By Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, January 2013)
It is said that political evolution can be brought about overnight but it takes years and great deal of struggle to usher in social or religious reforms and even after years old struggle much remains to be done. We all know what Sir Syed had to face to promote modern education in nineteenth century among Muslims. Any social change or reform challenges vested interests and hence they become a powerful block resisting those reforms in the name of religion.
It is not only Muslims but this happens in all other communities as well. In nineteenth century number of reform movements emerged when the British rule was consolidated in India. It was India’s first brush with modernity. We Indians depended more on customs and traditions and resist change. We had madrasas and pathshalas where traditional knowledge was taught. Also, it was thought girls have no use for any knowledge and they be better taught how to cook and bring up children.
There was storm of protest when Shri. Vidyasagar tried to establish a girl’s school. He had to struggle very hard to convince people for the desirability of education for girls. One can imagine the plight of Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan when he too advocated modern education for women and also equal rights for them. He wrote a book Huquq al-Niswan (Rights of Women). He was working along with Sir Syed and had graduated from Darul Ulum’ and was well versed in Islamic sciences, Qur’an, Tafseer and Hadith and his book was written on that basis.
When he showed his book to Sir Syed, he advised him not to publish it as it will add to his trouble. But Maulavi sahib went ahead and published it. No calligrapher (katib) was ready to write it for publication. The Maulana himself calligrapher the book. No book seller was ready to sell it and so Maulana himself used to sell it. He was married to a woman who was illiterate so he taught her and made her editor of a women’s magazine. He faced all these problems to fulfill his mission to promote gender equality among Muslims.
Sir Syed himself faced much more than these reformers. His mission was to spread modern knowledge among Muslims, particularly among the Shurafa who traditionally learnt Urdu, Persian, Arabic and at the most Islamic sciences. They resisted modern education as they thought it would pollute them with Christian culture. However, Sir Syed knew there will be no future for Muslims without acquiring modern knowledge. The resistance against him was so strong that fatwas were issued against him calling him Yahudi, Christian (Kristan) and Kafir. Fatwas were got against him even from Mecca. However, Sir Syed was form in his conviction and he successfully resisted all the pressure against him and finally established Anglo-Mohammadan Oriental College in Aligarh.
These were most beneficial movements for the Hindus and Muslims, as it was realized later. All reform movements are future oriented and negate much that is in the present and this also becomes the reason for strong opposition to the reform movement. And if it is pertaining to a religious society it is very easy to accuse the movement or its leader being atheist and anti-religion or agent of another religion. Sir Syed was accused of being Kristan and kafir to prejudice people against him.
Customs and traditions are very deeply rooted in a society and get intertwined with religious beliefs and people start thinking it is integral part of religion, even though it may be against religion one believes in. The only argument in favour of these traditions is where our ancestors who followed these traditions fool? Why did they follow it? The Qur’an clearly opposes this argument and says Allah has given you reason to think. Why don’t you think for yourself? But very few people buy this argument.
Nineteenth and early 20th century was a very crucial period for India in general, and for Muslims, in particular. On one hand there was onslaught of modernity with all its benefits and, on the other, there was intense opposition to modernity by those who lost leadership or apprehended they would lose leadership to reformists. Religion was only an excuse and since most of the people were governed by those traditions, it was easy to mobilize people to oppose reform movement.
Above we have referred to reform movements which faced non-violent opposition though no doubt opposition was quite stiff. But also there are movements which faced not only stiff opposition but also quite violent one. Violence was of two kind – mental as well as bodily violence. Mental violence was caused through social boycott (what was referred to as huq1qa pani band). The boycotted person was completely isolated and his relations severed with all members of society.
In India where communitarian life is as important or even more important than individual, such a boycott could cause immense mental torture to the person concerned. And if such boycott could apply even to close relatives like one’s own wife or parents or children, one cannot even imagine the kind of torture it will cause. For such a person not only his community but also family life is totally ruined. We will describe such cases.
Even those who broke caste rules or traveled abroad had to face such boycotts. Subsequently they had to go through purification rituals to get pardon from village Panchayat. Our traditional society, besides being traditional, was also highly superstitious and the religious or Panchayat leaders kept people bound by superstitious beliefs. These beliefs were there real strength.
Since modern education brought awareness among people about reality and about scientific development, it was feared by religious leaders. They thought that after becoming aware of reality they will not listen to them and will get out of their control deeply affecting their leadership. People thought these superstitious beliefs were an integral part of their religion; they will become irreligious through modern education.
