Short readings to build your knowledge on Ismaili theology, esoterics and history

“THE ISMAILI IMAMAT REPRESENTS THE SUCCESSION OF IMAMS SINCE THE PROPHET MUHAMMAD” — HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN, 2014

Aga Khan Golden Jubilee Visit to Canada Vancouver

INTRODUCTION TO THE SERIES

Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan (pictured above), in direct lineal descent from the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) through Hazrat Ali (a.s.) and Hazrat Bibi Fatima (a.s), is the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims. From the time of the first Imam Ali, who was designated and appointed as such by the Holy Prophet, the Imams of the Ismaili Muslims have ruled over territories and peoples in various areas of the world at different periods of history in accordance with the Islamic precepts and ethics of unity, brotherhood, justice, tolerance and goodwill. The Ismaili Imam is therefore not only concerned with the material advancement and the improvement of the quality of life of his Ismaili followers, but also that of other Muslim communities and societies at large in which they live.

In accordance with historical and theological works and the teachings of their Imams, the Ismailis believe that each Imam is the bearer of the Light of Imamat (or Nur). This (spiritual) Light is with the Ahl al-bayt (i.e. the Imams from the Prophet Muhammad’s family). This Nur was with the first Shia Imam Ali and, for Shia Ismailis, is now with their present 49th Imam. Every Imam guides his followers during his time through the Nur of Imamat.

The Nur of Imamat is always there to guide through the physical presence of the Imam. The Imam holds his followers hands and leads and protects them in both difficult and good times. He shows them how they should live in a particular time and place. Just as the water of a river continues to flow, the Hereditary line of Imamat from Hazrat Ali never stops. That is, the Imam is always physically present and manifest on this earth. According to Shia tradition, the Imam is the threshold through which God and the creatures communicate. He is thus a cosmic necessity, the key and the center of the universal economy of the sacred: “The earth cannot be devoid of an Imam; without him, it could not last an hour. If there were only two men left in the world, one of them would be the Imam.”

One of the goals of each Ismaili is to strive to come closer to the spiritual light of the Imam. One can do so by fulfilling one’s material and spiritual responsibilities to the best of one’s ability. Praying regularly, living by the ethics of Islam, following the Imam’s guidance strengthens the Ismailis’ spiritual bond with their Imam, and through his Light, brings them closer to Allah.

In the coming days, weeks and months Simerg will endeavour to provide different perspectives on the Imamat and Ismaili contributions to Islamic culture and thought from various literary works on Ismaili philosophy, theology and history.

Beatific Vision of the Imam

The [Imam’s] beatific vision is of two kinds: one a physical meeting with the Imam and the other a spiritual recognition of his essence [Nur], through which God is recognized.

Speaking of the second of these, Pir Sadr al-Din, in his ginan [religious hymn] “Sakhi māhā pad keri vāt koek jānere”, writes:

Friend! None but a few know of the exalted station. Indeed, they alone recognize it who have found the true guide.

Friend! Within the heart, at the confluence of the three spiritual rivers, there is an imperishable light. There – a shimmering effulgence, pearls are showered.

Friend! I completely lost consciousness of my physical self when my meditation mounted the empyrean, bursting forth.

Friend! I beheld the place of the lofty throne, I saw the seven islands, the nine continents.

Friend! The religious scriptures and books cannot fathom this, for there is neither day there, nor night, neither sun, nor shade.

Friend! My Lord is not such that He can be spoken of. He is to be seen – for He is indescribable, and nameless.

Friend! How sweet is that Lord, indescribable, nameless. Says Pir Sadr al-Din, truly, with my own eyes, I have seen Him!

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Dazzled by the Light of Imamat

When Ismaili missionary al-Mu’ayyad-din Shirazi had left Shiraz in Persia for Fatimid Egypt, he was very hopeful that he would get the opportunity to see the Imam-Caliph Mustansir-bi-Allah, but at the same time he had also feared the intrigues of the ministers who did not permit any man of learning to see the Imam personally, unless he complied with their dictates and acknowledged their superiority.

On reaching Egypt he experienced all that he had feared. He was lodged in a small house and his visits to the court were short and limited to prevent him from seeing the Imam.

Disappointed, he finally decided to leave Egypt and wrote as follows to Tastari, one of the most powerful persons in the Fatimid State:

“I have not come to Egypt to seek wealth or gain any position. The promptings of my faith have brought me here. I have come to visit the Imam and not the Vaziers and their officials. Unfortunately, these people stop me from having a look at my Imam and now I am returning disappointed.”

