Bohras: A community divided

An unprecedented war of succession to the spiritual leadership of the million-strong Bohras has divided them into two factions

Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin presiding over a special prayer meeting of Dawoodi Bohras in Mumbai after the death of Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, February 2013 (Photos: Getty)
Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin presiding over a special prayer meeting of Dawoodi Bohras in Mumbai after the death of Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin, February 2013 (Photos: Getty)

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

Tahira Sobty (60) has had no contact with her 90-year-old mother since 2014, not even on the phone, although both live in the same city. The older lady left her daughter’s home in distress after it became clear that Tahira’s family had fallen out of favour with the followers of the de-facto Syedna or spiritual leader of Dawoodi Bohras, by extending their support to a rival claimant. The family was now an outcaste to the conservative group running the affairs of the community.

The extent of ostracisation became clear to the family when Tahira’s 97-year-old father-in-law passed away that year. The family, which lived in Marine Lines in South Mumbai, expected to bury him in the Bohra cemetery in nearby Mazgaon. But the permission was not forthcoming and after an agonising day, the family was tersely informed that they could take the body to Thane, 37 kilometres away, and bury it there. He finally found a resting place in Mumbra.

Thane was where Khuzaima Qutbuddin lived. Brother of the previous Syedna—Mohammad Burhanuddin, who passed away in 2014—Qutbuddin had claimed that Burhanuddin had declared him the successor way back in 1965. He challenged the claim of his brother’s son Mufaddal Saifuddin, who claimed to have been anointed the successor by his father on his death bed.

The community was thus split down the middle between the two claimants and are now known as the Mumbai Bohras and the Thane Bohras, the former the more conservative of the two and the ruling clique with control over Bohra properties, trusts and cemeteries.

Tahira’s mother did not want her extended family to suffer and cut off all connection with her daughter and her in-laws—because Syedna Saifuddin’s group does not even allow rebels access to mosques. 

Tahira is happy in her marriage and in her marital home. She has an active social life, and has many friends from other communities. She is not overtly religious and does not mind not going to the mosque. But she says there is a vacuum in her life.

The only girl child in the family, she was always pampered and misses her mother. Which religion divides families, she wonders. Says Saifuddin Kopty, Tahira’s husband, “Many of us have been cast out of the community for supporting [Khuzaima Qutbuddin’s son]Taher Fakhruddin’s claim.”

Dawoodi Bohras number only around a million, half of them to be found in India and Pakistan and the rest scattered in the gulf nations and in Western countries. They are all similarly divided, say the progressive Bohras (the conservative Bohras refused to speak on the ground that the issue of succession is sub judice). They keenly await the Bombay High Court’s ruling on the succession after a one-judge bench completed the hearing and reserved the order in April this year. The case has been in court since 2014 and whoever loses is certain to file an appeal. It does promise to be a very long haul before the issue is settled.

Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who had gone to court claiming that since 1965 he had been recognised as the mazoon or second-in-command in the community, has also passed away. His lawyers also argued that the Da’ai-e-Mutlaq or the Syedna can be anyone from the community and need not be from the Syedna’s family.

Bohra Muslim women in their colourful abaya on the occasion of 98th birthday of Syedna Burhanuddin at Mazgoan in Mumbai
Bohra Muslim women in their colourful abaya on the occasion of 98th birthday of Syedna Burhanuddin at Mazgoan in Mumbai

But like the anointment of the Dalai Lama, the Syedna is also anointed following divine inspiration; once the succession is decided, there can be no dispute and no claimant either. Now that Khuzaima Qutbuddin, the original plaintiff, is no more, the case is being fought between Qutbuddin’s son Taher Fakhruddin and the present de facto Syedna.


With the Bohras in Mumbai divided between the progressive Qutbi Bohras with their base in Thane and the conservative Saifi Bohras based in South Mumbai, it is apparent that the women overwhelmingly support the Qutbis. While Tahira’s mother feels the pressure to support the Saifis,  a large number of Bohra women openly support the Qutbis as they are seen to be more progressive on the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). While the conservatives still mandate FGM in girls at the age of seven or eight, the Qutbis are more reasonable.

