Please click: ISMAILIS WELCOME AGA KHAN TO LISBON
Date posted: July 7, 2018.
Please click: ISMAILIS WELCOME AGA KHAN TO LISBON
Date posted: July 7, 2018.
FRIDAY, JULY 6: After his arrival in Lisbon, Mawlana Hazar Imam’s motorcade will drive past Jardim Amália Rodrigues. Arrangements have been made for Ismailis to safely gather and welcome him to Portugal for his Diamond Jubilee.
Date posted: July 5, 2018
Last updated: July 6, 2018, 12:28 A.M, Lisbon time (venue change)
PLEASE CLICK: TAKE A MAJESTIC TOUR OF LISBON ON A VINTAGE MOTO-SIDECAR
Date posted: July 5, 2018
To commemorate the Diamond Jubilee visit to Canada, the Jamat of Canada presented Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, a very rare version of a manuscript of Nasir Khusraw’s Divan. The presentation was made on behalf of the Jamat by Karima Karmali, the Vice President of the Aga Khan Council for Canada, on May 11, 2018 during the final Mulaqat in Calgary.
In response, Mawlana Hazar Imam said that the gift of the manuscript was a “beautifully wise” choice. It is therefore befitting that we celebrate the extraordinary life of Nasir Khusraw through this special tribute prepared by Sujjawal Ahmad of Pakistan.
By SUJJAWAL AHMAD
A Persian poet, philosopher, Ismaili scholar, theologian, traveler and one of the greatest writers in Persian literature, Nasir Khusraw has befittingly been called a Ruby. He was a jewel, a jewel that has to pass through many tribulations until it is able to give its own light to others. My admiration for Nasir Khusraw started when I was a teen at a high school, and I began reading about his life and teachings.
I was most impressed by his story which has left an indelible mark on me. It tells of a life that was transformed from that of worldly possessions and luxury to an exemplary life of ethic, self-discipline, courage and dedication in the path of faith. Nasir Khusraw epitomises the Prophet’s saying: ‘Seek knowledge even unto China’ by setting off on a journey of seven years which he calls a ‘Journey to the Seventh Sphere’.
The Safarnama, an account of his travels, and his other works like the Divan enable one to get a picture of key events that led to the development of his thoughts that finally made him embrace the Ismaili faith.
A brief article such as the one I have attempted here cannot do justice to the incredible life of Nasir Khusraw, and I hope this endeavour captures the salient points of his life and will also inspire readers to learn more about the sage from recent new works that have been published.
Nāsir Khusraw was born in Qabodiyon, Khorasan (present day Tajikistan) in the year 1004 AC. He belonged to a family of government officials in Qabadiyan and spent his early years travelling and studying. Following family tradition, he joined government service where he earned a reputation of a high achiever. He demonstrated remarkable ability in all pursuits of knowledge of religion, philosophy, literature, science and mathematics. Nasir Khusraw was a prolific writer on a wide variety of subjects, including a book on mathematics Gahra’ib al-hisab which has now been lost.
One night while he was on an official trip outside the city of Marv, he had a dream that was to change course of his life. In his vision a wise man appeared before him, calling him to forsake the life of drunkenness. In reply he told the wise man there was no better thing than wine to lessen his sorrow. The wise man told him to seek out what increased reason and wisdom instead of seeking that which lessened wisdom. ‘Where can I find such a thing?’ he asked.
Pointing towards the Qibla, the wise man said: ‘Search and ye shall find’.
On awakening, with the vision still vivid in his mind, he lamented to himself: ‘I have woken up from last night’s dream. But now I must awaken from a dream that has lasted forty years’.
He was determined to change his life accordingly, interpreting the dream as a sign from God. A month later, on December 19th, 1045, Nasir Khusraw went to mosque, fell to his knees and bowed his forehead to the ground, asking help from God in guiding him to accomplish what he had to do in his life.
He took leave from his job, and announced that he was going for a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. Thus, began his seven year journey of a wayfarer in search of true spiritual wealth,
He travelled westward through northern Iran passing Nishapur, Tabriz, Aleppo, and then across the Mediterranean coast until he reached Jerusalem. During his three months stay here, he visited the holy shrines in Jerusalem and then set out for his first pilgrimage to Mecca. From Mecca by the way of Damascus to Jerusalem, he proceeded by land to Egypt. The oracle in his dream had pointed him in the direction of the Qibla, which was also the direction of Cairo, the capital of the Fatimid Caliphate, which was then under the reign of Imam al-Mustansir billah.
In July, 1047 AC standing in the city of Cairo, his face full of radiance and grace, and heart enlightened, he was now voicing his thanks to the Divine, saying:
“Praise to the Lord that nothing burdens my back. Thanks to the generosity of His favor and grace, that I have come to know the truth of the true Imam, his certainty and justice of his cause; that he is that matchless king whose domain of all the earth is free of devilery. O Lord help me to spend days and nights in devotion to him to string together from time to time a few pious verses based on his knowledge and wisdom.”
This was the city that was blessed with the presence of Imam of Time, as he rightfully said: “to which the heavenly bodies and spheres themselves were subservient”. Upon his arrival in the city he felt a voice instructing him, “Go no further! Seek here what you need.”
He had arrived to embrace his dream! He had reached the true House of Knowledge of which the Prophet had said, Ali was the gate. Now he would spend days and nights benefiting as much as he could from that sacred House. His soul was illuminated with the radiance of the light of Imam of Time. So profound was the effulgence of Imam’s Glory to him that he extolled every sign of his gratitude, praise and admiration.
“Wherever I may be, so long as I live, time and again,
My pen, ink pot and parchment will speak
my gratitude to you (O Imam of Time).”
