An Ethereal Journey to a Sacred Space in the Pandemic

(Editor’s note: As of November 20, 2020, Jamatkhanas in the Canadian province of British Columbia (BC) are once again temporarily closed due to orders issued by the provincial government that impact all places of worship. The BC Jamatkhanas had re-opened at the beginning of August with limited attendance capacity both in the evenings and mornings. Zaher Ahamed’s excellent piece is an attempt to convey his joyful experience of attending a Jamatkhana in Canada in the midst of Covid-19. On new developments about Jamatkhana openings and closures in Canada, please subscribe to the official Al-Akhbar electronic bulletins distributed by Ismaili institutions in Canada).

“Maybe….because of this pandemic, I have experienced the true nature of our faith and gained a new insight into one of our central religious practices of our tariqah: the remembrance of Him in His house during the hour of Baitul Khayal” — Zaher Ahamed

By ZAHER MEGHJI AHAMED

Headquarters Jamatkhana Vancouver. Photo: FNDA.

It was our first journey to the re-opened Headquarters Jamatkhana in Vancouver during a pandemic: it was for the early morning contemplation and prayers or Baitul Khayal during the earlier part of August, and it turned out to be a  total ethereal, peaceful and powerful experience, the closest I have ever felt to the presence of the Nur (Light) of Imam in a what had become  a truly perfect sacred spiritual space.

There was pin drop silence! The pandemic protocol put in place, after going through a painless computerized registration system as you entered, did not permit for social chit-chat, small talk and worldly conversations over a cup of chai before entering the sacred space.

We were swept with only the thought of Him silently with dignity into the Jamatkhana prayer hall. We were in a peaceful dignified space, where there was not a word between the murids, each masked, each enclosed in his or her own socially distanced bubble. The conversation was only with Him, just as it was meant to be. We felt ourselves immersed in the cosmic quiet and stillness, focusing now only on  seeking out moments of happiness through the Divine Word, knowing that, with the Imam’s presence in this space, He was with us blessings us on our own individual journey to seek to come nearer to Allah through the Nur of Hazrat Ali.

With a silent and reflective utterance of “Haizanda” (He is ever living) we stepped into this sacred space and right into his presence! With closed eyes, a quiet mind and an open heart we slipped into the rhythm of silently uttering the Divine Word, first with our lips and then in our hearts, feeling it flow through, ever so slowly, into the depth of our soul, awakening it: and over a period of time, the word now deeply embedded released moments of energy, awareness, joy and happiness…. all in a timeless moment, the soul wanting to stay for ever and then…. the hour was over in what seemed like a second…. with the promise of another day to be again in His presence in this sacred space.

Jamatkhana prayer hall, Ismaili Centre Vancouver. Photo: Bruno Freschi Collection, 1985.
“Sacred Space” – the Jamatkhana prayer hall, Ismaili Centre Vancouver. Photo: Bruno Freschi Collection, 1985.

This is what the house of the Lord was meant to be like!

Then, without a word with anyone, we stepped straight outside into our car, carrying the peace that was in our hearts. And on our way home, we saw the light of the waning moon with Venus ablaze shining on us, leaving us speechless in the cosmic balance of His creation.

The calmness that we had felt in the Jamatkhana continued on our journey home. It was then that I remembered Hunza, where I had felt that same pin drop silence with no words in calm and quiet in a Jamatkhana with a dimly lit hall, “a sacred space,” in Karimabad. And now, I had once again experienced that in my own Jamatkhana in Vancouver — and that too in a global pandemic or maybe because of a global pandemic!

Maybe, ironically, because of this pandemic, I have experienced the true nature of our faith and gained a new insight into one of our central religious practices of our tariqah: the remembrance of Him in His house during the hour of Baitul Khayal.

Going for Ibadat in the morning, in its truest sense, should be an act filled with a simplicity and a reverence  of the highest kind for this sacred space devoid of any refreshments, hanging around the chai table and having meaningless conversations that last until almost 5 a.m!

Spaces created in Jamatkhanas for prayer are sacred spaces!

It was truly a unique experience and in terms of the logistics, the whole process of going to the Jamatkhana, from the time of arrival until departure, was very well organized, with an army of well trained volunteers directing your every move: Your car on arrival is directed into a pre-planned space; if you have not brought your mask one is provided to you; next you confirm your spot and answer standard Covid-19 protocol questions and have your temperature taken; you then get directed into the shoe/coat area, have your hands sanitized and then are led finally into your own space.

