The Da‘i and His Invitation to the Truth

“The ethics of a Da’i are unimpeachable and he practices what he preaches. The Da’i constantly pursues a better comprehension of universal truth by engaging with knowledgeable people, sharing knowledge with them and also learning from them. In our time, this would mean engaging with contemporary scientific, cultural, and religious understandings produced around the world.”

By KARIM H. KARIM

Many people have heard the position of Da‘i but are unfamiliar with its unique character. Historically, a Da‘i was a member of the Da‘wa, which was a pivotal institution of the Imamat. The word Da‘wa has sometimes been translated as a preaching mission and Da‘i as missionary. However, the precise meaning of Da‘wa is a call or an invitation, and therefore a Da‘i is someone who issues a call or invitation.

What was the nature of the Da‘i’sinvitation? The answer is to be found in the full name of the institution to which he belonged: Da‘wat al-Haqq (Invitation to the Truth). The Holy Qur’an says that “His [God’s] is the Da‘wa of the Truth” (13:14). Da‘is referred to their disciples as People of the Truth (Ahl al-Haqq or Al-Muhiqqin). (It was only in the early 20th century, after the Aga Khan Case of 1866, that the name Ismaili came to be formally adopted in reference to the Imam’s followers.) Da‘is (Pirs and Sayyids) in India, used Indian terminology to call the community Satpanth (Path of Truth).

The Concept of Truth

Truth is the core of the faith and appears repeatedly in its discourses. Imam Mustansir bi’llah II’s book Pandiyat-i Javanmardi declares that “The (real) believer is one who always, permanently, thinks of the Truth, and always intends to act righteously.” One of God’s names is Al-Haqq (the Truth). The third part of the Ismaili Du‘a affirms:

La illaha illallahul malikul haqqul mubin
(There is no deity except God, the Sovereign, the Truth, the Manifest)

La illaha illallahul malikul haqqul yaqin
(There is no deity except God, the Sovereign, the Truth, the Certainty)

Tasbihs in Gujarati ask for “haqiqat-i samaj” (understanding of truth). When delivering sermons, Khoja preachers in the 20th century called their congregations “haqiqat-i momino” (believers of truth) and “haqiqati-dindaro” (followers of the religion of truth). Imam Mustansir bi’llah II and Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah referred to the progression of the believer from shari‘a (“law”) to tariqa (path) to haqiqa (truth) and to ma‘rifa (wisdom; gnosis), as does Bhamar Ghufaa Upar Dekhantaa, a ginan attributed to Sayyid Nur Muhammad Shah.

The truth to which a Da‘i issues his invitation is embedded in the knowledge that the Imam imparts to his followers through a particular mode of instruction (ta‘lim). A hadith (saying) of the Prophet declared: “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gateway; so let whoever wants knowledge enter through its gate.”

Hazrat Ali and his designated successors in the lineage of Imamat provide unique access to knowledge about truth. Imams conduct interpretations (ta’wil) of the inner meaning of the Qur’an which they impart to their adherents through ta‘lim. Only the rightfully appointed Imams have this unique ability: “None knoweth its [the Qur’an’s] esoteric interpretationsave Allah and those who are of sound instruction” (Holy Qur’an, 3:7); Shia Muslims believe that the phrase “those who are of sound instruction” refers to the lineage of Imamat.

The concept of truth here is not limited to the practice of truth-telling and being honest, which are important in themselves, but to the deeper truth that is the inner reality of existence. This reality lies behind the illusion that constantly misleads the mind. Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah wrote in his Memoirs that Islam’s “basic principle can only be defined as mono-realism.” The enlightened soul experiences the reality of fundamental truth on which rest all other aspects of faith (such as prayer, devotion, values, and ethics). It is to such ultimate and unique spiritual enlightenment (ma‘rifa, gnosis) that the Da ‘wa offers its invitation. The identity of a Da‘i is integrally related to the essence of eternal truth. He seeks to live the truth. Nasir-i Khusraw, Hujja of Khurasan, referred to the members of the Da‘wa as “Scholars of the Religion of Truth” (ulama-yi din-i haqq). This is a position of profound depth and significance that requires understanding of the process of spiritual advancement as well as knowledge of the material world.

The Da‘wa in History

The pre-Fatimid Da‘wa emerged in the first Period of Concealment (Dawr al-Satr) that began during Imam Ismail’s time. This was a period of great danger because the Abbasid Caliphate was determined to destroy the Imamat and its followers. Therefore, the Imams in this time were in hiding and their identities and locations were known only to their closest followers. Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi brought the Dawr al-Satr to a close when he established the Fatimid state in North Africa. 

It was the Da‘wa that had laid the groundwork for the Imam’s rule. Da‘is functioned largely in secret due to widespread persecution. Their institution, which operated transregionally, had a hierarchical structural model. At the head was the Chief Da‘i (Da‘i al-Du‘at), who was in close touch with the Imam. Under him operated a number of Hujjas (Proofs), the leaders of the Da‘wa in specific regions. Each Hujja supervised several Da‘is, who in turn had assistants called Ma’dhuns. Ordinary members of the community whom Da‘is taught were Mustajibs. Whereas this was an ideal model of the organization, the actual operations were more fluid especially in places where Da‘is worked in relative isolation.

The da‘wa produced a unique body of writings, some of which are described below. Da‘i Ja‘far bin Mansur al-Yaman’s Book of the Master and the Disciple (Kitab al-‘Alim wa’l-Ghulam) addresses the search for truth and the meaning of life in a series of religious dialogues between a Da‘i and his disciple. This sophisticated composition creatively uses form and language to express a complex narrative. It is a rare and valuable artifact that provides insight into the Da‘wa’s erudition and refined pedagogy.

Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, the Hujja in Iraq, was a noted philosopher. His major work, Rahat al-‘Aql (Repose of the Intellect), presents contemporary science, philosophy, and theology in an integral manner. Its objective was to enable the believer to attain a paradisiacal state through reason. Kirmani’s book imaginatively maps out a journey in which the soul escapes the troubling state of the physical world and attains freedom in the City of God by gaining a comprehensive sense of God, angelic beings, and the realm of minerals, plants and animals.

Nasir-i Khusraw, who was Hujja of Khurasan, is acknowledged as the founder of Ismaili communities in the mountainous regions of the Pamirs in Tajikistan and Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush in Pakistan as well as Xinjiang in China. He was a foremost exponent of philosophical poetry and his poems are an essential part of Persian-speaking countries’ educational curriculum today. Khusraw’s poetry is also sung at religious gatherings in the Badakshan Jamat and its diasporic locations. Among his philosophical treatises is The Book of Two Wisdoms Reconciled (Kitab-i Jami’ al-Hikmatayn), which endeavours to bridge Aristotelian and haqa’iq philosophies.

The Satpanth branch of the Da‘wa in India produced a unique literary tradition of around one thousand ginans, many of which hold profound insight and wisdom. Like the Sufis in the subcontinent who used the region’s cultural heritage to preach their beliefs, Ismaili Pirs, notably Shams, Sadruddin, and Hasan Kabirdin, also drew from Indic mythology and symbolism to teach the message of universal truth. Major compositions like Brahm Prakash and Bhuj Nirinjan guide adherents in their spiritual journeys. The ginan tradition, which is attributed to a number of Pirs and Sayyids, speaks of sat (truth) in various South Asian languages including Gujarati, Khari Boli (proto Hindi-Urdu), Punjabi, Sindhi and Siraiki/Multani. South Asian Khoja Jamats and their diaspora find inspiration in the hymns, which are sung every day at religious gatherings.

The Da‘wa’s Pluralist Search for Truth

The quest for truth is a consistent theme that runs through the centuries-long history of Da‘wat al-Haqq and Satpanth. Da‘is drew on knowledge from a variety of Muslim and non-Muslim sources in a pluralist pursuit of universal truth. According to Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah, studying other religions is integral to spiritual search because God’s revelation has appeared among different peoples through history.

All Islamic schools of thought accept it as a fundamental principle that, for centuries, for thousands of years before the advent of Mohammed, there arose from time to time messengers, illumined by Divine grace, for and amongst those races of the earth which had sufficiently advanced intellectually to comprehend such a message. Thus Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and all the Prophets of Israel are universally accepted by Islam. Muslims indeed know no limitation merely to the Prophets of Israel; they are ready to admit that there were similar Divinely-inspired messengers in other countries – Gautama Buddha, Shri Krishna, and Shri Ram in India, Socrates in Greece, the wise men of China, and many other sages and saints among peoples and civilizations of which we have now lost trace.

