In Photos: The Dawoodi Bohras in Egypt: A long history behind mosque restorations

Zeinab El-Gundy , Sunday 13 Aug 2023

The Shia Dawoodi Bohra community has a profound and enduring presence in predominantly Sunni Egypt, marked not only by its role in the restoration of historic mosques which house the remains of Ahl-Al-Bayt (descendants of the Prophet Muhammed) but also by a multifaceted cultural engagement.

Dawoodi Bohras
A group of Dawoodi Bohras at Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo wearing "Libas Al-Anwar" in March 2023 following the Mosque renovations. Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy


On Tuesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Sultan Mufaddal Saifuddin, the spiritual leader of the Bohra community worldwide, inaugurated the restored Al-Sayeda Nafisa Mosque in Cairo.

The Bohra community has recently funded major restoration projects of various historic mosques in the country.

Al-Sayeda Nafisa Mosque is the latest in a series of mosques in Egypt that have been restored by the Egyptian government in cooperation with the Bohra community.

The Indian-based community has contributed to the restoration of  Al-Hussein Mosque and Al-Hakim Mosque, which is also known for the Bohras as Al-Anwar Mosque, in Cairo.

The Bohras are also contributing to the restoration of the Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque and the Al-Aqmar Mosque.

In recognition of his ongoing support for historical, cultural, and charitable events in Egypt, particularly in the field of restoring historic mosques, President El-Sisi bestowed the country's highest order, the Nile Sash, on Sultan Saifuddin during his visit to Egypt.

Sultan Saifuddin has donated 10 million Egyptian pounds to the "Tahya Misr Fund" on three separate occasions in three previous visits to the country in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

President Sisi and Sultan Saifuddin in Sayeda Nafisa last week. Photo presidency.

Roots in Egypt of old!

The close relationship between Egypt and the Bohra community may seem surprising to some, given that Egypt is a predominantly Sunni country with a very tiny minority of adherents to the Shia branch of Islam.

The Bohra community, who originally hails from Gujarat, India, has a largely low-key, but long, history in Egypt dating back to the Fatimid era.

Some even believe that Cairo was the cradle of the Dawoodi Bohra community.

In the 11th century AD, the Dawoudi Bohra community came into being after the Fatimid Caliph Al-Mustansir Billah sent a missionary called Abdullah from Yemen to India to spread the Ismaili Shia doctrines.

The newly converted Indian Shias, who became known as Bohras – a word derived from the Gujarati vahaurau meaning "to trade" - attracted more followers across the Indian subcontinent and pledged allegiance to the Fatimid Caliphate in Cairo.

After the collapse of the Fatimid Caliphate in the 12th century AD, the Bohras formed their own leadership hierarchy and independent set of beliefs, eventually becoming a unique sub-sect inside the Ismaili Shia tradition in India.

Four centuries later, the Bohras were split into several groups, with the biggest and most influential one being the Dawoodi Bohras.

The Dawoodi Bohras who believe that they are direct descendants of the Fatimids have a major interest in restoring Fatimid heritage sites in Cairo.

Back to Cairo!

In 1938, Sultan Taher Saifuddin, the 51st Dai al-Mutlaq (spiritual leader) of the Bohras, visited Egypt.

Shortly before he died in 1965, Sultan Taher donated to construct a new shrine decorated with gold and silver for Al-Hussein Mosque and Shrine where the head of Prophet Muhammed's grandson revered by Shia is believed to be buried in Cairo.

The new shrine was inaugurated in 1966 by Sultan Taher's son, Sultan Mohammed Burhanuddin (the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq), ushering in a new era of cooperation between the Egyptian state and the Bohra community.

President Gamal Abdel-Nasser met Sultan Burhanuddin during his visit to Egypt.

Al-Azhar University awarded Burhanuddin an honorary doctorate.

President Nasser in his meeting with the late Sultan of Bohra Mohammed Burhanuddin in Cairo in 1966. Photo: Nasser Official Archives

In 1978, the Bohras, led by Sultan Burhanuddin, cooperated with the Egyptian government to restore the Al-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque. 

President Anwar Sadat awarded Sultan Burhanuddin the Order of the Nile in the same year.

President Anwar Sadat with Sultan of Bohras Mohammed Burhanuddin in the inauguration of El-Sayeda Zeinab Mosque in the year 1978 in Cairo. Photo: Al-Musawar Magazine archives

In 1980, President Sadat and Sultan Burhanuddin also co-inaugurated the Al-Hakim Mosque in the historical Al-Muizz district, which was the heart of Cairo during Fatimid rule - after restorations.

In the 1990s, the Bohra community contributed in cooperation with the Egyptian government and the United Nations Development Program to the restoration of  Al-Muizz Street.

Other Ismaili Shia sects contributed to these efforts of restoring historic Fatimid-era sites such as the Nizari Ismaili, represented by the world-famous Aga Khan Foundation.

The Bohra community also contributed to restoring three other Fatimid-era mosques in the 1990s: Al-Aqmar, Al-Lulua, and Al-Juyushi.

Al-Aqmar is currently undergoing another round of restoration as a joint effort between the Bohras and the Egyptian government.

Unfounded rumours!

The Bohras faced a campaign of rumours and attacks in the 1990s in some tabloid and partisan Egyptian newspapers.

These rumours included claims that the Bohras "owned 70 percent of the buildings on Al-Muizz Street" and "were holding bizarre rituals at Al-Hakim Mosque to spread Shia doctrine in the country."

The media-shy community did not engage with the tabloids' rumours despite the flashy headlines.

Indeed, the Bohras had nothing to hide since Al-Muizz Street was open to the public and Al-Hakim Mosque was open to both Sunni and Shia Muslims under a ministry of religious endowment-appointed Sunni Imam. 

The Bohras have never immersed themselves in politics or any Sunni-Shia chasm, in the Middle East, maintaining good relations with the Egyptian state across different administrations from President Nasser to President El-Sisi.

Al-Muizz Street, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, is home to at least 29 official heritage sites, including mosques and schools among other buildings which date from the Fatimid era to the Ottoman era.

A small but unique group

According to the Indian embassy in Cairo, a small number of Indian Dawoodi Bohras have resettled in Egypt since the mid-1970s.

The embassy estimates that 600 Bohras live and work in Egypt, mostly in Cairo, Giza and Alexandria.

That number does not include Bohras from other nationalities like Pakistanis and South Africans.

In June 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Al-Hakim Mosque during a visit to Egypt.

PM Modi, a one-time Chief Minister of Gujarat, the centre of the Dawoodi Bohra community in India, also held a special meeting with members of the Bohra community.

Libas Al-Anwar

The low-key Bohras in Egypt are distinguished by their unique attire, called Libas Al-Anwar, which is worn by both men and women.

It was declared as the unified attire for Bohras worldwide by Sultan Mohammed Burhanuddin during the inauguration of the Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo in 1980 as part of a “Fatimid culture revival.”

Today, Libas Al-Anwar is the Bohras' signature attire in Egypt and around the globe.   

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