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Indian Africa

Adam Michel

Bohras in East Africa: Orthodoxy and Reformism

Nathalie Gomes

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  • 1 Inventory of literature on this topic was accomplished in Kenya through research on archives. The s (...)

1This chapter analyses the origins as well as the socioeconomic situation of the Bohra communities in East Africa, especially in Kenya. Although particular attention here is focused on the “traditional” mainstream – which is by far the majority – the intention of the study is not to ignore the existence of a minute breakaway “reformist” section, which is very active in the diaspora1.

  • 2 According to Engineer (1989), there were, in 1980, 70,000 Bohras resident outside India, especially (...)

2Part of the Shia Muslim minority, the Bohra (also known as Daudi Bohra or Dawoodi Tayyibites) are a secondary branch of Ismailis, with the latter term used to refer to the Aga Khan’s followers, who are also known as Khojas. With the exception of publications by Roy (1984), Engineer (1989) and Blank (2001), there has been little writing on this small religious community (whose population is about a million in the world, including 800,000 residents in India), but which makes up a sizeable section of the Indian-Pakistani diaspora2. In 2004, Bohras in Kenya constituted a little more than 30 % of all the Shia, which is equivalent to 6,500 people, a figure that is lower than that of Khoja Ismailis (about 8,000 in number), but largely higher than that of the Ithnasheris (2,500 in number), another Shia group close to the orthodox section of the duodecimans, which is the majority in the world.

Fissions and the diaspora

3Bohras are descendants of a section of Ismailis who seceded in the early 12th Century AD following a dispute over succession of their thirteenth Imam, Al-Mustansir, also caliph of Egypt’s Fatimids (1094). The unsuccessful pretender, Al Tayyib, took refuge in Yemen, became a recluse (satr) and disappeared from the eyes of the world (1132). Ever since his followers (since then known Tayyibites) believe their Imam is in hiding, but will reappear one day. As this anticipation, his power has been delegated to a representative called chief mulla or dai’al-mutlaq ( “holy delegate”, abridged: Dai). Interim Imam of sorts, the Dai is, like the living Imam of the Ismailis, the custodian of esoteric knowledge for interpreting the Koran (ta’wil) as well as some supernatural attributes that are akin to the “hidden Imam”. According to popular beliefs, only the Dai knows where the authentic Imam, who has for 900 years been secluded from the world, lives.

4Whereas Yemen became the centre for the break-away group, traders professing the new faith settled in north-western India from the 13th Century, following maritime routes that had been used for several centuries. Thus some Tayyibite adherents who accompanied these traders resolved to convert Cutch and Gujarat Hindus. These converts were nicknamed Bohra, an anthroponym derived from the term Gujarati vohoru ( “trader”). The Bohra community, which was initially concentrated in Ahmedabad, suffered persecution at the hands of Aurengzeb Moghol monarchs and scattered in the entire Gujarat area up to Bombay (Salvadori 1983: 256).

5Soon the number of confirmed faithful in India exceeded that in Yemen. In 1591, the geographical distance between the two groups, Yemeni and Indian Bohra, was coupled with a political and religious scission. Dawud Burhan al-Din was enthroned the twenty-sixth Dai in Sihpur (Bombay), while a rival candidate, Suleyman al-Hasan, claimed he had been made Dai at an inauguration in Yemen. This rivalry was the beginning of a fresh dissidence that pitted the Dawoodis of India (Dawud’s followers, who are today generally confused with the Bohra) and the Suleymanites in Yemen, who in the meantime became a very tiny minority (about 70,000 people in 2008).

Main religious characteristics

6Like all Indian Muslims, the Bohra have a syncretised culture, characterized by influence of the Arab world as much as it is inherited from their origins in India, their ancestral land where Hinduism is dominant.

  • 3 The contrast between those adherents to literal interpretation (Ahl al Zahir) and adherents to esot (...)

7From a theological point of view, the Bohra hardly differ from the orthodox Ismailis except for their belief in the existence of a hidden imam. Like the latter – and in contrast with other Muslims – they believe in an esoteric interpretation of the Koran whose key, according to them, is in the Dai’s custody3. From their point of view, this interpretation – as non-literal and detached as possible from its strictly historic context – must remain secret (batiniyya), which does not stop the Bohra from loudly proclaiming some of the principles that distinguish them from Sunnism (and even orthodox Shiism), such as rejection of holy war (jihad), which in their understanding is reduced to an internal fight against evil. The practice of batiniyya among the Bohra contributed to the emergence of some sort of aura of secrecy, which has been strengthened over the centuries by the persecution.

8It should be noted further that the original body of Ismaili gloss was destroyed in the 12th century when the Abbasids seized Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo.

  • 4 Boiled and pounded cereals eaten with mutton.

9Just like Ithnasheris and orthodox Shia, but in contrast with Ismailis, Bohras are greatly devoted to their martyrs, the symbols of the persecution they collectively suffered. In the month of Muharram, they mark ten days of mourning and repentance, praying and practicing matam, a ritual during which the faithful hit themselves on the chest, but they do not go as far as observing mortification rituals, which are widespread among orthodox Shia (Ismailis, for their part, have even forbidden them). The 10th of Muharram, which marks the day Imam Hussein, the Prophet’s grandson, was tortured by Caliph Umayyad Yazid (achoura) in 680, is a day of fasting, prayers and sermons, followed by a community dinner. A typical dish: khichra4 is served. To prolong the remembrance of the bereavement, young people are not allowed to marry over a period of 40 days after the 10th day of Muharram.

10Bohra worship is almost similar in detail to that of other Muslims. Men and women pray separately at the mosque three times a day (instead of the Sunnis’ five times). During prayer, the men don a special dress (langi). All faithful are, in principle, encouraged to follow what is prescribed for Ramadan and go on pilgrimage to Mecca. However these two commandments are not strictly observed. On the other hand, the visit to tombs of former dais (dargah) tends, like among Ismailis, to replace pilgrimage. Condemned in the Koran, such worship of people (shirk) is also considered “idolatry” (kufr) both by Sunnis and the reformist Bohra minority. It will also be noted that as heretical as it is, the marking of the death of nearly deified saints, very distinctly stands out both from that of the Hindus and Sunni Muslims, recalling the treatment of the dead that is unique to Bohras alone (Engineer 1980: 163). Indeed, the latter pay special attention to the preparation of the dead, who undergo particular rituals, before being taken to the mosque mortuaries (every deceased is accompanied by a sort of missive, signed by the Dai’s representative entreating Allah to receive it in paradise).

11As far as moral behaviour is concerned, Bohras are bound to strictly follow the shar’ia, and they are a testimony to superior rigour in the practice of its teachings compared to Ismailis. They do not consume tobacco or alcohol, and forbid licentious spectacles, gambling, as well as interest on loans. Although they are less concerned about Proselytising, they urge their followers to show solidarity and to give alms, but they condemn ostentatious spending, thus underlining the analogy, already done by other authors, with some puritan Protestant groups.

12The religion – or even just some aspects of it – notwithstanding the fact that like all Indian Muslims, Bohras are a section of Hindu converts, explains why a large number of their symbolic references, customs and rituals are typically Indian, and even often Vedic. A leading example frequently and generally cited among the Ismailis (including Khojas) is that of wedding rituals (shadi rituals). However, to underline the contractual nature of the union, consent of the spouses is sought, like among the Khoja Ismailis, by a cadi (Muslim magistrate). Matrimonial gifts are generally simple gifts (mahr: paraphernalia given to a wife by her husband). Wherever practiced, dowry (hunda), which is not recognized by Islam but is still widespread among the Hindu despite being banned in India, is minimal.

13Social and family structure also maintains traces of the Hindu model. Even though castes are not officially sanctioned, since this arrangement is quite contrary to Muslim principles, internal family memory still maintains old rank distinctions between lineages (khandan), which approximately correspond to the hierarchy of the professions practiced today, as will be described further on. Besides, it should be recognized that this hierarchy is insignificant, since this special trait is probably a result of the fact that Bohras are mostly from castes of traders, which is common to all Ismailis.

14All Bohra families are not different in their most widespread traits (patriarchal authority, unity, cohabitation of married brothers etc.) from northern Indian families, whatever their religion. On the other hand, as far as matrimonial union is concerned – without being a strict norm – Bohras readily practice parallel cousin marriage (ego marriage with one’s parallel patri-lateral cousin), which is encouraged among all Muslim but contrary to all Hindu marriage principles. In 1984, Shibany Roy indicated that among Bohras from India close to 40 % of marriages were between first cousins (Roy 1984: 163).

  • 5 Just like in the Hindu community, Bohra businessmen begin their new financial year with Diwali cele (...)

15Other cultural references are mixed. This is the case with the calendar or the language of liturgy. Bohras follow a lunar calendar prepared in Egypt by astronomers under Fatimid rule and used by their imams. This calendar (misri), which is two days ahead of the Sunni calendar, depends on a lunar cycle of 29.5 days, matched with compensation effected in the form of leap years. However, most Bohras observe and sometimes celebrate major Hindu fetes, particularly Diwali, a major Hindu religious fete (celebrating Rama’s victory) and the day of collective blessing from the Dai (bismillah)5. Just like Hindus, they make a big deal of astrological predictions, especially under the circumstances of marriage.

16Bohras adopted lisan al-da wab as a language of liturgy. It is a syncretised idiom with Gujarati syntax but its transcription is in Arabic writing and it has borrowed from Arabic a large part of its lexicon. In addition, and contrary to practices shared by all Muslims, Bohras generally write and read Latin transcription of texts written in Arabic. Other religious texts of less importance (religious history, the Dai sermons in Gujarati) can be translated into English.

