Bohra

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Bohra

ETHNONYMS: Bohora, Daudi Bohra, Lotia, Vohora


Orientation

The Bohra, who numbered 118,307 in 1901, are found today in large numbers in the Surat and Bharuch districts of Gujarat State, in Bombay city, and in all major trade centers of India. Their religious and political center is at Surat, where the high priest of the Daudi Bohra, the main section of the community, resides. Although the Daudi Bohras (also known as the Lotias, from their word for "water pot," because their turban is traditionally shaped like one) represent the largest and most widespread class of Bohras, there are several other divisions of trading Bohras: Alia, Jaafari, Nagoshi, and Sulaimani Bohras. In addition to the trading Bohras there is a large and equally prosperous group of village Bohras whose occupation is farming. The origin of the name "Bohra" is believed to be traceable to the class of Hindu Bohras who are still found in Jodhpur District, Rajasthan. One theory suggests the word is derived from the Gujarati word meaning "to trade," the occupation of the first Hindu converts to Islam. Many Barias and Nagar Brahmans to this day bear the surname "Bohora."

The Daudi and most of the other Bohras speak Gujarati, an Indo-European language; many living in large cities such as Bombay also speak Urdu and English.


History and Cultural Relations

AU Bohras can be traced to converts made by Shiite Missionaries of the Ismaili sect in the eleventh century. Some of them claim to come from Egyptian-Arab and Yemen-Arab ancestors. Others maintain they are entirely of Hindu blood; according to the Sunni Bohras they were converted from many castes. The Alia Bohras take their name from Ali, who founded the sect in a.d. 624. The Alias strongly resemble the Sulaimani Bohras in their appearance and customs; the Daudi Bohras are the wealthiest, most organized, and most ubiquitous sect of Bohras. The main difference between them and the other Muslims is that they pay special veneration to Ali, to his sons, Hassan and Hussain, and to their high priest, the mullah sahib of Surat. The Jaafari Bohras trace their name to Jaafar Sherazi who converted them to the Sunni faith (they are also known as Patanis after their headquarters in that city). Jaafari Bohras are the descendants of those Daudi Bohras who changed to the orthodox (Sunni) faith during the reign of Muzaffar I, governor of Gujarat in a.d. 1391. Nagoshis or "nonfleshites" are a very small schism founded around a.d. 1789. The founder was excommunicated because he proposed a peculiar doctrine, the most noteworthy feature being that to eat animal flesh was sin. The Nagoshis have now almost disappeared. The Sulaimani Bohras are the descendants of the converts made in Arabia in the sixteenth century by a missionary sent by a Surat Bohra. They received their name due to a dispute surrounding the succession of the high priest of the Gujarat Bohras in a.d. 1588: based on the merits of a letter from the high priest sent to Sulaiman of the Yaman priesthood, he claimed to be the successor to the high priest; however, only a very small minority accepted his claim and so Sulaiman went back to Arabia. This small Minority who upheld his claims were thus called Sulaimanis. The Sunni Bohras are the descendants of Hindu converts of the unarmed castes who converted at the close of the fourteenth and during the fifteenth centuries. Throughout the twentieth century the Daudi Bohras have been split by factional strife, the orthodox followers of the high priest frequently rioting against reformists, attacking them in their homes or even in the mosque, divorcing them by fiat, refusing to permit burial of the dead, throwing acid on individuals, etc. The police have commonly been powerless to stop such behavior.

Economy

Almost all Daudi, Alia, and Sulaimani Bohras live by trade. Some are merchants with large dealings with the Middle East, China, Thailand, and Zanzibar, and many are local traders in hardware, silks, hides, horns, and cattle. Most, however, are traditionally town and village shopkeepers, selling hardware, cloth, stationery, books, groceries, and spices; a fewespecially in the larger cities like Bombay, Surat, Ahmedabad, and Barodaare confectioners; and many are also in government service. Many Jaafari Bohras are also traders and silk weavers. Traditionally, most of the Sunni Bohras are peasant farmers and landholders. All the Bohra groups have a high proportion of college-educated people in the professional classes as well. As Muslims the Bohras abstain from alcohol or other drugs and pork or pork products. The Bohras are noted for their rich beef, fowl, and fish curries. The preferred cooking medium is ghee (clarified butter).

