An Ethereal Journey to a Sacred Space in the Pandemic

(Editor’s note: As of November 20, 2020, Jamatkhanas in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) are once again temporarily closed due to orders issued by the provincial government that impact all places of worship. The BC Jamatkhanas had re-opened at the beginning of August with limited attendance capacity both in the evenings and mornings. Zaher Ahamed’s excellent piece is an attempt to convey his joyful experience of attending a Jamatkhana in Canada in the midst of Covid-19. On new developments about Jamatkhana openings and closures in Canada, please subscribe to the official Al-Akhbar electronic bulletins distributed by Ismaili institutions in Canada).

“Maybe….because of this pandemic, I have experienced the true nature of our faith and gained a new insight into one of our central religious practices of our tariqah: the remembrance of Him in His house during the hour of Baitul Khayal” — Zaher Ahamed

By ZAHER MEGHJI AHAMED

Headquarters Jamatkhana Vancouver. Photo: FNDA.

It was our first journey to the re-opened Headquarters Jamatkhana in Vancouver during a pandemic: it was for the early morning contemplation and prayers or Baitul Khayal during the earlier part of August, and it turned out to be a  total ethereal, peaceful and powerful experience, the closest I have ever felt to the presence of the Nur (Light) of Imam in a what had become  a truly perfect sacred spiritual space.

There was pin drop silence! The pandemic protocol put in place, after going through a painless computerized registration system as you entered, did not permit for social chit-chat, small talk and worldly conversations over a cup of chai before entering the sacred space.

We were swept with only the thought of Him silently with dignity into the Jamatkhana prayer hall. We were in a peaceful dignified space, where there was not a word between the murids, each masked, each enclosed in his or her own socially distanced bubble. The conversation was only with Him, just as it was meant to be. We felt ourselves immersed in the cosmic quiet and stillness, focusing now only on  seeking out moments of happiness through the Divine Word, knowing that, with the Imam’s presence in this space, He was with us blessings us on our own individual journey to seek to come nearer to Allah through the Nur of Hazrat Ali.

With a silent and reflective utterance of “Haizanda” (He is ever living) we stepped into this sacred space and right into his presence! With closed eyes, a quiet mind and an open heart we slipped into the rhythm of silently uttering the Divine Word, first with our lips and then in our hearts, feeling it flow through, ever so slowly, into the depth of our soul, awakening it: and over a period of time, the word now deeply embedded released moments of energy, awareness, joy and happiness…. all in a timeless moment, the soul wanting to stay for ever and then…. the hour was over in what seemed like a second…. with the promise of another day to be again in His presence in this sacred space.

Jamatkhana prayer hall, Ismaili Centre Vancouver. Photo: Bruno Freschi Collection, 1985.
“Sacred Space” – the Jamatkhana prayer hall, Ismaili Centre Vancouver. Photo: Bruno Freschi Collection, 1985.

This is what the house of the Lord was meant to be like!

Then, without a word with anyone, we stepped straight outside into our car, carrying the peace that was in our hearts. And on our way home, we saw the light of the waning moon with Venus ablaze shining on us, leaving us speechless in the cosmic balance of His creation.

The calmness that we had felt in the Jamatkhana continued on our journey home. It was then that I remembered Hunza, where I had felt that same pin drop silence with no words in calm and quiet in a Jamatkhana with a dimly lit hall, “a sacred space,” in Karimabad. And now, I had once again experienced that in my own Jamatkhana in Vancouver — and that too in a global pandemic or maybe because of a global pandemic!

Maybe, ironically, because of this pandemic, I have experienced the true nature of our faith and gained a new insight into one of our central religious practices of our tariqah: the remembrance of Him in His house during the hour of Baitul Khayal.

Going for Ibadat in the morning, in its truest sense, should be an act filled with a simplicity and a reverence  of the highest kind for this sacred space devoid of any refreshments, hanging around the chai table and having meaningless conversations that last until almost 5 a.m!

Spaces created in Jamatkhanas for prayer are sacred spaces!

It was truly a unique experience and in terms of the logistics, the whole process of going to the Jamatkhana, from the time of arrival until departure, was very well organized, with an army of well trained volunteers directing your every move: Your car on arrival is directed into a pre-planned space; if you have not brought your mask one is provided to you; next you confirm your spot and answer standard Covid-19 protocol questions and have your temperature taken; you then get directed into the shoe/coat area, have your hands sanitized and then are led finally into your own space.

When the limited rites and ceremonies, tailored to keep murids safe, are completed, you are led out to your car in an orderly manner. Fifty pre-allocated murids who have come to the Jamatkhana for the morning Ibadat and prayers each, I believe, leaves with a unique experience.

What else are we witnessing during the pandemic?

I believe, we are seeing the birth of a “global Ismaili renaissance” showcased and driven by a digital platform of webinars, zoom sessions and the Ismaili TV. We are seeing the fruition of the coming together of Ismaili talent in all its forms: academic scholars and waezins, health care professionals, dancers, musicians, singers, consultants, counselors, journalists, Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) executives and staff, and Jamati leaders, all the result of our Imam’s extraordinary vision and its execution over the last 60 years.

It is like seeing a period of our rich Fatimid heritage in a digital mirror!

Seniors are zooming… the youth are dancing, men are cooking… women are leading and “dadimas” (grandmothers) are “face timing… and all this within just the last 7 months.

Learning, Mawlana Hazar Imam has often said, should continue throughout our lives. Age should not be a constraint, and this is precisely what we are witnessing. We are exploring with full confidence, and thousands of voices from around the world and from our global Jamat are now being heard directly. This is the commencement of a new digital communications era, and the challenge now will be to stay truly connected and to manage this era carefully with awareness and sensitivity so that it does not stifle in its own success.

As for me and my family, this pandemic has brought us even closer and it feels good to be in the centre of “This Ismaili Renaissance”.… a truly humbling experience!

Date posted: November 20, 2020.

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Zaher Ahamed

Zaher Ahamed is an internationally recognized expert in Strategic Marketing, Multicultural Communications, Diversity & Human Resources Development, Strategic Planning, Design &  Project Management. His over 40 years of Business & Consulting experience includes working with Expo 86, the Royal Bank of Canada, Life Care International, Terry Fox Foundation, WIOMSA (Zanzibar), Governments of Canada & British Columbia as well as holding teaching positions with the University of Stockholm, Red Deer University and BCIT in Europe and in Canada.

He has had extensive experience working for corporate and not-for-profit organizations in the Middle East and Africa. In Nairobi, Kenya, he worked with the Aga Khan University Hospital, as a project manager for the establishment of turnkey state-of-the-art digitally connected Pilot Primary Health care and diagnostic Aga Khan Medical centres in East Africa. His volunteer experience includes working in Syria, Zanzibar, East Africa, Sweden. USA and Canada. He is multilingual and has a deep interest in Ismaili history and Ginanic and Sufi traditions. Now retired in Vancouver, BC, Canada, Zaher continues to perform voluntary work with Ismaili and non-Ismaili institutions around the world.

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The Nature of Prayer: Significance of the Tasbih, and carrying it to practice the faith by calling on the name of Allah, Muhammad, Ali or the names of Imams

T'The Nature of Prayer'  by Nurin Merchant. Golden Jubilee art for His Highness the Aga Khan's Golden Jubilee
‘The Nature of Prayer’ is a 14″ x 10″ mixed media acrylic painting on canvas. Secured on the canvas with gesso, a strong glue, are a handmade tasbih (prayer beads), and 3 dried leaves bearing the Arabic inscriptions reading from bottom to top, Allah, Muhammad and Ali. The whole piece represents keeping the memory of Allah, and making sure that every day there is in our minds the presence of our faith in our hearts and souls which in itself is a prayer, hence the title of the painting ‘The Nature of Prayer’. This work was Nurin Merchant’s contribution for Colours of Love, an art and culture initiative by the Ismaili Council for Canada in 2008 during the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan.

By DR. V. A. LALANI
with additional material by MALIK MERCHANT

In response to a recent piece on the impact of Jamatkhana closures, we were pleased to receive a very inspiring recommendation from Omar Kassam of Vancouver who suggested that we slowly recite the Surah Al-Fatihah while we spend 20 seconds thoroughly washing our hands – the #1 health guideline during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Such is the nature of prayer –- that we can seek out small moments of 1 second, 5 seconds or 20 seconds to the remembrance of God, to exalt Him, and to seek His help. The Surah is regarded as one of greatest Surahs in the Holy Qur’an, along with Surah Al-Ikhlas. The wisdom and prayers contained in this small seven verse Surah are absolutely remarkable.

There are many other opportune moments that we have throughout the day, and Mawlana Hazar Imam has often recommended to us to carry the tasbih with us –- in our pockets or handbags –- and seek out moments of happiness by calling on the name of Allah, Hazrat Ali, Prophet Muhammad or the names of the Imams. He has also asked us to invoke these names during any difficulty we are facing.

What is tasbih and what are its origins in Islam?

The Arabic word tasbih means to exalt God, praise God or to pray to God. It is supererogatory prayer, that is, an act which is considered to be good and beyond the call of duty, and not something that is strictly required.

The word tasbih is also given to the beads strung together in the form of a circle which are used in the process of praying.

The tasbih consists of a string of beads that is looped into a circle. The two ends are passed through a larger, decorative bead where they are tied or woven into a knot. This is the starting point of a tasbih.

Almost all the religions in the world today possess some form of this object which differ a little in size, number and arrangement of beads. Calling it by different names (for example, rosary, in Christianity), they make use of it for the purpose of reciting the name of the deity in whom they believe.

Although tasbih is a constant companion and an object of daily use by the believers, its origin, development and purpose has remained so obscure to most of us that I shall discuss some of the details of this small, but important object.

Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest!”Holy Qur’an, 13:28

It is said that the first tasbih (supererogatory prayer) was given by the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S.) to his beloved daughter Hazrat Bibi Fatima (A.S.), the wife of Hazrat Mawla Murtaza Ali (A.S.). This comprise of the praises of Allah, namely, Allahu Akbar (Allah is Great), Subhan Allah (Glory be to Allah) and Al-Hamdu-lillah (All praise is due to Allah). Each of these was to be recited thirty-three times in succession. This is known as Tasbih-e Bibi Fatima.

