The world woke up to books during the pandemic and book sales even went up, but ITREB did not empower the Jamat to read by offering curbside pick up and online ordering of important books

This matter has been on my mind for 12 months, and this piece was prepared some 3 months ago. I have now decided to post it after patiently waiting for Jamati institutions, and specifically ITREB, to provide an absolutely essential service to the Jamat — availability of Farman books, important objects (eg. tasbihs) as well as Dua recordings with meanings, and copies of the Qur’an.

By MALIK MERCHANT
Publisher/Editor  SimergphotosBarakah and Simerg

ITREB Curbside pickup
If booksellers and communities can arrange for curbside pickup, the best volunteers in the world can offer this service to the Jamat. Image — imaginary but all is doable — Malik Merchant/Simerg.

Millions of Americans and Canadians turn to Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Newshour every evening for solid and reliable reporting, insightful analysis as well as highly informative interviews that are conducted by the network’s team of outstanding reporters. PBS and its member stations across the USA lay claim to being “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.”

For some time now the Newshour program, which is anchored by Judy Woodruff, has been running special regular episodes under the banner “CANVAS, PBS’s Newshour art hub.” In a broadcast in late December, PBS reporter Amna Nawaz turned her attention to two American booksellers for their look at the year in books and the public response to books during the Covid-19 year of isolation and pain (read article).

Janet Webster Jones of Source Booksellers in Detroit told Nawaz, “We have been so busy…. that we can hardly answer the phone. We have had a very busy, busy season. We have been frantically doing our fulfillment orders, as well as greeting people by twos and threes as they come to the store.” Ann Patchett co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville added, “People have stepped up to help us out, ordering books online, ordering curbside. We have been running books out to people’s car. And now we’re letting a few people into the store at a time. We take everybody’s temperature. Everybody wears masks, hand sanitizer. And people have been really kind and compliant and supportive. It’s been a very heartwarming Christmastime.”

Thus, as we abide by social distancing guidelines to stay home, books suddenly have become more vital than ever! It is interesting to note that all across North America many religious organizations as well as bookstores have facilitated curbside pick-ups or ramped up their online platforms to service members of their communities (read article).

Shortly after the first shutdown of Jamatkhanas in mid-March (2020), following provincial or federal restrictions recommendations, I had proposed to the national leadership of ITREB (Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board) to facilitate curbside pickup of a selection of books and objects that are close to the heart of Jamat. I had personally offered my assistance to volunteer curbside pickup at the Ismaili Centre in Toronto. Remember, that after more than 40 years of waiting, the Jamat was finally presented with a 2-volume set of Farman books sometime in the middle of January 2020. By the time of Jamatkhana closures in mid March (2020), thousands had already acquired their copies of the Farman books. Yet there were an equal number who never acquired the set. Those who missed the opportunity during the 6-8 week between January and March would have hardly thought that the Jamatkhanas would remain closed for such a lengthy period, or that they would open with limited capacity. I was told that an online order processing system was being seriously considered to fulfill an important and vital need for the Jamat. It hasn’t materialized. I quote, “Do not let time pass….once it has passed it has gone forever.” (Mawlana Hazar Imam, India, 1973).

In addition to the Farman books, Jamati members would want Tasbihs, Mawlana Hazar Imam’s photographs, Du’a and Ginan books and audios, copies of the Holy Qur’an as well as a few other texts from the Institute of Ismaili Studies that are within the grasp of the Jamat’s understanding (Eagle’s Nest?). The pandemic would have provided the opportunity for the Jamat of all ages to begin to become more literary oriented at home. Also, parents would have been able to spend some time teaching their children to recite Du’a properly, and to request them to learn the meaning of the Du’a (“How many amongst you can tell me what the word qul is?” — Mawlana Hazar Imam, Atlanta March 17, 2018. One hand went up!). Memorization by phrases would be excellent, for starters.

Indigo (Chapters-Indigo), the largest bookseller chain in Canada, offering curbside pick-up and even in-store purchase when provinces were not in total shutdown.

Yes, the curbside pickup would have required devotion of time by Jamati members and volunteers of a few hours every week, say at parking lots of selected Jamatkhanas across Canada or in large spaces within the Jamatkhana premises. But where there is a will there is a way, just as our institutions and volunteers around the world organized food and water distributions for their respective communities, Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike, during the pandemic. Their efforts were highly appreciated in the communities they served.

