There's an ongoing succession battle between rival claimants to the title of Da’i Syedna, the sect’s supreme spiritual leader
Of the million-odd Dawoodi Bohras in the world, over 500,000 live in India
A small and closely knit community, Mumbai’s Dawoodi Bohra Muslims are an important part of the city’s social and cultural fabric. Mostly a community of traders—the word Bohra comes from “vohorvu", Gujarati for “to trade"—they belong to a sect of Shia Islam that has its spiritual home in south Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar. Of the million-odd Dawoodi Bohras in the world, over 500,000 live in India, where they are known for their progressive views, high levels of education and distinctive cuisine. But for the past few years, the community has been in the news for a different reason—an acrimonious succession battle between rival claimants to the title of Da’i Syedna, the sect’s supreme spiritual leader.
The controversy erupted in 2014, following the death of the 52nd Syedna, Mohammed Burhanuddin, in Mumbai. Burhanuddin’s son Mufaddal Saifuddin, and his half-brother Khuzaima Qutbuddin both claimed he had appointed them heir. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin was announced as the successor in 2011, three days after his father suffered a debilitating stroke, and assumed control of the Dawoodi Bohra administration and infrastructure as the 53rd Syedna. Qutbuddin, on the other hand, claimed to have been chosen as the successor in secret in 1965. He filed a petition in the Bombay high court in 2014, asking to be legally declared the 53rd Syedna.
“According to our faith and theology, an appointment of succession is done by divine inspiration," says Qutbuddin’s son Taher Fakhruddin, who took over the case after his father’s death in 2016 and now seeks to be declared the 54th Syedna. Fakhruddin sits regally in a high-backed chair in the reception room of his Thane residence, referring frequently to a dossier of documents as he speaks. “And divine inspiration, by both theology and logic, cannot be changed. The truth cannot change, otherwise it isn’t the truth."
Essentially, once a successor has been named, he cannot be changed. It’s a simple enough argument but it will take a long and complicated trial to see whether he has enough evidence to convince the court. A spokesperson for Syedna Saifuddin maintains that he was conferred the nass—the announcement of succession—on a number of occasions, both privately and publicly, thus making him the legitimate Syedna. “The overwhelming majority of the community is united in support of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin as the head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, and this is clearly evident when the Syedna travels to towns and cities where Bohras reside all across the world," says the spokesperson who does not want to be named. “They consider Syedna Saifuddin as the natural and legitimate successor of the 52nd Da’i, and actively seek to benefit from the Syedna’s guidance and benevolence. There may be an extremely small number who have not accepted him as the leader of the faith, and as such they are entitled to their beliefs."
Fakhruddin has also alleged that Syedna Saifuddin is using his control of the Dawoodi Bohra administration to promote an orthodox, socially regressive agenda that goes against the community’s ethos, especially when it comes to women’s rights. “Mufaddal Saifuddin doesn’t want women to be educated, other than in home science," says Fakhruddin, showing me a video of one of Saifuddin’s sermons on his phone. “There are many other social issues as well. They do this to instil fear in people."
The spokesperson for Syedna Saifuddin dismissed these allegations as false, stating that the Syedna continues to stress the importance of education for both genders. “We would like to add that many women choose to pursue different educational pathways and careers with the Syedna’s blessings," he says. “Many are granted scholarships by the community’s administration for further studies in varied fields every year. Our spiritual leader’s teachings focus our lives on education and hard work, equal rights for women, enhancing the natural environment, engagement with other faiths, a love for one’s country, and personal health and hygiene."
Fakhruddin is not alone in making allegations. Public dissent is rare within the community, especially because prior Syednas have often used excommunication or social boycott as punishment. But even so, more and more Dawoodi Bohras are speaking out against what they see as Syedna Saifuddin’s more conservative directives. Last year, there were murmurs of protest in response to an “advisory" against the use of Western-style toilets, with people who have such toilets in the house being told to break them down. There is even a video clip from a 2016 speech by Syedna Saifuddin, in which he is alleged to have urged followers to clandestinely continue the practice of female genital mutilation. When contacted for comment, Syedna Saifuddin’s spokesperson was not able to respond in time.
Fakhruddin says his vision for the community is much more progressive and liberal. He wants to offer more autonomy to the local jamaat committees. Social welfare also ranks high on his list of priorities, especially in the field of education. “I would also emphasize that we have a legacy about how women are treated, and I think that needs to change," he says. “To put it simply, it has to be an atmosphere of mutual respect. If you treat someone differently, as second-class or third class-citizens, it’s because you disrespect them."
He accepts that the way the procedure of female genital mutilation is carried out has led to abuse of, and trauma among, young women. “But that’s not what our religion actually espouses," he adds. “I don’t want to go into too much detail, but according to our religion, it’s not exactly the same as female genital mutilation.
“But I had a very simple solution to this. According to our religious law, one can get married when they reach maturity, which is 15. But according to the law of the land, it’s 18, or in some places, 21. So what do we do? We abide by the law of the land. Same with this. Once you have reached maturity, once you are 18, you can decide if you want to follow the religious custom or not."
Fakhruddin has also promised greater transparency in the way funds collected from the community are used, declaring in 2017 that contributions should be voluntary. “We are a resource-rich community, and we can use those resources to propel growth," he says. “If we manage the administration in a more professional way, we can do a lot of welfare for the more economically challenged members."
However, these policy proposals haven’t been successful in building support for his claim to be Syedna. Syedna Saifuddin’s supporters claim that the vast majority of the community has accepted him as their spiritual leader. Fakhruddin says many people have privately pledged support but are afraid of social boycott or other punitive action if they go public.
“A large number of followers are with Mufaddal Saifuddin because he quickly moved to control the mosques, charitable institutions, in fact all the institutions," says Irfan Engineer, director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, and a Dawoodi Bohra lawyer and activist. Engineer’s father, Asghar Ali, was one of the pioneers of the breakaway Progressive Dawoodi Bohras movement. Irfan Engineer is concerned about Saifuddin’s conservative interpretation of the faith. But he is not convinced Fakhruddin would be much more liberal if in power.
“Between the two Da’is, I don’t see a major doctrinal difference," he says. “As a strategy, the 54th Da’i says he won’t implement the doctrine so diligently, but he insists that the doctrine is valid."
However, both Fakhruddin and Engineer agree that the current succession dispute—and the actions of the Saifuddin administration—may lead to a crisis of faith. “These kinds of measures have put off the community quite a lot," says Engineer. “I have seen many people who were devout followers of the Da’i have turned away from the institution, from the religion. A larger number of people have become indifferent to religion because of this fight."
Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based journalist and music critic.