Lailat al-Qadr: The Night of Power

BY KARIMA MAGHRABY
(Additional material compiled by Simerg)

In his Khamsa, Shab-i Qadr (the Night of Power), the renowned Persian poet Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325 CE) tells the story of a saint who made a failed attempt to stay awake until the Laylat al-Qadr. This image is taken from a folio in the Aga Khan Museum collection; the Toronto museum is due to open in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum

In his Khamsa, Shab-i Qadr (the Night of Power), the renowned Persian poet Amir Khusraw Dihlavi (d. 1325 CE) tells the story of a saint who made a failed attempt to stay awake until the Laylat al-Qadr. This image is taken from a folio in the Aga Khan Museum collection; the Toronto museum is due to open in 2014. Photo: Courtesy of the Aga Khan Museum

Laylat al-Qadr is the auspicious night when the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) first received the revelation of the Holy Qur’an, thereby conferring upon him the mantle of prophethood at the age of forty.

The Shia Ismaili Muslims observe Laylat al-Qadr on the 23rd night of Ramadan, in keeping with traditions received through Hazrat Ali (a.s.) and his wife Hazrat Bibi Fatimah (a.s.), and the Imams of the Fatimid dynasty. It is a night of special prayer, reflection and remembrance of Allah. In 2019, this falls on May 27, 2019.

When Prophet Muhammad was 40 years old, he received his first divine revelation from Allah through Angel Jibreel. When Angel Jibreel appeared to him, he said:

“Recite: In the Name of thy Lord who created,
created, Man of a blood-clot.

Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous,
who taught by the Pen,
taught Man that he knew not” — Holy Qur’an, Al-Alaq, 96:1-5

The first revelation

Part of Al-Alaq (The Clot) – 96th sura of the Holy Qur’an – the first revelation received by Prophet Muhammad

The night of this first revelation is celebrated as Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Power). The following verses from the Holy Qur’an describe the loftiness of this night and articulate the importance of the final revealed scripture to mankind:

“Lo! We revealed it on the Night of Power. What will convey unto you what the Night of Power is! The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. The angels and the spirit descend therein, by the permission of their Lord, with all decrees. Peace it is until the rising of the dawn.” — 94:5

Cave of Hira

A photo of Cave of Hira in the Mount of Light, near Mecca, where the Prophet would come for his devotions and meditations, and the sacred spot where the Holy Quran began to be revealed. Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) had just stepped into the forty-first year of his life, when during the 23rd night in the month of Ramadan the first 5 verses of the Surah Al-Alaq (96) were revealed to him. The small cave is about 3.5 meters long and 2 meters wide. Hira was the Prophet Muhammad’s most adorable place for meditation.

“(This is) a Scripture which We have revealed unto you (Muhammad) that thereby you may bring forth mankind from darkness unto light, by the permission of their Lord, unto the path of the Mighty, the Owner of Praise.” — 14:01

“And celebrate the name of thy Lord morning and evening. And part of the night, prostrate thyself to Him; and glorify Him a long night through. As to these, they love the fleeting life, and put away behind them a Day (that will be) hard.” — 76:25-27

Mountain of LightProphet Muhammad (s.a.s) received his first revelation from Allah through Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in the Hira cave which is on Jabl al Nur (Mount of Light) shown in this photo. The peak is visible from a great distance. The Prophet used to climb this mountain often even before receiving his fist revelation from Allah.

“We sent it down during a Blessed Night” — 44:3

“Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong)” — 2:185

Hazrat Mawlana Murtaza Ali (a.s.) the successor of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s) to the throne of Imamat is quoted as having said:

“Do not remember God absent-mindedly, nor forget Him in distraction; rather, remember Him with perfect remembrance (dhikran kamilan), a remembrance in which your heart and tongue are in harmony, and what you conceal conforms with what you reveal.” — quoted in Justice and Remembrance, Introducing the Spirituality of Imam Ali, by Reza Shah Kazemi, p. 162.

Date posted: July 18, 2014.
Last updated: June 24, 2019.

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Credits:
1. Wikipedia.org

2. Mecca.net
3. English Translation of the Qur’anic verses by Arthur John Arberry.

LINKS TO A SELECTION OF ADDITIONAL ARTICLES ON THE HOLY QUR’AN

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Muhammad: An Anticlerical Hero of the European Enlightenment

The inside title page of the Qur’an owned by 3rd US President Thomas Jefferson. It appears that Jefferson purchased George Sale’s translation of the Qur’an in 1765 from the office of the Virginia Gazette. At the time, Jefferson was engaged in his law studies at the College of William and Mary, so it is likely that he purchased the book as an example of Arabic law as his textbooks suggested. Jefferson cataloged the book in his section on “Religion,” where it shared the shelves with early Greek and Roman mythology and the Bible. Photo and caption: US Library of Congress.

By JOHN TOLAN
Professor of history, University of Nantes

Publishing the Quran and making it available in translation was a dangerous enterprise in the 16th century, apt to confuse or seduce the faithful Christian. This, at least, was the opinion of the Protestant city councillors of Basel in 1542, when they briefly jailed a local printer for planning to publish a Latin translation of the Muslim holy book. The Protestant reformer Martin Luther intervened to salvage the project: there was no better way to combat the Turk, he wrote, than to expose the ‘lies of Muhammad’ for all to see.

The resulting publication in 1543 made the Quran available to European intellectuals, most of whom studied it in order to better understand and combat Islam. There were others, however, who used their reading of the Quran to question Christian doctrine. The Catalonian polymath and theologian Michael Servetus found numerous Quranic arguments to employ in his anti-Trinitarian tract, Christianismi Restitutio (1553), in which he called Muhammad a true reformer who preached a return to the pure monotheism that Christian theologians had corrupted by inventing the perverse and irrational doctrine of the Trinity. After publishing these heretical ideas, Servetus was condemned by the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, and finally burned with his own books in Calvin’s Geneva.

During the European Enlightenment, a number of authors presented Muhammad in a similar vein, as an anticlerical hero; some saw Islam as a pure form of monotheism close to philosophic Deism and the Quran as a rational paean to the Creator. In 1734, George Sale published a new English translation. In his introduction, he traced the early history of Islam and idealised the Prophet as an iconoclastic, anticlerical reformer who had banished the ‘superstitious’ beliefs and practices of early Christians – the cult of the saints, holy relics – and quashed the power of a corrupt and avaricious clergy.

Sale’s translation of the Quran was widely read and appreciated in England: for many of his readers, Muhammad had become a symbol of anticlerical republicanism. It was influential outside England too. The US founding father Thomas Jefferson bought a copy from a bookseller in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1765, which helped him conceive of a philosophical deism that surpassed confessional boundaries. (Jefferson’s copy, now in the Library of Congress, has been used for the swearing in of Muslim representatives to Congress, starting with Keith Ellison in 2007.) And in Germany, the Romantic Johann Wolfgang von Goethe read a translation of Sale’s version, which helped to colour his evolving notion of Muhammad as an inspired poet and archetypal prophet.

In France, Voltaire also cited Sale’s translation with admiration: in his world history Essai sur les mœurs et l’esprit des nations (1756), he portrayed Muhammad as an inspired reformer who abolished superstitious practices and eradicated the power of corrupt clergy. By the end of the century, the English Whig Edward Gibbon (an avid reader of both Sale and Voltaire) presented the Prophet in glowing terms in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-89):

The creed of Mahomet is free from suspicion or ambiguity; and the Koran is a glorious testimony to the unity of God. The prophet of Mecca rejected the worship of idols and men, of stars and planets, on the rational principle that whatever rises must set, that whatever is born must die, that whatever is corruptible must decay and perish. In the author of the universe, his rational enthusiasm confessed and adored an infinite and eternal being, without form or place, without issue or similitude, present to our most secret thoughts, existing by the necessity of his own nature, and deriving from himself all moral and intellectual perfection … A philosophic theist might subscribe the popular creed of the Mahometans: a creed too sublime, perhaps, for our present faculties.

But it was Napoleon Bonaparte who took the Prophet most keenly to heart, styling himself a ‘new Muhammad’ after reading the French translation of the Quran that Claude-Étienne Savary produced in 1783. Savary wrote his translation in Egypt: there, surrounded by the music of the Arabic language, he sought to render into French the beauty of the Arabic text. Like Sale, Savary wrote a long introduction presenting Muhammad as a ‘great’ and ‘extraordinary’ man, a ‘genius’ on the battlefield, a man who knew how to inspire loyalty among his followers. Napoleon read this translation on the ship that took him to Egypt in 1798. Inspired by Savary’s portrait of the Prophet as a brilliant general and sage lawgiver, Napoleon sought to become a new Muhammad, and hoped that Cairo’s ulama (scholars) would accept him and his French soldiers as friends of Islam, come to liberate Egyptians from Ottoman tyranny. He even claimed that his own arrival in Egypt had been announced in the Quran.

Napoleon had an idealised, bookish, Enlightenment vision of Islam as pure monotheism: indeed, the failure of his Egyptian expedition owed partly to his idea of Islam being quite different from the religion of Cairo’s ulama. Yet Napoleon was not alone in seeing himself as a new Muhammad: Goethe enthusiastically proclaimed that the emperor was the ‘Mahomet der Welt’ (Muhammad of the world), and the French author Victor Hugo portrayed him as a ‘Mahomet d’occident’ (Muhammad of the West). Napoleon himself, at the end of his life, exiled on Saint Helena and ruminating on his defeat, wrote about Muhammad and defended his legacy as a ‘great man who changed the course of history’. Napoleon’s Muhammad, conqueror and lawgiver, persuasive and charismatic, resembles Napoleon himself – but a Napoleon who was more successful, and certainly never exiled to a cold windswept island in the South Atlantic.

The idea of Muhammad as one of the world’s great legislators persisted into the 20th century. Adolph A Weinman, a German-born American sculptor, depicted Muhammad in his 1935 frieze in the main chamber of the US Supreme Court, where the Prophet takes his place among 18 lawgivers. Various European Christians called on their churches to recognise Muhammad’s special role as prophet of the Muslims. For Catholics scholars of Islam such as Louis Massignon or Hans Küng, or for the Scottish Protestant scholar of Islam William Montgomery Watt, such recognition was the best way to promote peaceful, constructive dialogue between Christians and Muslims.

This kind of dialogue continues today, but it has been largely drowned out by the din of conflict, as extreme-Right politicians in Europe and elsewhere diabolise Muhammad to justify anti-Muslim policies. The Dutch politician Geert Wilders calls him a terrorist, paedophile and psychopath. The negative image of the Prophet is paradoxically promoted by fundamentalist Muslims who adulate him and reject all historical contextualisation of his life and teachings; meanwhile, violent extremists claim to defend Islam and its prophet from ‘insults’ through murder and terror. All the more reason, then, to step back and examine the diverse and often surprising Western portraits of the myriad faces of Muhammad.

Date posted: May 6, 2019.