He had started his journey from his hometown with a burning desire to seek answers to the questions of existence and purpose in the world; and now he had to stay for the next two to three years, in the companionship of the great Ismaili intellectuals. In Cairo he met with many Ismaili dais including Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi, who later became his mentor and teacher. Nasir’s conversation with al-Shirazi struck him with amazement. Upon his first meeting, he told al-Shirazi about his soul’s grief and frailty and al-Shirazi gazed intently upon his face for a while and then said, “Fear not, for your mine has now transformed into gems.” These words were no less than but of a soothsayer to him that served to fortify his hopes and confidence. Al-Shirazi expounded on Nāsir’s questions in terms he neither had read nor heard before. He spoke with Nasir with such a knowledge and fluency that the sweetness of his discourse finally impelled Nasir to accept him as his teacher and call him ‘Ridwan’ — the one who is Warden of Paradise.
During his stay in the Fatimid capital he engaged in deep study of all branches of religion such as theology, philosophy, metaphysics and ethics.
Sparkling with light and enthusiasm, he was now ready to start the next part of his journey back to his home with a spirit full of courage and determination. From the moment he left Cairo, he was now heading his mission as a Hujjat, the supreme office in Dawa, for the spread of his new Ismaili faith to new territories, including Khurasan and Badakhshan. His life was now to be committed with ceaseless activity, promoting Ismaili teachings to all people.
Nasir Khusraw returned to Persia in the year 1052 AC, and stayed at Balkh, his hometown, and started preaching his new faith in the surrounding areas. Envious of Nasir Khusraw’s influence, the exoteric clerics of his town tried to poison the minds of the already hostile Seljuq authorities resulting in attacks that caused great distress to him. He had to flee from his hometown to the high mountains of Yumgan, living in a period of exile in the last years of his life. Throughout this period of exile, he continued to struggle conversing with the wise and learned on themes and topics that occupied their minds. He breathed his last in the mountains of Yumgan in the upper reaches of Oxus river. His body lies under the earth, but his spirit lives on, in hearts of his people calling:
“That strength of youth that heavenly face —
O mindless body of mine, why did you ever leave them behind?
When your body was beautiful, you acted pretty ugly,
Now that you are ugly, you should beautify your actions.
Time has made your torso feeble:
Yesterday a peacock, today a porcupine.”
Nasir Khusraw along with other Ismaili preachers of his time, offer such an understanding of religion where intellectual investigation of faith is the supreme virtue of a believer. He never promoted dogmatic attitudes of thought and belief. The path that he calls for considers intellect (aql ) as the primary tool in the soul’s endeavor to cleanse itself and for its salvation. Intellect is always predominant, as an essential criterion, for individual’s search for truth. He gives us an intellectual and logical understanding of spirituality. There exists, at microcosmic level, for each individual being, a spiritual dimension of existence which is the most fundamental and the most important aspect of his reality. While physical bodies reside at the material world of zahir, the soul exists at spiritual world of batin. Ultimate journey is the journey of the batin, that is, of soul, so that it may find the presence in higher spheres of the world of ‘Amr’. He tells us how to elevate our souls so as to make them receptive to the Divine emanations:
“Kindle the candle of intellect in thy heart and hasten with it to the world of brightness.”
His views conceives of man to be essentially a rational being, superior to the physical creation, possessing a ‘rational soul’. God provides man with tools such as consciousness, discursive reasoning, and the power of intellect. From his perspective, intellect is the most crucial gift bestowed from God to mankind, that enables man to gain wisdom (hikmat), true understanding of God’s plan and will.
It is only through a conscious and repeated use of reason and intelligence that man can achieve that wisdom. Food for man to achieve this is knowledge. But man’s knowledge is incomplete like his intellect, so there must be a person always present on earth, with Perfect Knowledge and Intellect, whom people can approach to seek guidance. Pearl of knowledge, he says, is Intellect, and pearl of Intellect, he says, is God’s Command, Be!
God’s gift for mankind through his Divine Will thus includes wellsprings of Divine guidance, that are Prophets and Imams. They are the true House of Knowledge. But it is incumbent upon man to search for his Imam of Age. His whole story revolves around his quest to identify such a pinnacle of Divine Guidance. His quest is fulfilled when he finds this pinnacle in the person of Imam Mustansir-i billah in Cairo.
One distinguishing character that makes him unique is that Nasir Khusraw was not a sage. He never aspired to seek monastic withdrawal from the world. The path that he preached never lead one away from the worldly life. Even though he warns against being seduced by the attractions of this world, he also exhorts his readers to actively engage with the world and make use of it for their own perfection and become the best human beings they can. For him, the physical world holds clues to the next world as well as tools to make the journey possible.
Nasir Khusraw remains one of the most fascinating figures in Islamic history. Despite diverse themes and styles of his writings, one finds them imbued with his primary and consistent concern for Ismaili faith. His poetry not only reflects his inspiration and expression but also, as a paragon of distinctive style and eloquence, it combines philosophy and theology to the mould of Persian literary tradition and attracts a passionate attention of any aspiring reader. He often makes use of poetic imagery and the basic ingredients of rhyme and rhythm in order to illustrate his practical wisdom of a virtuous life, as in the following example:
Have you heard? A squash vine grew beneath a towering tree.
In only twenty days it grew and spread and put forth fruit.
Of the tree it asked: ‘How old are you? How many years?’
Replied the tree: ‘Two hundred it would be, and surely more.’
The squash laughed and said: ‘Look, in twenty days, I’ve done more than
you; tell me, why are you so slow?’
The tree responded: ‘O little squash, today is not the day of reckoning
between the two of us.’
‘Tomorrow, when winds of autumn howl down on you and me, then shall it be
known for sure which one of us is the real man!’