The sudden death of Tastari gave al-Mu’ayyad another opportunity to renew his efforts to get some time to be in the holy presence of the Imam and with some help was finally able to pay respects to the Imam. Describing his experience, he writes:

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

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

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

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Imam Mu’izz’s Arrival in Cairo

In 969 CE, Imam al-Mu‘izz, “an excellent planner, an efficient organiser and a statesman amply talented in diplomacy,” with the help of his general Jawhar Siqilli, acquired Egypt peacefully.

During this time the building of the new city of Cairo began and in 970 CE the foundation for the al-Azhar mosque was laid. The Imam himself arrived in Cairo in 973 CE in a very touching ceremony. His sons, brothers and uncles, and other descendants of Imam al-Mahdi, the first Fatimid caliph, made their entrance with him. Imam Mu’izz brought with him the coffins of his ancestors Imams al-Mahdi, al-Qa‘im and al-Mansur.

Stanley Lane-Poole’s description of Imam al-Mu‘izz may aid one to understand his successful reign:

He was a born statesman, able to grasp the conditions of success and to take advantage of every point in his favour. He was also highly educated, and not only wrote Arabic poetry and delighted in its literature, but studied Greek, mastered Berber and Sudani dialects, and is even said to have taught himself Salvonic … His eloquence was such as to move his audience to tears. To prudent statesmanship he added a large generosity, and his love of justice was among his noble qualities.

Cairo’s location between Africa and the Mediterranean ensured that it became a large, thriving commercial centre.

The greatness of the Fatimid Capital is described in the following words by Al-Muqaddassi, a notable medieval Arab geographer who lived in the tenth century.

Know that Baghdad was great in the past, but is now falling in ruins. It is full of troubles, and its glory is gone. I neither approve it nor admire it, and if I praise it, it is a mere convention. Fustat (today, part of old Cairo) is today where Baghdad was in the past, and I do not know of any greater city in all of Islam.

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Imams are our Spiritual Parents

In the Shia tradition, the teaching of the Imam (also referred to as the Ta’lim of the Imam) lights his follower’s path to spiritual enlightenment and vision.

The spiritual enlightenment or the elevation of the soul gained by following the Imam’s guidance is described in many works by Shia theologians, and is particularly evident in the Ginans, Qasidas and narrative accounts written by Ismaili Pirs and missionaries.

The following excerpt is from a work by the Ismaili missionary, Muayyad-din-Shirazi:

Look at the trouble your parents have taken from the days of your childhood in the growth of your bodies and in the improvement of your physical life on earth. But for the interest they took in you, you would not have been what you are.

Your souls are thousand times more important than your bodies. The Imams are your spiritual parents.

Avail yourselves of a few days of life which are at your disposal here and look after your spiritual elevation under the care of your spiritual parents.

Once you miss this opportunity, you will repent forever. You will not be given a second chance to set things right.

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Imam’s Favours Cannot be Counted

From a work by renowned Fatimid scholar and jurist, Qadi Numan. 

Let us make a short survey of their favours on us. We were ignorant of everything and were spiritually dead. They brought us back to life and showed us the path of wisdom. We were blind, they gave us the eyes to see for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.

We were groping in the dark, they showed us the light. We had lost the track, they showed us the way to salvation. We were lacking in knowledge, they gave us knowledge. We were falling in hell-fire, they picked us up and put us in the middle of righteous.

In short, they have done us the favours which we cannot count.

They have given us all that is good in this world and the world to come.  

Date posted: May 1, 2017.

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The material for this post was compiled and adapted from the following sources:

  1.  Preamble Of  the Ismaili Constitution;
  2. The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation by Shafique N. Virani, Hardcover – May 3, 2007;
  3. Life and Lectures of Al Muayyad fid-din al Shirazi, edited by late Jawad Muscati and A.M. Moulvi, Ismailia Assocciation for Pakistan, 1950;
  4. The Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism by Mohamad Ali Amir-Moezzi, published by the State University of New York;
  5. Code of Conduct for the Followers of Imam by Qazi Noaman, translated by Prof. Jawad Muscati; and
  6. Ta’lim curriculum prepared for Ismaili children, published by Islamic Publications, London.

Note: Simerg has launched a sister website totally dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan. Please visit Barakah: “His Highness the Aga Khan A Visual and Textual Celebration”. Facebook page facebook.com/1000fold.

Irish Times: Medieval Philosophers Don’t Get Much Attention but Avicenna – the Islamic Thinker Who Proved God Exists – Deserves It, Says Prof Adamson

Peter Adamson, Professor of Ancient and Medieval Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy at King’s College London, highlights in his latest book Philosophy in the Islamic World just how influential certain theologians and mystics from this milieu have been. Asked to single out one thinker, he names the Persian polymath Avicenna (980-1037) who invented “probably the most influential and interesting medieval attempt to show that God exists”…. Read More

PLEASE CLICK : Unthinkable — The Islamic Thinker Who ‘Proved’ God Exists

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples.

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples. Please click on image for article in Irish Times.

Date posted: February 3, 2017.

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Articles related to Avicenna on this website:

The Meaning of Sinan, the Name of the Second Prince Welcomed by Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa Aga Khan

Report compiled by Abdulmalik Merchant
Poem by Shariffa Keshavjee

In a special talika (written message) read out in Ismaili jamatkhanas on Friday, January 13, 2017, Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, informed his world-wide community that Princess Salwa gave birth to a baby boy named Sinan in London, England, on January 2, 2017. The Princess is married to Prince Rahim Aga Khan, the 49th Ismaili Imam’s oldest son. The couple was married in a nikah ceremony in September 2013, and their first child Prince Irfan was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 11 April, 2015.

Prince Rahim has an older sister, Princess Zahra, and two brothers younger than him, Prince Hussain and Prince Aly Muhammad.

Mawlana Hazar Imam, Prince Rahim with Prince Irfan, and Princess Salwa at the 80th birthday celebration. Photo: The Ismaili/Zahur Ramji.

Princess Salwa and Prince Rahim, who is holding Prince Irfan, pictured recently during the 80th birthday celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan (right) held in Aiglemont. Photo: The Ismaili/Zahur Ramji.

“Prince Sinan’s birth has brought immense joy to our family,” wrote Mawlana Hazar Imam in the talika, and added that “We are most touched by your kind thoughts and prayers over the period leading to Sinan’s birth.” In the talika, he conveyed his affectionate loving blessings to his followers, whom he addresses as his spiritual children.

Hello magazine reported the birth of Prince Sinan as the world’s first royal baby of 2017!

We rejoice with our thousands of readers around the world on the wonderful news of the birth of Prince Sinan, and join with jamats around the world to congratulate Mawlana Hazar Imam, Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa as well as their son Prince Irfan, and all the members of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s and Princess Salwa’s families.

We sincerely hope and pray that the birth of Prince Sinan may bring immense barakah to jamats worldwide. We also pray for Prince Sinan’s long life and wellbeing.

The Meaning of Sinan

Sinan is an Arabic name for boys meaning spearhead. It is derived from the root word S-N-N which is used in the Qur’an. Sinan is pronounced [(SI)mple] + [(NA)p + (N)ew] with emphasis on the second syllable. Wikipedia mentions that the name might also be related to the Ancient Greek name Sinon.

In Ismaili history, the name Sinan is associated with the revered personality of Rashid al-din Sinan, one of the greatest and most valiant of the Syrian Isma’ili da’is of the thirteenth century A.C.

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A Child

By Shariffa Keshavjee

A miracle, a gift today a child that comes to us
Our bending is of gladness in the archers hand to us
He loves the arrow that flies, the bow so stable for us
The archer sees the mark upon the path for us
Bends it with his might, the arrow goes far for us

The name of Sinan brings the memory of
Aleppo and Masyaf to us
His philosophy as dai forever imprinted on us
The balance of the zahir and batin as it come to us
A reciprocal social relationship of balance within us
Weaving a tapestry of din-dunia

In this our Diamond Jubilee year, your birth bring to us
Great tidings of gladness and joy within us
Our many faceted diamond is aglow for us.

Date posted: Saturday, January 14, 2017.

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We welcome readers’ feedback. Please click Comment. If you run into difficulties submitting your feedback, please email it to simerg@aol.com.

This compiled piece contains material from the following sources:

[1] http://quranicnames.com/meaning-of-sinan-arabic-name//
[2] http://www.theismaili.org
[3] http://www.wikipedia.org

See also:

German Scientists Unearth Text of Avicenna’s 11th Century Supernova SN 1006 Surveillance

An important note to our readers: The website is undergoing maintenance and format changes over the next few days. The pages may look different each time you visit Simerg, and we ask you to bear with us during this temporary phase.

Chandra's image of SN 1006 shows X-rays from multimillion degree gas (red/green) and high-energy electrons (blue). In the year 1006 a "new star" appeared in the sky and in just a few days it became brighter than the planet Venus. We now know that the event heralded not the appearance of a new star, but the cataclysmic death of an old one. It was likely a white dwarf star that had been pulling matter off an orbiting companion star. When the white dwarf mass exceeded the stability limit (known as the Chandrasekhar limit), it exploded. Material ejected in the supernova produced tremendous shock waves that heated gas to millions of degrees and accelerated electrons to extremely high energies.

