Three Reasons Why Ismailis Are An Exceptional Community in the Islamic Ummah

Editor’s note: This article has been abridged from a transcript of a speech given by the late Mohammed Arkoun to members of the Shia Imami Ismaili community in New York on April 23, 1985. The transcript was obtained from the archives of Alwaez Jehangir A. Merchant.

Professor Arkoun passed away at the age of 82 in Paris, France, on Tuesday, September 14, 2010. In a Tribute to the brilliant Muslim intellectual, Algeria’s Minister of Culture, Khalida Toumi, said that Professor Arkoun “believed in dialogue between cultures and civilizations of which he was an ardent activist” and “his sincerity and dedication to bringing people and religions together have made him a true messenger of peace and harmony between different societies.” Amongst his peers around the world, Professor Mohammed Arkoun was regarded as one of the most influential scholars in Islamic studies contributing to contemporary Islamic reform.

BY MOHAMMED ARKOUN
(1928 – 2010)

Professor Mohammed Arkoun (right) pictured with Dr. Aziz Esmail at the London Ismaili Centre in 1994 during a series of lectures on Islam, Europe and the West. Photo: Alnur Sunderji/The Ismaili, UK, July 1994, Number 17.

Professor Mohammed Arkoun (right) pictured with Dr. Aziz Esmail at the London Ismaili Centre in 1994 during a series of lectures by the Algerian thinker on Islam, Europe and the West. The seminar was chaired by Dr. Esmail. Photo: Alnur Sunderji/The Ismaili, UK, July 1994, Number 17.

Let me use with you the words we are used to have when we address ourselves to an assembly like yours in Muslim countries, and let me name you their sisters and brothers. I am really moved and impressed to be with you and to hear that you have come from all parts of North America this evening. This is a great event for me too, not only for you, because coming from Algeria, which is my country, I can tell you that you represent in Muslim world, in Islamic Ummah a very exceptional community, exceptional community for three reasons.

The first reason is that you have since 1957, His Highness as a spiritual guide, as an intellectual guide, totally devoted to the community of course, but also very open to the whole Muslim community, knowing its problems today, knowing its needs today and very eager to make a link, a historical link, a religious link, between the Ismaili community as it is today and this Ummah, the Muslim Ummah, which is as you know suffering from a history which has been a very hard history for all Muslims especially since the 19th century. It is very great and it gives great hopes to know that such a guide exists and that such a community like you exists today and is open to share all the abilities that you have according to your own history, to share it with all Muslims in the world. I tell this with all my faith and conviction. Every time I lecture in several Muslim countries I speak about you and I speak about you according to my experience since I have the honour to work with His Highness in the Aga Khan Award and I shall speak more when I have the honour and the privilege to meet you like I meet you this evening. I shall tell more about what the Ismailis are doing and about the place that you are going to have in the next years in the history of the whole Muslim Ummah.

The second reason why in my view you are privileged among Muslim communities is that you are dispersed all over the world in many societies and you do not have one state, one territory.  Since the emergence in the 50’s of  Muslim states after years fighting for liberation from colonial domination, the new states are facing very new problems in societies which are not enabled like societies which you have in America in which you are living. To have a state may be a positive thing, but it has many handicaps which we know in our respective societies and I know it — in Algeria for example since independence, in Morocco, in Tunisia, in other Arab countries which I know too. You are free from these handicaps, totally free. When you meet here with freedom and openness and you consider your concrete problems, you also participate in the solution to these problems as a community, and not receive solutions imposed on you from above. You have what all Muslims today are eager to have — you have a democracy, a true democracy participating to the shaping of your own destiny. Of all, what you do as a community and share that with the larger community is also a privilege.

“It is very great and it gives great hopes to know that such a guide exists and that such a community like you exists today and is open to share all the abilities that you have according to your own history, to share it with all Muslims in the world. I tell this with all my faith and conviction.”