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This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

About the writer: John Talon is Professor of history at the University of Nantes and author of  Faces of Muhammad: Western Perceptions of the Prophet of Islam from the Middle Ages to Today published via Princeton University Press (2019). The book shows that Prophet Muhammad wears so many faces in the West because he has always acted as a mirror for its writers, their portrayals revealing more about their own concerns than the historical realities of the founder of Islam. Faces of Muhammad reveals a lengthy tradition of positive portrayals of Muhammad. Talon’s previous books include Saracens: Islam in the Medieval European Imagination and Saint Francis and the Sultan. Twitter @JohnVTolan

“I Wish I’d Been There” – A story of Prophet Muhammad and Hazrat Ali, and linking it to Hazar Imam’s message, “I think of you as working by my side”

Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) received his first revelation from Allah through Angel Jibreel (Gabriel) in a small cave on top of Mount Hira which is also known as Jabl al Nur (Mount of Light). The Prophet used to climb this mountain for his devotions and meditations. During the 23rd night in the month of Ramadan the first 5 verses of the Surah Al-Alaq (96) were revealed to him. The mountain is located just 2 kms from the Ka’bah.

By PERVIS RAWJI

This is a story of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) and Hazrat Ali (a.s.) from the earliest days of Islam. I have been telling the story to my children, nieces and nephews for the past several years.

When Prophet Muhammad first received his calling from Allah via Angel Gabriel in the cave of Mount Hira, he came home shaking and was comforted by his beloved wife Khadija, who validated his experience.

Now, with Khadija’s support, the Prophet of Islam had to convey Allah’s message to the people of Mecca. He invited the important men of Mecca, including those of his prominent Quraish tribe. The guests came and ate the meal and were expecting an announcement, as was customary. None came, so they duly departed for their homes.

The Holy Prophet’s nerves, knowing the revolutionary nature of the idea about to be unleashed upon the pagan Meccan society, had at the last minute failed him.

But at the urging and support of Bibi Khadija, Prophet Muhammad again invited the same men over for another feast. After the meal, the men waited expectantly again.

This time the Prophet did speak. He spoke of his vision,  the message and the mission he wanted to convey to the  people: that of one God. He then asked:

“And who among you will champion my cause and work by my side?”

None answered. People put their heads down and avoided eye contact.

Prophet Muhammad asked again, “Who is willing to help shoulder my burden and to work by my side and to be my champ?”

Foreseeing the magnitude of such an undertaking, none answered. Then, from the midst of the crowd, an 11 year old boy jumped up.

He was Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s young cousin and future son-in-law. “I will champion your cause, O Muhammad! I shall work by your side,” spoke up Ali.

At this, there was a wave of derisive laughter from the crowd of wealthy and influential Meccans as they contemplated the outcome and struggles of this ‘visionary’ with his little sidekick.

But Prophet Muhammad’s face broke into a smile as he opened his arms and hugged the boy, his brother, really, for had they not both been raised by the same Abu Talib and Fatima binti Asad?

This expression of endearment and confidence in Hazrat Ali is one incident I Wish I’d Been There to witness.

I link this inspiring story to Mawlana Hazar Imam’s 1992 visit to Vancouver, when he addressed the jamat and, smiling from ear to ear, he gestured with his hand and said, “I think of you as working by my side.”

Mawlana Hazar Imam was asking us to champion him in his cause against poverty in this troubled world. His vision is to include us, his lashkar (symbolic army) of men and women, in this endeavor.

Date posted: February 22, 2019.

(This is a slightly revised version of the author’s piece that originally appeared in Simerg’s highly acclaimed series I Wish I’d Been There).

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About the writer: Born in colonial Uganda, Pervis Rawji (née Patni) went to Aga Khan Nursery and Primary schools before immigrating to Canada with her parents and siblings in 1969. Graduating from New Westminster Secondary School, she went for a BA and Teacher Training (PDP) at Simon Fraser University.

Pervis taught elementary school in greater Vancouver, got married, had two children. During this time she got a Montessori diploma as well as an MSc in International Policy from the University of Bristol, UK. Pervis also teaches ESL and yoga. Pervis Rawji has taught English to Ismailis in Iran, India and Syria, and has worked one autumn at the Roshan Clinic in Kabul. Her hobbies are skiing, logic puzzles, badminton and gardening.

(1) “Jesus Through a Muslim Lens” by Michael Wolfe; and (2) “Verses of the Immaculate Conception in the Qura’n and their Impact on a Christian Emperor” by Barnaby Rogerson

“Christians may be surprised to learn that Muslims believe in the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ miracles”…..MORE BY MICHAEL WOLFE

Left: Virgin Mary nurtured by a palm tree in a Turkish miniature, as described in the Qur'an; right: Mary and Jesus in a Persian miniature. Please click on image for Michael Wolfe's article

Left: Virgin Mary nurtured by a palm tree in a Turkish miniature, as described in the Qur’an; right: Mary and Jesus in a Persian miniature. Please click on image for Michael Wolfe’s article “Jesus Through a Muslim Lens.” Images: Wikipedia.

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“Muhammad, who could do nothing to alleviate the suffering of his small embattled community of believers, at last advised some of his followers to leave sacred Mecca and take refuge elsewhere”…..MORE BY BARNABY ROGERSON

The Altar of the Nativity, beneath which is the star marking the spot where tradition says the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ. Copyright. Please click on image for Barnaby Rogerson's piece.

The Altar of the Nativity, beneath which is the star marking the spot where tradition says the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Photo: Muslim Harji, Montreal, PQ. Copyright. Please click on image for Barnaby Rogerson’s piece.

Date posted: December 22, 2018.

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On the Aga Khan: “Not all Heroes Wear Capes”; “I was Serving no Ordinary Man”; “Virtual Head of States”; and “Modern Personification of Historical Islamic Rationalism, Charity and Peace”

Salgirah Mubarak

Photo via Munira Karamkhudoeva of Khorog, Badakhshan.

Andrew Kosorok on the Aga Khan“The Prophet Muhammad taught: ‘The doors of goodness are many…..enjoining good, forbidding evil, removing harm from the road, listening to the deaf, leading the blind, guiding one to the object of his need, hurrying with the strength of one’s legs to one in sorrow who is asking for help, and supporting the feeble with the strength of one’s arms — all these are charity prescribed for you. Your smile for your brother is charity’. And the Aga Khan has accepted this hadith as a personal job description”….READ MORE BY ANDREW KOSOROK

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Michael Curtis on the Aga Khan“It was an unforgettable scene and took place in one of the state rooms of Government House where the Aga Khan was guest of the Colonial Governor at that time. The Ismaili leaders were seated, as is their custom, cross-legged in a semi-circle around their young Imam and the two factions elaborated their different points of view. To a non-Muslim the arguments were difficult to follow, but it was clear to me that a strong difference of opinion existed and that the Aga Khan would be called upon to resolve a ticklish point of theological doctrine.” …..READ MORE BY LATE MICHAEL CURTIS

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Nizar Motani on the Aga Khan“Clearly, if any person or entity can restore Islam to its rightful place, it would be AKDN under the enlightened, visionary, and revolutionary, global leadership of the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims and his successors. The Aga Khan has been called a “Prince without a Princedom,” yet he has been treated by dozens of nations as a “visiting head of state” with his red and green Imamat flag flying on his car and beside the host countries’ flags at official functions.” ….READ MORE BY NIZAR MOTANI

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Michael Hamilton Morgan on the Aga Khan“In this vast tapestry of the interaction of Muslims with each other, and with other cultures and faiths, there is one tradition that unfailingly continues the progressive heritage of classical Islam — profoundly intellectual, open, tolerant, pacific — and in particular one leader who has made it especially attuned to the many difficulties of the world today. That would be Ismailism and its revered Imam, the current Aga Khan IV” ….READ MORE BY MICHAEL HAMILTON MORGAN

Date posted: December 13, 2018.

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Ghadir-Khumm by Late Alwaez Jehangir Merchant and the Imamat by Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness Aga Khan

NOTICE TO OUR READERS

This is to inform our readers that no new posts will be published on Simerg and its sister websites barakah and simergphotos, until the week of September 10, 2018. We invite our readers to click on  Table of Contents for links to hundreds of interesting pieces that have appeared on all the three websites.

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(The following post celebrates Id-e-Ghadir, a major festival in the Shia calendar which falls on 18th Dhul-Hijjah, Tuesday, August 28, 2018). 

For our highly acclaimed series “I Wish I’d Been There”, we invited historians, authors,  and educators as well as our readers to be fly on the wall and answer the question: What is the one scene, incident or event in Ismaili history you would like to have witnessed — and why? One of the thirty-one contributors for the series, Ismaili missionary, teacher and writer Late Jehangir Merchant, went back 1400 years to the beginnings of Islamic history and imaginatively constructed a picture of the iconic event when Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s) raised the hand of Hazrat Ali (a.s.) and declared, “He of whom I am the Mawla, Ali is also the Mawla!” Alwaez Jehangir’s skillful writing brings alive a pivotal time in human history. The long serving educator passed away recently at the age of 89, and will be greatly missed by all.

The Two Weighty Matters

By JEHANGIR A. MERCHANT (1928-2018)

A huge caravan of around 100,000 Muslim pilgrims, spread over many miles of the desert, is returning to Medina after completing the Hajj in Mecca. As it reaches Ghadir-Khumm, the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) is commanded by Allah to deliver one of the last verses of the Holy Qur’an:

“O Messenger of Allah, make known what has been revealed to you from your Lord, for if you do not, you will not have conveyed His message. Allah will protect you from mankind.” (Holy Qur’an, 5 : 67)

00 Jehangir Merchant Portrait Queen Elizabeth Park Vancouver Cropped for Simerg

Jehangir Merchant (1928-2018)

The date is March 16, 632 C.E. A camp is then decreed at this valley, and the caravan gathers together in a vast open space. A platform is constructed from which the Prophet would speak.

The revelation of the verse renders this as one of the most unique messages in the Prophet’s entire mission. It is crucial, and failing to deliver the message will make his prophetic mission incomplete. The Prophet mounts the rudimentary platform with Hazrat Ali (a.s.) by his side. The murmuring in the crowd turns to a silence.

As the Prophet begins his speech, he pronounces the verse he has received from Allah. He then seeks a confirmation from the pilgrims as to whether he has indeed proclaimed all of God’s commands. They affirm this with a resounding voice. Looking up into the desert sky, the Prophet says, “O God! You be our witness to this day.”

“What could this be all about, with Ali on the stage beside the Prophet? A revelation of twenty three years nullified and judged incomplete without the announcement he is about to make!” I might have pondered, had I been there.

The Holy Prophet’s subsequent actions and words provide the context of Hazrat Ali’s presence on the stage. The Prophet takes Hazrat Ali by his hand and raising it pronounces in his high, clear and firm tone:

“He of whom I am the Mawla, Ali is also the Mawla. O Allah! Be the friend of him who is his friend and the enemy of him who is his enemy. O Allah! Help the one who helps Ali and forsake the one who forsakes Ali!”

