Bohras in prayer at the marble open-air mosque located on the grounds of Barzilai Medical Centre. (photo from Ron Lobel)
The Barzilai Medical Centre in Ashkelon, Israel, is known for treating victims of border skirmishes with Gaza. It is also the former home of a tomb where a Shi’a Muslim sect known as Dawoodi Bohras (or Bohras) still make pilgrimages. Bohras believe that the head of Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the founder of Islam, Prophet Mohammed, was buried here in 680 AD, following his death in battle.
While many Shi’as believe that Husayn’s complete body was buried at Karbala, Iraq, others, like the Bohras, claim that his head was hidden in Ashkelon and then taken away centuries later to Egypt to prevent desecration by European Crusaders. Despite that its final resting place might be in Egypt, the location in Ashkelon continues to attract pilgrims.
Dawoodi Bohras number around one million adherents worldwide – though some estimates are as high as five million – and trace their ancestry to Egypt during the Fatimid Caliphate. They eventually migrated to India via Yemen after the Caliphate ended in 1171 AD. Today, Bohras live mostly in Western India, with smaller communities in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Kenya and elsewhere.
Dr. Ron Lobel, former deputy director of the medical centre, has met with various pilgrims and described them as “very decent people who visit quietly and respectfully.” He continued, “You hardly notice when they’re here.”
Lobel said, wherever Bohras hail from, they converse in Lisan U Dawat, which is similar to Gujarati, with Arabic and Farsi influences, reflecting their Middle Eastern roots. Unlike the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, there is no specific time prescribed to visit Ashkelon. Therefore, pilgrims visit whenever they are able to do so.
Bohras are of the Ismaili Shi’a subdivision and have a centralized leadership, currently headed by the 53rd da’i al-mutlaq: Mufaddal Saifudeen. The Bohras’ leadership lineage can be traced directly to Prophet Mohammed. The Druze, who today live in Israel and the Levant, split off from Ismaili Shi’as in 1017 AD and now identify as a different religion altogether.
The pilgrimage site in Israel has had structures atop that were constantly demolished and rebuilt throughout history. The last standing one was a mosque named Mashhad al-Husayn, which was razed in 1950 by Moshe Dayan despite protests by Shmuel Yeivin, then director of the Department of Antiquities. The Barzilai Medical Centre was opened in 1961, and they contend that they “had no clue that the hill within the premises was a sacred site.”
Although pilgrims had visited prior to 1948, the first known group to visit after Israeli independence came in 1980, shortly after relations between Israel and Egypt were normalized. According to Aliasgher Zakir from Kenya, these pilgrims were Indian and Kenyan Bohras who had recently moved to Egypt for business purposes. Most pilgrims also visit Jerusalem, for its religious and historical significance.
In 2000, the 52nd dai, Mohammed Burhanuddin (the father of Da’i Al-mutlaq Mufaddal Saifudeen), visited during an excavation that uncovered remnants of historic structures barely a metre below the ground. Subsequently, a marble platform was installed, which now serves as an open-air mosque for pilgrims.
“Just like us Jews, they are very stubborn about keeping their old traditions, language and customs alive,” Lobel said with a chuckle. He added that, while Muslims from other sects have also visited, only Dawoodi Bohras show consistency in making pilgrimage as an organized community.
Avi Kumar is an historian and freelance writer. He has lived in six countries and speaks 10 languages. His work has been published in many countries, from his native Sri Lanka to Israel and Ireland, and he has written on a variety of topics, including history, wildlife and linguistics.