Image: http://www.thesalaamcentre.com/image-gallery (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

Ismaili Imamat: Institutions and Ethical Underpinnings by Daryoush Mohammad Poor

EDITORS’ NOTE: While we agree with most of the views expressed in this presentation, there are a few key points we disagree with. However, notwithstanding these, the talk is excellent.

On March 11, 2016, Daryoush Mohammad Poor, author of Authority without Territory, delivered an engaging presentation to the Shia Ithna Ashari Community of Middlesex at the Salaam Centre, Middlesex, about the Ismaili Imamat and its institutions. His talk covers three areas:

  • The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and the current institutions of the Ismaili Imamat.
  • Authority, leadership, and Imamat as it has been understood in the Ismaili community historically and how it is understood today.
  • Contemporary issues the Ismaili Imamat is focusing on.

Speaking to a lay, not academic, audience Mohammad Poor expands on the functions and role of the AKDN, rather than delving into the readily available history of the institutions. This and his other insights make his talk intellectually engaging and undeniably relevant.

The Ismaili Imamat’s position to modernity is not at all like the Euro-centric or an orientalist approach to modernity. The orientalist approach to modernity is very simple, very straight forward. You can only become modern if you behave like Europeans. If you follow exactly the same history that the Europeans have had. You’ve got to relinquish religion. You’ve got to give up tradition. You’ve got to become completely modern. Do everything they do. That is precisely what the Ismaili Imamat has preached differently … [where it] has acted differently. That, we have to do it in our own way, in our own language. We have to look at our own history, our own community, our own settings. We cannot just completely copy anything which is Western. You cannot lose your own values.

About the presenter

Dr Mohammad Poor completed his PhD in Political and Social Studies, in 2012, at the University of Westminster’s School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages. He received his MA in International Relations and Contemporary Political Theory from the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Democracy, and he also holds an associate degree in Mathematics from Ferdowsy University of Mashhad, Iran.

He joined the IIS in 2002 and since then has served in various departments, contributing as translator and editor. He has also contributed, as an editor and translator, to the Encyclopaedia Islamica project. In his capacity as a Research Associate in DARP, he gives lectures to students enrolled in the IIS’s Graduate Programme.

Credits

Image: Background, The Salam Centre. (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

Image: Portrait (Bill C-11, Section 29.21 http://bit.ly/1yRu6UZ)

Further Readings

8 thoughts on “Ismaili Imamat: Institutions and Ethical Underpinnings by Daryoush Mohammad Poor

  1. Daryoush Mohammad Poor has proposed in his book and this presentation, which is largely based on his book, that “theology has been replaced by development.” This is an interesting opinion, but is it the Imam’s position? Perhaps the lack of new Ismaili philosophical and theological material is due to the fact that most Ismaili scholars today, at IIS and elsewhere, are historians and few, if any, are philosophers or theologians.

  2. Instead of the Editor’s Note, wouldn’t it be better just to say that the views expressed are the sole responsibility of the presenter? If you are explicitly mentioning that you disagree with some parts, you could also explicitly mention what the disagreements are.

  3. Actually, Dr. Daryoush Mohammad Poor is trying to say that one cannot engage in improving the quality of life with theological concepts. Therefore, he speaks of shift or change of focus from metaphysics to development by the Ismaili Imamat, which sounds very reasonable in the contemporary context. Instead of sophisticated theological systems, there is now a coherent network of institutions for development. It is very interesting that in Ismailism tradition is modernity and modernity is tradition.

    The outstanding Ismaili theologians and philosophers were members of the da’wa, which was initiated by the Imams of their own time. Today, there is no such da’wa establishment. Instead, Mawlana Hazar Imam had established the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) with its clear mission and objectives. Theology does not take precedence over the Imam’s authority. Only the Imam of the time is in position of articulating the Ismaili theosophy.

    Moreover, the theology is simply redundant and obsolete in the presence of the living Imam. Currently, there is definitely no “lack of new Ismaili theological and metaphysical material,” on the contrary, Hazar Imam is teaching the whole humankind time and again how to be ethical and live in harmony with each other in a fragmented and polarised world. His teachings are beyond theosophy and are universal values. Cosmopolitan ethics, pluralism, tolerance, diversity and meritocracy are pillars of his current agenda.

    Nowadays, there seems no need for the new Ismaili theologians. Hazar Imam himself articulates his vision, not only to his murids, but to the entire world. The medieval da’wa system and cosmology is no more applicable to the current conditions. More than ever before, contemporary Ismailism revolves around the very person of the living Imam of the Time.

    Thank you very much for The Essential Ismaili for the video presentation and congratulations to Dr. Daryoush Mohammad Poor!

  4. @Olim

    1. First, let’s clarify what “theology” means in an Ismaili context, as it seems there is much confusion about this.

    Theology is an intellectual discipline that “occurs when religious people scrutinize their own faith traditions with an eye toward understanding (and then living) that faith more adequately” (Clooney, Hindu God Christian God, 2001). In other words, theology is not an intellectual endeavour of the Divine or of the Divinely inspired Prophets or Imams (they have no need to deliberate), but rather that of man.

    Consequently, there is no “one Ismaili theology” as it is a murid’s attempt to intellectually understand and rationally reflect upon the nature of God, His relations to the universe, Divine revelation, the Imamat and the meaning of human existence through the lens of his or her faith in the Ismaili tariqah of Islam. As such, theology is one facet of the “intellectual personal search” that the Imam often speaks of.

