Why is His Highness the Aga Khan’s Navroz Encounter on March 21, 1960 With the Ismailis in Burma a Historic Day in His Imamat?

Our sister website Barakah is pleased to launch a new series entitled “Historic days in the life of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan”. We commence the series with his visit to Burma (now Myanmar) sixty-two years ago when he celebrated the Iranian New Year or Navroz with his community on March 21, 1960. Why does Barakah consider it to be a historic day? To find out, please CLICK HERE or on the image below, and feel free to submit your feedback through Barakah’s comment box.

The Aga Khan in a traditional Burmese dress during his visit to Burma in 1960.
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Hereditary Ismaili Imam, pictured in a Burmese traditional dress during his visit to Burma in March 1960. Please click on photo for article.

Date posted: March 20, 2022.

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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. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Simerg’s editor may be reached via email at mmerchant@simerg.com.

Map of Cairo showing Islamic monuments.

David Rumsey Map Collection: Historical Map Showing 600 Years of Islamic Monuments in Cairo from the Rise of the Fatimid Empire in North Africa in 909

Compiled by MALIK MERCHANT
Publisher/Editor SimergSimergphotos and Barakah

The David Rumsey Historical Map Collection focuses on 16th through 21st century maps of North and and South America, as well as maps of the World, Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. Atlases, globes, school geographies, maritime charts, and a variety of separate maps including pocket, wall, children’s and manuscript maps are present on the website. The depth and breath of the digital collection is impressive, and is continuously growing. The website notes that the actual physical map collection is housed at the David Rumsey Map Center at the Stanford University Library.

My search on the website using the term “Fatimid” yielded one result. It is a map produced in 1924 by the Survey of Egypt, which was once regarded as “one of the most professional mapping agencies in the World, predicated upon the synergy of the most authoritative topographical and urban mapping combined with the latest archaeological surveys.”

Simerg is pleased to reproduce the map, along with an interesting narrative that accompanies the map on the David Rumsey Map Center website. We also invite readers to click on the link to enrich their viewing experience of the map, download the map (by using the Export Function) as well as to explore other maps that may be of interest to readers or to provide them with further information in their specific area of research.

Cairo During the Islamic Golden Age

Please click on image for enlargement

Map of Cairo showing Islamic monuments.
Map of Cairo showing Islamic monuments, with the ‘Fatimid and Pre-Fatimid Monuments’ (909 – 1171), shaded in Red; the ‘Aiyubid [Ayyubid] Monuments’ (1171 – 1260), shaded in Green; and the ‘Mameluke Monuments’ (1260 – 1517), shaded in Blue. Credit: David Rumsey Map Collection, David Rumsey Map Center, Stanford Libraries. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Cairo was the greatest centre of culture, learning and commerce during the ‘Islamic Golden age’. Commencing in the early 20th Century professional archaeologists as well as art and architectural historians became interested in scientifically recording Cairo’s sensational Islamic buildings and monuments.

The map employs colours to denote sites built across the city during the eras of the three great Islamic empires that controlled Cairo prior to the arrival of the Ottomans in 1517: the ‘Fatimid and Pre-Fatimid Monuments’ (909 – 1171), shaded in Red; the ‘Aiyubid [Ayyubid] Monuments’ (1171 – 1260), shaded in Green; and the ‘Mameluke Monuments’ (1260 – 1517), shaded in Blue.

These mosques, palaces, madrassas, and fortifications appear amidst the otherwise buff-coloured city which generally consisted of buildings built during the subsequent Ottoman and British Protectorate periods.

The map shows that many of the greatest edifices from the periods of the three great Islamic empires have survived, although only traces of the vast Fatimid Place can be found amongst the foundations of newer buildings. Each of the historical sites is named in Gothic script and features a corresponding numeral which refers to that which appears upon the plaques affixed to each building by the civic authorities. The two insets on the left-hand side showcase sites in areas outside of the city proper. We understand that the first edition the map was issued in 1924, while an Arabic language version was published in 1948. The present revised, official edition was issued in 1950-1 (correction, this copy is the first edition, issued in 1924), while several facsimile (unofficial) versions have been issued since then. The Survey of Egypt followed the initial production of the present issue of the map with a small booklet, Index to Mohammedan monuments appearing on the special 1:5000 scale maps of Cairo (Cairo, 1951), that is not present here, but seems to have been issued with the latter-releases of the map.