In the absence of any circular object like the present day tasbih, it is said that Bibi Fatima used to recite these praises taking help of thirty-three stones of dates or thirty-three pebbles.

Later on, as it was found to be very inconvenient to keep loose stones or pebbles, or have to collect them when needed, it was probably decided to string together thirty-three stones of dates or some such object to make a rosary giving it a circular appearance. At a later period, at the point where the knot was tied, a more decorative, larger bead was added, forming what we recognize as the tasbih today. Tasbih prayer beads are made of various materials, including different stones, sterling silver, wood, etc.

The larger bead at the tasbih’s crown is called imam which means ‘a leader’ and it is so called because all recitations start at this point. Imam leads and all the other small beads follow.

In the ordinary Islamic tasbih, the number of beads varies widely from 99 to 102. The 99 bead tasbih may have 2 extra small beads as dividers, after each group of 33 beads. The 102 bead tasbih used in some tariqahs is divided in parts of 12, 22, 34, 22 and 12. Then, of course, we have the commonly used smaller tasbih with 33 beads that is considered in conformity with our Holy Prophet Muhammad’s original conception of tasbih.

As in the 99 bead tasbih, the 33 bead also carries 2 extra beads after each 11 beads, as dividers. The extra small beads act as an informer when the required number of recitations are completed. These are called mui’zin in Arabic which means ‘an informer’ (like the informer who calls Muslims to prayer). In the Indian sub-continent, these two beads are called banga, bangi or bango which all mean ‘a caller’ or ‘an informer’.

Tasbihs
A selection of tasbihs produced during the Diamond Jubilee (left) and Golden Jubilee celebrations of Mawlana Hazar Imam. Photo: The Ismaili.

Among the numerous memorabilia objects that were produced for Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2007 and 2017, the tasbih was the most sought after item. The Diamond Jubilee tasbihs came with a finely-detailed floral pattern interwoven with intricate and diverging leaves inspired by a Fatimid wood carving. The 33 bead Golden Jubilee tasbihs came in twenty-three varieties of semi-precious stone with the top stem adapted from a 16th century alam (emblem or standard).

“O believers, remember God oft and give Him glory at the dawn and in the evening” —
Holy Qur’an, 33:41-42

The last and most important point about tasbih is its purpose. The purpose of tasbih is quite evident and that is to remember Allah.

Over the past 35 years, Mawlana Hazar Imam has sought to encourage us to keep the remembrance of our faith as an integral part of our daily life, and to seek from this remembrance spiritual happiness on an ongoing basis. His most recent reference regarding using the tasbih for calling out the name of Allah, the name of Prophet Muhammad, or Hazrat Ali was in a Farman Mubarak that he made in India in 2018 (see page 144, para. 3, in Diamond Jubilee Farman Mubarak book)

While we all face and feel the effects of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic with the rest of humanity, let us all recall the message that Mawlana Hazar Imam conveyed to us at the commencement of the Diamond Jubilee year, when he said that the faith of our forefathers would help us to face life’s challenges in times of crisis and rapid changes (see page 12, para. 2, in Diamond Jubilee Farman Mubarak book).

“Sitting, sleeping, going about, take the Lord’s name, take the Lord’s name” —
Ginan, Pir Hasan Kabirdin

An illustrious piece of advice regarding our faith comes from none other than our illustrious forefather Pir Hasan Kabirdin, composer of hundreds of Ginans that have illuminated millions of Ismailis over the past seven centuries. In the second verse of Dur Desh Thee Aayo Vannjaaro, he says: “Sitting, sleeping, going about, take the Lord’s name, take the Lord’s name.” (Translation, Aziz Esmail, in his Scent of Sandalwood)

Ginan Dur Desh…sung by Late Shamshu Bandali Haji. Credit: Ginan Central

Carrying the tasbih with us will act as reminder for us to contemplate on the names of Allah, the Prophet and the Imams during any moment in our lifetime. That is the nature of prayer.

Date posted:  April 6, 2020.

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

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This piece contains material from the March 1986 issue of Al-Misbah magazine published by the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom (ITREB). The magazine, like all other religious magazines published by ITREB in numerous countries around the world, ceased publication in the early 1990’s.

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Beautiful recitations of the 16th century Ginan "Navroz na din Sohamna," and composer Sayyid Fatehali Shah's fervent search and illuminating meeting with his Spiritual Master, the Imam of the Time

Conceived and created by Ottawa’s Dr. Nurin Merchant, this Navroz greeting incorporates the rose and jasmine flowers which are extremely popular in Iran during the celebration of Navroz. The base of the picture shows shoots of wheat grass signifying robust evergreen health throughout the year.

Abstract: Two beautiful recitations of the Navroz Ginan by Shamshudin Bandali Haji and Mumtaz Bhulji followed by an explanation by Sadruddin Hassam. In the Ginan, Sayyid Fatehali Shah relates the combined experience of the zahiri deedar (exoteric or physical glimpse or meeting) that he was granted by the 45th Ismaili Imam, Shah Khalilullah (peace be on him), and the inner joy of contentment and ecstasy that he experienced with the bestowal of Noorani (spiritual or esoteric) grace.

Were it not for the shutting down of Jamatkhanas because of the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of thousands of Ismailis around the world would be making their preparations for the Navroz celebrations in their respective Jamatkhanas on Saturday, March 21, 2020. The beautiful occasion of Navroz generates immense happiness and makes our hearts jump with joy as we receive blessings from Mawlana Hazar Imam together with roji and Ab-e-Shifa.

Included in the Navroz Jamatkhana ceremonies, is the recitation of selected verses of the traditional Navroz Ginan and verses from Qasidas.

We once again provide an explanation of the Ginan that many readers have read over and over again but still like to return to it because of its significance in the context of a murid’s yearning to be close to the Imam of the Time. We are pleased to include a full recitation of the Ginan by (Late) Alwaez Shamshudin Bandali Haji of Edmonton as well as a shorter recitation by Mumtaz Bhulji. At the beginning of his powerful recitation, Alwaez Shamshu Haji has incorrectly attributed the Ginan to Pir Shams. This misunderstanding is clarified in the piece on Navroz by Sadruddin Hassam that is produced below.

Navroz Ginan recitation by Shamshu Bandali Haji

Recitation of Navroz Ginan by Late Shamshudin Bandali Haji

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Navroz Ginan recitation of selected verses by Mumtaz Bhulji

Recitation of selected verses of Navroz Ginan by Mumtaz Bhulji

These 2 recitations have been retrieved from University of Saskatchwan’s Library webportal Ginan Central. Click on the link, and you will be able to hear many more recitations of the same Ginan by other Ismaili members of the Jamat.

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Explanation of Navroz Ginan

By SADRUDIN K. HASSAM

Introduction

An attempt is made in this article to give an interpretation of the devotional Ginan Navroz na din Sohamna, which is recited by Ismaili Jamats in many parts of the world on the occasion of the celebration of the Persian New Year which falls on March 21st. In this ginan the composer, Sayyid Fatehali Shah, relates the combined experience of the zahiri deedar (exoteric or physical glimpse or meeting) that he was granted by the 45th Ismaili Imam, Shah Khalilullah (peace be on him), and the inner joy of contentment and ecstasy that he experienced with the bestowal of Noorani (spiritual or esoteric) grace. At the same time, he gently persuades the mu’min (a believer) to always strive for esoteric understanding as well as to develop a lasting spiritual relationship with the Imam of the Time. It may be noted that in Shia Imami Ismaili theology each Imam is the bearer of the same Divine Light (Noor). The Divine Institution of Imamat has its origins in the first Shia Imam, Hazrat Ali (peace be on him), who was declared as the successor to Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) at the famous historical event at Ghadir-e-Khumm.

As the composer has to narrate the exoteric experience as well as the ineffable esoteric relationship, the ginanic diction that he uses has to resort to the traditional and familiar imagery and symbolic expressions in order to convey his message. The words, the imagery and the symbolic expressions, however, blend beautifully in this ginan. This beauty, unfortunately, cannot be recreated in this prosaic interpretation. Nor can we go into the prosody of the ginan.

In this reading we shall first address a common held misunderstanding about the identity of the composer. We shall then make an attempt to describe the exoteric experience of the composer’s meeting with the Imam, as so wonderfully narrated in the ginan, and finally we shall examine and interpret some of the key words and expressions to convey the ineffable spiritual experience as well as the composer’s gentle persuasion to the mu’mins. One hopes that this brief reading will heighten the reader’s appreciation and understanding of this ginan.

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A clarification about the composer and the period of composition

The composition of this ginan is sometimes wrongly attributed to Pir Shams al-Din who lived more than four centuries before the actual composer of this ginan, Sayyid Fatehali Shah. This mistake may have arisen because of the pen-name he has used in the second line of the last verse which reads:

Bhane Shamsi tamme sambhro rookhi.

It was a normal practice for the composer to mention his own name in the concluding verses of the ginan. But Shamsi here does not refer to Pir Shams al-Din  – rather it was the pen-name of  Sayyid Fatehali Shah.

He, like a number of other Sayyids, who did the work of da’wa (propagation and teaching) in India, may have been a descendant of Pir Hassan Kabirdin. Sayyid Fatehali Shah himself preached among the communities in Sind. He eventually died there and was buried near Jerruk which is south of Hyderabad in Pakistan.

The first two lines in verse seven give us the clues as to the period when this ginan was composed as well as validate the real name of the composer. These lines read:

Eji gaddh Chakwa ne kille Shah Khalilullah ramme
Tiyaan Fatehali ne mayya karine bolaawiyya

Shah Khalilullah here refers to the forty-fifth Ismaili Imam, whose Imamat was from 1780 to 1817 A.C. He lived in Iran in the town of Mahallat, which is located approximately 362 kilometers from Tehran. The town is situated on the slope of a mountain. Mahallat is also amongst the most ancient residential areas in Iran and was an important base of the Ismailis; hence the many references to the 46th and 47th Imams (Aga Khan I and II) as Aga Khan Mahallati. Sayyids and murids of the Imam from various parts used to come to Mahallat to pay their respects. This ginan is therefore fairly recent, having been composed either towards the end of eighteenth century or early in the nineteenth century.

