Ismaili History: The Marco Polo Myth of the Assassins

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Major excavation activities have been underway for the past few years resulting in interesting archaeological discoveries. Here we see the legendary water basin which filled itself up by collecting rainwater and melting snow from channels and canals on the mountains. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

PULLING BACK THE SILK CURTAIN

“The Nizari [Ismailis] excelled in the fields of theology, philosophy, architecture and science, but their opponents demonized them as bloodthirsty extremist religious murderers…The returning Crusaders brought back the legend of the pothead assassins, partly because they loved to believe imaginative romantic tales of the East…In 1256, Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu, destroyed the Nizali mountain castles, one at a time. Their political and military power was permanently broken (although today, some several million Nizalis still survive in some 25 countries across Asia, Africa, Europe and North America).

Timeline

Timeline by Dr. Ali M. Rajput, Birmingham, England.

“In 1273, Marco Polo visited Alamut, and brought back the story of how hashish was used to attract potential killers…After, Dante was the first to use the word “assassin” in the 19th Canto of The Inferno in his Divine Comedy. The word “assassin” remained in various European languages, right through to Dan Brown, author of the Da Vinci Code, who mentions the Assassins in his book, Angels and Demons. But there are a few reasons why the hashish-assassin myth is almost certainly wrong….If hashish is given in a large enough dose to cause unconsciousness, it will first cause nausea and hallucinations – which are usually very scary and unpleasant to the unsuspecting user.” — Excerpts from  Dr. Karl  S. Kruszelnicki’s “Hashish Assassin – Pulling Back the Silk Curtain”, broadcast on ABC Science Australia. Dr. Karl is Julius Sumner Miller Fellow, School of Physics, University of Sydney. 

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Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

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ETYMOLOGY

Nevertheless, the most acceptable etymology of the word assassin is the simple one: it comes from Hassan (Hassan ibn al-Sabbah) and his followers, and so had it been for centuries. The noise around the hashish version was invented in 1809, in Paris, by the French orientalist Sylvestre de Sacy, whom on July the 7th of that year, presented a lecture at the Academy of Inscriptions and Fine Letters (Académie des inscriptions et belles lettres) – part of the Institute of France – in which he retook the Marco Polo chronicle concerning drugs and this sect of murderers, and associated it with the word. Curiously his theory had great success and apparently still has…Jacques Boudet, in Les mots de l’histoire, Ed. Larousse-Bordas, Paris, 1998

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THE TRUTH IS DIFFERENT

[…] their contemporaries in the Muslim world would call them hash-ishiyun, “hashish-smokers”; some Orientalists thought that this was the origin of the word “assassin,” which in many European languages was more terrifying yet….the truth is different. According to texts Hassan-i Sabbah liked to call his disciples Asasiyun, meaning people who are faithful to the Asās, meaning “foundation” of the faith. This is the word, misunderstood by foreign travelers, that seemed similar to “hashish” — Amin Maalouf, in Samarkand, Interlink Publishing Group, New York, 1998

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Editor’s note: The following piece by Valerie Gonzalez has been adapted from her review of the book Eagle’s Nest – Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria by the late Professor Peter Peter Wiley, who had spent nearly a lifetime discovering and investigating the Ismaili castles of Iran and Syria. Professor Wiley passed away on April 23, 2009, at the age 86. Valerie’s copyright piece originally appeared in REMMM (Issue 123|July 2008)  and was reproduced on this blog in full (see link below) with the kind permission of Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée.

DECONSTRUCTION OF THE MYTH

The Rock of Alamut.

The Castle of Alamut, nested on the top of the colossal mass of granite rock, became the centre of Nizari Ismaili activity after the fall of the Fatimid Empire. It is not until you come to the foot of this colossal mass of stone that you realize the immensity and impregnability of the fortress at its summit. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright. Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

By Valerie Gonzalez

Old myths are very difficult to deconstruct, even when historical evidence reveals the absurdity of their foundations. The infamous “assassin” legend that from the Middle Ages soils the memory of the Nizari Ismaili community is an example of this incorrigible defect of the collective consciousnesses. The image presented by both Christian and Muslim chroniclers of the Ismailis as unscrupulous terrorists is unfortunate if their sole fault lay in surviving as a distinct political and religious community within a hostile and troubled environment. The Crusaders, Sunnis and Seldjuk Turks naturally saw in this Shi’ite minority a threat to their establishment and expended great efforts in eliminating the Ismaili State from Iran and Syria. In addition to the pressures exerted by the great powers holding sway over the Middle East, in the 13th century, the Ismailis had to confront the Mongol threat which finally overwhelmed them. It is not wonder that in such a context they deployed the most efficient means of defense available to maintain not only the network of their strongholds and basis of their State, but also their faith and culture, the very sense of existence. In practice however, they were no more immoral or cruel than their contemporaries. They simply proved tremendously clever and obstinate in facing adversity and in struggling against forces vastly more powerful than their own. And it is probably for this reason that the Nizari Ismaili community were subject to demonization.

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Attaining the summit at Alamut is a breath-taking and exhilarating experience. The fortress complex, one soon discovers, sits astride a dangerously narrow ledge of rock resembling the handle and blade of a knife. The above is an open passage through the mountain. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

Much scholarship was required to unravel the dark mystery of the medieval Ismaili community. Numerous historical essays and archeological reports, among them Fahrad Daftari’s extensive works, have provided an accurate view of the Ismailis within the Islamic tradition. But assuredly the latest release on the subject, Peter Willey’s book Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, brings invaluable new insights by accurately portraying the environment in which the life and struggles of the Ismaili faithful took place. There is no question but that this book offers a convincing tool for the deconstruction of the false myths which surround the cult of the Assassins.

Far from being the addicts of hashish (the word assassin is believed widely, but incorrectly, to derive from the word hashishin) and a band of murderous brigands, the Ismailis were highly intelligent and devout Muslims serving their own Imam or spiritual leader (the present Imam is the Aga Khan) and attempting to build a new and vigorous Islamic state independent of the Seljuqs who had conquered Iran in 1038 – Peter Willey, Geographical Magazine, UK, February 1998

More than a mere treatise on the archaeology of the Ismaili castles in Iran and Syria, Willey’s book shows multiple qualities. As an academic work, it fulfills its main objective which is to present the results of a meticulous description and observation of these fortified sites. The considerable amount of information contained in the volume reflects a near life-time of research devoted to the subject. Not a single pile of stones or rubble has escaped Willey’s acute attention, or skillful restoration in clear prose of the forbidding grandeur of the Ismaili military architecture. Each remaining element of structure is analyzed and appropriately re-situated in the initial order both of the architectural organization of the building itself and of its broader setting within the coherent chain of fortresses spread over Ismaili territories. The material and documentation at the author’s disposal, including building scale, purpose, population levels and strategic importance have been patiently collected in order to present a reliable picture of the complex network of Ismaili strongholds. Maps, ground plans, photographs and even artists’ impressions and drawings complete the written work together with four appendices which include the castles’ inventory, a list of Willey’s expeditions and two catalogues of the ceramic and coin artifacts dating from the Alamut Period found at the site.

