Jehangir Merchant’s Thank You Letter to the Fatimid Ismaili Icon, Da’i Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi

A folio from the manuscript of al-Shirazi's Sirat. Credit: The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

A folio from the manuscript of al-Shirazi’s Sirat. Credit: The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Of the very few Ismaili historical figures who have left rich and fascinating details and imprints about their lives through their autobiographies, the personal account by Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi, who served the 18th Ismaili Imam (or the 8th Fatimid Caliph), al-Mustansir Billah, has been described as a thrilling work of history.

Alwaez Jehangir Alibhai Merchant, a well-known and highly respected contemporary Ismaili author, missionary and religious education teacher, was drawn to the life and works of the multi-talented Ismaili icon from the Fatimid era when he started serving Ismaili community institutions during the early 1950′s. For some sixty years now, Alwaez Jehangir has felt around him the constant presence and aura of Al-Mu’ayyad.

As part of Simerg’s continuing series on Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures, Alwaez Merchant expresses his immense respect, admiration as well as deep affection for the ‘GRAND’ Ismaili missionary of the 11th century with the following thank you letter. 

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27th February, 2013.

My Dear Mu’ayyad,

Over 50 years ago, when I first read selections from your Majalis, and the Sira, as well as your Khutba (on tawhid, the walaya of Hazrat Ali, and the guidance of the Imams), which had just been translated and published into English by Jawad Muscati and Khan Bahadur Moulvi in Life and Lectures of the Grand Missionary al-Muayyad-fid-Din al-Shirazi, they had a profound and deep impact on my life. This wonderful and inspiring work showed me the path to sincere and honest service.

Today, under the loving care and guidance of the Imam of the Age, Shah Karim al-Husayni, I live in an era of tremendous progress and rapid change. A thousand years ago, you were forced to leave your homeland of Fars in southern Iran, and after traversing through northern Mesopotamia and Syria, you finally arrived at the Fatimid court in Cairo in the mid-1040s. You served Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah in various capacities – administrative, diplomatic, military and religious – for over 25 years until the end of your life.

When I first started reading your biography, I never could imagine the difficulties that you had to endure in serving the Imam. I must confess that I was overwhelmed as well as bewildered; I felt both joy and sadness.

You had come to Cairo with a distinguished record as a da‘i, but your enemies sought to humiliate you and to jeopardise your pious endeavours. When you arrived in Cairo, your goal was to obtain the blessings of the Imam. You had spent your life in modesty, reverence and piety, and endeavoured at all times to act in rectitude, honesty and loyalty to your master, the young eighteen-year-old Imam al-Mustansir. But the political and human aspects of the time made your life miserable, and so unbearable that you quite often thought of returning to your homeland.

The attitude of numerous individuals to keep you away from the Imam prevented you from your cherished wish of having the holy didar for a considerable length of time. Nearly two years after your arrival in Cairo, your first audience with the Imam was an overwhelming experience: “My eyes had barely fallen on him when awe took hold of me and reverence overcame me.” I am reminded here of the words of our Mawla Shah Karim that no ocean, no mountain, and no desert can keep the Imam from his murids.

 It was around this time that you started writing the majalis al-hikma (sessions of wisdom), the weekly sermons that were delivered every Thursday night in front of the royal elite, and which were presented to the Imam beforehand, who approved and released them for a public audience. I am indebted to you, as I have often used these sermons in my own writings and waez to explain the concepts and the doctrine of Imamat. While your lectures provide a detailed insight into Ismaili esoteric thought, it is regrettable that less than half of the 800 lectures you wrote have been edited till now and only a handful have been translated into English.

You became the leader of the diwan al-insha’ (chancery) in 1052 CE and held this office for four years, but soon after the jealous and power-hungry officials reigning at the Fatimid court sought to distance you from the Imam. For the next two years, you undertook political and military expeditions to Syria and Iraq.

Honourable da‘i! Finally, in 1059 CE you were appointed da‘i al-du‘at by the Imam of the Time for your noble works, meritorious deeds, acts of devotion and service, as well as heroism with the following proclamation in a decree issued by the Imam himself:

“So take charge of what the Commander of the Faithful has put you in charge of with the resolution of someone like you, someone whose resolutions are strong and whose pillars are established on the surface of the earth of inner perception. Dedicate the better part of your heart’s devotion to the betterment of the corrupt among its affairs, and the most abundant portion of your thought to the cure of the diseased in its body.”

More than perhaps any other murid’s example in our history, your life is one which clearly illustrates that while serving the Imam presents formidable challenges, it also offers bountiful rewards in the form of spiritual barakah. I will say from the depth of my heart that it is by your noble example that I have been inspired to serve the Jamat and the Imam of the Time with a strong will. When a weight seemed to crush my heart, when I felt despondent and frustrated, I would think of you, and face up to the fact that my problems were pale in comparison. During my times of anxiety, I would recollect the entire events of your life in a glimpse, and ponder over the spiritual barakah that the Imam showered upon you. The narrative in your biography of your didar is one such incident which clearly stands out in my memory, and which I will quote, because it is so powerful:

“I was taken near the place where from I saw the bright Light of the Prophethood. My eyes were dazzled by the Light. I shed tears of joy and felt as if I was looking at the face of the Prophet of Allah and of the Commander of the Faithful, Hazrat Ali. I prostrated myself before the one who is the fittest person to bow to. I wanted to say something, but I was awe-struck.

“I tried to speak but my tongue refused to move. People asked me to say what I wished to say. I could say nothing. The Imam said, ‘Leave him. Let his fear and awe subside’.

