No schism, just sadness: A Dawoodi Bohra responds

Introduction

Shireen Hamza has written an oped here at Patheos alleging that there is a schism in my community, the Dawoodi Bohras. Shireen is in fact my first cousin, a passionate intellect, and I do not doubt the sincerity of her belief. No one can or should deny that she has a right to believe whatever she wants.

What Shireen does not have the right to do, however, is to make false claims about the beliefs of those who disagree with her, or to claim victimhood and persecution where none exists. She makes the accusation that there is a systematic campaign of intimidation and oppression that suppresses true loyalties of Mr. Qutbuddin’s followers, the Qutbi Bohras. Explicit in Shireen’s polemic is the accusation that those who disagree with her and Mr. Qutbuddin are acting analogously to Islamophobes, that women in the Dawoodi Bohra community are oppressed and “frozen in the 7th century”.

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus), the 53rd Dai ul-Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra community

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus), the 53rd Dai ul-Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra community

Neither Shireen nor I have any interest in debating theology. But what I will do is respond to the talking points she invokes, which defame the Bohra community and our leader, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus), using simple, concrete counterexamples. I hope to illustrate why I and hundreds of thousands of other Bohras, men and women and children alike, unhesitatingly call Syedna Saifuddin (tus) our Mawla (lord protector), not out of fear but out of sincere mohabbat (love) and veneration.

The debate about succession

As a Dawoodi Bohra muslim, I believe that the true and rightful sucessor to Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (ra) is Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus).

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) was named heir at least three times, twice privately with multiple witnesses and once publicly in front of thousands of people at Raudat Tahera in Mumbai. There is ample documentation of these events, in form of signed papers, living witnessess, and video.

In contrast, Mr. Qutbuddin’s claim rests on his assertion that Syedna Burhanuddin (ra) declared him the successor in a private ceremony, with no witnesses, in defiance of a thousand years of precedence and history. As per our fiqh (jurisprudence), the nass (naming of a successor) must always have witnesses, without exception.

Shireen will surely disagree. She has made her choice and that is her right, as it is the right of all Qutbi Bohras to determine their own belief. The debate should by rights end there, as per the Qur’an which says “to you be your faith, to me mine” (109:1-6). Instead, Mr. Qutbuddin’s followers have sought to delegitimize our beliefs by mounting a campaign to discredit and insult our faith and community. Shireen’s op-ed is a faithful recital of the talking points with which the Qutbi Bohras slander my community, so I will address each of them in turn.

Accusation of hate speech in Bohra mosques

Shireen claims that “hate speech” and “hateful and fear-inducing messages” have been made in Bohra mosques against Mr. Qutbuddin. These accusations bear a disturbing parallel to those that are used to justify surveillance of Muslim Americans by the NYPD, implying that the Bohra community has taken a radical turn. This is a very serious charge. However, neither she nor any other of Mr. Qutbuddin’s followers have attended services at Bohra mosques, as per Mr. Qutbuddin’s own directives. What evidence do they have of hate speech being broadcast therein?

The truth is that I and hundreds of thousands of Bohras have been engaged in 40 days of remembrance of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (ra), at hundreds of mosques around the world, a global diaspora unified in grief at the 52nd Dai’s passing. For 40 days, Bohras have prayed du’a and the Qur’an, written and recited madehs (poetry) in praise of Syedna Burhanuddin (ra), and as we always do, remembered the sacrifice of Imam Husain (as) at Karbala some 1400 years ago. And after the 40 day period of mourning ended last week, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) went to Karbala himself, to pay his respects and pray at the tombs of Imam Husain (as) and Imam Ali (as). The attention of the entire global Bohra community has been on piety and prayer, on grief and hope.

Ask any Bohra in any mosque around the world – from Chicago to London, from Paris to Nairobi, from Mombasa to Mumbai, from Karachi to Singapore, from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Will any of us corroborate the dark picture that Shireen paints of an atmosphere of fear? Anyone is free to ask. We are not afraid, we are not hateful.