The sad part is that once Jamatkhanas re-opened in Canada last summer with limited capacity, the literature counters continued to remain closed. Social distancing could have been instituted at Jamatkhana literature counters or at appropriate larger areas (such as social halls) during this window that was available. Curbside pick-up should have been facilitated for those unable to attend Jamatkhanas. The summertime window closed! Autumn once saw Jamatkhana closures due to the rise in Covid-19 cases.

Then, last month we saw the re-opening of some Jamatkhanas in Ontario, which are now once again closed down, as of the week of April 5th due to lockdown measures. So when windows of opportunities are available, however brief, we have to take advantage of them. And friends can purchase for their family members who might not attend Jamatkhanas for sometime.

In addition, an online shop should be strongly considered where authenticated Jamati members, who are in the Jamati data base, may be able to order books and then do curbside collections at selected hours. This is not rocket science, just as registration for Jamatkhana attendance is not. If other communities and institutions can take appropriate measures to serve their constituents with energy and some creativity, there is no reason why we can’t equal their enthusiasm, with the best volunteers in the world we have.

Can we be prepared for such eventualities, as well as opportunities that come our way, and not let time pass without being aware that once it has passed, it has gone forever?

Date posted: April 9, 2021.

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Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Photo of the Day: Birds Vying for Pole Position on Flag of the Ismaili Imamat

At least twice a week, starting Saturday March 27, 2021, our sister website Simergphotos will publish a photo — or photos — of the day that we think our readers will find interesting and even inspiring. Our focus will be on photos related to the work and projects of the Ismaili Imamat and the Ismaili community, in any part of the world, as well as nature and people photos. Please see our featured photos for March 27, 2021 by clicking BIRDS VYING ISMAILI IMAMAT FLAG POLE POSITION

Photo of the Day Simerg Malik Merchant
Please click on image for “Photo(s) of the Day.”

Date posted: March 27, 2021

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Celebrate Navroz with Smithsonian: Painting with Natural Colours in a Live Session on Saturday, March 13 – No Art Experience or Special Supplies Needed

A hands-on workshop designed for sixteen years and older will be conducted on Saturday, March 13, 2021 from 1-3 pm (Eastern Time USA/Canada) by Sayeh (Saya) Behnam, an Iranian American artist based in northern Virginia who works with materials from nature, such as flowers, spices (saffron, turmeric), teas, and minerals to paint decorative eggs and postcards with Persian motifs. No art experience or specialized materials are needed for this workshop; the participants will make their supplies during the workshop from items commonly found at home.

The program is part of the event series Nowruz: A Persian New Year Celebration organized by the Smithsonian’s Asian Art Museum, and is made possible by the Jahangir and Eleanor Amuzegar Persian Cultural Celebrations Fund. Please register for the event by clicking HERE. One registration per household. A Zoom link and a list of suggested materials will be sent to registered participants ahead of the workshop. Enjoy this fun-filled event organized by one of the world’s leading museum institutions – the Smithsonian in Washington DC.

Date posted: March 11, 2021.

Featured image at top of post is credited to Saya Behnam (via Smithsonian)

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Also see our recent post Navroz books for your children to enjoy

At Simerg, Barakah and Simergphotos: 1946 Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee Medal, 1957 Aga Khan Pemba Visit, Hazrat Ali, Aga Khan Park, Ismaili Authors and Mrs. Merchant

1946 His Highness the Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee

Photographs and story of a historical gold medal that was presented to a British Colonial Officer at the Aga Khan’s Diamond Jubilee in 1946 (READ ARTICLE).

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Ismaili Authors: Zeni Shariff

Little One, You Are the Universe by Ismaili author Zeni Shariff of Toronto Canada

Toronto based Ismaili artist and author introduces “Little One, You are the Universe,” the latest of her three books, by answering a series of short question (READ ARTICLE).

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1957 Pemba Visit by His Highness the Aga Khan

Kamruddin Rashid and Shah Abdulla, both originally from Pemba, share their rare photo collection of His Highness the Aga Khan’s 1957 historical visit to the towns of Chake Chake and Wete in the Island of Pemba (READ ARTICLE).