The third reason why you should feel yourself privileged is that you have moved to some countries like Canada and the United States where you meet new possibilities which you can use to improve your situation, your economic situation, your social situation, and hopefully, I say hopefully for reasons I shall explain, your cultural and intellectual situation. This is also a privilege which I think you are appreciating because when you compare your situation to the situation in societies like Egypt today, which has so many problems, social problems, economic problems or to more poor societies like Yemen e.g., Syria, you are in a position to produce a history which is totally free to face the challenges which we meet in this stage of our history to meet these challenges with the modern, adequate tools, especially economic tools and intellectual tools.

I am supposed to give you a lecture on the participation, on the role played by the Ismailis in Islamic thought. This would require more time than we have. But I would like to insist on the necessity for the Ismaili community as a whole to start, I say to start, because it is not yet done, neither by the Ismailis themselves nor by Muslims in general, to start to study afresh the history of Islamic thought in general, because Islamic thought until today is ignored by Muslims.

You may know that this Islamic thought has been developed from the first century of Hijra until the 5th century of Hijra in a very rich way, because this Islamic thought in this classical age has been open to many trends of thinking and we have many works, many thinkers who have done this work in a relatively more free atmosphere than the atmosphere which we enjoy today, or I should say we don’t enjoy today in Islamic countries and in Islamic societies. This classical Islamic thought developed until 5th century has been characterized by what His Highness has presented several times as a humanistic attitude, to understand not only Islam as a religion but also to understand all the problems of our societies as Muslims. What is a humanistic attitude, what does it mean? It is very important to realize that a humanistic attitude has been developed in Islamic thought in this classical age where many ideas have been promoted in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom.

“Jafar Sadiq, the 6th Imam who is one of the greatest for his knowledge and I can assure you, when I met His Highness for the first time, because I studied precisely the life of ]afar Sadiq, I thought through Jafar Sadiq to the present Imam. I say this because I was extremely impressed by the personality of His Highness and by the wonderful initiative that he had by creating the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.”

The humanistic attitude is that attitude which considers that everything that a man can do in his existence, all activities that a man can have in his societies are related to a sense of the absolute, the spiritual absolute of God, of an existing God who has manifested his existence in a revelation which is the Qur’an. And this is done with an open mind, with a tolerant mind to the existing of many schools of thought, existing together in the same society. This is very essential and that is why His Highness has always insisted on the humanistic attitude. Because you know that Ismailis have been perceived by the majority of Muslims, the Sunnite Muslims as a heretic sect, as Muslims who have left the truth which is delivered and which is supposed to be captured and to be known and taught only by this sect of Muslims named Sunnites. This is not the humanistic attitude which has been developed in the classical age because in Baghdad, in Isfahan, in Shiraz, in Cairo, in Cordoba, in Spain, in Fez, in all these great centers of Islamic thinking in the classical age there has been an exchange between all the schools, many schools, not only the Ismailis, but other Shia Schools, other schools like philosophers, like Mutazalites in Sunni thinking. All these schools have developed their thinking and have exchanged in what is called the munadarat, which means lectures, lectures given in those schools existing in those centers in the classical age. This is the humanistic attitude which unfortunately we have forgotten, all of us, not only the Ismailis. That is why I insist on the necessity for the Ismaili community, because you are in a especially good position to do this work, I mean to renew this link with this atmosphere of humanistic attitude towards knowledge, towards religion, towards the relationship of man existing together in the society which existed before.

“This classical Islamic thought developed until 5th century has been characterized by what His Highness has presented several times as a humanistic attitude, to understand not only Islam as a religion but also to understand all the problems of our societies as Muslims.”

And this can be done because today we are living in modern societies, we have new tools, new intellectual tools we can use, like it has been used in the classical age by Muslim thinkers and especially by Ismailis. I have no time to describe all the contributions made by Ismaili thinkers in this classical age. I would like just to mention, in the 4th century of the Hijra which is the 10th century of Christianity, this wonderful work which is known as the Rasail of the Ikhwan al Safa, the Brethren of Purity. This is an encyclopedia of knowledge written by the Ismailis, Ismaili thinkers in the 10th century and using all the knowledge available in Muslim civilization and culture in that time to explain the role of Islam, the role of Muslims, to build a city, a Muslim city open to all trends of thinking during that time. This is the characteristic of this encyclopedia which is not well known, not well studied and it is just one example we can give to show the openness, the humanist openness, the climate of tolerance which existed and which again we need today because as you know today we have, we are speaking more on fundamentalist Islam which is developed all over the Islamic world and how to face this, how to face this big wave which is a political wave more than a religious one, a cultural one.