Far from preaching hate and fear, the truth is that in the very first public sermon of Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) as Dai of the Bohra community, he directly addressed his paternal uncle Mr. Qutbuddin, calling him by the term of endearment “kakaji saheb”, addressing him with the honorific “bhaisaheb”, and inviting him to return to the fold with no recrimination. He said, and I quote, “Meh galeh lagawi lais” – I will embrace you, I will hug you – if you return to us. And indeed, many other Qutbi Bohras have returned to the fold, and Mawla Saifuddin (tus) has brought them before him and made it clear that those who return are to be shown only love and forgiveness. I and hundreds of thousands of other Bohras are witnesses to Syedna Saifuddin’s (tus) heartfelt plea, disseminated worldwide by video relay, and if Shireen wishes to see it for herself she need only ask.

UPDATE 3/8/14: I found the video excerpt from Youtube:

YouTube Preview Image

Accusations of intimidation and abuse

Shireen also references a campaign of intimidation, alleging that a “door-to-door collection of signatures in support of Saifuddin” and “forms swearing allegiance” are being used in threatening manner, and that as a result some of Mr. Qutbuddin’s followers are “afraid to publicly announce their belief” in him. This line of argument suggests that Mr. Qutbuddin has a sizable fraction of the community secretly supporting him. It also presupposes that the Dawoodi Bohra community has secret enforcers who roam the streets of Mumbai like the Taliban, brutally suppressing dissent. (Note, again, the recurrent theme of implied extremism and fanaticism).

However, Mumbai is hardly Kabul, and at Mr. Qutbuddin’s request there are numerous police guards and security at his complex in Thane. The Times of India reported:

[Qutbuddin] event organizers on Tuesday claimed that despite the “terror campaign”, over 200 people attended the Mumbai ‘misaaq’, which was also being organized in the US and UK. “We believe that when the Dai invites, we answer,” said an organizer, “even when there is an overwhelming fear of social and financial ostracisation.” But guards outside the bungalow said there were only around 80 to 100 attendees.

Terror campaign! That is a very deliberate, media-savvy choice of words. The Qutbi Bohras have mounted a media campaign to portray themselves as victims of oppression and intolerance; this is certainly a more self-serving explanation for meager turnout at their events than the lack of popular support for Mr. Qutbuddin amongst the Bohra mainstream.

Unlike the professionals at the Times of India, tabloid outlets like the Mumbai/Pune Mirror (analogous to the New York Post or the London Mirror) have gleefully embraced this fanciful narrative of tyranny. I hesitate to link to tabloids but will do so for the sake of completeness: here, here, and here. These are speculative and one-sided pieces, built on a handful of cherry-picked sources and deliberate sensationalism, eager to parlay “rich court intrigue” into sales. However, as counterpoint, consider the response from ordinary Bohras – a perspective deliberately omitted in these tabloid hit pieces.

The Qutbis’ accusations invert common sense. Many locales in India did organize petition campaigns as a show of strength and devotion; others organized marches in solidarity with Syedna Saifuddin (tus) and there was a landmark gathering of tens of thousands at Azad Maidan in Mumbai, all cheering for our new Mawla Saifuddin (tus). These are not incidents of oppression and intimidation, they are outpourings of genuine, grassroots support from the mainstream, the vast majority of Dawoodi Bohras who are affronted at the slander against Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) and who wish to make their voices known, openly, publicly, proudly. Petitions, marches, rallies – these are the tools of people in a living democracy to express their beliefs and values, not tools of oppression.

3 Photos, 30,000 words

Mr. Qutbuddin's gathering at his bungalow in Thane to observe the Milad of Syedna Burhanuddin (ra) (photo from the Qutbi Bohra website)

Mr. Qutbuddin’s gathering at his bungalow in Thane to observe the Milad of Syedna Burhanuddin (ra) (photo from the Qutbi Bohra website)

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin's (tus) gathering at Saifee Masjid, in Mumbai, to observe the Milad of Syedna Burhanuddin (ra)

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s (tus) gathering at Saifee Masjid, in Mumbai, to observe the Milad of Syedna Burhanuddin (ra)

The vast, cheering crowds at Azad Maidan, in solidarity with Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) (photo from Mumineen.org)

The vast, cheering crowds at Azad Maidan, in solidarity with Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus) (photo from Mumineen.org)

