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Olly Akkerman (Alumna BGSMCS)


From Sacred to Secret. Bohra Textual Practice and the Language of Secrecy

From Sacred to Secret. Bohra Textual Practice and the Language of Secrecy

This research investigates the role of an undocumented Bohra archive in India as a repository of secret texts. The Bohras were one of the few Ismāʿīlī communities to survive the fall of the Shīʿa Ismāʿīlī Fāṭimid Caliphate in North Africa (566/1171), having formed new communities in India. In response to the new social, political, and historical reality of medieval Gujarat, Bohra scholars founded centres of Ismāʿīlī knowledge all over the Indian subcontinent and preserved, copied, reworked and canonized Arabic Ismāʿīlī heritage in their private archives and family libraries. The Bohra reading of Ismāʿīlī doctrine is characterised by a very strong emphasis on taqiyya (secrecy), meaning that all religious texts, bāṭinī (esoteric) texts in particular, were only accessible to a restricted group of initiates consisting of the Dāʿī, the religious and spiritual head of the community, and his family.

My main source of study will be a private Bohra archive belonging to the royal family of the ʿAlawī Bohras, a small but thriving sub-sect of Bohras residing in Baroda, Gujarat. The archive, which is only accessible to the highest clerics, contains over 450 manuscripts, written mostly in Arabic. In order to preserve this heritage and prevent its circulation amongst the community, these manuscripts are carefully copied by hand by ʿAlawī Bohra clerics, resulting in a unique, living tradition of Ismāʿīlī manuscript culture.

The central focus of the proposed project will be the analysis of how this archive functions as a repository of secret texts within the ʿAlawī Bohra community. Combining classical archival work with participant observation in the community, both the clerical establishment and the public, I will investigate the social role of the archive in the community, looking at how a discourse of secrecy was constituted through this repository of texts, and how this influenced access, readership and authorship, and what role language, Arabic versus vernacular languages, manuscript culture and scribal politics played in this process.

First Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Manan Ahmed

Second Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Verena Klemm