He is known not only for his prose and poetry but also in his unique capacity as the only eminent philosopher of his era to have composed all his works in Persian.
He has several works to his credit, revealing the exemplary perfection of his intellectual personality. It would be no exaggeration to say that his works are invaluable to the philosophical curriculum of medieval Muslim thought. Most of his writings range from responses to the personal requests of his followers or correspondents to profound elaborations, elucidations and interpretations of Ismaili theology and philosophy. These include Jami‘ al-hikmatayn, Gushayish va Rahayish, Zad al-Musafirin (or Travelling Provisions of Pilgrims), Wajh-i-Din (or The Face of Religion), and many others.
A series of excellent teachings of his philosophy are found in his Jami‘ al-hikmatayn and Gushayish va Rahayish. It is here that he addresses and expounds a wide range of various questions: How did we come to be? What is Soul? What is meant by time and space? and so on. It is also here that he applies rational tools to explain and expound his theology, allowing us to capture and understand not only the significance of his own thought, but also the beliefs of his age.
Today as I pause, his life and his story renders me to reflect on how his journey that started with a dream led him to the highest rank in the Ismaili Dawa among Ismaili intellectuals of his time. We may conclude by reading his story from his own writings that the foundation of his life and journey was to learn enough to be worthy of teaching to others. He never considered it either sufficient or ethical to acquire knowledge first and then hold that knowledge to his own self. He considered it imperative to disseminate the knowledge that he acquired to others, and to call others to the truth that he had found in the Ismaili faith.
Nasir Khusraw shines, today, in the learned world like a lamp of knowledge, and his voice of wisdom shimmers the minds of the world’s most wise. To me, his message seems perfectly compatible with modern ethos of intellectual change. I conclude my article with following remarks of Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al-Hussaini, made on 30th August 2003 during the foundation ceremony of the Dushanbe Ismaili Centre:
The passage of a millennium has not diminished Nasir Khusraw’s relevance nor dulled the lustre of his poetry. It continues to uplift and inspire, reminding us that we are the authors of our own destiny. As he has said, we can be like a poplar tree which chooses to remain barren, or we can let our path be lit by the candle of wisdom, for only “with intellect, we can seek out all the hows and whys. Without it, we are but trees without fruit.” Another lesson that we learn from this great philosopher is that, in the ebb and flow of history, “knowledge is a shield against the blows of time.” It dispels “the torment of ignorance” and nourishes “peace to blossom forth in the soul.”
Date posted: June 16, 2018.
All Nasir Khusraw quotations are from Nasir Khusraw: The Ruby of Badakhshan by Alice C. Hunsberger.
Sujjawal Ahmad holds a Masters degree in Molecular Biology from Quaid-i Azam University, Pakistan, where his work and research focused on targeted molecular therapeutics. He has a passion for philosophy, and has written several articles on classical philosophy and comparative religions.
Selected readings on Nasir Khusraw:
His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Ismaili Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, frequently delivers speeches in “post-secular” contexts on topics that include architecture, civil society, democracy, development, good governance, meritocracy, pluralism, public ethics, and Western-Muslim relations. Karim H. Karim of Carleton University examines how the Muslim leader, engages discursively with the public sphere…READ FULL PIECE
Date posted: June 9, 2018
By ABDULMALIK MERCHANT
I found myself awake at 2:30 AM on Saturday May 26, 2018, and decided to go and spend a few hours with my dad at Normanna Nursing Care. He hadn’t spoken and eaten now for a full 2 days. I spent many hours engaging in prayers with my dad, and stayed in his room until my mum and brother Fahar arrived to spend the rest of the day with my dad. My mum was able to spend 2 hours with my dad in mid-afternoon totally by herself. She had been married to him for 66 years. That time was deeply comforting to her. She reminded him of the years of service they had dedicated towards Mawlana Hazar Imam and the Ismaili Jamat around the world.
My mum returned home at 8 PM. Soon thereafter I told her that I was leaving to see dad. “Come back home by 11:00 PM, you are very tired,” she remarked. I said to myself that I would once again sit close to my dad and participate in the early morning contemplative payers as I had done earlier on Saturday morning. When I arrived in my father’s room I began monitoring him and played recordings of Qur’anic verses, Ginans, Salwats and recited phrases from the Dua such as “Allahuma Ya Mawlana Antas-Salaam…..Wa Adkhilna na Dar es Salaam” and “Ya Imamaz-Zaman, Ya Shah Karim Ya Mawlana Anta Quwwati” (my father had asked me years earlier to take selected phrases from the Dua and recite them for my strength and courage). I had complied with his wish and advice.
At 10:45 PM the nurse came into the room and interrupted the sequence. She had come to check on my dad’s breathing and change his sleeping position. I again reverted to praying and contemplation. I was physically tired and lay down on the cushion at the ledge of the window from where I could see his face and the movement of his chest and shoulders.
Two hours quickly passed. It was now 12:45 AM, and a new day (Sunday, 27 May) had begun. For a few minutes I had seen his breathing pattern change. When the nurse came into the room to alter his sleeping position, she also noted the change in his breathing pattern. She commented that my dad would pass away that night. I asked, “How long does he have?” Very reluctantly she answered, “Maybe a few minutes or that he could be around for another few hours.” I began praying, “Wa Adkhilna Dar es Salaam”, meaning, “Usher us in the Abode of Peace”, over my dad. I sensed death was going to take place at any moment.
At around 1:00 AM, without any intervention whatsoever, my dad changed his sleeping position . He straightened up his head (which had been sideways), to face the ceiling. He looked straight up with his mouth fully open. His eyes had been closed, but now as he looked up, they were wide open. I bent my face over his face and said, “Look papa this is Abdulmalik.” I recited the Salwat and other prayers. How was I to know whether he recognized me?
