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25 March 2021, Gateway House

The globalised Dawoodi Bohras of Bombay

The Mumbai-headquartered Dawoodi Bohra community has a rich legacy of business, overseas maritime trade, and, today, a strong global community network that connects its 1 million faithful, wherever they are, in real time. The community's strength is its network, even 1,000 years ago, even without technology.

Bombay History Fellow

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This is the first of a two-part series. Click here to read the final part.

During the lockdown last year, Mumbai’s Dawoodi Bohra community captured attention in the media for its astute use of internet and mobile Apps to support its community. Food rations were delivered expediently, and every home became a mosque, with Muharram and Ramzan prayers being telecast live. Although the Dawoodis are a traditional Ismaili Shia community, the embrace of technology comes easily to them, given the Indian Bohra’s historic proclivity to business and trade, which requires flexibility and resourcefulness.

Bohras are the Indian followers of the 21st Fatimid Imam Al-Tayyib and his descendants, whose lineage traces back to followers of the 6th Imam Ismail in the 8th century, and through him to Imam Ali and his wife Fatima, the son-in-law and daughter of the Prophet Mohammad. Their very name – Bohra — comes from the Gujarati Vohurvu, meaning to trade [1], indicating that most of the Indian converts (mostly Hindus) to Tayyibi Mustali Ismailism [2] were traders. Mustafa Feeroz [3], lecturer and head of the English department at the Marol campus of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah [4], a university for advanced Islamic Studies in Mumbai, says that Imam al-Mustali –  the younger son of one of the great Fatimid Caliphs, the 18th Imam al-Mustansir, and grandfather of the 21st Imam al-Tayyib – who was the first to send religious emissaries in the 11th century from Egypt to the Indian Subcontinent to propagate the Ismaili faith. He points out, “These early preachers began their work in Gujarat and the Deccan.”

It resulted in conversions, the earliest having taken place in Cambay (now Khambhat), Paithan and Aurangabad.[5] Khambhat was an important port in the Indian Ocean trading world during the Middle Ages, and the latter two were market towns, sources for the export of goods such as cotton and silk fabrics. It is likely that most converts were engaged in some form of trade or finance.

There is little doubt that these conversions, and those that followed it, were peaceful. This is self-evident because soon after the death in 1094 CE of Caliph Imam al-Mustansir in Cairo — the Fatimid Empire went into decline due to infighting between two rival claimants – the Imams sons Nizar[6] and al-Mustali — to the Caliphate. By 1171 CE the Fatimid Dynasty had collapsed and the Dawat (mission) had been shifted from Egypt to Yemen.

A reception hosted for the 51st Dai and his son, by the East African Dawoodi Bohra congregation for the historic visit,  the first by the Dai al-Mutlaq to Africa.
A reception hosted for the 51st Dai and his son, by the East African Dawoodi Bohra congregation for the historic visit, the first by the Dai al-Mutlaq to Africa.

The Dawat shifts to Yemen

This occurred when the infant 21st Imam al-Tayyeb (whose followers are Tayyebi Mustali Ismailis[7] and include India’s Shia Bohras) retired from public view and delegated the powers of the Dawat to his vicegerents, the first of whom lived in Yemen. As an article of faith, the Bohras believe that the current Imam, who is a direct descendant of the 21st Imam, is present on earth whether or not in public view. This means that while the Imam remains hidden, his vicegerent — al-Dai al-Mutlaq or  the missionary with unrestricted authority — better known as the Syedna in India, takes on his mantle as the spiritual and temporal head of the global Dawoodi Bohra community.[8] In spite of the political headwinds of persecution that this Ismaili sect faced in Yemen , the establishment of a missionary organization  or Dawat headed by a nominated leader or Dai, a millennia ago, ensured not just  survival but a networked presence early on in Yemen and  parts of Southern Iraq, Persia and North Africa.

It was fortuitous that Yemen, which had active trading ties starting from the 9th century[9] with the ports of Daybul in Sindh, Mandvi in Kutch, and Porbandar and Khambhat in Kathiawar – should become the headquarters of this faith. So, it wasn’t unusual for Yemeni Arab merchants (who often doubled up as preachers), missionaries and mendicants, to carry their faith with them to the west coast of India.[10]

By the 15th century, the mission had been successful in Sindh, Gujarat and the Deccan and this would culminate in the transfer of the seat of the Dawat to India in the 16th century. The first Dai of India was the 24th Dai, Syedna Yusuf Najmuddin, who went to Yemen after being appointed as Dai and passed away there. The first Dais to reside permanently in India were those in Ahmedabad, beginning with the 25th Dai Syedna Jalal Shamsuddin.

