Ismaili Studies: Book Briefs (I)

Historic Cairo – A Walk through the Islamic City
by Jim Antoniou

Cairo contains the greatest concentration of Islamic monuments in the world, and its mosques, mausolea, religious schools, baths, and caravanserais, built by prominent patrons between the seventh and nineteenth centuries, are among the finest in existence. Jim Antoniou takes his readers on a guided walk through the very heart of historic Cairo, among many of its greatest architectural treasures.

A nice feature of the guided walk through the old city is that it is broken down into three, easily manageable, sections; thus simplifying life for those of us who would like to space out such a tour over the course of more than one visit. This also has the advantage of making the whole walk seem less daunting.

Illustrated throughout with the author’s own detailed maps and plans and lively sketches, the walk begins at the monumental gates in the north walls of the Fatimid city, by the gates of Bab al Nasr and Bab al Futuh, and it then proceeds southwards along the ancient thoroughfare of al-Mu’izz li-Din Alla; with occasional meandering to either side, pointing out the many major and minor monuments on the way. The author’s familiarity with the Fatimid monuments is much in evidence, as he is able to point out little details that would otherwise be missed.

The walk ends at the magnificent mosque of Sultan Hasan at the foot of the Citadel. Over ninety historic buildings along the way are identified and described, many of them open to visitors (publication year: 1999, 112 pages, American University of Cairo Press).

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Ismaili Hymns from South Asia: An Introduction to the Ginans
by Zawahir Moir and Christopher Shackle

The Aga Khans have long played a prominent part on the international stage, but much less tends to be understood about the most important group of their followers, the Khoja Ismailis of South Asia, who are now also settled in many other parts of the world. Even less is generally known about the hymns, called ginans, which have historically formed so central an element in the religious life and rituals of the Ismaili community. The principal aim of this anthology is to fill this gap by providing a sympathetic introduction to this still largely unexplored tradition of South Asian devotional literature, and to draw attention to the many features of remarkable interest which it contains.

The anthology includes the text and translations of some forty ginans composed by Pir Sadruddin, Pir Shams, Pir Ghulam Ali Shah, Pir Hasan Kabiruddin, Sayyid Imam Shah and Sayyid Nur Muhammad Shah as well as selected verses from the Kalame Mawla of Hazrat Ali (publication year: 2000, 2nd revised edition, 258 pages, Routledge Curzon).

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Arts of the City Victorious Islamic Art and Architecture in Fatimid North Africa and Egypt
by Jonathan M. Bloom

This is the first book-length study of the art and architecture of the Fatimids, the Ismaili Shi’i dynasty that ruled in North Africa and Egypt from 909 to 1171. The Fatimids are most famous for founding the city of al-Qahira (whence the name Cairo) in 969, and their art – particularly textiles and lustre ceramics, but also metalwork and carved rock-crystal, ivory and woodwork – has been admired for nearly a millennium. Initially brought home to Europe by merchants and Crusaders and then preserved as relics and reliquaries in church treasuries, Fatimid art is still prized today by collectors and curators for its strongly figural imagery, and its elegant and inventive use of Arabic calligraphy, particularly the angular ‘Kufic’ script. Surviving examples of Fatimid art and architecture are supplemented by an unusual wealth of medieval sources that provide written evidence for the rich visual culture shared among the Muslim, Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the Fatimid realm. In this engaging and accessible study, Jonathan Bloom concentrates on securely dated and localized examples of Fatimid art and architecture. His discussions focus on significant examples and are illustrated with over 100 photographs, many in colour, while extensive notes and bibliography provide guidance for further reading and research. As a comprehensive treatment of all the arts of a single, major dynasty, this book offers something of interest to all scholars and admirers of Islamic art and architecture (publication year: 2008, 256 pages, Yale University Press).

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Ritual, politics, and the city in Fatimid Cairo
by Paula Sanders


In Ritual, Politics and the City in Fatimid Cairo, Paula Sanders takes a new approach to the Fatimids. Analyzing mostly Mamluk sources, she asserts that ritual within Fatimid society served as a means of legitimizing caliphal rule, negotiating power and denoting status. Moreover, as the political and religious situation changed, so too did the rituals. Of course, ritual was not unique to the Fatimids but the significance of ritual to this dynasty, especially within the “ritual city” of Cairo, causes Sanders to investigate what was unique about Fatimid ritual and what it can tell us about the society in which it emerged.

In the book Sanders studies five major ceremonies - The Festival of Fast-breaking, the Sacrificial Festival, the New Year festival, the Festival of the Nilometer and the Festival of Ghadir. For each of the ceremonies that she describes, Sanders provides exhaustively detailed descriptions to illustrate the nature of the rituals, how the features of each contributed to their meaning and how they differed from each other. Sanders navigates her way carefully and successfully to produce a valuable and interesting addition to the understanding of Fatimid court and urban life (publication year: 1994, 231 pages, State University of New York Press – SUNY).

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Songs of wisdom and circles of dance: hymns of the Satpanth Ismāʻīlī Muslim saint, Pīr Shams
by Tazim R. Kassam

This is a scholarly translation of an anthology of 106 ginans (sacred hymns) attributed to the Ismaili saint-composer, Pir Shams. The Ginan tradition is a sacred corpus of devotional poetry belonging to a sub-sect of the Shiah Muslims known as the Satpanth Ismaili Khojahs. Composed in various North Indian dialects, ginans are part of a broader rich and complex heritage of Indo-Muslim folk literatures in the Indian subcontinent. For centuries, however, the Satpanth Ismailis have carefully guarded this sacred tradition for fear of persecution. By thus presenting a major translation of ginans attributed to a pivotal figure in Satpanth Ismailism, this text aspires to advance significantly the academic study and knowledge of this scarcely examined sacred literature.

To date, the syncretic nature of Satpanth Ismailism has been viewed within a framework of conversion. Thus, generally, the ginan literature has been explained as the creative attempts of Ismaili pirs (venerated teachers) to effect changes in religious orientation by conveying Nizari Ismaili teachings through Hindu symbols and themes. However, an examination of the internal evidence in the ginans of Pir Shams – who belonged to the beginnings of Satpanth – in conjunction with events in Sind and the greater Ismaili world at the time, has brought into focus crucial social and political factors that may also have instigated the formation of Satpanth Ismailism (publication year: 1995, 424 pages, State University of New York Press – SUNY).

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The Ismailis: An Illustrated History
by Farhad Daftary and Zulfikar Hirji

The Ismailis are a geographically, linguistically and ethnically diverse Shi’a Muslim community – the second largest in the world. Scattered in more than twenty countries of Asia, Africa, Europe and North America, they are currently led by their 49th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. In four chapters this book traces their history, within the wider context of Islamic history and the world in general, over the better part of fourteen hundred years. Each chapter is fully illustrated and accompanied by relevant maps and diagrams such as genealogical charts. The book has more than 300 illustrations, most in colour, consisting of images from illustrated manuscripts, artefacts, architecture, community documents, as well as important historical and contemporary photographs of members of the Ismaili community (many from private collections and archives) and the varied geographical contexts in which they live. A chronology of key events, a glossary of important terms, and a bibliography are also provided (publication year: 2008, 262 pages, Azimuth Editions in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies – IIS).

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An Anthology of Ismaili Literature: A Shi’i Vision of Islam
Edited by Samira Sheikh, K. Kassam and H. Landolt

One of the richest and most rewarding, yet at the same time least familiar, traditions of Muslim literature is that of the Shi’i Imami Ismailis. Although many great literary treasures of the Islamic world are already available in English translation, those of the Ismailis are only slowly being made accessible to scholars and readers at large. This substantial anthology makes a vital and welcome contribution to that process of wider dissemination. It brings together for the first time extracts from a range of significant Ismaili texts in both poetry and prose, here translated into English by some of the foremost scholars in the field. The texts included belong to a long span of Ismaili history, which extends from the Fatimid era to the beginning of the twentieth century. The translations in question have been rendered from their originals in Arabic, Persian and the different languages of Badakhshan and South Asia. With substantial sections devoted to such broad topics as faith and thought, history and biography, ethics, the Imamate, Ta’wil (or esoteric exegesis and textual interpretation), the anthology offers continuously enriching glimpses into the depths, diversity and distinctiveness of one of the great traditions of Islamic thought and creativity, which still remains relatively undiscovered by the West (publication year: 2008, 400 pages, The Institute of Ismaili Studies).

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The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation
by Shafique N. Virani

“None of that people should be spared, not even the babe in its cradle.” With these chilling words, the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan declared his intention to destroy the Ismailis, one of the most intellectually and politically significant Muslim communities of medieval Islamdom. The massacres that followed convinced observers that this powerful voice of Shi’i Islam had been forever silenced. Little was heard of these people for centuries, until their recent and dramatic emergence from obscurity. Today they exist as a dynamic and thriving community established in over twenty-five countries. Yet the interval between what appeared to have been their total annihilation, and their modern, seemingly phoenix-like renaissance, has remained shrouded in mystery. Drawing on an astonishing array of sources gathered from many countries around the globe, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation is a richly nuanced and compelling study of the murkiest portion of this era. In probing the period from the dark days when the Ismaili fortresses in Iran fell before the marauding Mongol hordes, to the emergence at Anjudan of the Ismaili Imams who provided a spiritual centre to a scattered community, this work explores the motivations, passions and presumptions of historical actors. With penetrating insight, Shafique N. Virani examines the rich esoteric thought that animated the Ismailis and enabled them to persevere. A work of remarkable erudition, this landmark book is essential reading for scholars of Islamic history and spirituality, Shi’ism and Iran. Both specialists and informed lay readers will take pleasure not only in its scholarly perception, but in its lively anecdotes, quotations of delightful poetry, and gripping narrative style. This is an extraordinary book of historical beauty and spiritual vision (publication year: 2007, 322 pages, Oxford University Press).

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An Islamic Conscience: the Aga Khan and the Ismailis
Produced by Shamir Allibhai, Format: DVD

The Aga Khan is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Ismailis and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. As Imam his main role is to guide his community – spiritually and in secular matters.

The documentary aims to use the story of the Aga Khan as a catalyst to re-examine stereotypes of Muslims and Islamic leaders in particular.  It is a story that speaks to the diversity and plurality of Islam and explores ways to bridge not just the Muslim and non-Muslim divide, but the divide within the Muslim World itself. The documentary seeks to cultivate a wider understanding of the Muslim world and its complicated leadership (DVD release year: 2007, Big Dream Productions). The collector’s edition includes a second DVD,  “Living Camera: Aga Khan,” a rare footage produced  in 1961.

Article publication date: September 7, 2010.

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Editor’s note: Simerg will be publishing book briefs of publications related to Shia Ismaili Studies on a regular basis. The books briefs are compiled from product descriptions and abstracts issued by the publishers and authors as well as other detailed book reviews where available. Please visit Amazon.com and other on-line stores (example Chapters.ca, Borders.com, Barnesandnoble.com) for pricing and more information about the books listed above. Many books are available as good used copies at decent prices; some out of print books may be costly. For a downloadable PDF catalogue of IIS publications please click 2008-2009: Catalogue of publications by the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Not listed above is the late Professor Peter Willey’s excellent work, “Eagle’s Nest – Ismaili Castles in Iran and Syria.” A detailed review by Valerie Gonzalez of this text can be read on this Web site by clicking Voices: Unravelling the Dark History of the Medieval Ismaili Community.

We encourage readers to submit reviews of Ismaili related publications they have read. Please email your book review to simerg@aol.com.

Also, please visit the Simerg Home page. For links to all articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New.

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