Institute of Ismaili Studies: Historical Aspirations, Contemporary Possibilities

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

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

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

A New Phase

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

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

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

Unintended Consequences

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

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

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

Aspirations for Excellence

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

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

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

Contemporary Values as Metrics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics, Ambiguity, and Credibility

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

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

Transparency and Demarcations of Authority

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

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

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

 A Potential Turning Point

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

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

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Karim H. Karim

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

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