Cairo during the ‘Islamic Golden Age’ Cairo was traditionally the largest and most culturally and economically important city in the Islamic world. The Muslim conquest of Byzantine Egypt occurred between 639 and 646 AD. While the Cairo area has been settled for thousands of years, with the key Ancient Egyptian cities of Giza and Memphis located nearby, the city proper was not founded until 969, when it became the principal city, and sometimes capital, of the Fatimid Caliphate, a Shia Muslim empire which controlled much of North Africa, the Levant and Hejaz between 909 and 1171.

Cairo rapidly rose to become a centre of great wealth, at the nexus of global trade routes as well as home to some of the world’s foremost centres of education and the arts. Befitting its importance, great monuments of Islamic architecture were built across the city.

The Al-Azhar Madrassa (no. 97 on the map), which later grew into a university, was founded in 970-2 and today remains the world’s most prestigious institute of Islamic learning. The map notes some Islamic monuments made before 969, as the pre-Cairo rural landscape featured some small mosques, houses and fortifications.

The Fatimids were replaced by the Ayyubid Dynasty (1171 – 1260), a regime of Kurdish origin, founded by the legendary conqueror Saladin, whereupon Cairo remained the prosperous centre of an empire spanning much of the Middle East.

The Mamelukes were an elite class of soldier-bureaucrats descended from former Christian slaves. In 1250, they took over Egypt, the Levant and Hejaz, forming the Mameluke Sultanate, with its capital in Cairo. It was during the early part of their regime that Cairo reached its zenith as the principal centre of the Islamic Golden Age.

The epicentre of a global trading network that spanned from India to Spain, Cairo far surpassed all European cities in wealth and cultural sophistication, and many exquisite works of architecture were built to reflect this glorious state. The Mameluke Sultanate was conquered by the Ottomans in 1517 and Cairo ceased to be an imperial capital. However, while technically subject to the Sublime Porte, Egypt maintained a high degree of autonomy and was the wealthiest and most prosperous part of the Ottoman Empire; Cairo remained a highly important centre.

Fortunately, as the repent map reveals, the survival rate of Cairo’s great works of Islamic architecture from the Fatimid, Ayyubid and Mameluke periods is impressively high, and many sites can be visited today. References: OCLC: 17543226. (Alexander Johnson, 2020).

Date posted: February 22, 2022.

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Before leaving this website please take a moment to visit 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. Also, visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos that features photos and videos from around the world.

Malik, the founding publisher and editor of the 3 websites, may be reached at his email address, mmerchant@barakah.com.

Hazrat Ali Calligraphy by Karim Ismail

Yawm-e Ali: Quotes and Recitation of Ginanic Verses on the Anniversary of Hazrat Ali’s Birth

The Imams

We are the tree of Prophethood,
the place of descent
of Divine revelation,
the place of frequenting
of the angels,
and the mainsprings of knowledge.
Those who help us and love us
await (God’s) mercy…..Hazrat Ali

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The Tradition of the Ismaili Tariqah is the Tradition of Hazrat Ali

Aga Khan Digital Portrait, Simerg by Akbar Kanji
“The closer you come, the more you will see him.” A digital portrait of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad and Hazrat Ali, by Toronto’s Akber Kanji. The portrait is composed of several hundred thumbnails representing a cross-section of events during Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Imamat. Photo: Copyright: Akber Kanji.

“This is a time of new freedoms, but it is also one in which new choices must be made wisely. In exercising freedom and making choices, our institutions must be guided, as they have been in the past, by the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace of Allah be upon him), and the tradition of our tariqah, which is the tradition of Hazrat Ali: A thinking Islam and a spiritual Islam — an Islam that teaches compassion, tolerance and the dignity of man — Allah’s noblest creation.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, May 14, 1992, Aga Khan Foundation 25th anniversary.

