Bohras are a subset of Tayyibi, Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. The Bohras trace their heritage to the Fatimid Caliphate, named after Fatimah, the daughter of Muhammad, and so veneration of the Fatimid Imams and Muhammad’s family is central to their faith.
In western India, the Ismaili converts, mostly of Hindu descent, are known as Bohras, a name believed to have been derived from the Gujarati term vohorvu meaning ‘to trade’, since the daʿwa originally spread among the trading community of Gujarat.
“Da’I Mutlaq” is the absolute, or unrestricted, missionary who is the most senior spiritual rank and office in Tayyibi Isma’ilism. On the death of the twenty-sixth daʿi mutlaq, Daʾud b. ʿAjabshah, in 997/1589, dispute over his succession led to the Daʾudi–Sulaymani schism in the Tayyibi daʿwa and community. As a result, they acknowledged Daʾud Burhan al-Din (d. 1021/1612) as their next daʿi and became known as Dawoodis. On the other hand, a minority of Tayyibis, who accounted for almost the entire community in Yaman, now recognized Sulayman b. Hasan (d. 1005/1597) as their own new, twenty-seventh, daʿi; they became known as Sulaymanis. Henceforth, the Dawoodi and Sulaymani Tayyibis followed separate lines of daʿis. The Dawoodi daʿis continued to reside in India, while the headquarters of the Sulaymani daʿwa remained in Yaman. Subsequently, the Dawoodi Bohras were further subdivided in India because of periodic challenges to the authority of their daʿi mutlaq. In one such instance, in 1034/1624, ʿAli b. Ibrahim (d.1046/1637) founded the ʿAlawi splinter group who established their own separate line of daʿis, starting with ʿAli b. Ibrahim himself as their twenty-ninth daʿi. At present, the ʿAlawi Bohras are a very small community centered at Baroda (Vadodara) in Gujarat.
Meanwhile, the main Dawoodi community continued to grow and prosper, free from persecution by the Mughal emperors and their governors in Gujarat. In 1200/1785, the headquarters of the Dawoodi daʿwa was transferred to Surat, where the forty-third daʿi, ʿAbd ʿAli Sayf al-Din (1213–1232/1798–1817), founded a seminary known as Sayfi Dars (also Jamiʿa Sayfiyya) for the education of Daʾudi scholars and functionaries.
Since 1232/1817, the office of the daʿi mutlaq of the Dawoodi Tayyibi Bohras has remained among the descendants of Shaykh Jiwanji Awrangabadi, while the community has continued to experience intermittent strife and crisis rooted in opposition to the daʿi’s authority and policies. The present daʿi mutlaq of the Dawoodi daʿwa, Sayyidna Muhammad Burhan al-Din, succeeded his father Sayyidna Tahir Sayf al-Din (1333–1385/1915–1965) as the fifty-second in the series.
The total Dawoodi population of the world is currently estimated at around one million, located mainly in India. Since the 1920s, Bombay (Mumbai), with its largest single concentration of Bohras, has served as the administrative seat of the Dawoodi daʿi mutlaq. Outside India, the largest Dawoodi community is situated in Karachi. The Tayyibi Bohras were also among the first Asian communities to settle in East Africa.
Taken from: A History of Shii Islam by Farhad Daftary