Power, Ideology and Authority

Two Case Studies from the Daudi Bohras

In: African and Asian Studies
Author: Jonah Blank1
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In many religious (and other) communities, a dispute about ideology is often more accurately understood as a dispute about authority and power. Such a conflict may progress through three stages, each one more deeply challenging to the legitimacy of traditional authority structures. Whether the challenge ultimately succeeds or fails, its impact may reach far beyond the immediate issue ostensibly in contention: What might start as a narrowly-defined question of ideology or theology may evolve into a comprehensive rejection of the dominant authority’s moral foundation. This article examines such a dynamic through two case studies from the Daudi Bohra community, a denomination of Shi’a Islam spread across Asia, Africa, and four other continents. The first case involves a century-long contestation between the denomination’s apex cleric and a group of dissidents over the proper limits of clerical control. The second case, unfolding in 2014, involves a clerical dispute over succession to the hegemonic office of da’i-al mutlaq. In both cases, the Bohra experience in dealing with issues of ideology and authority provides an example illustrative of a dynamic found in many religious communities worldwide.

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