It appears that like many other murids, Sayyid Fatehali Shah travelled from Sind to Iran to meet Hazrat Imam Shah Khalilullah.

On arriving in Mahallat on the day of Navroz, he learns that the Imam has gone to the woods on a hunting expedition. The Sayyid naturally feels disappointed that having come all the way, he did not have the opportunity for the deedar. This feeling of sadness is lamented in the first stanza of the ginan. Despite this, there is an undercurrent of inner hope at the prospect of having the deedar by the mercy of the Imam.

The pangs of separation from the beloved and the yearning for reunion are a recurrent theme in Ismaili ginans and also in Sufi mystical poetry. In this ginan, there is the lament of this separation, but in keeping with the traditional ginanic function, there is also gentle persuasion and hope of spiritual union.

We shall now examine how Sayyid Fatehali Shah relates his zaheri deedar of the Imam and how this blends with his esoteric experience.

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The meeting with the Imam of the Time in the woods and at the fort 

In the following four verses (1, 2, 3 and 7), Sayyid Shamsi relates his quest for the Master which leads to his meeting with Imam Shah Khalilullah. The meetings (deedar) fulfilled his intense yearning.

Transliteration:

Eji Navroz na din sohamna,
Shah Ali Qayam shikaar ramwa vann gaya,
Sevak na mann thaya oodassi,
Praan Ali charne rahiya…..1

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

On a beautiful day of Navroz,
Imam-e-Zaman had gone to the woods to hunt.
(I) His murid (disciple) became sad at heart (for missing my Master),
as my soul was yearning to be at the feet of the Imam. (An expression of respect and – obedience to the Imam)….1

Navruz (Navroz – Gujrati variation) is a Persian word meaning ‘New Year’s Day’ (twenty-first March). This is the first day of spring, hence the day is beautiful (sohamna).
Shah Ali Qayam refers to Imam-e-Zaman (Imam of the Time) because Noor-e-Imama is everpresent (qayam).
Shikaar ramwa gaya  means ‘went hunting’ and vann means ‘woods.’
Sevak is ‘one who is ready to serve or obey,’ in this case a ‘disciple’ or a ‘murid.’
Praan means ‘inner life’ or ‘soul.’

VERSE 2

Transliteration

Eji Shah Qayam preete jo chint baandhi
Nar ne preete amme vann gaya
Eva vann sohamna Nar Qayam ditha,
Dela dai devanta rahiya …..2

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

Impatient because of my ardent and deep loving desire to meet the Imam,
I also went into the woods,
which in the presence of the Imam
unfolded like heavenly gates looking angelically beautiful….2

The expression preete jo chint baandhi literally means ‘with love when (one) focuses on the remembrance (dhikr).’
Dela dai devanta rahiya is an idiomatic expression implying ‘the unveiling of angelic (devanta) beauty with the opening of gates (dela).’ When the murid (devotee) searches inwards  for the murshid (master), spiritual insight keeps on unveiling the gates with ever-increasing beauty.

VERSE 3

Transliteration

Eji bhalu thayu Saahebe soomat aali,
Shah Ali Qayam saathe ramwa amme vann gaya.
Anant aasha poori amaari
Shah dil bhaave gamya….3

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

It was a blessing that the Master inspired in me the wisdom
so that I went into the woods.
My intense yearning was fulfilled
because  true bliss had blossomed in my heart…..3

Saahebe soomat aali means ‘the Master inspired in me the wisdom.’
Anant asha poori amaari
means ‘my intense yearning (for deedar, both zahiri and batini) was fulfilled.’

VERSE 7

Transliteration

Eji gaddh Chakwa ne kille Shah Khalilullah ramme,
Tiyaan Fatehaline mayya kari ne bolaawiya,
Anant aasha poori amaari
Neet Ali Noore oothiya….7

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

Shah Khalilullah, pleasantly relaxing at the fortress in Chakwa,
graciously summoned me (Fatehali) in his presence;
then with the constant overflowing of His Noor,
fulfilled my many ardent wishes (for spiritual growth)….7

The expression Neet Ali Noore oothiya implies ‘the mystical experience of the overflowing of the Noorani Deedar of Ali (The Imam Eternal) which was granted (to him).’

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The inner search and experience

In the remaining four verses (4, 5, 6 and 8 ) of the ginan, Sayyid Shamsi, touches upon his own inner yearnings and gently persuades the listener to seek out the spiritual vision through the love and grace of the spiritual lord.

VERSE 4

Transliteration

Eji hette Alisu hirakh baandho,
Avichal ranga Sahebse girahiya,
Evi chint baandhi Nar Qayam saathe,
Sat bhandaar motiye bhariya….4

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

Be joyfully bound in the love of Ali
And attain the unfading spiritual color (the state of bliss) from the Master;
When my mind was bound to the Ever-Living Lord in contemplation
Reality adorned (the Soul) with priceless treasure of (Noorani) pearls….4

Avichal ranga Sahebse girahiya means ‘the permanent state of bliss from the Lord’ and refers to the nafs-i-mutmainna or ‘the contented self’ (Holy Qur’an, 89:27). It is a state of mind which is serene because the self has understood the Reality. The verse of the Holy Qur’an reads: But ah! thou soul at peace! (translated M. Pickthall).

VERSE 5

Transliteration

Eji amme Saheb saathe sahel kidha,
Riddh siddhaj paamiya,
Ek mann ginan je saambhre
Aa jeev tena odhariya….5

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

I (Fatehali) relished the spiritual journey with the Master (the Imam),
and (as a result) I was blessed with spiritual elevation and gnosis (spiritual insight).
He who listens to the Ginans attentively (and strives for the contemplative knowledge),
his soul finds the path to salvation….5

Here the Sayyid implies that a mu’min should strive for the batini deedar (spiritual reality of the Imam). One may achieve this with the blessing of the Imam.

VERSE 6

Transliteration

Eji jeev jiyaare joogat paame,
Praan popey ramm rahiya,
Agar chandan prem rasiya,
Hette hans sarowar zeeliya…..6

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

When the self understands reality,
the soul blends beautifully like a flower
and experiences musk and sandalwood-like fragrance.
The self floats in ecstasy of love as a swan swims in a lake….6

This verse contains symbolic expressions and imagery to convey the ineffable serenity and the inner joy of the fortunate one who has been graced with the the batini (esoteric) experience. The life of such a person becomes beautiful like a flower.

The fragrance of musk (agar) and sandalwood (chandan) symbolizes good behavior of the gifted one through speech and good deeds.

The swan (hans) represents the soul that is pure. Through esoteric and ecstatic experiences it remains liberated and is in abiding love for the beloved.

VERSE 8

Transliteration

Eji bhai re moman tamey bhaave araadho,
Bhane Shamsi tamey saambhro rookhi,
Saaheb na goon nahi wisaare,
Tena praan nahi thashe dookhi….8

Interpretive Translation and Explanation

O momin brothers! With deep affection remember the Lord.
Take heed and listen to what Shamsi says:
“They who do not forget the batin of the Imam (realizable through Imam’s grace),
their souls will never ever be miserable or unhappy”…..8

Sayyid Shamsi gently reminds his momin brothers (rookhi) always to remember the Lord with affection. Here, rookhi is probably the intimate form of the word rikhisar which is used in the ginans to refer to mu’min brothers. The word has been used thus to rhyme with the last word of the stanza dookhi (miserable).

The last two lines are to remind us not to forget the batin of the Imam but to strive towards it through regular prayers. Those who carry out these responsibilities with dedication and devotion can never  be unhappy whatever the worldly life might impose upon them. Thus the souls of the true mu’mins will always be at peace within themselves, knowing that they are under the protection and guidance of a living manifest Imam.

“Remember the Day when we will summon all human beings with their Imam. …” – The Holy Qur’an 17:71

From the above discourse, we can see why the ginan is appropriate for the occasion of  Navroz, which marks the commencement of a new year. The glorious transformation of nature in spring reminds us of the creative power of Allah, who continually showers His bounties for us. Thus, the festival of Navroz should effect a spiritual renewal in each one of us. It should inspire greater love for Imam-e-Zaman as is enjoined upon us by Allah and our beloved Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him).

This Navroz ginan by Sayyid Fatehali Shah reminds us of our spiritual obligations for continuous search for enlightenment through the Ta’alim (teachings and guidance) of the Imam of the time.

Date posted: March 19, 2020.

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

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This reading has been adapted by Simerg from the original article, “Eji Navroz Na Din Sohamna – An Interpretation,” by Sadrudin K. Hassam, which appeared in Ilm, Volume 9, Number 2, (March 1985).

Amid several Jamatkhana closures around the world due to Covid-19 let us all pray at home individually or as a family and seek to give hope, happiness and inspiration to vulnerable members of the Jamat

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Simerg and Muslim Harji
A Muslim offering prayers under the “Rock” where Abraham brought his son Ishmael for sacrifice. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ. Copyright.

By MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor Simerg, Barakah, and Simergphotos)

When you have not missed a day in Jamatkhana attendance over the past several years, how do you cope with sudden and unforeseen closures of your favourite Jamatkhana? We live in difficult circumstances. Covid-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — has infected tens of thousands around the world and has been declared a pandemic, causing anxiety and worry. I left a pharmacy on Friday March 13 with a customer expressing, “it feels like death can approach anyone of us, and I just feel at the moment that I might die.” When I next visited a supermarket at around noon time, people were filling their shopping carts to the brim with supplies for their families. Ismaili institutions in Canada on the same day announced the closure of Jamatkhanas in several provinces around the country to protect the elderly and everyone who is vulnerable due to compromised immune systems. A similar decision was made by the USA Aga Khan Council for cities across many states on Saturday, March 14. Of course, these are also containment measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. These measures have also been necessary as a result of bans that have been imposed by state or provincial or even Federal authorities on large gatherings.

