His Highness the Aga Khan and Jehangir Merchant in Lourenco Marques, Mozambique

Ismaili doctrines of faith: Short lessons from the writings of Alwaez Jehangir Merchant: (1) Tawhid or Unity of God

Introduced by Malik Merchant
(Publisher-Editor,  Simerg, Barakah, and Simergphotos)

Alwaez Rai Jehangir Merchant (1928-2018) — picture above with Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan — is fondly remembered everyday single day by his beloved wife of 66 years, Alwaeza Raisaheba Maleksultan Jehangir Merchant, and all her family members.

He passed away 2 years ago on May 27, 2018 at approximately 1:15 AM. We pray that his soul may rest in eternal peace. Amen.

Jehangir  and Maleksultan Merchant
Jehangir and Maleksultan in front of a large
portrait photo of Mawlana Hazar Imam.

My dad was a prolific writer. In England, he edited the flagship Ismaili religious magazine, Ilm, for several years while he served with my mother with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB). His articles related to the faith, history, principles and doctrines of the Ismaili faith, along with insightful interpretations of Qur’anic verses, as well as moving narratives of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Mubarak visits to different parts of the world, richly contributed to the Jamats’ understanding of the faith. The closure of Ismaili religious magazines in the very early 1990’s created a significant void in the dissemination of religious material that was deemed to be “official.” I am referring here to insightful articles in monthly or quarterly magazines published by ITREBs around the world, and not to literary and scholarly books, which the Institute of Ismaili Studies has done a fantastic job of publishing over the past 30 years.

From the time this website, Simerg.com, was launched in 2009, Alwaez Merchant was able to devote time to editing and adapting his Ilm pieces for publication on this website for the benefit of readers on the World Wide Web. Links to those pieces are provided at the end of this article. Ill-health prevailed, and he was no longer able to fully complete the remainder of his Ilm pieces for publication on Simerg.

Ilm Ismaili religious magazine edited by Jehangir Merchant
Ilm magazine – one of Alwaez Jehangir’s magnificent contributions to the Ismaili literary scene. Jehangir edited and wrote extensively for the journal.

Now, I am going to take his unpublished essays from Ilm — many of which were quite lengthy — and share them as short pieces of learning over the coming weeks and months. We begin the Jehangir Merchant series, if I may call it that, with the Concept of Tawhid, which forms the first component in his essay entitled “Fundamental Aspects of Ismaili Doctrine.” It appeared in Ilm, Volume 7, Number 1 & 2, July-November 1981, pp. 2-12.

Tawhid

By (LATE) JEHANGIR A MERCHANT

Jehangir and Maleksultan Merchant, Ismaili missionaries
Jehangir and Maleksultan Merchant served the Imam of the Time and Ismaili institutions for more than 60 years.

In all Shi‘a tariqahs of Islam, Tawhid (belief in the Unity of God), Nubuwwah (Prophethood), Imamah (the Institution of the Divine Guide) and Qiyamah (Day of Judgement), are considered as the doctrines of the faith. My brief explanation of each of these 4 doctrines of faith for publication on Simerg are based on a much broader discussion that I provided on these subjects in my original article published in Ilm magazine, which also included a detailed historical background on the subject of Imamat.

The belief in the Unity of God (Tawhid) is the cornerstone of faith (Iman) for all Muslims.

It is articulated in the pronouncement: La ilaha ill-Allah: “There is no god but Allah.”

This doctrine of Unity of God is beautifully summarised in Sura Tauhid, popularly known as Suratul Ikhlas (112:1-4), which says: “Say, He Allah is One; Allah is Absolute, Independent. He did not beget nor He was begotten and there is none like unto Him.”

We know, however, that the Holy Qur’an, ascribes a number of attributes to Allah. God is spoken of as ar-Rahim (The Merciful), al-Wadud (The Loving), al-Sami (The Hearing), al-Barir (The Seeing) etc. The Qur’an also talks about Wajahullah (the Face of God), Yadullah (the Hand of God), and so on.