The death of the 26th Dai in 1588 CE [11][12] led to a succession quarrel between two factions of the community in India, the majority of whom supported Daud (or Dawood) bin Qutub Shah, as the rightful nominee of the previous Dai. The minority Indian faction supporting Sulaiman bin Hassan, also supported by a majority of Yemeni Tayyebi Ismailis, broke away.  This fallout resulted in the formation of the Dawoodi (supporters of Daud) Bohra community, whose headquarters since this schism has always been in India, although it kept shifting for the next 300 years from city to city[13] before settling in British Bombay in the early 20th century.

One significant trajectory that the Indian Dawoodi Bohra took prior to the community’s migration to Bombay in large numbers by the early 19th century, was the settlement of traders, often with their families, in Muscat, Hormuz and the Omani dominions in East Africa –  the islands of Zanzibar, Pate, the Lamu archipelago, the mainland Mrima Coast and Mombasa.

Community lore says that the first wave of Bohra traders migrating to East Africa took place in the aftermath of a severe drought in Kathiawar. The 43rd Dai called 12,000 of his followers from this parched region to Surat, and provided food, work and lodgings for all of them. His only conditions were that they learn certain vocational skills, and that he would give them their earnings only when it was time for them to leave Surat. When he disbursed lumpsum payments to them at the end of their stay, many from this group decided to use this capital to venture forth to trade in East Africa. Family histories, like that of the successful 200-year-old Karimjee Jivanjee family headquartered in Dar es Salaam today, also speak of active encouragement by the visiting Hindu Bhatia trader, Sewjee Topan, then advisor to the Omani Sultan, to their founder’s father to send his son, Pirbhai, to Omani Zanzibar to seek his fortune.

It was from Zanzibar, which once hosted the largest Dawoodi Bohra settlement, that inroads were made into the East African mainland in the second half of the 19th century, in the wake of European colonization in Tanganyika (German), and Kenya and Uganda (British). It was then that Bombay’s connections with this region, and with its British Indian subjects already resident there, became pivotal politically and administratively, because of its close proximity to East Africa.[14] This triggered a second and larger wave of settlers from the city and its Presidency.

Almost parallel to this was an increasing settlement in the city itself, which also provided the springboard for trade and immigration to other Indian Ocean islands like Madagascar, Mayotte, Ceylon, South East Asia, as also to the Far East – mainland China, Hong Kong and Japan.

Raudat Tahera is the resting place of the 51st and 52nd Dais. The architecture and design blend Islamic influences with modern Indian art and artisanship.
Raudat Tahera is the resting place of the 51st and 52nd Dais. The architecture and design blend Islamic influences with modern Indian art and artisanship.

Bombay’s Dawoodi Bohra community

The key indicator that Bombay had a thriving Dawoodi Bohra settlement, is a community document of 1813, which refers to the first Bohra Masjid (today known as Badri Masjid) in the Fort area of the city being endowed by a local merchant Chandabhai Seth or his heirs[15]. Another record[16] from 1830-31, states that there were 150 to 200 Bohra shops in the vicinity of their mosque, on Bohra Bazaar Street, which runs parallel to Dadabhoy Naoroji Road, where Badri Masjid stands.

Notwithstanding this sizeable presence – the fact that the Dai (Syedna) was officially acknowledged in 1772 by the English Company in Bombay as native nobility[17], and later nominated to the Bombay Presidency’s legislative council[18] – Surat continued as the headquarters of the Dawoodi Bohra. In the meantime, an Amil or senior religious scholar, was appointed early on to look after community affairs, indicative that there were over 50 Bohra families resident in the city.

The Bombay community – largely traders and shopkeepers– prospered greatly from the growing economic importance of the city, which was Urbs Prima In Indis or the first city of India. Travelers’ accounts over time tell of the community’s thrift, colourful clothes, cheerful disposition and enterprise. A vivid example is how the import of kerosene oil into Bombay gave rise to a new industry, with the Bohra traders buying empty tins for about two annas each and fashioning them into lanterns, boxes, trunks, oil pots and other articles for sale.[19]

The first Dai to live and work in Bombay is the 51st Dai – Syedna Taher Saifuddin (d. 1965) – who is buried in the  Raudat Tahera mausoleum in Bhendi Bazaar, as is the 52nd Dai, his son Syedna Burhanuddin (d. 2014). Though the administrative headquarters shifted to Bombay sometime during the 51st Dai’s leadership, the cultural ecosystem of Surat as epitomized by its over two hundred year old Dars-e-Sayfi, the foremost institute for higher Islamic studies, took decades to take root in Bombay. But today this loop is almost closed, with the Marol campus of Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah university being established in Mumbai, and the fact that 21st century internet technology has made the Dawat in Mumbai accessible to its one million strong Dawoodi Bohra community abroad and in India, with the largest community still resident in Mumbai.

