On January 17, hours after Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the spiritual leader of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, breathed his last, the rumours that had been whispered in the community for almost a year were finally confirmed: the Bohras are at the verge of splitting into two factions in a dispute over succession.

Burhanuddin, who died at the age of 102, was the 52nd dai (spiritual leader) of the one-million strong Shia sub-sect. In 2011, when he was recovering from a stroke, he appointed his second son, 70-year-old Aaliqadr Mufaddal Saifuddin, as his successor. However, in a press release sent out on Friday night, Burhanuddin’s brother, Khuzaima Qutbuddin, refuted Saifuddin’s claim to the post and declared himself the new leader.

The press release stated that Burhanuddin had privately appointed Qutbuddin as his successor in December 1965. “The reason Syedna Burhanuddin did not make the appointment public was to ensure the safety of his successor and to preserve harmony in his community,” the statement said. Publicly, Qutbuddin had held the post of the “mazoon”, or the second-in-command to the dai, since 1965.

Qutbuddin not only announced his succession through the media, he also conducted an independent prayer session for Burhanuddin at his residence in Thane on Saturday. His website, www.fatemidawat.com, carries detailed explanations about the rightfulness of his claim, outlines his vision for the community and also contains a registration form for those who wish to join him.

“People are not yet openly joining us for fear of retribution and persecution, but we have received plenty of calls and emails from Bohras who support us,” said Abdeali Qutbuddin, his son. “It’s hard to say how many followers there are, because we have not counted yet.”

However small the numbers may be, the split in the community is a wrenching event for the Dawoodi Bohras. The incredibly close-knit community, which has around 500,0000 members in India and an equal number spread out across the globe,  is administered from its headquarters in Mumbai. In Gujarat, where most Bohras come from, the word Bohra means “trader”, and a large section of community comprises well-to-do business families.

They pay hefty taxes to the religious authorities. While “zakat” (2.5 per cent of a family’s annual savings) and the “silo fitro” (an amount pegged to the rate of silver) are mandatory for most Muslim sects, the “sabeel” is a tax unique to Bohras. It depends on household income and is decided by the Syedna. Members who fail to pay allege that they have been barred from burying their relatives in community cemeteries, and denied access to Bohra institutions.

These taxes have allowed the Dawoodi Bohra administration, under the leadership of the Syedna, to establish numerous institutions for healthcare, housing and education around the world. The Burhani Qarzan Hasnah Trust, established in 1981 to provide interest-free loans to Bohras, was estimated to have annual revenues of around Rs 60 crore. The community’s latest big-ticket organisation is the Saifee Burhani Upliftment Trust, which is in the process of redeveloping Mumbai’s dense Bhendi Bazar area at an estimated cost of Rs 3,000 crore.

All these institutions would be controlled by the next Syedna. “Religion is a power game in which, if you control a community, you control its money,” said a Bohra from Mumbai who requested anonymity. “Historically, there have been many splits in the community and different sects have emerged. In this case, there is a lot of money at stake for both groups.” .

From the allegations being levelled by the new Qutbuddin faction at the current Bohra administration, it is clear that finance is a major bone of contention between the two sects. “Over the past few years, Burhanuddin’s sons and supporters have been trying to wrestle control of all the entities of the community,” Abdeali Qutbuddin alleged in an interview with Scroll. “His son took advantage of the late Syedna’s ill health and declared himself as his successor for the sake of the power and the control over all the money.”

Qutbuddin also alleged that in the past two or three years, under the leadership of the late Syedna’s son, the Bohra administration has been collecting too much money from the community. “Money is important to run various missions, but that group has made it the end and the goal of their work,” said Abdeali Qutbuddin. “My father’s vision is to bring back the legacy of good moral values and good governance that marked the leadership of the 51st and 52nd Syednas.”

Despite several attempts by Scroll, the spokespersons for the Bohra administration could not be reached. However, several Bohras confirmed, under the condition of anonymity, that money in general, and the collection of annual taxes, has been a sore point for community members recently.

“In the past few years, money collection has increased, and I have also faced pressure to pay for non-compulsory causes, such as funds for various community projects,” said another Bohra from Mumbai, requesting anonymity. He is among those who believe there might be some validity to Qutbuddin’s claim to succession, but has decided to publicly side with whichever faction his  family chooses.

“Now that the split is out in the open, people will have to choose, and there is a possibility of families splitting over this too. So, most people will play it safe and nod along with others in their social circles,” said the community member.