This singularly important Message from Allah, and the words of the Prophet find further clarity as he adds the following pronouncement:

“I am leaving amongst you two weighty things after me, the Qur’an and my Progeny (ahl al-bayt). Verily, if you hold fast to them both you will never go astray. Both are tied with a long rope and cannot be separated till the Day of Judgement.” (Muslim, Vol. II, pg. 279)

With these pronouncements, the Prophet lays the foundation for a new Divine Order. The two weighty matters (thaqalain) – Allah’s final Book and the Holy Prophet’s progeny through Hazrat Ali – are new partners till the Day of Judgement.

Before descending from the pulpit, the Holy Prophet commands every one of the returning pilgrims to offer their baiyah (oath of allegiance) to Mawla Ali. Omar ibne Khuttab, who later became the second Caliph, was the first to congratulate and offer his baiyah to Mawla Ali saying:

‘‘Congratulations! Congratulations! O son of Abu Taleb, you have now become my Mawla (Master) and Mawla of every faithful man and every faithful woman.” (Ghazzali, Sirrul-Alameen)

Hearing the words of felicitations offered by Omar to Ali, our Holy Prophet asks him to address Ali not as ‘son of Abu Taleb’ but as Amirul-Mu’mineen (the Lord Commander of the faithfuls).

Thereafter, the pilgrims present offer their baiyah. The Prophet also commands them that on their return they ask those not present to acknowledge Ali as their Amirul-Mu’mineen.

This momentous event at Ghadir-Khumm, almost at the end of Prophet Muhammad’s successful mission as the Last and Final Prophet of Allah, culminates thousands of years of Divine Revelations through God’s appointed Messengers. And thus, the revelation:

“This day have I perfected your religion for you and have completed My favours upon you and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.” (Holy Qur’an, 5:3)

Thus, Ali becomes the guardian (Wali) and the master (Mawla) of all believing men and women, and the Prophet’s successor. Allah’s favours upon mankind are completed, and Islam becomes the perfect religion in His sight.

A bilateral Guardianship (al-Walaya) between Hazrat Ali and the Muslim community is established. Al-Walaya is so crucial that many generations later, the 4th Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s.) says:

“The last obligatory duty that Allah sent down was al-Walaya (adherence to the guardian designated by Allah). Then, He sent down the verse: ‘Today, I have completed your religion ….’” (Holy Qur’an, 5:3).

The oath of allegiance offered to Hazrat Ali at Ghadir-Khumm as well as the Qur’anic verse (48:10) concerning the bayah is too important to be ignored, and some five centuries later a thinking Nasir Khushraw, who is not yet an Ismaili, demands answers for questions that bother him:

“Why should later believers be deprived of this reward (of bayah)? What fault was it of theirs that they were not born in the time of the Prophet? Why should God allow that hand to disappear? There has to be someone at whose hand the oath to Allah can be pledged.”

Nasir Khusraw does not despair. His resolve and quest take him to Cairo where the hand of the Fatimid Imam al-Mustansir bi Allah (a.s.) awaits him.

The complete event at Ghadir-Khumm — the caravan halt arising for the revelation 5:67, the gathering at one location of widely dispersed pilgrims, the construction of a rudimentary platform, Allah’s Message revealed by our Holy Prophet Muhammad giving Hazrat Ali the parity with himself by ascribing him the attribute of Mawla as well as instructing Muslims to hold fast to both the Holy Qur’an and his progeny, the raising by the Holy Prophet of Hazrat Ali’s hand followed by the bayah to Hazrat Ali — make this a singular event for me and I Wish I’d Been There.

But, at the same time, my mind wonders about the events that followed soon after the spirit of our Holy Prophet took flight to the Blessed Companionship on High. About eighty days had passed since the event at Ghadir-Khumm, when our Holy Prophet had made Allah a witness to his call and had seen the bayah pledged to Hazrat Ali. Why now was there a doubt and unwillingness to accept Ali as their Mawla? And why did Omar, who was the first to offer bayah to Mawla Ali, declare his support for Abu-Bakr as the Caliph at Saqa-e-fae-bani Saa’ada?

Nonetheless, the Divine Plan of continual Guidance established at this epoch-making incident has continued to flourish uninterruptedly under Divine Protection for over 1400 years. This principle of direct hereditary descent of the Imam from the Prophet was championed centuries later by the Ismaili poet Nizar Quhistani, often with the support of the following Quranic verse:

“Allah did choose Adam and Noah, the family of Abraham, and the family of Imran above all people – offspring, one of the other, and Allah knows and hears all things.” (Holy Qur’an, 3:33-34)

Quhistani explained:

“We search for a union with the family of the Chosen (Prophet Muhammad). We search for the truth of son after son. We are totally obedient to his offspring, one of the other. There is no other thing we can add to this but itself. We endeavour in our faith so that we do not turn out to be faithless.”

Thus millions of murids over time have been beneficiaries of the Imams’ guardianship and today we feel this intimate loving care from our 49th Imam, Noor Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini Hazar Imam.

I Wish I’d Been There for that epochal event of March 16, 632, when our beloved Prophet Muhammad laid the foundation for the Institution of Imamat which will stay with Mankind forever as affirmed by the Hadith Thaqalain and the Qur’anic verses mentioned above. To conclude, Allah declares in the Holy Qur’an:

“Their intention is to extinguish God’s Light (by blowing) with their mouths; But God has willed to spread His Light in all its fullness however hateful this may be to all who deny the Truth.” (Holy Qur’an, 61:8).

Copyright: Simerg.com

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His Highness the Aga Khan on the Imamat

Aga Khan Speaking at the Signing of Historic Agreement Seat of Imamat in Portugal

His Highness the Aga Khan

“…As you know, the Shi’a divided from the Sunni after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Hazrat Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, was, in Shi’a belief, named by the Prophet to be the Legitimate Authority for the interpretation of the faith. For the Shi’a today, all over the world, he is regarded as the first Imam.” [1]  His Highness the Aga Khan, Tutzing Evangelical Academy, May 20, 2006.