Tahira supports the progressive Syedna Fakhruddin because he has declared FGM to be optional and to be exercised by girls voluntarily when they attain the age of 16. He has declared that FGM cannot be imposed on a girl child against her will.

Sakina Bhaigora, a school teacher, says Taher Fakhruddin allows her freedom of thought and expression, the freedom to choose her job and career and to opt out of FGM. Risking the displeasure of the conservative Syedna Saifuddin, several women have come out in the open and formed an organisation called Sahiyo (‘girl friends’ in Gujarati) which has petitioned the Supreme Court to outlaw FGM in India, as it has been done by several other countries, including the US and Australia.

“FGM cannot take place unless the girl is willing. She should be at least 16-years old and not merely a child at 7 who cannot think for herself. And even if she wants to opt for FGM, it should be done by a trained surgeon under hygienic conditions and not in dark, damp rooms by midwives or barbers as is being done today,” say the women.

Bohra Muslims set birds free as a pious deed on special occasions
Bohra Muslims set birds free as a pious deed on special occasions

The orthodox group ruling over the community dictates that women should stay at home or at best study home science and confine themselves to knitting skull caps for the men or lace for their abayas (the three-piece colourful burqas).

“This cannot be allowed to continue for long in the community. The community leader should give women more freedom and offer scientific reasoning for his diktats. That can be done only by a learned leader,” says Sakina, in a not-so-subtle allusion to Saifuddin’s alleged lack of a formal education.

Fakhruddin in contrast is better educated and known for his more enlightened views. All men and women in the community, he has said, are entitled to proper education; he has declared FGM of children as un-Islamic and said that a woman should be a full-grown adult before she decides if she wants to undergo FGM for religious reasons under strict medical supervision.

Women have welcomed these statements because several girls in the community have died of post-FGM infection or bled to death after quacks carried it out. In Australia, a Bohra mother, a midwife and a priest are facing imprisonment after conducting genital mutilation on two school-going girls. Increasingly, members of the community in Western countries are rebelling against the unscientific and outdated practice.


The Syedna derives his temporal power from taxes that each adult Bohra pays him. Every adult Bohra pays an annual tax, 2.5 per cent of their income, and various other fees for availing of services in the mosques, trusts and burial grounds. The Bohras, who are mostly traders but increasingly also high-wages professionals like doctors, lawyers, architects and others, are well-to-do and the taxes to the Syedna reportedly run into hundreds of crores.

The amount is supposed to be ploughed back into the community; but the whispered grievance is that not enough is being spent on public works, though the Saifi Burhani Urban Trust is currently engaged in a major redevelopment of Bhendi Bazaar in South Bombay at a cost of Rs 3,000 crore.

The Bohras also apply to the Syedna for loans (the conservatives forbid them from dealing with banks or stock markets), rent homes from estates run by the Syedna’s trusts and seek his help to pay hospital bills, etc. Yet the corpus for these loans is said to be just around Rs 100 crore, claim the critics. Where does all the money go is the question that is beginning to be asked.

Says Mustafa Lokhandwala, “Those supporting Fakhruddin do not merely face a social boycott. Many of them are under pressure to divorce their outspoken spouses and the children are torn between the parents.”

“My cousin was divorced by her husband as she stood her ground for reforms in the community. Her husband’s family was pressurised so much that the couple had no option but to settle for a divorce. We are also facing economic boycott within the community,” he adds.

Mohammadbhai Khorakiwala says that the situation is so bad that the community is tired of being subjected to harangues, harassment and intimidation. “I have been receiving phone calls from relatives promising that once this fight ends, we should meet up for lunch and dinner and celebrate Eid.”

He does not agree that the fight is just over the property, the land and the buildings. Whoever presides over properties and wealth in India and abroad is only the custodian, not the owner, he argues. But then the Syedna, he points out, has control over so many more aspects of people’s lives. 

(With inputs from Sujata Anandan)

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