By KARIM H. KARIM
(The author is Director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam and former Co-Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies)
“… we find ourselves in the moment of transit, where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.” Professor Homi K. Bhabha, former Master Jurist, Aga Khan Award for Architecture
Abstract: A former Co-Director of the IIS considers this key Ismaili institution’s way forward, following its Board of Governors’ recent reconstitution. Although substantial changes have been made, certain features regarding the diversity of office holders remain. The IIS’s past performance is briefly examined in the article, with respect to academic metrics as well as Ismaili history and values. There have been several achievements in last four decades but also some unexpected outcomes. The author discusses the importance of ethics and clarity in chains of authority. IIS’s reconstituted governance structure has the opportunity to put it on a path to globally-recognized excellence and long-lasting impact.
A New Phase
Recent appointments to the governance structures of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) present an opportunity to consider its way forwards. The substantial reconstitution of the Board of Governors appears to initiate a new phase for this key Imamat institution, which occupies a unique place in-between Jamati and Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) organizations. This is a time of particular significance as the Governors are tasked with guiding the IIS towards its 50th anniversary in 2027.
The concept of the Institute was formally discussed in 1975 in the historic Paris Conference of the Ismaili Associations, at which Mawlana Hazar Imam presided. He announced the IIS’s establishment in a Talika to the international Jamat on December 13, 1977. The institution began with a very small staff occupying one floor of a London building. Growing and traversing the city for four decades, the IIS settled into its purpose-built home at the Aga Khan Centre in 2018. It currently has research, teaching and support staff of over a hundred and has seen some 650 graduate students pass through its doors. Scores of publications and several sets of curricular materials have been produced. Alumni work around the world in a variety of professions and have particularly enriched the knowledge base of the worldwide Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Boards (ITREBs).
The Institute, which has a very distinct institutional character, operates in an organizationally and intellectually liminal space. Governors have played an unusual hands-on role in the operation of this academic organization. Although the IIS’s educational endeavours are limited to the community, it positions itself in the public sphere. Unlike similar scholarly bodies, it does not identify as a theological seminary or a divinity school. It is a post-graduate institution whose students receive degrees from various universities, including the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
IIS publishes materials on Ismaili, Shia, Quranic and Central Asian studies authored by its own researchers and external scholars. Islamic Publications Limited (IPL), an affiliate, produces them with the imprimaturs of presses such as I.B. Tauris and Oxford University Press. Whereas substantial work has been carried out in examining Arabic and Persian documents, the study of Indic manuscripts (bearing content such as Ginans) has been miniscule in the last four decades. Research is also conducted on the transnational Ismaili community’s living traditions, but it is not published for the most part. The Institute prioritizes a rationalistic and civilization-centred approach over faith perspectives in its course instruction and religious education curricula for the global Jamat.
These characteristics, viewed as appropriate for the IIS’s particular mandate, have, however, raised an air of ambivalence that has apparently produced unintended consequences. A number of students in the Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GPISH), who arrive at the Institute of Ismaili Studies expecting a faith-friendly academic approach undergo cognitive dissonance (Magout, 2020, chapter 6). Most alumni do not list the Institute on their CVs or LinkedIn profiles; faculty members have been leaving for university positions as soon as they secure them; and one of the two Co-Directors’ posts has remained unfilled for almost a decade. Furthermore, donors who have contributed substantially to the endowment are perplexed by the asymmetry in Ismaili areas of research.
Aspirations for Excellence
At its founding, the IIS was compared to learned institutions like the Dar al-Ilm and Al-Azhar University, which were established a thousand years ago under the aegis of Fatimid Imam-Caliphs. Al-Azhar survived the fall of the Fatimids and flourishes today as a prominent centre of Muslim learning. Can one expect that the IIS will also function for hundreds of years? Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether it will make a lasting impact. What will the role of the governance structure be in helping it achieve this?