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The Ant

By God,
were I given all the seven heavens
with all they contain
in order that
I may disobey God
by depriving an ant
from the husk of a grain of barley,
I would not do it…..Hazrat Ali

The Prophet’s Household

To them (the Household of the Prophet)
pertain the noblest of human virtues described in the Qur’an,
and they are the treasures of the Beneficent Allah.
When they speak, they speak the truth,
but when they keep quiet, no one can out strip them…..Hazrat Ali

Patience

One who perseveres patiently
will not be without success,
even if it takes a long time…..Hazrat Ali

The Headstrong

One who is headstrong and opinionated perishes,
while one who seeks the advice of others
becomes a partner in their understanding…..Hazrat Ali

The Blessed

Blessed is one
who is humble regarding himself,

whose livelihood is good,
whose inner thoughts are virtuous,
whose character is good,
who spends the surplus from his wealth
and removes superfluity from his speech,
who keeps his evil away from people…Hazrat Ali

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Recitations of Ginanic Verses by Late Shamshu Bandali Haji

Iconic Ismaili Ginan reciter - Shamshu Bandali Haji
Iconic Ismaili Ginan reciter, the Late Shamshu Bandali Haji of Nairobi and Edmonton.

Simerg is pleased to present a selection of verses from the Ginan Muman Chetamni composed by Syed Imam Shah that relate to the birth of Hazrat Ali (a.s.). The recitations are taken from Ginans Central, a truly exceptional website which curates Ginans for “long-term access and preservation to foster research and learning in the digital era.” The inspiration behind this unique project is Karim Tharani (read ARTICLE). Here are recitations of three verses followed by a link to the page containing many more Ginan recitations by Alwaez Shamshu Bandali Haji as well as other reciters from around the world.

Verse Eji te Murtaza Ali….recited by Shamshu Bandali Haji
Verse Eji Mataji Gayata Bait…recited by Shamshu Bandali Haji
Verse Eji Tare Salaam Kidha…..recited by Shamshu Bandali Haji

Please click HERE for beautiful recitations by Alwaez Shamshu and other great Ismaili reciters from around the world. Also, please visit  Ginans Central Home Page, then scroll down the page and see links to Ginan collections as well as tools and resources.

Date Posted: February 11, 2022.

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Before leaving this website please take a moment to visit 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. Also, visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

The editor of the 3 websites, Malik, may be reached at mmerchant@barakah.com.

Gulshan-i rāz or The Garden of Mystery: A Rare 20th Century Ismaili Work at the US Library of Congress; Downloadable

Article reproduced and adapted from the website of the US LIBRARY OF CONGRESS (LOC)

Gulshan-i rāz (The garden of mystery) is a 20th century text on the Nizari Ismaʻili belief system, written by Nadir Shah Kayani (circa 1897 – circa 1971), a leader of the Ismaʻili community in Afghanistan.

Article continues below

Ismaili work Gulshan-i rāz, Library of Congress LOC, Simerg
Page 1 of 42 of the Ismaili work Gulshan-i rāz. Photo: LOC.

The title of this work deliberately echoes a celebrated Ismaʻili book of verse of the same name composed by Mahmud Shabistari in 1317. Nadir Shah’s work is organized in 14 sections, each of which discusses a philosophical or religious topic such as nafs (the soul) or namaz (prayer). The first section, on tafakkur (the faculty of thought), is written as a commentary on a verse from the original Gulshan-i rāz.

Article continues below, click image to download PDF

Ismaili work Gulshan i Raz at LOC, Simerg
Page 12 of 42 of the Ismaili work Gulshan-i rāz. Photo: LOC; please click on image to download the work in PDF format.

Much remains to be discovered about the Ismaʻili community of Afghanistan during this period. What is known is that Nadir Shah belonged to a family of Ismaʻili leaders based in the Kayan valley in northern Afghanistan. He was a prolific author who wrote both poetry and philosophical texts. The present work is a manuscript, most likely produced in Afghanistan.

Aga Khan III, Library of Congress LOC, Simerg
Aga Khan III. Photo: LOC.

Kayani’s leadership of the Ismaʻili community coincided with the reign of the 48th Ismaili Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1877-1957; Imam from 1885-1957).

The script is nastaʻliq, written in black ink, 11 lines to the page, on a light-cream paper. The “third” in the title probably refers to Shabistari’s original work as the first Gulshan-i rāz. The identity of the second Gulshan-i rāz is not clear; it could be a reference to the well-known commentary by Shams al-Din Lahiji, written in 1472-73.

