By (Late) Esmail Thawerbhoy
….The measure of the Imam’s achievement can be gauged from the phenomenal progress of the Ismaili Community during the Imam’s regime. The metamorphosis of a moribund society from the depths of its degradation to its proud position in modern civilization during the course of only about half a century, is a saga of success with probably no parallel in history…the Imam was the architect of this modern miracle…The resurgence of the Ismaili Community, literally from rags to riches, is a fitting monument to the Imam’s indefatigable efforts.
On 2nd November, 1877 was born at Karachi the lineal descendant of the holy Prophet Muhammad and Imam Mawla Murtaza Ali, one who was destined to become, eight years later, the 48th Imam of the Ismaili Muslim Community. A hundred years later, in 1977, the Centenary Celebration of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah’s birth was observed with éclat at Karachi and other places.
Chronologically the one hundred years from 1877 up to 1977 spanned, fully or partially, the Imamats of four Ismaili Imams – the last four years of Imam Aga Hassanaly Shah, Aga Khan I (1877-1881), all the four years of the Imamat of Imam Aga Aly Shah , Aga Khan II (1881-1885), the seventy-two years of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s own Imamat (1885-1957), and the first twenty years (1957-1977) of the Imamat of Shah Karim al-Husayni, Aga Khan IV, who is now in his 53rd year of Imamat.
….Each Imam presents to the world of his time that facet of the multi-faceted splendour the Ismailis call Imamat. All Ismaili philosophers have emphasized the principle of the Unity of Imamat under the superficial diversity exhibited by each Imam of the Time. It is in this sense that the Ismailis believe that Imam is the same irrespective of his own age or the time he lives in…..
To Ismailis who believe in the Holy Institution of Imamat, the Imam-e-Zaman, or the Imam of the Age, is the manifest representation and the visible symbol of the Divine Institution they know as Imamat. The sublime verities of religious experience, based on the holy scriptures, remain inscrutable and beyond human understanding unless visualised by symbolic representation. It is impossible for man to look back at a symbolism from a given symbol. But man can view the symbol in the light of, or in the background of, a symbolism. Viewed in this light each Imam presents to the world of his time that facet of the multi-faceted splendour the Ismailis call Imamat. All Ismaili philosophers have emphasised the principle of the Unity of Imamat under the superficial diversity exhibited by each Imam of the Time. It is in this sense that the Ismailis believe that Imam is the same irrespective of his own age or the time he lives in.
The proverbial valour and exemplary statesmanship of Imam Mawla Murtaza Ali, the encyclopaedic erudition of Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq, the extraordinary intellectual brilliance of Imam al-Hakim bi Amrillah, the administrative ability of Imam Mustansir Billah (during the first half of his Khilafat), the political acumen of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah (he defied geography and created history), the organizing genius of the present Imam, Shah Karim al-Husayni, are only some of the more spectacular characteristics exhibited by the Imam of the Time in accordance with the exigencies of the situations facing him.
It would be therefore naïve and ingenuous for an Ismaili writer to try to assess the merits of a particular Imam, or attempt a comparative study of the Imam with other personalities. It is a cardinal principle of Ismailism that the Imam judges the Community and that the Community should never try to judge the Imam. To Ismailis the Imam is Imam. To transgress is tantamount to sacrilege.
IMAMS OF TRANSITION
The checkered history of the Ismailis can be broadly divided into five periods, each period being introduced by the Imam of the Age.
The Arabian Period:
Imam Hazrat Murtaza Ali, the first Imam, initiated the period of Shia (and Ismaili) history wherein the institution of Imamat was established by the last will and testament of our holy Prophet. The period from the death of the Prophet in 632 until 909 may be called the Arabian Period. This period also witnessed a rift within the Shias upon the demise of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq into two main groups – the Ismailis and the Twelver Shias (or the Ithnashries) .
The Fatimid Period:
In 909, the 11th Imam Mahdi Muhammad broke the shackles of Abbasid hegemony and established an independent dominion in North Africa, which flowered into the later Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt and Arabia. The Fatimid Period, with respect to the Nizari Ismailis, ended in 1094 with the death of the 18th Imam Mustansir Billah.
The Alamut Period:
In 1090 Hassan bin Sabbah had established an autocracy at Alamut and other mountain fortresses in Persia. It was here that the 20th Imam Hadi established himself. From 1090 until the fall of Alamut in 1256 in the time of the 27th Imam Ruknuddin Khurshah, the period of the 166 glorious years of defiance, is known as the Alamut Period.
The Anjudan Period:
The 28th Ismaili Imam Shamsuddin Muhammad inaugurated the Anjudan period when the Ismaili Imams maintained a low profile until the 46th Imam Aga Hassan Aly Shah migrated to India in 1845. The Anjudan Period may be said to have phased out with the death of the 47th Imam Aga Aly Shah in 1885.