As seen on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day and the National Geographic News a meteor's streak and the arc of the Milky Way hang over the imposing mountain fortress of Alamut in this starry scene. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/Dreamview.net . Copyright.

As seen on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day and the National Geographic News, a meteor’s streak and the arc of the Milky Way hang over the imposing mountain fortress of Alamut in this starry scene. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/Dreamview.net . Copyright.

Beyond the high quality scientific report based on the archaeological record, Eagle’s Nest offers a brilliant reconstitution of Ismaili material culture from an historical, intellectual and sociological point of view, from the 11th century through the Mongol destructions of the mid 13th century. Willey restitutes the very meaning of the architecture he studies through the history of its builders and inhabitants, pointing out the most significant events of their lifetimes and portraying the great spiritual and political leaders of the Ismaili community. Methodically and surely, Willey describes the intricate historical background of the Ismaili State in which multiple powers confronted or fought each other, including Seljuk Turks, ambitious Sunni and Shii’a rulers, Crusaders on the Mediterranean coast, to propose his own interpretation of the historical evidence. Where evidence lacks or where persistent misconceptions require redress, the author proposes and defends critical hypotheses. The historical and cultural dimension of Willey’ archaeological investigation is particularly enhanced by the presentation of certain situations and events as literary narratives, as he does in the beginning of chapter 2, “Hasan Sabbah and the Ismailis of Iran”. The passage in question relates the capture without bloodshed of the Alamut fortress under Seljuk authority and begins thus: “It was nearly noon on a hot day in the early summer of 1090. Mahdi, the lord of the castle of Alamut, was beginning to sweat a little” (p. 21). In this way, the author makes us relive the extraordinary event in a human atmosphere that is quite uncommon in scholarly works.

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A tribute to the great Ismaili dai, Hasan bin Sabbah who was responsible for establishing the Alamut state after the divisions in the Fatimid Empire led to its eventual demise. Hasan maintained that Imam Nizar and not Musteali was the rightful heir to Imam Mustansir billah, the 8th Fatimid Caliph. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright.

Willey’s sensitivity to humanistic values is perceptible throughout the book, not only through the telling of the past but also in the lively narration of the research trips themselves. First, he pays considerable attention to the actual environment of the castles he visits, their awesome natural frame and the rural or urban settings of the surroundings that are presented with delight and consideration. Although most of the time the Ismaili vestiges are ghost constructions in remote, isolated regions, they are not at all presented by Willey as still life portraits. Rather, each fortress is an element in a busy, human landscape. As an example, where appropriate Willey writes about agriculture and local conditions in the surrounding villages for fortresses located in rural areas. Also, the local population and individuals involved in Willey’s expeditions frequently are mentioned as actors in the archaeological narrative. In this way, Willey underscores the support of both his team and the local community in contributing to the success of his research. Particularly moving is his attitude toward the people who help him visit inaccessible locations under difficult conditions and various orders, especially his work partner Adrianne Woodfine. More broadly, the practical aspects of each journey, the general organization and unexpected situations and encounters are meticulously recounted so that the book offers the live texture of a human adventure together with its purely scholarly content.

It is often difficult to describe to friends the problems which the investigation of Ismaili castles present. They are built on the top of high mountains, covering the entire summit, and are normally surrounded by three defensive walls with numerous outworks. Most of the castles were destroyed by the Mongols and the ruins are dangerous and infested with snakes and scorpions on or under the stones or in the cracks of walls. The steep scree and sharp rocks are formidable, especially in the intense heat and altitude of over 2000 metres – Peter Willey, Geographical Magazine, UK, February 1998

Chapters 7 through 12 cover the various areas of the Iranian Ismaili strongholds. Willey naturally begins with the fortresses in the famous Alamut Valley of the Alborz Mountains, the fortress in which the infamous legend of the “Assassins” took place. Alamut fortress constituted the very heart of the Nizari State in Iran and was the seat of Hasan Sabbah. Alamut and its sister fortresses represented the epitome of Ismaili military science. Willey presents it with a rigorous method of sketching, measuring and enumeration of the construction’s features and structures, topography, architectural configuration, water equipment, cisterns, underground storage, garrison quarters and so on.

Alamut Potter Kilns

The pottery kilns in the valley of Andij in the Alamut valley. Some 15 kilns were discovered including good examples of contemporary ceramics. Photo: http://www.iis.ac.uk

The Alamut castle like many of the Ismaili strongholds contained facilities for religious activities and higher learning such as libraries. To support his observations, Willey quotes several times the Mongol historian, Juwayni, who witnessed the surrender of the Alamut fortress among other similar events. Although this chronicler was hostile to the Ismailis, his detailed reports offer an invaluable source of information. In particular he inspected the Alamut fortress’ interior prior to destruction and mentions, not without admiration, its remarkable facilities (p.100). Indeed, the sophistication of their architecture allowed the Ismailis to resist the fiercest attacks while ultimately succumbing to the formidable Mongol war machinery. Willey relates with great empathy for the desperate inhabitants the dramatic capture and systematic destruction of Alamut and other Ismaili strongholds. After Alamut, Willey investigates the other Iranian Ismaili castles of the regions of Qumes, Khorassan, Qohistan and in the surroundings of the Seldjuk capital Isfahan.

Willey terminates his book with a moving epilogue in which he shares a few of the thoughts, feelings and questions raised in his heart and mind by the exceptional fate of the Ismailis. He naturally mentions the remarkable endeavor of the Aga Khan’s organization for the development of both Ismaili and Islamic culture in continuation with the educational tradition of the community since the Middle Ages.

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Nevin Harji stands by an official road sign when she visited Alamut with husband Muslim. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ, Canada. © Copyright

If, through such personal treatment, Willey hoped to clarify the historical issues surrounding Ismaili culture through the ages, he most assuredly succeeded. Eagle’s Nest unveils the extraordinary reality and humanity of the medieval Ismaili civilization, often hidden behind romantic images of remote ruins and the dark secrets contained behind crumbling walls. Finally, that Willey should communicate his deep affection for the countries he explored, particularly Iran, and the Ismaili themselves, is not the least quality of this book.

Date posted: December 14, 2015.

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Credits and notes:

1. The book review originally appeared in REMMM (Issue 123|July 2008) and was reproduced on this web site with the kind permission of Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée under the title Voices: Unravelling the Dark History of the Medieval Ismaili Community

2. Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria, by Peter Willey, published by I.B. Tauris, 2005, London – New York, 321 pages, hard back. Approximate prices in Canada, USA and the UK (at Chapters.ca $45.00 – $61.00; at Amazon.com $37.00 – $58.00; new at Borders.com $58.00, at Amazon.co.uk Pounds 9.95 – 21.25, note price range based on used – new book)

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Pomp and Celebration in Fatimid Egypt During the Flooding of the Nile

BY THE LATE JOHN FEENEY

“When the Nile reached its peak, the golden parasol was unfurled, trumpets sounded, and the caliph, mounted and clothed in sapphires and emeralds, emerged to the wonderment of his subjects…it was difficult for many spectators to catch even a brief glimpse of the passing caliph. But the very act of seeing him, it was believed, conveyed blessings upon the beholder.”

This pair of true-and false-color images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer was acquired on June 3, 2002. For thousands of years, the lower Nile valley (northern end) has been a cradle of civilization. Surrounded by deserts, the Nile river brings much—needed water to the land and people, making the valley into an oasis of agriculture and life. At its delta at the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile broadens into a large fan-shaped delta. All of Egypt’s large cities fall along the Nile, which sustains life in a region of scant rainfall. Photo Credit: Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

Flowing out of a barren desert, from a source “beyond all known horizons,” the Nile had baffled the world for thousands of years. Regular as sun and moon, in the middle of burning summer, without a drop of rain in sight, when all other rivers on earth were drying up, for no apparent reason at all, the Nile rose out of its bed every year, and for three months embraced all of Egypt.

The ancient Egyptians knew when the flood would come, almost to the hour, but they never knew how much water it would bring to irrigate their fields. Egypt’s prosperity depended not only on the flood but also upon the accurate measurement of its height, for on that depended the allotment of water to its many users and the taxes they would have to pay in the coming year.

In the Middle Ages, each day during flood-time, the town crier walked the streets of Cairo announcing to the city the height of the rising Nile, although in drier years the actual height might be kept secret for fear of causing financial panic. “Twelve cubits today and the Lord is bountiful. God hath given abundance and watered the high fields,” he would say, to which a boy accompanying the crier would reply in his high-pitched voice, “Bless ye Muhammad.”

…The river having reached its anxiously awaited peak, preparations were made for the annual ‘Procession to the Nile.’ In 1047, the visiting Persian scholar Nasir Khosrau left a particularly rich description of the annual Fatimid procession celebrating the Nile’s inundation of Egypt.

For this great occasion, he wrote, the caliph [Imam al-Mustansir Billah] went personally to his treasury to select his symbolic regalia: parasol, turban, sceptre and sword. The sound of the palace band, which would accompany the procession, was so enormous that for three days before the event, massed drums and trumpets played continuously in the palace stables to accustom the animals to the noise. The job of decking out the processional route fell to the jewelers and tailors of the city, and this, too, always took three days and nights to arrange.

When the Nile reached its peak, the golden parasol was unfurled, trumpets sounded, and the caliph, “mounted and clothed in sapphires and emeralds,” emerged to the wonderment of his subjects.

Amidst clouds of incense, the procession of 10,000 men on horses moved off toward the great gate of Bab Zuwaylah, and beyond it to the flooding Nile.

From the surrounding rooftops, joining the din of drums, clashing cymbals and trumpets, “which sounded like thunder,” came choruses of the women’s ululations, “made by holding one hand under the nose and waggling the tongue in mid-scream.”

Leading the great procession were the sons and soldiers of the caliph’s princes (amirs). Then came the “amirs of the silver rods,” their symbols of office hung with little silver bells that jingled as they marched. Next came the “amirs of the collar,” two bearers of “the standards of praise,” and bearers of the symbolic inkstand and sword. Next came the mounted caliph surrounded by “men of the stirrup,” two at his horse’s bit, two at the neck, two at the stirrups, with the “commander of commanders” holding the caliph’s whip. The bearer of the golden parasol “took care to keep the caliph shaded from the sun,” while strategically placed in front of the caliph’s horse were two designated fly-swatters.

Amidst such a vast assembly of courtiers and crowd, it was difficult for many spectators to catch even a brief glimpse of the passing caliph. But the very act of seeing him, it was believed, conveyed blessings upon the beholder.

In both ancient and medieval Egyptt a nilometer was used to record how high the Nile was during the year. The nilometer was a staircase that proceeded down into the Nile with marks on it so the Egyptians knew how far the river rose. Image: TourEgypt.net

On reaching the Isle of Rhoda, the caliph dismounted, and the ceremony of anointing the Nilometer began. A mixture of saffron and mastic was handed to an official. Still in his clothes, he plunged into the flood-water and hung by his legs around the measuring column, dabbing on the perfumed mixture as readers above recited verses from the Qur’an.

The caliph went on to attend the opening of the “Canal of Egypt” (Al-Khalij al-Misri), which was kept dammed with stagnant water during the river’s winter months. At the canal, one of the caliph’s most magnificent silk tents was ready to give him protection from the summer sun. (Fatimid tents, transported on the backs of many camels, were portable palaces that took seven to nine years to make.) Amid more trumpet fanfares, the caliph thrust a spade onto the winter earthen dam and at once diggers attacked the dam with their hoes, cutting a series of narrow trenches across its surface. The impatient floodwaters quickly took over, eroding deeper channels, washing the dam completely away, and within an hour the life-giving flood reached the heart of all Cairo.

[Today] The Nile flood still comes, of course, but no one in Egypt sees it. Instead, it is contained in the immense inland sea called Lake Nasser, behind the Aswan High Dam. Here, Nile water collected year by year is led along neat narrow canals as unobtrusively as water coming out of a bathroom tap.

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One of the fascinating aspects of viewing Earth at night is how well the lights show the distribution of people. In this view of Egypt, we see a population almost completely concentrated along the Nile Valley, just a small percentage of the country’s land area. The Nile River and its delta look like a brilliant, long-stemmed flower in this astronaut photograph of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea, as seen from the International Space Station. The Cairo metropolitan area forms a particularly bright base of the flower. The smaller cities and towns within the Nile Delta tend to be hard to see amidst the dense agricultural vegetation during the day. However, these settled areas and the connecting roads between them become clearly visible at night. Likewise, urbanized regions and infrastructure along the Nile River becomes apparent . This astronaut photograph (ISS025-E-9858) was acquired on October 28, 2010, with a Nikon D3S digital camera using a 16 mm lens, and is provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center. The image was taken by the Expedition 25 crew. The image has been cropped and enhanced to improve contrast. Lens artifacts have been removed. Credit: NASA

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NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, recently past the halfway mark of his one-year mission to the International Space Station, photographed the Nile River during a nighttime flyover on Sept. 22, 2015. Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) wrote, “Day 179. The #Nile at night is a beautiful sight for these sore eyes. Good night from @space_station! #YearInSpace.” Image Credit: NASA

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John Feeney (d. 2006)

About the writer: The late New Zealand born filmmaker, photographer and writer John Feeney was among the early developers of wide-screen and large-format film techniques. For over 4 decades from 1963 onwards until his death in Wellington in 2006 at the age of 84, he divided his time between residences in Cairo and New Zealand. His piece (images excepted) is adapted from “The Last Nile Flood” which originally appeared in the May/June 2006 print edition of Saudi Aramco World, a publication to which Feeney regularly contributed for some 35 years.

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Related articles on this Website:

Cairo in the Light of Nasir Khusraw’s Safarnama by Hatim Mahamid
“Riding Forth to Open the Canal” with Nasir Khusraw by Alice Hunsberger

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Two Absolutely Essential Messages in His Highness the Aga Khan’s Harvard Lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic” and the Timeless Truth that “Humanity is Born of a Single Soul”

Ticket holders line up to listen to His Highness the Aga Khan at Harvard University on November 12, 2015. Photo: Azeem Maherali.

Ticket holders line up to listen to His Highness the Aga Khan at Harvard University on November 12, 2015. Photo: Azeem Maherali.