When the limited rites and ceremonies, tailored to keep murids safe, are completed, you are led out to your car in an orderly manner. Fifty pre-allocated murids who have come to the Jamatkhana for the morning Ibadat and prayers each, I believe, leaves with a unique experience.

What else are we witnessing during the pandemic?

I believe, we are seeing the birth of a “global Ismaili renaissance” showcased and driven by a digital platform of webinars, zoom sessions and the Ismaili TV. We are seeing the fruition of the coming together of Ismaili talent in all its forms: academic scholars and waezins, health care professionals, dancers, musicians, singers, consultants, counselors, journalists, Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) executives and staff, and Jamati leaders, all the result of our Imam’s extraordinary vision and its execution over the last 60 years.

It is like seeing a period of our rich Fatimid heritage in a digital mirror!

Seniors are zooming… the youth are dancing, men are cooking… women are leading and “dadimas” (grandmothers) are “face timing… and all this within just the last 7 months.

Learning, Mawlana Hazar Imam has often said, should continue throughout our lives. Age should not be a constraint, and this is precisely what we are witnessing. We are exploring with full confidence, and thousands of voices from around the world and from our global Jamat are now being heard directly. This is the commencement of a new digital communications era, and the challenge now will be to stay truly connected and to manage this era carefully with awareness and sensitivity so that it does not stifle in its own success.

As for me and my family, this pandemic has brought us even closer and it feels good to be in the centre of “This Ismaili Renaissance”.… a truly humbling experience!

Date posted: November 20, 2020.

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Zaher Ahamed

Zaher Ahamed is an internationally recognized expert in Strategic Marketing, Multicultural Communications, Diversity & Human Resources Development, Strategic Planning, Design &  Project Management. His over 40 years of Business & Consulting experience includes working with Expo 86, the Royal Bank of Canada, Life Care International, Terry Fox Foundation, WIOMSA (Zanzibar), Governments of Canada & British Columbia as well as holding teaching positions with the University of Stockholm, Red Deer University and BCIT in Europe and in Canada.

He has had extensive experience working for corporate and not-for-profit organizations in the Middle East and Africa. In Nairobi, Kenya, he worked with the Aga Khan University Hospital, as a project manager for the establishment of turnkey state-of-the-art digitally connected Pilot Primary Health care and diagnostic Aga Khan Medical centres in East Africa. His volunteer experience includes working in Syria, Zanzibar, East Africa, Sweden. USA and Canada. He is multilingual and has a deep interest in Ismaili history and Ginanic and Sufi traditions. Now retired in Vancouver, BC, Canada, Zaher continues to perform voluntary work with Ismaili and non-Ismaili institutions around the world.

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Pandemic, Prayers, Pluralism, and Partnerships

By NIZAR A MOTANI, Ph.D

This pandemic has brought the world humbling and tumbling to its knees, which is actually the best position from which to beg for the Supreme Being’s forgiveness, mercy, and blessings. Its economies have been battered and shattered and almost all of the world’s citizens have been imprisoned in their dwellings. He alone will eventually empower our scientists and secular and sacred leaders to find effective vaccines to successfully overcome this calamity.

Guidance from a seventh century ruler to his regional governors entrusted with administering a new and rapidly expanding empire has timeless relevance to our pandemic times. Hazrat Ali was the first hereditary Shia Muslim Imam, as well as the fourth caliph of all Muslims, after the death of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.S.), in 632 A.C. His letter enumerated a host of principles of good governance. He urged his subordinates to rule with intelligence and wisdom; justice, truth, and forgiveness; compassion and forbearance; humility and patience in calamity; consultation and wise counsel; piety and prayers; and above all to seek Divine Guidance. These are lessons which still apply today. [1]

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Folio Hazrat Ali's Nahj al-Balagha
A folio from Hazrat Ali’s Nahj al-Balagha (Peak of Eloquence).

Remarkably, during the Prophet Muhammad’s time (570-632 A.C.), he had strongly recommended territorial quarantine and stricter personal hygiene, such as frequent hand washing during contagion. Later Muslim scientists and doctors had done the same, and Europe subsequently learned this practice from them. [2]

Turning to the current pandemic, this silent, inscrutable, and insidious enemy with unhindered Global Entry has awakened and heightened the need for prayers and some critical aspects of pluralism, which include public-private partnerships at all levels, to address the current dire situation engulfing almost every country.