While there are numerous references which attribute human qualities to God in the Holy Qur’an, the scripture states in very plain words that Allah is above all material conceptions.

For example, the Qur’an says: “Vision comprehends Him not and He comprehends all vision.” (6:104) and “Nothing is like a likeness of Him.” (42:11)

The Unity of God (Tawhid) implies that God is One in His Dhat (essence) and One in His Sifat (attributes).

The concept of Tawhid appears in the works of many Ismaili dais (missionaries) and philosophers. Their works on the subject place an emphasis against anthropomorphising God, that is, giving human attributes to God.

article continues after image

Fatimid coin Imam al-Zahir
The inscription in the inner margin of this Fatimid coin minted during the reign of Imam al-Zahir reads: la ilah illa / allah wahdahu / la sharik lahu; “no god but God, unique, He has no associate.” Photo: David Museum, Copenhagen.

God is declared in their works as One, Absolutely Transcendent, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Incomprehensible and a Quality-less Being. A Ginanic verse makes this clear:

La thi un dhat kahave, tanki baat kahi nav jai; Dubki le le gotha khave, Pir Paighambar tai na pavey

Translation:

The Dhat [essence] is from nothingness and nothing can be said about it. Pirs and Prophets delve deep in this knowledge but in vain.

The concept that God has no qualities difficult to grasp, because the human mind cannot comprehend a total lack of qualities, a concept which it has not experienced before. We cannot imagine a man, if we can for the moment call such a being a man, who has no colour, no shape, no size, no special existence, who is neither alive nor dead.

Hence, the notion that God is quality-less becomes unintelligible and the Qur’an, therefore, attributes a number of qualities to God. If we consider the qualities applied to God and examine them carefully we find that the grounds for all of these attributes lie in our own experience of this material world.

Pir Shiahbu’d-din Shah writes in his work Risala dar Haqiqati Din (True Meaning of Religion):

“…people speaking about God (Haqq) attribute to Him any such (perfections) as they can imagine. For instance, regarding blindness as a defect, they say about God that He sees everything. They regard ignorance as a defect, and thus say that God is All-Knowing. Thus, whatever they find in themselves as a vice and defect they attribute to God a perfection opposite to that. Most probably, even animals create their own God free from their own defects, ascribing to Him (the opposite) perfections. Imam Muhammad Baqir says that the tiny ant probably imagines his god as having two stings, because it regards the possession of only one sting as a defect.”

So, when the Qur’an attributes qualities to God, it is to help convey to man the idea of God and not that these terms express the true nature of God, or that they are perfect indicators to His Being.

Ismaili doctrine upholds the belief in a single transcendent Being, whose nature is beyond the comprehension of the human mind and who is inexplicable. This is because our definitions are based on our experiences of the material world, and these definitions cannot be applied to this Being.

Pir Shihabu’d-din Shah, again in his previously cited book, says:

“All that is beyond thy imagination, Is merely the limit of thy fantasy, not God. Wisdom can attain a knowledge of His Substance Only in the case if a piece of straw can sink to the bottom of the sea. And Imam Ja’far-as-Sadiq said: “What God is, Man cannot think: and what Man thinks God is not. Yet man lives by God, and God is nearer to him than himself.”

Thus, in the Doctrine of Tawhid, lsmailism completely avoids any form of anthropomorphism and remains purely monotheistic.

We will continue our next discussion on another Shia doctrine of faith, namely, Nubuwwah or Prophethood which will then be followed by Qiyama (the Day of Judgement) and Imamah (the hereditary leadership in Islam).

Date posted: May 27, 2020.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few.

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The following are links to Alwaez Jehangir Merchant’s articles that have been published on this website:

  1. Ghadir-Khumm and the Two Weighty Matters (a Simerg original, I Wish I’d Been There Series)
  2. An Esoteric Interpretation of the Mi’raj (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  3. The Establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  4. The Parable of Moses and Khidr in the Holy Qur’an (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  5. Jehangir Merchant’s Thank You Letter to Da’i Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (a Simerg original, Thank You Series)
  6. Text and Explanation of “Eji Shah Islamshah Amne Maliya” (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  7. The Story of Noah’s Ark in the Holy Qur’an (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  8. A Translation and Brief Commentary of Pir Sadardin’s Ginan “Jem Jem Jugatsu Preet Kareva” (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  9. The Frontispiece of the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Mashhad, Iran (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  10. “One Jamat” (proposal, with Malik Merchant)
  11. The 1979 London Didar: The Experience (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  12. Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja’far as-Sadiq on Love for the Imam (with Alnoor Bhatia, adapted from Ilm magazine)

Also see:

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8 thoughts on “Ismaili doctrines of faith: Short lessons from the writings of Alwaez Jehangir Merchant: (1) Tawhid or Unity of God

  1. This is as lucid as one can get to expressing the Concept of Tawheed. I look forward to reading the series. It was an honour to know Late Al-Wae’z during the last decade of his life; and, of course, his always-radiant wife, the Al-Wa’eza. Thank you for your dedicated work, Malik.

  2. Malik: I remember Alwaez Merchant’s waezes in UK in the seventies. Also we used to play cricket on Sundays with you and your dad. There was once a weekend symposium in Leicester that was organized by Dr. Amir Gulamhusein in 1979. Alwaez Merchant gave a similar presentation in the presence of IIS Faculty and other academicians. He also gave a presentation on our Ismaili history of the Fatimid era in the symposium.

  3. His articles were concise, well, written and informative. Loved reading them. Met him on one of my trips to Japan. May his soul rest in eternal peace

  4. I always enjoyed Ilm and Read and Know magazines, though a child. It is unfortunate these stopped because they were concise, manageable on a day to day basis and gave strength. May his soul rest in Eternal peace. May all ruhanis rest in Eternal peace. Ameen

  5. In those days, we use to have “mission classes “ and we were taught by your mum and dad. I have fond memories every Friday at Jamatakhana. We were taught during Dua times. It was really fun. My love to your mum and prayers and thoughts for your family.

  6. A very educational piece on the Ismaili doctrines of faith. Alhamdulillah!

    Our prayers that may his soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen. He was a great Alwaez and a Scholar but most importantly a very humble and likeable human being and a personal friend of mine for many decades. He was very helpful – in fact instrumental – in the publication of my booklet of the winning essays on “Prophet Muhammad and Islam” published by then Ismailia Association for Tanzania in 1967. He will always be remembered for life long service and accomplishments.

  7. Innanillahe-Wa-innalahe Rajeun,

    May the soul rest in eternal peace.
    And, may Allah grant him a place in Jannat al Firdaus.

  8. A selection of condolences posted on Facebook and received via WhatsApp (edited for clarity):

    Sardar Khan Hunzai: May Mowla Karim Keep our Uncle Under the Shadow of Apple Bosoms; such souls descend on the planet earth to heal the ailing humanity spiritually and intellectually.

    Nisha Devani: May his soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen.
    Nashirudin Lakhpati: Rest in eternal peace. Amen.
    Enooz Muziq: May Allah rest his soul in eternal peace. Ameen.
    Salim Dharas Karimshah: Bless his soul in eternal peace.
    Karim Virjee:Your dad performed exemplary service to the Imam for a long time, May his soul rest in peace
    Laila Pirani: Your parents did wonderful service for the community. Alhamdolillah. Subhan Allah.
    Shahida Mamdani Sunderji: May his soul rest in eternal peace. He was such a good soul.
    Shamim Devji: May his soul Rest In Peace Amen
    Tasmin Shariff: I don’t have to say more, he (your dad) is basking in his heaven with the Noor of our Mowla. Thanks for the wonderful share.
    Arif Samnani: May his soul rest in eternal peace. Excellent article on Tawhid.
    Nasim Firoz Moloo: May Allah rest his soul in Eternal peace AMEEN
    Khawad Pabani: May ALLAH rest his soul in eternal peace.
    Shabir Premji: Wonderful piece on the concept of Tawhid.
    Sher Ali Sufi: May his soul rest in eternal peace in infinite gratitude.
    Yasmin Alibhoy: A fantastic initiative. May Mawla bless his soul with peace, happiness and Noorani Didar.

    Akber Dayani: May his soul rest in peace.
    Shafin Valla: Thank you for sharing this amazing lesson of personal history. I was not aware of this.
    Fehmi S. Bercha: May his beautiful soul rest in eternal peace.
    Jinnah Family: May Mawla bless his soul with eternal peace, and may Mawla keep all family members in his love and Noor. Ameen.
    Jaferali Surmawalla: May Mawla rest Alwaez Jehangir’s soul in eternal peace and accept all his sewa for the community. Ameen.
    Salim Darediya: May his soul rest in eternal peace and his writing help the Jamat way forward. He will be missed.
    Shaherose Shiwani: I was fortunate to have learnt from both your father (less) and your mother (more).
    Fida Ali: Ya Ali Madad: We, special disabled mureeds, pray for Al Waiz sahib that his soul may rest in eternal peace.
    Salamat Shah: Very nice and humble man. We always used to smile and joke when we met. May his soul rest in eternal peace that he truly deserves.

    Amir Ali Babul: I used meet your (late) dad in Karachi Pakistan very frequently and also your mum. Your mum got my 10 year old daughter admitted in a school In a garden East. We all migrated to Karachi, Pakistan, from Tanzania in early 70’s. I pray that his soul Rest In Peace.

    Nazneen Bandali: The best alwaez!
    Rozmin Nanji Wow! What a legacy!!
    Rustam Kassam: I had the pleasure of playing with him for a few games with the Young Cricketers. Mowla rest his soul in eternal peace.
    Mowla rest his soul in eternal peace
    Immi Hirani: May his soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen.
    Al-Noor Jaffer: Inna Lilahi wa Inna Ilahi Rajioon
    Muhammad Jalaluddin: May the noble soul of Alwaiz sahib, rest in eternal peace. Ameen
    Mahmoud Vazirali: May his soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen.
    Ikram Beg: May Allah bless his soul in eternal peace. Ameen.

    Mohammedali Samnani: Rest in peace.
    Nasir Kassam: Rest in peace
    Shanaz Moloo: May his soul rest in eternal peace, Ameen
    Shirin Dharani: May his soul rest in eternal peace. Ameen
    Jalal Uddin: May Molana Hazir lead his soul to eternal peace in the next world. Ameen
    Shah Azam: Rest in eternal peace
    Qadeer Khan Yasini: Rest in eternal peace

    Aziz Noorali: Great man Alwaez Jehangir and I can state and confirm I am one of the privileged oneS to have been his student and learnt Ismaili History and reading and writing Gujarati in Lourenço Marques. May Mowla bless his soul in eternal peace. For us it was a great loss losing him due to Nehru invading Goa Daman and Diu. We all loved our beloved “Master Sahib” forever in your debt. Aziz Noorali

    Fida Ali : May noble soul great scholar of time of Imam Zaman Shah Karim al Husseini Hazir Imam enter the Noorani soul.
    Wajahat Qalmii: Great leader rest in eternal peace.
    Umed Sunderji: May his soul rest in peace
    Salehmuhammad Hussein: May the soul of Jehangir Merchant live in eternal peace! I loved reading his lovely thoughts on our faith !
    Shamy Kara: May your dad’s soul continue to rest in eternal peace. Ameen
    Mohammad Ismail Sharifi: His noble soul rests in eternal peace and Hazir Imam blesses him for his services for the Jamahat. Ameen!
    Firoz Gowa: Your Dad was a good cricketer, and played for Agakhan cricket club (sister team Young Ismailis) in Dar es Salaam. May his soul rest in everlasting eternal peace. Ameen.
    Aziz Noorali : in reply to Firoz Gowa: And it was him who brought cricket to Mozambique.
    Almas Nathoo: It reminded me my school days in Aga Khan Girls School in Dar es Salaam.
    Arbab Sajjad: Rest in eternal peace. Ameen

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