Editor’s note: Thematic excerpts from speeches made by His Highness the Aga Khan are highly popular with our readers, and we are pleased to present this feature once again for the recent Jodi lecture that was delivered by the 49th Ismaili Imam at Harvard University on Thursday, November 12, 2015. We begin with excerpts from introductory remarks made by Professor Ali Asani’s in welcoming His Highness to Harvard.

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WELCOME ADDRESS BY PROFESSOR ALI ASANI

“Your Highness, I am one of those children who many years ago was a student attending Aga Khan schools in Kenya, and with your support and guidance, went on to study and teach here at Harvard. Thank you.”  — Dr. Ali Asani, November 12, 2015.

Professor Ali Asani introduces His Highness the Aga Khan before the 2015 Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University. Photo: Navyn Naran.

Professor Ali Asani introduces His Highness the Aga Khan before the 2015 Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture at Harvard University. Photo: Navyn Naran.

“It is my honour and privilege to be here today, and to introduce to you — and to welcome back to Harvard — our guest speaker, His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, Harvard class of 1959.

“For nearly six decades, the Aga Khan has been responsible for both the spiritual guidance and the material welfare of millions of Ismaili Muslims residing in over 25 countries, sometimes in contexts of conflict and poverty. Under his leadership, this multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual, and transnational community — or Jamat — has witnessed the greatest transformation in its history. He has guided the Ismailis through a dramatic metamorphosis that has impacted the lives of each and every member of his community.

“However, His Highness’s concerns have extended well beyond the communities of his followers to the larger societies in which they live….[He] has made it possible for hundreds of thousands of children of different religious, ethnic and racial backgrounds to study in Aga Khan kindergarten, primary and secondary schools, and academies located both in Africa and Asia. He has created two international universities and endowed professorships at major institutions of higher education — including Harvard.

Audience applauds as His Highness the Aga Khan is welcomed to Harvard by Professor Ali Asani. Photo: The Ismaili/Farhez Rayani

Audience applauds as His Highness the Aga Khan is welcomed to Harvard by Professor Ali Asani. Photo: The Ismaili/Farhez Rayani

“His Highness has made every sector and aspect of the human existence a part of his concern. His institutional efforts are deployed to meet the holistic and multiple needs of millions of people around the world, irrespective of their religion, race or nationality.

“According to a well-known saying attributed to the Aga Khan’s ancestor, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” In keeping with ancient Islamic traditions of nurturing the arts, His Highness has also enriched the lives of people around the world by giving the priceless gift of beauty.

“While some wanton elements in our world today are sadly intent on destroying humanity’s cultural heritage, the Aga Khan’s institutions have been restoring historic monuments, beautifying urban landscapes with magnificent gardens and stunning award-winning buildings, reviving traditions of music and promoting the role of the arts as bridges of cultural understanding.

“Today, we live in an increasingly polarised world in which people are unable to tolerate difference, let alone understand and engage with it. The lives of one-and-a-half billion Muslims, and perhaps everyone on this planet, have been changed by the machinations of powerful geopolitical forces.

“Your Highness, in our world of increasing division orchestrated by small cells of radical extremists, and often manipulated by powerful forces with consequences that reverberate in large parts of the world, we cherish and honour your lifetime commitment to pluralism and the betterment of society, and look forward to your thoughts on The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome His Highness the Aga Khan.”

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THEMATIC EXCERPTS FROM THE LECTURE OF HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke on November 12, 2015 at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on "The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World". Photo: AKDN / Farhez Rayani

His Highness the Aga Khan speaks on November 12, 2015 at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs on “The Cosmopolitan Ethic in a Fragmented World”. Photo: AKDN / Farhez Rayani

Bismillah-ir-Rahman-ir-Rahim

1. WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN IMAM

Thank you for your warm welcome. It is indeed a great pleasure for me to return to Harvard and this wonderful campus. I am honored as well, to be giving the Jodidi Lecture for 2015, and to join the distinguished list of those who have given this lecture over the past 60 years.

….in 1957 I was a junior when I became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims — when my grandfather designated me to succeed him.

…What does it mean to become an Imam in the Ismaili tradition?…. it is an inherited role of spiritual leadership. As you may know, the Ismailis are the only Muslim community that has been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from Prophet Muhammad.

That spiritual role, however, does not imply a separation from practical responsibilities. In fact for Muslims the opposite is true: the spiritual and material worlds are inextricably connected. Leadership in the spiritual realm — for all Imams, whether they are Sunni or Shia — implies responsibility in worldly affairs; a calling to improve the quality of human life.

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2. ON HARVARD, AND THE AGA KHAN’S EXPERIENCES VISITING HIS WORLD WIDE FOLLOWERS ON BECOMING THE IMAM

As I prepared for this new role in the late 1950s, Harvard was very helpful. The University allowed me — having prudently verified that I was a student “in good standing” — to take eighteen months away to meet the leaders of the Ismaili community in some 25 countries where most of the Ismailis then lived, and to speak with their government leaders.

I returned here after that experience with a solid sense of the issues I would have to address, especially the endemic poverty in which much of my community lived. And I also returned with a vivid sense of the new political realities that were shaping their lives, including the rise of African independence movements, the perilous relations between India and Pakistan and the sad fact that many Ismailis were locked behind the Iron Curtain and thus removed from regular contact with the Imamat.

When I returned to Harvard, it was not only to complete my degree, but I was fortunate to audit a number of courses that were highly relevant to my new responsibilities. So as an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to benefit from the complete spectrum of courses offered by this great university.

….Harvard has continued to be a highly valued partner for our Network since this time. The University played a key role in developing the blueprint thirty years ago for the Aga Khan University — working first in the fields of medicine and nursing education, and now offering a broad variety of degrees on three continents. Another close Harvard relationship has involved the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, launched here and at MIT in 1977.

Regularity in Class Attendance

Incidentally, I must have been the only Harvard undergraduate to have two secretaries and a personal assistant working with me. And I have always been very proud of the fact that I never sent any of them to take notes for me at my class!

3. THE INITIATIVE OF THE AGA KHAN DEVELOPMENT NETWORK IN THE DEVELOPING AND ISLAMIC WORLDS

Through all of these years, my objective has been to understand more thoroughly the developing countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and to prepare initiatives that will help them become countries of opportunity, for all of their peoples.

Concern For Islamic Architecture: Lack of Processes for its Renewal

My concern for the future of Islamic architecture grew out of my travels between 1957 and 1977 in countries with large Muslim populations. What I observed was a near total disconnect between the new built environment I encountered and Islam’s rich architectural legacy. There was no process of renewal, no teaching in architectural schools, no practices that were rooted in our own traditions. Except for the occasional minaret or dome, one of the world’s great cultural inheritances was largely confined to coffee-table books. It seemed to me that this state of affairs represented a monumental menace to our world’s cultural pluralism, as well as a dangerous loss of identity for Muslim communities.

The Aga Khan Programme for Islamic Architecture was one response to this situation, as was the creation of the Aga Khan architectural award, which also continues today. Bringing the art and architecture of the Islamic world to be understood and admired in the West, as it had been in the past, was a goal that also inspired the creation, just one year ago, of the Ismaili Centre and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto — the only museum in the western hemisphere devoted entirely to Islamic culture.

