Syedna Taher Saifuddin (AQ): Witnessing a noble legacy

Raudat Tahera

In an unassuming suburb of Mumbai, amidst the hustle and bustle of narrow crowded streets of Bhindi Bazaar stands a magnificent mausoleum silently paying tribute to one of greatest men of the 20th century. A solitary grave lies humbly at its centre, surrounded on all sides by the sacred words of revelation. The Qur’an, scribed in its entirety on the walls of the mausoleum looks down caringly at one who spent an entire life living only by its truth. Over three decades after his departure into the world of immortality, Syedna Taher Saifuddin (AQ) continues to draw thousands of solace-seeking pilgrims from all over the world to his mausoleum, Raudat Tahera.

Rarely does history witness such men and rarely does the earth spawn such a son. Those who met him and those who heard him remember him with affection and awe of having shared the same era as him. He was a scholar, a writer, a poet, born leader of men, educationist, a wise guide, an ocean of courage, an accomplished administrator, a tireless worker, an indefatigable traveller, a soul exuding peace of mind, a man of profound religiosity and serenity, a true succour for his followers. Seldom do such many qualities combine in one person.

Syedna Taher Saifuddin, the 51st incumbent to the office of al-Dai al-Mutlaq, was the head of the Dawoodi Bohra community from 1915 to 1965, and shouldered the responsibility of guiding his followers through one of the most difficult periods of its history. With him at its helm, a community with religious values weathered a period of colonisation of minds and lands, a era of emerging nations, the aggressive rise of science and technology and of scientific materialism, in short, the most potent upheavals in the history of humankind and came out more committed to its intrinsic values.

Born on 27th Zilqdada 1305 (4th August 1888) to a noble family, Syedna Taher Saifuddin imbued within himself the timeless religious traditions of his gracious family and learnt from his sagacious peers, Syedi Abdeali Mohiyuddin and Syedna Abdullah Badruddin (AQ), the latter of whom was his predecessor in office.

A divine designation

"Last night, I appointed you to the firmament of the Dawat as my successor. I know that the dark clouds of dissent hover above you but fear not - the guiding hand of the imam is upon you."

Syedna Abdullah Badruddin, 50th al-Dai al-Mutlaq,
28 Safar 1333, 14 January 1915.

At the tender age of 28, he succeeded to the throne of Dawat, with a responsibility no less than to ensure that the faith received by mankind some 1400 years ago through Allah’s noble messenger, Mohammed al-Mustafa (SAW) and interpreted by succeeding Fatimi imams over the centuries is preserved in pristine purity in his believers. An onerous task in the best of circumstances, 20th century modernism, with its direct assault on religion and tradition was not conducive environment to carry out a divine duty. Besides, the community had undergone a painful period of internal dissent, with false beliefs having infiltrated and destabilised it. Destiny had intended that challenges of a difficult age be met by an equally capable leader. Syedna Taher Saifuddin, having inherited the qualities of 50 predecessors, set out with the courage and surety only a serene soul can command and effected a total transformation of his community, overcoming tides of obstacles and winning over wavering hearts, and providing a lasting upbringing to his spiritual children.

Court battles

Soon after his ascension in 1915, religious dissenters found common cause with purse-proud reformers who had the agenda of meeting the challenges of the modern world by relinquishing the community’s religiosity and embracing Westernism blindly. Jointly, they resorted to the British and Indian courts to give credence to their views by attacking fundamental principles of the faith. Syedna Taher Saifuddin met them unflinchingly, comforted in the knowledge that the truth will always prevail, even in a secular court. As always, he was proved correct and despite being subjected to over 30 major cases, his stand was vindicated at every step.

In the first and perhaps most unique case, popularly known as the Chandabhai Gulla Case, he was asked to appear at the witness box personally. He did so and in the process, earned the admiration of his adversaries and judges alike. The case was well prepared by the enemies of the community, appealing to the modernism of the day and concealing menaces to religion with coatings of benignity. But the discerning Syedna Taher Saifuddin quickly saw through them, never lost sight of their real agenda and steered the proceedings to ultimately convince the court of their heretical views.

A judicious teacher

Despite the rigours of office, and the demands of the times, he would sit for hours authoritatively disseminating Fatimi knowledge to all who chose to learn from him. His students, both learned and humble, fondly recall the precious moments in which even a simple sentence or a single answer would transmute their understanding and infinitely enhance their perception of reality. It is said that in some days, he would have up to 27 classes in sequence. The Arabic Academy in Surat, built a century earlier to provide Islamic Fatimi education enjoyed his particular attention. He appointed his talented son, Syedi Yusuf Najmuddin as its rector and made him privy to his vision of transforming it into a full-fledged university, a thriving centre of excellence, that should be at once traditional and contemporary. This vision was painstakingly brought to fruition by his successor, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS), who not only raised the academy to the standards intended by his predecessor, but also built a new branch in Karachi in 1983.

The students of Aligarh University, where he remained chancellor for a period spanning four consecutive terms, still fondly remember Syedna Taher Saifuddin as a loving father. His tenure as chancellor is regarded as one of the most productive. Earlier, in 1946, the university had felt honoured by his acceptance of a doctorate.

His concern for the welfare of the Muslim masses moved him to issue sagacious pronouncements during the partition of the subcontinent, so that Muslims did not feel alienated whether they chose to remain in India or to migrate. This same concern had prompted him to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Palestinians, by calling the first ever conference on the future of Palestine in 1936.

Syedna Taher Saifuddin exuded a rare rapport that won the heart of anyone he met. He was able to relate to his audience so completely as to create a close relationship even at the first meeting. Amongst his friends were Ghandiji, the father of the Indian nation, Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Mohammed Ali Jinnah and many other great contemporaries with whom he shared the concern for the welfare of their peoples.

