The Latter-Day Fatimids: Construction and Expression of Identity in the Ṭayyibī Ismāʿīlī/Bohra Community

By Samer Traboulsi
Submitted to Session P4157 (Identity Politics in the Fatimid Ismaili Tradition, 2015 Annual Meeting
Indian Ocean Region;
Middle East/Near East Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The year 1171 marks the fall of the Fatimid state, ending 250 years of political rule of Fatimid imams over Egypt, North Africa, and beyond. Though the state no longer exists, the followers of its masters survived to the present in the form of two independent communities: the Nizārīs in Syria and Persia and the Ṭayyibīs in Yemen and India. In this paper, I focus on the Ṭayyibī community, commonly known as Bohras, who are led by the Dāʿī al-muṭlaq, the deputy of the imam in concealment, on top of a religious hierarchy known as the daʿwa. In the 20th century, the Bohra community went through a number of challenges and developments involving the nature of authority and the role and responsibility of the leadership, resulting in the consolidation of powers in the hands of the dāʿī. The daʿwa gradually formulated and implemented a new identity marked by a revival and reinvention of their Fatimid heritage. A number of policies involving education and language reforms, the implementation of a unified dress code, the standardization of religious rites, and major restoration and reconstruction projects of Shīʿī and Fatimid pilgrimage sites across the Middle East facilitated the expression of the community’s new identity. The newly established markers helped label membership in the community while excluding those who are not willing to abide by the rules set for it. This paper examines the politics of identity for the Ṭayyibī daʿwa mainly during the time of the late Dāʿī al-muṭlaq Muḥammad Burhānuddīn (d. 2014) with special focus on the controversial restoration and reconstruction work done by the Bohras on major Fatimid and Shīʿī sites in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Yemen. While the centralization of authority could not have been accomplished without the modernization of the community, these dramatic reforms were successful because they were rooted in the community’s own tradition.