The Indo-European Period:
With the accession of the 48th Imam Aga Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, in 1885, the Indo-European period may be said to have begun. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah was the first, and as yet the only Imam, to have been born on Indian (now Pakistani) soil.
While each Imam who inaugurated one of the five periods of Ismaili history played a conspicuous part in its evolution, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s role was unique and unprecedented.
A MODERN SAGA
While it would be presumptuous to judge the Imam’s qualities, the measure of the Imam’s achievement can be gauged from the phenomenal progress of the Ismaili Community during the Imam’s regime. The metamorphosis of a moribund society from the depths of its degradation to its proud position in modern civilization during the course of only about half a century, is a saga of success with probably no parallel in history. And the Imam was the architect of this modern miracle. The resurgence of the Ismaili Community, literally from rags to riches, is a fitting monument to the Imam’s indefatigable efforts.
THEN AND NOW
To properly appreciate the transmogrification of the Ismaili community from a decadent into a dynamic society, we should compare the society as it was in 1885, when the Imam assumed office, with the society in 1957 when Imam handed over the mantle to his successor.
…the Ismailis of India (mostly Western India) remained at about the lowest stratum of society. Khoja uttha boja was a common form of abuse….Until the end of the nineteenth century Ismailis remained a nondescript, bedraggled, amorphous conglomerate, without a consciousness of their distinct identity or pride in their heritage…It was this community, in its lamentable state, that the Imam was called to lead in 1885.
It was Pir Nuruddin, Satgur Noor, who came to India probably during the later Alamut period, the first half of the 13th century, and succeeded in converting some local Hindu communities to Ismailism. All through the Mughal period and well into the British period, the Ismailis of India (mostly Western India) remained at about the lowest stratum of society. Khoja uttha boja was a common form of abuse. There were a few petty shopkeepers, but most were pedlars and hawkers, some were professional grave-diggers, and quite a few survived by eating at the common kitchen maintained by the Imam at his residence at Wadi on Nesbit Road, Byculla in Bombay. Until the end of the nineteenth century Ismailis remained a nondescript, bedraggled, amorphous conglomerate, without a consciousness of their distinct identity or pride in their heritage.
Economically backward as the Ismailis were at the turn of the present century, educationally they were even worse off. Few could boast a knowledge of the three R’s.
It was this community, in its lamentable state, that the Imam was called to lead in 1885. The most important question that faced the Imam was whether to develop the community economically, or to use the meagre resources of the community to give some of the brighter students to go for higher studies and professional expertise. It was a question of priorities. Should the community be developed economically or educationally?
CHOICE BETWEEN EDUCATION VERSUS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DEMONSTRATED BY IMAM IN A DRAMATIC ACT
…Imam demonstrated his choice in a memorable Firman made at the Fidai Academy at Andheri in Bombay. Speaking on education, Imam stretched out both his hands horizontally, and then slowly raised them. He then explained the significance of his dramatic act…
The Imam faced the problem boldly. Though both aspects of the development were important, the resources of the Community could not possibly sustain both. The Community could either become economically viable or educationally advanced, but not both. The choice must have been agonising. But Imam firmly resolved to raise the economic level of the Community before venturing into higher education. Education, especially higher education, would have to wait. The first task was to make the community wealthy. Higher education and professional know-how would come later when the community’s economy could sustain the burden.
At a historic moment Imam demonstrated his choice in a memorable Firman made at the Fidai Academy at Andheri in Bombay. Speaking on education, Imam stretched out both his hands horizontally, and then slowly raised them. He then explained the significance of his dramatic act. Imam said that he wanted a broad-based middle education, sufficient to establish the community as a mercantile entrepreneur. Then, raising both hands vertically, Imam said that he did not want that. He did not want the community to have a few highly-educated people at the risk of keeping many illiterate. The community must rise horizontally, not vertically. Imam also gave the Jamat the motto of “Hasten slowly”, and not to act precipitately.
Due to the Imam’s guidance the Ismaili business community proliferated widely. As too great a concentration of small businesses was not healthy for its development, Imam advocated emigration of some businessmen to less developed countries. At the Imam’s behest – and sometimes mild compulsion – young Ismailis from the impoverished provinces of Cutch, Gujerat and Kathiawar (now Saurashtra) emigrated West to Africa (generally the East Coast) – Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyka and Zanzibar (now combined to Tanzania), Congo, etc., and East to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. This was the beginning of a pan-Ismailism that was to bear abundant fruit in the not too far distant future. Even in India, Imam advocated that small businessmen should move out of Mumbai to other and more lucrative areas.
Of course, there were even in those days, a few business tycoons and a few highly-educated persons. Society always pushes its favoured few to the top of the ladder. The business house of Sir Currimbhoy Ibrahim, Bart. (the first and only Ismaili baronet) boasted owning thirteen textile mills, the largest chain of textile mills in the world; the house of Manji Nathoo, oil magnates, the most successful dealers in oil in India; the house of Chinoy Brothers, agents to General Motors of Detroit, were some firms with an international reputation.
