In Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity Among the Daudi Bohras, Jonah Blank has produced a scrupulously researched and impressively detailed account of the Daudi Bohras, a fascinating and relatively unknown religious community. In doing so, Blank does much more than simply reveal the lives of his subjects. He also undermines inaccurate (and often unkind) stereotypes of Islam and raises issues crucial to the enterprise of organized religion in general, particularly in a world that has passed from the challenging shores of modernity to the positively daunting uncharted seas of postmodernity.
The first half of Blank’s study is ethnographic in nature. Blank begins with a rapid-fire history of Islam and the place of the Daudi Bohras in the overall Islamic world. Like other major religions, Islam has fallen prey to schism upon schism. The first major division came soon after Islam’s birth in the seventh century c.e.. It involved the controversy over the issue of succession after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims accepted the authority of the first four caliphs (rulers) following Muhammad. They do not believe that there is a direct link back to the prophet in matters of theology and conduct. They believe, instead, that religious guidance is available to all Muslims through al-Qur’an (the Koran) and the example of the prophet himself. Shia Muslims believe that Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, was the prophet’s chosen successor, and also that spiritual authority has been passed directly down from Ali through a chain of imams (and their lieutenants) right down to the present. Shia Muslims also believe in the authority of al-Qur’an, but believe that the text and other Islamic laws and directives must be mediated by legitimately chosen spiritual leaders. The Daudi Bohras are Shia Muslims. This alone would make them a relatively small minority among the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the globe, but Shia Muslims have also experienced episodes of schism. The group studied by Blank constitutes only about one million or so members and is properly designated, according to the World Wide Web site of BOHRA TV, as Shi’a Fatimi Ismaili Tayyibi Daudi Bohra Muslims. Their spiritual leader is the Dai al-Mutlaq. The Dai at the time of Blank’s study was Syedna Muhammad Burhannuddin (the title “Syedna Muhammad” meaning “descendant of Muhammad”).
Geographically, the largest group of Daudi Bohras are to be found in west central India, in the state of Gujarat and nearby city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Blank did field work in both these areas as well as in Karachi, where there is also a sizable Bohra community. Bohras are not limited to South Asia, however. They can be found in well over four hundred communities spread across forty nations. This includes the New York City metropolitan area, where Blank attended a series of lectures given by the Syedna and also interviewed some of the locals.
The heart of Blank’s ethnographic chapters examines the rituals, domestic life, and role of the royalty among the Daudi Bohras, comparing their practices to those of other Muslims as well as non-Muslim Indians. Among the most crucial rituals, and one unique to the Daudi Bohras, is Mithaq (often transliterated as “misaq”). Mithaq is a requirement for membership in the Daudi Bohra community. The ceremony establishes a covenant between the believer and Allah (God) in which the initiate accepts the obligations placed on one by Allah as well the authority of the Syedna as spiritual guide. Mithaq is also seen as a rite of passage to adulthood. Thirteen is a common age for Mithaq to take place for girls, fourteen or fifteen for boys. Blank also reviews, in detail, Daudi Bohra rituals regarding marriage, divorce, and death. In addition to these life-stage rituals, Blank catalogues and describes rituals of the Daudi Bohra year, including an especially memorable account of Bohra observance of Ashura, a day of atonement in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Kerbal in the year 680 c.e. Reporting as a participant observer, Blank describes a ceremony of great passion and devotion,...
(The entire section is 1700 words.)