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Newsletter for September 2010
The Bohras in South and South East Asia
Part 1 of 2
by Asgher Ali Engineer
The Bohras are a Shi’ah Isma’ili sect, which branched off from the main Shi’a community, known as twelver (Ithna Ashari) Shi’as around the mid
2nd century of Islam (ninth century A.D.). All Shi’a sects believe that the Holy Prophet (SAW) had nominated his son-in-law Ali (AS) Khalifah in
that order. Those who maintained Ali (AS) was designated as his heir by the Prophet (SAW) were called Shi’an-e-Ali as the word Shi’a in Arabic
means partisan. Thus, partisans or disciples and followers of Ali (AS) were known as Shi’a.
The Shi’as also believe that Ahl al-bayt (i.e. people of house of the Prophet) are sacred persons and only the progeny of Fatima (Prophet’s
daughter) and Ali could be legitimate political and spiritual successors until the day of judgement (Qiyamah). The Shi’as believe in the doctrine
of Imamah as against the Sunni Muslims who believe in the doctrine of Khilafah. Khilafah is based on the principle of bay’ah (pledging one's
loyalty to a person to assume authority, an elective principle in a limited sense).
The Ithna Ashari Shi’as believe that Ali (AS) was the first Imam after the Prophet (SAW) whereas Isma’ilis believe that he was wasi (legatee)
and not an Imam. According to the Isma’ilis the first imam was Ali’s son Hasan whereas Hasan is the second Imam according to twelver Shi’as. The split between Ithna Asharis and Isma’ilis took place on the question of succession to Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (sixth Imam according to twelvers and 5th according to Isma’ilis).
The twelvers maintain that Imam Al-Sadiq (AS) was succeeded by his younger son Musa Kazim as his elder son Isma’il died during Imam
Ja’far’s life time. However, Isma’ilis maintain that though Isma’il died in Imam Ja’far’s life time but he was succeeded by Muhammad, Isma’il’s
son. Thus according to the Isma’ilis Imam Isma’il succeeded Imam J’afar al-Sadiq and Isma’il in turn was succeeded by his son Muhammad.
It is interesting to note that most, though not all, Shi’as were non-Arabs and we can call them in terms of Toynbee’s term external
proletariat of Islam as the Khwarij (seceders) who were mostly Bedouin Arabs as internal proletariat of Islam. The Isma’ilis too, to begin
with, were mostly of Persian origin. All top Isma’ili preachers (da’is) were of Persian origin though there were many Arabs also among their
followers. However, both in the case of the twelvers as well as Isma’ili Shi’as, leadership or imamah remained with the descendants of the
Prophet (SAW) i.e. they were of Arab origin.
Islam was a revolutionary movement which tried to usher in a new political culture based on the values of equality and justice but soon
Islamic regimes also developed the same old political culture based on dynasties and maintained through coercion and use of power rather than
consensus and participation. Dr. Taha Husain, a noted Egyptian scholar, pithily observes:
“…it became apparent that this new government too (the caliphal regime after the death of the Prophet) which was expected to be of a new type at last adopted the same old course and like other old types of governments it too had to be based on vested interests, power politics
and a class system in which a small minority of a particular nationality uses as its instrument a vast majority of peoples of different
Thus, all through after the death of the Prophet (SAW) we see disputes about succession between various ruling factions and some of which
became reasons for coming into existence of new sects. The Isma’ili sect also came into existence as a result of dispute for succession to Imam
J’afar al-Sadiq and once it assumed a new sectarian identity, it developed a new set of doctrines to develop its own rationale of a new sect.
All Shi’a sects were highly persecuted first by the Umayyad rulers and then by the Abbasids. Thus, the Shi’a sects, particularly the twelvers
and Isma’ilis, had to develop a strategy for existence and hence they adopted what is called the doctrine of taqiyyah i.e. dissimulation. Most
of the Shi’as tried to hide their real identity and pretended to be following Sunni madhhab (religion).
However, while the ordinary Isma’ilis practiced taqiyya the leaders went underground to avoid detection by the Abbasid rulers who were hunting
for them everywhere. Most of the Isma’ili Imams remained underground for a long period of time until Imam Abdullah al-Mahdi appeared and founded the Fatimid Dynasty in 297/909 North Africa. The Shi’a sects believe in the re-appearance of Imam Mahdi (ATFS) who will fill this earth with justice while it is filled with oppression. The Isma’ilis claim that Imam Mahdi appeared in North Africa whose name was Abdullah and founded
the Fatimid dynasty which is drawn from the progeny of Ali (AS) and Fatima (SA).
However, the twelver Shi’as believe that Imam Mahdi (ATFS) is still in seclusion and will appear one day when this earth is filled with
oppression. They are still waiting for the re appearance of the Mahdi. Thus, Ithna ‘Ashris and Isma’ilis though they agree on appearance of
Mahdi, differ on whether he appeared or not.
The Isma’ilis also differed significantly from Ithna ‘Asharis about their organizational structure. The Ithna Asharis have an Imam at the
top but then no other hierarchical structure around him. In Imam’s seclusion various mujtahids (who interpret and lay down the Shari’ah
laws) deputise him. But the Isma’ilis, being an underground movement for quite sometime, developed a well- structured hierarchy with the Imam at the top. The Imam is followed by 12 hujjahs (proofs) who in turn appoint a number of da’is (summorners). There was a whole network of these da’is actively inviting other Muslims to embrace the Isma’ili faith. The da’is in turn were actively assisted by ma’dhun (direct assistant to da’I who
is also permitted to summon to the faith) and mukasir (assistant to ma’dhun in convincing people for Isma’ili faith being the only right faith).
Thus, this tight hierarchy functioned under the hidden leadership of the Imam of the time (Imam al-Zaman). It is also important to note that
Isma’ilis succeeded in attracting well-known intellectuals of the Islamic world, as it appeared to be quite a rational and liberal faith
to many of them. Intellectuals like Ya’qub Sijistani, Hamidudin Kirmani, Mu’ayyad Shirazi were da’is who actively worked for Fatimid Imams. It is
claimed by Isma’ilis that even scholars and philosophers and intellectuals like Avicena (Abu Sina), Ghazzali and others were also at
one time Isma’ili da’is. However, it is very difficult to substantiate such claims.
courtesy: Islam and the Modern Age, Issue No. 141-08, July 4, 2008/ 30th
Jamadi ul Aakhar 1429 AH).
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