However, there were some people who were determined to spread modern education and faced all kinds of odds and nothing could deter them from opening institutions of modern education. Among others I would like to throw light on less known reform movement among the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. It is unique in many ways. It began right in the beginning of 1901 and still continues and reformists in this community witnessed both physical as well as mental violence.
Why is taking so long for reforms to be ushered in, in this community. It is the only community which has witnessed longest period for reform and greatest challenges to usher in reform and yet has never given up. It is true it passed through various phases of success and failures and also of betrayals on the part of leadership and yet goes on. As the community is spread all over the world, especially in India (bulk of the Dawoodis live here), East Africa, Yemen, parts of West Africa And now in Gulf countries like Dubai, Kuwait, Saudi etc. and U.K., Canada France, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and so on.
It originated in Gujarat, India through conversions from middle caste Hindus who were mostly traders and city dwelling from 12th Century onwards. As per community’s history their conversion in Gujarat began through efforts of 2 Isma’ili da’is Ahmad and Abdullah. Lakhs of Hindus were converted including some Rajputs from ruling classes but schism in 14th century when Jafer and some of his followers converted into Sunni Islam (there are many Sunni Bohras in Gujarat even today) reduced their numbers. Today there number in India and abroad is around 1.5 million.
The unique feature of the Dawoodi Bohra community is the control its priesthood exercises over it. It is this control which reformists are challenging since the beginning of twentieth century and is unable to break. There are many reasons for this some of which h we will discuss here. Firstly the priesthood is a historical institution which evolved when the Isma’ili movement was underground.
As we know in every underground movement priesthood has to be ruthless and succeeds only if it succeeds in establishing tight control. And what is more important in this underground movement is that it is primarily of religious nature. If it is merely political in nature it gives way with change of balance of power but if it is of religio-political nature it makes it quite formidable to break its stranglehold.
This is what has happened in case of the Dawoodi Bohra reform movement. The Isma’ilis lost political power (it was known as the Fatimid Sultanate) in Egypt with Cairo as its capital and the Isma’ilis remained in power up to 12th century. By then conversions had begun in India and when the Mustansariya branch of Isma’ilis lost power in Yemen also and the seat of mission known as Fatimi Da’wah was transferred to India. The reason for this transfer to India was loyalty and deep religiosity of people of India towards the mission. Few Da’is continued to be of Arab origin but subsequently from 18th Da’i onwards the Da’is also became Indian.
Though Isma’ili mission or Fatimid mission was not exactly underground but almost underground with well established priestly hierarchy with tight control over the faithfuls. It had to hide its beliefs from Sunni rulers of Gujarat. The Sunni rulers, more often than not, treated this sect as Rafzi i.e. those strayed from the right path. It was for the head priest (Da’i) to deal with the political rulers and hence all powers were centralized. Nothing could happen in the Dawoodi Bohra community without permission of the Da’i.
As British rule provided some relief to Bohras from fear complex High priest’s problems increased as member of the community began to challenge him. Modern secular education added to his problems. So the fiftieth Da’i decided to suppress modern education and refused permission to teach modern subjects in the madrasa at Burhanpur in 1902 and boycotted those who started modern school in defiance of the Da’i. Ex-communication was challenged in the British Court and was fought up to Privy Council.
This is the beginning of the reform movement in the Dawoodi Bohra community. With the dissent and challenges increasing the Da’i tightened the leash and the 51st Da’i Tahir Saifuddin tried to suppress reform movement both by use of mental and physical violence. Sir Adamjee Peerbhoy’s family was first to face both violence and ex-communication. It was very rich family but was almost ruined in this mighty fight.
Tahir Saifuddin sahib, the 51st Da’i cracked down on reformists so severely that all those highly placed Bohras who had declared their support to them were forced to retreat and fall in line with the priesthood. Persecution of reformists is a long winding history and has been dealt with in detail in my book The Bohras. It is indeed a frightening picture. Much more frightening, almost terrorizing, was to follow when there was massive revolt against the arbitrary rulings of Da’i to dissolve legally constituted cooperative bank, a library and a scholarship society as allegedly these organizations were set up without Da’i’s prior permission.
Udaipur has large number of male and female with high educational qualification and in this revolt there was clear divide of educated versus very little educated Bohras. Highly educated on the reform side and less educated or illiterate persons on Da’i’s side. This revolt unleashed reign of terror in the community very similar to emergency period in the country from 1975 to 1977. Anyone having even remote connection with reformists were ex-communicated and some known for open sympathies subjected to targeted violence. One among them was Prof. Mohommad Hasan Bhopali in Indore who taught economics at Christian College.