17As with the Ismailis, a recent change supported by the Dai motivates families to abandon old Hindu references to adopt customs that are common to all Muslims. Thus, in terms of inheritance, the rule in Islam (which favours women who are entitled to half the share men are entitled to) now tends to be the norm (Blank 2001: 116). In other areas that are more externally visible, the return to Islamic traditions is also significant. After rejecting minarets like the Ismailis, Bohras are now returning to traditional standards in religious architecture and are trying to imitate Fatimid styles, which many Shia consider canonical (they also funded the renovation of the Fatimid mosque in Cairo). In their capital, Surat (India), Bohras maintain a medrasa (Al Jamaat us Saifiyah), which they consider the only authentic heir of the first Al Azhar University founded in Cairo by the Fatimids.

18Having installed a woman Dai in the 12th century (even though this was short-lived), the Bohra advocate for relative gender equality, a position in principle that they timidly admit in social life but hardly respect in religious life since women only have limited access to mosques, for example. Irrespective of women-friendly measures – especially in education and professional activity, as we will see a little farther – there are also very conservative social practices among the Bohra, which are even more prominent today due to external pressure from Islamic teaching. There is no compensation for the subjugation to the Dai’s decisions without recourse to appeal, unlike among the Ismailis where the community is involved in the circles of power. Any faithful who openly opposes the Dai is immediately excommunicated, meaning he/ she has to be an outcast, banned from marriage or getting buried by the community. The patriarchal authority always that exists within families does not seem to be under threat from the relatively higher status of women. In a number of traditional families, widows remain indoors for several months following the death of their husbands (iddat). Unknown to most Arabs and Indians, and probably inherited during the many years of stay in regions where this custom is accepted (Egypt, Horn of Africa), clitoridectomy (khafd) is still practiced in some community clinics, although it has been strongly fought by the reformist section and increasingly by the young women of the new generation. Moreover, the symbolic covering of women has in the last few years attained new levels that have gone unnoticed by contemporary observers. The sari, which was worn in the past by all Indian women irrespective of religion, was condemned about fifteen years ago by the current Dai citing new requirements of feminine modesty. It was replaced by a long-sleeve tunic (kamiz), with a hood above it that flows onto the shoulders and closely covers the face (rhida, popularly known as bui bui), just like the Islamic veil. In addition, the colours of feminine clothes, and this also applies to girls, are now confined to drab shades. For their part, men are compelled to sport a beard and the Islamic cap (which replaces the big turban in the shape of an onion which was popular until the end of the 19th century).

Administrative and political organisation

  • 6 Previously a simple “regent” of the imam (kal m’asum), the 51st Dai declared himself to have the sa (...)

19Like the Khoja Ismailis, albeit to a less degree of organization, Bohras are part of some sort of a scattered territory-less nation, but united by a strong sense of identity. For example, a Bohra who wishes to leave his/ her country of residence is encouraged to carry a kind of community passport (safai chitthi) issued by the local Dai administration and meant to ensure s/he is received by representatives of other communities. One previously saw that contrary to Ismailis, Bohras do not pledge allegiance to an imam in office, but to a substitute, who is actually vested with the powers of the imam. Given by the title of Mutlaq ( “his holiness”), the Dai has both religious and temporal power. Just like the Aga Khan, the powerful Ismaili monarch, his power cannot be shared nor contested. Hallowed with supernatural virtues, the Dai is reputed to be infallible, a characteristic that is common among old Sufi masters (Blank 2001: 159)6. Surrounded by various assessors (Mazoon, Mukazir, Mullah, Sheikh), he picks his successor before his death, quite often from among his sons or other members of his immediate family.

  • 7 Aqiqa is a ceremony practiced in every home on newborns on the 7th, 14th and 21st day after birth. (...)

20The administrative structure of the community government is close to that of the Ismailis. Scattered in about twenty countries, the Bohra people are part of close to 300 congregations or anjuman (215 in India, 75 in the rest of the world). Heading each one of them is the amil, the Dai’s religious representative and president of the community assemblies. In office for three years, the amil leads religious ceremonies: first haircut for young children (aqiqas)7, weddings (nikah), burial rites, etc. Through the Taisirum Nikah Comity (community organ charged with the matrimonial affairs), he regularly holds meetings of young men and girls to facilitate “matched” marriages.

  • 8 In East Africa, this responsibility is currently bestowed upon Sheikh Hussein A. Hebattullah.

21In every Indian province and in each of the diaspora countries (or group of countries), the Dai also appoints a “civil” administrator known as amin8. The amin is charged with collecting community taxes, delivering justice, managing educational institutions and settling day-to-day matters.

22For their part, the faithful elect in each of the religious constituencies, a primary council known as jamaat (Al Dai, 2001: 97). Subjected to community tax, they make several contributions to the Dai every year. The legal alms (zakat) add up in theory to 2.5 % of one’s income. A fraction of this goes to the collector. Another fraction is distributed locally to the poor. Khamzi (the “fifth”) is meant for funding the common expenditure. It also goes to an emergency fund meant to assist communities in difficult circumstances (expulsion, expropriations, etc.). In reality, due to lack of controls, the faithful who adhere to the “fiscal ratios” required by tradition are quite few.

23List of Bohra taxes:

  • Zakat: 2.5 % of one’s entire income (general budget)
  • Sila: voluntary contribution (general budget)
  • Fitra: for the poor, levied during the month of Ramadan
  • Nazar Muqam: levied for the mazun
  • Haqqun-Nass: for the salvation of souls during funerals (levied on the deceased’s family)
  • Khamzi ou Khums ( “fifth” of the income): sort of tax on profits levied on industrial and commercial businesses
  • Salam: personal offerings to the Dai

24In some respects, voluntary contributions (Fitra, Haqqun-Nass, Salaam) are show off expenses by the richest faithful, which are comparable to those of a potlatch when it is done to show the donors’ social prestige within the community (between €500 and 50,000 per person per year, with some of the 25 richest families in East Africa making record contributions of several hundreds of thousands of euros). The most generous taxpayers are given titles (mullah) and are entitled to wear the turban (pagri). Like among the Khoja Ismailis, the opaque system of community fund management and lack of any controls have led to a lot of suspicion and elicited sharp criticism from the dissenting minority, as we will see a little farther. Without ever responding to these accusations, the Dai administration prides itself in numerous philanthropic activities, which include the rehabilitation of historic monuments at the centre of Ismailis history in Syria, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan and India.

25However, in contrast with the Aga Khan, who presents a figure that is deep in Western ways, lives in Europe distant from most faithful, the Dai lives in India (in Surat, near Bombay), leads a very traditional life and is close to his followers. The sway the Dai has over the daily life of individuals is a remarkable characteristic of the Bohra – and is much more prominent than among the Khoja – which leads the outside observer to believe that the collective existence of the community (which is truly a tiny population) is permanently under the watch of some sort of family government.

  • 9 The new version of this oath notably stipulates: “Whatever his orders, you will obey the Dai or ris (...)
  • 10 The Dai, who was enthroned in 1966, is 98 years old (2011).

26From childhood (between 14 and 15 years), all faithful, young boys and girls, are bound to fulfil the mithaq ritual - oath of fidelity to the Dai, which thereafter is renewed every year on the 18th day of the Islamic Zial-Hadj month9. No major decision, like choosing the name of children, a spouse or business/financial investments, may be taken without his formal consent through his regional delegate, amil). In Kenya, which the current Dai (Syedna Muhammed Burhanuddin, 52nd in the history of the religious community) visits quite regularly, it is common to find traditional families delaying wedding ceremonies to await his advent10. For about ten years now, there has been a card system that makes it possible to assess the degree of the Dai’s satisfaction with followers: green card for loyalists, yellow card for individuals on probation and red card for those facing excommunication.

Bohras in East Africa

27Bohras spread to East Africa from the beginning of the 19th century. They first settled in Zanzibar, then along the Kenyan coast in Mombasa and Lamu. After Ismailis and Hindus, Bohras were among the three major Indian communities that settled in Zanzibar in the 19th century. According to Salvadori (1983: 257), there were in 1874 Bohra traders in Lamu who specialized in exporting the mangrove bark to India and selling packaging material in Zanzibar for transporting spices (some of these families, currently settled in Mombasa, have kept the nickname Lamuwallah). In 1887, a census established the Bohra population along the East African coast at 1340 and in Mombasa at 228 (Patel: 1997: 9). After the construction of the Mombasa-Kampala railway, and following the example of Patel Hindus, Bohras set up businesses (duka) in the Kenyan highlands (Salvadori, 1983: 219). Initially traders in all kinds of goods (both retail and wholesale), Bohras acquired subsequently a specialty in hardware, glassware and sanitary equipment business before some of them got into the construction business, then into real estate development. The Dai representative in East Africa, Sheikh Hussein Hebatullah, today owns the largest sanitary equipment and glassware import business in Kenya.

28Resettled over the last few years in the three East African countries (since their expulsion from Zanzibar in 1963 and Uganda in 1972), Bohras number remains low in Uganda (a few hundred). In Tanzania and Kenya, their population probably exceeds 10,000, with only the figures in Kenya having been statistically assessed (6,800 in 2001, and about 6,500 in 2005). Bohras in Kenya are mostly based in Nairobi (2,500 people) and Mombasa (1,500 people), but are also present in provincial towns (Malindi, Nakuru, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nyeri, etc.).

  • 11 Qarda Hasana Trust set up in 1980.
  • 12 Since interest loans (riba) were formally prohibited by the Dai in 1980, the size of this gift has (...)

29The Bohra economic structure is original, though they have similarities with the Khoja Ismailis, as we have seen. Through their financial foundations (credit bodies), Bohras have first and foremost a cooperative investment system that assures business apprentices guarantee of the community structure. Subject to consideration of business plans and various forms of family guarantees (financial and moral), these trusts grant short and medium term interest-free loans to investor applicants11. Loans for consumption are prohibited, unless they are for children’s education and wedding plans. All loans attract no interest (the interest is actually not obligatory, with the accepted practice being a thanksgiving gift by the borrower on the repayment day)12.

30The second socio-professional characteristic of the Bohra is their eagerness to modernize, in spite of their reputation for social and religious conservatism. Dedicating a large part of family and community revenue to education, Bohras are very keen on modern techniques, love automatic tools and electronics (many Bohra hardware merchants specialize selling this type of equipment). The Bohra were among the first businessmen in East Africa to acquire computers. The women are not new to the move towards modernity as Bohras insist on equal access to the education for girls, and particularly ensure they are encouraged to pursue technical professions (data processing, engineering, medicine).

  • 13 In 1990, citing the prohibition of interest payments, the Dai commanded all Bohras with paid accoun (...)

31However, the economic muscle of the Bohra community cannot be compared to that of the Ismailis. Since they are not in banking, insurance, tourism, or processing industries and are few in the liberal professions (apart from the active group of famous lawyers from the reformed section), Bohras tend to occupy mid-level positions, in conformity, one might say, with their moral rigour and cooperative economic structure. Though prohibiting interest on loans helps promote small businesses within the community, it impedes largescale economic plans by keeping Bohras away from large financial sectors and prospects of international investment13.

  • 14 See Patel (1997).

32Alibhai M. Jeevanjee, one of the figures from the Indian community during the colonial era, was a Bohra from Karachi. An entrepreneur in construction, he helped build several mosques, constructed many buildings in Nairobi (including the first stone house) and set up in the heart of the city the public garden that today bears his name. Founder in 1901 of the Mombasa African Standard, the oldest daily in Kenya (precursor of Nairobi’s East African Standard), he was the first Indian to sit in the colonial Legislative Council. In 1914, he co-founded the East African Indian National Congress (EAINC), the first Indian political organization. Alibhai M. Jeevanjee’s reputation also comes from his philanthropic activity (schools, sports fields, clinics, religious buildings etc.).14

Bohra administration in Kenya

33In 2001, the Dai administration in Kenya had nine congregations (jamaat), which, distributed in the main country’s districts, had 6,800 people in total, with 2,500 of them in Nairobi and 3,000 in Mombasa, – while some of the families lived in the smaller towns; Lamu, Malindi, Kisumu, Nakuru, Kitui, Mariakani and Eldoret (Al Dai, 2001: 97).

34According to community leaders, about 50 % of the community resources are allocated to congregations, for the maintenance of religious and school buildings, for example. How the rest of the money is used is more or less impossible to establish, since the amount left in the coffers of the central administration (including the Dai’s personal expenses and that of his entourage) cannot, as we mentioned earlier, be subjected to any checks. It is true that the Dai owns and manages several foundations dedicated to diverse causes in East Africa (health assistance to the destitute, funding the community’s education system and cooperative loans). Apart from handouts to poor families and victims of natural disasters, the foundations do not ensure services are rendered free of charge. Thus school fees and hospital expenses generally remain household responsibility. Similarly, the smallest entrepreneurs only get interest-free loans from credit bodies.

Table 6.2

Place Area of activity
Burhani Foundation Charity
Saifee Foundation Health
His Holiness Dr Syedna Taher Saifuddin
Memorial Foundation
Burhaniya Bohra Education Society Education
AlMadrasa-tus-Saifiyah Burhanuddin Mombasa Education
Faiz-e-Hussaini Trust Credit
Burhani Qardan Hasana Trust Nairobi Credit
Mohamedi Qardan Hasana Trust Credit
Taheri Qardan Hasana Trust Credit

35As we will see a little farther, the autocratic nature of the Dai administration in East Africa has elicited many commentaries and maintained discontent among the secessionist minority, as illustrated recently by rampant excommunication or more precisely of banishment (baraat). When a baraat is pronounced against a member of the community, his/her family and friends are required to break all ties with him/her. The convict is not only dispossessed of his/her follower status and is banned from mosques, community and receptions, but is also banished from society; he/she no longer deserves to be greeted; all his/her business and financial transactions are nullified. The indignity of the baraat reverberates on the family of the affected person, whose members are discredited forthwith (Luqmani 1987: 17). Interpreted in comparison with the Hindu caste system, an excommunicated Bohra becomes an “untouchable” (Nathwani Commission, 1979).

Social life

36The Bohra are a very close-knit community. Their social life is centred on religious activities, education of their children and the other sociable activities (women’s associations, sports clubs, etc.).

37In the three East African countries, more so in Kenya, Bohras come together in community districts, as it is generally the case for most members of the Indian diaspora. In the city of Mombasa, they occupy an urban islet known as Bohra Shamba. In Nairobi, the majority of Bohras live in the Saifee Park complex constructed in 1984-1985. Situated in the Langata district, southwest of the city, this residential unit is complete with a mosque, a clinic as well as a high school. Settlement in this part of the city is in keeping with an older settlement close to the central administrative and business district.