In 1979, I was left with a difficult situation of being the only Ismaili in Salt Lake City, Utah, for several months, until a family arrived just before I left the following summer. The nearest Jamatkhanas were in Denver, Las Vegas and Phoenix, hundreds of miles away. I disciplined myself to pray regularly and the happiness and strength I achieved was comparable to my earlier praying days at 5 Palace Gate in London, England. In London, I had become a regular only in 1976, and before that attended Jamatkhanas only on Fridays at Central Hall when I was a student at the Polytechnic of North London. In Salt Lake City, I set aside a corner in my room for the purpose of praying. It was a tiny 12-15 sq ft space beside my bed. The night table contained my rosary (tasbih), with the drawers containing Farman and Ginan books along with a copy of the Holy Qur’an as well as some literary magazines and books. I performed my prayers in an identical fashion to what takes place in Jamatkhana — reciting the Du’a, Farmans and Ginans loudly as well as standing up for the tasbih. My heart and soul enjoyed the spiritual nourishment that I experienced even from praying alone. Chandraat (New Moon day or first day of the Islamic month) was a joyful day for me as I saw the new moon above the Wasatch Mountains that surround the Mormon capital. On my drive home in my roommate’s car, I looked forward to the special Chandraat prayers that I would recite.

A few years ago in Ottawa, I met and interviewed the eldest member of the Ismaily family, who was probably the first Ismaili to settle in Canada in the early 1950’s. He had met our beloved 48th Imam Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, His Highness the Aga Khan III (1877-1957), just before his lone settlement in a new country. He told me the late Imam asked him to set aside a small portion of his room and conduct his prayers in that space just as he would in a Jamatkhana. The Imam also asked him to keep away from bad and evil social habits, and to work hard. Mr. Ismaily abided, and said that the practice that he adopted of praying regularly in a designated space gave him immense strength, comfort and spiritual happiness.

So here are my recommendations to families where Jamatkhanas have been temporarily closed — and we don’t yet know for how long! Try as a family to pray together. Visit your parents or grandparents at their home, if you are not staying with them, and say to them that you would like to join them for prayers. When visiting them, if you are healthy, take precautions such as hand washing and other important recommended hygienic steps like the ones posted by the Government of Singapore.

Remember they have all of a sudden been deprived of the most valuable moments in their lives — being in Jamatkhanas. Tell them you will recite the Du’a out loud. Keep in mind that many elderly people rely on listening to the prayers recited by another person. Many do not have the capacity to recite the Du’a. Play or recite a ginan or qasida, and join together in tasbihs to help ease our difficulties that we are facing at the present time. Say Ya Allah, Ya Muhammad or Ya Ali. Recite Salwats. Recite the tasbihs of Allahu Akhbar (God is Great), Subhanallah (Glory be to God) and Alhamdulillah (All praise is due to Allah) suggested by the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S) to his beloved daughter Bibi Fatimah (A.S.). Say the tasbih of Ya Ali Tu Rahem Kar (O Ali be Merciful) Ya Mawla Tu Fazal Kar (O Lord [Ali] be gracious) that we recite during Jamati Satada (7 consecutive days of special prayers for the easing of difficulties). Remember, Mawlana Hazar Imam is our strength, so say Ya Shah Karim Ya Mawlana anta Quwati from the 5th part (O Shah Karim, You are my strength/support).

This is a perfect time to come together at home as families, with no live sporting distractions to take occupy our times! It is an opportunity to be together, to help each other out, to motivate each other, to connect more with our parents and children and to build family unity. It is also an opportunity to develop a balanced life, for those who are immersed with worldly issues, and engage more with our faith. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s blessings are with us constantly, and it is an opportune time to read his Farmans from the two-set Farman books that has just been published under his directive. Read them aloud to your children, siblings, parents and grandparents when you are around them.

These are my humble suggestions to ease through the anxious times that we face which is unprecedented in recent history.

May we continue to fulfill our spiritual responsibilities well during this difficult and anxious time in our lives to avail ourselves of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s constant blessings for our well-being, strength and mushkil asan (protection from difficulty).

Finally, as a subscriber to the National Geographic (NG) magazine, I would recommend this superb link containing educational and informative articles on the Coronavirus from the magazine’s fine writers and photographers. NG is making this information available without a paid subscription.

Date posted: March 13, 2020.
Last updated: March 21, 2020.

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

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3 Readings including Pir Sadr al-Din’s Ginan “Eji Dhan Dhan Aajano” with meaning for the 82nd birthday of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan

“For hundreds of years my spiritual children have been guided by the Rope of Imamat; you have looked to the Imam of the Age for advice and help in all matters and through your Imam’s immense love and affection for his spiritual children, his Noor has indicated to you where and in which direction you must turn so as to obtain spiritual and worldly satisfaction…” (Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Salgirah Darbar, Karachi, 13th December, 1964, held on the occasion of his 28th birthday).

agakhan_portrait_for_simerg by Akber Kanji

“The closer you come, the more you will see him.” A digital portrait of His Highness the Aga Khan by Akber Kanji. The portrait is composed of several hundred thumbnails representing a cross-section of events during the Aga Khan Imamat. Image: Akber Kanji. Copyright.

Spread in various countries around the world, the Shia Imami Ismailis have their own innumerable ways for celebrating important religious occasions according to their various cultural, social and religious traditions and backgrounds. One very important occasion in the annual calendar of the Ismailis is the Salgirah, or the birthday of their spiritual leader (Imam). His Highness the Aga Khan is their present Imam, and Ismailis around the world will be marking his 82nd Salgirah on December 13, 2018. The following readings will enhance the readers’ understanding about the occasion as well as the special relationship that binds the Imam with his Ismaili followers, whom he addresses as his spiritual children.

In Metaphoric Ginan “Eji Dhan Dhan Aajano” Pir Sadr al-Din Asks Mu’mins to Act Righteously and Gain Spiritual Recognition of Imam-e-Zaman

The Ginan has attained a very special status because it is primarily recited during the festivities marking the Salgirah of the Imam. The appropriateness of reciting Eji Dhan Dhan Aajano during the Salgirah will become apparent as we try to understand the ginan and its underlying spiritual teachings.

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Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Salgirah and the Depth of His Love for the Jamat

The term Salgirah is of Persian origin. Sal means anniversary and girah means knot and hence Salgirah literally means ‘an anniversary knot added on to a string kept for the purpose’. This article approaches the subject of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s birthday in terms of the Imam’s love for his murids and the love and devotion of the murids for their Imam.

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The Preamble Of “The Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”

The new Ismaili Constitution was ordained, signed and sealed by His Highness the Aga Khan on December 13th, 1986, his 50th birthday. His Highness did this with the belief that the Constitution would provide a strong institutional and organizational framework for his Ismaili community to contribute meaningfully to the societies among whom they live.

Date posted: December 10, 2018.

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The Ismaili Imamat and Spiritual Meaning: Communicating the Zahir and the Batin

In the Ismaili tradition, the Imam has a central and indispensable role in helping the believer mediate the outer and inner aspects of life

By KARIM H. KARIM

(This is an abridged and revised version of the article “A Semiotics of Infinite Translucence: The Exoteric and Esoteric in Ismaili Muslim Hermeneutics,” which was published in the special issue on “Visible/Invisible: Religion, Media, and the Public Sphere” of the Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol. 40 No.1, 2015)

Shia Ismaili Muslim theology is shaped by the relationship between the zahiri (outer, exoteric) and the batini (inner, esoteric) dimensions of life. The two concepts are not set against each other in an oppositional manner but are complimentary ways of perceiving truth. This relates to a fundamental religious quest: to know the mysterium tremendum — “that which is hidden and esoteric, that which is beyond conception or understanding, extraordinary and unfamiliar” (Otto, 1958, p. 13). The relationship between the zahir and the batin points toward a notion of gradual perception through the metaphor of translucence, which symbolizes “the constant search for answers that leads inevitably to more questions” (Aga Khan IV, 2005b). Translucence permits partial illumination, but not complete enlightenment. Spiritual insight unfolds serially in an infinite journey. It is the Imam who, in the Ismaili tradition, has a central and indispensable role in helping the believer mediate the zahiri and batini aspects of life.

READING GOD’S SIGNS

The American social theorist John Durham Peters has dwelled on the imperfection of human communication that leads to misinterpretations. On the other hand, he notes that angels are viewed in some religions as “pure bodies of meaning” who understand each other without any distortion (Peters, 2000, pp. 74–75). Muslims believe the Qur’an to have resulted from communication of this kind. They hold the Qur’anic revelation to have been received from God, who relayed it to Prophet Muhammad through the archangel Jibril (Gabriel). The Qur’an itself describes the revelation as imparted to Muhammad through spiritual inspiration (wahi) (Qur’an 53:4). The Prophet expressed the spiritual messages in human language. Divine communication is materially manifested in the text that constitutes the Qur’an. The words of the holy book provide access to God; however, they can only be understood according to the intellectual and spiritual capacity of individual believers. They are simultaneously translucent veils and windows of the revelation’s ultimate truth.

Islamic tradition holds that the Prophet and his companions memorized and wrote down the series of revelations that were received over a period of 22 years. The material was collected in the form of a book after the Prophet’s death. Although the Qur’an has been rendered into numerous other languages, the original revelation in Arabic is considered to be technically untranslatable as no translation – no matter how rigorous – can replicate the specific discourse transmitted by divine inspiration (Pickthall, 1977). The nuances of the layered meanings embedded in the unique revelation would be lost through translation. Replacing the specific verbal signifiers spoken by Muhammad upon receiving the revelation would break the link with its unique spiritual content.

The adherents of Islam contemplate upon the pristine words of the revelation that was bestowed upon the Prophet 14 centuries ago. However, this poses substantial difficulty for the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who do not speak Arabic. It is not a simple task even for Arabs as language changes over time. Contemporary forms of Arabic are quite different from that of the Qur’an. Given the divine nature of this scripture, translation into another language or even modern Arabic would break the link to the particular denotations and connotations of the uniquely inspired speech.