That is why we have to use the tools of modern thinking, the tools of modern knowledge, especially when we are in a favorable position like the one you have here to give a new impetus to the Islamic thought today. This part of your activity should be developed according to this orientation given by the ancient thinkers which we have to study, we have to know, and to make known all over the Islamic world, in our new universities, and new schools.

But we also need to know what is happening today in the field of intellectual work in western societies and you here in America, you are precisely placed, you are facing the challenges of this new thinking which is always being improved by western thinkers, by western scientists, and I can assure you that this western thinking is ignored or rejected today in the largest part of the Muslim world for political reasons which are understandable. We have no time to analyze the situation on the political side. But  political reasons should not prevent us from the necessity to see what is developed in western societies on intellectual levels. What is developed on intellectual level are sciences which we need precisely to know Islamic thought like it had been developed in the classical age.

If we don’t use the new sciences like anthropology, like linguistics, like history, and new methods used in writing history we shall not come to a true understanding of what Islamic thought is, what Islamic thought can give us today to master our problems as Muslims, as Muslim intellectuals, as Muslim thinkers. We must absolutely come through this exercise, this modern exercise to learn not only from ourselves, from our tradition, but to learn also from new sciences which are practiced today in all western societies, and especially here, as I said, in America.

When you want to do something on this level of thinking, of becoming acquainted with Islamic thought, you have today two kinds of sources, two kinds of information. You have the literature written by Muslims themselves, Muslims who have studied Islamic history, Islamic thought. And you have another information different from this one which is the orientalist erudition about Islam, orientalist study about Islam.

Mohammed Arkoun is seen above in the front row in a group picture taken with some of the speakers of the "Frontiers of the Mind" symposium held in 1999 at the US Library of Congress. His spirited presentation was on the need to reconceptualize the relationships between Islam and the West, building upon the intellectual and liberating traditions of Islamic thought rather than solely upon the recent "fundamentalist" assertions of Islamic polities The speakers at the symposium included (front row), Pierre Manent, Michael Fishbane, Mary Douglas, David Baltimore, Kwabena Nketia, Judith Brown, Martin Rees, Mohammed Arkoun, Michael Monastyrsky, Laura Nader and Daniel Bell; (back row) Vyacheslav Ivanov, Michael Woodford, Bruce Alberts, Jerome Friedman, Eric Lander, Marc Davis, Jonathan Spence, Prosser Gifford, Bert Bolin, Steven Pinker, Nils Hasselmo, Gerald Edelman, Leon Lederman, Neil Smelser, Shlomo Aviner, Wallace Broecker and Charles Rosen. Photo credit: Library of Congress Photo by Pat Fisher.

Mohammed Arkoun is seen above in the front row in a group picture taken with some of the speakers of the “Frontiers of the Mind” symposium held in 1999 at the US Library of Congress. His spirited presentation was on the need to reconceptualize the relationships between Islam and the West, building upon the intellectual and liberating traditions of Islamic thought rather than solely upon the recent “fundamentalist” assertions of Islamic polities The speakers at the symposium included (front row), Pierre Manent, Michael Fishbane, Mary Douglas, David Baltimore, Kwabena Nketia, Judith Brown, Martin Rees, Mohammed Arkoun, Michael Monastyrsky, Laura Nader and Daniel Bell; (back row) Vyacheslav Ivanov, Michael Woodford, Bruce Alberts, Jerome Friedman, Eric Lander, Marc Davis, Jonathan Spence, Prosser Gifford, Bert Bolin, Steven Pinker, Nils Hasselmo, Gerald Edelman, Leon Lederman, Neil Smelser, Shlomo Aviner, Wallace Broecker and Charles Rosen. Photo credit: Library of Congress. Photo by Pat Fisher.

You are living in America. I am sure you have heard about the book written by Edward Said on orientalists. I would like to say something about this point because it is very important for you in America. The book discusses the relevance of orientalist presentation of Islam, Islamic culture, Islamic civilization and he tries to show that orientalists have elaborated an image of Islam according to the special vision of Westerners on Islam. This is true, it cannot be denied.