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Ginan for Hazrat Ali’s Birth Anniversary

The unforgettable (Late) Alwaez Shamshu Bandali Haji inspires us with selected Ginanic verses as we commemorate the birth anniversary of Hazrat Ali (a.s.), the 1st Shia Imam (READ ARTICLE).

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Calligraphy, Hazrat Ali Quotes and Imamat for Yawm-e Ali

Hazrat Ali Calligraphy by Karim Ismail

Karim Ismail of Toronto creates a beautiful calligraphy in commemoration of Hazrat Ali’s birth anniversary. The post includes inspiring quotes by Hazrat Ali and his direct descendant His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Hereditary Imam of Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. There is also a calligraphy of the prayer of Nadi Ali (READ ARTICLE).

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Aga Khan Park on Valentine’s Day

Ismaili Jamatkhana Dome.

Close to his heart, the Aga Khan Park is where Malik Merchant heads to for a Valentine’s Day celebration (READ ARTICLE).

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Ismaili Authors: Shamas Nanji

Justice Bertha Wilson Pushes the Boundaries of Humanity" by Edmonton based Shamas Nanji

Edmonton based Ismaili author and philosopher answers a series of question about his book Justice Bertha Wilson Pushes the Boundaries of Humanity through which readers will learn about the Canadian past from outside the boxes of patriarchy and whiteness (READ ARTICLE).

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Passings: Mrs. Merchant

Mrs. Merchant

Creative writer Farah Tejani pens a poetic tribute to the iconic Ismaili religious education teacher and missionary Alwaeza Maleksultan Merchant who passed away recently at the age of 89 (READ ARTICLE).

Date posted: February 27, 2021.

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Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

Hazrat Ali’s Birth Anniversary: Ginan Recitation by Shamshu Bandali Haji

Shamshu Bandali Haji
A rare portrait of Alwaez Shamshu Bandali Haji from his early years. Photo: Shamshu Bandali Haji Family Collection.

Simerg is pleased to present a selection of verses from the Ginan Muman Chetamni composed by Syed Imam Shah that relate to the birth of Hazrat Ali (a.s.). The recitations are taken from Ginans Central, a truly exceptional website which curates Ginans for “long-term access and preservation to foster research and learning in the digital era.” The inspiration behind this unique project is Karim Tharani (read ARTICLE).

Here are recitations of three verses followed by a link to the page containing recitations by Alwaez Shamshu and others.

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

Please click HERE for more recitations by Alwaez Shamshu and others. Also, please visit the Ginans Central Home Page, scroll down the page and see links to Ginan collections as well as tools and resources.

Date posted: February 23, 2021.

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Birth Anniversary of Hazrat Ali, the First Imam: Beautiful Calligraphies and Inspiring Quotes

“Gold remains in this world but right conduct (adab) enables you to meet your lord” – Hazrat Ali

For complete article, click HERE or image below

Hazrat Ali Calligraphy by Karim Ismail
Calligraphy prepared in February 2021 by Toronto’s Karim Ismail to commemorate the birth anniversary of Hazrat Ali. Please click on image for reading.

Date posted: February 22, 2021.

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A Poem in Memory of Mrs. Merchant

Mrs. Merchant

An Ever Burning Flame

By FARAH TEJANI

Like a candle,
In a dark room,
Her light would erase,

Any frown,
Or any pain,
You had on your face.

A gifted teacher,
Full of knowledge,
She’d leave you wanting more.

Her loving arms,
Were always open,
She would never shut her door.

All her students,
Were her children,
Whom she loved with her whole heart.

Not one student,
Could forget her,
Right from the very start.

Her knowledge
Was a mountain,
Everyone wanted to climb.

She imparted
With her wisdom,
Never concerned about the time.

Her bright smile
Filled the hearts,
Of all who came near,

When in her
Holy Presence,
There was never need to fear,

Her faith
Never wavered,
Not once would she question.

The words
Of the Imam
Or his Noble Direction.

Years and years
Of service,
She has given to our Mawla.

Precious, priceless
Memories,
For all of us to store.

With much sadness
Her time to go,
Has left us all with pain,

But if she had words
She’d tell us,

“I am an Ever Burning Flame.

Forget me not,
For I am near,
Closer than you know.

For even though
We leave this earth
We never truly go.

We are with God
Though we may be gone,
And though it is a shame.