Prayers have shown effectiveness since biblical times, and pluralism is inherent, in various forms, in all religious teachings. Some countries even have pluralism embodied in their constitutions, but sadly it often gets ignored.

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Karen Armstrong at Aga Khan Centre London
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor-General of Canada, and GCP Board Member thanks Karen Armstrong for delivering the GCP 2018 Annual Pluralism Lecture. Photo: AKDN / Anya Campbell

Karen Armstrong, the renowned historian and scholar of religions, has described the Qur’an as the most pluralistic scriptural book, which teaches not just tolerance of diversity, but beyond this a universal brotherhood, empathy, and an inclusive approach that harnesses the intelligence of all in society (annual pluralism lecture at the new Aga Khan Centre, London, 2018). Pluralism entails inclusion of all of God’s children who inhabit our shared planet, as an integral part of the community. Hardly any country is totally homogenous – most are quite heterogeneous with racially, ethnically, and religiously diverse minorities. Accommodating such diversity is best addressed through dialogue, mutual respect, research, and collaboration to promote a better understanding of differences as strengths.

The idea of defining, promoting and giving pluralism an international platform emerged, significantly, after another calamity, namely the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America, that shook the world and drastically changed lives and livelihoods. In January 2002, the then Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien and the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, discussed the desirability of jointly creating a formal body to study, explain, and promote pluralistic values across the world and to prevent escalations of conflicts between the West and the Muslim countries. A decade later the Global Centre for Pluralism was formally established in Ottawa, Canada.

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His Highness the Aga Khan and His Excellency David Johnston at the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism
His Highness the Aga Khan and His Excellency David Johnston look at each other as they applaud a splendid musical performance by the children’s band Orkidstra during the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa on Tuesday May 16, 2017. Photo: © Jean-Marc Carisse.

Pluralism, essential in ordinary times to promote mutual understanding, respect, and acceptance of differences, is even more critical in extraordinary times, such as the present, where widespread panic has driven many to act without regard for the wellbeing of others.

Equally alarming, Asian Americans have collectively been demonized and blamed for the virus. Fortunately, there have also been numerous wonderful and inspiring examples of collaboration, innovation, ingenuity, generosity, and volunteering to help those on the frontlines and those thrust onto food line.

However, let us not forget the other endemic and mutating virus of scammers and fraudsters preying on the most desperate of our fellow countrymen. We need more vigilance, prayers, partnerships and pluralism to combat both of these common enemies. Until God’s mercy results in effective vaccines, the best interim vaccines are the three Ps and gratitude.

Coincidentally, during this month of Ramadan, some fundamental practices of Islam are more evident now than at other times: fasting, prayer, and charity towards all — especially the weak, the sick, the poor, orphans, widows, and other most disadvantaged members of society. This constitutes the social conscience of Islam.

It is this Atlanta-based writer’s hope that Muslims and non-Muslims alike will share their relief/stimulus checks, if possible, with those in greater need. Unfortunately, their numbers are exploding, and they largely depend on such charities as the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Atlanta Union Mission, Salvation Army, and Red Cross among many others. Atlanta-based CARE is internationally active, as is the Aga Khan Foundation USA, which is a part of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) – the world’s largest, most cost-effective, private, multifaceted network with hundreds of partners including the US Government.

May God Bless America and our interconnected planet.

Date posted: May 19, 2020.
Last updated: May 20, 2020 (Revisions by author)

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Notes:

[1] Nahjul Balagha, Peak of Eloquence; Sermons, Letters, and Sayings of Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib, Elmhurst NY, 1981.
[2] Article by Yahia Hatim, Moroccan Times, April 4th, 2020. See also March 17, 2020 Newsweek article by Craig Considine.

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The writer, who was born in Uganda, has a doctorate from the University of London, U.K. in African History. He has taught at Bowdoin College (Maine) and Western Michigan University. Later he worked at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in the U.K. A lifetime member of the Global South Studies Association and a longtime resident of Atlanta, he is a volunteer and donor for AKDN.

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Author’s recommendation: For a superb explanation of pluralism in the Qur’an, see Rahim Snow’s highly acclaimed book “Remember Who You Are: 28 Spiritual Verses from the Holy Quran to Help You Discover Your True Identity, Purpose, and Nourishment in God,” published  by Remembrance Studio, 2017, Pp. 213. Please visit his website by clicking Rahim Snow .

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