Too often, as the world grows more complex, the temptation for some is to shield themselves from complexity, we seek the comfort of our own simplicities, our own specialities. As has often been said, we risk learning more and more, about less and less. And the result is that significant knowledge gaps can develop and persist.
By now, many people have read the superficial commentary on the IsmailiToIslam blog. The article itself, fraught with spelling and grammatical errors, methodological flaws, and outright lies, lacks the merit to deserve response. But we write this for the sake of clearing and refuting some of the misinformation about Ismailism that this article peddles, lest certain unassuming readers take their fabrications at face value.
1. “The Imam cannot forgive sins”
This article only makes one theological claim against the Ismaili Tariqah while the rest of the article fabricates information or presents straw man arguments. We first deal with this theological claim and show it to be spurious. The article asserts — with questionable logic — that Ismaili Muslims seek the Imam’s forgiveness of their sins, but that only God can forgive sins, therefore the Ismailis are doing something wrong.
The Imam in Shi’i Islam is the spiritual heir and successor of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, whatever spiritual functions that Muhammad performed in his lifetime, the Imam has the rights and authority to continue performing them. Thus, if we can show that the Prophet Muhammad played a substantial role in the forgiveness of the sins of the believers during his own lifetime, then whatever Ismail Muslims seek the Imam of the Time is completely justified and consistent with the Qur’anic model.
Firstly, the Qur’an uses several Arabic words to speak about forgiveness. Without getting into details, two of these terms are maghfirah and ‘afwa. Maghfirah literally means covering, concealing or even protection. ‘Afwa means blotting out, cancelling or annulling. But English translations render both these terms as “forgiveness” and this is why there is confusion. In the Qur’an, one finds that only God grants the forgiveness of maghfirah. However, God and the Prophet Muhammad BOTH have the right to grant ‘afwa to the believers.
The Imam in Shi’i Islam is the spiritual heir and successor of the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, whatever spiritual functions that Muhammad performed in his lifetime, the Imam has the rights and authority to continue performing them.
Even when the believers are seeking God’s forgiveness in the sense of maghfirah, they must go into the presence of the Prophet Muhammad, and the Prophet must pray to God for their forgiveness, and only then will the believers be able to find God’s forgiveness.
We sent not a messenger, but to be obeyed, in accordance with the will of Allah. If they had only, when they were unjust to their souls, come unto thee [Muhammad] and asked God’s forgiveness (fa istaghfaroo Allaha), and the Messenger had asked forgiveness for them (wa istaghfara lahumu al-rrasoolu), they would have found Allah indeed Oft-returning, Most Merciful (Allaha tawwaban raheeman).
Holy Qur’an 4:64
Please note in the above verse that it is NOT a question of convincing God to go from a state of not-forgiving and change into a state of forgiveness. God is always forgiving and always bestowing His maghfira upon all creatures. But when people commit sins against themselves and others, their souls become impure and corrupted by these sins and they become blocked or prevented from receiving what God is giving. Therefore, it becomes necessary for the believers to purify their souls by seeking the forgiveness of God. But seeking God’s forgiveness by themselves is NOT enough; the Qur’an as shown above clearly commands that everyone must go to the Prophet and have the Prophet seek forgiveness on their behalf in order to be able to perceive or “find” God’s forgiveness. It is the Prophet’s prayer and blessing that actually allows the sinful believers to “find” God Accepting of their repentance. Also see Qur’an 60:12 and 24:62 where it is stated that Muhammad prays to God for the forgiveness of his believers.
In 9:103 of the Qur’an we find even more detail where God tells the Prophet to perform the following actions when certain people wanted to repent for their sins:
And (there are) others who have acknowledged their faults. They mixed a righteous action with another that was bad. It may be that Allah will relent toward them. Lo! God is Forgiving, Merciful. Take (khud) offerings (?adaqah) from their wealth (amwalihum), and purify and sanctify them by means of it. And pray/send blessings over them. Verily, your prayer/blessing is a source of peace (sakan) for them. And God is the Hearing, the Knowing. Do they not know that it is God who accepts repentance from His servants and takes the offerings (ya’khudu al-?adaqat) and that it is God who is the Accepting of repentance, the Merciful?
