Islamic Voice
Jamadi-Ul-Awwal 1422H
August 2001
Volume 15-08 No:176

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BOOK REVIEW


Daudi Bohras: Between Islam and Modernity
Living Conditions of Muslims


Daudi Bohras

Between Islam and Modernity

Mullahs on the Mainframe

Mullahs on the Mainframe
By Jonah Blank
University of Chicago Press
1427 E 60th Street,
Chicago, IL, USA
Price not stated, Pages 408

Reviewed by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Orthodox in appearance but remarkably modern in enterprise, Bohras never cease to surprise a common Indian who is so familiar with the general backwardness of Indian Muslims. These two aspects set the Bohras much farther apart from Muslim mainstream than their sectarian complexion. Mullahs on the Mainframe is an insightful sociological study of Bohras who represent just one per cent of the Muslim community. Author Jonah Blank has dug out extremely private details from the inner recesses of the community that has mastered the latest in technology to place itself on a sound footing in business, commerce and industry. Not this alone. The community uses the basic Islamic instruments of charity, zakath, and qarz e hasna to ensure social equality, accords the women a high social status, runs a network of highly modern schools and colleges and has stayed abreast and equipped of the latest communicative tools.

All these may be myth-shattering facts for all those who essentially see Islam as an anachronistic faith incapable of facing the challenges posed by modern science and technology at best and hostile to the West at worst. But Bohras may have more surprises in store. Representing a denomination of the Ithna asharis (the Shias), they have succeeded in knitting their community closely enough to ward off all vulnerabilities, be it religious, denominational, cultural or economic. While Bohra roots in commerce may have helped them in self empowerment on socio-political level, the spiritual leadership of Syedna binds them in a compact entity with time-tested credentials in ensuring solidarity. Only on very few occasions this has shown breaches or allowed schisms.

08BohrasGiven the Indian tendency of discipline leading to dictatorship and democracy resulting in disorder, Bohra experiment in tight-knitting the community has survived dangers on either extreme. Syedna’s hold has remained intact, has successfully repelled threats from the dissidents and commanded following through benevolence inasmuch as the community has found his leadership a much safer haven to prosper than to stick the neck out and suffer in penury. Though there has been resentment against the iron-clad spiritual authority of the Dai-e-Mutlaq or Syedna in common parlance, a vast majority of Bohras realize that the ensuing unity delivers them much more than it demands or extracts. Instruments such as mithaq (oath of loyalty) and baraat (excommunication) may appear oppressive but the majority of Bohras recognizes the centrality of the spiritual authority of Syedna in providing the cutting edge to the community in matters as mundane as business and commerce.

Mullahs on the Mainframe is a first hand account of society that sees no contrdiction between Islam and modernity

Bohras have immensely benefited from the modern technological innovations like Internet. A survey by the author reveals that the computer ownership among Bohras was 14.5 per cent against 0.2 per cent of India and 11 per cent in Japan.

It makes it possible for them to relocate themselves to spacious suburbs while still remaining in touch with their community. E-mail and cellphones are now helping them in having control over business. Badri Mahal, the office of the Dai has kept pace with the advances in communication from letters to telegrams to telexes to fax to transpacific e-mails. It is not unusual for a Bohra from Kolkatta to seek permission from the Dai to expand from his hardware business to electrical fittings.

The general tendency among Muslims has been one of dealing with the modern technology with a great deal of suspicion. But among Bohras, the embrace of modern technology extends to all sectors. Technology is not adopted solely for the sake of novelty, but anything that brings the community closer is heartily encouraged. Nearly three quarters of the survey respondents in Mumbai and Karachi owned dish antennas. High level of technology ownership among Bohras has been a factor in their progress. Social mobility had dispersed the Bohra community throughout the world and caused the faithful to lose touch with their spiritual touchstone and widespread losses in the matters of orthodoxy. Modern tools of communication have drawn them once again into a single virtual reality. No wonder then why the Jameatus Saifiya, the Bohra seat of learning in Surat, now stresses computer literacy in its education of future clerics. Dawat, the central organization of Bohras, has crafted a novel and modern method of identity definition by issue of cards, green, yellow and red ranging from extremely loyal to basic compliance to probationers categories. The fact that the spiritual authority can command compliance in matters such as avoiding alcohol and interest-bearing transaction and imposing a dress regimen (topi, kurta and sherwani) is a measure of efficacy of its control over the lives of its adherents.