Please download Nadir Shah’s work in PDF format by clicking HERE.

Summary of Work

Contributor Names: Kiyānī, Nādir Shāh.
Created/Published: Between 1900 and 1999?
Notes: Manuscript; Nastalīq script; 11 lines in written area 21.5 x 14 cm; Paper is light cream; black ink; Probably written in Afghanistan; Also available in digital form (PDF and JPEG, click HERE for PDF); In Persian; Acquired for LC only.

Date posted: January 18, 2022.

(Read the article at source by clicking HERE)

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Before leaving this website please take a moment to visit 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. Also, visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

His Highness the Aga Khan is the Bearer of the Noor (Light) of Imamat; and a Beautiful Calligraphy for His Auspicious 85th Birthday

Simerg’s sister website Barakah which is dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, members of his family and the Ismaili Imamat, is pleased to present a profound reading on the subject of Imamat along with a special piece of art by Karim Ismail on the auspicious occasion of Hazar Imam’s 85th Salgirah. The post includes the singing of the Ginan (Hymn) Dhan Dhan Aajno by the (Late) Alwaez Shamshu Bandali Haji, and also has links to its explanation as well as 25 other recitations of the same Ginan by Ismaili singers from around the world. Please click 85th Salgirah Mubarak or on the image below.

Aga Khan 85th birthday Salgirah of Mawlana Hazar Imam, Simer
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, is in his 65th year of Imamat and celebrates his 85th birthday on December 13, 2021. Please click on image for Imamat reading.

Date posted: December 11, 2021.

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Featured image at top of post: In centre, a calligraphy by Toronto’s Karim Ismail and on either side of the art work two paintings of Mawlana Hazar Imam by Vancouver based artist Azeez Khanbhai, who was featured recently in Barakah.

We welcome feedback from our readers. Please complete the LEAVE A REPLY form below or click Leave a comment. Your letter may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation.

Photo Essay: Celebrating the Ismaili Flag and the Personal Standard of His Highness the Aga Khan Through 70+ Historical and Memorable Photos from Around the World

An artistic rendition of the Ismaili Flag. Please click on image for photo essay.

Under the new Ismaili Constitution that was ordained by Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, in 1986 — and revised in 1998 — the popular flag of the Ismailis that had been referred to by many Ismaili Jamats around the world for decades as the “My Flag” officially acquired a new name, “The Ismaili Flag.” There was no specific Imamat flag before 1986 — the “My Flag” with its red and green colours was used during ceremonial and other events where Hazar Imam was present. But with the new constitution, the crest (or taj) of Mawlana Hazar Imam was incorporated into the “The Ismaili Flag” and this flag with the crest is referred to as the “Personal Standard of Mawlana Hazar Imam.” Barakah’s photo essay seeks to explain the colours red and green in “The Ismaili Flag” and, through dozens of photos from around the world, illustrates the usage of the “Personal Standard of Mawlana Hazar Imam.”

Read and share Barakah’s post by clicking on Celebrating the Ismaili Flag and the Beautiful Personal Standard of Mawlana Hazar Imam; the Ismaili Ethos of Valour and Peace Are Representative of the Flag’s Red and Green Colours.

Flag of the Ismaili Imamat Aga Khan portrait by Jean-Marc Carisse
Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, poses in front of his Personal Standard bearing the gold crest of the Imam. Photo: © Jean-Marc Carisse, Ottawa. Please click on photo for photo essay

Date posted: August 7, 2021.

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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. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Podcast: The Making of the Islamic World – Fragments of the Fatimid Caliphate Narrated by Chris Gratien

“For brief period of history, the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt presided over arguably the most powerful empire in the Mediterranean. Yet because the legacy of this Ismaili dynasty was erased or downplayed by its Sunni rivals and successors, the Fatimids are often misunderstood. As we show in this installment of “The Making of the Islamic World,” the Fatimid period and the sources that survive from it can in fact be critical to learning more about how pre-modern Islamic polities functioned, demonstrating that the Fatimids had a much more sophisticated state apparatus than some have assumed.” — Excerpt from article on the website Ottoman History Podcast

Fragments of the Fatimid Caliphate is episode 3 in a series of presentations on the Islamic world by Ottoman History Podcast, which has grown to be one of the largest digital resources for academic discussion concerning the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. The recorded interviews and lectures, while still largely academic in tone, provide scholarly conversation accessible to a wider public audience.