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“The religious leadership of the Ismaili Imam goes back to the origins of Shia Islam when the Prophet Muhammad appointed his son-in-law, Ali, to continue his teachings within the Muslim community. The leadership is hereditary, handed down by Ali’s descendants, and the Ismailis are the only Shia Muslims to have a living Imam, namely myself.” [2]

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“The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet. But let me clarify something more about the history of that role, in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor, and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. As a result, there are many Sunni imams in a given time and place. But others believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. From that early division, a host of further distinctions grew up — but the question of rightful leadership remains central. In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet. [3]

Date posted: August 27, 2018.

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Notes/References:

[1]. His Highness the Aga Khan, Tutzing Evangelical Academy, May 20, 2006. See Speech Archives.

[2].  Voices: “The Power of Wisdom” – His Highness the Aga Khan’s Interview with Politique Internationale

[3] In a Dynamic and Stirring Address to Members of the Canadian Parliament, His Highness the Aga Khan Shares His Faith Perspectives on the Imamat, Collaboration with Canada, the Muslim World Community (the Ummah), the Nurturing of Civil Society, Early Childhood Education, Voluntary Work, and the Unity of the Human Race

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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

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  • 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].
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  • 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.
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Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with Christians and His Vision for a Pluralistic Society with Complete Religious Freedom

 “Prophet Muhammad believed that freedom of religion and civic rights were important components of a ‘Muslim Nation’….His covenants with Christians can be viewed as a kind of medicine to cure the diseases of Islamic extremism and Islamophobia.” — Rice University Study

The_Patent_of_Mohammed

The Covenant with the Monks of Mount Sinai was commissioned by Prophet Muhammad, with Hazrat Ali as its scriber. Manuscript copies are from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and Simonopetra. Photo: Wikipedia.

The following piece is adapted from a report released by Rice University – ed.

Prophet Muhammad believed that freedom of religion and civic rights were important components of a ‘Muslim nation,’ according to a Rice University analysis of the Prophet’s covenants with Christians.

Researcher Craig Considine, a lecturer in Rice’s Department of Sociology, argues that the covenants can be used to develop a stronger democratic partnership between Muslims and Christians in the Islamic world and elsewhere. His study is published in the journal Religions under the title “Religious Pluralism and Civic Rights in a ‘Muslim Nation’: An Analysis of Prophet Muhammad’s Covenants with Christians.” It can be downloaded through the link provided at the bottom of this post.

“These covenants were designed to protect and even defend peaceful Christian communities, not attack them,” Considine said. He found that these agreements established freedom of religion and civic rights for Christians living within the “ummah” (Arabic for “community”). “The research clearly shows that contemporary Islamic states that mistreat and discriminate against Christians cannot be justified in light of Prophet Muhammad’s covenants,” adds Considine.

The covenants were written between 622 and 632 A.D. Considine said it is assumed they were written because of Prophet Muhammad’s desire to build alliances to bolster his new community and because of his positive interactions with members of the Christian faith. The paper explores the Prophet’s covenants with the monks of Mount Sinai, the Christians of Najran, the Christians of Persia and the Christians of the World.

In “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of Persia,” the Prophet was emphatic on the issue of complete religious freedom:

“And even as they honor and respect me, so shall Muslims care for that people as being under our protection and whensoever any distress or discomfort shall overtake (Christians), Muslims shall hold themselves in duty bound to aid and care for them, for they are a people subject to my Nation, obedient to their word, whose helpers also they are. It therefore is proper for my sake to attend to their comfort, protection and aid, in face of all opposition and distress, suppressing everything that becomes a means to their spoliation,” the Prophet wrote.

Considine said a similar — if not identical — passage is found in the three other covenants addressed in this paper.

Article continues after Aga Khan quote….

HIS HIGHNESS THE AGA KHAN ON THE ETHIC OF PLURALISM

His Highness the Aga Khan at the Canadian Parliament on 27 February 2014.

“A cosmopolitan ethic is one that welcomes the complexity of human society. It balances rights and duties, freedom and responsibility. It is an ethic for all peoples, the familiar and the Other, whether they live across the street or across the planet…..Sadly, the world is becoming more pluralist in fact, but not necessarily in spirit. “Cosmopolitan” social patterns have not yet been matched by “a cosmopolitan ethic.”…..As you build your lives, for yourselves and others, you will come to rest upon certain principles. Central to my life has been a verse in the Holy Qur’an which addresses itself to the whole of humanity. It says: “Oh Mankind, fear your Lord, who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women…” I know of no more beautiful expression about the unity of our human race — born indeed from a single soul.” — Excerpts from the Aga Khan’s speech made to the Parliament of Canada, Ottawa, February 27, 2014.

“Prophet Muhammad made it clear that freedom of religion is an inherent right for Christians living in a Muslim nation,” he said. “His cordial relations with Christians were not due merely to political expediency or personal aspirations, but rather they resulted from his belief that Christians should be able to freely practice their own faith in accordance with their own will. Christian Persians were under no compulsion whatsoever to accept or reject Islam.”

Considine also noted that Prophet Muhammad believed that a Muslim nation must also extend civic rights to Christian religious leaders, as discussed in “The Covenant of the Prophet with the Christians of the World.” The Prophet wrote:

“The covenant of Allah is that I should protect their land, their monasteries, with my power, my horses, my men, my strength and my Muslim followers in any region, far away or close by, and that I should protect their businesses. I grant security to them, their churches, their businesses, their houses of worship, the places of their monks, the places of their pilgrims, wherever they may be found.”

“The Prophet Muhammad did not want to inflict harm on Christians, nor interfere or encroach on their privacy or private property,” Considine said. “For the state to give preference to one or more groups means devaluating citizens based upon their ethnic or cultural backgrounds.”

Considine said documents have been located in obscure monasteries around the world and books that have been out of print for centuries.

Considine said the rediscovery of these documents provides an opportunity to give new birth to Islam and regenerate the essence of Islamic teachings. He hopes that the findings will have a positive impact on the impressions of Muslims in today’s society and will combat anti-Muslim sentiments.

“Prophet Muhammad’s covenants with Christians can be viewed as a kind of medicine to cure the diseases of Islamic extremism and Islamophobia,” Considine said. “His message radiates compassion and peace. This is what American society — and indeed the world — needs now more than ever.”

Please download the entire paper in text or PDF format at http://www.mdpi.com/2077-1444/7/2/15.

Date posted: February 6, 2018.

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His Highness the Aga Khan on the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) – with audio

INTRODUCTION: On February 18, 1976, His Highness the Aga Khan, Mawlana Hazar Imam, accompanied by Begum Salimah Aga arrived in Pakistan for a month long visit that included several mulaqats with Ismailis around the country. During the visit they both attended numerous public and private events and engagements and Mawlana Hazar Imam announced the creation of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The first cycle of the award ceremony was held at the beautiful Shalimar Gardens in Lahore in 1980.

The extended 1976 visit also co-incided with Pakistan hosting the Seerat Conference over a 10 day period at which eminent scholars from around the world spoke in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi on various aspects of the life of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him). When the Aga Khan was invited by Mowlana Kausar Niazi, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, to preside over the Seerat gathering that took place in Karachi on March 12, 1976, he noted at the beginning of his presidential that he felt both trepidation and joy at the opportunity, “trepidation because few subjects could be more awe inspiring for any Muslim to speak on, joy as few subjects could give greater happiness to be involved with.”

As hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world prepare to celebrate the life of the Prophet on the occasion of his birth anniversary that falls on the 12th of Rabi al-Awwal — between November 29 and December 3, 2017 — no piece would be more befitting for the auspicious anniversary than the inspiring and insightful words spoken at the Seerat Conference by the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad himself. We are pleased to present the following excerpts from 49th Ismaili Imam’s Seerat speech, following which we have included the audio of the speech.

The Aga Khan on Allah’s Last Messenger

Aga Khan speaking at Seerat Conference

His Highness the Aga Khan giving his Presidential Address at the Seerat Conference in Karachi on March 12, 1976. Photo: The Ismaili.

A request to the conference

“Few conferences can have gathered so many men of outstanding intellect, who have devoted so much time and wisdom to the study of Islam and the life of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him….I will begin by making a request: One hundred and seventy two eminent scholars from forty-eight countries have gathered in Islamabad, Lahore, Peshawar and Karachi to present the results of their research and reflection on various aspects of the life of the Holy Prophet. From all these exchanges, from all the private debates which have preceded and succeeded the presentation of each paper, will have come an immense range of new thoughts, new ideas and new understanding of the Prophet’s life. I sincerely request that you have available to all Muslims a complete printed record of these papers and the subsequent debates.”

Responsibilities of rich Muslim countries

“The poorer countries of Islam have ahead of them years of increasingly hard work if they wish to progress materially to acceptable standards of every day life. The richer countries, especially those that have new means, will rapidly find that this wealth, blessing that it is, will impose upon them heavy new responsibilities. They will have to administrate this wealth wisely, in the best interest of their citizens, but also keeping in mind that they have a heavy responsibility to their less well endowed brother Muslim countries, and indeed to the human race at large. Thus it is my profound conviction that Islamic Society in the years ahead will find that our traditional concept of time, a limitless mirror in which to reflect on the eternal, will become a shrinking cage, an invisible trap from which fewer and fewer will escape.”

Holding firm the ship of life: Answers in the Qur’an and the Prophet

“I have observed in the Western world a deeply changing pattern of human relations. The anchors of moral behaviour appear to have dragged to such depths that they no longer hold firm the ship of life: what was once wrong is now simply unconventional, and for the sake of individual freedom must be tolerated. What is tolerated soon becomes accepted. Contrarily, what was once right is now viewed as outdated, old fashioned and is often the target of ridicule.”

“In the face of this changing world, which was once a universe to us and is now no more than an overcrowded island, confronted with a fundamental challenge to our understanding of time, surrounded by a foreign fleet of cultural and ideological ships which have broken loose, I ask, “Do we have a clear, firm and precise understanding of what Muslim Society is to be in times to come?” And if as I believe, the answer is uncertain, where else can we search then in the Holy Qur’an, and in the example of Allah’s last and final Prophet?

“There is no justification for delaying the search for the answer to this question by the Muslims of the world, because we have the knowledge that Islam is Allah’s final message, the Qur’an His final book and Muhammed His last Prophet. We are blessed that the answers drawn from these sources guarantee that neither now, nor at any time in the future will we be going astray. As the demands on his time increase, every Muslim will find it more and more difficult to seek for himself the answer to the fundamental question of how he should live his life for it to be truly Muslim. It is men such as you who will have to bring forth the answers, answers which will have to be practical and realistic in the world of today and tomorrow. Rather than let force of circumstance impose upon us through our default in not having suitably prepared ourselves for the future, ways of life which are not or should not be ours, we must ourselves design the path we should tread.”

