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Canada conference 2001 - an empowering experience

Reformist Dawoodi Bohras from all over the world gathered in Canada from 3 to 6 August 2001 for a world conference to express solidarity and reaffirm their commitment to the reform movement. A strong and determined section of Bohras are fighting for reforms in their community for more than three decades. They claim that the Bohra priesthood has distorted the teachings of their faith and is exploiting the community in the name of religion.

Dawoodi Bohras are a small sect of Ismaili Muslims who trace their origins to Prophet Mohammed's progeny. It's a community comprising mainly of traders and businessmen and is spread all over the world with the main centers of population in India, Pakistan and East Africa.

The conference in Hamilton, 100 km from Toronto, was attended by more than 150 delegates from India, Kenya, United States, the UK and Canada. The main thrust of the conference was to build connections among reformists scattered all over the world and to grapple with the challenges of living in the West.

Although reformist Bohras living in the West face the same kind of social pressures and identity crises as other minorities, what they find unique is the challenge of keeping their youth involved in the reform movement. And since they are a minority within a minority, they feel it's all the more difficult for them to pass on their Dawoodi Bohra identity to the new generation born in the West.

Hasnain Rajabali, a dynamic young speaker from New York, spoke on Islamic values of kindness and peace, and urged the youth to find their true identity through the teachings of the Quran. In a presentation laced with passion, Rajabali said the youth should not shy away from asserting their Muslim identity. He urged them to reach out to others with wisdom and dignity, and in doing so counter the stereotype of 'fundamentalist' Muslim that the mainstream media loves to bandy about.

Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, well-known Islamic scholar and reformist Bohra leader, was one of the main speakers at the conference. In his address, he outlined the history of the Bohra reform movement and emphasized that reformist Bohras are fighting for social reforms and not religious reforms. He pointed out that it's difficult to bring about social change in a society, especially among Bohras, which is a well-knit community with a high degree of social dependence on one another.

Dr. Engineer revealed how the Bohra priesthood has distorted religious doctrines and introduced such innovations as Razaa (permission) and Misaaq (oath of allegiance) to exercise tighter control over the community. He emphasized that these innovations have no religious sanction. In recounting the history of the movement, he pointed out that it's natural for a reformist struggle to go through different phases of success and failure.

He highlighted how common Bohras all over the world have made sacrifices in the cause of reforms. Dr. Engineer himself has been assaulted five times by the goons of Bohra priesthood for his role in exposing the corruption and cruelty of the clergy.

The conference was organized and hosted by the Association of Progressive Dawoodi Bohras of Ontario (APDBO). Lubaina Fidaali, president of the APDBO, in her opening address said it's a great achievement for reformists to be able to hold a world conference in Canada. She said reformists in Ontario, most of whom came to Canada as refugees from East Africa, have a come a long way considering how they started out. The small reformist community is now quite prosperous and has its own center where members gather for religious and social functions.

She highlighted the crucial role played by Canadian reformists in defeating Bill S-13, an attempt by the Sayedna to acquire properties of the Dawoodi Bohra community in Canada


In 1992 the Bohra high priest, Sayedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, petitioned the Canadian Senate to pass an Act (Bill S-13) to make him a corporate sole in Canada. The petition, among other things, asserted:

"That, for the continuing and better control and guidance of the administration and management of those assets, funds, properties, investments and other affairs in Canada, it is desirable that the Dai al-Mutlaq be incorporated in Canada as a 'Corporate sole' with perpetual succession."

The Bohra priesthood is not only eager to control community's properties but also its memory, history and heritage, as pointed out by Dr. Abbas Hamdani. A professor at the University of Wisconsin, USA, Dr Hamdani in his inaugural address spoke on the history of Fatimid literature and revealed how the Bohra priesthood has been suppressing old scriptures and depriving the community of valuable knowledge contained in them. He urged the audience to work for the release of this literature from the clutches of the priesthood, otherwise, he warned, their glorious Fatimid heritage will remain buried forever.

An important part of the conference - the first such international gathering of reformists Bohras in North America - was the workshops. Delegates took an active part in discussions ranging from spirituality and reform issues to media and communication strategies. Outstanding individuals, including Dr Asghar Ali Engineer, Fazal Kapasi from the UK and Zehra Cyclewala from Surat, were honoured for their contributions to the reform movement.

A provocative debate on the topic "The Bohra reform movement has no future" made for a lively, albeit redundant, discussion as the majority of the audience was staunchly committed to continuing the reformist struggle. But what's to be noted, as one delegate pointed out, is that one cannot even dream of such a debate taking place in the orthodox Bohra circles where the priesthood frowns upon any sign of freedom and suppresses violently any sign of dissent.

Naseem Jeevanjee, chairperson of the organizing committee, said the conference did not only provide an international platform for reformists but also gave them an opportunity to meet new people, make connections and compare notes. The large contingent from the U.S., inspired by their Canadian brethren, vowed to form an independent Jamaat in the U.S. in the near future.

The conference concluded with the formation of a regional committee with a mandate to advise and guide reformists in the West on religious and social matters.

Next conferece in 2007

Watch this space for details.