Historical background about the Bohra sect
The Bohra and the Shiite Ismaili sects are closely related. Actually, the Bohras’ ideology originated from the Ismaili sect’s concepts and adopted many of its doctrines. The followers of the Ismaili sect called for the Imamate of Ismail Bin Jaa’far Al-Sadeq (born in 719 AD) who was the oldest son of Imam Jaa’far Al-Sadeq. The Ismaili branch of Shia is named for Ismail and according to both the Nizari and Mustaali Shia sects, he is the sixth Imam.
The Sultan of the Bohra sect, Mohamed Borhan El-Din (photo: Shaaba)
Strong Abbasid persecution had put the entire Shia movement on guard and had indeed driven Shias, particularly the Ismailis, underground. The Abbasid authorities considered the Ismaili Imams as their arch political rivals and enemies. That is why the Ismailis kept a low profile in the Arab world until Obeid Allah Al-Mahdi appeared in Morocco, making the sect more powerful when he founded the Fatimid state in North Africa in 330 AH (912-913 AD). Al-Mahdi’s successor was Al-Mansour then Al-Muiz Li Din Allah Al-Fatemi who conquered Egypt and established the Fatimid state there. The Imamate was transferred to Al-Zaher after Al-Muiz, then to Al-Mustanser Bi Allah.
Al-Azhar Mosque, one of the most important buildings in Fatimid Egypt
After Al-Mustanser’s death, a bitter conflict arose between his sons Nizar and Al-Mustaali. But Al-Mustaali managed to hold onto power and the Imamate, relying on the support of his uncle Al-Afdal Al-Gamaly the leader of the Fatimid armies. These incidents resulted in dividing the Ismaili sect into two groups: the first was called “Nizari” and the second was “Al-Mustaali”, but Al-Mustaali Imams kept on ruling Egypt.
The entrance of Al-Aqmar Mosque of the Fatimid era in Egypt
Al-Mustaali’s successor was Al-Amer Bi Allah then Al-Tayeb Ibn Al-Amer who they thought went into a period of ‘concealment’. Al-Aded assumed power after Al-Tayeb, but the Fatimid state was deteriorating during his rule until Salahudin Al-Ayoubi, who founded the Ayyubid dynasty, overthrew the Fatimid state in Egypt.
The Al-Mustaali group went to Yemen and was known there as “Ismaili Tayeba”. They gave up politics and focused on business and trade. They reached India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, allowing their Shiite ideology to spread.
They mingled with the Hindus in those countries who adopted Islam as well and they are now known as the Bohra sect. It is worth mentioning that “Bohra” is a Hindi word that means “trade”.
Entrance of the Al-Hakimi Mosque
Entrance of Al-Hakimi Mosque
The Bohras’ beliefs
The Bohras believe that Imam Al-Tayeb Ibn Al-Amer will reappear one day to establish the Shiite Fatimid state once again. They also believe in the divinity of their Imams, so they pray like Muslims but they say that their prayers go to Al-Tayeb who, according to their belief, went into a period of concealment and disappeared from humanity in 525 AH and his descendants are Imams who are alive today but also hidden from view. The Bohras’ prayers and religious events are held a day or two earlier than all other Muslims’ occasions including Hajj rituals. They permitted usury and considered it a give-and-take process like buying and selling. The Kaaba in the Bohras’ beliefs is a symbol of the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib.
The Bohras also believe that they should renovate all Fatimid tombs and mosques, and consequently offer financial resources for such purposes. For that reason, they renovated the shrines of Karbala, Najaf and Al-Sayeda Zeinab in Cairo. In addition, they built a golden dome to Al-Hussein in Cairo.
Bohras in Al-Hakimi Mosque
The Bohra sect renovated Al-Anwar Mosque (or Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah Mosque) in Cairo, which is one of the most magnificent Fatimid mosques. Before renovation, the mosque was in ruins and many organisations including UNESCO refused to renew it. However, the Sultan of the Bohra sect, Mohamed Borhan El-Din, renovated the mosque in 28 months and reopened it in 1981 with Anwar Al-Sadat, the president of Egypt at that time.
A source of holy water at Al-Hakimi Mosque
Al-Hakimi Mosque after renovation
Al-Hakimi Mosque remains a sacred place for Bohras. It is where they perform their rituals every Thursday, away from other worshipers. They believe that there is a sacred well in the mosque where Al-Hakim was buried, so they insist on performing ablution in a specific place in the mosque and drink in that particular spot in order to receive blessings.
Source of holy water at Al-Hakimi Mosque
A Mehrab in Al-Hakimi Mosque
Who is Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah?
Abu Ali Ibn Mansour who was conferred the title of Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah was the sixth Fatimid caliph. He was born in 985 AD and ruled Egypt when he was just eleven years old in 996 AD, after he succeeded his father Al-Aziz Bi Allah. Al-Hakim remained Egypt’s ruler until 1021 AD.
Entry gate to Al-Hakimi Mosque
Al-Hakim gained widespread fame due to the dictatorial laws he imposed on Egyptians to change their behaviour. For example, he forbade eating certain types of food such as Molokhya (Jew’s mallow) and watercress. He also banned cow slaughter except on official days of sacrifice (Eid Al-Adha). One of his weirdest decrees was to make the noon call for prayer at 7 am and the Asr (or afternoon) prayer at 9 am. Al-Hakim’s behaviour was so eccentric that he used to ride a donkey amid the people to announce his strange decisions. One of those unpopular decisions was to prevent women from revealing their faces while walking on the streets, and prohibiting the selling of fish without their scales. He later banned fishing altogether.
The title “Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah” which means “the ruler by the command of God” was given to him by Mohamed Ibn Ismael and Hamza Ibn Ali who are founders of the Druze sect. They gave him this title when they visited Egypt where they said that God is incarnated in Al-Hakim’s body.
Al-Aziz Bi Allah started to build this mosque in 990 AD (380 AH) but it was not completed during the period of his caliphate, though he ordered people to perform Friday prayer there during Ramadan of the year 381 AH. His son Al-Hakim Bi Amr Allah finished building the mosque in 1012 AD (403 AH), which is why the mosque was named after him.
View from the top of Al-Hakimi Mosque
Al-Hakimi Mosque is considered the second biggest in Cairo after Ibn Tulun’s mosque. It was originally established outside Cairo’s fortifications built by the Fatimid vizier Gawhar Al-Siqilli, until Badr Al-Gamali rebuilt the Northern Wall to include the mosque within the boundaries of the enclosed city. It consists of an irregular rectangle with four arcades surrounding the courtyard and supported by compound piers. It has a prayer hall whose arcades are also held up by the compound’s piers.
An unusual feature of the mosque is the monumental entrance with its stone porch. It is located in Historic Cairo, on the east side of Muiz Street, just south of Bab Al-Futuh (the Northern Gate).
The most spectacular features of the mosque are the minarets on either side of the façade. They are the oldest surviving minarets in Cairo as they stand at the outer walls of the mosque. The bases are original and can be seen inside the buttresses, though the tops were replaced in 1303 by Baybars II Al-Gashankir during the Mamluk period after an earthquake destroyed the upper stories.