His Highness the Aga Khan and Jehangir Merchant in Lourenco Marques, Mozambique

Ismaili doctrines of faith: Short lessons from the writings of Alwaez Jehangir Merchant: (1) Tawhid or Unity of God

Introduced by Malik Merchant
(Publisher-Editor,  Simerg, Barakah, and Simergphotos)

Alwaez Rai Jehangir Merchant (1928-2018) — picture above with Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan — is fondly remembered everyday single day by his beloved wife of 66 years, Alwaeza Raisaheba Maleksultan Jehangir Merchant, and all her family members.

He passed away 2 years ago on May 27, 2018 at approximately 1:15 AM. We pray that his soul may rest in eternal peace. Amen.

Jehangir  and Maleksultan Merchant
Jehangir and Maleksultan in front of a large
portrait photo of Mawlana Hazar Imam.

My dad was a prolific writer. In England, he edited the flagship Ismaili religious magazine, Ilm, for several years while he served with my mother with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB). His articles related to the faith, history, principles and doctrines of the Ismaili faith, along with insightful interpretations of Qur’anic verses, as well as moving narratives of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Mubarak visits to different parts of the world, richly contributed to the Jamats’ understanding of the faith. The closure of Ismaili religious magazines in the very early 1990’s created a significant void in the dissemination of religious material that was deemed to be “official.” I am referring here to insightful articles in monthly or quarterly magazines published by ITREBs around the world, and not to literary and scholarly books, which the Institute of Ismaili Studies has done a fantastic job of publishing over the past 30 years.

From the time this website, Simerg.com, was launched in 2009, Alwaez Merchant was able to devote time to editing and adapting his Ilm pieces for publication on this website for the benefit of readers on the World Wide Web. Links to those pieces are provided at the end of this article. Ill-health prevailed, and he was no longer able to fully complete the remainder of his Ilm pieces for publication on Simerg.

Ilm Ismaili religious magazine edited by Jehangir Merchant
Ilm magazine – one of Alwaez Jehangir’s magnificent contributions to the Ismaili literary scene. Jehangir edited and wrote extensively for the journal.

Now, I am going to take his unpublished essays from Ilm — many of which were quite lengthy — and share them as short pieces of learning over the coming weeks and months. We begin the Jehangir Merchant series, if I may call it that, with the Concept of Tawhid, which forms the first component in his essay entitled “Fundamental Aspects of Ismaili Doctrine.” It appeared in Ilm, Volume 7, Number 1 & 2, July-November 1981, pp. 2-12.

Tawhid

By (LATE) JEHANGIR A MERCHANT

Jehangir and Maleksultan Merchant, Ismaili missionaries
Jehangir and Maleksultan Merchant served the Imam of the Time and Ismaili institutions for more than 60 years.

In all Shi‘a tariqahs of Islam, Tawhid (belief in the Unity of God), Nubuwwah (Prophethood), Imamah (the Institution of the Divine Guide) and Qiyamah (Day of Judgement), are considered as the doctrines of the faith. My brief explanation of each of these 4 doctrines of faith for publication on Simerg are based on a much broader discussion that I provided on these subjects in my original article published in Ilm magazine, which also included a detailed historical background on the subject of Imamat.

The belief in the Unity of God (Tawhid) is the cornerstone of faith (Iman) for all Muslims.

It is articulated in the pronouncement: La ilaha ill-Allah: “There is no god but Allah.”

This doctrine of Unity of God is beautifully summarised in Sura Tauhid, popularly known as Suratul Ikhlas (112:1-4), which says: “Say, He Allah is One; Allah is Absolute, Independent. He did not beget nor He was begotten and there is none like unto Him.”

We know, however, that the Holy Qur’an, ascribes a number of attributes to Allah. God is spoken of as ar-Rahim (The Merciful), al-Wadud (The Loving), al-Sami (The Hearing), al-Barir (The Seeing) etc. The Qur’an also talks about Wajahullah (the Face of God), Yadullah (the Hand of God), and so on.

While there are numerous references which attribute human qualities to God in the Holy Qur’an, the scripture states in very plain words that Allah is above all material conceptions.

