Last week, when Taher Fakhruddin, the son of Khuzaima Qutbuddin, the claimant to the spiritual leadership of the Dawoodi Bohras, was ‘crowned’ the 54th Dai, or head, of the sect, in Thane, his supporters published data from their online forum to argue that the breakaway group was collecting followers.
The group said 11 million people had visited the website in one year and more than 500,000 were unique visitors. The numbers, they said, suggested that there were tens of thousands of Bohras who were their discreet supporters. The numbers, they claimed, were substantial as the Dawoodi Bohras, a mercantile community, has around one million members worldwide.
The claim has been dismissed by the representatives of Mufaddal Saiffudin who succeeded his father, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, who died in January 2014, as the 53rd head of the larger faction. Qutbuddin, Burhanuddin’s half-brother, had filed a suit in Bombay high court challenging his nephew’s appointment to the seat. When Qutbuddin died in March 2016, the court dispute had reached the trial stage. He had appeared in court and answered more than 600 questions on the dispute.
“There are only one million Dawoodi Bohras; are they saying that half of them are their supporters?” asked a spokesperson from the community. “We are not concerned with what they do, as we have no connection with them.” Since their separation, the fledging group has created an ‘interim’ headquarters in Thane and 50 centres across the world. Calling themselves Qutbuddin Bohras, they have their mosque, burial ground and a residential colony in Thane.
Though their numbers are minuscule – the group said that this is because people are afraid to declare their loyalty openly – a former judge, a prominent business family and a top lawyer are rumoured to have joined the group.
The dispute over succession, about which there were rumours even when Burhanuddin was alive, became a public dispute after his death. Though the Syednas preside over the community as hereditary – though not always – leaders, they call themselves the representatives of Imams – the line of successors to Islam’s prophet – who went into seclusion after disputing claims over the title.
The community has a history of splits. Dawoodi Bohras are part of the Shia sect that broke away from the Sunnis after a dispute over the successor to Islam’s prophet.
A book that formed part of the Ethnographic Survey, Central Provinces, documented five splits. Other experts have said there have been more. The Qutbuddins are an addition to breakaway groups likes Jafferias, Sulaimani and Mahdibagwalla Bohras. Protests against the powerful clergy in the 1960s and 1970s created a group who call themselves Reformist Bohras, who do not acknowledge a religious leader and manage their spiritual affairs through an elected trust.
Fakhruddin’s followers have said that the ‘crowning’ of the new leader will have no bearing on the case, which will go on. “My father was the second-in-command for 50 years (the tenure of Burhanuddin),” said Abdeali Qutbuddin, Fakhruddin’s brother.
The new group has they have liberal views on issues such as female genital mutilation — called female circumcision by supporters — which is practised by the group. When groups of Bohra women started a campaign to get the practice banned, the head of the main sect said that the custom was compulsory; the breakaway group said that girls can chose to undergo the practice when they became adults.
The Qutbuddins, however, said that they believe in following the tradition. “We believe there is a Syedna who is the head of the community. Reformists have an issue with that,” said Abdeali.
“We believe in following tradition, and tradition has room for liberty, transparency – everything the reformists have been asking for.”
Saifuddin Insaf, a member of the reformist section and an Islamic scholar did not think that the new group was liberal in its outlook. “The coronation itself is anti-Islamic. They are projecting themselves as liberal to attract followers.”