Building works of devotion

The Ka’aba, the House of Allah, is to be faced 5 times a day during prayer and towards which a pilgrimage is a religious necessity for all Muslims of means. To touch the Ka’aba is to some a fulfilment of dreams, to others a rediscovery of the soul. Syedna Taher Saifuddin had the honour of providing the internal curtain to this sacred house, a curtain that stayed in place for decades and now adorns the homes of thousands of his followers. Similarly, his love for the Prophet’s family moved him to embellish the zarihs at the burial sites of Amirul Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib (SA) in Najaf, Iraq, of Imam al-Husayn (SA) in Karbala, Iraq and of Ras al-Husayn (SA), in Cairo, Egypt.

Along with many other religious shrines in India and Yemen, he was responsible for building over 300 nurseries, primary and secondary schools, tens of hospitals and other welfare centres and many other institutions of charitable works. The intention, as always, was that his community be not found wanting and that they play their role in the improvement of the lot of mankind with strength and dedication of purpose.

Pilgrimages and voyages

Syedna Taher Saifuddin undertook many travels to see for himself the unending glories of the Creator, to perform the rites of pilgrimage and to pay homage to Allah’s chosen guides. He went for hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah in 1937 and became the first al-Dai al-Mutlaq in the period of the seclusion of the Imam to pray at the holy site of Ghadir-e-Khum, where the Prophet openly proclaimed Ali ibn Abi Talib (SA) as his successor. He journeyed to Madina, paying homage to the Prophet whose descendants every al-Dai al-Mutlaq takes pride in serving. He was the first al-Dai al-Mutlaq to have travelled to Egypt where the Fatimi Imams once ruled and where the sacred mosques attesting to the greatness of the Fatimi era still survive. He was pained to see the devastation time had wreaked upon the masjid of the 16th Imam, al-Hakim (SA), and expressed the desire that Allah would one day make the restoration of the masjid possible. His beloved son and successor completed this work of devotion to the Imam in 1980, restoring the structure to its original magnificence and purpose. He travelled to Baytul Muqaddas in 1937 where he performed the ziyarat of the early prophets of Qur’anic and Biblical history. He was also the first Dai to have travelled to Syria, where the decapitated head of al-Husayn (SA), the grandson of the Prophet was initially interred and where the resting-places of many of the Prophet’s family and Imams exist.

Wherever, he travelled, he was accorded state guest welcome and his meetings with the leaders of the lands greatly enhanced the mutual friendship and amity between peoples widely separated in space but united in their common purpose in serving mankind.

His visit to East Africa in 1963 was nothing short of miraculous to the Bohras of East Africa. His presence brought about a subtle re-orientation in their thinking, which in subsequent years revolutionised their society and brought them material and spiritual prosperity. On that occassion, Jawaharlal Nehru asked him to act as India's ambassador of peace and goodwill.

An accomplished writer

The expressing of his love and devotion to Islam and to the Prophet’s family is legendary. Syedna Taher Saifuddin penned thousands of couplets of elegiac devotional poetry. Munajaat, his poetical supplications recited on the night of Qadr in Ramadan alone amount to thousands of couplets each of which so potent with dedication as to bring spontaneous tears to the reader. Each Ramadan, he would produce a volume (risala), written in an innovative style and comprising summaries of previously known information, new religious decisions based upon contemporary circumstances as well as heart-rending invocations to the Prophet’s family, to whom all knowledge is attributed. The collection of 48 such volumes, called Risala Ramadaniyah, has added its own unique resplendence to the priceless books of the Dawat.

His command on the Arabic language was so comprehensive that in some volumes, entire tracts have been written without the use of a particular letter or even sets of letters of the Arabic alphabet. No scholarly enterprise in Fatimi philosophy would be complete without reference to these volumes.

A caring father

Despite this backbreaking pace of life, he found time for the upbringing of his family, having been blessed with twelve sons and nine daughters and numerous grandchildren. He found time to interact with them all and provide an attention that would be the envy of most fathers. He even found time to tutor the children personally.

As he cared for his own children, he made it possible for thousands of his spiritual children to drink from the same pool and benefit from the same upbringing, raising them spiritually as his own children.

But his ultimate care was in the upbringing of his heir apparent, in ensuring that the community would have a seamless transition from following a great leader to another equally great one. He chose his eldest son, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS), for the august office at the age of 19 and kept him at his side as his manifest successor in everything he did for over three decades. In this way he ensured that everything that was to be learnt, to be acquired, to be attained would be fully imbibed by his successor. Today, this care and attention shines through Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and illumines a community of a million.

A reflection

Thousands of Dawoodi Bohras will once again converge upon Mumbai on 19th Rajabul Asab to mark the death anniversary (urus) of Syedna Taher Saifuddin, which this year falls on 18th November. To pay tribute to one to whom so much is owed is a difficult task at the best of times. The hope each grateful heart has as it nears the grave at Raudat Tahera is for the strength to live a life inspired by his ever-living guidance.

After 33 years, the pain of separation is still alive. In his tender care, Syedna Taher Saifuddin Saheb did not fail to foresee even this need of his spiritual children. As the mourners watch his worthy son and successor conduct the remembrance rites and see him express their innermost feelings and thoughts, they find solace in him, derive strength from him and joyfully recall Syedna Taher Saifuddin’s famous proclamation:

"This young man is none other than me - he is indeed the benevolent repository of the wisdom of guidance."

by Shaikh Mustafa Abdulhussein