For example, the Qur’an says: “Vision comprehends Him not and He comprehends all vision.” (6:104) and “Nothing is like a likeness of Him.” (42:11)

The Unity of God (Tawhid) implies that God is One in His Dhat (essence) and One in His Sifat (attributes).

The concept of Tawhid appears in the works of many Ismaili dais (missionaries) and philosophers. Their works on the subject place an emphasis against anthropomorphising God, that is, giving human attributes to God.

article continues after image

Fatimid coin Imam al-Zahir
The inscription in the inner margin of this Fatimid coin minted during the reign of Imam al-Zahir reads: la ilah illa / allah wahdahu / la sharik lahu; “no god but God, unique, He has no associate.” Photo: David Museum, Copenhagen.

God is declared in their works as One, Absolutely Transcendent, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient, Incomprehensible and a Quality-less Being. A Ginanic verse makes this clear:

La thi un dhat kahave, tanki baat kahi nav jai; Dubki le le gotha khave, Pir Paighambar tai na pavey

Translation:

The Dhat [essence] is from nothingness and nothing can be said about it. Pirs and Prophets delve deep in this knowledge but in vain.

The concept that God has no qualities difficult to grasp, because the human mind cannot comprehend a total lack of qualities, a concept which it has not experienced before. We cannot imagine a man, if we can for the moment call such a being a man, who has no colour, no shape, no size, no special existence, who is neither alive nor dead.

Hence, the notion that God is quality-less becomes unintelligible and the Qur’an, therefore, attributes a number of qualities to God. If we consider the qualities applied to God and examine them carefully we find that the grounds for all of these attributes lie in our own experience of this material world.

Pir Shiahbu’d-din Shah writes in his work Risala dar Haqiqati Din (True Meaning of Religion):

“…people speaking about God (Haqq) attribute to Him any such (perfections) as they can imagine. For instance, regarding blindness as a defect, they say about God that He sees everything. They regard ignorance as a defect, and thus say that God is All-Knowing. Thus, whatever they find in themselves as a vice and defect they attribute to God a perfection opposite to that. Most probably, even animals create their own God free from their own defects, ascribing to Him (the opposite) perfections. Imam Muhammad Baqir says that the tiny ant probably imagines his god as having two stings, because it regards the possession of only one sting as a defect.”

So, when the Qur’an attributes qualities to God, it is to help convey to man the idea of God and not that these terms express the true nature of God, or that they are perfect indicators to His Being.

Ismaili doctrine upholds the belief in a single transcendent Being, whose nature is beyond the comprehension of the human mind and who is inexplicable. This is because our definitions are based on our experiences of the material world, and these definitions cannot be applied to this Being.

Pir Shihabu’d-din Shah, again in his previously cited book, says:

“All that is beyond thy imagination, Is merely the limit of thy fantasy, not God. Wisdom can attain a knowledge of His Substance Only in the case if a piece of straw can sink to the bottom of the sea. And Imam Ja’far-as-Sadiq said: “What God is, Man cannot think: and what Man thinks God is not. Yet man lives by God, and God is nearer to him than himself.”

Thus, in the Doctrine of Tawhid, lsmailism completely avoids any form of anthropomorphism and remains purely monotheistic.

We will continue our next discussion on another Shia doctrine of faith, namely, Nubuwwah or Prophethood which will then be followed by Qiyama (the Day of Judgement) and Imamah (the hereditary leadership in Islam).

Date posted: May 27, 2020.

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

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The following are links to Alwaez Jehangir Merchant’s articles that have been published on this website:

  1. Ghadir-Khumm and the Two Weighty Matters (a Simerg original, I Wish I’d Been There Series)
  2. An Esoteric Interpretation of the Mi’raj (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  3. The Establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  4. The Parable of Moses and Khidr in the Holy Qur’an (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  5. Jehangir Merchant’s Thank You Letter to Da’i Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi (a Simerg original, Thank You Series)
  6. Text and Explanation of “Eji Shah Islamshah Amne Maliya” (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  7. The Story of Noah’s Ark in the Holy Qur’an (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  8. A Translation and Brief Commentary of Pir Sadardin’s Ginan “Jem Jem Jugatsu Preet Kareva” (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  9. The Frontispiece of the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Mashhad, Iran (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  10. “One Jamat” (proposal, with Malik Merchant)
  11. The 1979 London Didar: The Experience (adapted from Ilm magazine)
  12. Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Ja’far as-Sadiq on Love for the Imam (with Alnoor Bhatia, adapted from Ilm magazine)