Chandra’s image of SN 1006 shows X-rays from multimillion degree gas (red/green) and high-energy electrons (blue). In the year 1006 a “new star” appeared in the sky and in just a few days it became brighter than the planet Venus. We now know that the event heralded not the appearance of a new star, but the cataclysmic death of an old one. It was likely a white dwarf star that had been pulling matter off an orbiting companion star. When the white dwarf mass exceeded the stability limit (known as the Chandrasekhar limit), it exploded. Material ejected in the supernova produced tremendous shock waves that heated gas to millions of degrees and accelerated electrons to extremely high energies. Photo and caption: Wikipedia.

Editor’s note: Just over a thousand years ago, the stellar explosion known as Supernova SN 1006 was observed and recorded by Fatimid astronomer Ibn Ridwan (see Aliza Moledina’s piece Ibn Ridwan and Supernova 1006). Scientists have now studied a text by Avicenna which describes the explosion in his Kitab al-Shifa (Book of Healing), a masterpiece written in several volumes that tackles Earth sciences, logic, philosophy, physics, mathematics, astronomy, music, psychology and theology. The report on the findings that appears below is taken from the April 24th, 2016, issue of the popular Russian science magazine http://www.sputniknews.com. The explanation of the findings by German scientists in Avicenna’s Book of Healing may be read at the Astronomical Notes Journal by clicking on http://arxiv.org/pdf/1604.03798v1.pdf.

For the first time, scientists have studied a text by noted tenth century polymath Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Latin), in which the scholar described observations of a supernova in the year 397 of the Islamic Hijri calendar, calculated as 1,006 AD.

Ibn Sina (980-1037 AD) was a Persian physician and philosopher who is regarded as the most famous and influential of the medieval Islamic world’s philosopher-scientists.

The German scientists who studied Ibn Sina’s account believe it was written when he was in present-day Iran, Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan, most probably the latter. They translate his description of the supernova’s form, direction and appearance.

Ibn Sina wrote that the object was “tailless,” which distinguished it from the more common transient objects, comets with tails.

The new star was “getting fainter and fainter until it disappeared,” and that it “became fainter and disappeared,” he wrote.

“At the beginning it was towards a darkness and greenness, then it began to throw out sparks and then it became more and more whitish.”

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980.  Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples.

To mark the 1,000th birth anniversary of the most influential of Islam’s philosopher-scientists, UNESCO minted this commemorative medal in 1980. Designed by sculptor-medallist Victor Douek, the obverse depicts a scene showing Avicenna surrounded by his disciples. Photo: UNESCO/N. Burke. Copyright.

His Arabic-language report is one of several historical observations of supernovas that have helped scientists in their understanding of these celestial events, and adds to previous information about the supernova in 1006 AD from observers in Yemen, Morocco, China and Japan.

Contemporary scientists have also provided today’s astronomers with information about supernova sightings in 1054 (from Eastern Asia and Arabia), 1181 (Eastern Asia), 1572 and 1604 AD (the latter two sighted in Eastern Asia and Europe).

“Historic reports can deliver the date of the observation (hence, the age of the supernova remnant and, if existing, of the neutron star) together with a light curve (hence, possibly the supernova type), sometimes the color and its evolution, and the position of the supernova,” the scientists explained in their paper, which can be viewed by clicking http://arxiv.org/pdf/1604.03798v1.pdf.

Date posted: May 1, 2016.

Please also read Aliza Moledina’s Ibn Ridwan and Supernova 1006 

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On Legal Debates, Ismaili Hermeneutics and the Etiquette of Borrowing in the Fatimid Empire: An Interview with Devin Stewart on al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān

“…In the Ismaili tradition, al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān is the most famous author…He debated this Ḥanafī jurist about ijtihād and thought that he’d won, and then he heard afterwards that the man had written a fascicle still arguing his point against al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān. So then he thought: I really need to write a serious refutation to put an end to this…” — Professor Stewart, Emory College, Atlanta, USA.

PLEASE CLICK: An Interview with Dr. Devin Stewart of Emory College on Translating the Fatimid Ismaili Jurist al-Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān

Qadi Numan's Disagreements of the Jurists by Devin StewartM. Lynx Qualey, an Arabic literature blogger based in Egypt, conducted an interview with Professor Devin Stewart of Emory College on the Fatimid jurist Qadi al-Nu’mān, who served four Ismaili Imams for more than sixty years. The interview is based on Disagreements of the Jurists, one of the foundational legal texts of Ismaili Islam, which was translated recently by Dr. Stewart. Among other interesting matters, Qualey asks Professor Stewart about why al-Nu’mān’s book is important in understanding Islamic legal traditions and the Fatimid Empire, why medieval scholars thought it was classier not to cite their sources, and why a minority tradition would feel the need to conform to the shape of the majority….Read the interview.

