Maleksultan and Jehangir Merchant’s Contribution to the IIS: Cataloguing Khojki Manuscripts and Gujarati Translation of Farhad Daftary’s Short History of the Ismailis

By MALIK MERCHANT

January 21, 2023, marks the 2nd anniversary of the death of my beloved mother, “Mrs. Merchant“. She and my late dad, Jehangir, who passed away in May 2018, worked hand in hand for over 60 years in the service of the Ismaili community, its institutions and the Imam-of-the-Time, Mawlana Shah Karim al Hussaini Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan. In their service, they also contributed to the work of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS.)

My mum could read the Khojki script, and she and my dad undertook the task of cataloguing the Khojki manuscripts at the IIS. As the manuscripts had been transferred onto microfiche, the IIS provided my parents with a microfiche reader which enabled them to catalogue the manuscripts.

mr and mrs merchant
Photograph: Tribute album prepared by the BUI students of London, England, on the retirement of Mr. and Mrs. Merchant. Photo: Jehangir Merchant Family Collection.

On January 20, Simerg’s sister website produced a piece about the honour that was given to Dr. Farhad Daftary on January 18, 2023, for his devoted services to the Institute of Ismaili Studies, which he joined in 1988.

Prince Rahim Aga Khan was present at the event and expressed everyone’s gratitude to Dr. Daftary for his lifetime of work to the field of Ismaili studies. During his long tenure at the IIS, Dr. Daftary authored or edited 23 books and oversaw the publication of 150 books as well as contributed countless articles in scholarly journals and encyclopedias.

Most recently, in 2020, Dr. Daftary published a much anticipated volume entitled The Ismaili Imams: A Biographical History. The much sought book, unfortunately, has been a hard find at literature counters in Calgary and in other parts of Canada. I think very little effort has been made to restock the title, as I get a blank stare from literature counter members when I ask about the availability of the book and when they are expected to receive more stock! Perhaps, this important book is out of print and if that be the case then the IIS should certainly reprint it. This is one work that the Jamat had waited for more than 40 years since the IIS was established on December 13, 1977.

However, of all the books that Daftary published over the past 30 years, there is one that will always remain his seminal contribution to Ismaili studies. Entitled The Ismalis: Their History and Doctrines, the first edition was published in the early 1990’s and the 2nd edition came out in 2007. The voluminous 800 page book was more suited to scholars, researchers and keen readers of history. A few years later, in 1998, Dr. Daftary published a shorter version of the volume under the title A Short History of the Ismailis. Translations were done in numerous European languages.

Front and back cover flap of the Gujarati translation of Dr. Farhad Daftary’s work A Short History of the Ismailis. The translation was done under the title Ismailiono Toonk Itihas by Ismaili missionaries Jehangir Merchant and Sultanali Mohamed.

My dad was approached and whole heartedly accepted the challenge to do the Gujarati translation of the work. His Gujarati was very good but he was a very humble man. He sought the help of his missionary colleague Sultanali Mohamed to assist him and improve the translation even further.

Until the commencement of this project, my dad had looked after himself well physically. Such was his stamina that my daughter, Nurin, who went to visit him before he began the translation told me that during her morning walks with her grandad, he would outpace her leaving her metres behind. All this physical activity that he had conducted for years, came to a standstill once he undertook the Gujarati translation. He devoted day and night to the translation. He wanted the translation to be as perfect as possible and ensure that it adhered to Dr. Daftary’s style of writing. It wasn’t easy but he did it sincerely and from the bottom of his heart.

Missionary Sultanali Mohamed (1927-2020), co-translator with Jehangir Merchant of Farhad Daftary’s Short History of the Ismailis.

Sultanali missionary and my mum were very closely involved in the translation. The book went to India for printing and my dad insisted that he should see the proofs before the book was published.

What a shock when the proofs came back! The translation had been altered in many parts of the book and mistakes had been introduced. He decided to withdraw his name as the translator if the book was to be published in its sub-standard revised form without his approval He was deeply hurt, and responded to Dr. Daftary citing examples of the alterations that had been made in many parts of the book that were not acceptable to him. Moreover, numerous errors had been introduced. He found it hard to understand why the changes were made. He and Sultanali would have accepted the proof if it was better than the translation they had submitted for publication.

Dr. Daftary respectfully requested my dad to do the needful to bring the translation to its original form. My dad spent the next several weeks and reworked on the proofs that he had been provided. Throughout his dedicated time, he would have in front of him Gujarati-English dictionaries to ensure the best possible translation. He and my mum were thorough in all the services they rendered to Jamati institutions which they had begun in the early 1950’s after qualifying as missionaries and religious education teachers. Their first professional job was as teachers in Lourenço Marques (now Maputo), Mozambique.

Finally, after weeks of additional hard work, my dad and Sultanali’s translation was published and I have published, above, an image of the cover of the book. It doesn’t carry their names on the cover flap. However, they are listed in the inside title page of the book, shown below.

A cropped image of the inside title page of the Gujarati translation of Dr. Farhad Daftary's book A Short History of the Ismailis. The names of translators, Jehangir Alibhai Merchant and Sultanali Mohamed, appear on the last two lines of the page. Simerg
A cropped image of the inside title page of the Gujarati translation of Dr. Farhad Daftary’s book A Short History of the Ismailis. The names of translators, Jehangir Alibhai Merchant and Sultanali Mohamed, appear on the last two lines of the page.

I vividly recollect his dedication to Dr. Daftary’s book. Even I was ignored during my visits to Vancouver. Such was his love and dedication during his service to institutions. We were their “secondary children”, their students always receiving the highest priority but we accepted that throughout our lives. They sought and did everything for our education and to raise us to be good murids of Mawlana Hazar Imam.

On this day, we as a family pray for the rest of their souls in eternal peace. Their contribution to the Jamat was sincere. They worked hard for Jamati institutions and did the very best to set the best possible standards for themselves and their students. My mum is still fondly remembered by her students for the number of times she would call them when they had recitation duties in Jamatkhana — whether it was delivering prayers, ginans, waeze’s (sermons) or any other literary or religious recital. She wanted to ensure they were well prepared and fully ready for their recitations.

My parents had aspirations for their children and grandchildren as well as the youth of the Jamat, and I sincerely hope that we are able to fulfill their hopes and expectations of being good Ismaili Muslims, following its ethics and maintaining our devotion and love for Mawlana Hazar Imam.

Date posted: January 20, 2023.
Last updated: January 21, 2023 (see correction note below.)

Correction: An earlier version of the post stated that Mrs. Merchant was involved in the transliteration of titles of Khojki manuscripts at the IIS. She was actually involved in cataloguing the manuscripts with her husband, Jehangir. The oversight is regretted and the post has been revised.

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5 thoughts on “Maleksultan and Jehangir Merchant’s Contribution to the IIS: Cataloguing Khojki Manuscripts and Gujarati Translation of Farhad Daftary’s Short History of the Ismailis

  1. May your Mom and Dad’s soul rest in eternal peace!! Ameen

    They were great role models for one and all. The most striking thing about your parents was that they were unsung heroes quietly making impact to one and all without any desire for recognition other than making our beloved Imam pleased with their seva.

    They must be very proud of the work you are doing. Shukar!!

  2. A well written article with a wonderful tribute to your parents, Alwaez Jehangir and Alwaeza Mrs. Merchant. Special prayers for your mom’s soul to rest in eternal peace on the 2nd anniversary of her passing.

    Sultanali missionary who jointly translated the book with your dad is from Kisumu and he trained me to recite Idd Namaz at a very young age in Jamatkhana. His wife, Rehmat, was our school secretary at Aga Khan primary. May the souls of all ruhanis rest in peace.

  3. I didn’t know about your parents contribution to the IIS and how hard your dad worked for the correct Gujarati translation of Dr. Daftary’s book….to see such dedication is heart warming….what a legacy your parents leave behind…..May Mowla Bless The Souls of Your Parents. Ameen🙏🏻

    I admire that commitment and devotion which is so difficult to emulate. They lived and breathed service and took their commitments very seriously.

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