On Wednesday, Dawoodi Bohra Muslims around the world woke up to the news that the dispute over the spiritual leadership of the community will now play out in the Bombay High Court.

This battle, between the son of Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin and the half-brother, has been raging ever since the ailing, 103-year-old Syedna died on January 17. Burhanuddin was the 52nd “dai al-mutlaq”, or spiritual leader, of the one-million strong sect of Shias and had held the post since 1965.

The bitter, public fight over leadership has sent shock waves through the close-knit Bohra community, which is known to be quiet and peace-loving. But many community members are in fact happy that the succession dispute will now be fought in a court of law.

According to Bohra custom, a “dai” can be appointed only when his predecessor pronounces him as the next spiritual leader. In 2011, while recovering from a stroke in a London hospital, Burhanuddin is said to have appointed his second son, Aaliqadr Mufaddal Saifuddin, as his successor. But hours after the Syedna’s death, his half-brother Khuzaima Qutbuddin, who had been the community’s “mazoon” (second-in-command to the dai) since 1965, refuted Saifuddin’s claim, declaring himself as the rightful leader. Qutbuddin claims the late Syedna had privately pronounced him as the 53rd dai back in 1965, but had asked him not to reveal this till an appropriate time.

On Tuesday, Qutbuddin filed a declaration suit in the Bombay High Court, calling his nephew’s claim “false” and seeking court intervention to prevent Saifuddin from continuing as the 53rd dai. “We have submitted documents of evidence to support Syedna Qutbuddin’s claim, including medical reports of the London hospital in 2011 that prove the late Syedna was not in a condition to speak or announce Saifuddin as his successor,” said Aziz Qutbuddin, one of Qutbuddin’s sons. The court is yet to announce a date for the first hearing.

Several community members interviewed by Scroll.in welcomed the move. “It is sad that we have to wash dirty linen in public, but the truth about the corruption in the community needs to come out,” said a Bohra from Mumbai, on the condition of anonymity.

Bohras pay hefty taxes to the religious authorities. This money has allowed the Dawoodi Bohra administration to establish numerous institutions for healthcare, housing and education around the world. But Qutbuddin has  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,” another of Qutbuddin's sons, Abdeali, had told Scroll.in in a previous interview. “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.”

A Surat-based Bohra who wished to remain anonymous because he has not overtly pledged his support for Qutbuddin also welcomed the legal development. “People are secretly happy about the High Court case because it will finally expose the corrupt practices that have been carried on by the late Syedna’s sons since the time he had fallen ill,” he noted.

He added, “Even if the court gives an interim order in favour of Syedna Qutbuddin, people will no longer be afraid to voice their views and the community will change.”

For the past two months, the Bohra community has witnessed a split in loyalties, with Saifuddin’s followers officially excommunicating Qutbuddin and supporters of the latter reporting harassment for pledging their allegiance to him. Much is at stake if this wealthy community officially splits, but for now, only a handful of Bohras have openly voiced their support for Qutbuddin.

However, covert support for Saifuddin’s ostracised uncle seems to be gathering steam. Qutbuddin’s family claims more than 500 people have visited their home in Thane in the past two months to pledge their allegiance to him. “Many of them come in disguise to hide their identities and some come in the middle of the night,” said Aziz Qutbuddin.

Those who were vocal about their support to Qutbuddin claim they have faced tremendous harassment and social ostracism. “I had to move out of my house in [the Mumbai Bohra stronghold] Bhendi Bazar because I received a number of threat calls from community members when I went to visit Syedna Qutbuddin in Thane,” said a middle-aged businessman who did not wish to be identified. He now lives in a rented flat in Thane and claims that business at his shop, situated close to the Bohra-dominated Bhendi Bazar, is down to 30 per cent from three months ago.

“But that’s not the only problem," added the businessman. "My family could not attend my father-in-law’s burial in January, because the community officials would have denied him a grave if they saw us,” added the businessman. “Two marriages in my family broke off because of the split and my friend’s son, who goes to a Bohra school, has been asked not to attend classes anymore and come straight for the exams instead.”

Spokespersons for Saifuddin and the Bohra administration could not be contacted to respond to these allegations, despite numerous attempts by Scroll.in. But Qutbuddin and his supporters hope that the High Court case – whenever the verdict is out – will prevent a split in the community.

“We have not built a separate mosque or cemetery because we don’t accept that there are now two sects,” said Aziz Qutbuddin. “The High Court case will settle the matter once and for all.”