Date posted: March 26, 2016.

Al-Qaeda, IS and drawing unfortunate parallels with the “so-called Assassins” or Ismailis of the 12th and 13th centuries

Editor’s note: Shortly after the 9/11 attacks in the USA in 2001 which killed almost 3000 people in an instant, numerous articles began to appear in the media around the world that drew parallels between the actions of Al-Qaeda and the warfare activity of the Ismailis during the 12th and 13th centuries that over time grew into fantastic legendary tales. In response to one such column that appeared in the October 8 edition of Canada’s National Post newspaper, Professor Azim Nanji and Dr. Farhad Daftary of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London contributed the following letter in the newspaper:

“It is unfortunate that the search for historical connections in the aftermath of the terrible events of Sept. 11 has made historical truth itself a casualty. George Jonas’s column, Mortal Enemies Are to be Destroyed (Oct. 8) attempts to draw parallels between the ancient history of the Ismaili Muslims and the actions of these terrorists. In the last 25 years, scholarship, Muslim and Western, has shown the legend about the Assassins to be a fabrication concocted by contemporary enemies of the Ismailis. The Nizari branch of Ismaili Muslims organized a state in Iran and Syria in the 12th and 13th centuries. It flourished for almost two centuries, as a place of learning, scholarship and international influence, in spite of adverse circumstances and militant hostility from its neighbours. These Ismailis were heirs to the Fatimid dynasty that founded Cairo and established the University of Al‑Azhar, acts which represented a truly brilliant epoch in medieval Muslim history However, due to hostility prevailing in political and military spheres, the Ismailis became the object of theological and intellectual attacks, as their society attracted many scholars and scientists to their libraries and observatories. This climate of threat was accentuated by direct military attempts to destroy their centres and communities. It is in this context that their attempts at self‑defence need to be understood. These were directed at political and military figures and never against the general populace: a fact recognized by their enemies. Reporters obsessed with tracing tenuous historical links to current episodes of violence can learn much from history about the rich intellectual and cultural interactions among Muslims, Christians, Jews and others.”

Sporadic responses like the letter above, academic books by Dr. Daftary and the late Dr Peter Willey and many others as well as scholarly articles in journals do not appear to have made any impact in demystifying and debunking the myth of the assassins. Furthermore, the non-availability and non-distribution of important historical and theological works on Ismailis,  in giant brick and mortar stores like Chapters and Indigo in Canada haven’t helped the cause either. There are a number of enjoyable, accessible and easy to comprehend books, produced by the Institute of Ismaili Studies and other academic and non-academic publishers, that should be on bookstore shelves alongside numerous Sunni, Shia and general works on Islam and other religions to counter misperceptions and negative stereotyping about the Ismailis as well as to impart an understanding of the community’s religious doctrines from Ismaili sources.

The plot of the highly popular video game “Assassins’ Creed” which is now available on almost all computer platforms revolves around the legendary “assassins” of the 12th and 13th centuries. The video game, which was created in 2007, was inspired by the 1930’s novel Alamut by the Slovenian writer Vladimir Bartol. New versions of the game have appeared annually since but the 2016 edition has been bypassed to prepare for a greatly enhanced 2017 version. However, a movie version of the video game is planned for release at the end of this year under the title “Assassin’s Creed: The Movie.”

Now, in response to the idea that ISIS or IS (Islamic State) is based on the Assassins, Dr. Farhad Daftary has contributed the following piece for the February 21, 2016, (USA) edition of The Conversation, which has a mission to provide readers with a reliable source of high quality, evidence based information.

Islamic State and the Assassins: reviving fanciful tales of the medieval Orient

By Farhad Daftary, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Article reproduced from The Conversation

(How do we account for forces and events that paved the way for the emergence of Islamic State? Our series on the jihadist group’s origins tries to address this question by looking at the interplay of historical and social forces that led to its advent.

Today, historian Farhad Daftary debunks the idea that Islamic State is based on the so-called Assassins or hashishin, the fighting corps of the fledgling medieval Nizari Ismaili state).

Many Western commentators have tried to trace the ideological roots of Islamic State (IS) to earlier Islamic movements. Occasionally, they’ve associated them with the medieval Ismailis, a Shiʿite Muslim community made famous in Europe by returning Crusaders as the Assassins.

But any serious inquiry shows the teachings and practices of medieval Ismailis, who had a state of their own in parts of Iran from 1090 to 1256, had nothing in common with the senseless terrorist ideology and ruthless destruction of IS and its supporters.

Attacks on civilians, including women and children, and engaging in the mass destruction of property are forbidden both by Prophet Muhammad and in the tenets of Islamic law. Needless to say, the Ismailis never descended to such terrorist activities, even under highly adversarial circumstances.

Significant discordance exists between the medieval Ismailis and contemporary terrorists, who – quite inappropriately – identify themselves as members of an Islamic polity.

Fanciful Oriental tales

The Ismailis, or more specifically the Nizari Ismailis, founded a precarious state in 1090 under the leadership of Hasan-i Sabbah. As a minority Shi’ite Muslim community, they faced hostility from the Sunni-Abbasid establishment (the third caliphate after the death of the Prophet Muhammed) and their political overlords, the Seljuq Turks, from very early on.

Struggling to survive in their network of defensive mountain fortresses remained the primary objective of the Ismaili leadership, centred on the castle of Alamut (in the north of modern-day Iran). Their state survived against all odds until it was destroyed by the all-conquering Mongols in 1256.

During the course of the 12th century, the Ismailis were incessantly attacked by the armies of the Sunni Seljuq sultans, who were intensely anti-Shiʿite. As they couldn’t match their enemies’ superior military power, the Ismailis resorted to the warfare tactic of selectively removing Seljuq military commanders and other prominent adversaries who posed serious existential threats to them in particular localities.

An agent (fida’i) of the Ismailis (left, in white turban) fatally stabs Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, in 1092. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

These daring missions were carried out by the Ismaili fidaʾis, who were deeply devoted to their community. The fidaʾis comprised the fighting corps of the Ismaili state.

But the Ismailis didn’t invent the policy of assassinating enemies. It was a practice employed by many Muslim groups at the time, as well as by the Crusaders and many others throughout history.

Unfortunately, almost all assassinations of any significance occurring in the central lands of Islam became automatically attributed to the Ismaili fidaʾis. And a series of fanciful tales were fabricated around their recruitment and training.

These tales, rooted in the “imaginative ignorance” of the Crusaders, were concocted and put into circulation by them and their occidental observers; they’re not found in contemporary Muslim sources.

The so-called Assassin legends, which culminated in Marco Polo’s synthesis, were meant to provide satisfactory explanations for the fearless behaviour of the fidaʾis, which seemed otherwise irrational to medieval Europeans.

The very term Assassin, which appears in medieval European literature in a variety of forms, such as Assassini, was based on variants of the Arabic word hashish (plural, hashishin) and applied to the Nizari Ismailis of Syria and Iran by other Muslims.

In all the Muslim sources where the Ismailis are referred to as hashishis, the term is used in its pejorative sense of “people of lax morality”. There’s no suggestion that they were actually using hashish. There’s no evidence that hashish, or any other drug, was administered to the fida’is, as alleged by Marco Polo.

The literal interpretation of the term for the Ismailis as an “order of crazed hashish-using Assassins” is rooted entirely in the fantasies of medieval Europeans.

Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, based on the recovery and study of numerous Ismaili textual sources, has now begun to dispel many misconceptions regarding the Ismailis, including the myths surrounding their cadre of fidaʾis.

And the medieval Assassin legends, arising from the hostility of the Sunni Muslims to the Shiʿite Ismailis as well as the medieval Europeans’ fanciful impressions of the Orient, have been recounted and deconstructed.

A culture of learning and tolerance

Living in adverse circumstances, the Ismailis of Iran and Syria were heirs to the Fatimid dynasty that founded the city of Cairo and established al-Azhar, perhaps the earliest university of the world. Although preoccupied with survival, the Ismailis of the Alamut period maintained a sophisticated outlook and a literary tradition, elaborating their teachings within a Shiʿite theological framework.

An entirely fictional illustration from The Travels of Marco Polo showing the Nizari imam Alâ al Dîn Muhammad (1221-1255) drugging his disciples. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Their leader, Hasan-i Sabbah, was a learned theologian. And the Ismaili fortresses of the period, displaying magnificent military architecture and irrigation skills, were equipped with libraries holding significant collections of manuscripts, documents and scientific instruments.

The Ismailis also extended their patronage of learning to outside scholars, including Sunnis, and even non-Muslims. They were very tolerant towards other religious communities.

In the last decades of their state, in the 13th century, even waves of Sunni Muslims found refuge in the Ismaili fortress communities of eastern Iran. These refugees were running from the Mongol hordes who were then establishing their hegemony over Central Asia.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the destructive policies of IS, which persecutes religious and ethnic minorities and enslaves women.