Sifra Lentin is Bombay History Fellow, Gateway House.

This is the first of a two-part series.

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[1]Goswami, Chhaya, The Call of the Sea: Kachchhi Traders in Muscat and Zanzibar, c. 1800-1880 (New Delhi, Orient Black Swan, 2011), p. 34.

[2] A schism occurred after the death of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir in 1094, whose long reign was a golden age for the Fatimid (Shia) Caliphate in North Africa, Sicily, Egypt, Syria, the Hijaz and Yemen.  The Ismaili Shias who supported the claimant Al-Mustali and his descendants, as against the rival claimant Al-Nizar (a direct descendant being the Khoja Imam Aga Khan IV), are the Dawoodi Bohras and their (later) breakaway factions the Suleimani  and the Aliya Bohras, both relatively small communities. The capital city of the Fatimid Empire was Cairo. The Fatimid Caliphate existed from 909 CE to 1171 CE.

[3] Interview with Mr. Feeroz took place on 23 October 2020.

[4] The Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah is the community’s apex institution of learning for religious studies. The original campus was established in Surat in 1809 and now has satellite campuses in Marol (Mumbai), Karachi and Nairobi.

[5] Edwardes, S.M., ed., The Gazetteer of Bombay City And Island, Volume 1 (Bombay, Gazetteer Department Government of Maharashtra, Reprint 1977), p. 180.

[6] Imam Nizar’s supporters were from Persia, and took the name of Nizari Ismailis. Today, the most well-known Community from this branch are the Aga Khan Khojas.

[7]This term indicates the particular family branch of the Prophet Mohammed that the Shia Bohras in India follow. The concept of a living Imamate is fundamental to Shia belief. Hence, the Dawoodi Bohra Imam is a descendant of Imam al-Tayyeb, and going further back – al-Mustali – and even further to Imam Ismail, from where the term Ismaili comes from, and then further down to Imam Ali, the founder of the Shia branch of Islam .

[8] The Suleimani Bohra community have their own Dai.

[9]Amiji, Hatim, The Bohras of East Africa (Boston, Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume VII, University of Massachusetts, 1975), pp. 33-34.

[10] Scholars are in agreement that in general Ismaili preaching on the Indian subcontinent varied from place to place, and there was syncretism and accommodation to indigenous beliefs and customs as long as it did not violate fundamental tenets of Shia Islam.

See Amiji, Hatim, The Bohras of East Africa (Boston, Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume VII, University of Massachusetts, 1975), p. 29;

[11] A succession quarrel after the death of the 26th Dai in 1588 CE, resulted in most Indian Bohras supporting Daud (or Dawood) bin Qutub Shah, as the rightful nominee of the previous Dai, as against his challenger Sulaiman bin Hassan, who was supported by a small faction in India and a majority of Tayyebi Ismailis in Yemen. The latter are known as Sulaimani Bohras.

[12] Amiji, Hatim, The Bohras of East Africa (Boston, Journal of Religion in Africa, Volume VII, University of Massachusetts, 1975), p 60 (Appendix List of Dais of the Dawoodi Bohras)

[13]The Dawat and the residence of the Dais were once located in Ahmedabad, Jamnagar, Mandvi, Surat, and also in Burhanpur and Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh.

[14] By 1873, British India Steam Navigation Company was running a regular steamer service between Bombay and East Africa.

[15] Interview with Mustafa Feeroz 23 October 2020. According to Mr. Feeroz, it is assumed that Chandabhai Seth or his heirs built Badri Masjid since he is buried there, and it is a tradition in the Community for one who has endowed a mosque (masjid) to be buried besides it.

[16] Iftitah Bina al Masjid al Badri al Hani (Bombay, Aljamea-tus-Saifiyah, 2004), p.9.

[17] This meant that the Syedna as the head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, was shown every mark of respect by English officials when passing through Company territories. This official acknowledgement continued even under the British Raj.

[18] It was the 45th Dai, Syedna Tayyeb Zainuddin, who was appointed to Bombay’s Legislative council in 1824-25.

[19] Edwardes, S. M., ed., The Gazetteer of Bombay City And Island, Volume 2 (Bombay, Gazetteer Department Government of Maharashtra, Reprint 1978), p.474.