The Qur’an frequently refers to itself and expresses a self-reflexiveness about its transmission, its language, its nature, and its meaning (e.g., 16:103, 4:82, 39:23). The word it uses to refer to its verses is ayat: “These are the ayat of God that We recite to you in truth” (2:252). It is noteworthy that the same term is also utilized for God’s signs. Several Qur’anic passages encourage the believer to ponder upon them. For example:

“And of His ayat [signs] is this that He created you from dust,
And behold, ye are human beings ranging widely!
And among His ayat is this,
That He created for you mates from among yourselves,
That ye may dwell in tranquility with them.
And He has put between you love and mercy.
Verily in that are ayat for those who reflect.
And of His ayat is the creation of the heavens and the earth,
And the difference of your languages and colours.
Herein indeed are ayat for those who know.” (Qur’an 30:20–21)

Kenneth Cragg notes that “This confluence of terms is interesting and suggestive, allowing as it does the conviction that the external world is a kind of ‘scripture’ … [which] speaks Quranically to mankind…” (1973, p. 148). The material universe as well as its historical unfolding, like the revelation, constitute God’s signs and texts that are to be read semiotically to understand the meanings of the messages to humankind.

It is “those who reflect” (Qur’an 13:3) who are able to comprehend the signification of the signs that God has embedded in the revelation and the Creation. Numerous parts of the Islamic revelation exhort the believer to reflect (tafakkur), to ponder (tadabbur), to learn (ta‘allum), to comprehend (tafaqquh), and to use one’s intellect (aqila) (Shah-Kazemi, 2011). Apprehending the divine through intellectual endeavour is a primary motif in the Qur’an. It is significant that the very first verses of revelation to be received by Muhammad began with the instruction to “read” [1]:

“Read in the name of thy Lord who created
Created the human being from a clot
Read, and thy Lord is the Most Bounteous
Who taught by the pen,
Taught the human being that which s/he knew not” (Qur’an 96:1–5)

What is meant exactly by “read” has been a matter of much discussion and debate for centuries among Muslim scholars. The Qur’an’s emphasis on knowledge encouraged its acquisition to become a major endeavour among Muslims. The Arabic word ilm, usually translated as “knowledge,” is one of the most frequently appearing terms in the holy book. [2]

An enormous amount of effort has been devoted over the past 14 centuries to study and understand the Qur’an. The meanings of its numerous metaphors, allegories, and parables have been sought over the ages. Philology, grammar, history, the Prophet’s biography, eyewitness accounts etc. have been brought to bear to know the meaning of the more than 6,000 verses of the revelation. Established Muslim traditions of exegesis (tafsir) based on various explanatory frameworks support specific interpretations. In some cases, the differences in interpreting certain key phrases, words, and even punctuation have reflected significant doctrinal divergences among groups such as the Sunni and the Shia as well as among their subgroupings. Whereas Muslims generally agree that Qur’anic verses have surface, exoteric (zahiri) and deeper, esoteric (batini) meanings, the Sufis and the Shia generally lay greater emphasis on the latter. This tendency is not unique to Islam, since anagogic interpretations of scripture are also conducted by other religious believers, such as those engaged in the study of the Kabbalah in the Jewish faith and the Gnostic tradition in Christianity.

ISMAILI TAWIL

Among the Shia, the Ismailis have come to be known as the group that has most consistently explored the inner aspects of the Qur’an through tawil, the esoteric Islamic hermeneutics (i.e. modes of interpretation). Commenting on the work of Nasir-i Khusraw, a prominent eleventh-century Ismaili philosopher, the former Institute of Ismaili Studies scholar Eric Ormsby notes that

“philosophy and science apply in the realm of the zahir, the exoteric aspect of things, while tawil addresses the privileged realm of the batin, the esoteric understanding of revelation. Neither realm is essentially separable from the other; they are complementary and constitute a whole. They are as interdependent as the bodily senses and the soul, each of which plays a fundamental role in the constitution of the human being and of the cosmos.” (Ormsby, 2012, p. 8)

Human bodies have to engage physically with the material world and the exoteric stipulations of religion belong to the dimension of the zahir. The “human soul, however, needs to know the inner meanings and significance of these acts and scriptures on which they are based” (Hunsberger, 2000, pp. 75–76). It is imperative in the context of Ismaili cosmology for the soul to become enlightened by these higher truths that only exist in the batin (Hunzai, 2005).

Tawil is viewed as an interpretive method which discloses the inner meanings of the Qur’anic revelation that would otherwise remain invisible to those conducting exegesis only by means of tafsir. Whereas the word tafsir comes from the sense “to comment,” tawil involves the quest for original meanings or, more precisely, originary significance. Ismaili hermeneutics seek to reveal to the believer the Qur’anic signifiers (mathal) that are “incomprehensible to an ordinary mind because of their complex implications and extraordinarily profound meanings” (Shah, 2005, p. 119). Becoming knowledgeable of the mathal’s originary signified sense (mamthul) involves spiritual and intellectual exertion of a high order. Tawil opens the way for comprehending the “ultimate implications and aims” (ibid) of God’s signs.

Who, then, can carry out tawil? Whereas tafsir of the Qur’an is performed by knowledgeable members of the religious classes (ulama) among Sunnis and the non-Ismaili Shia, tawil, according to Ismaili tradition, can only be conducted by the hereditary Imam and, to a lesser extent, by members of the Imam’s mission (dawa) (Steigerwald, 2006). Authority for this is based on the Qur’an, which states that “None knoweth its [the Qur’an’s] tawil save Allah and those who are well-grounded in knowledge (ilm)” (Qur’an 3:7). The Shia, including Ismailis, understand “those who are well-grounded in knowledge (ilm)” in this verse to be the hereditary Imams descended from Ali ibn Abi Talib and Fatima, the first Shia Imam and the Prophet’s daughter, respectively. (Sunnis disagree with this reading.) The status of Imams with respect to the conduct of tawil is also supported by the Shia with certain sayings (hadiths) of the Prophet Muhammd referring to Hazrat Ali (Shah, 2005). Whereas the revelation (tanzil) denotes the descent of the divine message to humanity, the Imam enables his followers, through the tawil of this message, to attain spiritual ascent by enabling them to comprehend the original senses of its signified meanings.

According to Qadi al-Nu’man, a prominent tenth-century Ismaili scholar and close confidant of the fourteenth Imam, al-Muiz, Hazrat Ali’s outstanding qualities were his knowledge, nobility, and aptitude for providing proofs. As successors of Ali, the Ismaili Imams are viewed by their followers as having the ability to provide esoteric explanations of Qur’anic passages. Al-Nu’man also describes the Imams “as the bearers of the Divine illuminating substance (nur), and the ones who receive Divine help (tayid), and inspiration (ilham)” (quoted in Shah, 2005, p. 121).

“The traits also denote that an Imam does not require any teacher other than the preceding Imam from whom he imbibes the particular knowledge. The preceding Imam entrusts the Imama to him and thus teaches him. On the basis of all this, al-Numan refers to the knowledge of Imams as the real and true knowledge (al-ilm al-haqiqi) and the one which is transmitted from one Imam to another Imam (al-ilm al-mathur).” (Ibid)

Contemporary Nizari Ismailis hold that their present Imam, Aga Khan IV, who is forty-ninth in lineage since Hazrat Ali, has the authority and the ability to guide them according to the exoteric and esoteric teachings of Islam. Allegiance to the Imam of the time (Imam al-zaman) and membership in the Ismaili religious community are prerequisites for receiving knowledge of the batin from him (Carney, 2009).

EXOTERIC AND ESOTERIC

A book by the tenth-century Ismaili scholar Jafar bin Mansur al-Yaman narrates a series of dialogues that narrate the initiation of an adept into the esoteric teachings of the faith (Morris, 2001). It relates the need for careful intellectual and spiritual preparation and the deeply private nature of the communication between master and disciple. The knowledge of the batin received in this manner is to be kept within the community. Only those who have received Ismaili teachings and comprehend the significance of esoteric knowledge can understand its value. However, the disciple’s understanding of the batin is limited by his/her spiritual capacity; each person can only see the esoteric truth as far as is permitted by her hermeneutic horizon’s current limit (Corbin, 1954). The truth is learnt in stages, and remains a continuing process.

Not only will outsiders not be able to make any sense of the batin, it will also be harmful to them. An explication is to be found in an Indian Ismaili hymn (ginan) which relates several miracles of Pir Shams, a legendary thirteenth to fourteenth-century saint. One story tells of his banishment from a city whose inhabitants did not understand the true nature of spirituality. The turn of events brought him to a situation where he and his disciple had only raw meat for food and no means to cook it. In this difficult state, he asked the sun to descend in order to cook the meat. When the sun came down it did not harm the Pir and his disciple, but its proximity set the city and its people on fire (Hooda, 1948). The account is seen as making a symbolic statement about the power of esoteric knowledge, represented by the sun [3]: it nourishes those who have been initiated into the understanding of the batin by enabling them to gain knowledge of its true nature, but can destroy those who have not. The Imam and appointed members his dawah are the only ones who can provide such knowledge.

Since approaching the essence of the batin is not possible without the guidance of the Imam it is imperative, according to Ismaili belief, that there should always be a living Imam among humanity. The lineage, starting from Hazrat Ali, is expected to continue to the Day of Judgment. However, there have been periods in Ismaili history when the Imam was in mortal danger and had to go into concealment (satr). The Imams under threat from the mid-eighth to early tenth centuries and from the mid-thirteenth to late eighteenth centuries were in concealment, according to Ismaili historiography. Following the first period of satr, the community entered a period of kashf (unveiling) and rose to political power. Ismailis established the Fatimid Empire (909–1171 CE) in North Africa and built Cairo as its capital. Their leaders ruled as Imam-Caliphs over a vast realm that stretched at various times from Morocco to Arabia and also included principalities in Italy, Yemen, and India. However, even at this time, the religious followers of the Ismaili Imam were a minority among a population that included a majority of Sunnis as well as Christians, Jews, and others.