Although the Institute is a globally-recognized hub of Ismaili Studies, it has some ways to travel before being acknowledged as a centre of scholarly excellence. It recently made a selection of books available electronically, but many important IIS contributions remain absent in cyberspace and from most bookstores as well as university and public libraries. It is also unfortunate that only a handful of its more than 120 books have done well in academic citation indices.
One could argue that standard scholarly metrics are inappropriate for an institution whose aspirations are drawn from millennial-long history. Is it more apt then to measure the Institute’s performance in terms of the Ismaili past? Of the many luminaries in previous eras, the most well-known outside the community are the Ikhwan al-Safa (circa 10th century), Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) and Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274). Satpanthi Pirs conducted ingenious syntheses of Indic and Islamic traditions that stand as major human achievements of pluralist engagement. These intellectuals are exemplars of excellence whose contributions have been of universal significance. They maintained a rigorous independence of thought within parameters of the Ismaili movement and its intellectual universe. Given the aspirations for the IIS, should we expect it to provide the conditions for nurturing scholars of similar calibre in our time?
Contemporary Values as Metrics
Contrarily, one can contend that it is not right to apply historical standards to 21st century contexts. Perhaps the benchmarks for success are to be drawn from the community’s current emphases on ethics, meritocracy, and pluralism. This topic is addressed here only with reference to IIS’s Boards.
The new Governors are drawn from commercial and academic sectors, and they include some IIS alumni. Mawlana Hazar Imam continues as Chairman. Membership of the current Board of Governors (BoG), which began its term on December 13, 2020, is remarkably different from earlier ones in size, gender, age, ethnicity, geographic scope, and outlook. Although the IIS has been an international institution since inception, preceding Boards consisted almost entirely of middle aged men of British residence, with the balance tilting towards commercial worldviews. The incoming BoG’s average age has dropped considerably in comparison to the preceding one. There are now six women and eight men, and half of the Governors are currently located outside the UK. Eight newcomers are academics, most of whom have taught at universities. Several individuals have had experience in Jamati institutions, including ITREB, which is a major partner of the IIS. It is also noteworthy one Governor has professional expertise in diversity and inclusion.
There has been some non-Ismaili presence previously; however, this BoG’s members are all Ismaili. When Professor Mohammed Arkoun passed away in 2010, the remaining six Governors were all South Asian men of East African provenance. Whereas the new BoG is enriched by the presence of other ethnicities, all three members of the Board of Trustees (BoT), the IIS’s primary governing body and of which the BoG is a sub-committee, are UK residents of South Asian background, as are all four Board members of Islamic Publications Limited. Full time academics are absent from the BoT and IPL. The former does, however, have a female Trustee. There is much more pluralist inclusion than in earlier manifestations of the institution’s governance structures, but they have considerable room for improvement.
A truly unique characteristic of the previous BoG was not identity but longevity. Its more than 25-year term was one of the lengthiest in the world. Whereas this provided continuity and familiarity with the work at hand, shorter tenures usually mitigate detrimental tendencies in such organizations. Stretches that are longer than seven years seem inadvisable.
The presence of new university-linked Governors should help to assert academic norms in matters such as standardized merit-based pay scales rather than particular arrangements for some employees; remuneration for performance adjudicated according to published benchmarks instead of bonuses based on ambiguous criteria; and discontinuation of consulting contracts with Governors. Notably, the current separation of Board members from IIS’s remunerated staff makes the organizational chart look less like the M.C. Escher lithograph “Relativity”.