Bearing fruits in the diverse Muslim world

“In seeking to define what our Islamic Society should be in times ahead, 50 and 100 and 200 years hence we should, I believe, be aware that the Muslims of this world cover such an amazing range of historical, ethnic and cultural backgrounds that a completely monolithic answer may not be found. I am convinced on the other hand, that we do want to avoid so much diversity that our Muslim countries are in conflict amongst themselves or that they are so divided that they are incapable successfully of facing common enemies, be they cultural, religious, national or otherwise. This is why I so applaud Pakistan for having organized the first Muslim Summit Conference, and now this Seerat Conference, for it is only through dialogue, personal contacts and continuous exchanges that the great diversity of cultures, knowledge, outlook and resources can be co-ordinated and brought to bear fruit for the Muslim world.”

Greatest opportunity for Muslim unity is now

“Let me return, now, to the question of what Muslim Society should seek to be in the years ahead. Islam, as even non-Muslims have observed, is a way of life. This means that every aspect of the individual’s daily existence is guided by Islam: his family relations, his business relations, his education, his health, the means and manner by which he gains his livelihood, his philanthropy, what he sees and hears around him, what he reads, the way he regulates his time, the buildings in which he lives, learns and earns.

“I cannot think of any time in Islamic history when Muslims have had a greater opportunity to unite, and to ensure that the society in which they live is that which they have defined and chosen for themselves.

“Not only are all forms of human communication easier than ever before in history, but rarely, if ever has the Muslim world had such means to ensure its future. Conferences such as this seeking inspiration from the life of the Holy Prophet could render no greater service to Islam than to assist in defining what steps can be taken, where, and how, to ensure that our people can live in the years ahead in greater peace, greater prosperity and in an Islamic Society which will not be overrun or simply taken by surprise, by forces, pressures or concepts which are totally alien and may damage us irretrievably.”

Searching for a solution through eminent men and women

“In our search for a solution, I am convinced that we must call upon our own men and women, who have achieved positions of eminence anywhere in the world, and persuade them to return, for us to benefit from their knowledge, their learning and their work. All too often in my journeys I have met or learnt of outstanding Muslim scholars, doctors, scientists, and architects who have remained abroad, or who, when they do come home, have failed to receive the support and encouragement necessary for them to bring to their nations’ benefit their Muslim outlook on key areas of modern progress.

“Any meaningful human endeavour, any original thinking, any authentic research, will require moral encouragement and material support. This we must provide, not only during the individual’s initial years of learning, but equally when he leaves the restricted life of his academic centre to enter into the wider world of national or international activity.”

The inspiring life of the Holy Prophet

“The Holy Prophet’s life gives us every fundamental guideline that we require to resolve the problem as successfully as our human minds and intellects can visualise. His example of integrity, loyalty, honesty, generosity both of means and of time, his solicitude for the poor, the weak and the sick, his steadfastness in friendship, his humility in success, his magnanimity in victory, his simplicity, his wisdom in conceiving new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam, surely all these are foundations which, correctly understood and sincerely interpreted, must enable us to conceive what should be a truly modern and dynamic Islamic Society in the years ahead.”

Audio of the Aga Khan speech made at the Seerat Conference

Date posted: November 30, 2017.

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Note: This article also appears on http://www.barakah.com, a special Simerg project to celebrate 60 years or the Diamond Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan.

 

New Story on BBC Travel: The Discovery of Fatimid Gold Coins in Israel

Here are links to 2 amazing stories about the discovery off the coast of Israel of 2580  dinars minted during the reigns of Fatimid Ismaili Imams Al-Hakim and Al-Zahir. The BBC story has just been posted on the BBC travel website. A link to an earlier story appears after the BBC link.

1. From the BBC: The city with a hoard of Fatimid gold

On an overcast morning in February 2015, Zvika Fayer was scuba diving off the ancient Israeli port town of Caesarea when he saw a glimmer on the sand. Fayer reasoned that the gleam must have been a discarded sweet wrapper….But as he swept the sand away and picked the item up, he saw that he was wrong. This wasn’t a piece of foil; it was a real gold coin with Arabic script on both sides. The dates minted on them show that they were manufactured during the reigns of Caliphs al-Hakim (996–1021AD) and his son al-Zahir (1021–1036AD) when Caesarea was part of the Islamic Fatimid Dynasty.

PLEASE CLICK: The Israeli city with a hoard of gold

Please click on image for story in BBC travel.

2. Earlier story: Fatimid Gold from the sea

In February 2015, divers off the coast of Caesarea spotted by chance a group of gold coins lying on the seabed. They immediately 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.

Please click on the image to view an on-line exhibit of the discovery.

Please click on the image to view an on-line exhibit of the discovery.

The coins date from the mid-9th to the early 11th century CE. They were minted by the Fatimid caliphs of Egypt, and include dinars minted in al-Qayrawan, on the Tunisian coast, by Imam al-Mahdi (AH 297–322 = 910–934 CE), the founder of the Fatimid caliphate as well as a much larger collection belonging to the Fatimid caliphs Imam Al-Hakim (AH 386–411 = 996–1021 CE) and his successor Imam Al-Zahir (AH 411–427 = 1021–1036 CE).

Following the discovery, an exhibition was held from June to December 2015 at the Samuel and Saidye Bronfman Archaeology Wing of The Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Some very interesting data and information about the Fatimid coins was also posted on the Museum’s website, which includes topics such as the inscription on the coins, the coin’s purchasing power, the script, and the purity of the coins. We invite our readers to visit the website by clicking on http://www.imj.org.il/exhibitions/2015/caesarea/ or on the image shown above.

Date posted: November 9, 2017.

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