AKDN Objective in One Word, “Opportunity”, and Thus Hope for Future

Today, the Aga Khan Development Network embraces many facets and functions. But, if I were trying to sum up in a single word its central objective, I would focus on the word “opportunity”. For what the peoples of the developing world seek above all else is hope for a better future.

Too often however, true opportunity has been a distant hope — perhaps for some, not even more than a dream. Endemic poverty, in my view, remains the world’s single most important challenge. It is manifested in many ways, including persistent refugee crises of the sort we have recently seen in such an acute form. And of course confounding new challenges continue to mount, such as the looming threat of climate change. My interest in climate change has been sharpened by recent studies linking it to the threat of earthquakes. This could be an issue in the high mountain areas of South Asia for example, where so many Ismailis live and are concentrated.

Sixty years ago as I took up my responsibilities, the problems of the developing world, for many observers, seemed intractable. It was widely claimed that places like China and India were destined to remain among the world’s “basket cases” — incapable of feeding themselves let alone being able to industrialise or achieve economic self-sustainability. If this had been true, of course, then there would have been no way for the people of my community, in India and China and in many other places, to look for a better future.

Aga Khan Jodi Lecture Harvard

His Highness the Aga Khan spoke as part of the Samuel L. and Elizabeth Jodidi Lecture series, which provides for “the delivery of lectures by eminent and well-qualified persons for the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations, and the peace of the world. Photo: AKDN

Political realities presented further complications. Most of the poorest countries were living under distant colonial or protectorate or communist regimes. The monetary market was totally unpredictable. Volatile currencies were shifting constantly in value, making it almost impossible to plan ahead. And while I thought of all the Ismailis as part of one religious community, the realities of their daily lives were deeply distinctive and decidedly local.

Nor did most people yet see the full potential for addressing these problems through non-profit, private organisations — what we today call “civil society.”

And yet, it was also clear that stronger coordination across these lines of division could help open new doors of opportunity. We could see how renovated educational systems, based on best practices, could reach across frontiers of politics and language. We could see how global science could address changing medical challenges, including the growing threat of non-communicable disease. We could see, in sum, how a truly pluralistic outlook could leverage the best experiences of local communities through an effective international network.

But we also learned that the creation of effective international networks in a highly diversified environment can be a daunting matter. It took a great deal of considered effort to meld older values of continuity and local cohesion, with the promise of new cross-border integration.

 A GOAL IN A FRAGMENTED WORLD: SEEKING TO BUILD AN EFFECTIVE COSMOPOLITAN ETHIC

Cosmopolitan Ethic

What was required — and is still required — was a readiness to work across frontiers of distinction and distance without trying to erase them. What we were looking for, even then, were ways of building an effective “cosmopolitan ethic in a fragmented world.”

This often meant working from the bottom up, learning to follow what was sometimes called “field logic.” Most of our initiatives began at a local, community level, and then grew into regional, national and international institutions.

Working in Partnerships

As we moved forward, we learned a number of important lessons. We learned that lifting health and education services to world class standards was a global promise that could inspire local support. We learned to attack poverty simultaneously with multiple inputs, on a variety of fronts. We learned to work with effective partners — including the not-for-profit institutions of civil society. We learned to see our role as one of supporting the public sector, not competing with it. And we learned the importance of measuring carefully the outcomes of our efforts, and then applying that knowledge.

All of these approaches were facilitated by a determination to overcome linguistic barriers through a language policy that promoted better use of the national language, and network-wide English as a strong connecting tool.

And so our Network grew. Today it embraces a group of agencies — non-governmental and non-denominational — operating in 35 countries. They work in fields ranging from education and medical care, to job creation and energy production; from transport and tourism, to media and technology; from the fine arts and cultural heritage, to banking and microfinance. But they are all working together toward a single overarching objective: improving the quality of human life.

PROMISES OF THE PAST  AND….

Hope for International Cooperation

Meanwhile, in the Industrialised West, many things were happening that paralleled our AKDN experience. For one thing, an impulse for international cooperation was advancing in the late 1950s at an impressive pace. After half a century of violent confrontation, determined leaders talked hopefully about global integration. New international organisations and cross-border alliances blossomed. And Harvard University decisively expanded its own involvement in world affairs.

When the Jodidi Lectureship was established here in 1955, its explicit purpose (and I quote) was “the promotion of tolerance, understanding and good will among nations.” And that seemed to be the way history was moving. Surely, we thought, we had learned the terrible price of division and discord, and certainly the great technological revolutions of the 20th century would bring us more closely together.

Technological Promises and the New World Order

In looking back to my Harvard days, I recall how a powerful sense of technological promise was in the air — a faith that human invention would continue its ever-accelerating conquest of time and space. I recall too, how this confidence was accompanied by what was described as a “revolution of rising expectations” and the fall of colonial empires. And of course, this trend seemed to culminate some years later with the end of the Cold War and the “new world order” that it promised.

….THE PARADOXES

Disintegration

But even as old barriers crumbled and new connections expanded, a paradoxical trend set in, one that we see today at every hand. At the same time that the world was becoming more interconnected, it also become more fragmented.

We have been mesmerised on one hand by the explosive pace of what we call “globalisation,” a centripetal force putting us as closely in touch with people who live across the world as we are to those who live next to us. But at the same time, a set of centrifugal forces have been gaining on us, producing a growing sense — between and within societies — of disintegration.

Fragmentation

Whether we are looking at a more fragile European Union, a more polarised United States, a more fervid Sunni-Shia conflict, intensified tribal rivalries in much of Africa and Asia, or other splintering threats in every corner of the planet, the word “fragmentation” seems to define our times.

Confrontation and Disconnection

Global promise, it can be said, has been matched by tribal wariness. We have more communication, but we also have more confrontation. Even as we exclaim about growing connectivity we seem to experience greater disconnection.

Perhaps what we did not see so clearly 60 years ago is the fact that technological advance does not necessarily mean human progress. Sometimes it can mean the reverse.

Confusion

The more we communicate, the harder it can sometimes be to evaluate what we are saying. More information often means less context and more confusion. More than that, the increased pace of human interaction means that we encounter the stranger more often, and more directly. What is different is no longer abstract and distant. Even for the most tolerant among us, difference, more and more, can be up close and in your face.

Aga Khan Jodi Lecture Harvard 2

His Highness the Aga Khan speaks at Harvard University on November 12, 2015. Photo: AKDN.

COUNTERING THE PARADOXES:  USING COSMOPOLITAN ETHIC TO BRING BEAUTY TO THE SOCIAL FABRIC

The Terms Tolerance, Pluralism and Cosmopolitan

What all of this means is that the challenge of living well together — a challenge as old as the human-race — can seem more and more complicated. And so we ask ourselves, what are the resources that we might now draw upon to counter this trend? How can we go beyond our bold words and address the mystery of why our ideals still elude us?

In responding to that question, I would ask you to think with me about the term I have used in the title for this lecture: “The Cosmopolitan Ethic.”

For a very long time, as you know, the term most often used in describing the search for human understanding was the word “tolerance.” In fact, it was one of the words that was used in 1955 text to describe one of the objectives of this Jodidi Lecture.