This pluralist attitude was present in the earliest Ismaili writings such as the encyclopedia of Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity), whose sources included Islamic, Greek, Babylonian, Hindu, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Manichean, Jewish, and Christian knowledge.  Da‘is Al-Nasafi and Al-Sijistani adapted Neoplatonist thought to indicate the cosmological place of the Imam. As the Da‘wa moved into South Asia, Pirs and Sayyids drew from Indic mythology and cosmology for a similar purpose.

Such pluralist approaches to knowledge were not uncommon in the history of Islam. Prophet Muhammad is said to have told his followers in Arabia to seek knowledge even as far as China. The receptivity of Muslims to other cultures in the Hellenic intellectual environment of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran provided for their own religion’s intellectual flowering. They came upon renowned academies like those of Jondishapur, where Persian, Greek, Indian, and Roman scholars trained in medicine, philosophy, theology, and science. A major translation movement rendered numerous manuscripts written in various languages into Arabic. Muslims scholars drew on the knowledge, philosophical reasoning and analytical tools produced by other civilizations for developing Islamic philosophy (falsafa), theology (kalam), and law (fiqh). Even the modes of Islamic preaching borrowed from indigenous practices; for example, Sufi teachers adopted the bhakti mode of devotion in India.

Whereas it was commonplace for Muslim intellectuals to learn from neighbouring civilizations, Ismaili thinkers embraced the most openly pluralist Islamic approach to other cultural and religious sources. They had a cosmopolitan outlook in studying others’ material and spiritual sciences in a sustained search for universal truth. Da‘is examined the ancient world’s wisdom including that of Greeks, Babylonians, and Sabaeans as well as writings of contemporaries such as Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists.

The Da‘wat al-Haqq’s cosmopolitan outlook in studying others’ material and spiritual sciences in a sustained search for universal truth enabled them to see spiritual value in their symbols and practices. Al-Sijistani interpreted the Christian cross’s four points as representing the roots of truth. Badakshan Jamats observe Chirag-i Rawshan (Luminous Lamp), a funerary rite that has Islamic features along with characteristics of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian religions. Oral tradition attributes the establishment of this ritual to Nasir-i Khusraw. The Zoroastrian spring festival of Navroz, which is commemorated by Shia and Sunni Muslims in Persianate regions, has been embraced by all Ismailis as a major celebration of spiritual renewal. Farsi-speaking Jamats have been drawn to some of the poems of the great Sunni mystics Attar and Rumi, which are recited in religious gatherings. The Garbi category of ginan compositions bear a Hindu communal dance’s rhythm. Da ‘is were generally less concerned about exoteric differences between religious perspectives than in pursuing the greater spiritual truth.

Conclusion

Whereas Da‘is have consistently been engaged in a search for truth, this endeavor has been fraught with physical, intellectual, as well as personal spiritual dangers. These hazards led some members of the Da‘wa to turn away from the Imamat’s guidance. For example, Da‘i Abu Abdullah al-Shii, who prepared the ground for Imam Al-Mahdi to establish the Fatimid state, later conspired against him. In the time of Imam Al-Hakim, a number of Da‘is broke from the Fatimid Da‘wa to establish what came to be known as the Druze movement. Another major division took place in the Da‘wa upon the death of Imam Al-Mustansir I, when most of the Da‘is in Cairo followed Al-Musta‘li and those in the east, like Hassan-i Sabbah and Rashid al-Din Sinan, adhered to Imam Nizar. Later in India, a grandson of Pir Hasan Kabirdin, Nar Muhammad, founded a break-way religious group called the Imamshahis.

The Da‘i Ahmad bin Ibrahim al-Naysaburi wrote a treatise on the comportment expected of the members of the Da‘wa. It laid out in some detail the qualifications and behavior that a Da‘i should have. Al-Naysaburi stated that the Da‘wa is built on knowledge, piety, and good governance. A Da’i maintains a noble character and upholds the truth to which he invites believers. His ethics are unimpeachable and he practices what he preaches. He constantly pursues a better comprehension of universal truth by engaging with knowledgeable people, sharing knowledge with them and also learning from them. In our time, this would mean engaging with contemporary scientific, cultural, and religious understandings produced around the world.

Life may appear more complex than in previous periods but the struggle to remain faithful to eternal truth, which has been a constant religious quest since the dawn of time, remains relevant to this day. This endeavour was represented in previous centuries by the institution of Da‘wat al-Haqq, Invitation to the Truth. As in the past, a Da‘i’s life today would be difficult as it would involve dealing with intricate material, intellectual and spiritual challenges. The person who responds to the Call to the Truth accepts the undertaking of a demanding but ultimately rewarding enterprise. He/she can be seriously misled in this journey by others and even by the illusions of his/her own mind.