In accordance with Muslim tradition, women work mainly in the home running the household and caring for children. The poorer peasant farmers and their womenfolk work in the fields side by side. With increased education some Bohra women have moved into academia and the professions. Men still head the family business, however.


Kinship and Marriage

Bohra descent is patrilineal. Traditionally the Daudi and Jaafaris have been endogamous; however, the other Bohra groups do marry other Muslims outside their own groups, except in some of the more remote villages of the Sunni where they would seldom marry outside their own class, a remnant of their Hindu heritage. Cross-cousin marriage is usual but polygyny, although permissible, is rare.


Sociopolitical Organization

The traditional head of the Daudi Bohras is the mullah of Surat. Sometimes even claiming a divine status, the head mullah is the absolute authority in all issues of religious and civil importance. Discipline in religious matters generally is enforced by fines; cases of adultery, drunkenness, and other serious offenses traditionally were punished by fines, flogging, and excommunication or ostracism. Every settlement of Daudis has its mullah or a deputy of the head mullah. In addition there are four grades of mullahs: Mayan, which means literally "the permitted" (to rule); Mukasir, "the executor"; Mashaikh, "the elder"; and Mullah, "the guardian." They earn their livelihoods as schoolmasters or by some craft. Traditionally mullahs are trained for their duties in a college in Surat. Every Daudi settlement has its school taught by the local mullah and a Muslim lay teacher. Much of the absolute authority of the mullahs, however, has in recent years been challenged by a reformist movement, which has led in some instances to social boycott of the reformers by the orthodox followers.


Religion

The Daudi Bohras are Shias of the Mustaalian division of the great Ismaili sect. The main differences between their beliefs and practices and those of regular Muslims are: the Daudi Bohras pay special attention to Ali, to his sons, Hassan and Hussain, and to their high priest, the Mullah Sahib of Surat; they pay special attention to circumcision; they reject the validity of the three caliphs, Abu Bakr Sidik, Umar, and Usman; and at death a prayer for pity on the soul and the body of the deceased is laid in the dead man's hand. The Jaafari Bohras are Sunnis in faith. They have no religious head, but many traditionally have followed spiritual guides. Many of them are known as Kabarias from being devoted to the kabar or grave of Pir Muhammad Shah at Ahmedabad. As already stated, the Nagoshis' founder held the peculiar doctrine that animal food was sinful; otherwise their religious sect is very much like the Alia sect. The Sulaimani Bohras only differ from the Daudi in their recognition of the religious head of the sect. Their high priest traditionally lives in Najram in the Hifa in Arabia. The Alia Bohras strongly resemble the Sulaimani Bohras in their religious practices. Many Sunni Bohras traditionally have spiritual guides, who are given much respect, and many also still keep to certain Hindu practices. They give death and marriage dinners; they sometimes give Hindu names to their children or modify Muslim ones. Some Sunni Bohras, however, are followers of the Gheit-Mukallid teachers of the Wahabi sect, who follow strict Muslim customs.


Bibliography

Engineer, Asghar Ali (1980). The Bohras. Sahibabad: Vikas Publishing House.


Enthoven, Reginald E., ed. (1920). "Bohoras." The Tribes and Castes of Bombay. Vol. 1,197-207. Bombay: Government Central Press. Reprint. 1975. Delhi: Cosmo Publications.


Insaf, Saifuddin (1986). The Bohra Controversy (As Reflected through Newspapers ) (in Gujarati). Surat: Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community Publications.

JAY DiMAGGIO