As the succession battle between two Dawoodi Bohra religious leaders played out in the Bombay High Court this week, community members diligently followed advisories asking them to stay calm, stay away from the court premises and pray at home instead.

In two hearings on April 27 and 28, Justice Gautam Patel heard the cross-examination of 74-year-old Khuzaima Qutbuddin, the rebel leader of the Bohra community who has opposed his nephew Mufaddal Saifuddin’s claim to the position of 53rd dai or spiritual head of the Bohras.

This is a high-profile case for the small, close-knit and largely wealthy Shia Muslim sect, and the spacious central courtroom of the high court was packed with Bohra men in traditional white-and-gold caps even though only a handful of entry passes had been granted to each party.

While both factions of the community are eagerly waiting for the final verdict in the year-long case, Bohras are consciously keeping away from the details of the court hearings to prevent distorted rumours from spreading around.

“The religious authorities are not circulating updates about the hearing to the community because they don’t want distorted facts to spread on Whatsapp groups,” said a Bohra businesswoman and Saifuddin-supporter from Mumbai who did not wish to be identified. “Since this is anyway a holy month for us, we have been asked to simply pray and they will inform us when the verdict is out.”

The dispute

The Bohra succession dispute began in January 2014, immediately after the death of 103-year-old Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, the 52nd dai or spiritual leader. In 2011, an ailing Burhanuddin is said to have appointed his second son, Mufaddal Saifuddin, as his successor or the 53rd dai.

But hours after Burhanuddin’s death on January 17, 2014, his half-brother Qutbuddin refuted Saifuddin’s claim to the post and declared himself the rightful leader of the community. Qutbuddin, who was Burhanuddin’s mazoon or second-in-command, maintains that the late Syedna had privately pronounced him as the successor back in 1965.

This claim led to a rift in the community as a section of Bohras pledged allegiance to the new rebel leader while the majority remained loyal to Saifuddin. The rift has resulted in several families breaking up, couples getting divorces and Qutbuddin supporters being socially boycotted.

In April 2014, Qutbuddin took his battle to the Bombay high court, where he filed a declaration suit calling his nephew’s claim “false” and seeking legal intervention to prevent Saifuddin from continuing as the 53rd dai. At stake is not just the position of leadership but also numerous Bohra properties, trusts and institutions worth several crores that the leader is in charge of.

Time for prayer

On the first of cross-examination on April 27, Qutbuddin claimed that all his brothers and sisters – 20 in total – have privately given him their support even though have not openly backed his claim to the post of dai. On Tuesday, during cross-examination that went on for several hours, he also claimed that several community members close to the late Syedna had attempted to malign him in the 1960s and 1980s.

The cross-examination is likely to continue after the High Court returns from summer break in June, and community members have been instructed to keep calm throughout the proceedings.

“This is the time for prayers. Sincere prayers… Mumineen [followers] are hereby requested to maintain calm during the proceeding of the trial,” said an announcement from Qutbuddin’s administration on the breakaway sect’s website.

Similarly, followers of Saifuddin were also given advisories that were circulated on Whatsapp and other social media sites, asking followers not to stand around near the court or circulate details about the hearings.

'We know he will win'

Even though case still has a long way to go, pious community members on either side of the divide are confident that the leader of their choice will win it.

“I think the cross-examination went very well – Qutbuddin is our true dai and he has answered the questions confidently,” said a Qutbuddin-supporter who was present at the hearing but did not want to reveal his identity. “There is no reason to be stressed at all.”

On the other side, Mumbai-resident Fatema Lokhandwala is equally sure about Saifuddin’s right to the dai post. “This is frivolous, political case and only those whose belief is not strong would get shaken by it,” said Lokhandwala. “There is no question of our leader losing this case.”

Meanwhile, some Qutbuddin supporters are thankful for the respite that the case has given them from social ostracism. “Right now, because the court has asked the community to remain calm, we are not being actively boycotted or prevented from entering sacred places,” said a Qutbuddin follower.