In Udaipur it resulted in street violence and large number of women with reformist connections were attacked and molested. The Nathwani Commission appointed by Shri Jaiprakash Narain has recorded many such violent incidents and serious violations of human rights of reformists. It is indeed very dark picture of history of social reforms in modern democratic India. It clearly shows how influential religious priesthood is and how politicians swearing by democracy and modernity play openly partisan role siding with most obscurantist forces in the society.
From 40 years of my experience in the Bohra reform movement I have concluded that it is not only highly difficult to bring about social change in modern democratic society but it is much easier to promote obscurantism and superstitious movements. This I am not saying out of frustration or hopelessness but out of concrete experience. All forces are ranged against reformists, and it is specially so in a backward, illiterate democratic societies. The rich and powerful fully exploit and manipulate religion and religious sentiments to perpetuate their monopoly for power.
The elected governments fear this power of manipulation of religious sentiments and fall in line with such forces, be it Saibaba or Syedna. They publicly and openly patronize them to exploit them for political purposes, as well as for money. It is also very painful story as to how Muslim leaders who repeatedly complain of violations of human rights of Muslim minority also sided with the Bohra religious high priest not because reformists were posing any challenge to Islamic beliefs but because all of them wanted to benefit from Syedna’s wealth
Syedna has accumulated huge wealth and has very powerful ‘religious’ establishment and all politicians want to benefit from it. Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin, the present Da’i, and all his relatives have accumulated thousands of crores of rupees unaccounted wealth but no income tax authority dare touch them even if they have concrete evidence of violations of tax laws. They are fully protected by politicians.
Syedna Burhanuddin openly felicitated Narendra Modi twice at his Jamia Saifiyah Seminary and donated generously to his election kitty but not a single Muslim leader protested, much less boycotted him. He put the felicitation ceremony on YouTube for anyone to see. Modi has eloquently praised Syedna for his leadership qualities. He says in his speech that he (i.e. Narendra Modi) is great admirer of Syedna. And why not - birds of same feather always fly together.
Thus in our modern democratic India all vested interests are inter-linked and support each other to protect their mutual interests. But there is nothing to despair about. Hope and faith are our powerful instruments. Sometimes or often change is imperceptible as imperceptible as a black ant in a dark black night crawling on a black rock. It can never be seen so change in our society is almost imperceptible but yet it does take place.
Should we continue to struggle in such circumstances? Yes, of course. It is real test of our deeper conviction. There are those who live for convenience and those who live for conviction. Living for conviction is real living, living for others and living for convenience is living without purpose and for oneself. Living for oneself ensures bodily pleasures and living for others gives us spiritual pleasure.
Yes, living for others requires great deal of suffering, injuries and even death. More you suffer, more inner spiritual pleasure you feel. In seventies when our reformist struggle was at its height, I would continuously receive phone calls saying we know what time your daughter goes to college and we are going to rape her. You will soon hear this news. I will open a letter and dead lizard and cockroaches will drop out. I was set upon inside the Mosque of Jami’ al-Hakim in Cairo by more than 15 persons. I fell unconscious and escaped death very narrowly. My both eyes were damaged and it took more than an year for eyesight to become normal.
I was severely beaten up at Mumbai airport as myself and Syedna both were coming back from Bhopal alleging that I had tried to push him from aircraft and my office and house both were destroyed completely. I was stabbed once in Hyderabad. Similarly they stole letterheads from CBI office and distributed a press release in CBI’s name that I was involved in prostitution racket for Arabs from West Asia and that I pushed one women from the terrace of a hotel. All papers ignored it but one Gujarati paper from Surat published it but later apologized for the mistake.
I as well as many of my colleagues have been suffering from social boycott for more than 40 years now which means e cannot meet our close relatives and loved ones even on the occasion of Eid or when someone dies. I was not allowed to take part in funeral of my own brother under the threat that his dead body will be thrown out if I did not leave and there was no choice but to leave the cemetery. Subsequently when his only daughter married I could not participate.
All this happens in 21st century and in socialist democratic India and no one can do anything about it. Hundreds of reformists Bohras are suffering and there is no way one can get relief. But we have no complaint. We quietly and peacefully struggle for our rights and our convictions. Our religion is sacred to us and precisely for this reason we cannot allow it to be exploited by vested interests like the Bohra priesthood. The world has seen that we have struggled for our democratic and human rights only in democratic way. We cannot commit or violence to be committed, in the name of our religion.
Asghar Ali Engineer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai