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A case of two syednas

Updated on: 15 February,2023 07:54 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Nasrin Modak Siddiqi |

Reeling under succession dispute since 2014, the Dawoodi Bohras are eager to find out who the high court will declare the rightful spiritual leader

A case of two syednas

Syedna Taher Fakhruddin

As the long and bitter battle for the title of Syedna enters the final stages of hearing, the Dawoodi Bohras are eager to find out who the Bombay High Court will declare as the Dai al-Mutlaq Syedna, the rightful supreme spiritual leader of the community.

How it started

For the uninitiated, on the death of Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, the 52nd Dai, in 2014, his son Mufaddal Saifuddin and half-brother Khuzaima Qutbuddin both staked claim to the post. The former announced himself as the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq, basis a ‘nass’ being done on him in 2011 after his father suffered a debilitating stroke. He assumed control of the Dawoodi Bohra administration and infrastructure. The latter filed a lawsuit in the Bombay HC on the basis that he was secretly chosen as the successor in 1965. And thereby, a peace-loving community that looks up to their Syedna for every aspect of their life was divided over two leaders, with stark opposite views.

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. File pic/Shadab KhanSyedna Mufaddal Saifuddin. File pic/Shadab Khan

According to faith and Dawoodi Bohra doctrine, nass—an appointment of succession—is done by divine inspiration on any member from the community who has achieved a station deserving of it, and therefore it cannot be changed. This was the position taken by Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin in court. He was the mazoon (second in command) during the lifetime of the 52nd Dai. When Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin passed away in 2016, his son Taher Fakhruddin continued the legal battle, as a ‘nass’ was conferred on him before the demise of his father, making him the 54th Dai al-Mutlaq, as he claims.

The divide

The battle between the two syednas has led to uncertainty and disputes within the community. Recalling the events that followed immediately after Syedna Burhanuddin’s death, Mustafa Saifuddin Lokhandwala, a 27-year-old lawyer, said, “It showed me a side of our community that I had never seen before. The cursing and violence that came against Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin and his followers—including my family—were shocking. There were threats, divorces and hurdles in burial due to the divide. The death of Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin was celebrated with the bursting of firecrackers and the burning of his effigies.”

Devotees pray inside Mazaar-e-Qutbi, the mausoleum of Khuzaima Qutbuddin, in Thane West, on Sunday. Pic/Anurag Ahire
Devotees pray inside Mazaar-e-Qutbi, the mausoleum of Khuzaima Qutbuddin, in Thane West, on Sunday. Pic/Anurag Ahire

Sakina Shabbir, a 28-year-old professor who had to move homes from Crawford Market to Thane due to the death threats to her brother, recalled, “The night after Syedna Burhanuddin passed away, Syedna Qutbuddin put forth a statement that he was the rightful successor. We, as a family, pledged our allegiance to him at his Thane residence. The following morning, somebody broadcast my brother’s photo as the one responsible for spreading the message of the nass and declared that he should be beaten up. We lived in Crawford Market all our lives, but after these threats, we couldn’t any more. So we along with six other families stayed with Syedna Qutbuddin at his residence in Thane. Thereafter, we rented flats.”

Both Shabbir and Lokhandwala are in awe of Syedna Taher Fakhruddin’s knowledge and his tendency to tie logic to religion. “I hope that those who are currently held back due to fear and control tactics will find the courage to follow their hearts when the truth comes out. The repercussions of a split would be disastrous, given Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s radical and regressive policies against women and education,” said Shabbir. The admiration for Syedna Taher Fakhruddin comes from Bohras settled abroad as well. Sakina Bhaigora, a 25-year-old Canadian resident, said, “... I understand that the community has already suffered a fracture but we believe Syedna Taher Fakhruddin will connect with everyone, to try and heal the hurt.”

The other circle

On the other hand, Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin has, in the past, adopted a conservative approach. In one of his sermons, he told girls to study only home science and to stay within the confines of their home. He told men to throw their wives out if they don’t wear hijab. And he appears to support female genital mutilation (FGM).

mid-day spoke to Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin’s followers, but they were hesitant. One of them, on condition of anonymity, said, “We cannot speak either good or bad about him as we fear being socially boycotted. Everything, from our birth to death, marriage, permission for honeymoon, how we bring up our children and the way we do business is guided by our Syedna.”

Another added, “Corruption, nurturing of fear, ostracisation and divide-and-rule tactics may not necessarily come from the Syedna, but from people on the admin level who instil this fear.” An entrepreneur, who was all praise for Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin for the work he does for women entrepreneurs, didn’t want to come on record either for the fear of being ostracised for talking to the media without raza [consent].

‘Power play a key factor’

Dr Amita Valmiki, associate professor and head of Philosophy department, Ramniranjan Jhunjhunwala College, Ghatkopar, said that one thing that’s common in politics and religion is power play. “...In the case of Dawoodi Bohras, the community gives final authority to the ‘community leader’. They have the right to excommunicate the member if someone challenges the leadership. For the excommunicated, there is no entry in the mosque and no proper burial rites, even though the constitutional laws are against it.”

Besides control over the community, another factor that is at stake is control over the vast resources, including trusts, properties and pilgrimage sites. In a sermon delivered last month, Syedna Taher Fakhruddin said that people accuse him and his followers of fighting for wealth and power. “... I do this for the right guidance, the well-being and future of the community, that is my only concern and driving force for which I have dedicated my life,” he had said.

The court matter

Justice Gautam Patel is presiding over the hearings to ascertain the succession of Dai al-Mutlaq Syedna. Anand Desai of DSK Legal is arguing on behalf of Syedna Taher Fakhruddin and Senior Advocate Fredun Di’Vitre, along with senior counsels Iqbal Chagla and Janak Dwarkadas and others are representing Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin. Desai told mid-day, “... It will be for the losing party to decide whether to stay in the community or form his own—as has happened in the past. The court is concerned with the legal outcome.” Syedna Taher Fakhruddin told mid-day that he can’t comment on the merits of the case or its potential outcome since it is sub-judice.

“The suit was filed by my father to fulfil his duty to guide the commu-nity along the same path as has been forged by his predecessors... The very future of the community and its identity as a moral, forward-looking, educated, cohesive and prosperous community, which is a force for spreading goodwill around the globe is at stake... That is why my father risked everything, including his safety, to fight for the truth and justice for the community. That is why the community is eagerly awaiting the outcome of the case, waiting for us to bring about a much-needed change in the community.”

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