Also see:

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Mawlana Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, sends guidance on Covid-19, with affection and blessings to Ismailis around the world; text in 10 languages

The following message in English and all the translations that follow are reproduced from the The Ismaili, the official website of the community. After reading the message, please scroll to the bottom of this post to read our supplication to Mawlana Hazar Imam — it follows the Urdu translation.

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (English)

My beloved spiritual children,

My Jamat is aware that the Covid-19 virus has created a global crisis that is also affecting the Jamat worldwide. As Imam-of-the-Time, I have recommended the Jamati and AKDN institutions and agencies to closely monitor the impact of this pandemic, and to extend support and assistance to the Jamat and the communities in which they live.

The Covid-19 virus is highly contagious, and every day we are witnessing the damage it is inflicting on human lives and societies. In facing this threat, it is very important that all members of my Jamat should take personal responsibility for exercising all possible steps to protect their own good health, safety and wellbeing, and that of their family.

Among the most critical of the measures recommended by all government and health agencies are the maintenance of the best standards of personal hygiene, and practising the notion of physical distancing. While not easy, physical distancing is essential.

It is my wish that my murids, and all those among whom they live, should follow these as well as all other guidelines and recommendations that the government and health authorities issue.

It is my hope and prayer that, in due course, work on producing vaccines and other forms of medicine will yield positive results, and that we will see a gradual return to normal life in all societies.

As we focus now on overcoming the present challenges, the Jamat and all my institutions should plan to build for the future from a position of strength and wisdom.

I send my most affectionate paternal, maternal loving blessings for the good health, safety, and well-being of all my murids, with best loving blessings for mushkil-asan.

My Jamat worldwide is constantly in my thoughts and in my prayers.

Yours affectionately,

Aga Khan

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (French)

Mes Chers Enfants Spirituels,

Mon Jamat est conscient du fait que le virus Covid-19 a déclenché une crise globale qui affecte également le Jamat à travers le monde. En tant qu’Imam-du-Temps, j’ai recommandé aux institutions et agences Jamati et de l’AKDN de suivre de près l’impact de cette pandémie, et d’offrir aide et assistance au Jamat et aux communautés dans lesquelles ils vivent.

Le virus du Covid-19 est hautement contagieux, et chaque jour nous sommes témoins des dégâts qu’il cause sur les vies humaines et les sociétés. Face à cette menace, il est très important que tous les membres de mon Jamat s’engagent personnellement à prendre toutes les mesures possibles pour protéger leur propre santé, sécurité et bien-être, ainsi que ceux de leur famille.

Parmi les plus importantes des mesures recommandées par tous les gouvernements et agences de santé figurent le maintien des meilleurs standards d’hygiène personnelle, et le respect de la notion de distanciation sociale. Bien qu’elle ne soit pas facile, la distanciation sociale est essentielle.

C’est mon souhait que mes murids, et tous ceux parmi lesquels ils vivent, suivent ces mesures ainsi que toutes les autres directives et recommandations que le gouvernement et les autorités sanitaires émettent.

C’est mon espoir et ma prière que, en temps voulu, le travail mené pour produire des vaccins et d’autres formes de remèdes va produire des résultats positifs, et que nous verrons un retour graduel à la vie normale dans toutes les sociétés.

Alors que nous nous concentrons en ce moment à surmonter les défis actuels, le Jamat et toutes mes institutions devraient se préparer à construire pour l’avenir à partir d’une base solide et avec sagesse.

J’envoie mes plus affectueuses tendres bénédictions paternelles et maternelles pour la bonne santé, la sécurité, et le bien-être de tous mes murids, avec mes meilleures tendres bénédictions pour mushkil-asan.

