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Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Book Review - Holding on to Cairo's Ismaili Shi'i roots

Soad Othman offers a fine-grained ethnography of the Bohra sect of Ismaili Shi'ism

Mahmoud El-Wardani , Tuesday 3 Apr 2018
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Al-Tawa’if Al-Agnabiyya fi Misr – Al-Bohra Namozagan (The Foreign Sects in Egypt – Al-Bohra as a case study) by Dr. Soad Othman, the General Egyptian Book Organization, Popular Culture Series, Cairo 2017. pp.204

After more than forty years of continuous academic work in the social sciences, and dozens of research projects and books on anthropology and folklore, Dr. Soad Othman presents a field study of a unique sect within the Ismaili branch of Shi'i Islam. The author points out in the work's introduction that this is “one of her final works if not her last, because it was completed after her sixtieth year of age."

She explained that her interest in studying the sect of the Bohra dates back to the winter of 2010, but the stage of intensive collecting of field data didn’t begin until April 2012. It continued until August 2015, until which she made several visits to this sect’s gathering places and residential areas, attended religious celebrations in mosques and zawayas (prayer gathering places), conducted tens of interviews and met many religious figures and followers. She also took a number of photos of various shrines and the sect's members, which she presents in her book.

The refined study consists of three chapters and combines the theoretical and the substantive. The first chapter, titled “The Bohras from Founding to the Organisation,” she explains to the reader that the Bohra is a branch of the Ismaili Shi'ism that became popular in India and Yemen after Saladin's conquest of the Fatimids. As a minority religious sect, the Bohra preferred trade over politics for centuries.

The numbers of this community ranges between one million and two million living mostly in India, as well as few in Pakistan, Yemen, east Africa and the Arabian Gulf. It would be impossible to accurately estimate their numbers in Egypt. In the late 20th century, most chose to reside in the Mohandesseen district of Giza governorate, in close proximity to each other and near to their sect's headquarters, administrative offices and the palace of the sultan. They also frequent certain hotels in El-Gammaliya neighbourhood during their holy events.

This sect goes back to the eleventh century CE, and they cling today to their origins, which they trace to Fatimid Egypt. It is known that the Shia, according to their belief, resort to Al-Taqiyya (denial of religious belief and practice in the face of religious or political persecution). When they migrated to Yemen and India after the fall of the Fatimids, they intermingled with the Indian population, especially in Gujarat. Many of the locals joined the sect. But the Bohra did not forget their old shrines in Cairo. Among their holy sites in Cairo are the mosque of Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah. The Bohra believe that the Caliph Al-Hakim, who disappeared in 1021, will return one day from the mosque's well. They also revere the Al-Aqmar Mosque on El-Muizz Street in Old Cairo, and a number of other Fatimid-era mosques in the Muqattam district and El-Geyoushi area.

In India, the sect developed while its members have been keen not to engage in politics and are characterised by pacificity and seclusion. Their sultan became one of the wealthiest people in India, where his annual income exceeds twenty million dollars. He owns huge economic institutions and hotel chains and his family is engaged in the gold trade.

The Da'i al-Mutlaq (the sect's sultan) presides over the community above his deputies. Members of the sect pay specified annual fees to their him, and every Bohra member is committed to total obedience to any decision taken by his religious superiors.

Othman's study aims to provide a comprehensive story of the Bohras, and does so in minutest detail. The second chapter shows that, according to a source in Egypt's Interior Ministry, not a single Egyptian has joined the Bohra community. All of them are either of Indian or Yemeni origin. The second chapter also explores the the private and economic lives of the Bohras in Egypt, including their personal investments which amount to nearly two billion dollars, their generosity in donations and financing of mosque restoration, and political relations they are keen to maintain with high officials. Their sultans have been welcomed in the presidential palace during the rule of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar Al-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak and Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. They also maintain close relations with the security bodies which are responsible for their safety as a small religious minority.

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