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[Note: The event has ended. A link to a recording of the presentation will be provided when it becomes available; please read background article below — Ed.]
The rich and beautiful tradition of Ginans (Hymns, contemplative or reflective knowledge), sometimes referred to as poetry, that was introduced into the Indian subcontinent by Ismaili dais (missionaries) such as Pirs Satgur Noor, Shams, Sadardin helped gain new converts as well as sustain the faith of their subsequent generations for hundreds of years. The hope and promise given by the Pirs in their compositions that their hereditary spiritual master — the Imam who was at the time based in Iran — would one day make his appearance in the subcontinent (jampu dip) was realized several centuries later with the arrival of the 46th Imam, Mawlana Shah Hassanali Shah, Aga Khan I, in the 19th century.
Memorized and sung in Ismaili homes and religious gatherings, the Ginans remained the most powerful tool for keeping the faith alive. Today, in the western world, the tradition continues to thrive with Ginans being recited by Ismaili children as young as 5 or 6. With the arrival of thousands of Ismailis from the Middle East and Central Asia over the past 30 years, it is inspiring to note that they too have adopted the Ginanic tradition, just as Ismailis, whose origins are in South Asia have adopted the tradition of reciting Qasidas composed in Arabic and Farsi by eminent Ismaili figures and dais such Nasir Khusraw and Shams Tabriz.
However, how well are Ginans and their meanings understood by the new generation of Ismailis? Why is there so much confusion surrounding the Hindu element in Ginans? For that matter, are Ginans essentially Hindu in nature? And what about the solid Islamic concepts of the Unity of God (Tawhid) and Muslim ethics of compassion, honesty, forgiveness that are enshrined in the Ginans? The Prophet Muhammad himself is featured in many Ginans. Hopefully, Karim H. Karim, will seek to enlighten his audience on Saturday December 17 in his talk entitled “Are Ginans Islamic or Hindu?”
The term Satpanth (true path) was introduced by Ismaili Pirs in their compositions. In his brief synopsis about his lecture, Karim H. Karim notes:
“Satpanth’s core beliefs are founded on Shia Islamic concepts. Its ginans articulate Ismaili principles in Indic languages, music, and symbols. Like other pluralist traditions in India, Satpanth has drawn from mythological and cosmological knowledge that is integral to South Asian spirituality. Ginans flourish at the religious cross-roads of the sub-continent, the Middle East and Central Asia. This liminal space is rich and dynamic: it is integrative of traditions and worldviews, generative of art and thought, and nourishing of spirituality. It is a site of the human quest for truth that narrow notions about religion cannot confine.”
Simerg hopes that all its readers — Ismaili Muslims, non-Ismaili Muslims as well as people of other faiths — will participate in Dr. Karim’s Zoom presentation that will take place as follows:
Zoom connection:https://tinyurl.com/2sru2w7j Zoom ID : 9150118939, Passcode: asg22 Broadcast Date: Saturday, December 17, 2022. Broadcast times in various parts of the world: India (Mumbai): 9:30 PM; Pakistan: 9:00 PM; East Africa: 7:00 PM; Syria: 12:00 PM (Noon) Dubai: 1:00 PM; UK, Portugal (GMT): 4:00 PM; France, Spain etc.: 5:00 PM; and North America:EST (Toronto, Atlanta, New York etc.): 11:00 AM; CST (Chicago, Houston etc): 10:00 AM; MST (Calgary, Denver etc.): 9:00 AM; PST (Vancouver, Los Angeles etc.): 8:00 AM.
Readers in other worldwide cities in the Middle East, Central and South Asia, the Far East well as Australia and New Zealand, should calibrate their time according to the GMT time of 4:00 PM (16:00 hours, Saturday December 17, 2022).
Date posted: December 16, 2022. Last updated: December 17, 2022.
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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. Also visit Simerg’s sister websites Barakah, dedicated to His Highness the Aga Khan, and Simergphotos. The editor may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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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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.
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.
By KARIM H. KARIM (with contributions from Dolatkhanu Jamal, Rosemin Karim, Riyaz Jamal, Imran Karim and Irshad Karim)
Shamshu Jamal has left a profound impression on the global Ismaili jamat. His music was “magical,” declared a poem written in honour of his 80th birthday in 2016. The singer, musician, lyricist, composer, and music teacher had innumerable admirers in the countries across North America Europe, Africa and Asia where he performed in a tenure of over 60 years. Shamshudin Noordin Jamal was the unofficial poet laureate and bard of Canada’s Satpanthi Khoja Ismailis. His musical legacy has been passed on to a multitude of students and to his children and grandchildren, with whom he produced several recordings.
It was not only Shamshu’s music but his personal affability, generosity and humility that touched people’s hearts. Despite achieving success and fame, he remained grounded in family and community.
Shamshu was a loving son, husband, father and grandfather as well as a devoted friend. He and his wife lived simply in the same home in Vancouver for the last four decades. It was where he received prominent musicians and legions of admirers. It was also where he taught music and even repaired colleagues’ harmoniums.
Participating actively in the life of the neighbourhood, he stayed in touch with people who left and made new acquaintances. The many close friends and fans around the world are a testament to his compassion and graciousness. His humour was legendary – he seemed to have a joke for every occasion. Shamshu is remembered as having a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye. These features of his personality shone through in his singing and compositions.
Shamshu Jamal was born in a home whose air was filled with music. His father performed at gatherings and held sessions at the family’s residence. He taught the young Shamshu about the basics of Indian ragas and how to sing and play instruments during the 1940s. This early introduction to music stirred an irrepressible desire to learn more.
