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Minimalism: The Bohra Way of Life

Minimalism - Bohra Muslim
Bohra Muslims are a community of Shia Muslim sect. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0

The debate of what minimalism means to different people around the world, and how it is affecting the consumer culture has been going on for many years. Ever since the pandemic struck early this year, several people have been talking of cutting back on consumption and being more mindful of their lifestyle. All the talk about this leads me to think of how my community, the Bohra Muslims, has followed the principles of minimalism and mindfulness for centuries!

The million-strong Dawoodi Bohra community is part of the Shia Muslim sect. While this largely mercantile group originated in Gujarat, its diaspora lives all over the world. In every aspect of our life, from food to clothing to business, we make sure that we don’t just achieve spiritual growth, but also ensure low wastage. We believe in peace and preservation. Our cultural and traditional values, based on which our daily life is modelled, are practical with spiritual meaning. Rich or poor, high or low, everyone is subjected to the same teachings throughout their lives for a clean conscience.

Our habit of practising minimalism begins from the time we wake up in the morning. The first thing we exercise restraint in is our speech. We are taught to be frugal with our words because ‘speech is silver, but silence is golden’. His Holiness Dr Syedna Muffadal Saifuddin, stresses on thinking before speaking, because once something is uttered, it cannot be retracted. We are encouraged to pipe up against wrongdoing, but even then, without sacrificing manners.

Food wastage is a topic at the heart of our community’s life. We don’t cook more than what is required, and only take small portions of food until we’re gratified. We usually eat from a huge thali placed on a small steel stand, surrounded by eight or 10 people. Each course is placed in the thali, and everyone partakes of it. This system not just increases the conservation of food, but also gives everyone a chance to interact with others.

Women of the Bohra community eating together from a thali. Photo: Zainab MM
Women of the Bohra community eating together from a thali. Photo: Zainab MM

The world is facing an unprecedented water crisis. But for the Bohras, water wastage is not just an environmental concern but also core to our spiritual journey. We make a conscious effort to use as little water as necessary. Even our clothes are particularly minimalist in nature. The women wear rida, a modified version of the burkha, while men mostly wear a kurta-pyjama, cap and saya (a kind of jacket). While women can beautify their rida, the men have to wear white, at least in mosques. Since the shape and structure of the rida are always the same, less cloth is used. Also, this advocates a sense of belonging and communal harmony, because Bohras are easy to recognize.

Since Bohras are a trading community, there are rules to follow while trading. For example, practices like overtrading, huge market risks, overcharging, etc. are not encouraged. While we do strive for financial success and profits, we are also taught be thankful for what we have and to uplift the less fortunate. Homemakers are advised to make budget plans to keep track of what is useful and necessary.

Masjid e Moazzam, Surat
Masjid-e-Moazzam in Surat in one of the places for worship for Bohra muslims. Photo: CC BY-SA 3.0

Even the concept of living as a joint family (highly recommended) helps us lead a mindful life. When people live together, it creates a greater bond and strengthens relationships, which is crucial for minimalists. The aged can enjoy filial peace and the company of children, while the young can take inspiration from their experiences and lead a better life. Since everybody shares the same space, there is less spending and more sharing, which leads to a lower impact on the environment.

Bohra festivals are also minimalist in nature. It sets us apart from the rest of the Muslim communities. Almost all the main festivals require only prayers and charity, and of course, good food. For example, during Eid-ul-Adha, the meat from all the sacrifices is distributed equally among all the members. Even during Ramadan, we do not indulge in huge iftaars and lavish dinners. We break our fast with only a date and biscuits and consume a simple two-course dinner.

As Joshua Becker says, “minimalism is intentionally living with only the things I really need”. This year has taught people a lot of things, but most importantly, it has taught us to minimise. It has made us question our choices and think about where true happiness lies — a concept that Bohras have been following for centuries.

Text by Zainab MM

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