Adherence to Din al-Haqq demands a keen dedication to the Imamat and to the Truth. Followers of the Imam believe that he is the unique source of the knowledge that leads to comprehension of the Truth. However, history has shown that even the Imamat’s highly placed officials like the intelligent and heroic Da‘i Abu Abdullah al-Shii have wavered from such a conviction. Living the faith of Al-Haqq clearly requires an absolutely unrelenting commitment to and love for the Truth. Those who sincerely seek to maintain such personal steadfastness humbly ask in daily prayers for “haqiqat-i samaj” (understanding of truth) and “iman-ji salamati” (security of faith).

Date posted: July 7, 2019.

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Karim H. Karim

About the author: Professor Karim H. Karim is the Director of the Carleton Study for the Study of Islam. He has previously been Co-Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and Director of Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication. Dr. Karim has also been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University. He is an award-winning author who has published extensively. Professor Karim has also delivered distinguished lectures at venues in North America, Europe and Asia. In 2017, he organized the international conference on Mapping a Pluralist Space in Ismaili Studies, which was the largest ever gathering of scholars working in this field. A forthcoming publication of his is titled “Ismailis: A Pluralist Search for Universal Truth.”

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Nazil Kara (1957-2018): An Ordinary and Extraordinary Satpanthi Woman

[The following is an adapted version of a eulogy delivered by Karim H. Karim  at the bhatti reception honouring his sister Nazil, who passed away recently in Port Moody, British Columbia, at the age of 61]

By KARIM H. KARIM

Nazil Kara

Nazil Kara (1957-2018)

I would like to tell you about my sister Nazil Kara, whose life was ordinary and also extraordinary. Let me start by referring to women in general. They are often the anchors of their communities. Women tend to have the practical and pragmatic wisdom that keeps families stable. They are dynamic engines who seem to have unending resources of energy. Some have ordinary lives that are extraordinary. Yet many of their stories remain untold.

The name Nazil refers to someone who descends from above. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s late father Prince Aly Khan (1911-1960) gave this name to Gulbanu and Haiderali Essa Karim for their yet to be born daughter.

Nazil had a life history similar to that of many other Satpanthi Khoja Ismaili women of her generation. Her values, ethics and spirituality were shaped by the teachings of Pir Sadardin passed down through 700 years, from generation to generation, from parents to children, from grandparents to grandchildren, from aunts and uncles to nieces and nephews. The multiple cultures that she lived were those of India, Africa and North America. Nazil’s story is, in many ways, common to the women and men of the diaspora that has travelled from Gujarat to Africa and then to Canada – traversing half the planet in the course of two centuries.

Nazil was the great granddaughter of Jethibai (also known as “Bead Bai”) and Mohamed Jeevan, who were from India. Both her grandfathers were born in Gujarat and both her grandmothers were born in Kenya. Nazil’s maternal grandparents were Huzurmukhiani Sikina Mohamed Jeevan and Huzurmukhi Kanji Mohamed Jeevan; her paternal grandparents were Alijabanu Shirin Karim and Alijah Essa Karim. (Mohamedbhai travelled from India to East Africa in a dhow; Essabhai made the journey later on the steamship SS Karanja.)

Born on 20th August 1957 in Kisii, Kenya, she was Nazil Haiderali Essa Karim Kassam Premji Punja Vallani. She was a daughter, a granddaughter, a great granddaughter, a sister, a cousin, a niece, a wife, a mother, an aunt, a friend, a confidant, a mentor, and so much more. As a child she flourished among her many relatives in the townships and cities of East Africa – Kisii, Kisumu, Arusha, Magugu, Babati, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Mbarara. The family has grown and extended into new generations. It is scattered across Canada and other parts of the world. Some of its younger members who reside in far off places never met Nazil, but her memory is cherished greatly by her own generation of the clan and its elders. She is also remembered by many friends who reside in several countries.