Mon Jamat à travers le monde est constamment dans mes pensées et dans mes prières.

Affectueusement,

Aga Khan

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Portuguese)

Meus amados filhos espirituais,

O meu Jamat está ciente de que o vírus Covid-19 criou uma crise global que está também a afetar o Jamat em todo o mundo. Como Imam do Tempo, recomendei às instituições e agências Jamati e da AKDN que monitorizassem de perto o impacto desta pandemia e prestassem apoio e assistência ao Jamat e às comunidades onde estes vivem.

O vírus Covid-19 é altamente contagioso e todos os dias assistimos aos danos que este está a infligir tanto nas vidas humanas como nas sociedades. Ao enfrentar esta ameaça, é muito importante que todos os membros do meu Jamat assumam a responsabilidade pessoal de colocar em prática todas as medidas possíveis para proteger a sua própria saúde, segurança e bem-estar, bem como as da sua família.

Entre as medidas mais críticas recomendadas por todas as agências governamentais e de saúde estão a manutenção dos melhores padrões de higiene pessoal e a prática da noção de distanciamento físico. Embora não seja fácil, o distanciamento físico é essencial.

É meu desejo que os meus murids, e todos aqueles entre os quais vivem, sigam estas e todas as outras orientações e recomendações que o governo e as autoridades de saúde emitem.

É minha esperança e oração que, a seu tempo, o trabalho na produção de vacinas e outras formas de medicina produzam resultados positivos e que se assista a um regresso gradual à vida normal em todas as sociedades.

Enquanto centramos as nossas atenções em ultrapassar os desafios atuais, o Jamat e todas as minhas instituições devem planear a construção para o futuro a partir de uma posição de força e sabedoria.

Envio as minha melhores bênçãos paternais e maternais para boa saúde, segurança e bem-estar de todos os meus murids, com as minhas melhores bênçãos para mushkil-asan.

O meu Jamat em todo o mundo está constantemente nos meus pensamentos e nas minhas orações. 

Afetuosamente

Aga Khan

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Farsi)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Farsi)

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Dari)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Dari)

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Arabic)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Arabic)

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Gujarati)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Gujarati)

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Russian)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Russian)

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Tajik)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Tajik)

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Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Urdu)

Message from Mawlana Hazar Imam (Urdu)

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Shukrana and Supplication

We submit our humble gratitude to our beloved Mawlana Hazar Imam for his guidance on Covid-19 as well as his blessings to the world wide Jamat for mushkil-asan (protection from difficulty).

We submit the following supplications from verses 1 and 5 of Pir Hasan Kabirdin’s Ginan Sahebe Farman Lakhi Mokalea:

O brother! Listen, My Lord Ali has written and sent a Farman. The beloved Lord has remembered this servant today with kindness in his heart

O my Lord Ali! Listen! Remove all my sorrows and troubles. O Lord Ali, the great king! O Lord of infinity! Fulfill all my wishes.

Date posted: April 24, 2020.

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Nade Ali, Cry Aloud to Ali: Must Listen, Powerful song

Naad E Ali, Original Song at Youtube, Munir Gillani Official

[Note: The lyrics in the song in both Arabic and English are slightly different from the transliteration and translation published below – Ed.]

Nade Ali, Nade Ali, Nade Ali
Nade Aliyyan mazhar al-ajaib
Tajidahu awnan lakafin-nawaib
Kullu hammin wa ghammin
sayanj-i Ali Bi wilayatika,
Ya Ali! Ya Ali! Ya Ali!

Translation

Call Ali call Ali call Ali,
the manifestation of marvels
He will be your helper in difficulty
Every anxiety and sorrow will end
Through your friendship.
O Ali, O Ali, O Ali.

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.

Date posted: April 6, 2020.

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Imam Hussein (A.S.) was martyred 1339 years ago

Imam Hussein Mosque Karbala, Library of Congress Photo
General view of the Imam Hussein Mosque in Karbala, Iraq. The photo was taken between September 26 and October 12, 1932. Photo: Matson (G. Eric and Edith) Photograph Collection / Library of Congress, Washingon D.C.

Imam Hussein (A.S.)