The medieval Ismailis embodied qualities of piety, learning and community life in line with established Islamic teachings. These traditions continue in the modern-day Ismaili ethos. And the present-day global Ismaili community represents one of the most progressive and enlightened communities of the Muslim world.

The Ismailis have never had anything in common with the terrorists of IS, who murder innocent civilians at random and en masse, and destroy monuments of humankind’s shared cultural heritage.

Global terrorism in any form under the banner of Islam is a new phenomenon without historical antecedents in either classical Islamic or any other tradition. IS’s ideology reflects a crude version of the intolerant Wahhabi theology expounded by the Sunni religious establishment of Saudi Arabia, which is itself a narrow perspective that fails to recognise any pluralism or diversity of interpretations in Islam.

Date posted on Simerg: Monday, February 29, 2016.
Last updated: March 1, 2016 (12:50 EST).

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This is the fifth article in The Conversation website’s series on the historical roots of Islamic State. Look out for more stories on the theme in the coming days on The Conversation website.

This article by Dr. Farhad Daftary was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Reminiscences of Two Great Ismaili Missionaries of the 20th Century – Pir Sabzali and Meghji Missionary

“[Pir Sabzali and Meghji Missionary] drew all their courage and strength from their intense and ardent practice of Ibadat and went out to accomplish their missions with intelligence and knowledge, and with the firm belief that the help of Hazar Imam was always with them.”

A youthful portrait of the Ismaili missionary, Meghji Maherali (1881 – 1941), of Mombasa, Kenya. Photo Credit: Archives of the family of Meghji Missionary. Copyright.

BY IZAT VELJI

My profound gratitude and thanks [to the late Ameer Janmohamed] for sharing so much about Pir Sabzali – it is indeed a living history. The personal comments and recollections made his Thank You Letter to Pir Sabzali all the more interesting and real. The group picture shown below of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah with Ismaili missionaries astonished me because there in the photo staring back at me is my nanabapa [maternal grandfather]. I happen to be the proud grand-daughter of Missionary Meghji Maherali, seated at the extreme left in the centre row. In the same row, third from right, is Pir Sabzali.

Every time missionary Pir Sabzali came into Mombasa, he never left without visiting nanabapa. The two had ever so much to share. There was no rivalry, competition or one-upmanship between them. This was very evident from everything that my mother, Noorbanu, shared with us kids.

Mum said that at the dining table, Pir Sabzali and nanabapa shared stories about their travels and advised and helped each other on how to improve each other’s skills in establishing the various jamats they visited. They also discussed ways of improving their waezes [sermons] and participation in discussions so as to become more effective. Apparently, there was a lot of gentleness and warmth as well as mutual respect between them, and they had a soft sense of humour when they recounted personal anecdotes. It seems like they really fed off each other. Pir Sabzali would relay messages of blessings to nanabapa’s family from Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah.

Please click to enlarge and read caption. Photo: (Late) Ameer Janmohamed Collection. UK.

Later, they would retire to the front room where nanima would send a tray of chai and ‘goodies’ via my mum, who was then seven or eight years old. She remembered all this with so much pride and joy. My mum passed away in 2000. She said that the two missionaries would sit for hours apparently discussing all matters Ibadat (special worship prayers).

They drew all their courage and strength from their intense and ardent practice of Ibadat and went out to accomplish their missions with intelligence and knowledge, and with the firm belief that the help of Hazar Imam was always with them. With missionary Sabzali’s encouragement and help, nanabapa established a school of waezins in Mombasa, one of his recruits being my father, Noordin Koorjee. Even back then, our missionary leaders practised ‘succession planning’ so that Imam’s work would not come to a standstill after they passed on.

These two ashaqs [devotees] were very sincere in their service to Mawla, and deeply loyal to their Mashuq (the lord of the devotee).

STANDING BACK ROW- l to r: Missionary’s sons Gulamhussein, Fatehali, Sherali, Hussein; 2nd child Mehdi Gulamali is not in picture; SITTING ON CHAIRS – l to r: Daughters Khatija, Fatma, Missionary Meghji Maherali, wife Zainub with Hussein’s 3rd child Shirin, Hussein’s wife, Sikina; SITTING ON FLOOR – l to r: Dolat – Hussein’s 1st child, daughter Noorbanu (mother of Izat Velji, author of this article). Photo Credit: Archives of the family of Meghji Missionary. Copyright.

When Pir Sabzali’s health deteriorated and he was in his last days, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah sent him a message saying that he still wished to send Sabzali to Africa. Missionary Sabzali died a few days later. This came verbally from my parents, not once but several times. I have no way of authenticating this statement, but if it’s true then only Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah and Mawlana Shah Karim, the present Imam, would know the true import and reach of this message to Pir Sabzali.