  • 15 Apse placed facing Mecca
  • 16 “An act of vengeance by the clergy against one of the most active reformists” according to Zarina P (...)

38Bohras have some of the most beautiful mosques in Kenya. The oldest used to be in Mombasa. Constructed by Alibhai M. Jeevanjee in the beginning of the previous century, it was demolished in 1983 by Dai Taher Saifuddin under the pretext that the qibla15 was not well placed16. Nairobi’s first Bohra mosque, built in the initial years of urban settlement (1912), was in the city centre, near the old business district. The most recent one is located inside the Saifee Park in the Langata district. Whereas entry by strangers into Bohra mosques used to be tolerated in the past – especially during weddings – it is today strictly reserved to adherents of the faith, another sign of a religious hard-line trend already mentioned elsewhere.

  • 17 Most pupils in the school are boarders or live within the residential complex. Bohra schools follow (...)

39Keen to ensure the best possible level of education in a pedagogical framework that maintains community culture and guarantees respect for their beliefs, Bohras devote large amounts of resources to educating their children. As mentioned previously, girls are not excluded of these programs, with similar efforts being devoted to their education at all levels. Due to a lack of sufficient means, the Bohra community in Kenya has only two schools in the country: one in Nairobi and the other in Mombasa. Located inside Nairobi’s Saifee Park, the private high school Al Madrasa Tus Saifyatul Burhaniyah had 258 pupils and 16 teachers in 200717.

40Pursuing studies abroad (Surat, Karachi, Canada, Malaysia) is often too costly for most of the middle class families.

41In all Bohra families, every child, boy or girl, regardless of his/her education is expected to receive several years of religious education. Conducted in the Bohra language of liturgy (lisan ud dawat), this education ends in adolescence with an oath of allegiance to the Dai (mithaq). Young people who complete their education are awarded the title of mumineen ( “believers”). Each of them is then provided with a Bohra identity card containing personal information (marriages and deaths) that is sent to Bombay by administrators of every congregation. Any faithful without this card cannot on any account participate in the community’s religious life (Blank, 2001: 180).

Brief history of Bohra dissent

  • 18 The issue of modernizing education was worsened years later by fresh accusations of embezzlement of (...)

42Like most religious movements, Bohras have been affected in the course of their history by numerous cases of internal dissent. One of the most significant cases dates back to 1836 in India when some scholars (ulemas), basing their dissent on Islamic customary teaching, challenged the hereditary nature of the responsibility of the Dai. The same challenge recurred and worsened in the beginning of the 20th century (1910) when a group of liberals accused the Dai of rejecting the establishment of a secondary school in Bombay that would apply methods and offer curricular from the West (particularly in the teaching of English). Excommunicated in India after instituting a law suit against the Dai, the dissident group found some adherents in Kenya, particularly in Alibhai M. Jeevanjee, whom we have already mentioned18.

43Numbering about 10,000 people in the world and 100 in Kenya (70 in Nairobi and 30 in Mombasa) the reformists have consistently refused to breakaway and persistently fought the “secessionist” tag. Without questioning the principle of “monarchy” in the structure, they criticize the autocratic nature of the powers invested in the Dai, denounce his extravagant lifestyle and demand the right to free debate. Coming from intellectual backgrounds generally (particularly liberal professions), they have a democratic structure themselves that links them with other liberal groups of the Indian diaspora.

44In 1955, three members of the reformist minority in Kenya proposed that members of every congregation elect a management committee that would be bound to release financial reports every year. After approval by Dai Taher Saiffudin during his visit to Kenya in 1963, this proposal was then disowned by the administration of the current Dai. The progressive group was barred from entering mosques, a move that elicited bitter protests, especially during funeral ceremonies (Taibebji 1986: 7; Hassanali 1993).

  • 19 Following this expulsion, the reformists filed a lawsuit in the local community administration befo (...)
  • 20 Twice in Mombasa in 1975 and 1998, relatives were threatened with excommunication or actually excom (...)

45Since then, relations between community leaders and reformists have continued to deteriorate in India and the rest of the world, particularly in East Africa: protests by reformists over the Dai’s local leadership appointee in Nairobi (1967); forceful expulsion of reformists from community premises in Nairobi (1968)19; various reprisals against followers having friendly or family ties with the reformists (1968, 1975 and 1998)20.

  • 21 The Nairobi Group Charitable Society and the Mombasa Group Charitable Society (1993).

46Facing isolation, the reformists attempted to regroup. After creating an international federation (World Progressive Dawoodi Bohra Conference), they held several meetings bringing together hundreds of participants (Britain in 1986 and Canada in 1995 and 2001). In order to facilitate the continuation of their endogamic practices, an international marriage bureau was established. In Kenya, the reformists opened a communing centre (Sir Yusuf Ali Club) where usual ceremonies are held (muharram, weddings, funerals). Two charitable organizations have been set up to complement this structure21.