Introduced by Malik Merchant
(Publisher-Editor, Simerg, Barakah and Simergphotos)

Mawlana Hazar Imam Shah Karim al Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan, is the 49th Hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, and directly descended from Hazrat Ali (A.S.) and Imam Hussein (A.S.).

Imam Hussein began his reign as the 2nd Ismaili Imam* on the death of his father, Hazrat Ali (A.S.), on January 27, 661 CE who, 29 years earlier in 632 CE, had been publicly proclaimed by the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S.) to be his successor at the famous event that took place at Ghadir Khumm.

The succession ended the cycle of the Divine Institution of Nubuwwah and ushered the world into a new era of the Divine Institution of Imamat. Thus, the Imams directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad, from Hazrat Ali to Mawlana Shah Karim, have continued to guide their murids (followers) in the ta’wil (interpretation) and talim (teaching) of the Holy Qur’an for the last 1387 years.

Imam Hussein was martyred in the Battle of Karbala on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram, or October 10, 680, at the age of 54, and was succeeded to the Hereditary throne of Imamat by Imam Zainul Abideen (A.S.).

The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and thus shorter than the 365 day solar calendar by roughly 11 days. This year (2019), the 10th day of Muharram falls on or around September 9/10, almost 1339 years since the Imam’s tragic death at the hands of Yazid’s army. Please click to read more about Imam Hussein and Karbala from Muslim and non-Muslim historians and scholars.

Date posted: September 9, 2019.

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*Note: In the Shia Imami Nizari Ismaili tradition Imam Hussein’s brother, Hazrat Hassan (A.S.), is not counted as an Imam, whereas in other Shia Muslims he is considered as the second Imam which then makes Imam Hussein the 3rd Imam.

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

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

agakhan_portrait_for_simerg by Akber Kanji

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date posted: December 10, 2018.

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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.

~~~~~~~

“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]

~~~~~~~

“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

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

 

A Brief Note on Papacy and the Ismaili Imamat, and St. Peter in Roman Catholic and Ismaili Traditions

PREPARED AND COMPILED BY ABDULMALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor http://www.simerg.com, http://www.barakah.com and http://www.simergphotos.com)

Handshake: Pope Benedict XVI and His Highness the Aga Khan

As part of his famous Apostolic Journey to France in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, on September 13, paid a visit to the “Institut De France” in Paris. The Pope, who had been elected as the 265th Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 2005, was presented with a gold medal by the Institut, and also unveiled a plaque commemorating his visit. During his very brief remarks to the audience, the Pope expressed his gratitude to the Institut “both personally and as the successor of [Simon] Peter.”

His Highness the Aga Khan, Mawlana Hazar Imam, was also in attendance at the Institut de France as the Associate Foreign Member of the Académie des Beaux-Arts (Academy of Fine Arts), one of five learned societies within the Institut which was founded in 1795.

Everyone’s attention in the hall was drawn to Mawlana Hazar Imam and the Pope, with an extraordinary sense of interest and keenness, as the two faith leaders greeted each other with a handshake.

A couple of years earlier in 2006, the Pope made some controversial remarks concerning Islam to which the Aga Khan responded in an  which appeared in Germany’s widely read Spiegel website.

In 2013, Pope Benedict dramatically resigned his position as the Head of the Catholic Church due to his deteriorating strength, advanced age and the heavy demands of being Pope, and retired at the Mater Ecclesiae, a small monastery located inside the Vatican State City. His present successor is Pope Francis I, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