Holy Qur’an 9:102-104
In the above verse, the Prophet Mu?ammad is ordered to “Take (khud) offerings (?adaqah) from their wealth (amwalihum)”. But the next verse confirms that it is God who “takes the offerings (ya’khudu al-?adaqat)”. Similarly, the Prophet Muhammad is told to purify them (tu?ahhiruhum) and sanctify them (tuzakkiruhum) by means of this offering. Yet the Qur’an also says that “God purifies (yuzakki) whom He wills” (Qur’an 24:21, see also 33:33). Once again, the only logical conclusion from such verses is that God purifies whom He wills through the Prophet Mu?ammad’s act of purifying the believers.
So the Qur’an has clearly established the following practice or protocol as per 4:64 and 9:103. When the believers have committed sins and want to be forgiven by God, they have to do the following:
- Go into the presence of the Prophet Muhammad
- Ask for God’s forgiveness in front of the Prophet
- Give an offering (sadaqah) to the Prophet from their wealth
- The Prophet accepts their wealth
- The Prophet prays for their forgiveness
- The Prophet purifies and sanctifies the believers’ souls
- The Prophet sends blessings upon the believers
- The believers find peace from the Prophet’s blessing
- Through all of this, God has accepted the believer’s repentance and offerings through the acts of the Prophet — “Do they know know it is God who accepts the offerings”
- As a result believers will find the forgiveness of God
Thus, these two Qur’anic verses illustrate for us how important the Prophet Muhammad is in the process of God forgiving the believers. The Prophet Muhammad in his own lifetime was the channel or means of access (wasilah) by which the believers seek out God’s forgiveness on one hand, and also, the Prophet is the medium by which God purifies and forgives the believers. This is why the verses say the Prophet must purify the souls of the believers; and yet the Prophet’s performance of all these acts is equated with the act of God because the Prophet acts by God’s authority. Since the Imam is the inheritor of the authority, knowledge, and light of the Prophet, then it makes perfect logical sense for the Imam to continue the above practices — which is basically what happens in Jamatkhana every time the murid does dua karavi, makes an offering to the Imam and asks for the forgiveness of his sins.
In other words, the entire Isma’ili practice of seeking forgiveness (ma’af) from the Imam of the Time is firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an!
Finally, the Qur’an also speaks about ‘afwa — the second kind of forgiving — that literally means annulling or cancelling or blotting out or effacing. But this type of forgiving is done by the Prophet himself. So while the Prophet and Imam are intermediaries of the magfirah type forgiveness, they are direct sources and agents of the ‘afwa type of forgiveness. Thus the Qur’an says about the Prophet Muhammad dealing with the believers:
And, it is by the Mercy of Allah (rahmatin mina Allahi) that you [Muhammad] were gentle with them, for if you had been stern and fierce of heart they would have dispersed from around about you. So forgive them (fa o’afoo ‘aanhum) and ask forgiveness for them (wa istaghfir lahum) and consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when you are resolved, then put your trust in Allah. Surely, Allah loves those who trust.
Holy Qur’an 3:159
Hold to the forgiveness (khuthi al-‘afwa); command what is right; But turn away from the ignorant.
Holy Qur’an 7:199
In the above verses, the Prophet Muhammad is told to “forgive them” and “hold fast to forgiveness”. The word used here for forgiving is ‘afwa. Another Qur’anic verse describes the forgiveness of the Prophet in exactly the same words as the verses earlier which discuss the forgiveness (‘afwa) of God Himself.
Whatever misfortune happens to you, is because on the things your hands have wrought, and for much He grants forgiveness (wa ya’afoo ‘an katheerin).
Holy Qur’an 42:30
So in other words, both God and the Prophet (and the Imam) perform ‘afwa. These all-important acts of forgiveness continue to be performed by the Isma’ili Imams from the Ahl al-Bayt of the Prophet Muhammad. A clear example is found when Jamat recites the following prayer imploring the Imam for his forgiveness in the giriyazari tasbih:
Ya Ali, Tu Gat Jamat Mathe Rahem Kari,
Ghat Jamatja Kul Gunah Ma’af Kari.
O ‘Ali, may you have mercy upon the Gat Jamat,
May you forgive all the sins of the Gat Jamat.
The above tasbih uses the word ma’af to signify the forgiveness of the Imam. Ma’af is an Urdu word meaning forgiveness and is actually derived from the same Arabic word ‘afwa. Thus, the very use of the term ma’af in this Isma’ili tasbih is a reference to the concept of ‘afwa in the Holy Qur’an. It means that the Jamat is imploring the Imam to blot out or annul its sins — in very much the same way that the Qur’an describes the act of Prophet Muhammad as shown earlier. In other words, the entire Isma’ili practice of seeking forgiveness (ma’af) from the Imam of the Time is firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an!