Orientalists are Westerners, they work in their own societies and they use their own culture to look to the other cultures and they did it with our culture. This is true but at the same time we have to be aware of two things.

“I can assure you that this western thinking is ignored or rejected today in the largest part of the Muslim world for political reasons which are understandable. We have no time to analyze the situation on the political side. But  political reasons should not prevent us from the necessity to see what is developed in western societies on intellectual levels”

The first thing is that the literature written by Muslims themselves is scientifically not apologetic more than scientific. It is directed to protect ourselves from the aggressions coming from the west more than to say critically, in a critical way what Islamic thought has been, what Islamic culture has been, what Islam as a religion is, and we have to address these questions today in a very modern, critical way. That is why I insist on the fact that the literature written by Muslims in English, or in Arabic or in Turkish or in Iranian language, all the languages, are mostly dominated by this need to protect ourselves and to show that we are better than those Westerners who criticize us. This is apologetic, it is not scientific. We have to do better, and we have to address these questions on another level which is the scientific level. This is one thing on which we have to be aware because we have to do more and we have to do it in the right way, the right scientific way.

The second thing about orientalist literature, as I said, it has its defect, it addresses the questions of Islamic civilization and culture only as facts, they are studied as facts, they don’t study it with a spirit. It is this spirit we have to introduce, to know what are the values in Islamic thinking, what are the values in Islamic religion. To use these values today to face our own problems. So there is a lack also in this orientalist literature.

Then, where are the books you have to use when you speak with your children? For example I saw that you are involved in parental involvement. This means that you have to speak with your children about these questions and to speak with your children on all questions related to Islam as a religion, Islam as a culture, Islam as a way of life, Islam as a thought.

You have to learn, and where are you going to learn? In which books are you going to learn? On one side you have this Muslim literature which as I have said is more apologetic than scientific and we need a rigorous scientific approach to these questions. On the other side, you have the cold representation or facts in the orientalist literature. Yes, this is a fact. We must be aware about this fact. There is something lacking to face this practical question which is the involvement in the problems of our children. When we speak with our children, how to deal on all these problems, educational problems with our children, if we don’t have the relevant information, the relevant methods, the relevant vocabulary to speak on religion today, to speak on the relationships e.g. between Ismailis, Twelvers, Sunnite, other schools which could exist, to come out from the spirit, the dogmatic spirit which up to now many Muslims are having, which is the spirit imposed on us by the literature which is called the heresiographic literature.

This heresiographic literature describes all the sects in Islam from one point of view, the Sunnite point of view, the Shiite point of view, telling that ‘we, we have the truth, and the others don’t have anything’. This is the heresiographic interpretation of Islam which is totally irrelevant for us today. And if we speak with our children with this heresiographic mind we are totally lost. We are totally away from the humanistic representation like His Highness the Aga Khan is insisting to have among us. So this is a very important issue on which we have all to reflect and to develop our endeavor and I am pleased to participate in this work. We are meeting here since four days speaking precisely on these problems. To look for the solutions where we can have institutions, where we can find schools, universities, where such research could be done, where new scientific material could be made available. For all of us to be used and to be involved really in this educational process for which you are working here, especially because you have so many challenges in this society. So I hope this meeting will lead us to a very deep awareness about these situations and I hope that you will be engaged in a thinking process, all of you, not only the leaders. Everyone has to be mobilized and has to participate in this work because it is a work which is required by the societies in which we are living, because all the problems which you have because you live in America, we have them too in our societies because they come there through the technology and through the economy which is coming to these societies.

“Heresiographic literature describes all the sects in Islam from one point of view, the Sunnite point of view, the Shiite point of view, telling that ‘we, we have the truth, and the others don’t have anything’. This is the heresiographic interpretation of Islam which is totally irrelevant for us today.”

Unfortunately these societies are not ready to receive all this technology and you know what is happening. That is why if you do it well here in this society you will create a model, you will be the model to which all Muslims in the world will look and they will come to us for this model. I insist also on this responsibility. This is a mission, this is a ‘DAWA’, ‘dawa’ in Arabic means cause, the noble cause.

