New Age Islam
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Interfaith Dialogue ( 29 March 2011, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Reformists Challenge Religious ‘Charter of Slavery’

By K. Itarwla,

The Dawoodi Bohras are a tightly-knit and rigidly controlled community, one of the many splinter groups of the Mustalian branch of the Ismaili Shias. The rigid priestly hierarchy of the Bohras is headed by the dai-e mutlaq, also known as Syedna or Maula (‘lord’), who exercises a total control on every aspect of life of his followers. The present Syedna, Mohammad Burhanuddin, is based in Mumbai, from where he controls the Bohra faithful across the world through an elaborate network of local agents or amils. This week he celebrates his 100th birthday, and lavish celebrations are being organized all across India and other parts of the world where Bohras live to mark the occasion.

But there is a darker side to this story. For some decades now, voices of dissent and protest within the Bohra community have been mounting against the Syedna. They accuse him of dictatorial ways and of levying numerous hefty taxes on his followers and thereby becoming, quite literally, one of the richest religious leaders in the world. They also charge him with enforcing various un-Islamic practices geared to promoting his personality cult. One target of the Bohra reformists is the oath of allegiance to the Syedna, the mithaq, which, they argue, is routinely used to stifle dissent and impose the Syedna’s total control over the Bohras.

Every Bohra is expected to give the mithaq to the Syedna, in the presence of his local amil, between the age of 13 and 15. Any violation of the mithaq results in immediate expulsion from the community, in which case no other Bohra, not even close relatives, can have any social relations with such a person, who is treated as an apostate or mudai. He or she can be readmitted into the Bohra fold only after apologizing to the Syedna and renewing the mithaq.

Some years ago, a Commission headed by Justice N.P.Nathwani was appointed to investigate the complaints of the Bohra reformists. The Commission had dragged out several skeletons from the Syedna’s cupboard. It revealed out that the Syedna and his family of several hundred members had amassed enormous wealth by taxing his followers, wielding, for this purpose, the mithaq as a weapon to reduce the Bohras into virtual slavery. Indeed, as numerous reformists attending the Udaipur convention stressed, so abject is the surrender of the Bohras to the Syedna that they willingly call themselves abd-e syedna or ‘slaves of the Syedna’.

Bohra reformists claim that although the mithaq was a traditional Bohra practice, crucial changes had been made in it by the present Syedna’s father and predecessor, Tahir Saifuddin, in order to further reinforce his control over the Bohras. They point out that this continues unchanged under the present Syedna, Burhanuddin.

The Bohras believe in a series of 21 imams, the last of who, Imam Tayyeb, is said to have insistituted the post of dai-e mutlaq or ‘summoner to the faith with absolute powers’ to control the community. Originally, the Bohras were required to give mithaq only to the imam, but, the Nathwani Commission report noted, Tahir Saifuddin had modified the words of the mithaq to add the dai along with the imam and demand that every Bohra should ‘fully obey’ the imam and the dai as well. Accordingly, the modified mithaq required every Bohra to solemnly promise that he would ‘accept and follow’ every order of the dai, and to recognize that if he refused, he would ‘become a sinner’. ‘You should help the dai. In everything you should follow the dai’s orders, and you must also abstain from everything that he orders you to abstain from,’ the modified mithaq reads. ‘You should love him who is beloved of the dai, and be the enemy of the dai’s enemy. You should fight against he whom the dai wages war,’ it goes on. ‘He who disobeys the dai is outside the fold of the faith, and you should have no relations with him, even if he is a close relative […] because the enemy of the dai is your enemy.’ The mithaq continues, ‘You should willingly sacrifice your life and wealth for the dai. You should fully serve the dai with your life and wealth.’ These words of abject and complete surrender to the Syedna are read out by his local agent, the amil, generally a priest, and the Bohra girl or boy giving the mithaq is meant to answer in the affirmative to each such statement.

 Not content with this, the modified mithaq goes even further in reinforcing the Syedna’s total control over his followers by providing him a semi-divine status that, Bohra reformists point out, is wholly un-Islamic and unambiguously opposed to Quranic teachings. Thus, Bohra boys and girls giving the mithaq are required to declare their assent to the following statement: ‘The dai is the lord (malik) of your life […] He whom the dai wishes to raise he will, and he will cause to fall whom he wants to. He gives to whom he wills and denies to whom he wills. He rewards whom he wants and punishes whom he wants. He can be happy with whom he wills and angry with whom he wills. You must consider this to be a source of joy for you.’ And to all this, the Bohra initiate must humbly answer ‘yes’.

In giving the mithaq, the Nathwani Commission report revealed, a Bohra must consent to yet another draconian condition that forms an integral part of the mithaq—that if he dares to violate the mithaq his ‘entire property, house, vessels, jewellery, vehicles, horses, cattle, servants—men and women—and other worldly possessions’ would become‘illegal’ for him, and even that all his property ‘can be looted’. If he is married, his wife is no longer his, and their marriage is automatically dissolved. ‘Even if the violator of the mithaq walks [to Arabia] barefoot and performs the hajj 30 times, God will not forgivehim for this sin, nor will He accept his hajj […] Violators of themithaq will be cursed by God in the same way as God cursed Iblis [Satan], who was turned out of heaven and sent to hell.’

Bohras who defy the Syedna are promised eternal torment in hell. He who violates the mithaq, the Bohras are forced to believe, ‘will, after his death, be presented before God as a kafir and an apostate and will be thrown into hell.’ ‘Without loyalty to the mithaq’, they are told, ‘a soul cannot gain freedom, for there is no way to salvation other than by abiding by the conditions of the mithaq.’

Detailing the various rules of the Bohra mithaq, the Nathwani Commission report termed it as a ghulami namah or a veritable ‘a charter of slavery’ invented in order to coerce the Bohras into blind obedience to the Syedna not just in religious matters but in every other aspect of life. It even suggested that the mithaq was designed and used to force the Bohras to become slaves of the Syedna, rather than of God. ‘In this conception,’ it commented, ‘God is not above the dai because it is written in the mithaq that if one disobeys the dai, God would not forgive him, but that if he renews the mithaq, then God will.’

‘It is difficult to understand how any self-respecting person can take such an oath or how a person not yet a mature adult can fully abide by it,’ the report of the Commission went on. It declared that the terms of the mithaq were an insult to all human rights and very obviously violated both the law of the land and God’s law. Accordingly, it recommended that the untrammeled power of the Syedna to declare baraator excommunicate Bohras for violating the mithaq be controlled. Following this, reformist Bohras sought legal action in this regard, but, in true Indian style, the matter continues to languish in the courts, thus allowing the Syedna to continue unhindered with his  dictatorial rule over his ‘slaves’.

Undeterred by the demands of the reformists that Syedna Burhanuddin mend his draconian ways, festivities marking his centenary are now in full-swing across the world, in every town where Bohras live. The Syedna’s well-oiled propaganda machine, reformist critics claim, is working overtime to project him in the media as a pious do-gooder. In his birthday celebrations, that are to last full forty days, political ‘leaders’ of other communities are being hosted at lavish parties, bending backwards to shower praises on him, their eyes on Bohra votes and the enormous economic clout that the Syedna, fattened on the taxes he levies on his ‘slaves’, wields.

K. Itarwla is a columnist.