Sectarian differences between Sunnis and Shias and and among the latter, the mainstream Shias and Bohra (who are again divided among Sulaimani and Daudi) may be beyond resolution even in distant future. But the Muslim mainstream could learn a lot from Bohras whose passion with the modern technology has enabled it to use it both for modernization and for reinstitutionalization of traditions. The Mullahs on the Mainframe is all likely to remain a major reference work on this important mercantile community for a long time to come. Through painstaking research Jonah Blank has produced an exhaustive study which shows how Islam could be put to work without contradiction with modernity in modern nation-states. Lucidly explained the book gradually takes the reader to central theme. Production is elegant.

Bohras: Fact File

* Bohras number around 12,00,000. More than 90 per cent of these live in India. Again, 90 per cent of those in India live in Maharashtra and Gujarat. Of the remainder 10 per cent, major concentration is in Pakistan, East African countries and developed countries of the West.
* Dhuaib Ibn Musa (546 Hijri/1151 AD) is considered the first Dai. 24th Dai Yusuf Najmuddin Ibn Sulaiman (975/1567) was the first Daudi Bohra Dai in India. Currently, 52nd Dai, Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, is the spiritual head of the community.
* Around the end of 70s the regimen of dress, white kurta, topi and sherwani for males and burqa or ridah for females was introduced.
* Bohras are mercantile community as 70 per cent households are headed by businessmen.
* Rite of Mithaq is central and denominational to Bohras. This is an oath of allegiance, a vow to accept the spiritual guidance of Syedna wholeheartedly and without reservation.
* Purdah among Bohra women is far less restrictive than other Muslims.
* Birth control is more common among Bohras than among most of other Muslims. Mostly family size is not more than six with parents, and not more than three children.
* Dowry is forbidden by the Dawat(central organization) and this ban appears to be widely obeyed.
* Nearly all marriages are endogamous(within the community) and arranged.
* Mutaa (temporary marriage), is forbidden among Bohras, unlike other ithna ashaari.
* Monogamy is generally the norm among the modern Bohras, but polygamy has always remained an option.
* Permission of spiritual authority of Syedna is essential for burial in a Bohra cemetery. It is a powerful tool in exercise of clerical authority.
* There are 400 Bohra Jamaatkhanas, 137 musafirkhanas and 700 Bohra masjids worldvoer.
* 92.8 per cent of Bohra households in Mumbai surveyed by the author had either women as educated as males or even more educated than males.
* The Dai is considered masum or infallible, which gives the Bohra dai virtual hegemony in the political realm as well.
* Most Bohras use Diwali as the beginning of the financial year rather than the Mohurrum because of their mercantile orientation.
* Bohras consider Dai as ‘vice-regent’ of imam. Dai’s role is to serve as a bridge between hidden imam and the faithful. He must be part of the followers’ daily life. He advises his followers not only in spiritual matters but also temporal matters such as who to take as life partner, what business to be started or to revive the old business. Photographs of the Syedna adore every home and business place of a Daudi Bohras.
* Paramountcy of Syedna ‘s authority is absolute and subordination to him is irreducible.
* Bohras recently established the Burhani School of Entreneurship and sought American professors for its faculty.
* Rich Bohras take sons from disadvantaged Bohra families as apprentices for training in trade.
Courtesy: Jonah Blank, Mullahs on the Mainframe, Published by Chicago University Press, 2001

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Living Conditions of Muslims

This is short version of the Gopal Singh Committee Report which was constituted by later Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983 to go into the condition of the minorities. Sadbhav Mission has brought it out in a 32-page booklet which is available for Rs. 5. It portrays the socio-economic conditions of Muslims, their educational attainments, the employment situation, the status of Muslim artisans, craftspersons, weavers, and other occupational groups. It also provides facts and figures about the benefits accruing through the nationalized banks, cooperatives, housing and other institutions. The booklet is a handy mirror of Muslim situation in India, and all these certified by none other than the Government of India. Its Urdu version Muslim Awam ke Halat e Zindgi has also been brought out for the same price. It can be had from: Sadbhav Mission, 5, C-Street, IIT, New Delhi-110016.

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