Formal Indian musical training was not available in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, so Shamshu began teaching himself through research, careful listening and constant practice. He instinctively understood rhythm, melody and vocal expression. As a young teenager, he would sneak into the concerts of prominent artists visiting from India. Performing at private musical gatherings and then on the stage before turning twenty, he soon emerged as a virtuoso both within and outside the Khoja Ismaili community.
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Shamshu’s attention to linguistic detail and diction drew him into the hearts of ghazal lovers who marvelled at his knowledgeable and precise enunciation of Urdu, which was not his mother language. He performed with a circle of fellow singers and musicians who were Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and other members of the diaspora that had crossed the Indian Ocean to settle in Africa.
In 1973, Shamshu Jamal and his family moved to Vancouver as part of the East African Ismaili migration to western countries. He re-established old musical contacts and made new ones. The larger South Asian community of Vancouver responded enthusiastically to Shamshu’s talented renderings of ghazals and bhajans. He performed with singers and musicians from various cultures and religions. As an accomplished harmonium player, he also shared the stage with renowned artistes from India, such as the classical vocalists Pandit Jasraj and Shrimati Shweta Jhaveri and the master tabla players Ustad Zakir Hussain and Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri.
Shamshu generously gave of his musical self to his own and other communities for all of his adult life. He became a much sought-after teacher of Indian music, sharing his time and knowledge with students from various communities. Notwithstanding his success, he continued his own journey of studying music.
In 2000, the Government of Canada recognized his accomplishments and awarded him a prestigious grant to pursue advanced musical studies in India. It was in that year that he retired from his job as an accountant to devote himself more fully to music.
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Shamshu’s live concerts were much celebrated events even when he was in his eighties. He performed at public venues, at Ginan mushairas in Jamatkhana social halls and at private music parties in homes. His particularly distinctive vocal style had been developed over many decades. Quite apart from his mastery of the technical aspects of music, the real excitement of Shamshu’s performances lay in the enthralling manner in which he engaged and connected with the audience. The mischievous smile, the impromptu alaaps and variations, and the ability to draw out deeply embedded emotions will be remembered long into the future.
His delivery remained at a sophisticated level even as age modulated the timbre of his voice. He practiced extensively before each performance. Audiences were delighted at the way that Shamshu maintained his vocal range and high notes of alaaps even as evening concerts flowed into the early morning. Apart from devotional material and heart-rending ghazals, Shamshu’s repertoire also regaled his audiences with playful songs like “Aavata Jata Jara” in Gujarati and “Nazar Se Milaa Kar” in Hindi.
From time to time, there arise individuals whose voices capture a community’s most profound feelings. For Canada’s immigrant Khoja Ismailis, one of those powerful voices has been Shamshu Jamal. His musical creativity has vocalized some of the deepest emotions of the community. Various versions of his original composition in Gujarati of “Mara Mowla Canada Padharshe” (1978) continue to be sung to this day. The word “Canada” is changed in different parts of the global diaspora to “London,” “Kenya,” “America” etc. when anticipating Mawlana Hazar Imam’s arrival in particular locations. It is viewed as Shamshu Jamal’s signature song which Malik Talib, former president of the Aga Khan Ismaili Council for Canada, termed as “iconic” for the community. This geet’s literal English translation, “My lord shall make a visitation to Canada” does not do justice to the deeply-felt range of sentiments that it expresses.
When Shamshu composed it in 1978, he creatively captured an immigrant community yearning for its spiritual leader’s first visitation in the autumn of that year. Its members were in a western country, far away from their eastern roots and were uncertain of their future. The Imam had been a constant guide when they had lived in Africa. There was eager anticipation of his advice on how to deal with the difficult situation in which they found themselves. With his finger on the pulse of the community, Shamshu Jamal gave voice to what it was feeling in its heart. The lyricist compassionately articulated the anxiety of uprootedness as well as the aspirations for renewal.
The same padhramni’s book-end composition of “Mowla Sidhaavi Gya” by Shamshu is a profoundly sad geet of the Imam leaving the community at the end of his visit. It vocalizes the bitter-sweet feelings of the Jamat at the end of the mulaqaat and to this day produces streams of tears from listeners’ eyes. This song has also become an iconic expression of similar departures of Mawlana Hazar Imam over many years since 1978.
Jamal went on to produce many other geets in praise of the Imam, particularly commemorating his various jubilees. Ever the perfectionist, he enlisted the participation of professional musicians in London, England for the Silver Jubilee album Jubilee Ke Naghme (1983) and in Mumbai, India, for the Golden Jubilee’s Jashne Jubilee (2008).
One of Shamshu Jamal’s major achievements was to enable Canadian Khoja Ismailis, who have been cut off from their cultural roots, to appreciate the profound depth of their Indian musical heritage. He enabled the Jamat to understand the musical culture and classical ragas on which the ginans are based. Shamshu recorded “Tran Tran Ved Na Dhyaavo” in Raag Malkauns, Joothi Re Duniya in Raag Bairagi Bhairav, Dur Desh Thi Aayo Vañjhaaro in Raag Jaijaiwanti and many others. These are masterful renditions that have now become integral to the treasury of the recorded Satpanth heritage, one of whose founders was Pir Shams (12th-13th century).
Shamshudin Noordin Jamal’s star shines brightly in the firmament of music. He lived a full and accomplished life. His legacy was visible at his funeral at which his grandchildren soulfully sang ginans that he had taught them. Shamshu Jamal’s final farewell is expressed in Shakeel Badayuni’s ghazal, Aakhri Waqt Hai Saans Hai Aakhri, which he used to sing at his concerts:
“Duniya walo mubarak ho duniya tumhe, Kar chale hum salaam akhri.”
“This world is yours now, o people of the world, I have done my final farewell.”
Date posted: July 16, 2020.
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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.
“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.
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.
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.”
[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 (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.
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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