You keep me alive
Alive in your heart
An Ever Burning Flame.”

Date posted: February 9, 2021.

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Farah Tejani graduated with her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia in May of 1997 and earned top Honors for her Thesis on Short Fiction. She has published a collection of short stories “Make Your Own Chai, Mama’s Boy!” dealing with different dilemmas South Asians face. Farah also wrote and co-directed her stage play, “Safeway Samosas,” which won “The Best of Brave New Playwrights Award” in July 1995. Her short story , “Too Hot” won third place in the “Canada-Wide Best Short Fiction Award” and was read at The Vancouver Writers Festival. Currently, Farah is working on Childrens’ stories and a collection of poetry called, “Elastic Embrace” to be published in 2021.

Before departing this website please take a moment to review Simerg’s Table of Contents for links to hundreds of thought provoking pieces on a vast array of subjects including faith and culture, history and philosophy, and arts and letters to name a few. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos.

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Also see the following 3 related pieces:

Alwaeza Raisaheba Maleksultan Jehangir Merchant (June 9, 1931 – January 21, 2021), age 89. Photo: Shellina Karmali.

Khyber, a Remote Ismaili Village in Hunza, is Also Home to Magnificent Wildlife: Watch Rare WWF-Pakistan Footage of Himalayan Ibex

In a fascinating 5 part travelogue of his trip to China and Pakistan, Ali Karim dedicated an entire post to the Ismailis of Northern Hunza. His visits to the villages of Passu and Khyber left Ali and his wife Dilshad speechless. They noted, “The experience was overwhelming, as were the sights! The Ismailis of Khyber village and Passu showed us that you can symbolically scale and even climb above the highest of peaks through goodness, warmth and generosity.” Please read Ali’s piece Ismailis of Remote Northern Hunza Rise High Above the Tallest Peaks.

Interestingly, just this past week, the media in Pakistan reported a story about Nyal Mueenuddin, wildlife filmmaker for World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Pakistan and Imtiaz Ahmed, a local photographer, spotting a herd of about 50 Himalayan ibex including females along with their yearlings near Khyber village. We located the beautiful short film on Youtube, which every member of your family, young and old alike, will love watching. The short film follows photos of Khyber Village and Passu from Ali Karim’s must read article.

Khyber Village and Passu, Hunza, Ali Karim Simergphotos
A view of the Khyber village, home to Ismaili families in Northern Hunza. Photo: © Ali Karim.
Khyber Village and Passu, Hunza, Ali Karim Simergphotos
The local jamatkhana in Khyber village is nested on top of a hill, and is surrounded by some of the highest mountains in the world. There is an archway entrance at the foot of the hill beyond which several stairs lead upto to the jamatkhana building. Photo: © Ali Karim. 
Khyber Village and Passu, Hunza, Ali Karim Simergphotos
The main jamatkhana at Passu. Photo: © Ali Karim. 
Khyber Village and Passu, Hunza, Ali Karim Simergphotos, Glacier
A view of the lower-end or terminus of the 20.5 km Passu Glacier from the Sarai Lodge. The glacier covers an area of 115 sq km. The Passu Peak in the back of the Glacier is not visible in this photo because of clouds. Passu Peak, which rises to 7,478 m (or 24,534 ft), was first climbed by Captain Sher Khan (later Colonel) who was part of joint Pakistan-Japan army expedition in 1978. Photo: © Ali Karim.
Khyber Village and Passu, Hunza, Ali Karim Simergphotos, Glacier, Photo: © Ali Karim.
Writing etched into the mountainside in Passu commemorating Mawlana Hazar Imam’s visit in November 1987. The cathedral peaks are at the left. Photo: © Ali Karim.
Khyber Village and Passu, Hunza, Ali Karim Simergphotos, Glacier
A close up view of the writing on the mountain. Photo: © Ali Karim.

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WWF-Pakistan Film

Date posted: January 16, 2021.

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A version of this post also appears at Simergphotos.

