In an exclusive interview to Mumbai Mirror, Syedna Taher Fakhruddin TUS presented his vision to bring about positive change in the Dawoodi Bohra community in order “to liberate the community from oppressive practices…to get the community to what it always was - forward-looking…to extend our community from the selfishly insular to the expansively integrated…where we are not seen as takers but givers…where we are not seen as clannish but as catalysts of a society of progress.”
This is the full-text of the landmark interview:
‘I WANT TO FREE COMMUNITY FROM OPPRESSIVE PRACTICES’
SYEDNA TAHER FAKHRUDDIN
By Pramila Bhat
Syedna Taher Fakhruddin, the claimant to the position of the 54th spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra community, is a modern man engaged in the challenging assignment to transform the face of a conventional community.
He brings to his job an out-of-the-box approach: boarding school education in Australia, practicing agriculturist in California and founder of a consistently profitable hedge fund in the USA on the one hand and deep training in Islamic sciences, Fatimid philosophy and MA in Arabic literature from London University's prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on the other.
His father Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who passed away in the US in March, was locked in a bitter succession battle with his nephew, Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin, who took over as the 53rd Dai al-Mutlaq in 2014. Taher Fakhruddin has not only taken up the mantle from his father, but is also continuing to fight the succession battle at the Bombay High Court.
Syedna Fakhruddin combines Islamic traditions with applicability, bringing to his office renewed energy and vitality. A vocal advocate of plurality and tolerance, he professes that the only way for Muslims (and devotee for any community) to play a greater role is to go out, get your hands dirty and make a positive difference for the world at large.
You made a landmark statement a week ago on how female genital mutilation was 'horrific' and 'un-Islamic'. Is this a major shift in stance?
Leadership is about providing practical solutions to real-life problems without compromising principles. That is what I did: protected girls from the trauma and left it to the conscious decision of adults to decide whether to have this 'khafz' procedure conducted, which is different from the un-Islamic and horrific female genital mutilation being currently practiced.
You used the word 'un-Islamic?
Absolutely, since the practice of 'khafz' is not intended to disempower women, but is an elective procedure intended to - and I quote from our ancient texts - 'provide more pleasure to women when they are with their husbands.' This is akin to medically and legally sanctioned procedures which many women of different faiths and communities choose to undergo. I must reiterate that there is no compulsion in faith, and a religious leader must be dynamic to read the scriptures and interpret them appropriately to maintain the sanctity and relevance of the faith in rapidly evolving times. And it is at such junctures that the compassionate face of Islam - 'rehmat' as it is called in the Quran - needs to be emphasised and restored.
This decision appears to be indicative of a direction that you have defined for yourself and the community.
It is definitely indicative of a priority. A priority to liberate the community from oppressive practices. A priority to get the community to what it always was - forward-looking. A priority to extend our community from the selfishly insular to the expansively integrated. A priority where we are not seen as takers but givers. A priority where we are not seen as clannish but as catalysts of a society of progress.
How much of a change is the administration - that is you - likely to kickstart in the first place?
Good question. Over the last few years, there has been a complete murder of governance within the Bohra community. A handful of extreme elements in the community have made money and power their achievement index over piety and knowledge. They worked from the shadows but following the passing away of the 52nd Syedna in 2014 they finally came out in the open to oppose my father, who had been the 52nd Syedna's deputy for 50 years. My father Syedna Khuzaima Qutbuddin brought a suit against them in Bombay High Court, and now, my father having sadly passed away recently, I intend to continue that fight for truth and principle and the future and wellbeing of the Dawoodi Bohra community. The community and the religion it has selected to practice has been corporatized. There is a need for this to change and that change needs to begin at home.
Why is this imperative?
Because time is running out. People are disenchanted with most institutions (including organised religion). The corruption that one sees in organised religion - and here I would largely talk of the one I grew up in - is far more than what one sees in most other walks of public life. This disenchantment is leading to extremism on the one hand and loss of values on the other. There is an absence of moderation and governance in religious life. Religious leaders need to step up and fix it.
So what is the kind of order that you would like to establish?
My biggest challenge will be to connect with the younger generation. To connect with the young, one needs to provide an environment that makes them achieve their potential. To help them achieve their potential one needs to guide in values counselling. Talk their language. See eye-to-eye. Not issue colour-coded ID cards to establish 'faith-levels' of community members. Not ask neighbours and family members to spy on each other and report non-compliance with diktats. Not ask parents to educate their daughters in only Home Science so that they may be restricted to 'a corner of the home'. And definitely not to burst fire-crackers and burn effigies when someone (who does not quite share your ideology) passes away. So what is needed is a governance structure necessary to prevent vested interests and extreme elements from prevailing in the first instance. There is a need for the moderate voice to be heard.
Absolutely. There is a growing feeling that religion is black or white; the middle path is out of fashion. In fact, the very mention of religion being compassionate raises eyebrows today. This is a sad reality because religion is 'samhaa' - the literal meaning of which is 'liberal'. The Quran addresses our religious leaders as 'people of the moderate path' which will come as news to a number of people. Religion is not something that you see as a stick brought down on the knuckles each time someone deviates; religion needs to be seen as a refuge - benign and accommodating. Sadly, and here I speak of my community, religion has come to be identified with diktats, conformance, reporting and fear.
You sound like a critic. Tell me something that you have actually done that has made a difference.
For the first time in our history, we have started publishing annual reports for our community organization with the objective to enhance transparency and governance (two words you will never hear within the broad Dawoodi Bohra diaspora); we published online and offline calculators to make it easier for community members to calculate 'zakaat' for themselves (rather than be coerced into paying arbitrary amounts); we use the internet, Skype and YouTube to widen access to sermons, lessons and general engagement; we have started providing guidance on women's issues and protecting women's rights which would have been unthinkable; we are resolving long-standing misconceptions on the subject of Islamic finance, which goes completely counter to what the extremists within the community would like to hear. This is only an indication of the urgent need to reset the compass within the community so that it returns to what it always was - the liberal face of a liberal religion.