In the broadcast, narrator Chris Gratien interviews Marina Rustow, a social historian of the medieval Middle East at Princeton University. Marina has worked extensively on the documents of the Cairo Genizah, and her published works include Heresy and the Politics of Community: The Jews of the Fatimid Caliphate (2008) and The Lost Archive: Traces of a Caliphate in a Medieval Synagogue (2020).

Date posted: July 23, 2021.

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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. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

A Unique Imamat Day Card and a Pictorial Presentation of Years 61-64 of the Aga Khan’s Imamat, a Divine Institution that is Rooted in a Proclamation Made by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S) 1389 Years Ago

Introduced by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos)

Shia Ismaili Muslims all over the world will commemorate the 64th Imamat Day anniversary of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, on Sunday July 11, 2021.

From the day our beloved Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S.) passed away on June 8, 632, and Hazrat Ali (A.S.) became the first Imam on the Divine Commandment that the Prophet had received at Ghadir Khumm, there have been forty-nine Ismaili Imams in continuous Hereditary Succession, spanning a period of 1389 years in Islamic history.

Upper row: Imam Shah Hassanali Shah (Aga Khan I) and Imam Shah Ali Shah (Aga Khan II). Lower row: Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah (Aga Khan III) and Mawlana Shah Karim Al Hussaini (Aga Khan IV). Total reign of the four Imams 203 years from 1817 to current year (2021). Longest reign Aga Khan III, 71 years; followed by Aga Khan I and Aga Khan IV, each 64 years.

Mawlana Hazar Imam and his immediate three predecessors have reigned the Jamat for a total of 203 years or 14.6 % of the entire span as follows:

1. Mawlana Shah Karim Al Hussaini Hazar Imam (His Highness the Aga Khan IV, Imam from 1957 – Current, 64 years, he became the 49th Imam at the age of 20); 
2. Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah (His Highness the Aga Khan III, Imam from 1885 – 1957, Imam for 71 years, he became the 48th Imam at the age of 7 years);
3. Imam Shah Ali Shah (Aga Khan II, 1881 – 1885, Imam for 4 years, he became the 47th Imam at the age of 51 years); and
4. Imam Shah Hassanali Shah (Aga Khan I, 1817 – 1881, Imam for 64 years, he became the 46th Imam at the age of 13 years).

This 203 year period of the reign of 4 successive Ismaili Imams accounts for more time than does the entire Fatimid period, reigned by 8 Imams from Imam Mehdi (11th Imam, North Africa) to Imam Mustansir bi Allah (18th Imam, Cairo)!

On that historical and interesting statistical fact, we convey to Ismaili Jamats around the world as well as friends and supporters of the community Imamat Day Mubarak through a beautifully designed card by Toronto’s Karim Ismail.

The design carries a rich and significant meaning for all Shia Ismaili Muslims as explained in Ismail’s brief note below. We sincerely thank him for sharing this very special and extraordinary work with us and our readers around the world.

We would be remiss if we did not mention the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on humanity at large. Many of us have lost four beloved friends and family members to Covid-19 or other illnesses and causes, and social distancing, travelling and restrictive gathering rules have prevented us from fully participating in funerals. We pray that the souls of the deceased may rest in eternal peace and that their family members may find strength and courage to overcome the grief over the loss.

On this 64th Imamat Day of Mawlana Hazar Imam, we also pray for the fulfillment of our readers’ wishes and that everyone’s lives are filled with barakah (happiness) and success. We particularly wish families with young children and youth success in their studies.

2021 Imamat Day Card

Click on image for enlargement

Imamat Day Card by Karim Ismail Simerg and Barakah His Highness the Aga Khan Mawlana Hazar Imam Prince Karim

Explanatory Note of the 2021 Imamat Day Card

By KARIM ISMAIL

In Shi’i tradition, “The Rope of Allah” (Qur’an 3:103) refers to the “Ahl al Bayt” — the Imams from the House of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S).