The Du’a Karavi practice is one where the murid approaches the Mukhi Saheb and seeks the Imam’s forgiveness. This practice is also a symbolic enactment of the Qur’anic verse 4:64 which commands the believers to go into the physical presence of the Prophet Muhammad to seek forgiveness. The Imam of the Time occupies the station of the Prophet in this regard and the Mukhi – Kamadia represents the Imam of the Time in Jamat Khana. The monetary offering that the murid brings is a symbolic offering (sadaqa) which is actually mandated in the Holy Qur’an as follows:
O ye who believe! When you hold private conversation (najaytumu) with the Messenger, offer something in charity (sadaqatan) before your private consultation (najwakum). That will be best (khayrun) for you, and most conducive to purity (wa atharu). But if ye find not (the wherewithal), Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful.
Holy Qur’an 58:12
In the Du’a Karavi ceremony, the Mukhi Sahib announces that “Mawlana Hazar Imam Kull Gunah Ma’af Kar” (May Mawlana Hazar Imam forgive all your sins) — where once again the word ma’af is derived from the Qur’anic term ‘afwa which is the ‘forgiveness’ or ‘blotting out’ of one’s sins that is performed by the Prophet himself. Once again this practice is also directly rooted in the Holy Qur’an.
In summary, it is simply inaccurate to maintain that “only God alone can forgive sins” because the Holy Qur’an actually specifies three different forms of forgiveness signified by three distinct Arabic words. The first term, mafghira, signifies the covering and concealing of one’s sins and is an act of God Himself but in which the Prophet or Imam of the Time intercede and mediate for the believers by virtue of their status as God’s medium (wasilah) and intercessors on earth. The second term, ‘afwa, means annulling or canceling the sins and is an act of both God and the Prophet or Imam of the Time. The third term, safaha, is to overlook the sins entirely and is also an act of the Prophet or Imam of the Time.
In summary, it is simply inaccurate to maintain that “only God alone can forgive sins” because the Holy Qur’an actually specifies three different forms of forgiveness signified by three distinct Arabic words.
As the Qur’anic verse 3:159 demonstrates, it is incumbent upon the true believers to seek both the forgiveness (‘afwa) of the Prophet or Imam himself and the forgiveness (maghfira) of God through the Prophet/Imam’s intercession and prayers. Therefore, the Isma’ili Du’a invokes the right (haqq) of the Prophets and the Imams in seeking God’s maghfira while the Isma’ili tasbihat and superogatory practices such as Du’a Karavi and Chanta plead for the Imam’s ‘afwa by asking for his ma’af (forgiveness) of one’s sins. The Isma’ili Muslim practices of repentance, forgiveness and spiritual purification are therefore firmly rooted in the Holy Qur’an. Every Isma’ili murid has given bay’ah — has entered into a spiritual contract with the Imam and in doing so, the murid has promised never to disobey the commands (faramin) of the Imam. If one has disobeyed the Imam, then one has committed a breach of the bay’ah and it is necessary to seek forgiveness — both of God and of the Imam. It is necessary in everyday life to seek forgiveness from any person one has wronged. Therefore, it is even more necessary for murids to repent and seek the forgiveness from their Imam when they have disobeyed his guidance or instructions.
Hence, it is necessary for you that you should remind yourselves of the covenants that you have made with the Imam and the terms of the covenant that you have taken upon yourselves to fulfill. If you ignore inadvertently or forget or treat lightly any of those terms, then the moment you realize your mistake you must atone for it by repentance and do what you have omitted to do. If you have forgotten the terms or some part of it then renew them by reviving the terms of the covenant. Admit your guilt and repent to God and to the Imam.
Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man, (Kitab al-Himma — Code of Conduct)
2. “Absence of the Qur’an in Jamatkhana”
The writer here intentionally ignores the fact that:
- Chapters and verses of the Qur’an are recited in the Ismaili Du’a’ [daily prayer] thrice a day by all Ismaili Muslims.
- One of the Prophet’s duties was to “teaching the Book and Wisdom” (see 62:2, 3:164; 2:151). Now teaching the Book does not simply mean “recite the Qur’an” — as that is a separate duty called “reciting Our Signs” and reciting the Qur’an says nothing about understanding its meaning. Teaching the Book and Wisdom means giving instruction (ta’lim) to the believers on how God’s guidance and its inner meaning are to be applied in daily life. This sort of teaching is provided by the Imam in his farmans which are ready daily in the Ismaili Jamatkhanas.
- The various rituals in the Jamatkhana such as du’a’ karavi performed daily are the embodiment of the Qur’anic principles [see above]. The Ismailis do not merely recite the Qur’an, they live the Qur’an and embody the Qur’an through the regular practice of Muslim values and ethics.
- The Qur’an’s reality transcends its Arabic and recited dimension. The Qur’an’s essence is spirit (ruh) and light (nur) — see 42:52 which confirms this. Thus, there are more ways to experience the reality of the Qur’an than reciting its Arabic text.
3. “The Dasond Factor”
This article tries to claim the Ismailis do not give zakat to the poor and instead give dasond to the Imam. This is a false and misleading characterization. The Qur’an actually never defines zakat as charity to the poor. In fact, the verse Qur’an 2:177 [which the blog cites] actually mentions giving to the poor and giving zakat as two different things. In reality, the zakah as defined in the Qur’an is a purification due that the believers must give to the Prophet Muhammad for the purification of their souls. This is described in Qur’an 9:103 where the verb zakka is used for purification — from which you get the word zakat. Therefore, to merely give 2.5% in charity as zakat is quite far away from the original Qur’anic concept of zakat. At the very least, the Ismailis cannot be reproached at all for giving zakat to the Imam — as this is based on the original practice. To use another example, even Abu Bakr claimed the right to receive the zakat from some Arab tribes who refused to give it to him after Muhammad died. You can read a full out explanation of the Ismaili concept of zakah and its Qur’anic foundation here: http://bit.ly/1ErWFA6
4. “Disconnect of the Imam from the Jamat”
The blog states outright lies on this point. A cursory glance at the Ismaili Imam’s rigorous schedule shows that nearly ALL of his time is spent serving the Ismaili Community globally. In addition to the Imam sending letters and taliqas to his Jamati leaders, the Imam actually spends an immense amount of time responding to individual letters from his murids. He also spends about 600 flying hours travelling to countries where Ismailis live to help make their lives better. The Imam himself says about his personal schedule:
I allocate 90% of my time at Geneva and Aiglemont to institutional tasks. Our offices are open seven days out of seven, because with us Muslims, Sunday corresponds with Friday. I must be available on the week-end to receive institutional directors who pass through. My life is highlighted by official visits to the twenty or so countries where members of the community live, which keep me moving from one end of the year to the next. This takes approximately six-hundred flight hours per year! To gain time, I always make sure I’m accompanied in my private plane by some assistants.
In another interview, the Imam describes his daily schedule where most of it is spent working. In fact, the Imam has no time for evening leisure or relaxation because of the workload he has.
NT: You have explained how it is not inconsistent for you to perform the roles of Pope, Head of State, racehorse owner and real estate developer all at the same time. But how do you manage it, physically? If I were in your position I would feel I couldn’t do any single job adequately.
Aga Khan: Of course the horse-racing and the Sardinia venture are incidental; if I felt for one moment they were making my religious and community work suffer I would abandon them. But I have a working day that allows me to do all these things. I get up at six each morning. I have a quick breakfast, then dictate letters and memoranda for a couple of hours. During the rest of the morning I meet people who may be from any of my activities.
NT: Don’t you feel bewildered, sometimes, seeing a jockey, then a distinguished Muslim, then a Sardinian businessman, then a politician — isn’t the contrast sometimes too abrupt?
Aga Khan: Yes sometimes I do get dizzy. It is difficult to switch. But then I have an early lunch and afterwards, Perhaps, go racing for a couple of hours or if I am in Sardinia go on the beach. In the afternoon I work again, seeing people or dealing with reports and suchlike that I may not have to answer but still must read. I work till nine each evening because I must have as long a working day as possible, racing or no racing. And after that I have dinner, about nine thirty . After that I go to bed.
NT: Do you go out in the evenings?
Aga Khan: Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t. I am too tired. I think in the past year, for instance, I’ve seen no plays and only one film.
5. “Don’t question”
The Ismaili tradition has always been at the forefront of rational thought. The Ismaili Imam himself encourages questioning and intellectual inquiry. Two statements from the Imam of the Time simply show what the article says here to be false:
If one’s faith is to be part of one’s life then it has to come under questioning. The essential is that it should be understood, that’s what would justify questioning. This way it is an integral part of one; there is no choice between living a normal life or a faithful life.
