Disputes from the past discussed in Bohra succession case
The Bombay high court is hearing the dispute over the succession to the spiritual leadership of the Dawoodi Bohras, a Shia group which has its headquarters in Mumbai.
The dispute arose when Qutbuddin, the half-brother of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd Dai or head of the sect, claimed the title after the latter’s death in January 2014. He filed a suit in the high court challenging the appointment of the latter’s son Mufaddal Saiffudin as the next leader. Qutbuddin told the court that his brother had appointed him as his successor five decades ago, when he was elevated to the title of ‘Mazoon’, the second rank in the clergy. Mufaddal Saifuddin’s supporters say he was appointed successor by his father in June 2011 in London where he was recuperating after a stroke.
The main point of contention is the ‘Nass’ or the ceremony announcing the successor by the Dai and whether it should be done privately or before the community, and if there should be an explicit announcement of the successor - whether the choice of the heir should be put down in writing or announced in the presence of witnesses. Taher Fakhruddin has said that the announcement must be by a direct statement while the other side says that a private appointment is valid according to Bohra doctrine, and there are precedents.
Qutbuddin died in March 2016 and his son Taher Fakhruddin is pursuing the claim as the successor. The spiritual head, called Syedna or Dai, are representatives of Imams – the line of successors to Islam’s prophet – who went into seclusion after disputes over succession. Though the post was not necessarily passed on as a hereditary title, some families have controlled the office for generations. The title is coveted because it gives control the rich trusts of the one-million strong sect largely made up of traders and professionals. The followers of Qutbuddin now call themselves Qutbuddin Bohras. While the Syedna Mufaddal Saiffudin, manages his community’s affairs from the headquarters in Badri Mahal in Mumbai’s Fort area and Saifee Mahal, his house in Malabar Hill, Syedna Taher Fakhruddin has made Darus Sakina, his house in Thane, as his office.
This column had discussed how this is not the first time there have been splits in the community. The Dawoodi Bohras broke away from the mainstream Shia sect – which separated from the larger Sunni group after the first dispute over the successor to Islam’s prophet. A book by Mian Bhai Mulla Abdul Hussain documents splits during the tenure of the 18th, 26th, 28th, 40th and 49th Dais. Other experts have said there have been more breakups.
One breakup led to formation of a group called Jafferias led by their leader who was known as Jafer. In 1897 AD, a preacher from Mumbai named Abdul Husain declared himself as the Dai and his followers were called Mahdibagwallas, as their headquarters is a place named Mahdi Baug. In the 1960s and 1970s, after an agitation against the religious establishment, a group called the Reformist Bohras. This group does not have a spiritual leader but run their affiars through a separate trust.
The disputes from the past are now been discussed in the high court. Last week, the senior lawyer representing the defendant (Mufaddal Saifuddin) asked the plaintiff (Taher Fakhruddin) if there was proof of the 27th Dai’s succession against the rival claimant Sulayman.
Last week, the plaintiff, when asked if he accepted that the Ismaili treatises on law, doctrine and history, authored by Ismail bin Abdurrasool al-Ujjaini was an authoritative, said that it was not ‘fully authoritative’, as the author, who is known in the community as the renegade al-Majdu, revolted against the 40th Dai.
The next set of hearings in the case is scheduled in March and April. Dawoodi Bohras loyal to Mufaddal Saifuddin said that the case was of little interest to them as they believe that their leader is the rightful claimant to the title. “Our community is not bothered about what is happening in the courts. They have already decided who is the Syedna,” said a Bohra who requested that his name should be revealed.