fatimi educational system and embodying its philosophy to embrace what is beneficial from both the old and the new, al-Istifada al-Ilmiyya reflects the Dawoodi Bohras’ commitment to education. Always open to learning, the Bohras believe that seeking education is a lifelong journey to cultivate the mind and soul, accompanied by the constant endeavour to help benefit humanity—the purpose of all education.

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Last Updated
October 24, 2022
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