47During the Dai’s recent visit to Kenya (2001), a reconciliation attempt was set in motion, with the reformists being invited to listen to the patriarch’s sermon at the big community mosque in Nairobi. About twelve people accepted the invitation but later all refused to take the oath of fidelity (mithaq) as required of them.


  • 22 Although this transfer was in total conformity with the para-fiscal rules of the Bohra community, i (...)
  • 23 Charles Njonjo, a very well-known Gikuyu political leader in Kenya became chairman of the Burhani f (...)

48In spite of its unchecked, inquisitive and authoritarian nature, the Bohra religious administration has proved the efficiency of its economic and social work, perhaps explaining thereby why progressive opposition has failed to succeed against a globally prosperous community that has managed to adapt in conformity with the modern world, maintain its religious identity and keep its traditions. Even though they have succeeded quite well in settling in their various host countries (particularly Kenya and Tanzania), the Bohra have not been spared political difficulties, either for having brushed aside accusations over cosmopolitanism or on the contrary due to local political involvement. This is why in 1969 (an example of the former accusation), the Dai, who was then visiting Tanzania, was expelled from the country by President Nyerere for having transferred to India proceeds of taxes paid by the faithful (Sanchawala, n.d.)22. In Kenya, on the other hand, Bohras have been accused of funding the election campaign through a foundation whose chairman was a Gikuyu politician23.

49The future of Bohras, like that of other Indian communities, is uncertain in East Africa. Hardly attracted to Western countries (unlike Ismailis, for example, many of whom are known to have recently emigrated to Canada), Bohras have time and again affirmed their attachment to Africa, the continent in which most of them have roots for at least the early 20th century. The prospects of their continued stay in African countries depend on several factors over which they do not have total control: success in their professional activities, security of their businesses, understanding between them and Africans, particularly African Muslims, who are not always inclined towards them.



ADAM, Michel

2004, “Qui sont les populations d’origine indienne au Kenya?”, Nairobi, IFRA, Les Cahiers d’Afrique de l’Est, 23: 1-39.

2010, « A microcosmic minority: the Indo-Kenyans of Nairobi », in Hélène CHARTON-BIGOT & Deyssi RODRIGUEZ-TORRES, Nairobi Today. The Paradox of a Fragmented City. Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Mkuki na Nyota, French Institute for Research in Africa (IFRA): 215-268.

ADAMJIH, Hakim 2006, « A short history of excommunication in the Dawoodi Bohra community », The Bohra Chronicle, Mumbai, December 2006.

Al-Dai Al-Fatimi Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. An illustrated biography. Badri Mahal, Al-Jamea-tus-Saifiyah, 2001.

BLANK, Jonah 2001, Mullahs on the Mainframe. Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras. Chicago & London, University of Chicago Press.

Dawoodi Bohra Youth Group, n.d., A Brief History of the Dawoodi Bohra Community. London, Dawoodi Bohra Youth Group.

ENGINEER, Asghar Ali 1989, The Muslim Communities of Gujarat. An Explanatory Study of Bohra, Khoja and Memmons. Delhi, Ajanta Pub.

HASSANALI, Mohamed Ali 1993, The Dispute existing in the Bohra Community in Kenya. Letter to Justice J.F.H. Hamilton, August 20th 1993.

HOLLINGSWORTH, L.W. 1960, The Asians of East Africa. London, MacMillan.

JHAVERI, K. M. 1933, « A Legendary History of the Bohora », Journal of the Bombay Royal Asiatic Society, 9: 37-52.

LUQMANI, Ahmed 1986, « Supplement to the Main Conference Report », in Dawoodi Bohra International Conference, 9th-10th August 1986, Leicester, UK.

Nathwani Commission. 1979, Bombay.

PATEL, Zarina 1997, Challenge to Colonialism. The Struggle of Alibhai Mulla Jeevangee for Equal Rights in Kenya. Nairobi, Publishers Distribution Services.

ROY, Shibani 1984, The Dawoodi Bohras: An Anthropological Perspective. Delhi, B.R. Publishing Corporation.

SALVADORI, Cynthia 1983, Through open Doors. A View of Asian Cultures in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenway Publications

SANCHAWALA, H.K.n.d., « Expulsion of his Holiness, Dr Mohammed Burhanuddin Saheb from Tanzania, East Africa ». Cuttings from and Photocopy-Blocks of Newspapers of East Africa, Dawoodi Bohra Bulletin, Surat (India), Progressive Printing Press.

TAIBEBDJI, Rehana 1986, « Reformists in Kenya, Supplement to the Main Conference Report », in Dawoodi Bohra International Conference, 9th-10th August 1986, Leicester, UK.


1 Inventory of literature on this topic was accomplished in Kenya through research on archives. The study was also based on interviews with representatives of the two majority and reformist sections.

2 According to Engineer (1989), there were, in 1980, 70,000 Bohras resident outside India, especially in Pakistan (30,000), Tanzania (7,500), Madagascar (6,500) and Kenya (5,800). Other estimates quote a general figure of 1.2 million Bohra faithful.

