Editors’ Note: Now and then we highlight articles related to community affairs from our past official community journals, such as this one from Volume 4 of the highly acclaimed, 1970’s series Best of Africa Ismaili. We do this for two reasons. Firstly, either because we feel the articles are either as relevant, if not more so, today as when they were first published, in this case 45 years ago, in 1969. And/or secondly, because they highlight how, in the past, the community as well as the official community magazines courageously and actively engaged with serious and pressing community issues of the day, publishing, without hesitation, relevant ideas and opinions about how these issues might be addressed. We hope that many lessons, very relevant today, will be gleaned from these important articles.
An Ismaili thinker might ask a few searching questions of himself. Is my community in an ideal state? If not, what should be done about it? What should be the role of an Ismaili youth, and is he fulfilling it? The heads of the Jamats should give close thought to these questions. It is their responsibility to keep reviewing the affairs of the Jamats periodically and keep on improving them continuously. They have a special responsibility to the younger people who will be the leaders of tomorrow. They must also see to it that the youth is provided with the proper facilities and the right type of religious education.
In this article I have tried to point out my fears particularly about the attitude of our young educated people towards religion and affairs of the community. It is clear from Ismaili history that the achievements of the community have always depended upon the religious convictions of its members which in turn were born of the proper religious teaching earlier received by them. In order to prove my point I refer to our past history which sheds valuable light on our present-day problems.
First of all I feel it important to make clear the role and status of an Ismaili Imam. The foremost and perhaps the only significant difference between Ismailism and the other sects of Islam is that the Ismailis believe in the existence of an authority appointed by God’s decree in every age. Such a divine authority is known as Hazar Imam by the believers of Ismailia faith. They believe that this Imam must be a lineal descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through his daugher Fatima and he alone is the true interpreter of the teachings of Islam.
Imam’s position is no doubt that of a supreme guide but history proves the fact that he has always left the organisational problems to its members so long as they do not cross the limits set out by him.
Ismailis are, therefore, in a fortunate position that they have amongst them a divinely appointed guide — Imam — who interprets faith according to the time in which we live and according to our intellectual capacity. Ismailis may rejoice and take pride in their good fortune, but it must give some cause for concern when someone argues that as Imam is the supreme guide and protector of the faith, the worldly organisation of the community can be entirely left to him and there is no need for the community to worry about it. Obviously such an altitude of its members would be fatal to the progress and prosperity of the community. Imam’s position is no doubt that of a supreme guide but history proves the fact that he has always left the organisational problems to its members so long as they do not cross the limits set out by him. He has always guided the believers to the right path but he has never interfered with them if they do not follow his advice or act contrary to his guidance. A true believer has all the freedom of action and thought as long as he acts in conformity with the teachings of the religion as interpreted by the Imam of the age. It is undoubtedly true that any action taken regarding the management of their Jamats must have the approval of the Imam and his authority is final in every case.
Lesson Of History
The Ismaili history, however, clearly shows that the Imam has always encouraged the community to mobilise all its brainpower to organise its affairs and further its cause. We see in the pages of history how the community always marched towards its highest pinnacle whenever it was well organised and went down when it was badly organised. It must be remembered that every successful nation had great thinkers amongst its members who were able to see ahead in time and so organise and lead it accordingly. It is not a coincidence that whenever the Ismaili faith rose towards its zenith, it had philosophers and thinkers of towering intelligence who with the guidance of the Imam successfully steered the course of the community to the promised goal. And whenever it lacked the philosophers and thinkers it lost ground.
It is not a coincidence that whenever the Ismaili faith rose towards its zenith, it had philosophers and thinkers of towering intelligence who with the guidance of the Imam successfully steered the course of the community to the promised goal. And whenever it lacked the philosophers and thinkers it lost ground.
The community was rising towards its zenith in the ninth century which culminated in the establishment of a very powerful Ismaili state known in history as the Fatimid Caliphate. The rise of the Ismaili mission is mostly described by non-Ismaili historians, generally hostile. But Rashid al-Din (1247-1318) in his famous history Jami-Tawarikh has this to say:
For every region and every district they appointed propagandists, men of pleasant speech, goodly eloquence, and sweet lucidity, as well as of sagacious and alert intelligence. To them the terms of their compacts and the benefits promised for their association were set forth in detail, and they were ordered to rule their lives in spiritual immaculateness, bodily purity, and unblemished conduct; they were, moreover, to be good natured, well spoken and camaraderie with all men: (in short) they were to be worthy of the white hand of Moses and the breath of Christ’.” And with every man they were bidden to put forward their reasoning and conduct their arguments in a fashion suited to his character and desires in life.
To state the matter shortly: men of high rank and propagandists in the Ismaili cause appeared in all the lands of Islam and propounded and explained their doctrines everywhere.
Every student of history knows that because of their firm conviction in their faith, the Ismailis were so effectively organised that Imam Mohammad Al Mahdi was able to establish the Fatimid Caliphate in Maghrib and the Ismaili faith spread far and wide until the whole of North Africa including Egypt, Syria and Sicily came under its sway. The ideal Islamic state which Ismailis established flourished for nearly two hundred years but when their mission became weak their empire collapsed. Immediately after the great split (1097) which had developed within the community on the question of the succession of Imamat, a new da’wa was established in Persia by the untiring efforts of another devotee of the Imam, Hassan-bin-Sabbah, and once again the cause of Ismailism flourished. The new Ismaili rule in Iran lasted for about one hundred and seventy years.
Rise And Fall
Now let us pause for a while and look at the causes of our rise and downfall. It may be noted that Ismaili faith was very popular for hundreds of years and was the state religion in North Africa for about two centuries. But if we look at these countries today we would find that only a small community is left in Syria and Persia. It is necessary to find out why this faith vanished from those areas where it had grown and flourished for centuries. There are obviously many causes responsible for this tragedy but one of the most important causes is the weakness and disunity of the then Ismailis. As the rise of Ismailis was due to an efficiently organised mission (da’wa), so was the downfall associated with the weakness which had crept into mission. The fact cannot be disputed that the greatest devotion for a particular cause from any person must come through his faith in that cause. So long as the basis of the religious teaching remained sound the Ismaili nation stood unshakable like a great mountain. The secret of the great success of the Fatimid Caliphate was the existence of a powerful ministry of da’wa (Dar-al-Hikmat) which was headed by the best brains available in the domains of the Imam.
As the rise of Ismailis was due to an efficiently organised mission (da’wa), so was the downfall associated with the weakness which had crept into mission…. So long as the basis of the religious teaching remained sound the Ismaili nation stood unshakable like a great mountain.
Main Groups Today
Today the Ismaili community can roughly be divided into five main groups. The Arabs, the Persians, the Asians in Central Asia, the Punjabis and the Khojas. The most organised group, of course, is the Khoja group. Khojas are economically prosperous and reasonably educated. The other groups are less organised and have a long way to catch up with them. The secret of the organisation of the Khojas lies in the fact that the seat of Imamat fortunately for them was shifted from Persia to India in 1827 and for three generations the Imam has been physically so near to them that they were able to benefit directly from his personal guidance and this resulted in tremendous prosperity both in the spiritual and worldly spheres. It looks as if our future hopes are tied up with this group who should not only help their brethren in the other groups but also keep a watchful eye on their own organisation.
It is in regard to the attitude of the youths of this group that I have my misgivings. I would invite the leaders to think about the dangerous situation which they might have to face tomorrow. I have come across a considerable number of young Ismaili students who have come to U.K. for their higher education and I assume that they represent the cream of our community. These are the people who have to shoulder the responsibility of building our future. I have exchanged views with them and I was astonished to know that a large proportion of these enlightened young people were either completely not interested in their religion or had an indifferent attitude towards it. Their interest lay mainly in material gains or perhaps recreational pursuits which were so easily available in the West. I have come across a good many so-called advanced young boys and girls who have married non-Ismailis (Hindu or Christian) without giving any thought to the religious problems of their future generation. Surely, if this so-called fashionable attitude of our youths catches on, it will present a sizable problem to the future community. The responsibility of properly instructing such youths in fact lies with their parents and, perhaps, with the leaders of the Jamat. They probably did not provide the right type of religious education for them.
I have exchanged views with [young Ismaili students who have come to U.K. for their higher education] and I was astonished to know that a large proportion of these enlightened young people were either completely not interested in their religion or had an indifferent attitude towards it. Their interest lay mainly in material gains or perhaps recreational pursuits which were so easily available in the West.
History is full of examples of how people over a period of time, due to the lack of religious education and due to the prolonged effect of the environment, have changed over from one faith to another or perhaps from one faith to none. In order to avoid such a disastrous situation happening to us we must act now and act firmly so that the problems of your youths does not get out of hand. We should guard against all possible dangers which the community might face tomorrow and learn a lesson from our past history. I would suggest that a group of capable and devout people should meet and discuss the problems we are facing now and act before it is too late. Remember that schemes of economic uplift for our community would be of no avail unless we also ensure the spiritual integrity of the community.
I would suggest that a group of capable and devout people should meet and discuss the problems we are facing now and act before it is too late.
About the author
Since retiring from University teaching in Birmingham as Professor of Mathematical Statistics, Dr. Ali Mohammad Rajput has devoted his life to a better understanding of his faith and serving the Ismaili community. In 1991, the current 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, asked him to visit his headquarters in Aiglemont, where Dr. Rajput was assigned to go on a mission to Tajikistan in March, 1991. Ever since that time he has been in the service of the people of Badakhshan, where he spends his summer working as Professor Emeritus at the University of Khorog. He spends the remainder time in Birmingham, England.
Article: Dr. A. M. Rajput, (Best Of Africa Ismaili, Vol 4, Ismaili Faith, Fundamentals and Philosophy, p90; Originally published in Africa Isamili, 1 August 1969) (Permitted use)
Author biography: simerg.com, 2011
Image: Best of Africa Ismaili logos: Mohib Ebrahim (With permission) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)
Image: East Africa map from 1857, antiqueprints.com (Permitted use)
Image: Dhow, Akbar Hussein (With permission) (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)