In recent years our vocabulary in discussing this subject has evolved. One word that we have come to use more often in this regard is the word “pluralism.” And the other is the word “cosmopolitan.”

You may know that our AKDN Network, a decade ago, cooperated with the Government of Canada to create a new Global Centre for Pluralism based in Ottawa, designed to study more closely the conditions under which pluralist societies can thrive.

What is a Pluralist, Cosmopolitan Society?

A pluralist, cosmopolitan society is a society which not only accepts difference, but actively seeks to understand it and to learn from it. In this perspective, diversity is not a burden to be endured, but an opportunity to be welcomed.

A cosmopolitan society regards the distinctive threads of our particular identities as elements that bring beauty to the larger social fabric. A cosmopolitan ethic accepts our ultimate moral responsibility to the whole of humanity, rather than absolutising a presumably exceptional part.

Perhaps it is a natural condition of an insecure human race to seek security in a sense of superiority. But in a world where cultures increasingly interpenetrate one another, a more confident and a more generous outlook is needed.

Readiness to Dialog and to Listen to Everyone

What this means, perhaps above all else, is a readiness to participate in a true dialog with diversity, not only in our personal relationships, but in institutional and international relationships also. But that takes work, and it takes patience. Above all, it implies a readiness to listen.

What is needed, as the former Governor General of Canada Adrienne Clarkson has said, and I quote, is a readiness “to listen to your neighbour, even when you may not particularly like him.” Is that message clear? You listen to people you don’t like!

Differences Between the Concept of Globalization vs Thoughtful Cosmopolitan Ethic

A thoughtful cosmopolitan ethic is something quite different from some attitudes that have become associated with the concept of globalisation in recent years. Too often, that term has been linked to an abstract universalism, perhaps well-meaning but often naïve. In emphasising all that the human race had in common, it was easy to depreciate the identities that differentiated us. We sometimes talked so much about how we are all alike that we neglected the wonderful ways in which we can be different.

One result of this superficial view of homogenised, global harmony, was an unhappy counter-reaction. Some took it to mean the spread of a popular, Americanised global culture — that was unfair and an assessment that was erroneous. Others feared that their individual, ethnic or religious identities might be washed away by a super-competitive economic order, or by some supranational political regime. And the frequent reaction was a fierce defense of older identities. If cooperation meant homogenisation, then a lot of people found themselves saying “No.”

But an either-or-choice between the global and the tribal — between the concept of universal belonging and the value of particular identities — was in fact a false choice. The road to a more cooperative world does not require us to erase our differences, but to understand them.

What is a Responsible, Thoughtful Process of Globalization?

A responsible, thoughtful process of globalisation, in my view, is one that is truly cosmopolitan, respecting both what we have in common and what makes us different.

It is perhaps in our nature to see life as a series of choices between sharply defined dualities, but in fact life is more often a matter of avoiding false dichotomies, which can lead to dangerous extremes. The truth of the matter is that we can address the dysfunctions of fragmentation without obscuring the values of diversity.

COSMOPOLITAN ETHIC: CONSIDERATIONS FOR PROGRESS

Sensitivity to Economic Insecurity

A cosmopolitan ethic will also be sensitive to the problem of economic insecurity in our world. It is an enormous contributing factor to the problems I have been discussing. Endemic poverty still corrodes any meaningful sense of opportunity for many millions. And even in less impoverished societies, a rising tide of economic anxiety can make it difficult for fearful people to respect, let alone embrace, that which is new or different.

Addressing Human Longevity

This problem has been compounded by the very advances that have long been the source of so much hope. I am thinking here for example about medical advances that have dramatically increased human longevity. People live longer, but they often find that they have outlived their resources.

The developing world is now facing a major challenge: how does it care for the elderly? Even in more developed societies, social changes have eroded some of the domestic support that once eased the burdens of the aging. How, we must all ask, will we manage the new challenges of longevity?

Leadership Responsibilities

All of these considerations will place special obligations on those who play leadership roles in our societies. Sadly, some would-be leaders all across the world have been tempted to exploit difference and magnify division. It is always easier to unite followers in a negative cause than a positive one. But the consequences can be a perilous polarisation.

Quality of Education in the Midst of Information Explosion

The information explosion itself has sometimes become an information glut, putting even more of a premium on being first and getting attention, rather than being right and earning respect. It is not easy to retain one’s faith in a healthy, cosmopolitan marketplace of ideas when the flow of information is increasingly trivialised.

One answer to these temptations will be found, I am convinced, in the quality of our education. It will lie with our universities at one end of the spectrum, and early childhood education at the other — a field to which our Development Network has been giving special attention.

Quality of Education to Overcome Clash of Ignorance

Let me mention one more specific issue where a sustained educational effort will be especially important. I refer to the debate — one that has involved many in this audience — about the prospect of some fundamental clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. In my view, the deeper problem behind any prospective “clash of civilisations” is a profound “clash of ignorances”. And in that struggle, education will be an indispensable weapon.

THE WORLD’S ETHICAL AND RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS, AND A COSMOLITAN ETHIC

The Heart of the Islamic Message: Common Humanity

Finally, I would emphasise that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that resonates with the world’s great ethical and religious traditions.

A passage from the Holy Qur’an that has been central to my life is addressed to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…”

At the very heart of the Islamic faith is a conviction that we are all born “of a single soul.” We are “spread abroad” to be sure in all of our diversity, but we share, in a most profound sense, a common humanity.

Outlook From Islamic History

This outlook has been central to the history of Islam. For many hundreds of years, the greatest Islamic societies were decidedly pluralistic, drawing strength from people of many religions and cultural backgrounds. My own ancestors, the Fatimid Caliphs, founded the city of Cairo, and the great Al Azhar University there, a thousand years ago in this same spirit.

That pluralistic outlook remains a central ideal for most Muslims today.

There are many, of course, some non-Muslims and some Muslims alike, who have perpetrated different impressions.

Hopes from the Voices of Islam

At the same time, institutions such as those that have welcomed me here today, have eloquently addressed these misimpressions. My hope is that the voices of Islam itself will continue to remind the world of a tradition that, over so many centuries, has so often advanced pluralistic outlooks and built some of the most remarkable societies in human history.

CENTRAL LESSON FROM A PERSONAL JOURNEY OF 58 YEARS

Let me repeat, in conclusion, that a cosmopolitan ethic is one that will honour both our common humanity and our distinctive Identities — each reinforcing the other as part of the same high moral calling.

The central lesson of my own personal journey — over many miles and many years — is the indispensability of such an ethic in our changing world, based on the timeless truth that we are — each of us and all of us — “born of a single soul.”

Date posted: November 18, 2015.

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For a comprehensive video of the event, please click on the following image.

For speech transcripts, please visit http://www.theismaili.org and http://www.akdn.org.

Listen to Ismaili Astrophysicist, Arif Babul, in New BBC Episode “Core: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth”

Arif Babul

Arif Babul

World renowned Ismaili astrophysicist, Dr. Arif Babul of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, was recently invited to participate for the BBC’s flagship discussion program, The Forum, which brings together three leading figures and thinkers to talk on specific themes. The episode in which Professor Babul participated focused on Core: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and of Stars, Galaxies and the very Universe itself. Babul provides an excellent discussion about the Core of our Galaxy and the Universe.