The nurse who had changed his position a few moments earlier, stayed in the room with me, but called her colleague, a registered nurse. At this instant at around 1:05 AM, I asked the nurse to dip a long cotton swab into the Ab-e-Shifa bottle and lightly stroke his lips and tongue with the holy water. After about 2 minutes, with his face still facing the ceiling he breathed out while his mouth was still open, and the nurse told me that it was his last breath. I said, “Wait, wait, nurse that may not be the case.” I was right. My dad then licked his lips with his tongue, closed his mouth and partially closed his eyes.
I said to myself, “How can he breathe in this state with his mouth closed”, as he had been breathing through his open mouth for hours. As his mouth remained closed, I could see pressure building inside his mouth. This went on for about 30 to 40 seconds, and then astonishingly he opened his mouth and breathed out his last breath. With that last breath at 1:10 AM my dad had just passed away from this transient world into the world of spirit. He was returning to the abode of heavenly peace, the Dar es Salaam that he had many years earlier asked me to remember regularly at times other than during recitation of the Dua. I texted at 1:12 AM, “Dad has passed away.” Came the reply, “Shukran lillah walhamdulillah. Be strong.”
His dilsoji (condolence meeting) which was held at Darkhana Jamatkhana on May 30 in Burnaby was attended by hundreds of Jamati members as was his funeral ceremony at Burnaby Lake Jamatkhana on Thursday, May 31. He was then buried the same afternoon at Victory Memorial Cemetery in Surrey. The Samar and Ziarat ceremonies were performed the same evening at Darkhana. We then had a small funeral reception (a bhatti) at James Grill that was attended by very close family and friends.
My family and I are immensely grateful and deeply touched by the hundreds of phone calls, messages of condolences and tributes that we have received since the death of my father exactly a week ago. We may not be able to respond to every phone call and message posted on this website or the social media pages, or sent via email. We wish to inform everyone that their condolences and tributes have given us immense strength and comfort during this difficult period of grieving.
May my loving papa, Alwaez Jehangir, rest in eternal peace. AMEN.
Date posted: June 3, 2018.
We invite you to submit your condolences, memories and tributes to Jehangir Merchant by completing the feedback form below or by clicking on Leave a comment. Your comment may also be submitted to simerg@ .
An extensive sketch of the life of Alwaez Jehangir Merchant will be published at a later date on this website. The following is a collection of Alwaez Jehangir’s writings on this website:
Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un
“Surely we belong to God and to Him we return” — Holy Qur’an, 2:156
“Life is a great and noble calling, not a mean and grovelling thing to be shuffled through as best as we can but a lofty and exalted destiny.” — Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1877-1957), 48th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims.
It is with deep sadness to inform readers that Alwaez Jehangir Alibhai Merchant passed away peacefully in Vancouver on Sunday May 27, 2018, at the age of 89 after a short illness. He is survived by his beloved wife Maleksultan, sons Abdulmalik, Fahar and Alnoor, grandchildren Naim and Nurin, as well as his sister, Banu.
Alwaez Merchant was blessed with a long period of service to the institutions of the Imamat and the Jamats worldwide. Amongst members of the Ismaili Muslim community, he will be fondly remembered as Mastersaheb, Alwaez Merchant or simply Jehangir.
Over a period spanning sixty years, he taught students, delivered waezs (sermons) and made presentations throughout the world. His literary contributions spanned five decades, and he played a pivotal role in contributing to and editing various Ismaili magazines produced in East Africa and the United Kingdom; he also wrote numerous pieces for this website, Simerg. In addition, he developed curriculum that was used within the religious education system prior to the development of the Institute of Ismaili Studies’ primary and secondary curricula.
The Merchant family would like to take this opportunity to thank staff at Normanna Care Facility in Burnaby for the medical attention, as well as loving care extended to Jehangir. The family would also like to thank life-long friends, including waezins, his students, Jamati and institutional leaders of the Ismaili community for their support, care and affection.
Alwaez Merchant’s funeral ceremony will take place at Burnaby Lake Jamatkhana on Thursday May 31, 2018 at 11 AM. A post burial religious ceremony will take place at the Ismaili Darkhana Jamatkhana (Ismaili Centre, 4010 Canada Way, Burnaby) later that same evening. Both will be preceded by a condolence (dilsoji) ceremony on Wednesday, May 30th at the Darkhana following the conclusion of evening religious ceremonies.
Alwaez Merchant’s greatest mentor throughout his life was the Fatimid Ismaili da’i Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi; the following verses of al-Shirazi are poignant:
It is through you [the Imam] that Ibn Musa [al-Mu’ayyad] asks Allah for deliverance
From captivity and confinement in the worst of stopping places.
Entering shade in the courtyard of His elect,
Shady and residing in security in the refuge of the [Imam’s] palace.
The passing away of Alwaez Jehangir Merchant is a difficult moment for the family. Today, the family would like to celebrate a man who most nobly and sincerely dedicated his life to the Imamat and the Ismaili jamats worldwide, and we express our shukrana to Mawlana Hazar Imam.
Date posted: May 27, 2018.
We invite you to submit your condolences, memories and tributes to Jehangir Merchant by completing the feedback form below or by clicking on LEAVE A COMMENT. Your comment may also be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org.
An extensive sketch of the life of Alwaez Jehangir Merchant will be published at a later date on this website. The following is a collection of Alwaez Jehangir’s writings on this website:
VISIT SIMERG’S NEW EXCITING BLOG “ALL THINGS LISBOA”
Date posted: May 8, 2018.