In higher education Jafar Rahimtoola, B.A., Bar-at-Law, was the first Ismaili barrister in 1901, followed a year later by Mahomedali Jinnah, later founder of Pakistan.
The leitmotif of the Imam’s guidance to his community was not higher education or professional degrees, but a wide-base middle education which was so necessary to develop a mercantile community.
In the interregnum between the two World Wars (both during the Imamat of the Imam) many Ismailis had made their fortunes. But the recession of the 1930’s when the business tycoons Currimbhoy Ibrahim, Manji Nathoo, and the Chinoy Brothers, as well as a number of lesser luminaries crashed, showed up the weakness of the Ismaili economic structure. The main factor for this debacle seems to have been the absence of an infrastructure which could cushion the shock. It became the Imam’s main concern to build up a solid economic infrastructure. An economic society is sustained neither by the few super rich people at the top, nor by the many poor at the bottom. It is sustained and regulated by a vigorous middle-class which is the economic backbone of a commercial, industrial or a technocratic society. For the creation of a dynamic middle class a higher education was not then essential. The leitmotif of the Imam’s guidance was not higher education or professional degrees, but a wide-base middle education which was so necessary to develop a mercantile community. The far-sightedness of Imam’s guidance was dramatically demonstrated during the Golden, Diamond and Platinum Jubilees of the Imam when the largest contributions came from the solid middle core of Ismaili businessmen.
Educationally also, after the sporadic burst at the turn of the century, there was a marked decline in higher and professional education. As in the economic field, so also in the educational field, there existed a vacuum of infrastructure. It is the intellectual infrastructure which acts as a booster as well as a brake—booster to those who are still struggling to reach the higher echelons of society, and a brake to those run-away specialists who tend to break away from our traditional ideological moorings.
ISMAILI COMMUNITY: A WELFARE STATE
After the economic independence of the Ismaili Community, Imam undertook the social regulation of the Jamat. Whereas heretofore almost every problem of the Jamat was handled by the Imam himself, the increasing social consciousness and the realisation of the duties incumbent in a well-regulated society indicated that the Jamat should learn to shoulder the responsibility. The Imam introduced a number of regulations with a view to making the Community a self-regulating body. Committees were appointed to look after the social, legal, and matrimonial problems; committees for religious education; committees for primary and secondary secular education; committees for health, hygiene and preventive medicine; committees for business advice. In fact, every aspect of community life came increasingly under the direction of the various committees. Members of the various bodies are selected by the Imam from a panel of candidates recommended by the retiring committees. This method of representation combines the advantages of election and nomination, while avoiding the abuses of both.
ISMAILI COMMUNITY: A GUIDED DEMOCRACY
The method of representation gives the highest possible privileges to the Community consistent with the guide-lines laid by the Imam in consultation with the leaders from time to time. Democracy here is not to be understood in a political sense. Imam has wisely left the political affiliation of each member to his own undeterred choice. At international gatherings, which are held periodically, it is a common sight to see Ismailis of all political affiliations and living under any form of government – democracy, secular democracy, kingship, dictatorship, communism, etc., sitting cheek by jowl like one big family.
How was the Ismaili Community able to take jump, almost literally, from the Middle Ages into reasons could be many. The basic cause of the Centralised Guidance.
Ismailis throughout the world – and this in a literal sense because Ismailis have become ubiquitous and are to be found in all five continents—have a common denominator. And this common factor is that they are all and always guided centrally by the Imam. This makes for unanimity, if not unity, in diversity.
THE COMMUNITY IN 1957 AND TODAY
Such was the Community whose leadership was assumed by Mawlana Hazar Imam in 1957. Socially well-organised, commercially adventurous, industrially productive, conscious of its strength and ready for any new challenge, the Ismailis have become a dynamic, intrepid community capable of bearing further loads under the guidance of Mawlana Hazar Imam. The strong and vigorous business community now has a superstructure capable of withstanding the stress it was not able to do in the nineteen thirties. The Imam of the Atomic Age is leading the Ismailis forward in a direction where they don’t have to look back at their past weaknesses.
Above article adapted from Hazrat Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah: The Imam of the Socio-Economic Revolution by (late) Esmail Thawerbhoy, Ilm, Volume 3, Number 2, November 1977, published by His Highness the Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismailia Association for the UK.
1. Aga Khan III portrait at top is vintage print by Elliot and Fry; Copyright, the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), London; purchased by NPG in 1996.
2. Aga Khan I and Aga Khan II images are Wikipedia Images.
3. Aga Khan IV photograph is by John MacDonald, an Ottawa based photographer.
4. Begum Aga Khan (with school children), medical clinic and Diamond Jubilee arch photos are from The Aga Khan in Africa – an illustrated souvenir of the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations of his Imamat and his visits to Lourenco Marques and South Africa in August 1945. The book was compiled by Habib V. Keshavjee.
Note to the reader:
Special series on Aga Khan III: