Surat mausoleums of 7 da'is
43rd da`i al-mutlaq was Syedna Abdeali Saifuddin whose seat of administration was the port city of Surat in the early nineteenth century. Syedna Saifuddin was an accomplished poet, renowned scholar and able administrator. He made significant contributions to the corpus of Fatimid philosophy and literature and guided the Bohra community through a politically and culturally changing world particularly with the increasing influence of the British in India.
A hundred and fifty years before the era of Syedna Saifuddin, in 1612, the Mughal emperor Jahangir granted rights to the East India Company to establish a factory in Surat a major trading port on India's west coast. At the time the office of the da`i al-mutlaq was in Ahmedabad, from where it later relocated to Jamnagar in 1657 in the aftermath of severe persecution by the Mughal emperor. It relocated once more, this time to Surat, during the time of Syedna Saifuddin's predecessor, Syedna Yusuf NajmuddinRA (d. 1799).
In his time Surat suffered very severely from a devastating and unprecedented flood which inundated all the streets with water and confined the people to their dwellings for no less than 3 days in a state of starvation. Syedna Saifuddin relieved the people from distress and saved many from impending death. He sent round small boats laden with articles of food to be liberally distributed to the people of all castes and creeds without discrimination.
Surat was home to successful traders and merchants. Interaction with Company officials was commonplace and by the beginning of the 19th century, British influence had grown significantly with the Company having annexed large swathes of Indian territory including greater Gujarat. Meanwhile, Kathiawar was reeling from a decade-long drought which resulted in thousands of Bohras migrating to Surat in search of sustenance and a stable livelihood, and more importantly, to seek refuge and assistance from the head of their community, Syedna Abdeali SaifuddinRA.
As their leader and a beacon of hope, Syedna Saifuddin took upon himself the task of the socio-economic rehabilitation of thousands of migrating Bohras and providing them with immediate relief. He undertook several decisive measures which proved beneficial in the long run, especially with regard to the financial stability of the refugees after the crisis had ended. The rehabilitation operations commenced with a profession-based classification of the refugees. Artisans, smiths, tailors etc. were given tools according to their respective profession. While they were provided free food and lodging, whatever they earned was collected by the administration. After the crisis ended a year later, all collected funds were reimbursed to the respective payees, effectively creating a secure post-crisis financial prospect for the rehabilitated individuals.
(The following is from the book 'High Priests of the Dawoodee Bohra Community' pub. 1916)
'At his own expense he built the great Bohra Masjid at Surat and founded the well-known Arabic college - Al-Dars al-Saifee (now known as Al-Jamea tus Saifiyah), where no less than 200 pupils were maintained with free boarding and lodging. Instruction was imparted in religion, Arabic literature, mathematics and philosophy as treated by old Arabic writers.
In 1228 AH, during the formidable famine, which visited Kathiawar and Mandvi, caused no less than 12,000 Bohras to be removed to Surat where he maintained them at his own expense for a long time. After the famine-stricken districts had been perfectly relieved he permitted the people to return to their native places, well provided with necessary implements of manual arts, such as weaving and the like, so as to save them from beggary and to enable them to maintain themselves by honourable pursuits. To meet all such charitable expenses he spent, nearly all his hereditary wealth without encumbering the public funds.'
Immigration and refugees are burning issues today with major population displacements occurring in and around Europe and the issue having taken prominence in the US presidential elections. Lessons are to be learned from how Syedna - without recourse to state resources - dealt with the situation at the time. By welcoming the refugees - despite the huge numbers and costs involved; giving them vocational training and providing for their immediate needs he was able to ameliorate their immediate predicament as well as equipping them for a more prosperous and beneficial future that collectively is in the interest of all.
The Bohra leaders have always maintained cordial relations with political rulers since the time the d`awat established its headquarters in India. During the famine, Syedna Saifuddin had been providing humanitarian assistance to community members by purchasing grain and distributing it among the needy. The famine had caused the Company to impose certain restrictions on the purchase of grain which unfavourably affected the relief program. Fortunately, upon Syedna's intervention, the rules were relaxed and the purchase of grain resumed as per earlier terms.
British influence had some undesirable effects on the Surti traders. Merchants were forced to lend to Company officials while the latter provided an incentive of higher interest rates to assuage any discomfort. In order to combat the merchants' resistance to accepting the scheme, British officials approached Syedna Saifuddin asking him to endorse their proposal but Syedna remained steadfast and did not yield. He explicitly stated that interest based dealings were prohibited in his religion and he would not acquiesce at any cost.
Syedna Abdeali Saifuddin left a great legacy for scholars and statesmen alike, paving the way, through his words and deeds, towards an inclusive but distinct system of governance based on the welfare of all without compromising on the individual belief-systems of social orders and religious groups.