My sibling lived an ordinary life like the most of us, making mistakes and doing good things. However, there is a certain symmetry and uniqueness about Nazil’s stay in this world. Unlike most people, she was given birth at home and she passed away at home. Her earthly beginning and end occurred on high ground: she was born in the hilly town of Kisii in the Nyanza Province of Kenya and took her last breath at Heritage Mountain in Port Moody, British Columbia. The spans of her life before and after marriage were divided into almost equal parts. In her community of some fifty cousins, she is the first to walk to the other world. Or, to put it another way, she is the awwal among this generation of her family to make the journey to the akhirah. My sister was much-loved by our father, Haiderali Essa Karim, who passed away six years ago. Both departed as autumn leaves were turning gold. Her physical resting place is close to our father’s in Burnaby’s Forest Lawn cemetery, which was her dearest wish.

Nazil’s was a life of service. Even her choices for employment were institutions devoted to the care of people. Her first full-time job was with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, when its offices were in Vancouver. She then worked for her fellow citizens for 27 years as a Service Canada employee. But more than anything else, Nazil was absolutely devoted to her parents, her twin daughters Nayab and Naseeba, and to the love of her life, her husband Arif. Born under the sign of Leo, she was a lioness in protecting her family. Nazil dedicated her life to them. Her last words at 8:15 am on Monday 5th November 2018 were those of care for Arif, who has a long-term illness. With that, at the age of three score and one, she completed her seva (service) in this world and was called to the other.

My sister’s formal education began at the Aga Khan Nursery School in our home town. Following which, she attended the Kisii Primary School until 1966, and later, the Aga Khan Primary School in Naiirobi, Kenya’s capital city. From 1970 to 1975, Nazil was at Nairobi’s Aga Khan High School. Embarking on her post-secondary education, she travelled to Bradford College in Haverhill, Massachusetts, before the family formally migrated to North America. Later, she studied at the Oakland campus of the California College of the Arts. Her higher education was completed at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. But above and beyond school learning, Nazil’s greatest intellectual asset was the practical and pragmatic wisdom of women.

Her school friends remember her as a captain in the Girl Guide Rangers. She was Head Girl in her last year at the Aga Khan High School. In sports, she was a member of the school netball team and competed at the national level in badminton. Nazil was also artistically gifted. She began pursuing art seriously in her late teenage years. The many portraits that she drew are striking in their simplicity.

During the last two decades, Nazil turned to a traditional medium – that of applying henna or mehndi as body art. Her fingers moved almost effortlessly for hours, ultimately unveiling ornate designs that flowed into infinity. Nazil’s art was a creative expression of how she saw the world. It is a metaphor of her existence. Her life had blossomed like the intricate floral patterns that she drew so dexterously. It delighted and infused beauty into many lives. And mirroring mehndi’s ephemeral nature, Nazil’s earthly sojourn was a fleeting one. But unlike henna, ruhani (spiritual) essence does not fade – its eternity is symbolized in the subtle, intersecting patterns that she traced on many hands.

Henna art

The art of Henna or Mehndi was Nazil’s passion for the last twenty years of her life.

Nazil’s artistic skill was much in demand at public fairs and weddings. Her art lives on in many treasured bridal albums. My sister passed on her skills to Nayab and Naseeba, who developed their own unique styles. Art became a way to serve. Mother and daughters frequently applied henna at full-day fund-raising events of the Canadian Cancer Society. Moving beyond the customary use of mehndi as body art, the three of them engaged in a newer form that finely traces henna on art paper. They have individually produced marvellous pieces. A selection of their work was exhibited at the Jubilee Arts Festival in Toronto in the Spring of 2018. A week after Nazil departed, a regular delivery of henna arrived at her home from India. The family’s mehndi art draws from the community’s cultural roots in Gujarat. Building on this age-old tradition, Nazil, Nayab and Naseeba have strived innovatively to transform it into a 21st century genre.

Nazil’s life was integral to the broad arc of time that is the community’s history. She was like many other Satpanthi Khoja Ismaili women of her time. They have been instrumental in passing on the skills, values and ethics of the community. Satpanth means “the true path” or “the path of truth.” Satpanthi women have been leading on the path of truth for generations. The world changes constantly, but the truth remains constant. Its value is eternal. The truth that Nazil expressed was manifested in her art and in her caring for others.

Her daughters are her living legacy. She has passed on the values, ethics and spiritual sensibility of Satpanth to them. We will continue to see Nazil Kara’s continuing presence in the world through Nayab and Naseeba’s accomplishments.

This is a story of one ordinary and extraordinary Satpanthi Khoja Ismaili woman.

Date posted: December 6, 2018.

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