Pope Benedict XVI is seen greeting His Highness the Aga Khan on September 13 at the Institut de France in Paris during an official visit to France in 2008. Photo: Copyright. Getty Images. Published on Simerg/Simergphotos with a Licencing arrangement with Getty Images. Fench caption: Vue plongeante du pape BENOIT XVI serrant la main de l'AGA KHAN à son arrivée sous la coupole de l'Institut de France à PARIS entouré de nombreux académiciens et autres personnalités dont Gabriel DE BROGLIE, Hélène CARRERE D'ENCAUSSE, Jean-François JARRIGE, Jean-François BACH, Arnaud D'HAUTERIVES, Michel ALBERT, Christian PONCELET président du Sénat, Jean TULARD, Alain DECAUX, Pierre-Jean REMY, Michel MOHRT, Max GALLO, le cardinal André VINGT-TROIS archevêque de Paris et le cardinal Paul POUPARD. (Photo by Philippe Petit/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Everyone’s attention is drawn to Pope Benedict XVI and His Highness the Aga Khan as they greet each other on September 13, at the Institut de France in Paris during an official visit by the Pope to France in 2008. Photo: Copyright. Getty Images. Published on Simerg/Simergphotos with a Licensing arrangement with Getty Images. Fench caption: Vue plongeante du pape BENOIT XVI serrant la main de l’AGA KHAN à son arrive sous la coupole de l’Institut de France à PARIS entouré de nombreux académiciens et autres personnalités dont Gabriel DE BROGLIE, Hélène CARRERE D’ENCAUSSE, Jean-François JARRIGE, Jean-François BACH, Arnaud D’HAUTERIVES, Michel ALBERT, Christian PONCELET président du Sénat, Jean TULARD, Alain DECAUX, Pierre-Jean REMY, Michel MOHRT, Max GALLO, le cardinal André VINGT-TROIS archevêque de Paris et le cardinal Paul POUPARD. (Photo by Philippe Petit/Paris Match via Getty Images).

SIMON PETER IN THE CHRISTIAN AND ISMAILI TRADITIONS

The Catholics adhere to the belief that the Pope is a successor of St. Peter or Simon Peter. The succession of the pope is determined by a college of cardinals who elect the pope, while the office of the Imam of the Ismailis is a hereditary position.

In a speech made at the Canadian Parliament in 2014, the Aga Khan declared that “the Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet.” And, in an interview with Politique International he said, “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.”

In the Catholic tradition, the foundation for the office of the Pope is found primarily in Matthew, where Jesus is quoted as telling Simon Peter:

“You are ‘Rock,’ and on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

This series of successions of the Pope is known as “Apostolic Succession,” with the line of Bishops stretching back to the apostles, who lived during the time of Jesus. Simon Peter is recognized as having been the first Pope. Early Christians however reserved the title of “Pope” for St. Peter’s successors.

In branches of Shia theology as well as Ismailism, Simon Peter’s role is seen as the direct parallel to that of Hazrat Ali as the first Imam. Ismailis along with some other Shia groups maintain that every major Prophet had a spiritual legatee (Waṣi) or successor called the Asas (foundation) who taught the inner meaning to those who had the capacity to understand it. In this regard, Adam had Seth; Noah had Shem; Moses had Aaron, and Jesus had Simon Peter. A well known sacred tradition of the Prophet Muhammad says that “Ali is to me as Aaron was to Moses,” confirming that Ali held the same level of authority as Aaron did.

Date posted: January 3, 2018

An earlier version of this post appeared on this website on December 31, 2015.
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We welcome your feedback, please click Leave a comment or send it to simerg@aol.com, Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

The following were used as references for the compilation of this piece:

  1. Apostolic Journey to France: Greeting by the Holy Father during the visit at the Institut de France (September 13, 2008)
  2. The Popes: From St. Peter to Pope Frances by Rupert Matthews,  2014 Edition published by arrangement with Moseley Road Inc.
  3. http://www.catholic-pages.com/pope/peter.asp
  4. Peter in Islam, at Wikipedia.
  5. Comparing the Imamat and the Papacy: Some Short Notes (at Ismailignosis.com).
  6. The Delegation Decoded – An Esoteric Exegesis of the Delegation of the Isma‘ili Imamat, by Khalil Andani.
  7. Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, C. Glasse.
  8. Voices: “The Power of Wisdom” – His Highness the Aga Khan’s Interview with Politique Internationale (English translation)
  9. 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

Also see the following important features to learn more about the Aga Khan and the Ismaili Imamat:

in which His Highness the Aga Khan responded to Pope Benedict’s controversial remarks concerning Islam that he had made in 2006; and Special Series: Ismaili Expressions on the Imamat and Imam of the Time — (I) The Preamble of the Constitution of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims

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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