The Unveiling at Sijilmasa

“I Wish I’d Been There”

Sijilmasa was a mediaeval trade entrepôt at the Western edge of the Maghreb in what is now Morocco

By Aleem Karmali

Seeking to counter negative stereotypes about Islam

Standing out in the heat of the desert, a group of conquering Berber tribesmen waited anxiously for their Imam to emerge from the city of Sijilmasa in North Africa. The year was 909 and they had successfully overthrown the Aghlabid rulers at Raqqada. Now was the moment they had longed for – they had come to retrieve their Imam from Sijilmasa, where he had been under arrest, and install him as their new Caliph. They dreamt and prayed that the world would finally achieve peace and justice under the rule of a divinely-guided descendant of the Prophet.

Until that moment, the Ismaili Imams had been in hiding for four generations, so few people could recognize them. In order to identify him at Sijilmasa, it was agreed that if someone rode out into the desert, the tribesmen would dismount from their horses. If that person did not respond by also dismounting, they would know it was their Imam.

To witness that moment of unveiling when Imam al-Mahdi rode out to meet his followers stands for me above all the other moments of glory, intrigue and devastation throughout Ismaili history. The image of a long-hidden Imam remaining atop his mount when all his awestruck followers dismounted is among the most powerful symbols of the authority of the Shi‘a Imams. In that instant, over a century of hiding and persecution was cast aside, and a new era would begin for the Ismailis. For most, the Imam had long been an idea rather than a living person, but now he was real and right in front of them. He was present and living. And those followers at Sijilmasa fell at his feet in the most sincere devotion to their spiritual guide.

This moment was the culmination of over a century of work by the Imams and the Ismaili da‘wa. In the aftermath of the succession dispute following Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq’s death in 765, there was disarray amongst the Shi‘a. But that moment in the desert was proof that they had succeeded in carving from that disarray a distinct Ismaili doctrine and identity.

To use an analogy of the theatre, they had prepared and rehearsed for this play for over a hundred years, and this was the moment when the curtains were drawn on opening night. This was the first unveiling of the Ismailis to the world, and the realization of a dream that became the Fatimid Caliphate.

© Simerg.com

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About the writer: Mr. Aleem Karmali is a documentary filmmaker and founder of Crescent Productions, an independent production company focused on making creative, balanced and intelligent films about Islam and Muslim societies. His latest films are “Transmission: A portrait of an Ismaili Muslim family in Tajik Badakhshan” and “Home Away From Home: The Return of Ismaili Muslims to Uganda.”

Aleem has produced a total of nine documentaries, seven short films and two plays. Among these, his documentary “Advancing the Islamic Intellectual Tradition” won him a Mosquer Award in 2007. Earlier, in 2002 and 2004,  he had received the Film and Video Arts Society’s (FAVA) Lisa Trofimova Video Prize.

Karmali completed the Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London and has an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London. He also has a BA Honours in Communication Studies and Sociology from Wilfrid Laurier University, and has been working in audio and video production since 1997.

Please visit the author’s Web site Crescent Productions.

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1. For a complete list of readings, and to contribute to this series, please click  » I Wish I’d Been There

2. We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears at the bottom of this page, or email it to  simerg@aol.com. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

6 thoughts on “The Unveiling at Sijilmasa

  1. This refreshes my memory on this historical incident. I remember attending and presenting at an ITREB training session in BC many years ago and the incident was not portrayed any where near Aleem’s description. This incident is now embedded in my memory bank.
    Thank you
    Zul Khoja

  2. I don’t know what to say…incidents described as vividly as Aleem has done, take you on a roller coaster of emotions. Superb and thank you, Aleem.

  3. A most impressive write up about the arrival of Imam Al-Mahdi.

    I saw Aleem’s film Home away from Home. Visually very impressive and yet true to the events. I can well imagine how a documentary by Aleem on this series would capture the imagination of the Ismaili world. Well Done! Aleem.

  4. Another entry in this series which is very visual and I wish it were a play in front of me. This is what I like about the series…you stop for a few minutes, read quietly, think, imagine and then gather further information. And in those minutes of time, here and there, you can further educate yourself on the topic. Knowledge is information and wisdom in action. You have to have information, apply wisdom and put it in action.

    Many thanks to Aleem and all the other contributors of this Simerg series.

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