Finally, the REGISTRATION DAY is here and the President of the Aga Khan Ismaili Council for Portugal has sent a warm and special message of welcome to the worldwide Jamats! Thousands of Ismailis around the world who have already made arrangements to travel to Lisbon or have been anxiously waiting for the registration to commence before finalizing their air and hotel bookings, can now begin to REGISTER at the official website of the Ismaili community. The Darbar and Diamond Jubilee events will take place in Lisbon between July 5th and 11th, 2018. We recommend that you visit FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS first for answers to numerous questions about the visit, the registration process and how to complete the registration form. If you encounter technical or other issues, please click on CONTACT US hyperlink at bottom of FAQ page. Here is the link: CONTACT US.
Simerg, together with its sister website Barakah, has launched a special blog All Things Lisboa that will be a point of reference for Ismailis travelling to Lisbon to celebrate Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee. It will offer comprehensive information about the events planned in Lisbon as well as provide links to the official website of the Ismaili community, http://theismaili.org.
All Things Lisboa will help you enjoy the best of Portuguese culture and will seek to provide ideas to enhance your experience of the historic city — its sights, sounds and tastes. While the focus of attention for tens of thousands of Ismailis of Portugal and around the world will be on the Diamond Jubilee events from July 5th until July 11th, 2018, including a grand Darbar, we think that you can take advantage of your stay to explore Lisbon by bus, foot, tram or with guided tours. All Things Lisboa also provides a listing of Ismailis offering professional travelling services as well as a list of other reliable options for reserving accommodation etc..
We will provide you good information about Lisbon in the coming weeks!
Date posted: May 7, 2018.
Last updated: May 8, 2018.
In the Ismaili tradition, the Imam has a central and indispensable role in helping the believer mediate the outer and inner aspects of life
By KARIM H. KARIM
(This is an abridged and revised version of the article “A Semiotics of Infinite Translucence: The Exoteric and Esoteric in Ismaili Muslim Hermeneutics,” which was published in the special issue on “Visible/Invisible: Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere” of the Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 40 No.1, 2015)
Shia Ismaili Muslim theology is shaped by the relationship between the zahiri (outer, exoteric) and the batini (inner, esoteric) dimensions of life. The two concepts are not set against each other in an oppositional manner but are complimentary ways of perceiving truth. This relates to a fundamental religious quest: to know the mysterium tremendum — “that which is hidden and esoteric, that which is beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar” (Otto, 1958, p. 13). The relationship between the zahir and the batin points toward a notion of gradual perception through the metaphor of translucence, which symbolizes “the constant search for answers that leads inevitably to more questions” (Aga Khan IV, 2005b). Translucence permits partial illumination, but not complete enlightenment. Spiritual insight unfolds serially in an infinite journey. It is the Imam who, in the Ismaili tradition, has a central and indispensable role in helping the believer mediate the zahiri and batini aspects of life.
READING GOD’S SIGNS
The American social theorist John Durham Peters has dwelled on the imperfection of human communication that leads to misinterpretations. On the other hand, he notes that angels are viewed in some religions as “pure bodies of meaning” who understand each other without any distortion (Peters, 2000, pp. 74–75). Muslims believe the Qur’an to have resulted from communication of this kind. They hold the Qur’anic revelation to have been received from God, who relayed it to Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Jibril (Gabriel). The Qur’an itself describes the revelation as imparted to Muhammad through spiritual inspiration (wahi) (Qur’an 53:4). The Prophet expressed the spiritual messages in human language. Divine communication is materially manifested in the text that constitutes the Qur’an. The words of the holy book provide access to God; however, they can only be understood according to the intellectual and spiritual capacity of individual believers. They are simultaneously translucent veils and windows of the revelation’s ultimate truth.
Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet and his companions memorized and wrote down the series of revelations that were received over a period of 22 years. The material was collected in the form of a book after the Prophet’s death. Although the Qur’an has been rendered into numerous other languages, the original revelation in Arabic is considered to be technically untranslatable as no translation – no matter how rigorous – can replicate the specific discourse transmitted by divine inspiration (Pickthall, 1977). The nuances of the layered meanings embedded in the unique revelation would be lost through translation. Replacing the specific verbal signifiers spoken by Muhammad upon receiving the revelation would break the link with its unique spiritual content.
The adherents of Islam contemplate upon the pristine words of the revelation that was bestowed upon the Prophet 14 centuries ago. However, this poses substantial difficulty for the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who do not speak Arabic. It is not a simple task even for Arabs as language changes over time. Contemporary forms of Arabic are quite different from that of the Qur’an. Given the divine nature of this scripture, translation into another language or even modern Arabic would break the link to the particular denotations and connotations of the uniquely inspired speech.
The Qur’an frequently refers to itself and expresses a self-reflexiveness about its transmission, its language, its nature, and its meaning (e.g., 16:103, 4:82, 39:23). The word it uses to refer to its verses is ayat: “These are the ayat of God that We recite to you in truth” (2:252). It is noteworthy that the same term is also utilized for God’s signs. Several Qur’anic passages encourage the believer to ponder upon them. For example:
“And of His ayat [signs] is this that He created you from dust,
And behold, ye are human beings ranging widely!
And among His ayat is this,
That He created for you mates from among yourselves,
That ye may dwell in tranquility with them.
And He has put between you love and mercy.
Verily in that are ayat for those who reflect.
And of His ayat is the creation of the heavens and the earth,
And the difference of your languages and colours.
Herein indeed are ayat for those who know.” (Qur’an 30:20–21)
Kenneth Cragg notes that “This confluence of terms is interesting and suggestive, allowing as it does the conviction that the external world is a kind of ‘scripture’ … [which] speaks Quranically to mankind…” (1973, p. 148). The material universe as well as its historical unfolding, like the revelation, constitute God’s signs and texts that are to be read semiotically to understand the meanings of the messages to humankind.