Jafar Sadiq, the 6th Imam who is one of the greatest for his knowledge and I can assure you, when I met His Highness for the first time, because I studied precisely the life of ]afar Sadiq, I thought through Jafar Sadiq to the present Imam. I say this because I was extremely impressed by the personality of His Highness and by the wonderful initiative that he had by creating the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. This is a wonderful project, my friends will speak about it, I should not speak about it. But I have to say this because I have discovered through this project myself and through my contact with His Highness in the project the meaning which I learnt in books when I studied the life of Jafar Sadiq. This is extremely important and what I said in the beginning that you have the chance to be a community not related to a state. Jafar Sadiq was a thinker and he was thinking in the line of the revelation, the line of the absolute of God, in the line of how to relate his life to all human beings through the truth revealed in the Qur’an.

This is absolutely great and when you have an Imam who is devoted only to this and not to political intrigues than you have something exceptional, absolutely exceptional. That is why I repeat you can create a model. And in Muslim societies like it is today because it has so many difficulties which I would like to describe to you but it would need many lectures and perhaps we shall have time to give it, you will understand the dimension of your responsibility. If you see the contrast between the handicaps existing between them, to find a model somewhere which could be used to solve the problems of all Muslims today and your chance here precisely to offer this model, to create this model, to incarnate it in concrete action. And I am sure you will do it and we shall do it together.

Thank you very much.

Date Posted: February 23, 2015.
Last Updated: February 28, 2015. (The author of the book on orientalists in Professor Arkoun’s article was incorrectly mentioned as Edward Sykes. The actual author was Edward Said. Simerg regrets the error).

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Please also visit the Mohammed Arkoun Foundation website, http://www.fondation-arkoun.org/

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8 thoughts on “Three Reasons Why Ismailis Are An Exceptional Community in the Islamic Ummah

  1. The Ismailis and their Imam are generous and kind people and are acting according to the teachings of Islam and what the Prophet Muhammad (‘alayhi al-salat wal-salam) required.

  2. This article is very inspirational. We the Ismailis are very thankfull for having a Spiritual Father who takes care of us in every situation and has made us a small community but with a very impressive and recognised impact in today’s world. Al Hamdulillah.

  3. Being an Ismaili, I felt elated reading views of a non-Ismaili man of letters. I would like to share some words of wisdom by none other than our beloved Guide, Mawlana Hazar Imam:

    “A vast decentralisation of decision-making is already occurring in many countries; it has the advantage of placing new responsibilities in the hands of local communities…. For the key to future progress will lie less in traditional top-down systems of command and control — and more in a broad, bottom-up spirit of coordination and cooperation.”

    “Social progress, in the long run, will not be found by delegating an all-dominant role to any one player — but rather through multi-sector partnerships. And within each sector of society, diversity should be a watchword. Healthy communities must respect a range of educational choices … [The Ummah] must become full and even leading participants in the Knowledge Society of the 21st Century. That will mean embracing the values of collaboration and coordination, openness and partnership, choice and diversity — which will under-gird the Knowledge Society, learning constantly to review and revise and renew what we think we know — learning how to go on learning. In the age of the Internet, knowledge is universally shaped, universally accessible, and universally applied. And successful institutions of learning must be global institutions…. [I]n the Knowledge Society, productive research is most often partnership research … sharing agendas and exchanging insights. New knowledge is a constantly unfolding gift of God — but it is rarely something that is achieved in isolation.”

    Best of luck to the peoples of Hunza.

  4. Islam in its fundamental sense means submission to the will of God and is the name of making peace with all the inhabitants of the world. According to pristine teaching of Islam the whole world is the household of God and the best among us the one who serves His household. Today if we look around us we can only find the epitome of the above quoted teaching in the personality of Aga Khan IV. His contributions for all the spheres of human activities regardless of cast and creed is the proof of his legitimacy of his claim of the leader of Muslim world, although he has never made such a claim publicly and is called the silent prince of the Muslim ummah. No one can claim for him self the sublime genealogy which he possess and the list of his services to the betterment of humankind shall be speaking for itself with the passage of time.

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