I often wonder if my life would have been different had my family never moved from Iowa when I was nine-years-old. More specifically, I wonder if my cultural identity would have been different.
I believe identity is the culmination of all experiences, NOT just what you look like, who you are related to, or where you were born. Instead, it is these things and more, including the people you meet, the people you break bread with, your friends, nemeses, teachers, tormentors, lovers, and haters. Your identity is the total of everything that has brought you to this moment.
I am certain if my family had not moved from Iowa, I would not be writing this blog, as until I moved to Bakersfield, Calif., I had limited understanding of what being part of the Dawoodi Bohra community entailed.
I was nine when I left Iowa, but I do have some memories, and the word encompassing them all is, diversity. I know what you’re thinking: “Iowa?” As the state with a population of 92.5 percent identifying as Caucasian, according to 2014 U.S. Census data, it hardly seems the poster child for diversity. But let me explain:
My family, as practicing Muslims, attended a mosque in Des Moines, Iowa. My memories of this mosque include socializing with people from many ethnic/racial backgrounds, talking to these people, praying with these people, playing with these people. We had all come together from our various backgrounds to gather and worship the same God. I didn’t have that insight as a nine-year-old, but in retrospect, I see that now and understand how unique and special it is to see Indians from India, Kenya, Uganda, Guyana, as well as Pakistanis, Egyptians, Syrians, Moroccans, Malaysians, Iranians, Afghanis, Qataris, Saudis; all of us there for the same purpose. We all spoke different languages and came from different cultures, but we were one community.
This is not the case among the Dawoodi Bohras. While living in Bakersfield, I learned that Dawoodi Bohras distinguish themselves in practice, dress, language, mosque, from other Muslims and have a biologically-driven social hierarchy. While the Dawoodi Bohra community have followers of Indian descent coming from Pakistan, the Middle East, East Africa, and the West, they are all connected by blood, something that makes them a Dawoodi Bohra. Marriages usually take place between Dawoodi Bohra East Indians and other Dawoodi Bohras, irrespective of their country of origin. Dawoodi Bohras, thus pride themselves on being distinct from all other Shia Muslim groups (for more of an understanding of the community’s place within the Muslim community, see here).
Calendar: They use the Fatimid lunar calendar that has a fixed number of days in each month. This differs from other Muslim communities, who base their lunar calendar on sightings of the moon with the naked eye by religious authorities.
Dress: Men wear beards and white gold-rimmed caps called topis, while women wear colorful two-piece garb that covers them from head-to-toe called a rida.
Language: They use an Arabicized form of Gujarati, called lisan al-dawat, which uses some Arabic words and is written using Arabic script.
Religious Hierarchy: Led by the da’i mutlaq (for an introduction see here). The da’i appoints two others to the subsidiary ranks of madhun and mukasir. These positions are followed by the rank of shaykh and mullah, both of which are titles held by hundreds of Bohras. An Amil (usually a graduate of the order’s institution of higher learning, al-Jami’ah al-Sayfiyah) leads the local congregation in religious, social, and communal affairs, and is sent to each town with a sizable portion of followers.
Masjid (Mosques): Bohras have their own jamaats (local communities) which are focused around a Masjid or a markaz (community center) where an Amil leads Namaaz (prayers) and gives discourses). Dawoodi Bohras have a unique system of communal eating with groups of eight or nine people seated around a thaal (a particularly large round rimmed metal tray). Each course of the meal is served for the people around the thaal to share. The place where meals are served is called the Jamaat Khaana. The Jamaat Khaana is usually adjacent to the Masjid complex.
I will touch upon all of these matters in this series in much more depth, but the point I’m making here is that this small sect considers itself unique in its identity. Dawoodi Bohras even refer to themselves as Mumineens (true believers), before they refer themselves as Muslims. This identity is crucial in the formation of individual members’ community identities, and all secular and sacred practices arise from this idea.
The rigidity of these practices are sometimes hard to reconcile. For someone like me, who disagrees with certain practices, who does not adhere to these identity markers, who questions practices, and who does not follow the crowd’s mentality, it can become a problem.
Stay tuned for more articles to learn more about my own experiences growing up in this community.
Mariya Taher is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Lesley University, MA. She received her Masters in Social Work from San Francisco State University and her BA from the University of California Santa Barbara, where she majored in Religious Studies and double minored in Global, Peace, and Security & Sociocultural Linguistics. Prior to attending Lesley University, she worked in the gender violence field for seven years. She has contributed articles to Solstice Literary Magazine, Global Voices, The Express Tribune, The San Francisco Examiner, BayWoof, and the Imagining Equality Project put together by the Global Fund for Women and the International Museum of Women.