The Fatimids founded institutions of learning in their empire that catered to general instruction on religious and non-religious matters. These included Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, which, a thousand years later, is still operating; it is now a global centre of learning for Sunni Islam. The Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge) dealt with philosophy and the sciences, and was a model for similar institutions that were established in other Muslim lands (Halm, 1997). Fatimid Imam-Caliphs delivered public sermons at mosques on major festivals (Walker, 2009). However, private gatherings known as majalis al-hikma (sessions of wisdom) were held to provide Ismaili teachings to the Imam’s religious adherents. The Imam personally authorized the materials read out at these gatherings (Halm, 1997). A document from the period provides the following directions to the instructor:

“Read the majalis al-hikam, which were handed to you at the court, to the faithful (i.e. the Ismailis), male and female, and to the adepts, male and female, in the brilliant palaces of the caliphs and in the Friday mosque in al-Muiziyya al-Qahira (the Azhar Mosque of Cairo). But keep the secrets of the wisdom from the unauthorized, and distribute them only to those who are entitled to them! Do not reveal to the weak what they are unable to grasp, but at the same time do not look upon their understanding as too poor to absorb it!” (Parentheses in the original.) (1997, pp. 47–48)

These sessions of wisdom regarding the exoteric and esoteric aspects of faith conducted teaching according to the respective levels of understanding of the various congregations among the religious followers of the Imam-Caliph.

MEANING IN MATERIAL CULTURE

IsmailiCentre toronto for Karim's article

Ismaili Centre, Toronto

Whereas present-day Nizari Ismailis do not subscribe to the particular cosmological structures that underpinned Fatimid philosophy, they continue to adhere to beliefs relating to the concepts such as zahir and batin. Their communities (jamats) hold private religious gatherings in Jamatkhanas (congregational houses), which non-Ismailis are not permitted to attend. All those present will have given allegiance to the Imam of the time. The Jamatkhana is the preserve of the Ismaili private sphere. The Aga Khan Museum and the Ismaili Centre in Toronto are located on a 17-acre landscaped site that is publicly accessible. The juxtaposition of these two buildings, separated by some 80 metres, is particularly noteworthy. The former has an active engagement with the public while the latter contains a religious space that is kept private, in accordance with the community’s esoteric traditions. Over the contemporary prayer hall is a prominent glass dome that is postmodernist in design. At its foundation ceremony, the Aga Khan noted that the “building will feature a crystalline frosted glass dome—standing like a great beacon on top of a building that is itself at the highest point of the site—and illuminating the Prayer Hall and its Qibla wall” (Aga Khan IV, 2010). The current Imam makes an intriguing statement about the relationship between Ismaili public and private spaces and also that between the visible and the invisible as well as between zahir and batin. Not only is the Jamatkhana placed on the most elevated spot in the area, its pyramid-shaped translucent cover lights up for the surrounding region, including the arterial Don Valley Parkway, along which thousands of vehicles travel daily.

Esotericism is generally conceptualized in the contexts of closed groups. Esoteric discourse and meanings tend not to be shared with the public. Ismaili hermeneutics seek to bring back potent words to their hidden original meanings, which have spiritual resonance for all human beings. Whereas this cannot be done without initiation into the privacy of the Ismaili fold, the community seeks alternatively to articulate its worldview publicly through institutional work and through appeals to universal values and symbolic discourses using material culture such as architecture and design. The Imam commissions some of the world’s leading architects to design the buildings that house his institutions. The Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat’s building in Ottawa is illustrative of the Aga Khan’s expression of Ismaili perspectives in architecture, even that meant for secular purposes. This is what he stated at its inauguration:

“It will be a site for robust dialogue, intellectual exchange, and the forging of new partnerships—with government, and with the institutions of civil society and the private sector of Canada and so many other countries. To be able to site this building on Confederation Boulevard, in close proximity to your major national institutions as well as representations from abroad, is itself a symbol of the outgoing, interactive spirit which must guide our response to global challenges.” (Aga Khan IV, 2008)

Delegation-of-the-Ismaili-Imamat-by-Maki-and-Associates-04 for Karim's article

Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa

While referring to the “outgoing, interactive spirit” in the secular engagement with the public sphere, the Aga Khan was keen to embed the building, which is representative of the Ismaili Imamat, with symbols that speak to the interaction between the zahir and the batin. [4] In a letter to the building’s Japanese architect, Fumihiko Maki, he indicated that it had to reflect metaphorically the properties of rock crystal, in which “the cuts and angles permit both transparency as well as translucency…It pleases and confuses the eye by its internal planes running at different angles, creating a sense of visual mystery” (quoted in Cook, 2008).

The Aga Khan said that the challenges facing the architect called for

“translating concepts that have a context in our faith and our history, yet stride boldly and confidently ahead, into modernity; for expressing both the exoteric and the esoteric, and our awe and humility towards the mysteries of Nature, Time and beyond. The outcome is an inter-play of multiple facets, like rock crystal. In it are platforms of pure but translucent horizontality. Light’s full spectrum comes alive and disappears as the eye moves. In Islam the divine is reflected in Nature’s creation.” (Aga Khan IV, 2005)

Rock crystal was also prized by the current Imam’s Fatimid ancestors, whose craftsmen carved beautiful objets d’art from this material (Bloom, 2007). Aga Khan IV finds in this pure quartz crystal a symbolic expression of the mysteries of the esoteric, which he asked his architect to explore. “What we observed is complete transparency in some areas and complete opacity in others. Then there are infinite numbers of translucency” (quoted in Cook, 2008), said an associate of Fumihiko. In alternating of transparency, translucency and opacity, rock crystal seems materially to mimic glimpses of the mystery of the batin — which is usually invisible, unclear, or confusing but begins to become more visible and clearer when the disciple learns to orient herself toward it. However, this remains a never-ending process that involves a continuing search through multiple levels of truth in accordance with one’s growing spiritual horizon (Corbin, 1954). The hermeneutic unveiling of religious signifiers is not direct but mediated through infinite gradations of translucence, which appears to symbolize “the constant search for answers that leads inevitably to more questions” (Aga Khan IV, 2005).

CONCLUSION

The term esoteric sometimes connotes a tendency to withdraw from public life, as was the case with the Gnostic tradition in the Christian faith. Whereas Ismailis went into concealment in certain periods to continue practising their esoteric faith in safety, they are vigorously interacting with the public sphere in contemporary times. The community is engaging with a world where secular norms have lessened the value of religious perspectives in shaping public worldviews. However, this relatively small group appears to be working to develop a common discourse based on the broader values it shares with other people. Issues such as ethics, education, good governance, quality of life, pluralism, service etc. have provided for productive communicative bridges with others. The success of Ismaili institutions has also enhanced external confidence in them.

While seeking to ensure privacy about his community’s religious practice, the Imam appears to be engaging in a symbolic discourse through the media of design and architecture to express exoteric and esoteric concepts publicly. Placing an Ismaili Jamatkhana on an elevated location and designing its dome as a bright lamp in the Toronto cityscape appears to draw aesthetically from a sense of mystery reminiscent of the highly symbolic Qur’anic verse of light (24:35) and a ginan’s metaphoric reference to “When the Lord’s light shines in the north[ern] continent” (Peer Sadardeen, n.d.). Outsiders can see the brightly illuminated translucent shell of the pyramidal dome but its inner realm remains invisible and private. Symbolism using material culture is here an intriguing means to communicate with the public about the community’s most deeply held values.

Date posted: May 2, 2018.
Last updated: May 3, 2018 (minor typos).

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NOTES

[1]. The first word was iqra; it is interpreted variantly as both “read” and “recite.”
[2]. It occurs 856 times (Shah-Kazemi, 2011, p. 4).
[3]. The sun has symbolized the Imam in Nizari Ismaili literature (e.g., Ivanow, 1947, p. 18).
[4]. Valérie Gonzalez discusses “a double semiotic structure signifying at both the manifest and the hidden level” (2001, p. 33) in the context of a relationship between Qur’anic text and Muslim architectural aesthetics.

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Karim H. Karim

Karim H. Karim

About the author: Karim H. Karim is the Director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam and a Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. He has also served as Director of the School and of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, England, and has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. Earlier in his career, he worked as a journalist and as a senior policy analyst in the Canadian Government. Professor Karim has been a distinguished lecturer at venues in North America, Europe, and Asia. He won the inaugural Robinson Prize for his book Islamic Peril: Media and Global Violence. His most recent publications are Diaspora and Media in Europe: Migration, Identity, and Integration; Re-Imagining the Other: Culture, Media and Western-Muslim Intersections and Engaging the Other: Public Policy and Western-Muslim Intersections. One of Dr. Karim’s articles is “Clash of Ignorance” and he is currently writing a book on this topic.

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CITATIONS

  • Aga Khan IV. (2005, June 6). Address by His Highness the Aga Khan at the foundation ceremony of the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat (Ottawa, Canada). URL: http://www.akdn.org/Content/121 [February 12, 2014].
  • Aga Khan IV. (2008). Where hope takes root: Democracy and pluralism in an interdependent world. Vancouver, BC: Douglas & McIntyre.
  • Aga Khan IV. (2010, May 28). Speech by His Highness the Aga Khan at the foundation ceremony of the Ismaili Centre, Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum and their Park. URL: http://www.akdn.org/Content/993 [February 9, 2014].
  • Bloom, Jonathan M. (2007). Arts of the city victorious: Islamic art and architecture in Fatimid North Africa and Egypt. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Carney, Abd al-Hakeem. (2009). Esoteric interpretation in Ismailism. Sacred Web, 22, 119–133.
  • Cook, Maria. (2008, December 6). An essay in glass. The Ottawa Citizen. URL: http://www.canada.com/ottawacitizen/news/observer/story.html?id=62eba74e-c926-4291-9d69-a863f011e5ae [February 11, 2014].
  • Corbin, Henry. (1954). Divine epiphany and spiritual birth in Ismailian gnosis. In Joseph Campbell (Ed.), Man and transformation: Papers from the Eranos yearbooks (pp. 69–160). Princeton, NJ: Bollingen.
  • Cragg, Kenneth. (1973). The mind of the Qur’an. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Gonzalez, Valérie. (2001). Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic art and architecture. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Halm, Heinz. (1997). The Fatimids and their traditions of learning. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Hooda, Vali Mohamed. (1948). Some specimens of Satpanth literature. In W. Ivanow (Ed.). Collectanea (pp. 55–145). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill.
  • Hunsberger, Alice C. (2003). Nasir Khusraw, the ruby of Badakhshan: A portrait of the Persian poet, traveller and philosopher. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Hunzai, Faquir Muhammad. (2005). The concept of knowledge according to al-Kirmani. In T. Lawson (Ed.), Reason and inspiration in Islam: Theology, philosophy and mysticism in Muslim thought—Essays in honour of Hermann Landolt (pp. 127–141). London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Ivanow, Wladamir. (1947). On the recognition of the Imam. Bombay: Thacker & Co.
  • Morris, James. (2001). The master and the disciple: An early Islamic spiritual dialogue. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Ormsby, Eric. (2012). Between reason and revelation: Twin wisdoms reconciled. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Otto, Rudolph. (1958). The idea of the holy (John W. Harvey, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Peer Sadardeen. (N.d.). Utar kha(n)dd maa(n)he shah nee [Webpage]. Ismaili.net—Heritage FIELD [First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database]. URL: http://ismaili.net/heritage/node/23196 [November 16, 2014].
  • Peters, John Durham. (2000). Speaking into the air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  • Pickthall, Muhammad Marmaduke. (1977). The glorious Qur’an. New York, NY: Muslim World League.
  • Shah, Bulbul. (2005). Al-Qadi a-Numan and the concept of batin. In T. Lawson (Ed.), Reason and inspiration in Islam: Theology, philosophy and mysticism in Muslim thought—Essays in honour of Hermann Landolt (pp. 117–126). London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Shah-Kazemi, Reza. (2011). Spiritual quest: Reflections on Quranic prayer according to the teachings of Imam Ali. London: I. B. Tauris.
  • Steigerwald, D. (2006). Ismaili tawil. In A. Rippin (Ed.). The Blackwell companion to the Qur’an (pp. 386-400). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
  • Walker, Paul E. (2009). Orations of the Fatimid caliphs: Festival sermons of the Ismaili Imams. London: I. B. Tauris.

 

The Imamat and Didar of Hazar Imam

“With hope I stand at thy door, O Ali! And sincerely beg of thee, bless me with thy holy didar, O great lord and benefactor! At thy feet I fall to prostrate”….MORE

PLEASE CLICK: Simerg’s Imamat and Didar Series (pdf)

The Jamat of Hunza accept the gracious didar (glimpse) of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, as he visits the Princely State in the Northern Areas of Pakistan in 1960. Photo: Abdul M. Ismaily (papa jaan). Copyright.

“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.”….MORE

The Jamat of Hunza accept the gracious didar (glimpse) of Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, as he visits the the Northern Areas of Pakistan in 1960. Photo: Abdul M. Ismaily (Papa Jaan). Copyright.

Date posted: September 28, 2017.

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Passings: Izzat Muneyb remembered through her poetic reflections on Prophet Muhammad, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah and the London Ismaili Centre

Izzat Muneyb (d. May 20, 2017)

By Abdulmalik Merchant

(NOTE: You may submit a condolence by clicking the COMMENTS box shown above left, beside the title — thank you, ed.).

It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Izzat Muneyb on May 20th, 2017 in London, England, at the age of 75. Izzat was buried at the Ismaili cemetery at Brookwood in Surrey immediately following a funeral ceremony held at the West London Jamatkhana on Saturday, May 27th at 10:45 a.m.

We convey our heartfelt condolences to Izzat’s surviving sisters Zarin and Gulzar and their families, as well as all who knew her in the U.K. and many other parts of the world. We pray for the eternal peace and rest of Izzat’s soul.

Izzat Muneyb was raised in Mombasa, Kenya, and then pursued her further studies in the UK where she obtained an Honours degree in English from Birmingham University, a Post-Graduate Certificate in Education from Kings College, London and a Masters in Curriculum Studies from London University, England. She had a varied career, working in the fields of education, health, commerce and public order. She served on various Ismaili community institutions, including the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah Board, Mombasa, His Highness the Aga Khan Provincial Tribunal and His Highness Aga Khan Education Board in Nairobi. As an Education Board member, she originated the concept of, and edited, the Commemorative Issue 1977-78, to celebrate sixty years of Ismaili education in Kenya. From 1983–1994, she worked at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London as a Member of the Education Unit and contributed to the Ta’lim Curriculum which is used throughout the Ismaili world to impart religious education  Over the last few years, she focused on her own creative writing in London.

Izzat contributed numerous pieces for this website, and we are pleased to re-publish her thoughtful reflections on the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.), the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah and the first purpose built Ismaili Centre and Jamatkhana in the Western World that is located in London.

WE  WELCOME READERS’ TRIBUTES IN MEMORY OF IZZAT MUNEYB

We invite your tributes and messages of condolences in memory of Izzat Muneyb. You may do that by clicking on LEAVE A COMMENT (that is also shown at left of the title of this post, at top). Should you run into issues while submitting your comment, then please send it via email to simerg@aol.com, Subject: Izzat Muneyb.

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1. In Praise of Prophet Muhammad
(May Peace Be Upon Him)

BY IZZAT MUNEYB

Author’s note: This song introduces us to some of the titles by which Prophet Muhammad came to be known. They are: ‘Ahmad’, ‘Mustafa’, ‘Rahmatan li’l-‘aalameen and ‘King of law laak’. The words ‘law laak’ in Arabic mean, “Were it not for…” There is a Hadith of Prophet Muhammad, where Allah speaking to His prophet, says, “Were it not for you, I would not have created the universe – law laaka lamaa khalaqtu’l-aflaaka.” [1]

N.B: The lines marked * are sung twice.

Muhammad, Muhammad,
How shall we praise you, Muhammad?*

Shall we call you Ahmad?*
He who is praised in heaven
Shall be praised here on earth.

Muhammad, Muhammad,
How shall we praise you, Muhammad?*

Shall we call you Mustafa?*
The Chosen of God on earth,
You have brought us the Qur’an.

Muhammad, Muhammad,
How shall we praise you, Muhammad?*

Shall we call you Rahmatan li’l-‘aalameen?*
God sent you as a Mercy
To the whole of creation.

Muhammad, Muhammad,
How shall we praise you, Muhammad?*

Shall we call you the ‘King of law laak’?*
Even God says He created
The universe for you.

Muhammad, Muhammad,
How shall we praise you, Muhammad?*

© Copyright: Izzat Muneyb.

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Notes:

[1] Source: Sukheel Sharif, The Jawziyyah Institute, 2006

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2. Building the Prophet’s Mosque — Masjeedun Nabee — in Madinah

An Islamic miniature from Siyer-i Nebi (16th century, Turkey), depicting Bilal giving the call to prayer. Photo: Wikipedia.

BY IZZAT MUNEYB

Author’s Note: This ballad tells the story of how the first mosque in Islam, the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah, Masjeedun-Nabee, was built and how the first Muslims were called to prayer, with Bilal, a black Muslim, reciting the first adhaan. [1] The Prophet (Peace be upon Him) let his she-camel, Qaswaa’, who was “under the command of God”, choose the site. This allowed him to not have to accept land from, and thus show partiality to, any of the influential clans in Madinah.

N.B: The first line of each verse is sung twice. The ballad should ideally be sung to the accompaniment of a guitar.

Qaswaa’ the camel has chosen the ground,
Dig here, O Muslims and level the ground.        Qaswaa’.…….1

Muhammad has said, “O, here will I stay,
Here build my mosque and here shall I die”.         ..…….………2

Cut down the trees and make the pillars,
Lay down the bricks and cement with mortar.      ……………….3

The Muhaajiroon [2] and the Ansaar [3]
Work with a will in the spirit of Islam.                   ……………….4

Aly then asks how to ‘complete’ the mosque,
“How shall we call the believers to prayer?”          ..…………….5

The Muslims think hard, “O shall we use bells [4]
If not a Jewish horn, then a trumpet perhaps.”     ………………6

Then, humble and meek, Abdallah did speak,
“I dreamt, Ya Rasool, a human voice, I pray.”       ..…………….7

Muhammad then said: “O my faithful Bilal,
It is you who must say the very first Adhaan.”      ..………….…8

And so did Bilal God’s praises sing
And his powerful voice in Madinah did ring.          ..……………9

Here endeth my tale of Masjeedun-Nabee,
It still stands today in Madinah city.                       …………….10

© Copyright: Izzat Muneyb
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[1] Adhaan is the Muslim call to prayer. Bilal climbed up a palm tree, to recite the first adhaan, because he wanted his voice to carry far and wide. Minarets appeared around eighty years after the Prophet’s death, to call the faithful to prayer.
[2] Muhaajiroon– The Emigrants, Muslims who made the hijrah or migrated from Makkah to Madinah, because of the persecution of the Makkan Quraysh. The Prophet finally made the hijrah during September 622 A.C., after all the Muslims, except Imam Ali, had left Makkah.
[3] Ansaar – The Helpers, Madinan Muslims, who helped the Makkan Muslims settle in Madinah.
[4] Ringing church bells is a Christian practice – the Muslim call to prayer had to be unique to Islam.

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3. At the Ismaili Centre

Ismaili centre bismillah Entrance

The Entrance Hall of the London Ismaili Centre.

BY IZZAT MUNEYB

As soon as I enter the Ismaili Centre,
What do I see in Arabic calligraphy?

Bismi’llaahir-Rahmaanir-Raheem
Is what I see. ”In the name of Allah
Most Kind, Most Merciful.”

In the name of Allah I begin all things,
In the name of Allah I conceive all thoughts;
In the name of Allah I complete all deeds.

As soon as I enter the Ismaili Centre,
What do I see in shining marble
And white plaster?

I see a star-shaped fountain, pouring out water.

The fountain is so clear,
And the water so pure…

We too must be pure in body and soul
And polish the mirror of our hearts!

Why is the fountain seven-sided?
What does it mean?

Seven is the number of perfection
And seven times seven gives us
Our forty-ninth Imam.

The guidance of the Imam of the time –
And his portrait in mosaic, crafted from lapis,
Glowing with gentle radiance reminds us –
Helps us to grow closer to Allah.

But, have you seen the grey interlace design
Around the fountain?

Yes, it is a flower of beauty.

Al-kathratu fi’l wahdati,
Wa’l wahdatu fi’l kathrati
Is what it means.

The One has originated
The multiplicity of creation;
Now, from that multiplicity we move
Towards the Unity of the One.

And as I climb the stairs of the Ismaili Centre,
What do I see hanging from the ceiling?

I see lamps luminous and gleaming,
Full of light and full of meaning.

By the light of the lamp
We read the Qur’an.
With the light of the Lamp
We begin to know.
The light of the Lamp
Leads us to the Light of God

As I climb to the next level,
What do I see?

I see a painting, vibrant,
Swirling in colour.

It tells of the Verse of Light,
The Aayat’un Noor,
It hints at the mystery of
Noorun ‘alaa Noor.

As I enter the prayer hall
What do I see on the qiblah wall
In dark columns tall?

Carved in wood and written in space,
The panels say, Allah, Muhammad and Ali,
Allah, Muhammad and Ali.

These Beautiful Names invite me
To take my place with the Jamat,
They become my rosary.

As I sit down, as I close my eyes,
What do I do? What do I say?

I remember Allah.
I say,“Ya Muhammad”, “Ya Ali”,
I say, Salawaatu’llaahi alayhumaa
Salawaatu’llaahi alayhumaa.

The Grace of God fills the hall,
The Light of God bathes us all.

Cleansed in thought and spirit,
I feel the presence of God
And am filled with His peace.

© Copyright: Izzat Muneyb.

Date posted: May 27, 2017.
Last updated: May 30, 2017 (formatting and new comments).

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Editorial Note: The poem was first published in July 1987 in Ilm, Volume 11, No. 2, p. 39-41. It was originally written for the younger members of the Jamat, to be recited either by an individual, or as a choric or part poem. Readers might find the movement of the poem interesting. As the individual climbs higher through the various levels of the London Ismaili Centre to the Jamatkhana hall, so also the poem marks an inner journey from a physical to a devotional and then to a spiritual plane of being.

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Your tribute to Izzat Muneyb

We invite your tributes and messages of condolences in memory of Izzat Muneyb whose funeral took place on Saturday, May 27, 2017 in London, England. Readers may do so by clicking on LEAVE A COMMENT. If you encounter problems in submitting your comment, then please send it to simerg@aol.com, Subject Izzat Muneyb.

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.

His Highness the Aga Khan’s 80th Birthday: What Jamats Can Give to their Oldest Serving Imam On this Singularly Important Occasion to Make Him Happy

SALGIRAH MUBARAK TO ISMAILIS AROUND THE WORLD

A portrait of His Highness the Aga Khan taken by Jean-Marc Carisse a few years ago. Copyright: Jean-Marc Carisse.

A portrait of His Highness the Aga Khan. Photo: Jean-Marc Carisse. Copyright.

Introduced by Abdulmalik Merchant
(Editor: Simerg, Simergphotos and barakah)

Spread in various countries around the world, the Shia Imami Ismailis have their own innumerable ways for celebrating important religious occasions according to their various cultural, social and religious traditions and backgrounds. One very important occasion in the annual calendar of the Ismailis is the Salgirah, or the birthday of their Imam. His Highness the Aga Khan is their present Imam, and Ismailis around the world are  marking his 80th Salgirah on December 13, 2016.

His 80th birthday makes Mawlana Hazar Imam’s lifespan the longest in the chain of forty-nine Imams who have succeeded as hereditary Imams after Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.). The previous Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan III, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (November 2, 1877 – July 11, 1957), lived almost 80 years! Combined, the reigns of the successive 48th and 49th Imams have lasted and incredible 131 years! Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah became Imam at the age of 7, and reigned for 72 years while Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini became Imam on July 11, 1957 at the age of 20, and has already reigned for 59 years. Simerg has dedicated a special website, http://www.barakah.com, to celebrate his Diamond Jubilee, and extensive material will be added to barakah during the next several months leading to the Diamond Jubilee next July.

For this historical and singularly auspicious Salgirah, we extend our heartiest congratulation to Mawlana Hazar Imam and the Noorani family as well as to all Ismailis around the world. We join with all our readers to offer prayers for Mawlana Hazar Imam’s long life and good health and pray that every Ismaili may have barakah and spiritual peace through his blessings. We also pray for jamati members who are facing hardships and difficulties in many parts of the world, such as in Syria, with hope that peace and security may return to their homelands.

The following excerpts from Mawlana Hazar Imam’s farmans and articles will enhance the readers’ understanding about the occasion as well as the special relationship that binds the Imam of the Time with his spiritual children.

Hazar Imam’s Profound Birthday Wish

“I would like my Jamat to think what is the meaning of a birthday in an individual’s life and what is is the meaning of a birthday in Imam’s life. What can a jamat give to Imam on his birthday and what would really make him happy, and, after all, this, in an individual’s life and in Imam’s life, should and must be a day of happiness.

“Jamat can give me one happiness; that is that they should be united, that they should be regular in all jamat work and that they should live in the best tradition of my spiritual children.  My East Pakistan [now Bangladesh – ed.] jamats have given me this gift for nine days and I want you to know that today is not only a symbolic birthday but it is a real birthday, it is a day of real happiness for me.”

“….My jamat should accept in all matters nothing but the best; this means that you should seek to improve your worldly conditions by every means possible so long as you remain within our faith. Spiritually this means that you have to be regular in prayer, regular in service, regular in attendance in jamatkhana.” — Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Farman Mubarak, Dacca, December 9, 1964. [1]

Imam’s Guidance and Love Through Noor (Light) of Imamat Guides His Community to Worldly and Spiritual Satisfaction

“You have gathered here today to wish me a happy birthday and to reaffirm your loyalty and love to your Imam. My happiness at being with you on this occasion is deep and pure; all my thoughts, all my hopes and all my prayers are for you.

“Since the 11th of July 1957, all my aims and ambitions have been devoted to help and guide my spiritual children in spiritual and worldly matters. The happiness which I have gained from my work, the encouragement to carry more and more responsibility and undertake more and more projects, the continuous search for truth in all matters, all this has been due to you.

“For hundreds of years, my spiritual children have been guided by the rope of Imamat; you have looked to the Imam of the Age for advice and help in all matters and through your Imam’s immense love and affection for his spiritual children, his Noor has indicated to you where and in which direction you must turn, so as to obtain spiritual and worldly satisfaction.” Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Farman Mubarak, Karachi, December 13, 1964 [2]

Faith and Spiritual Humility in a Rapidly Advancing Material World

“During the next generations, you will be living in a world of increasing material plenty, of voluminous material activity, and where a large part of man’s intelligence and thought will be devoted to providing material benefits to you.

“In the minds of some, there may be one day, some confusion as to the meaning and necessity for faith and if my spiritual children were ever to manage their lives in such a way as to come to believe that their minds create rather than having been created and that their material comfort is such that spiritual humility is  no longer warranted, I can tell you now that the true and real happiness, which I pray it should be your blessing to experience will never touch your hearts.

“Any rapid change in your material surroundings will impose upon you immense unhappiness, immense worry and frustration. You will fall to understand that the material benefits will have produced in your hearts only dissatisfaction and disillusionment, when in fact you have in front of you every day from sunrise to sunset, from this world to all the others, from the smallest material particle to the creation of life itself, a visual and intellectual proof that as yet man has succeeded only in a minute manner to influence the world in which he lives and that this influence has been exercised only on what some misguided believe to be the significant aspect of human life on earth and that is the material one. Our concept has always maintained worldly matters where they belong and I am convinced that as a whole my jamat is a great deal happier than many others who have unlimited material wealth but who know not from where this wealth comes, what is its value, and why it is, even in practical terms, tending to become more and more of a burden rather than a blessing.” Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Farman Mubarak, Karachi, December 13, 1964. [2]

Blessings

“On this happy day I rejoice in being with my spiritual children and in the knowledge that their spiritual and moral strength is such as to allow them to benefit from many more worldly goods without forsaking the remembrance of, and the submission to, ‘He from whom we have come and to whom we will return’.

“I give on this occasion to each and every spiritual child here and every spiritual child today living in this world, my most affectionate paternal maternal loving blessings: Khanavadan, Khanavadan.” Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, Farman Mubarak, Karachi, December 13, 1964. [2]

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References:

[1]. Hikmat, His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismailia Association for Canada [now Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board, ed.], Salgirah issue, December 13, 1986, Vol. II, No. VIII, p. 3.
[2]. Ismaili Mirror, Pak Ismailia Publication, Garden Jamatkhana, 13 December 1974, Karachi, Pakistan, p. 5. Also see Hikmat, Vol II, No. VI, February/March 1986, p. 1.

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READINGS ON THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SALGIRAH

Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Salgirah and the Depth of His Love for the Jamat

The term Salgirah is of Persian origin. Sal means anniversary and girah means knot and hence Salgirah literally means ‘an anniversary knot added on to a string kept for the purpose’. This article approaches the subject of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s birthday in terms of the Imam’s love for his murids and the love and devotion of the murids for their Imam.

In Salgirah Ginan Pir Sadr al-Din Asks Mu’mins to Act Righteously and Gain Spiritual Recognition of Imam-e-Zaman

+ Listen to ginan at Ginan Central

Eji Dhan Dhan Aajano has attained a very special status because it is primarily recited during the festivities marking the birthday of Mawlana Hazar Imam. The appropriateness of reciting the ginan during Salgirah will become apparent as we try to understand the ginan and its underlying spiritual teachings. To listen to various renditions of Eji Dhan Dhan (#160),  as well as over 760 other ginans please click http://ginans.usask.ca/recitals/ginans.php?id=0.

The Preamble Of “The Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims”

The new Ismaili Constitution was ordained, signed and sealed by His Highness the Aga Khan on December 13th, 1986, his 50th birthday. His Highness did this with the belief that the Constitution would provide a strong institutional and organizational framework for his Ismaili community to contribute meaningfully to the societies among whom they live.

His Highness the Aga Khan and the Ismailis

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On the occasion of His Highness the Aga Khan’s 75th birthday on December 13, 2011, Simerg published a three-part photo essay tribute to the 49th Ismaili Imam. For those who may have missed, the series has been consolidated into a captivating one piece photo essay, which can be read by clicking on the above link.

Date posted: December 12, 2016.

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