It is the light of intellect which distinguishes the complete human being from the human animal and developing that intellect requires free enquiry. The man of Faith who fails to pursue intellectual search is likely to have only a limited comprehension of Allah’s creation. Indeed, it is man’s intellect that enables him to expand his vision of that creation./
6. “Too Much Emphasis on this life than hereafter”
This claim that the Ismaili Imam should not involved in helping the Ismaili Community better their material quality of life results from a complete and utter misunderstanding of Islam in general and the Muslim worldview. In fact, the claim above implies a Christian idea where this life and the afterlife are separate. But in reality, every human being on earth has a soul and his worldly life must be integrated with spiritual life. Furthermore, some minimal level of material quality of life is a necessary condition for anyone to pursue the spiritual life. The Ismaili Imam has a duty not only to provide spiritual guidance but also to protect, safeguard and ensure the Community’s quality of life in ALL aspects:
The division between the spiritual and the material is a concept which I consider essentially of the Western World and substantially linked to the name of St Augustine. My understanding of Islam is that it is a total faith, it does not only govern the way a man or a woman of the Muslim faith practises faith but it governs his relations with his family and with society. It has an all enveloping sense of direction. It does not tell him you cannot have wealth but it does tell him you cannot be greedy. It does not tell him you cannot be active in business but it tells him to be ethical in business and, therefore, it has an extremely strong moral involvement in every aspect of man’s life. I think it would be completely wrong for me or frankly for any other Muslim leader, to restrict his effort and his endeavour simply to the spiritual aspects.
As for the article’s charge that the Imam does not teach his Community about the life hereafter — this is proven false by the content of the Ismaili Imam’s farmans. In almost every single farman the Imam makes to his Jamat in the last decade, he reminds them that only the human soul is eternal and that material life is limited and transitory. In fact, the Imam encourages his murids to remember the Names of God as much as possible throughout their days whether it is prayer time or not.
7. Serena Hotels and the Imam’s Personal Life
The Imam, like all other human beings including the Prophet Muhammad, lives a full life that includes personal and domestic activities. The Imam, like his ancestors, gets married and has children. The Prophet Muhammad himself was married to several women at once and the Qur’an even testifies to the fact that the Prophet had arguments and disagreements with is own wives. In Islam, marriage is not a holy sacrament but a social contract and divorce is not a sin. When two married people no longer wish to continue the social contract of marriage, they may opt for a divorce and there is no sin upon them for doing so. One cannot impose Christian ideals on the Muslim view of marriage. The IsmailiToIslam article also makes a libellous claim that the cause of the Aga Khan’s recent divorce was an affair. This claim is patently false and is actually libellous for which the IsmailiToIslam blog can be legally liable. It is also fact that the divorce court of Paris ruled that this trumped up charge of an affair was false and was completely overturned.
As for the Serena Hotels which are owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, it should be known that the Aga Khan Fund for Development is a for-profit agency that is supposed to generate returns so the Network can fund some of its development activity. The AKDN agencies are statutorily secular and they are nondenominational in who they serve; they do not only serve Muslim clientele but clientele belonging to all faiths and traditions who hold values different from Muslim values. The Serena Hotels therefore provide the normal and expected range of services including food and drink that are customarily required for serving international guests.
8. Dressing in Jamatkhana
Firstly, the IsmailiToIslam article is deliberately trying to mislead its readers by posting a picture that has nothing to do with the Ismaili Jamatkhana. Secondly, the article criticizes Ismailis for wearing clean and proper dress in Jamatkhana. The Qur’an actually encourages the believers to dress their best when coming to prayer:
O Children of Adam! Wear your beautiful apparel at every time and place of prayer: eat and drink: But waste not by excess, for Allah loveth not the wasters.
Holy Qur’an 7:31
The article also engages in misogynistic rhetoric, spews anti-woman sentiments and then demands that Muslim women must all wear headscarves. Yet, covering one’s head is nowhere mandated in the Qur’an and is nothing more than a cultural practice of the Middle East. Otherwise, the Ismaili Imam has always guided his murids to dress modestly and wear clothes that are proper and suitable. With respect to women, the Ismaili Imamat has been at the forefront of women’s emancipation and equality as the Ismaili Imam has said:
“In matters of social reform I have tried to exert my influence and authority sensibly. and progressively. I have always sought to encourage the emancipation and education of women. In my grandfather’s and my father’s time the Ismailis were far ahead of any other Muslim sect in the matter of the abolition of the strict veil, even in extremely conservative countries. I have absolutely abolished it; nowadays you will never find an Ismaili woman wearing the veil.
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah
The Memoirs of Aga Khan III — World Enough and Time, Chapter 2: Islam, The Religion of My Ancestors, 1954