Ethics, Ambiguity, and Credibility
Ismaili history has seen the development of ethical codes in the works of Qadi Nu’man (d. 974), dai Ahmad al-Naysaburi (d. circa 11th century), Pir Sadardin (d. circa 14th century), and Imam Mustansirbillah II (d. 1475). Writing at a time of deep corruption in the Fatimid state, al-Naysaburi warned that “chaos will reign” with the failure of integrity among the Imam’s leaders (Klemm and Walker, 2011, p. 75). The IIS developed an AKDN “ethical framework” two decades ago; however, this theoretical document does not provide guidance for actual deontological practice. There remains ambiguity about the pragmatics of ethics in contemporary Ismaili institutions. Narratives on this subject have sometimes drifted towards trivialization; for example, one Jamati periodical’s feature on an “Ethic of the Month” seemed to reduce long-term values to fleeting tastes (The Ismaili Bulletin, Issue 54, March 2018). Given the importance that the community gives to the subject of ethics, serious issues like conflicts of interest, cronyism, nepotism, harassment, and bullying, which unfortunately appear over time in most human organizations, will need to be dealt with effectively and coherently. These issues must be an integral part of a 21st century code of conduct that provides clear guidance for everyone involved with the work of Jamati as well as AKDN institutions.
Systemic deficiencies in institutional procedures have unpredictable outcomes and can be factors for reputational loss. Incoming academic Governors will know that ambiguous chains of authority in scholarly institutions lead to the unchecked promotion of pet projects with dubious merit. A book published in 2018 by the Institute (but not initiated by its Department of Academic Research and Publications) was reviewed in a recent issue of the journal Arabica. The reviewer, who is the Director of the University of Lausanne’s Institute of the History and Anthropology of Religions, assessed it to be “a book of propaganda … without method and completely devoid of critical analysis” (Halawi, 2020, 315). Such unfortunate situations can be avoided by instituting an academic editorial board that oversees IIS’s scholarly publications to replace largely ambiguous practices of vetting manuscripts for “sensitivities.” (Such an editorial board already exists for the Quranic Studies Series.) The new Governors will also be aware of the importance of ensuring that the institution’s faculty, students and academic visitors have ready access to library materials that reflect a plurality of views, including those that are considered to be “sensitive.” Such efforts will assist in enhancing the IIS’s scholarly credibility in academic circles.
Transparency and Demarcations of Authority
Despite the noblest of intentions, the tendency in human organizations is for power to accumulate in a few persons. Whereas the doubling of the number of Governors to 14 offers advantages, it may also produce the conditions for the emergence of a hierarchy and the marginalization of some individuals. A horizontal relationship and equitable sharing of information in the globally-constituted BoG is important. Fair and optimal participation by Governors can be ensured by upholding transparency. Transparency and disclosure will not only strengthen the corporate governance framework but also provide Mawlana Hazar Imam with all the pertinent information.
It is expected that Hazar Imam will meet with the Governors and Directors once a year, with respective Board committees working on specific policy issues in the interim. The transnational BoG has the challenge of working efficiently across continents. Given these circumstances, safeguarding the greatest possible diversity in every committee will help ensure the pluralist expression of views. This should help to mitigate the influence of cliques and undue bias for or against specific issues and employees.
A key consideration facing the new Governors is the extent of the BoG’s involvement in operational matters. Healthy, well-functioning institutions are characterized by clear demarcations of authority and function, with Boards having confidence in duly-appointed Directors to take charge of administration. Clear protocols regarding Governors’ communications with employees, which rarely occur in universities, ensure that administrative authority is not undermined. Scholarly conventions should also determine the leadership of various organizational committees (academic, curricular, and community relations as well as finance and human resources).
A Potential Turning Point
The strong presence of university-based academics in the Institute’s new BoG signals that scholarly priorities will be paramount in the years to come. This Board’s tenure has the potential for being a turning point. It has the opportunity to put the IIS on the path to globally-recognized excellence by moving closer to academic norms of organization and outlook. Professor Mohammed Arkoun used to speak of “intellectual modernity” in contemporary Muslim contexts. Such a disposition requires not only scholarly rigour but the confidence to conduct critical introspection. There are important discussions to be had about the adoption of greater academic freedom, critical inquiry, and the broaching of “sensitive” topics as well as about effective ways to engage with the transnational Jamat, with which the Institute has an integral relationship. Governors will constantly have to account for the dual contexts of community and public scholarship. This calls for skillful and conscientious navigation between the shores of the parochial and the universal. The likes of the Ikhwan al-Safa, Nasir-i Khusraw, Nasir al-Din Tusi and Pir Sadardin have shown us that this is eminently possible.
Date posted: January 10, 2021.
Last updated: January 11, 2021 (typos).
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About the author: Professor Karim H. Karim is the Director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam where he has held the International Ismaili Studies Conference. He previously served as Co-Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) and Director of Carleton’s School of Journalism & Communication. Dr. Karim has had visiting scholarly appointments at Harvard University, Aga Khan University/Simon Fraser University, and the IIS. He has also been an advisor for AKU and the Central Asian University and has been a member of the AKDN’s Higher Education Forum. Additionally, he has served in Kenyan, American, and Canadian Jamati institutions (Education, Ismaili Association, and Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board, ITREB). Professor Karim is an award-winning author, whose globally-cited writings include publications on Ismaili communities, institutions, and leadership. He has delivered distinguished lectures at venues around the world and has been honoured by the Government of Canada for promoting co-operation among faith communities. He studied at Aga Khan schools in East Africa and at the IIS, and holds degrees from Columbia and McGill universities in Islamic and Communication Studies.
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I found it interesting to read this piece by Dr. Karim with his views and opinions on the operation of Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in the past 40 years and how the newly appointed Board of Governors could steer it in future to make it a prominent academic institution. He has considerable knowledge about operations of institutions of higher learning, including a period as Co-director of IIS. He offers many suggestions for taking the IIS to a new higher level.
In our history, there has not been a public discussion about the work of IIS or AKU but there is no reason why it should not occur, particularly if the contributors remain fair and objective in their proposals. Dr. Karim promises to do that in his critique.
Simerg is to be commended for inviting critiques but should remain vigilant that scrupulous objectivity is maintained to be fair and judicious. Permit me to say that it is not always easy.
Prof. Karim refers to a book published by IIS in 2018 which he says received a very negative review in the magazine ARABICA. He does not give the title of this Book or its author’s name but appears to agree with the reviewer’s point of view. He suggests that the book is ‘a pet project of dubious merit’ and should have been rigorously edited or not published. One wonders how he obtained this insider information.
As a seasoned academic, he must have read other reviews of the book before coming to his conclusion about the Book’s merit. Did he determine whether the reviewer at ARABICA was objective or did he have some axe to grind? Did the other reviews in any way support Halawi’s poor opinion of the Book. Dr. Karim notes that the Arabica reviewer assessed the Book as ‘a piece of propaganda’. It is hard to imagine what kind of propaganda could the IIS be involved with? This makes the reviewer suspect, as prejudiced towards IIS.
I think your readers need many answers.
It is gratifying to receive responses to my article on the IIS sent by readers to Simerg and to me directly. The article is a careful analysis that is written respectfully and constructively. I agree with Abdul Pirani (who contributed generously to the Ismaili Studies Conference that I organized) that authors and commentators should be fair and objective. His feedback inquires as to why the author’s name and title of an IIS book, to whose negative review my article refers, were not mentioned. In fact, the name of the book’s author (who is not associated with the IIS) and the title are available through the hypertext link embedded in the article’s reference to the review. The review is an example of one serious outcome of some of the institution’s broader structural problems.
It should be noted that the book’s author has made significant contributions in other writings and in independently publishing and editing a journal. He asked me to endorse his book when it appeared in 2018 but I respectfully declined, explaining at some length the serious problems that I perceived in it. These and other criticisms were also later expressed to me by senior IIS scholarly faculty. The book’s initial commission and internal review had bypassed the Department of Academic Research and Publication’s normal publication process. It had been pushed through because it was indeed one of the several pet projects over many decades that were made possible by the ambiguity in the institutional chains of authority that my article discusses.
Rest assured that I conducted a search of the book’s scholarly reviews, of which there are three. Two laudatory pieces are by associates of the little-known Temenos Academy, neither of whom are particularly renowned. (One of the reviews is actually published in the journal which the book’s author himself edits.) The third one, to which my article refers, is in the well-established periodical Arabica and is written by a Sorbonne-trained Professor who is the Director of the University of Lausanne’s Institute of the History and Anthropology of Religions. It is worth noting that he has also published a favourable review of another IIS book – hence the suggestion of bias against the Institute seems baseless. Regarding his claim of “propaganda,” it is an unfortunate reality that virtually every human institution is capable of this practice – even scholarly ones. The review, which is also accessible through an embedded link in my article, makes its case to support the assertion.
Ya Ali Madad Karim,
Your response is warmly applauded for your honesty and integrity.
Let not your voice be one in the wilderness! Truth always prevails.
I thank Dr. Karim for responding to my piece, assuring me that he would remain fair and objective in our exchanges. I am happy that he acknowledged my contribution towards the conference he had organized on Ismaili Studies. He can rest assured that my support for such constructive ventures will also be available in future. What I write below should not mean that I have less regard for him.
I would bring to his notice what Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the most prominent and prolific writer of our era on Islamic subjects, having written more than 50 books, has written about ‘Faith and Ethics’: he described it as a ‘scholarly and well written work’. On the other hand, Wissam Halawi, who has not written a single book (he is a young man and still has time for writing) and is little known in the world of Islamic scholarship, describes Lakhani’s book as ‘a book of propaganda …..without method and devoid of critical analysis’. I would certainly go with the opinion of Seyyed Hossein Nasr.
Dr. Karim acknowledges that there are two other reviews of the book (both can be found on Amazon). Readers should note that one review is done by A. Frisardi who is a Guggenheim fellow and authority on Dante, the famous poet. He is also a translator, poet and writer of some repute and has been recognized with awards. He is not some light-weight as Dr. Karim has suggested. Frisardi’s review is very worthwhile reading and he has not hesitated to include what the Lakhani book could have included.
The other reviewer, S. Sotillos, has also distinguished himself. He is the editor of ‘Psychology and Perrenial Philosophy’ and contributes to many learned journals. I think Dr. Karim should explain what he did not like about these reviews before dismissing them as written by less known people. He also describes Temenos as ‘relatively unknown’. It is not widely known because it is for very serious scholars. Its members include late Martin Lings who wrote the well respected biography of our Prophet Muhammad. Other members are of that same caliber (Nasr, Chittick, former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Willliams, Sheldrake), and clearly the review of ‘Faith and Ethics’ in Temenos was written for this Society of serious scholars.
The discussion between Benson and Lakhani at the book launch in Toronto was at high level and worth listening to on YouTube. Benson, a director of Centre for Pluralism, is not to be under-estimated. He would not spend time discussing books without merit.
Dr. Karim says the Editorial Committee of IIS publications was bypassed before ‘Faith and Ethics’ was written and the IIS has serious reservations about the book. That is an internal matter within IIS but I have no doubt that senior decision makers of IIS made a serious attempt to scrutinize the book and whether it should be published. After all, the book is about the ideas of the Founder of IIS and they would never have published it without clearing it at a high level. And before it goes getting such clearance, it would have been edited thoroughly by several people. I come to this conclusion from what I know about Hazar Imam’s methods. And nothing happens in a hurry in his organization. If anything, people complain about how long the major decisions take. I think Dr. Karim should think again before suggesting that it was hurriedly approved or lacks merit. Not this book.
Thanks for your kind words, Amin.
Abdulbhai, your determination to follow through on this exchange is noteworthy. I composed a response based on the principle of the conflict of interest, university-based conventions of peer review, and issues of scholarly credibility, but then thought the better of it because it would just contribute to a potentially never-ending back and forth between us. This is exactly what happened when I responded to the author’s request for a review with my concerns about his book in 2018. This is not the forum to have an extended discussion. I will be more than happy to sit down with you (post-Covid, of course) to have that discourse.
With kind regards,
I was so gratified to come across and read these constructive reflections on aspects of the IIS’s evolution in governance. As immense as my admiration of the institution and its impact on the community (including myself) has been over the past decades, I have even greater expectations and appreciation after reading Dr. Karim’s incisive arguments and the thoughtful comments and reactions from readers, both to its exciting and ambitious future trajectory, and a vast ethical potential still to be harvested.
Through patient but unrelenting commitment to better governance and best practices, I think the IIS will continue to premiate the notion of continuous self-improvement and non-complacency in the eyes of a discerning public. Raising the performance standard for governance, the IIS represents the “intellectual modernity” of Professor Arkoun that should be the model and beacon for other institutions to emulate, in the spirit of ethical leadership and self effacement.
Thank you Prof Karim for a frank and considered piece. Just to add to this from my limited experience of IIS:
1. Suspicion on part of the staff and others about too much nepotism;
2. Very poor recruitment process – open to Equality legislation;
3. Similarly no specified criteria for promotion;
4. The salary system very arbitrary;
5. Staff representation needed on the Governing Board;
6. Not sure if there is academic Board and if not it needs one; and
7. Once the curriculum is well settled a review is needed.
1. Excellent teaching material but needs to review it in the next few years; and
2. Excellent publications.
I’m grateful for Dr. Karim’s thoughts on the history and current identity of the IIS. Who better to speak to its successes and shortcoming than its former director? As a graduate of the IIS, the issues that Dr. Karim spoke about resonate with my experience of schooling there. Decisions were sometimes made with no rhyme or reason, transparency was opaque, the quality of instructors was sometimes lacking. What Dr. Karim has laid out here is a very critical yet necessary analysis of where the IIS has come from and where it needs to go in order to succeed in the future. I believe the new board will provide that important direction as I’ve seen first hand that at times the previous board’s conduct lacked professionalism. I recognize the names of several of these new governors. What heartens me is that many of them have ties to the IIS and I could see them wanting to improve the reputation and impact of the Institute over time.
One thing that Dr. Karim hasn’t mentioned was the major pivot that the IIS had to undertake with the commencement of the STEP (Secondary Teacher Education Programme) graduate program in 2007. To this day, I don’t think that the IIS has fully come to terms with the realization that THE IMAM has shifted the IIS’ mandate from being a purely academic/research institute to becoming a key player in the formation of our community’s educators. It is high time that the IIS pays considerable attention to its role as a teaching institution and that it provides STEP students and graduates the same level of care, trust, opportunities, and regard to these graduates who serve the Jamat across the world and in varying capacities. While many if not most GPISH (Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities) graduates go on to work outside the Jamat or the AKDN, STEP graduates play vital roles in our Jamat and the IIS and the Jamat more broadly need to understand the value, scholarship, expertise, responsibility, and potential that STEP teachers (can) play in their Jamat and beyond.
Thank you Karim; there is food for thought in your assertions. What I look at is this: Is the IIS following the lines of our previous schools of thought or is still in its infancy? Should our progeny be having a conversation 50 years from now that might have answers to your questions?
I have just finished reading Professor Karim’s thoughtful piece and the two comments including Nazir Walji’s that have been posted. Walji asks, “Should our progeny be having a conversation 50 years from now that might have answers to your questions?” Hopefully that 50 year duration is meant to convey the IIS’s slow path to progress thus far, with the actual hope that the reconstituted body will get things rolling along very very fast and efficiently, and keeping merit as its goal and objective. 50 days to see some meaningful changes? I hope that Nazir agrees!
A timely muse on introspection and the road map for IIS’s 50 Anniversary!
Another topic to address is the intended audiences of IIS scholarly publications and their accessibility to the Jamat.