Surat’s Mohammed Burhanuddin, whose death this month triggered a stampede on Mumbai’s Malabar Hill that killed at least 18 people, was a fascinating figure. He headed one of two small but influential Gujarati Ismaili communities.

Burhanuddin led the Dawoodi Bohra, a minority (Seveners) within a minority (Shias) within a minority (Muslims) in India. He became Syedna, the title by which he was commonly known, in 1965, and so was in office for 49 years.

Burhanuddin was the 52nd Syedna in a line that began in 1151 in Yemen and moved to Gujarat in 1567.

His father was Syedna for half a century from 1915-65 and the two of them were in office for an unbroken and amazing 99 years. From the second year of World War I to this year, the two men were in charge of a community that was mainly converted from Hindu mercantile castes. This caste ability and culture they retained. The pharmaceutical firm Wockhardt’s Khorakiwala family are Dawoodi Bohras. However, the Islamic insistence that interest was forbidden has limited them as small businessmen.

In his authorized biography, Al-Dai Al-Fatimi, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, he is quoted as saying that he “asked his community to rally behind two economic principles of Islam. The first being to recognize interest in all its forms as haram, that is, sinful and morally wrong. The taking and giving and any sort of dealing in interest was to be eschewed even if it made apparent business sense and even if economic pressures demanded it. The second was to recognize the merits of interest-free loans."

Such loans of course were outside the banking system and this is what helped bind the community.

A scholarly man and a poet, the Syedna held absolute power over the Bohras and they needed his formal approval for things such as marriage. All Bohras send an annual percentage of profit from their businesses to the Syedna’s trusts, which deploy them in hospitals and other acts of charity.

The penalty for crossing him or breaking the rules was excommunication from the community, which for a close-knit group was more painful than we can imagine (photographs of his funeral will reveal how there is no dissent even in their dress).

My friend the great Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer was one who resisted, and he was manhandled and abused often by the Syedna’s devotees.

Ismaili Shias are thought to be quietist, meaning disinterested in politics; that has been only on the external front. And even that has not always been the case, as we shall see.

The other community of Gujarati Ismaili Seveners is the Khoja Nizari Ismaili. Also like the Bohras, their leaders have been around a long time. The current one, Aga Khan IV, has led them since 1957. His father took charge in 1885 and so the two of them have led the Khojas for 129 years!

Though these Gujarati communities are, as I have said, small, they have affected the lives of all Indians forever.

Aga Khan III was one of the founders and first president of the All India Muslim League. In Gray Wolf, his entertaining but poor biography of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, H.C. Armstrong wrote of how an act by the Aga Khan affected both Turkey and India profoundly.

The Khoja leader wrote a letter to an Istanbul newspaper supporting the Caliph on behalf of Indian Muslims, as the global leader of the faith. This provoked Ataturk into abolishing the Caliphate, making Turkey the military-dominated republic it remains today. It also ended the Khilafat movement in India and deprived another Gujarati, Gandhi, of the opening to really take on the British.

The most famous Khoja in history was of course Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and I was not surprised to read that he was influenced by Gray Wolf. I was surprised to read that Jinnah didn’t speak Gujarati well and that Gandhi constantly nudged him towards their mother tongue. This means they probably spoke (and negotiated) in English, and that explains why they couldn’t find compromise. It would have been easier in Gujarati.

To return to the Bohras, Burhanuddin’s father Syedna Tahir Saifuddin was also enthusiastic about Pakistan. Though he remained in Surat and Mumbai after Partition, there is a road named after him in Karachi.

In the elections where Jinnah demanded Pakistan, Saifuddin “issued a fatwa to Bohras residing in the Mumbai city constituency from which Jinnah was running for a seat in the Central Assembly to cast their votes for the Muslim League leader. Bohras made up a major electoral bloc in the constituency, so Syedna’s fatwa was crucial" (according to the book Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam And Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras by Jonah Blank).

This enthusiasm may seem surprising given the experience of Bohras under Sunni rule. When Aurangzeb came to Gujarat in 1645, the 32nd Syedna was executed as a heretic on a child’s testimony and all Bohra mosques were handed over to Sunni clerics.

Inevitably, in today’s Pakistan, the Bohra is seen as a heretic by every denomination of an increasingly militant Sunni society, and attacks on their markets and mosques with bomb and gun are on the rise in Karachi.

There are 100,000 Bohras in Pakistan and they are one of that country’s most prosperous and peaceful citizens, as are the other Gujarati Muslims. The Bohras, like all mercantile Gujaratis, are spread out across the world wherever the British empire gave them protection and opportunity. In all these places they will be in mourning for a leader who along with his father governed them for generations.

Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns

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