Leadership dispute divides India’s Dawoodi Bohra sect

Son and half-brother of late leader make rival claims to head Shiite sect that originally arrived from Yemen in the 16th century.

Mufaddal Saifuddin, the new spiritual leader of India's Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, visits the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, Iraq, on March 1, 2014. Ahmad Mousa / Reuters
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NEW DELHI // India’s community of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims has become a house fiercely divided – by a succession battle over leadership, but also by competing visions of its place in the modern age.

Since April, the dispute over who should be the “Dai Al Mutlaq”– the spiritual leader of the Bohras – has been fought in the Mumbai High Court. After the earlier Dai, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, passed away in January at the age of 102, his son Mufaddal Saifuddin claimed that his father had nominated him as his successor.

A Dai always names the next in line to the title. It is not always the son who inherits the title, although some sons have succeeded their fathers.

But Burhanuddin’s half-brother, Khuzaima Qutbuddin – at 73 only three years older than his nephew – challenged this transition of leadership.

Meanwhile, Saifuddin — the 53rd person to hold the title of Dai — has thrown the community into ferment, calling for its women to dress more conservatively and to stay away from higher education and employment outside the home.

"It's a huge setback to the community," Irfan Engineer, a Dawoodi Bohra lawyer who runs the Center for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, told The National.

Dawoodi Bohras – Shiites who trace their lineage to Yemen – number nearly a million across the world. Roughly half that population lives in India, their ancestors having arrived in the state of Gujarat in the early 1500s after fleeing Sunni persecution.

The word “Bohra” evolved from the Gujarati “vehru”, which means trade, the traditional profession of the community.

Mr Engineer said India’s Dawoodi Bohras have been relatively progressive. “The proof is there for everybody to see. Despite whatever Saifuddin has been saying, Bohra women aren’t wearing hijabs unless they’re going to the mosque. They aren’t quitting their jobs to sit at home.”

Qutbuddin has alleged that Saifuddin and his family “took advantage of a severe debilitating stroke that affected Burhanuddin following his 100th birthday in London” to declare Saifuddin the successor. In a statement issued in February, Qutbuddin also said his objections said had earned him “abuse, intimidation and even violence” from Saifuddin’s family.

Qutbuddin claimed that Burhanuddin “had privately appointed him as his successor … A private appointment is valid according to Bohra doctrine.”

Supporters of Qutbuddin have also alleged that Saifuddin is a coercive leader, a charge that Mr Engineer corroborated.

“They’re known to pressure people,” he said. “When you get into their bad books, any information about you is good enough to harass you and settle scores.”

Saifuddin is supported only by “a tiny, tiny section” of the community, Mr Engineer said – mostly a coterie that derives some benefit from being close to the Dai.

As community leader, Saifuddin controls the mosques and religious institutions affiliated to the Dawoodi Bohras.

Saifuddin’s sermons have been disturbing, said a Mumbai-based Bohra woman in her mid-30s, who wished to remain anonymous because she did not want to be seen speaking publicly against her community’s leader.

“If he had his way, he would want us to just stay at home and tend to our families, and nothing else,” she said. “And this is causing a real division within the community. Disagreeing with the Dai on such fundamental matters is regarded as some sort of betrayal.”

India’s Dawoodi Bohras had to change with the times, she said. “Otherwise we’ll be stuck in the same regressive customs while the rest of the country moves ahead.”

Videos of Saifuddin’s sermons, in which he reportedly urged men to throw women out of the house if they did not wear the hijab, have recently been taken down from YouTube.

In contrast, Qutbuddin has, on his website, emphasised the need for “secular learning” and to educate women.

Although women should maintain modesty “in dress and behaviour”, they should also “strive for the best possible education, become accomplished homemakers, and also doctors, teachers, engineers and business leaders, break the glass ceiling”, Qutbuddin wrote in a post spelling out his vision for the community.

But Saifuddin has his champions as well.

On the religious forum Patheos, a US-based Dawoodi Bohra named Aziz Poonawalla has vigorously defended Saifuddin against his critics, some of whom have blogged on the same website.

Mr Poonawalla wrote that Saifuddin only had a “legitimate concern … for the physical safety and cultural identity” of young women who worked in firms such as call centres.

“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,” Mr Poonawalla wrote.

The dispute is not good for India’s Dawoodi Bohras, Mr Engineer said. “But there is a great resentment against Saifuddin.

“The community will not take his messages lying down.”