Accusation of oppression of women

Perhaps the most misguided of Shireen’s accusations is the role of women. She claims that Syedna Saifuddin (tus) has “condemned” and “shamed” women who work in call centers in India, which is categorically false. However, he has indeed pleaded with mumineen to reconsider making their careers there. The reason is that call centers require employees to subjugate and degrade their own cultural identity in order to sell things to Westerners. Here are several excellent articles that expose call centers for their psychological and economic exploitation of poor Indians:

For young women in this environment, there is the added danger of rape and sexual abuse. Call centers operate at night in order to keep American working hours, so girls as young as 18 years old are often alone at night as they travel to and from work. Numerous incidents have been reported: a 19-yr old in Indore, a 24-yr old near Delhi, another victim in Delhi (unreported age), a 30-yr old in Gurgaon, another, another, another.

Far from “shaming” the women who work in call centers, Syedna Saifuddin’s (tus) legitimate concern is for the physical safety and cultural identity of the young women working under such conditions. And indeed, Syedna Saifuddin (tus) has also warned his followers of falling prey to the Western cultural hegemony. That is his duty as the spiritual leader of the Bohra community.

Despite Shireen’s implication otherwise, Syedna Saifuddin (tus) has been as stalwart a defender of women’s education as his predecessor, and always encouraged Bohra women to participate in the global economy. He has never discouraged Bohra women from higher education or professional careers, though he has rightly encouraged women and men alike to uphold their cultural values, and not neglect their responsibilities to their spouses and their families.

In fact, Syedna Saifuddin (tus) has actively sought to empower Bohra women. As a prime example, one of his visionary initiatives is the thaali program, which uplifts housewives into entrepreneurs:

Tasneem Tinwala has been married for over 16 years. Despite having a strong desire to start her own business, daily household chores left her with no spare time to follow her dream. But today she runs an imitation jewellery business in Rajkot that has grown beyond expectations, from humble beginnings just three months ago! Like Tasneem, thousands of Dawoodi Bohra women are on their way to fulfilling their dreams, thanks to a unique community kitchen service initiated by this sect of Shia Muslims.

Daily tiffin boxes or ‘thali’ as they are called, reach thousands of Dawoodi Bohra homes across the globe, providing respite to women from time-consuming kitchen chores. Under the scheme, one meal is provided daily to interested families with contributions from local volunteers. The menu for each month is pre-decided and circulated to every family. The ‘thalis’ duly reach the door step of each family as per the fixed schedule.

No less than a revolution for women in a traditional society, the community kitchen named Faiz Al Mawaid Al Burhaniyah has changed many lives. With respite from kitchen chores, talented Bohra women are using their spare time to supplement their house-hold income, besides now playing a more active role in children’s education and upbringing.

(read the full article at Global Gujrat News)

The thaali program benefits housewives and professional Bohra women alike by easing the daily labor and concern of feeding their families. The program started in Mumbai but has since spread to Bohra congregations worldwide, including my home town of Chicago. Shireen speaks of “systems of female oppression” that need to be dismantled; the thaali program does precisely that. She suggests that professional Bohra women need to be encouraged and supported; the thaali program does exactly that.

In any discussion of women and Islam, of course, the hijab is invariably invoked as exhibit A. Shireen predictably invokes Syedna Saifuddin’s (tus) emphasis on rida (the colorful Bohra version of hijab) as another example of an oppressive worldview. However, she fails to disclose that Syedna Burhanuddin (ra) placed precisely the same emphasis on rida for women, and uncut beard for men. Under Shireen’s version of events, Syedna Burhanuddin (ra) encouraged women to wear ridah out of pride, whereas Syedna Saifuddin (tus) would have them wear it out of fear, bullied by roving gangs of women going door to door with stern form letters. Shireen’s assertion denies agency to Bohra women, of whom many still do not wear ridah in their daily lives, and many more choose to wear it out of personal conviction, as Shireen herself does.

Accusation of social ostracization

Shireen characterizes the events since Syedna Burhanuddin’s (ra) passing as a rift, and I agree. But by whose doing? The Qutbi Bohras have chosen to separate themselves from the mainstream Dawoodi Bohra community, as is their right, as a principle of religious freedom and as stated in the Qur’an (109:1-6): “To you is your religion, to me, mine”.

However, the Qur’an also says (2:256): “There is no compulsion in religion.” Though Shireen denies proselytizing, many thousands of Bohras have received an onslaught of spam emails, SMS messages and WhatsApp texts on a large scale, full of propaganda and slander about our Mawla Saifuddin (tus). The emails in particular copy the Sender name and the formatting of official communications from the Bohra religious administration, in order to fool the reader into opening them. I myself have received these emails and texts, as have virtually everyone else I know – again, including children (mine included). Coupled with the public media campaign to embarrass the mainstream Bohra community and Syedna Saifuddin (tus), this private campaign of digital harassment has caused much heartache and stress for those of us who have chosen our Mawla (tus).

The interference is not limited to the digital domain. In a chilling message posted on his website, Mr. Qutbuddin asserted,

“I am the sole Trustee of all the Wakfs/Trusts of the Dawoodi Bohra Community including the Dawat-e-Hadiyah Trust, PTR No. B-729 in Mumbai. Let it be known to all not to deal with any of the Wakfs/Trusts of the Dawoodi Bohra Community in any manner whatsoever without my permission. Anyone dealing with the same shall do so at his/her own risk.”

In other words, Mr. Qutbuddin asserts for himself ownership and control over all mosques, properties, and accounts of the Bohra community worldwide. If I attend a Bohra mosque in Chicago, or Mumbai, without his permission then I do so at “my own risk”. The consensus is that Mr. Qutbuddin intends to pursue legal avenues to seize these religious resources for his own gain.

UPDATE 3/12/14: The Qutbis had an official press conference and made their intention of legal aggression and harassment crystal clear:

The challenge in the succession war in the Dawoodi Bohra community was out in the open on Tuesday, with a declaration by the claimants that they would take appropriate action shortly.

“We will be moving very shortly on this,” Dr Abdeali Qutbuddin, told a well-attended news conference at the Trade Centre in the Bandra-Kurla Complex.

[Mr. Qutbuddin's] son Abdeali said on Tuesday that they would challenge the succession and the control of trusts and properties at different levels like the government and in the courts.

Shireen laments that her friends and family (including myself) in the Bohra community have shunned her – and that is true. We do so in self-defense. Of course we wish to separate ourselves from a campaign of slander against Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin (tus), accusations that our Bohra community is hostile to women, engages in hate speech and intimidation campaigns, and other hurtful claims that have no bearing on the daily reality we have lived and thrived. The accusations Shireen makes, derived from Mr. Qutbuddin’s media campaign, are deeply hurtful and painful to us. Why should we submit ourselves to this abuse?

Conclusion

I would like nothing better than to wish Shireen and her fellow Qutbi Bohras luck as they pursue their own spiritual path. But the actions of the Qutbi Bohra organization show that they are determined to undermine the Dawoodi Bohra faith, deceive the Dawoodi Bohra people, insult the Dawoodi Bohra leader, tear apart Dawodi Bohra families, and even legally threaten to seize our properties. By these actions, they deny to us the same freedom that they have to live in peace (which they claim is being infringed, with unintentional irony).

Shireen believes she is “an object of hatred” from fellow Bohras, but the overall emotion we feel is sadness. She notes that most of her Bohra friends have ceased contact with her, and then says how “isolating this experience” is. The truth is that her isolation was self-imposed – as she herself says, “I felt myself moving away from the community and communal worship in the past two years.” It is she who left her family, friends and community, not the other way around.

Until the Qutbi community can define itself in a way that doesn’t seek to tear down the faith of their Dawoodi Bohra cousins, her isolation will remain. Shireen has courage of her convictions, one of the traits I have always admired in my cousin, who of course I still love. But that courage obligates her to accept the consequences of her actions. To her be her faith, and to me, mine.

Postscript

I intend to write more articles in defense of our Mawla (tus) and our community here at Patheos. For a direct link to all articles I write on this topic, click here. I also invite readers to follow my writings at my main blog, City of Brass, and you may also follow me on Twitter as @azizhp.


CORRECTION: In an earlier draft of this post, I incorrectly interpreted an incident to mean that Shireen had sought to prosletyze to my children. Shireen has contacted me and clarified her actions, so I have removed the line. My sincere apologies to Shireen and her parents for any misunderstandings.


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