It is “those who reflect” (Qur’an 13:3) who are able to comprehend the signification of the signs that God has embedded in the revelation and the Creation. Numerous parts of the Islamic revelation exhort the believer to reflect (tafakkur), to ponder (tadabbur), to learn (ta‘allum), to comprehend (tafaqquh), and to use one’s intellect (aqila) (Shah-Kazemi, 2011). Apprehending the divine through intellectual endeavour is a primary motif in the Qur’an. It is significant that the very first verses of revelation to be received by Muhammad began with the instruction to “read” :
“Read in the name of thy Lord who created
Created the human being from a clot
Read, and thy Lord is the Most Bounteous
Who taught by the pen,
Taught the human being that which s/he knew not” (Qur’an 96:1–5)
What is meant exactly by “read” has been a matter of much discussion and debate for centuries among Muslim scholars. The Qur’an’s emphasis on knowledge encouraged its acquisition to become a major endeavour among Muslims. The Arabic word ilm, usually translated as “knowledge,” is one of the most frequently appearing terms in the holy book. 
An enormous amount of effort has been devoted over the past 14 centuries to study and understand the Qur’an. The meanings of its numerous metaphors, allegories, and parables have been sought over the ages. Philology, grammar, history, the Prophet’s biography, eyewitness accounts etc. have been brought to bear to know the meaning of the more than 6,000 verses of the revelation. Established Muslim traditions of exegesis (tafsir) based on various explanatory frameworks support specific interpretations. In some cases, the differences in interpreting certain key phrases, words, and even punctuation have reflected significant doctrinal divergences among groups such as the Sunni and the Shia as well as among their subgroupings. Whereas Muslims generally agree that Qur’anic verses have surface, exoteric (zahiri) and deeper, esoteric (batini) meanings, the Sufis and the Shia generally lay greater emphasis on the latter. This tendency is not unique to Islam, since anagogic interpretations of scripture are also conducted by other religious believers, such as those engaged in the study of the Kabbalah in the Jewish faith and the Gnostic tradition in Christianity.
Among the Shia, the Ismailis have come to be known as the group that has most consistently explored the inner aspects of the Qur’an through tawil, the esoteric Islamic hermeneutics (i.e. modes of interpretation). Commenting on the work of Nasir-i Khusraw, a prominent eleventh-century Ismaili philosopher, the former Institute of Ismaili Studies scholar Eric Ormsby notes that
“philosophy and science apply in the realm of the zahir, the exoteric aspect of things, while tawil addresses the privileged realm of the batin, the esoteric understanding of revelation. Neither realm is essentially separable from the other; they are complementary and constitute a whole. They are as interdependent as the bodily senses and the soul, each of which plays a fundamental role in the constitution of the human being and of the cosmos.” (Ormsby, 2012, p. 8)
Human bodies have to engage physically with the material world and the exoteric stipulations of religion belong to the dimension of the zahir. The “human soul, however, needs to know the inner meanings and significance of these acts and scriptures on which they are based” (Hunsberger, 2000, pp. 75–76). It is imperative in the context of Ismaili cosmology for the soul to become enlightened by these higher truths that only exist in the batin (Hunzai, 2005).
Tawil is viewed as an interpretive method which discloses the inner meanings of the Qur’anic revelation that would otherwise remain invisible to those conducting exegesis only by means of tafsir. Whereas the word tafsir comes from the sense “to comment,” tawil involves the quest for original meanings or, more precisely, originary significance. Ismaili hermeneutics seek to reveal to the believer the Qur’anic signifiers (mathal) that are “incomprehensible to an ordinary mind because of their complex implications and extraordinarily profound meanings” (Shah, 2005, p. 119). Becoming knowledgeable of the mathal’s originary signified sense (mamthul) involves spiritual and intellectual exertion of a high order. Tawil opens the way for comprehending the “ultimate implications and aims” (ibid) of God’s signs.
Who, then, can carry out tawil? Whereas tafsir of the Qur’an is performed by knowledgeable members of the religious classes (ulama) among Sunnis and the non-Ismaili Shia, tawil, according to Ismaili tradition, can only be conducted by the hereditary Imam and, to a lesser extent, by members of the Imam’s mission (dawa) (Steigerwald, 2006). Authority for this is based on the Qur’an, which states that “None knoweth its [the Qur’an’s] tawil save Allah and those who are well-grounded in knowledge (ilm)” (Qur’an 3:7). The Shia, including Ismailis, understand “those who are well-grounded in knowledge (ilm)” in this verse to be the hereditary Imams descended from Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima, the first Shia Imam and the Prophet’s daughter, respectively. (Sunnis disagree with this reading.) The status of Imams with respect to the conduct of tawil is also supported by the Shia with certain sayings (hadiths) of the Prophet Muhammd referring to Hazrat Ali (Shah, 2005). Whereas the revelation (tanzil) denotes the descent of the divine message to humanity, the Imam enables his followers, through the tawil of this message, to attain spiritual ascent by enabling them to comprehend the original senses of its signified meanings.
According to Qadi al-Nu’man, a prominent tenth-century Ismaili scholar and close confidant of the fourteenth Imam, al-Muiz, Hazrat Ali’s outstanding qualities were his knowledge, nobility, and aptitude for providing proofs. As successors of Ali, the Ismaili Imams are viewed by their followers as having the ability to provide esoteric explanations of Qur’anic passages. Al-Nu’man also describes the Imams “as the bearers of the Divine illuminating substance (nur), and the ones who receive Divine help (tayid), and inspiration (ilham)” (quoted in Shah, 2005, p. 121).