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

Institute of Ismaili Studies: Historical Aspirations, Contemporary Possibilities

By KARIM  H. KARIM
(The author is Director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam and former Co-Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies)

“… we find ourselves in the moment of transit, where space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion.” Professor Homi K. Bhabha, former Master Jurist, Aga Khan Award for Architecture

Abstract: A former Co-Director of the IIS considers this key Ismaili institution’s way forward, following its Board of Governors’ recent reconstitution. Although substantial changes have been made, certain features regarding the diversity of office holders remain. The IIS’s past performance is briefly examined in the article, with respect to academic metrics as well as Ismaili history and values. There have been several achievements in last four decades but also some unexpected outcomes. The author discusses the importance of ethics and clarity in chains of authority. IIS’s reconstituted governance structure has the opportunity to put it on a path to globally-recognized excellence and long-lasting impact.

A New Phase

Recent appointments to the governance structures of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) present an opportunity to consider its way forwards. The substantial reconstitution of the Board of Governors appears to initiate a new phase for this key Imamat institution, which occupies a unique place in-between Jamati and Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) organizations. This is a time of particular significance as the Governors are tasked with guiding the IIS towards its 50th anniversary in 2027.

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

The concept of the Institute was formally discussed in 1975 in the historic Paris Conference of the Ismaili Associations, at which Mawlana Hazar Imam presided. He announced the IIS’s establishment in a Talika to the international Jamat on December 13, 1977. The institution began with a very small staff occupying one floor of a London building. Growing and traversing the city for four decades, the IIS settled into its purpose-built home at the Aga Khan Centre in 2018. It currently has research, teaching and support staff of over a hundred and has seen some 650 graduate students pass through its doors. Scores of publications and several sets of curricular materials have been produced. Alumni work around the world in a variety of professions and have particularly enriched the knowledge base of the worldwide Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Boards (ITREBs).

Unintended Consequences

The Institute, which has a very distinct institutional character, operates in an organizationally and intellectually liminal space. Governors have played an unusual hands-on role in the operation of this academic organization. Although the IIS’s educational endeavours are limited to the community, it positions itself in the public sphere. Unlike similar scholarly bodies, it does not identify as a theological seminary or a divinity school. It is a post-graduate institution whose students receive degrees from various universities, including the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

IIS publishes materials on Ismaili, Shia, Quranic and Central Asian studies authored by its own researchers and external scholars. Islamic Publications Limited (IPL), an affiliate, produces them with the imprimaturs of presses such as I.B. Tauris and Oxford University Press. Whereas substantial work has been carried out in examining Arabic and Persian documents, the study of Indic manuscripts (bearing content such as Ginans) has been miniscule in the last four decades. Research is also conducted on the transnational Ismaili community’s living traditions, but it is not published for the most part. The Institute prioritizes a rationalistic and civilization-centred approach over faith perspectives in its course instruction and religious education curricula for the global Jamat.

These characteristics, viewed as appropriate for the IIS’s particular mandate, have, however, raised an air of ambivalence that has apparently produced unintended consequences. A number of students in the Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GPISH), who arrive at the Institute of Ismaili Studies expecting a faith-friendly academic approach undergo cognitive dissonance (Magout, 2020, chapter 6). Most alumni do not list the Institute on their CVs or LinkedIn profiles; faculty members have been leaving for university positions as soon as they secure them; and one of the two Co-Directors’ posts has remained unfilled for almost a decade. Furthermore, donors who have contributed substantially to the endowment are perplexed by the asymmetry in Ismaili areas of research.

Aspirations for Excellence

At its founding, the IIS was compared to learned institutions like the Dar al-Ilm and Al-Azhar University, which were established a thousand years ago under the aegis of Fatimid Imam-Caliphs. Al-Azhar survived the fall of the Fatimids and flourishes today as a prominent centre of Muslim learning. Can one expect that the IIS will also function for hundreds of years? Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether it will make a lasting impact. What will the role of the governance structure be in helping it achieve this?

Although the Institute is a globally-recognized hub of Ismaili Studies, it has some ways to travel before being acknowledged as a centre of scholarly excellence. It recently made a selection of books available electronically, but many important IIS contributions remain absent in cyberspace and from most bookstores as well as university and public libraries. It is also unfortunate that only a handful of its more than 120 books have done well in academic citation indices.