A short but an insightful and stimulating segment of the BBC episode was when one of the guests on the program, Anna Frebel of MIT, was asked to present a grand idea in just 6o seconds. She completed her statement on the stroke of time and her idea, with Arif Babul giving his own perspective from his childhood days growing up in Tanzania, was quite intriguing! The starry night photo from Alamut shown below is a glimpse of how the universe would unfold before all of us at night if the proposed idea — that of turning the lights off for a few moments — could be implemented across the world.

The episode was aired on BBC Radio on November 9, 2015, and will be of interest to all readers of this website, and particularly to those pursuing science in schools and universities, as well as professionals engaged in scientific work.

We invite you to listen to the complete BBC episode by clicking on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p036vvz4 or on any image shown below.

As seen on NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day and the National Geographic News a meteor's streak and the arc of the Milky Way hang over the imposing mountain fortress of Alamut in this starry scene. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/Dreamview.net . Copyright. Please click on image to listen to BBC program Core.

As seen on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day and the National Geographic News a meteor’s streak and the arc of our own Milky Way Galaxy hang over the imposing mountain fortress of Alamut in this starry scene. Photo: Babak Tafreshi/Dreamview.net . Copyright. Please click on image to listen to BBC program Core.

The Galactic Core in Infrared. Credit: Hubble: NASA, ESA, & D. Q. Wang (U. Mass, Amherst); Spitzer: NASA, JPL, & S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech). Please click on image for BBC Episode , Core.

The Galactic Core in Infrared. Credit: Hubble: NASA, ESA, & D. Q. Wang (U. Mass, Amherst); Spitzer: NASA, JPL, & S. Stolovy (SSC/Caltech). Please click on image for BBC Episode , Core.

An annotated version of Babak Tafreshi's

An annotated version of Babak Tafreshi’s “The Starry Night of Alamut.” Copyright.

Date posted: November 10, 2015.
Date updated: November 11, 2015 (added photos of starry night at Alamut).

Please  also read an earlier interview we did with Dr. Babul by clicking Astrophysicist, Arif Babul, in Conversation with Simerg.

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We welcome your feedback. Please click Leave a comment.

Dear David Price: We are all ROOTING for 9 Priceless Innings from you for the Toronto Blue Jays tonight

CRUCIAL GAME

By Malik Merchant

David Price on the mound for Toronto on August 8, 2015. Photo: Wikipedia.

David Price on the mound for Toronto on August 8, 2015. Photo: Wikipedia.

For Toronto Blue Jays, hope takes root at the pitcher’s mound with a must win situation in the penultimate game tonight, Friday, against the Kansas City Royals, who are 3-2 up in the Best of Seven American League Championship Series (ALCS).

David Price, who was acquired by the Jays on July 30, 2015, will  be on the mound for the game starting at 8:00 ET. He has contributed significantly to Toronto’s resurgence since his arrival, and for the team’s top standing in AL East. His superb performance throughout his career during the regular season with over 100 wins, has not translated well going into the post season in the playoffs.

Ask any baseball coach “Where Hope Takes Root,” and he will say on the pitcher’s mound. All the Jays’ fans wish David Price well in the game, and with his fine pitching complemented with some great defense and stellar hits from the Jays batters, we shall all celebrate one more time before tomorrow’s decider on who plays the New York Mets in the World Series. The Mets easily defeated Chicago 4-0 in the National League Championship Series.

Go Jays Go. And Price, for all your hard work over the years, you just might have a NO-HITTER when you and your fans want it most! However, a WIN is a WIN, and we are all rooting for you and the entire team as well as the coaching staff.

Simerg’s Iconic Moments in Bautista’s Home Run in the Deciding Game Between the Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers

José Antonio Bautista’s home run which gave the Toronto Blue Jays a 3-run lead over the Texas Rangers in the 7th inning of the deciding game played at the Rogers Centre in Toronto on Wednesday, October 14, 2015, is worth relishing. Bautista’s swing of the bat that brought the 3 runs, his stare at the direction of the pitcher immediately after the ball had left his bat, and the tossing of his bat over his right shoulder are Simerg’s iconic moments of this incredibly exciting game. Please click on the following collage to see MLB’s video clip of this unbelievable inning. This makes baseball a truly thrilling and exciting game!

PLEASE CLICK IMAGE BELOW OR http://m.mlb.com/video/v523054683/textor-gm5-bautista-hammers-goahead-threerun-shot/?game_pk=446255

Iconic moments of the game. Jose Bautista's home run, his stare at the pitcher and the tossing of the bat. Please click on image to view a video clip at the website of MLB.com.

Iconic moments of the game. Jose Bautista’s swing of the bat that scored 3 runs, his stare at the pitcher and the tossing of the bat. Please click on image to view a video clip at the website of MLB.com.

The Jays will now meet the Kansas City Royals, who beat the Houston Astros, in a best-of-seven series beginning Friday, October 16th. Kansas City won the American League and therefore have the home advantage – the first 2 games in the series will be played in Kansas, then the 3rd and 4th games as well as the 5th game (if necessary) in Toronto. The series will move to Kansas for the 6th and 7th games, if necessary.

An Englishman Reflects on the Nature of Imam Ali by Barnaby Rogerson @Simerg

Editor’s note: For the month of September 2015, Simerg will be publishing new posts on a less frequent basis. Normal publication of 6 – 8 new posts per month will resume in October. The following piece by Barnaby Rogerson first appeared on this website in 2012.

PLEASE CLICK: An Englishman Reflects on the Nature of Imam Ali

“….No one could ever doubt the devotion with which Ali held Muhammad and the many bonds that connected them: Ali was the Prophet’s cousin, the Prophet’s son-in-law, the Prophet’s first male believer, the father of the Prophet’s only male grandchildren, the Prophet’s most intimate disciple and the first heroic warrior champion of Islam. Ali had also served the Prophet as an army commander, missionary, diplomat and administrative secretary…..”

This is an image of Nurin Merchant’s mixed media canvas painting titled “Nature of Prayer.” Secured on the 14″ x 10″ canvas with strong glue are a handmade Tasbih (prayer beads), and 3 dried leaves bearing the Arabic inscriptions of Allah, Ali, and Muhammad. The whole piece represents prayer through the invocation of these names. Copyright: Nurin Merchant. Please click for Barnaby Rogerson’s article.

Previous post: Readings for the Birth Anniversary of Hazrat Ali (a.s.): Kalam-i Mawla, Nahj al-Balaghah for Young People, and more @Simerg

Remembering Hurricane Katrina on its 10th Anniversary

Editor’s note: This poem was composed by Nazim Bhimani, a deaf Ismaili boy, when he was twelve. Nazim calls himself Deaf 1 Naz, and his profile in his own words can be read by clicking on Nazim Bhimani: The Deaf World.

HURRICANE KATRINA

“You came with a beautiful name and took everything in vain” pens Deaf 1 Naz

By Nazim Bhimani

You came with a beautiful name, and took everything in vain,
You left the babies crying, fathers dying, and mothers praying,
You came with danger and left with total devastation and pain.

KATRINA KATRINA,

You took so many human lives,
the dogs, the cats, the house, the monies, the food, the water,
Are you sure you are mother nature’s daughter??

KATRINA KATRINA,

You took so much, yet you didn’t even leave a pot of rice,
instead you left them with disease that come from rats and mice,
and you didn’t even try and make things right,
so Katrina you are not nice.

KATRINA KATRINA,

Oh my God! what have you done?
Have you come here to make us pay the price?

Date posted: August 30, 2015.

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Please also read Nazim Bhimani: The Deaf World.

Simerg invites readers’ feedback. Please click on Leave a comment.

Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Letter to Kofi Annan: “The World’s Drug Problem Must Remain a Matter of Permanent Concern”

“…For all clear thinking individuals, wherever they may be, the world’s drug problem must remain a matter of permanent concern. With the density of the Ismaili population in Gorno-Badakhshan, in Afghan Badakshan, in Chitral and Hunza and elsewhere in South West Asia and Africa, the leaders of the Ismaili Community, its institutions and I, as the Imam, must be particularly concerned with this aggressive and damaging problem…” — Excerpt from Aga Khan’s letter to Kofi Annan. Please download complete letter in PDF format below.

LETTER FROM PUBLISHER

By Abdulmalik Merchant

Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, has throughout his 58 years of Imamat urged his followers not to indulge in dangerous and unhealthy social habits such as alcohol, drugs and smoking. In the eyes of the Imam, all his followers are his spiritual children and, like all parents, the 49th Ismaili Imam desires nothing but the best for his community in both spiritual and temporal matters.

There is one farman on alcohol and smoking that has particularly reverberated in my heart and memory for many decades. I remember it well because Alwaez Nizar Chunara, who was our neighbour in Dar-es-Salaam, had conveyed it to us well before it got read out in jamatkhanas across East Africa. It was made in Mbale, Uganda, sometime in the 1960’s, and Mawlana Hazar Imam said in the farman that some of his spiritual children had the impression and told others in the jamat that they were not socially advanced if they did not drink and smoke. This he said, “is absolute and complete nonsense,” (repeating it), and further stated that if we really wanted to be socially distinguished we should not drink and smoke.

During the same East African visit Mawlana Hazar Imam described alcohol as not being for his jamat because it led to losing our honour and creating a bad impression, especially when one went around being drunk. A few years later in London he mentioned that alcohol was a bringer of spiritual sorrow. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s beloved grandfather when addressing Muslims in South Africa warned about alcohol as follows:

“The greatest danger to every Muslim citizen – I have not the least hesitation in saying it – is alcohol. Time has shown that it is an injury to you; an injury to your person; an injury to your health. It is forbidden because it carries greater evil than good. Believe me, in a community like yours, alcohol is a very grave danger. Once you got into the alcohol habit, I do not know where it would lead you. A handful, here and there, of the weak, or of the unhappy, find their way to this terrible poison. Avoid it at all costs. Avoid it, I say, for in this country you cannot afford to lose one man.”

KOFI ANNAN’S LETTER TO THE LATE PRINCE SADRUDDIN AGA KHAN

Please click on image or S-1100-0016-07-00008

7th Secretary General of the United Nations, from January 1, 1997 – December 31, 2006

Kofi Annan, 7th Secretary General of the United Nations, from January 1, 1997 – December 31, 2006

Then, another farman on social habits that immediately comes to mind, because I was present to hear it as a youth  and as a volunteer standing close to the stage, was the one that he made during his visit to Dar-es-Salaam in 1970 for the opening of the IPS building by President Julius Nyerere. The newly established Karimabad Jamat and the Changombe Jamat located in Dar-es-Salaam’s outskirts were brought together for the mulaqat with Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Diamond Jubilee Hall.

The farman dealt substantially on economic matters; Mawlana Hazar Imam spoke about him being happy if families could afford one car and very happy if they could afford two cars, but he went on to say that he did not want to see that second car. Turning to the subject of health and social habits, he made a plea to the jamat not to be wasteful on drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. This mention of drugs was one of the earliest references to drugs in any farman that Hazar Imam had made from 1957 until 1970.

In this connection, it may be mentioned that the use of drugs, particularly of heroin in the USA, was rising at alarming rates in the 1960’s. The Reader’s Digest had even published an incredible heart wrenching essay, “We are All Animals,” about chilling stories of being a drug addict. My mum, I recall, read the entire article out to her students at the Aga Khan Girls Secondary School. Her students literally had tears in their eyes, hearing the sad stories.

HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN’S LETTER TO KOFI ANNAN

Please click on image or S-1100-0016-07-00005

Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Ismaili Imam

Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Ismaili Imam.

So, when I ran into this letter that Mawlana Hazar Imam sent to Kofi Annan, which had been preceded by the Secretary General’s letter to Mawlana Hazar Imam’s late uncle Prince Sadruddin (and perhaps to Mawlana Hazar Imam too, judging by the acknowledgement given), I thought I had also bring to light the general concern about social habits and their absolute wastefulness, and indignity they bring on the community. In making choices between good and bad habits, Mawlana Hazar Imam has asked us to adopt those that would enable the jamat to live happily, leaving aside alcohol, drugs and other social habits that would compromise the well-being of the jamat.

A key point that emerges from Hazar Imam’s letter to Mr. Annan is the damaging and aggressive problem of drugs not merely in the regions of Central Asia, where poppy plants are being grown in abundance, but elsewhere in the world where his community resides. The growth of poppy is destroying the physical and mental lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Others profit from its growth and illegal trade, as the resin from the plants is extracted and refined into morphine, with further refinements yielding different forms and grades of heroin.

Mawlana Hazar Imam is continuously concerned for the well-being of his jamat, and nothing is more important to him than the strength of our mental health and capacity, which he has said must be preserved and enhanced rather than being destroyed through the use of drugs. The Ismaili community can certainly set a true example of  social distinction and wisdom by avoiding all forms of social habits that do not contribute to any form of advancement. As a small community, our resolve to abstain from detrimental social habits would help us to serve our families, our communities and countries more effectively and purposefully in the coming years and decades.

Date posted: July 23, 2015.
Last updated: July 25, 2015 (updated with additional material from the personal notes of my mother, Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant, on smoking, drinking and drugs).

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Watch Video: President Obama Recognizes Muslim Youth at White House Ramadan Dinner

“….It [Ramadan] is a time of spiritual renewal and a reminder of one’s duty to our fellow man — to serve one another and lift up the less fortunate. The Qur’an teaches that God’s children should tread gently upon the earth and, when confronted by ignorance, reply ‘peace.’ In honoring these familiar values together — of peace and charity and forgiveness — we affirm that, whatever our faith, we’re all one family — President Barack Obama, White House, June 22, 2015.

President Barack Obama hosts an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the East Room of the White House, June 22, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson).

President Barack Obama hosts an Iftar dinner celebrating Ramadan in the East Room of the White House, June 22, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson).

“…..So, Ziad, Munira, Batoul — they all talk about how much they value the opportunities they’ve had to succeed here in the United States. And they also remind us that our obligations to care for one another extend beyond our immediate communities, beyond our borders.” — President Barack Obama, White House, June 22, 21015.