“The traits also denote that an Imam does not require any teacher other than the preceding Imam from whom he imbibes the particular knowledge. The preceding Imam entrusts the Imama to him and thus teaches him. On the basis of all this, al-Numan refers to the knowledge of Imams as the real and true knowledge (al-ilm al-haqiqi) and the one which is transmitted from one Imam to another Imam (al-ilm al-mathur).” (Ibid)
Contemporary Nizari Ismailis hold that their present Imam, Aga Khan IV, who is forty-ninth in lineage since Hazrat Ali, has the authority and the ability to guide them according to the exoteric and esoteric teachings of Islam. Allegiance to the Imam of the time (Imam al-zaman) and membership in the Ismaili religious community are prerequisites for receiving knowledge of the batin from him (Carney, 2009).
EXOTERIC AND ESOTERIC
A book by the tenth-century Ismaili scholar Jafar bin Mansur al-Yaman narrates a series of dialogues that narrate the initiation of an adept into the esoteric teachings of the faith (Morris, 2001). It relates the need for careful intellectual and spiritual preparation and the deeply private nature of the communication between master and disciple. The knowledge of the batin received in this manner is to be kept within the community. Only those who have received Ismaili teachings and comprehend the significance of esoteric knowledge can understand its value. However, the disciple’s understanding of the batin is limited by his/her spiritual capacity; each person can only see the esoteric truth as far as is permitted by her hermeneutic horizon’s current limit (Corbin, 1954). The truth is learnt in stages, and remains a continuing process.
Not only will outsiders not be able to make any sense of the batin, it will also be harmful to them. An explication is to be found in an Indian Ismaili hymn (ginan) which relates several miracles of Pir Shams, a legendary thirteenth to fourteenth-century saint. One story tells of his banishment from a city whose inhabitants did not understand the true nature of spirituality. The turn of events brought him to a situation where he and his disciple had only raw meat for food and no means to cook it. In this difficult state, he asked the sun to descend in order to cook the meat. When the sun came down it did not harm the Pir and his disciple, but its proximity set the city and its people on fire (Hooda, 1948). The account is seen as making a symbolic statement about the power of esoteric knowledge, represented by the sun : it nourishes those who have been initiated into the understanding of the batin by enabling them to gain knowledge of its true nature, but can destroy those who have not. The Imam and appointed members his dawah are the only ones who can provide such knowledge.
Since approaching the essence of the batin is not possible without the guidance of the Imam it is imperative, according to Ismaili belief, that there should always be a living Imam among humanity. The lineage, starting from Hazrat Ali, is expected to continue to the Day of Judgment. However, there have been periods in Ismaili history when the Imam was in mortal danger and had to go into concealment (satr). The Imams under threat from the mid-eighth to early tenth centuries and from the mid-thirteenth to late eighteenth centuries were in concealment, according to Ismaili historiography. Following the first period of satr, the community entered a period of kashf (unveiling) and rose to political power. Ismailis established the Fatimid Empire (909–1171 CE) in North Africa and built Cairo as its capital. Their leaders ruled as Imam-Caliphs over a vast realm that stretched at various times from Morocco to Arabia and also included principalities in Italy, Yemen, and India. However, even at this time, the religious followers of the Ismaili Imam were a minority among a population that included a majority of Sunnis as well as Christians, Jews, and others.
The Fatimids founded institutions of learning in their empire that catered to general instruction on religious and non-religious matters. These included Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, which, a thousand years later, is still operating; it is now a global centre of learning for Sunni Islam. The Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge) dealt with philosophy and the sciences, and was a model for similar institutions that were established in other Muslim lands (Halm, 1997). Fatimid Imam-Caliphs delivered public sermons at mosques on major festivals (Walker, 2009). However, private gatherings known as majalis al-hikma (sessions of wisdom) were held to provide Ismaili teachings to the Imam’s religious adherents. The Imam personally authorized the materials read out at these gatherings (Halm, 1997). A document from the period provides the following directions to the instructor:
“Read the majalis al-hikam, which were handed to you at the court, to the faithful (i.e. the Ismailis), male and female, and to the adepts, male and female, in the brilliant palaces of the caliphs and in the Friday mosque in al-Muiziyya al-Qahira (the Azhar Mosque of Cairo). But keep the secrets of the wisdom from the unauthorized, and distribute them only to those who are entitled to them! Do not reveal to the weak what they are unable to grasp, but at the same time do not look upon their understanding as too poor to absorb it!” (Parentheses in the original.) (1997, pp. 47–48)
These sessions of wisdom regarding the exoteric and esoteric aspects of faith conducted teaching according to the respective levels of understanding of the various congregations among the religious followers of the Imam-Caliph.
MEANING IN MATERIAL CULTURE
Whereas present-day Nizari Ismailis do not subscribe to the particular cosmological structures that underpinned Fatimid philosophy, they continue to adhere to beliefs relating to the concepts such as zahir and batin. Their communities (jamats) hold private religious gatherings in Jamatkhanas (congregational houses), which non-Ismailis are not permitted to attend. All those present will have given allegiance to the Imam of the time. The Jamatkhana is the preserve of the Ismaili private sphere. The Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre in Toronto are located on a 17-acre landscaped site that is publicly accessible. The juxtaposition of these two buildings, separated by some 80 metres, is particularly noteworthy. The former has an active engagement with the public while the latter contains a religious space that is kept private, in accordance with the community’s esoteric traditions. Over the contemporary prayer hall is a prominent glass dome that is postmodernist in design. At its foundation ceremony, the Aga Khan noted that the “building will feature a crystalline frosted glass dome—standing like a great beacon on top of a building that is itself at the highest point of the site—and illuminating the Prayer Hall and its Qibla wall” (Aga Khan IV, 2010). The current Imam makes an intriguing statement about the relationship between Ismaili public and private spaces and also that between the visible and the invisible as well as between zahir and batin. Not only is the Jamatkhana placed on the most elevated spot in the area, its pyramid-shaped translucent cover lights up for the surrounding region, including the arterial Don Valley Parkway, along which thousands of vehicles travel daily.