One could argue that standard scholarly metrics are inappropriate for an institution whose aspirations are drawn from millennial-long history. Is it more apt then to measure the Institute’s performance in terms of the Ismaili past? Of the many luminaries in previous eras, the most well-known outside the community are the Ikhwan al-Safa (circa 10th century), Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088) and Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 1274). Satpanthi Pirs conducted ingenious syntheses of Indic and Islamic traditions that stand as major human achievements of pluralist engagement. These intellectuals are exemplars of excellence whose contributions have been of universal significance. They maintained a rigorous independence of thought within parameters of the Ismaili movement and its intellectual universe. Given the aspirations for the IIS, should we expect it to provide the conditions for nurturing scholars of similar calibre in our time?

Contemporary Values as Metrics

Contrarily, one can contend that it is not right to apply historical standards to 21st century contexts. Perhaps the benchmarks for success are to be drawn from the community’s current emphases on ethics, meritocracy, and pluralism. This topic is addressed here only with reference to IIS’s Boards.

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

The new Governors are drawn from commercial and academic sectors, and they include some IIS alumni. Mawlana Hazar Imam continues as Chairman. Membership of the current Board of Governors (BoG), which began its term on December 13, 2020, is remarkably different from earlier ones in size, gender, age, ethnicity, geographic scope, and outlook. Although the IIS has been an international institution since inception, preceding Boards consisted almost entirely of middle aged men of British residence, with the balance tilting towards commercial worldviews. The incoming BoG’s average age has dropped considerably in comparison to the preceding one. There are now six women and eight men, and half of the Governors are currently located outside the UK. Eight newcomers are academics, most of whom have taught at universities. Several individuals have had experience in Jamati institutions, including ITREB, which is a major partner of the IIS. It is also noteworthy one Governor has professional expertise in diversity and inclusion.

There has been some non-Ismaili presence previously; however, this BoG’s members are all Ismaili. When Professor Mohammed Arkoun passed away in 2010, the remaining six Governors were all South Asian men of East African provenance. Whereas the new BoG is enriched by the presence of other ethnicities, all three members of the Board of Trustees (BoT), the IIS’s primary governing body and of which the BoG is a sub-committee, are UK residents of South Asian background, as are all four Board members of Islamic Publications Limited. Full time academics are absent from the BoT and IPL. The former does, however, have a female Trustee. There is much more pluralist inclusion than in earlier manifestations of the institution’s governance structures, but they have considerable room for improvement.

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

A truly unique characteristic of the previous BoG was not identity but longevity. Its more than 25-year term was one of the lengthiest in the world. Whereas this provided continuity and familiarity with the work at hand, shorter tenures usually mitigate detrimental tendencies in such organizations. Stretches that are longer than seven years seem inadvisable.

The presence of new university-linked Governors should help to assert academic norms in matters such as standardized merit-based pay scales rather than particular arrangements for some employees; remuneration for performance adjudicated according to published benchmarks instead of bonuses based on ambiguous criteria; and discontinuation of consulting contracts with Governors. Notably, the current separation of Board members from IIS’s remunerated staff makes the organizational chart look less like the M.C. Escher lithograph “Relativity”.

Ethics, Ambiguity, and Credibility

Ismaili history has seen the development of ethical codes in the works of Qadi Nu’man (d. 974), dai Ahmad al-Naysaburi (d. circa 11th century), Pir Sadardin (d. circa 14th century), and Imam Mustansirbillah II (d. 1475). Writing at a time of deep corruption in the Fatimid state, al-Naysaburi warned that “chaos will reign” with the failure of integrity among the Imam’s leaders (Klemm and Walker, 2011, p. 75). The IIS developed an AKDN “ethical framework” two decades ago; however, this theoretical document does not provide guidance for actual deontological practice. There remains ambiguity about the pragmatics of ethics in contemporary Ismaili institutions. Narratives on this subject have sometimes drifted towards trivialization; for example, one Jamati periodical’s feature on an “Ethic of the Month” seemed to reduce long-term values to fleeting tastes (The Ismaili Bulletin, Issue 54, March 2018). Given the importance that the community gives to the subject of ethics, serious issues like conflicts of interest, cronyism, nepotism, harassment, and bullying, which unfortunately appear over time in most human organizations, will need to be dealt with effectively and coherently. These issues must be an integral part of a 21st century code of conduct that provides clear guidance for everyone involved with the work of Jamati as well as AKDN institutions.