“After this, I rose. I took the holy hand of the Imam, placed it on my eyes and on my chest and then kissed it. I left the place with immense joy.”

How must that have felt in your life? It raises my emotion and my spirit. For me, this incredible incident says that ultimately justice prevails, whether it is in this world or the next. From this incident and the other events in your life, I have always reminded my family and my colleagues that if they ever were to become a leader or hold a position of responsibility in the Jamat or, for that matter, in any walk of life, they should treat everyone fairly and with dignity. As leaders one must address the concerns presented, and not put them under a rug as is so often the case. The teachings of all our Imams, you will agree, also speak about the importance of justice and fairness.

I am often asked that, if given a choice, would I lead a life of service to the Imam again? My reply with a happy smile has always been, “Yes.” I have to admit that this positive answer is in a sense my warm tribute to you. Your example will be a legacy for countless generations, as it has been for me. Without your life-story as a benchmark to follow, my life would have taken a different route, and I am sure I would have not experienced the happiness I have gained from the service that I and my loving wife, Maleksultan, have sought to render to the Imam of the Time, often in difficult circumstances.

In conclusion: I am truly indebted to you for leaving behind your Sira, Majalis and Diwan. It is my sincere hope that the generation of today will also read your memoirs, your lectures and your poetry, and that their quest to serve the Jamat and the Imam will be filled with happiness. You walked by my side, and your examples of patience and tolerance have guided me, and continue to guide me. Honourable da‘i, a thousand years just feels like a day, and I respectfully thank you for being my greatest mentor throughout my life.

Yes, they know I am one who obeys Religion

When others obey long robes and rags 

Yours affectionately,

Jehangir A. Merchant
Vancouver,
CANADA.

Date posted: February 27, 2013.
Copyright: Simerg.com, 2013.

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Alwaez Jehangir Merchant - teacher, writer and alwaez

Alwaez Jehangir Merchant – teacher, writer and alwaez

About the writer: Alwaez (Rai) Jehangir Merchant was born in Mumbai on 13th December 1928, and launched his long career as a religious education teacher and  missionary in 1954, first serving with the Ismaili community in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique, following his graduation from a Waezin training program conducted in Mumbai by the Ismaila Association for India. He was joined in the service by his wife, Alwaeza Maleksultan. His service in Mozambique  was interrupted when Salazar’s Government in Portugal  decided to intern Indian Nationals in Mozambique in camps for a period of 5 months. This was in response to India’s annexation of Goa, a Portuguese colony in the Indian Sub-continent. Alwaez and his family, like other Indian Nationals, were given an ultimatum to leave the Portuguese colony. He then settled in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, where Alwaez served the Ismailia Association as religious education teacher as well as an inspector of religious education for the country’s Aga Khan schools. He also contributed to the Waezin activities during his 10 year tenure in Tanzania until 1972.

Lourenço Marques, 1958: His Highness the Aga Khan, direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) and current 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims is seen taking a keen interest as Alwaez Jehangir explains the Gujarati history texts that were used to impart religious education to Ismaili youth in Mozambique.

Lourenço Marques, 1958: His Highness the Aga Khan, direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) and current 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims is seen taking a keen interest as Alwaez Jehangir explains the Gujarati history texts that were used to impart religious education to Ismaili youth in Mozambique.

After a brief stay in Pakistan Alwaez Merchant, together with Alwaeza, was assigned by Diwan Sir Eboo of the Ismaili Supreme Council to go on a year-long waez tour. This took him to newly established Jamats in Europe, Great Britain, Canada and the United States. Following the conclusion of a highly successful tour in 1975, Alwaez, with Alwaeza, joined the services of the Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom (now known as the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqa and Religious Education Board, or ITREB) until they retired in the early 1990′s.

In the literary area, Alwaez Jehangir was responsible for the publication in Dar-es-Salaam of the popular pocket-sized Read and Know magazine, contributed to the bilingual Ismaili Crescent, developed teachers manuals  and syllabi for students of all ages as well as edited and wrote extensively for ITREB UK’s flagship magazine, Ilm.

In their retirement Alwaez and his wife of 61 years, Alwaeza Rai Saheba Maleksultan, live in Vancouver, Canada.

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Articles by Jehangir Merchant on this website:

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We invite your contribution for the thank you series. Please click on Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures to read about the series as well as links to published letters.

We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears below. Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters. Please visit the Simerg Home page for links to articles posted most recently. For links to articles posted on this Web site since its launch in March 2009, please click What’s New.

6 thoughts on “Jehangir Merchant’s Thank You Letter to the Fatimid Ismaili Icon, Da’i Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi

  1. Respected Jehangir was born in a family which was very dedicated to the cause of Imamat. His early career began with an earnest exchange about the knowledge of our faith.

  2. I have missed out this article before, but my tribute to Al-Waez Merchant who has both given me spiritual and intellectual stimulus and inspiration to conduct my day to day affairs with such ease. Bless you, both!

  3. Accounts and testimonials of this calibre resonate with our rich, wonderful traditions and deserve our deepest gratitude for continuing to guide us in our way of life. May our generation also be guided as past ones, learning from the lessons and experiences of history. Indeed does not history teach that “no power is like forbearance”, that power is not bestowed except as a trust and temporary stewardship, and that leaders must ultimately (learn to) efface themselves.
    For in their self-effacement lies their true (Allah’s) power.

  4. A moving account. Thank you.
    I would just add that Shirazi was a also a friend of one of the greatest Arab poet of all times Abu ala al-Ma’ari. They exchanged letters on the subject of vegetarism which are very instructive.

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