When nanabapa died, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah sent a telegram to the Mombasa Council that “Missionary Meghji’s funeral be held with a lot of pomp because of Meghji’s long and wonderful service to the Mombasa jamat.” So, out came the Scouts Band, all spit and polish followed by the cubs and scouts troops followed by the jamat giving kandh to nanabapa all the way from Chief jamat khana to the cemetery. That’s a long distance.

Today, almost eighty years later, I stand head bowed, in sheer admiration for nanabapa and Missionary Sabzali, whose soul was granted Piratan by Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah. Incidents and events like these are simply overwhelming and sometimes difficult to grasp and comprehend. It is their spirit and devotion which keep the Jamat inspired.

Copyright: Izat Velji/Simerg.

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Editor’s note: Izat Velji’s piece originally appeared on this website in response to Ameer Janmohamed’s Thank You Letter to Pir Sabzali and the Ismaili Pirs of the Ginanic Tradition, which was  published as part of this website’s highly acclaimed third anniversary series on thanking Ismaili historical figures.

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About the writer: Izat Velji spent her early childhood years in Kenya and Tanzania. After completing her secondary schooling in Kenya, she pursued a degree in education and teaching at the University of Nairobi. She then settled in Canada where she completed her degree in Medical Lab Sciences. Later, she was recruited into the faculty of the Aga Khan School of Nursing in Karachi where she taught a number of science subjects including Clinical Microbiology and Basic Immunology. During her tenure in Karachi, she was very fortunate to have met His Highness the Aga Khan who visited her lab and class, once with the late Pakistani President Zia ul-Haqq, and on another occasion with his brother Prince Amyn. Encouraged by her husband, Izat also undertook voluntary assignments with the Aga Khan Health Board for Karachi to develop, conduct feasibilities as well as implement Health Education materials for the province of Sindh and the Northern Areas of Pakistan including Hunza and Chitral. The material that she helped prepare continues to be used today by AKDN Agencies such as Focus in their teaching modules. Since returning to Canada, Izat has been very active with the Ismaili community as a volunteer and especially with the Duke of Edinburgh’s program for youth aged 14 to 25. Most recently in 2011, she was acknowledged by the Governor General at the Gold Award Ceremony.

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Varas Ismaili Gangji: The Turning Point by Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant

Editor’s note: While I constantly think of my mum, Alwaeza Maleksultan J. Merchant, as she continues her recovery at the Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, near Vancouver, from an open heart surgery some 5 weeks ago, I felt I should re-post her excellent piece on Varas Ismail Gangji that she contributed as part of Simerg’s highly acclaimed “I Wish I’d Been There” series. Her photo, left at image below, was taken by my brother, Alnoor, when he visited her at the RCH a few days ago. To read her inspiring piece, please click on the photo or on Varas Ismail Gangji: The Turning Point

Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant, 83, shown at left in image above seen recovering at the Royal Columbian Hospital following her triple bypass surgery. Please click on photo for her article on the great Ismaili hero Varas Ismail Gangji. Photo/image: Alnoor Merchant/Nurin Merchant.

Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant, 83, shown at left in this image, is seen recovering at the Royal Columbian Hospital following her triple bypass surgery. Please click on image for her article on the great Ismaili hero Varas Ismail Gangji. Photo/image: Alnoor Merchant/Nurin Merchant.

A Thank You Note to Pir Hasan Kabirdin by Navyn Naran

“…The Nav Chugga are our choice. In the poem, if all goes well, the inevitability is for the butterfly (or silk moth) to emerge and do its butterfly thing, remembering its delicate wings can intricately avert the forces of evil with strength of flight and purpose. Only by guidance, reflection and intention can this occur for the ruh (spirit)…”

Navyn Naran’s Ode to Pir Hasan Kabirdin – the Author of Anant Akhado and the Nav Chugga

Please click for “An Ode to Pir Hasan Kabirdin.” Image in frame is copyright Istockphoto.com.

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For series, please click Thanking Ismaili Historical Figures

Chapter Five of Nasir-i Khusraw’s Wajh-i Din: The Gateway and Key to Paradise by Rukhsana Ali

“By the generosity of the Imam of the time, we say that Paradise in truth is the Intellect, and the Gateway of paradise is the Prophet (peace and salutation be upon him) during his time, and his wasi, his rank, and the Imam of the time during his age. The Key to the gateway of paradise is the utterance of the phrase, La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammadan rasul Allah.”

Please click:  Pir Nasir-i Khusraw on the Gateway and Key to Paradise

This statue of the Ismaili da’i and intellectual giant Nasir Khusraw stands in his memory in Badakhshan. Please click for article.