3 The contrast between those adherents to literal interpretation (Ahl al Zahir) and adherents to esoteric interpretation (Ahl al Batin) exists throughout the history of Islam since its origins.

4 Boiled and pounded cereals eaten with mutton.

5 Just like in the Hindu community, Bohra businessmen begin their new financial year with Diwali celebrations. The Dai or his representative, Amil, are sought to write blessings (bismillah) on new financial records in exchange for a certain sum of money (salaam).

6 Previously a simple “regent” of the imam (kal m’asum), the 51st Dai declared himself to have the same spiritual status as full imams, meaning infallible (ma’sum).

7 Aqiqa is a ceremony practiced in every home on newborns on the 7th, 14th and 21st day after birth. The baby’s hair is shaved by the amil and a goat is sacrificed.

8 In East Africa, this responsibility is currently bestowed upon Sheikh Hussein A. Hebattullah.

9 The new version of this oath notably stipulates: “Whatever his orders, you will obey the Dai or risk being a sinner (haram). You will never be hostile to the Dai. You will never complain. You will unconditionally support him and never tempt to deceive him” (Engineer 1980: 159).

10 The Dai, who was enthroned in 1966, is 98 years old (2011).

11 Qarda Hasana Trust set up in 1980.

12 Since interest loans (riba) were formally prohibited by the Dai in 1980, the size of this gift has no fixed rate but it is nevertheless proportional to the loan size of the loan, and it is therefore, in reality disguised interest, although generally lower.

13 In 1990, citing the prohibition of interest payments, the Dai commanded all Bohras with paid accounts in Bombay’s Mercantile Cooperative Bank to end their investment funds. This decision elicited protest from the reformist minority.

14 See Patel (1997).

15 Apse placed facing Mecca

16 “An act of vengeance by the clergy against one of the most active reformists” according to Zarina Patel, A.M. Jeevanjee’s granddaughter (2007).

17 Most pupils in the school are boarders or live within the residential complex. Bohra schools follow the Kenyan curriculum, but incorporate religious education directives which are given by the Bohra central administration in Bombay. The classes are mixed, however boys and girls sit in separate rows. Three languages are taught: English, Arabic and Swahili. The pupils are also taught data processing and sporting activities, in accordance with the Anglo-Saxon education model widely offered in Kenya. In 2005, five pupils from this high school were admitted to the University of Nairobi.

18 The issue of modernizing education was worsened years later by fresh accusations of embezzlement of funds. In 1917, Dai Taher Saifuddin (Mohamed Badruddin’s successor opposed to the modern school of thought) was accused personally of spending for his personal use the contents of a mausoleum collection box intended for helping the poor. During the hearing of the lawsuit against him brought before the court of Bombay, the Dai refused to disclose his accounts. Following the hearing, which did not have a follow-up, the dissenting voices were excommunicated and declared mudai ( “outcasts”; Patel 1997: 205).

19 Following this expulsion, the reformists filed a lawsuit in the local community administration before the Kenyan courts. They won the case but the ruling was overturned following an appeal in 1975.

20 Twice in Mombasa in 1975 and 1998, relatives were threatened with excommunication or actually excommunicated for participating in the funeral of their family members identified with the reformist minority. More incidents of confrontation worth mentioning are: court action by the reformists against the local leaders in Uganda (1971); denying reformists access to the community cemeteries in Nairobi (1978); condemnation by reformists of the patrimonial management of foundations (1917-1979-1983); reformist protests in Kenya over exorbitant community taxes and fees, clamour for decentralized management of the fiscal system (1998). “Charitable organizations meant to work for the good of the community are now being used for the sole benefit of the Dai’s family. Funds belonging to these organizations, as well as the proceeds of fees levied on the faithful are invested in industry whereas as far back as 1993, 30 % of members of the Bohra community in Bombay were living in slums” (Golibar, Santacruz, Jogeshwari, Dharavi). “A law unto himself. How the Syedna of the Dawoodi Bohras runs a State within a State”, The Illustrated Weekly of India, November 13-19th, 1983: 7-13. “A Bohra must pay fees to the Dai before birth and after death. There is a fees levied on foetuses as well as on dead ancestors”, “Dawood Bohra’s World of Secrecy”, in The Concorde, Mombasa, 14 August 1998.

21 The Nairobi Group Charitable Society and the Mombasa Group Charitable Society (1993).

22 Although this transfer was in total conformity with the para-fiscal rules of the Bohra community, it was then considered “illegal expatriation of foreign currency”. The rumour has it that despite his advanced age, the Dai visits Tanzania every year to hunt lions.

23 Charles Njonjo, a very well-known Gikuyu political leader in Kenya became chairman of the Burhani foundation (charged with distributing financial aid to families in difficulty). Charles Njonjo, who was appointed a trustee for life and a signatory to foundation accounts, was accused of using part of the community funds to finance elections.

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