Esotericism is generally conceptualized in the contexts of closed groups. Esoteric discourse and meanings tend not to be shared with the public. Ismaili hermeneutics seek to bring back potent words to their hidden original meanings, which have spiritual resonance for all human beings. Whereas this cannot be done without initiation into the privacy of the Ismaili fold, the community seeks alternatively to articulate its worldview publicly through institutional work and through appeals to universal values and symbolic discourses using material culture such as architecture and design. The Imam commissions some of the world’s leading architects to design the buildings that house his institutions. The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat’s building in Ottawa is illustrative of the Aga Khan’s expression of Ismaili perspectives in architecture, even that meant for secular purposes. This is what he stated at its inauguration:
“It will be a site for robust dialogue, intellectual exchange, and the forging of new partnerships—with government, and with the institutions of civil society and the private sector of Canada and so many other countries. To be able to site this building on Confederation Boulevard, in close proximity to your major national institutions as well as representations from abroad, is itself a symbol of the outgoing, interactive spirit which must guide our response to global challenges.” (Aga Khan IV, 2008)
While referring to the “outgoing, interactive spirit” in the secular engagement with the public sphere, the Aga Khan was keen to embed the building, which is representative of the Ismaili Imamat, with symbols that speak to the interaction between the zahir and the batin.  In a letter to the building’s Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, he indicated that it had to reflect metaphorically the properties of rock crystal, in which “the cuts and angles permit both transparency as well as translucency…It pleases and confuses the eye by its internal planes running at different angles, creating a sense of visual mystery” (quoted in Cook, 2008).
The Aga Khan said that the challenges facing the architect called for
“translating concepts that have a context in our faith and our history, yet stride boldly and confidently ahead, into modernity; for expressing both the exoteric and the esoteric, and our awe and humility towards the mysteries of Nature, Time and beyond. The outcome is an inter-play of multiple facets, like rock crystal. In it are platforms of pure but translucent horizontality. Light’s full spectrum comes alive and disappears as the eye moves. In Islam the divine is reflected in Nature’s creation.” (Aga Khan IV, 2005)
Rock crystal was also prized by the current Imam’s Fatimid ancestors, whose craftsmen carved beautiful objets d’art from this material (Bloom, 2007). Aga Khan IV finds in this pure quartz crystal a symbolic expression of the mysteries of the esoteric, which he asked his architect to explore. “What we observed is complete transparency in some areas and complete opacity in others. Then there are infinite numbers of translucency” (quoted in Cook, 2008), said an associate of Fumihiko. In alternating of transparency, translucency and opacity, rock crystal seems materially to mimic glimpses of the mystery of the batin — which is usually invisible, unclear, or confusing but begins to become more visible and clearer when the disciple learns to orient herself toward it. However, this remains a never-ending process that involves a continuing search through multiple levels of truth in accordance with one’s growing spiritual horizon (Corbin, 1954). The hermeneutic unveiling of religious signifiers is not direct but mediated through infinite gradations of translucence, which appears to symbolize “the constant search for answers that leads inevitably to more questions” (Aga Khan IV, 2005).
The term esoteric sometimes connotes a tendency to withdraw from public life, as was the case with the Gnostic tradition in the Christian faith. Whereas Ismailis went into concealment in certain periods to continue practising their esoteric faith in safety, they are vigorously interacting with the public sphere in contemporary times. The community is engaging with a world where secular norms have lessened the value of religious perspectives in shaping public worldviews. However, this relatively small group appears to be working to develop a common discourse based on the broader values it shares with other people. Issues such as ethics, education, good governance, quality of life, pluralism, service etc. have provided for productive communicative bridges with others. The success of Ismaili institutions has also enhanced external confidence in them.
While seeking to ensure privacy about his community’s religious practice, the Imam appears to be engaging in a symbolic discourse through the media of design and architecture to express exoteric and esoteric concepts publicly. Placing an Ismaili Jamatkhana on an elevated location and designing its dome as a bright lamp in the Toronto cityscape appears to draw aesthetically from a sense of mystery reminiscent of the highly symbolic Qur’anic verse of light (24:35) and a ginan’s metaphoric reference to “When the Lord’s light shines in the north[ern] continent” (Peer Sadardeen, n.d.). Outsiders can see the brightly illuminated translucent shell of the pyramidal dome but its inner realm remains invisible and private. Symbolism using material culture is here an intriguing means to communicate with the public about the community’s most deeply held values.
Date posted: May 2, 2018.
Last updated: May 3, 2018 (minor typos).
. The first word was iqra; it is interpreted variantly as both “read” and “recite.”
. It occurs 856 times (Shah-Kazemi, 2011, p. 4).
. The sun has symbolized the Imam in Nizari Ismaili literature (e.g., Ivanow, 1947, p. 18).
. Valérie Gonzalez discusses “a double semiotic structure signifying at both the manifest and the hidden level” (2001, p. 33) in the context of a relationship between Qur’anic text and Muslim architectural aesthetics.
About the author: Karim H. Karim is the Director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam and a Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He has also served as Director of the School and of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, England, and has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. Earlier in his career, he worked as a journalist and as a senior policy analyst in the Canadian Government. Professor Karim has been a distinguished lecturer at venues in North America, Europe, and Asia. He won the inaugural Robinson Prize for his book Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence. His most recent publications are Diaspora and Media in Europe: Migration, Identity, and Integration; Re-Imagining the Other: Culture, Media and Western-Muslim Intersections and Engaging the Other: Public Policy and Western-Muslim Intersections. One of Dr. Karim’s articles is “Clash of Ignorance” and he is currently writing a book on this topic.