Systemic deficiencies in institutional procedures have unpredictable outcomes and can be factors for reputational loss. Incoming academic Governors will know that ambiguous chains of authority in scholarly institutions lead to the unchecked promotion of pet projects with dubious merit. A book published in 2018 by the Institute (but not initiated by its Department of Academic Research and Publications) was reviewed in a recent issue of the journal Arabica. The reviewer, who is the Director of the University of Lausanne’s Institute of the History and Anthropology of Religions, assessed it to be “a book of propaganda … without method and completely devoid of critical analysis” (Halawi, 2020, 315). Such unfortunate situations can be avoided by instituting an academic editorial board that oversees IIS’s scholarly publications to replace largely ambiguous practices of vetting manuscripts for “sensitivities.” (Such an editorial board already exists for the Quranic Studies Series.) The new Governors will also be aware of the importance of ensuring that the institution’s faculty, students and academic visitors have ready access to library materials that reflect a plurality of views, including those that are considered to be “sensitive.” Such efforts will assist in enhancing the IIS’s scholarly credibility in academic circles.

Transparency and Demarcations of Authority

Despite the noblest of intentions, the tendency in human organizations is for power to accumulate in a few persons. Whereas the doubling of the number of Governors to 14 offers advantages, it may also produce the conditions for the emergence of a hierarchy and the marginalization of some individuals. A horizontal relationship and equitable sharing of information in the globally-constituted BoG is important. Fair and optimal participation by Governors can be ensured by upholding transparency. Transparency and disclosure will not only strengthen the corporate governance framework but also provide Mawlana Hazar Imam with all the pertinent information.  

It is expected that Hazar Imam will meet with the Governors and Directors once a year, with respective Board committees working on specific policy issues in the interim. The transnational BoG has the challenge of working efficiently across continents. Given these circumstances, safeguarding the greatest possible diversity in every committee will help ensure the pluralist expression of views. This should help to mitigate the influence of cliques and undue bias for or against specific issues and employees.

A key consideration facing the new Governors is the extent of the BoG’s involvement in operational matters. Healthy, well-functioning institutions are characterized by clear demarcations of authority and function, with Boards having confidence in duly-appointed Directors to take charge of administration. Clear protocols regarding Governors’ communications with employees, which rarely occur in universities, ensure that administrative authority is not undermined. Scholarly conventions should also determine the leadership of various organizational committees (academic, curricular, and community relations as well as finance and human resources).

 A Potential Turning Point

The strong presence of university-based academics in the Institute’s new BoG signals that scholarly priorities will be paramount in the years to come. This Board’s tenure has the potential for being a turning point. It has the opportunity to put the IIS on the path to globally-recognized excellence by moving closer to academic norms of organization and outlook. Professor Mohammed Arkoun used to speak of intellectual modernity in contemporary Muslim contexts. Such a disposition requires not only scholarly rigour but the confidence to conduct critical introspection. There are important discussions to be had about the adoption of greater academic freedom, critical inquiry, and the broaching of “sensitive” topics as well as about effective ways to engage with the transnational Jamat, with which the Institute has an integral relationship. Governors will constantly have to account for the dual contexts of community and public scholarship. This calls for skillful and conscientious navigation between the shores of the parochial and the universal. The likes of the Ikhwan al-Safa, Nasir-i Khusraw, Nasir al-Din Tusi and Pir Sadardin have shown us that this is eminently possible.

Date posted: January 10, 2021.
Last updated: January 11, 2021 (typos).

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Karim H. Karim

About the author: Professor Karim H. Karim is the Director of Carleton University’s Centre for the Study of Islam where he has held the International Ismaili Studies Conference. He previously served as Co-Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) and Director of Carleton’s School of Journalism & Communication. Dr. Karim has had visiting scholarly appointments at Harvard University, Aga Khan University/Simon Fraser University, and the IIS. He has also been an advisor for AKU and the Central Asian University and has been a member of the AKDN’s Higher Education Forum. Additionally, he has served in Kenyan, American, and Canadian Jamati institutions (Education, Ismaili Association, and Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board, ITREB). Professor Karim is an award-winning author, whose globally-cited writings include publications on Ismaili communities, institutions, and leadership. He has delivered distinguished lectures at venues around the world and has been honoured by the Government of Canada for promoting co-operation among faith communities. He studied at Aga Khan schools in East Africa and at the IIS, and holds degrees from Columbia and McGill universities in Islamic and Communication Studies.

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

Discovery of Abbasid and Fatimid gold coins in jug in Old Jerusalem reflect shifting political power of the 2 dynasties

“The profile of the coins found in the juglet are a near perfect reflection of the historical events. This is a time of great political change as control of Israel shifts from the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, which sits in Baghdad, Iraq, to ​​its Shiite rivals, the Fatimid dynasty of North Africa.” — Robert Cole

[The following compiled piece includes material released by the Israel Antiques Authority. Also, the website livescience has prepared a short video highlighting the discovery of the Abbasid and Fatimid coins. Please watch the video HERE — Ed.]

In 2015, in a post entitled Sea of Gold, Simerg provided a link to a special on-line exhibit about the discovery by a group of divers of a hoard of Fatimid gold dinars lying on the seabed in the ancient harbor in Caesarea National Park. The divers alerted marine archaeologists of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who conducted a salvage excavation at the site and recovered more than 2,580 Fatimid coins of pure (24 karat) gold weighing a total of 7.5 kg.

The IAA then noted as follows: “The coins are of the finest 24-karat gold (96-99% pure gold). They lay on the sea-bed for a 1000 years but required almost no cleaning, as pure gold cannot corrode. Particularly important for the Fatimid rulers, who were Shi’ites, is the mention of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law considered by the Shi’a as the first Imam after Muhammad, as ‘God’s intimate’. Also, the name of the mint and the date of issue appear on these coins, making them extremely important historical documents.”

Just over a month ago, on November 9 2020, IAA archaeologists reported another very significant find at a site where an elevator is being built at the Old City of Jerusalem in the Jewish quarter to make the Western Wall more accessible.

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Excavation of a jug containing 4 coins from the Abbasid and Fatimid periods
The juglet and the four gold coins found recently in Old Jerusalem. Photo: Dafna Gazit / Israel Antiquities Authority.

David Gellman, the director of the excavation observed, “We seem to have found an ancient savings bank!” He was actually referring to a small pottery urn containing four pure gold coins more than a thousand years old that was found by the inspector of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Yevgenia Kapil, during preliminary work that was carried out at the site during the holidays. Gellman says that when he emptied the jug a few weeks later, the four glittering gold coins along with sand were washed into his hands. This was the first time that Gellman, as an archaeologist, had discovered gold and he was immensely excited by the discovery.

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spot where the gold-filled jug was found opposite the Western Wall Plaza. Photo: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority.
Excavation director David Gellman with the Israel Antiquities Authority points to the spot where the gold-filled jug was found opposite the Western Wall Plaza in Old Jerusalem. Photo: Yoli Schwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority.

Dr. Robert Cole, an expert on coins at the IAA, noted as follows about the four coins: “The coins were preserved in excellent condition and could be read immediately even without being cleaned. The profile of the coins found in the juglet are a near perfect reflection of the historical events. The coins date to a relatively brief period, from the late 940s to the 970s CE.  This is a time of great political change as control of Israel shifts from the Sunni Abbasid caliphate, which sits in Baghdad, Iraq, to ​​its Shiite rivals, the Fatimid dynasty of North Africa, which in those days conquered Egypt, Syria and Israel. These historical events are reflected almost perfectly in the distribution of the coins discovered in the jug: two gold dinars were minted in Ramla, under the rule of the Caliph Matia (946 – 974 CE) and the governor on his behalf, Abu al-Qassem ibn al-Ihshid Onuhar (946 – 961 CE). The other two gold coins were minted in Cairo, by the Fatimid rulers al-Mu’iz (953 – 975 CE), and his successor — al-Aziz (975 – 996 CE).”

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Examination of coins unearthed in Jerusalem
IAA coin expert Robert Kool examines one of the gold coins found in a small pottery urn. The coins were preserved in excellent condition and could be read immediately even without being cleaned. Photo: Shai Halevi / Israel Antiquities Authority.

He also explained that “the four gold dinars was a considerable sum of money for most of the population, who lived under difficult conditions at the time. It was equal to the monthly salary of a minor official, or four months’ salary for a common laborer.” This is the first time in fifty years that gold coins from the Fatimid period have been discovered in Jerusalem’s Old City. The previous find of 5 coins and jewellery hoards from the Fatimid period took place after the Six Day War south of the Temple Mount, not far from the recent new discovery.

Date posted: December 22, 2020.

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