The passing of the 52nd da'i al-mutlaq, Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin in Mumbai on January 17th wasn't a complete surprise. Members of the one million strong Dawoodi Bohra community had begun to notice the deteriorating health of their da'i more acutely in 2011, when at the age of 100, he suffered a debilitating stroke that made it difficult for him to write or speak. Before this time, he remained publicly active, visiting his followers regularly, both in the Subcontinent and beyond, addressing the community at various religious gatherings, especially those surrounding the auspicious months of Ramadan and Muharram, the latter central to the piety of many Shi'a Muslims. Despite his ill-heath, he remained, of course, at the helm of an intricate hierarchy of Bohra leadership, but had at least not publicly, declared a successor before his centenary.
Before his fateful stroke, it was assumed by some that it would be his second-in-command, his younger half-brother by three decades, Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who would inherit his mantle. Khuzaima had occupied the position of the da'i madhun, an appointment made by Syedna Burhanuddin himself, merely 28 days after he took over the da'i-ship from his father in 1965. However, two weeks after his fateful attack, the then-head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, in the presence of a gathering of followers, found himself flanked by his second son on one side, and by his son-in-law on the other. While the da'i himself couldn't speak, due to his condition, his son-in-law made a public declaration on the da'i's behalf in Gujarati, the regional Indian dialect which the vast majority of Bohras from the Subcontinent converse in. In his address, he stated that the da'i had appointed his second son, Mufaddal Saifuddin as his mansoos (designate-successor) during a brief but fortuitous moment in his recovery. For the vast majority of Bohras, the name and designation of their next da'i was accepted as a fait accompli. What has until now been the official website of the community, also proclaims him as the community's head.
But barely hours before the funeral of the late da'i earlier this month, Syedna Burhanuddin's brother, Khuzaima, filmed and posted a public announcement online, declaring that he had been made the heir-apparent 50 years prior through a non-public or secret declaration known as a khangi nass. While there are several letters on the official website of his secretariat which allude to his accession, the language itself is not entirely clear and one can see how those suspect of the claim might contest it. Given how much is at stake here, not only the inheritance and leadership of an important responsibility, but also a financial empire and the direction of a number of Dawoodi Bohra institutions, it is important to ask how succession functions in a community like the Bohras who rely on the principle of nass or explicit designation. And how is it that two individuals can simultaneously claim nass for themselves, when the purpose of an explicit appointment such as this is to ensure continuity of succession in an unequivocal way.
In its theological sense, the term nass was originally used to designate the mechanism by which one Shi'a Imam appointed his next-in-line. This declaration could happen in the lifetime of an Imam or posthumously through his writings. In communities such as the Bohras, where the Imam is hidden or in a state of inaccessibility (satr), the mechanism of nass has often been evoked to designate other kinds of leadership such as that of the da'I al-mutlaq who at present assumes the headship of the community in the Imam's absence. This, by no means, is the first time that the nass has led to a contest between two rival parties, claiming appointments for themselves.
The Bohras, like all Shi'a Muslim communities, are predicated on the idea of a particular form of succession that took place after the Prophet. In Shi'a belief, it was the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali bin Abi Talib who inherited both spiritual knowledge and temporal authority after the Prophet had passed from this world in 632 CE. Despite the more than thirty years that separated the two, Ali's role as inheritor of the Prophetic function of guidance, although not one aided by Revelation, was underscored by his close familial ties to the Prophet, a function further emboldened through his role as a steadfast companion. While the Prophet accepted the hand of many of the daughters of his companions, who were much closer to him in age, he offered his own daughters to only two: Umar and Ali. While Umar and Ruqaiyya had one son together, it was through the Prophet's eldest daughter, Fatima who was married to Ali, that the offspring of the lineage of Shi'a Imams unfolded. For in Ali was vested a special quality which provided the connection, Shi'a Muslims argue, between Prophethood and Imamat. Through successive generations, each Imam's inheritor was declared through a process of nass, a form of explicit designation, in which one Imam through the aid of Divine Command, outwardly selected the individual who would succeed him. For Shi'a Muslims, the bloodline of the Prophet was and remains essential to the position of the Imam. For it is through both biological and spiritual genealogy that the Imam was able to fulfill his role and destiny in the world.
Despite the provision of nass, there have been ambiguities throughout Muslim history, as to what constitutes "explicit" designation, even from the founding moments of Islam. Shi'a Muslims believe that Ali's spiritual inheritance and political leadership was secured when mid-route between Mecca and Medina in the pond-saddled valley, known as Ghadir Khumm, the Prophet raised Ali's hand and declared him as his mawla, a term which has been interpreted widely as close friend, client, master and successor. While Sunni Muslims also acknowledge the event which took place shortly before the Prophet's passing on his return from his final pilgrimage, they see its significance in history as muted, and not bearing the gravity given to it by Ali's supporters.
Throughout Shi'a history, there have been rival claimants for the position of Imam, most often between brothers, who claim that their predecessor had appointed them to the exclusion of the other. This has been exacerbated in situations where the person designated with nass, a declaration thought to be perfect because it is God-given and only enacted through a human, has predeceased his father. As a result, in a number of communities including among the Bohras, it is believed that once a nass is made, it cannot be rescinded. This has not only led to bifurcation within Shi'a groups, and ultimately the creation of a number of Shi'a communities, but has also taken a very personal and human toll as united families crumble against the pressures and weight such rivalries can cause.
The vast majority of Shi'a Muslims today, despite the lineage they follow, do not have access to their Imam because he is not-apparent. He is hidden from them and in his absence others have taken on the responsibility to lead. However, this recent case amongst the Dawoodi Bohras, also pits two very different visions of Islam and rightful practice against each other, for the two candidates differ heavily on the status of women, the use and benefit of technology and social media, as well as other issues. What happens in the weeks and months ahead will not only determine on which side history lies, but also how the next generation of Bohra Muslims will understand and interpret what it means to be Muslim in the modern world.