This important tradition appears in the card within heptagonal geometry (seven-sided polygon) about which the (Late) Karl Schlamminger, creator of extraordinary designs and distinctive calligraphies for the Ismaili Centres in London, Lisbon and Toronto, observed as follows in an essay for Arts & The Islamic World (volume 3, number 3, page 25-26):

“The floor of the outer entrance hall [of the Ismaili Centre London] has an open ended pattern in heptagonal form which rises at the focus of the room to create a fountain: such a pattern in such space is of course a completely classical Islamic response — but I have never heard of a heptagonal pattern anywhere in Islamic architecture.

“The number seven symbolizes for Ismailis the values of its essential philosophy — but has never been used in an architectural context. Here the sevenness of the design is no superficial effigy or naturalistic picture of an idea, but — as always in Islam — is expressed in geometry (literally: measurement of the earth).”

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Photo Essay: Years 61-64 of the Aga Khan’s Imamat

We now invite readers to visit Simerg’s sister website Barakah for a very special four-part pictorial series on years 61 to 64 of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Imamat.

Date posted: July 10, 2021.

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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. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Karim Ismail Calligraphy, Ismaili artist simerg and barakah
Karim Ismail

Originally from Uganda, Karim Ismail lived in England before settling in Canada. By profession, he is a Pharmacist (retired). It was in England, in 1986, that he came across the artwork of a German Muslim, Karl Schlamminger (1935-2017), at the Ismaili Centre London. Karl’s artwork on calligraphy and geometrics, had a profound effect on Karim. He is frequently seen conducting calligraphy workshops for children at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, which is currently closed due to Covid-19. Karim was also active on the literature counter at the Ismaili Centre Toronto, before the closure of Jamatkhanas due to Covid-19.

Institute of Ismaili Studies: Historical Aspirations, Contemporary Possibilities

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.

1975 Ismailia Association Conference Aga Khan Establish Institute of Ismaili Studies, Simerg
Mawlana Hazar Imam met with leaders of the Ismailia Association and Ismaili scholars in April 1975 in Paris. A decision was taken at the world conference to establish the Institute of Ismaili Studies. Photo: Ilm magazine, October 1975.

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).

Unintended Consequences

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.

IIS Institute of Ismaili Studies London Board of Governor Members
New Board of Governors of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, appointed by Mawlana Hazar Imam effective December 13, 2020. Top row (from left): Professor Ali Asani, Dr Nadia Eboo Jamal, Mrs Karina Govindji, Dr Arif Jamal, Mr Rahim Karim, Mr Alykhan Kassam, and Professor Nacim Pak-Shiraz. Bottom row (from left): Mr Amyn Kassim-Lakha, Professor Tashmin Khamis, Mr Naguib Kheraj, Dr Sharofat Mamadambarova, Dr Shogufa Mir Maleky, Mr Habib Motani, and Professor Farid F. Panjwani. Collage by Barakah from IIS profile photos

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.

IIS Board Institute of Ismaili Studies
The IIS Board of Governors (1995-2020). From left to right: Mr Naguib Kheraj (who remains on the new board appointed on December 13, 2020), Dr Mohamed Keshavjee, Dr Shafik Sachedina, Dr Aziz Esmail, Mr Zauhar Meghji and Professor Afzal Ahmed. Missing in the photo is the Late Professor Mohammed Arkoun who was also a member on the Board. He passed away on September 14, 2010 at the age of 82. Photo: The IIS

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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Karim H. Karim

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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1975 Ismailia Association Conference Aga Khan Establish Institute of Ismaili Studies, Simerg

His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah: Download Our Book and Listen to an Audio

November 2, 2020 marks the 143rd birth anniversary of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, the 48th hereditary Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. We invite you to download our marvellous publication “The Imam of the Socio-Economic Revolution” which is bundled with plenty of inspiring and informative stories, articles and unique points of view. Please click HERE to download the book, and listen to the following presentation of a small piece from the book.

Audio Reading: The Face of Imamat

A short reading on Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan

For the full version of this post, including a transcript of the audio, please click on Barakah.

Date posted: November 2, 2020.

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