Muslim communities of Gujarat

By Kashif-ul-Huda,

TCN series on Gujarat: Part 5

Muslims of Gujarat are probably the most diverse of Muslim population of any other Indian state. Some of them came from different parts of the Islamic world over a period of thousand years to seek security, employment, trade, and to spread Islam; bringing with them their culture, knowledge, and their own versions of Islam. Though there has been much interaction with different Muslim groups, the differences have survived to make Gujarati Muslims a very diverse ummah.

First came the Arabs; within the first 100 years of revelation of Quran, there were a number of Muslim towns along the coast of Gujarat. They were followed by Iranians, Africans, and Central Asians. Earlier Muslims came as traders; some came with the invading armies and settled down. Many others came seeking better employment opportunities, while some like Bohras came here fleeing persecution.

A Muslim trader in Ahmedabad. [TCN photo]

Bohras are a sub-sect of Ismailis Shias. They were persecuted in Yemen for their acceptance of Tayyeb Abil-Qasim as Imam instead of his uncle Al-Hafiz, the eleventh Fatimid Khalifa. Supporters of Tayyeb came to be known as Tayyibi Ismailis. Tayyibis established the office of the Daee’-ul-Mutlaq after Imam Tayyeb went into occultation.

Initially, representatives from Yemen were sent to Gujarat to help establish the community here. The 24th Daee’ Syedna Yusuf Najmuddin was the first Indian on this position who assumed office in 1539 but remained in Yemen. The daees have been in India beginning with the 25th, Syedna Jalal Shamsuddin. The current Daee Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin is the 52nd in that long chain of Daee’s that began in Yemen.

Tayyebis were called Bohra for their involvement in trading. The first test of Bohras came after the death of the 26th Daee’. Question over the succession claims led to the split in the Bohra community. Supporters of Suleman bin Hasan, the grandson of 24th Daee, are called Sulemani Bohras. Supporters of the claim of Indian Daee’ Dawood Burhanuddin bin Qutubshah came to be known as Dawoodi Bohras. Dawoodi Bohras have seen at least two more splits giving birth to Aliya Bohras and Hebtiah Bohras. Protest over absolute authority of Daee-ul-Mutlaq and call for reform within the Dawoodi Bohras has led to another split in 1970s. The splinter group calls itself Progressive Dawoodi Bohra and is led by noted Islamic scholar Asghar Ali Engineer.

Seat of Daee’ for Sulemani Bohras was first in Yemen and now in Najran, Saudi Arabia. The highest authority of Sulemani Bohras in India is Mansub or representative of the Daee. Badruddin Tyabji, writer Atiya Fyzee, ornithologist Dr. Salim Ali, and painter M. F. Husain are some of the famous Sulemani Bohras.

Islam in Gujarat spread through the efforts of Sufis like Hazrat Shaikh Ahmad Khattu Ghanjbaksh. [TCN Photo]

Not unlike Bohras, Sunnis history in Gujarat is also very deep and wide. Abu Bakar Rabi’ bin Sabih al Basri, a tabi’ and author of the first book on hadith is buried in Gujarat. Two commentaries on Sahih Bukhari were written in Gujarat: Badruddin Muhammad bin Abu Bakar’s
مصابیح الجامع في شرح صحيح البخاري
and Syed Abdul Awal bin Ala al Husaini’s فيض الباري في شرح صحيح البخاري.
Gujarat was also the location for the first commentaries on Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslims written in India .

Islam spread in India mostly through the works of Sufis, Gujarat is no exception to that. Chishtia, Saharwardiya, Maghribia, and Shattaria are some of the major Sufi silsilahs that found home in Gujarat. In Gujarat there are many Muslim social groups with clues about their non-Muslim past hidden in their last names. But egalitarian message of Sufis was not enough to erase the social differences among the groups. Muslim social groups retained their hereditary professions or social class but thankfully the caste differences were not as rigid. A marriage register of Qazi of Bharuch that records 269 marriages between Oct 5th, 1853 and Sept 8th, 1855 provides evidence of inter-caste marriages that shows that caste and social differences were not as rigid for Muslims.

A survey done in early 1960s identifies following Muslim communities in Gujarat, in the order of their numerical strength: Shaikh, Sunni Vohra, Pathan, Momin, Bohra, Ghanchi, Malek, Garasia, Syed, Fakir, Musalman, Mansoori, Khatki, Chhippa, Kadia, Sipahi, Taik, Memon, Patel Vohra, Sindhi, Hajam, Pinjara, Mughal, Kasbati, Kumbhar, Dudhwala, Baluch, Makrani, Behlim, Qureshi, Mirasi, Khatri, Khokhar, Dhobi, Jat.

Some of them are to be found in other states but some are only Gujarati in orign and the idea of jamaat-bandi or social organization of a local community is unique to Gujarati communities.

Satish C. Misra, Muslim Communities in Gujarat : preliminary studies in their history and social organization. Asia Publishing House, 1964.