    2. WRT your comment: “Instead, Mawlana Hazar Imam had established the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) with its clear mission and objectives. Theology does not take precedence over the Imam’s authority. Only the Imam of the Time is in position of articulating the Ismaili theosophy.”

    Your comment reflects a confusion between Ismaili Tariqah, the Imam’s guidance and Ismaili theology. Ismaili Tariqah is determined by the Imam, whereas Ismaili theology — the intellectual reflection and articulation on the faith (of the tariqah) — is, by definition (see above), *always* done by community members, the murids, in the context of their intellectual search. The Imam does not “do” theology or theosophy because he has no need to deliberate or “understand.” He is the source of understanding.

    The Imam’s public comments and activities are not theology but they are rooted in knowing the factual realities of God, the universe, and human beings. For example, the Imam’s Imamat, his explanation on Din-Dunya integration and his explanation of pluralism are all rooted in a metaphysical and spiritual worldview of these matters. Ismaili theology is the murid’s endeavour to *understand* that metaphysical worldview.

    Similarly, the practices of the Ismaili tariqah, as mandated by the Imam today or past Imams in their times, are all based on a perfect understanding of God, the Imam and human beings. Ismaili theology is our intellectual attempt to *understand* the Imam’s articulated vision of God, Imam, and humans. Throughout history, metaphysical and theological reflection has been done by individual murids — whether they be dais or hujjats — and they frequently disagreed and debated among themselves even though some worked under the Imam. That is because the theology and metaphysics they expressed *was* their search, their understanding — not the Imam’s — on the matters the spoke to. The only reason we do not see more Ismaili theological activity today is because the Jamat has, of yet, failed to produce a class of Ismaili theologians and philosophers.

    3. There is a long Ismaili tradition of theological reflection and writing going back over a thousand years that deals with these topics. Ismaili theology remains absolutely necessary today for three reasons: (i) the intellectual validation of the faith against critics and skeptical questions; (ii) the rational explanation of the faith for the community and the public at large; (iii) and the participation of the human intellect in the worship of God.

    Whereas past Ismaili hujjats and da‘is used to function as theologians and philosophers, today there are almost no Ismaili scholars systematically reflecting on writing about the objects of our faith (such as the nature of God, creation, revelation, Imamat, human existence) from an Ismaili perspective. Today, more than ever before, Ismailis and non-Ismailis are asking tough questions about the faith. Questions that *only* theology and philosophy can answer. Therefore, Ismailis need to be equipped with the rationale, evidence and intellectual arguments behind specific Ismaili doctrinal claims upon which the tariqah is based — such as classical monotheism, the revelation granted to Prophet Muhammad and indeed, the divinely-ordained authority of the Ismaili Imams itself. No murid should accept the authority of the Imamat because his parents are Ismaili or out of uncritical “blind faith.”

    4. WRT your words: “The medieval da’wa system and cosmology is no more applicable to the current conditions. More than ever before, contemporary Ismailism revolves around the very person of the living Imam of the Time.”

    This statement is itself a theological statement. It has to be supported by rational argument, historical evidence and theological formulation. To suggest that past Ismaili da’wa work is obsolete today requires a *contemporary* theological argument to support the proposition — it cannot just be asserted as a given. On the contrary, Hazar Imam has made a plethora of public and Farman remarks where he urges murids to use intellect to understand and interpret their faith, and also draw on the *past* Ismaili thinkers to do this. Again, intellect understanding faith is *precisely* what *theology is*.

    Regarding the living Imam’s actual guidance — on several occasions Hazar Imam has given direction to both Jamati leadership and the Jamat to do theology and research theology topics. For example, the 1975 Paris Conference Resolutions approved by Mawlana Hazar Imam directed Ismaili scholars to do theological research on Tawhid, Prophethood, Tanzil, Imamat, and Qiyamat.

    5. WRT your quote: “Therefore, he speaks of shift or change of focus from metaphysics to development by the Ismaili Imamat, which sounds very reasonable in the contemporary context. Instead of sophisticated theological systems, there is now a coherent network of institutions for development.”

    This argument — about the priority of institutions over theology, or theology is replaced by institutions — represents a widespread view among members of the jamat and Jamati institutions (including Council and ITREB members and Ismaili educators among STEP, IIS graduates and waezins). However, theology and development are apples and oranges and not mutually exclusive and so the proposition is logically flawed.

    a) Firstly, this is because theology and quality of life are different things.

    “Theology”, as explained above, is an intellectual discipline – a reflection on God, His relations to the Cosmos and human existence through the lens of one’s faith.

    “Quality of life” refers to the entire material, social, ethical, and spiritual context in and by which people live.

    Theology cannot be replaced by quality of life or development any more than a discipline like history or science can be replaced by business and marketing. Both are equally valid and independent of each other.

    Historically, we have always had both theology (because the very existence of the Imamat demands it since the Imam himself is justified through theology) and development (because that is a consequence of the role of the Imamat and the ethical principles of our faith) side by side. When Ismaili Imamat institutions existed in the past — like the Fatimid Caliphate, the da’wah, and scientific institutions, there was *also* Ismaili theology being done at the same time. There was no question of one replacing the other.

    b) Secondly, the Ismaili Imamat’s entire basis and raison d’etre is rooted in theology — in a specific truth-claim about the nature of God, revelation and religious authority. Abandoning theology reduces the Imamat to nothing more than a development agency in the eyes of the community and others. But, as the Imam maintains, his role is two-fold: it includes quality of life and interpretation of faith.

    c) This leads to a third point: Mawlana Hazar Imam’s continuous guidance to understand the Ismaili faith through intellect, with recourse to past Ismaili theological and intellectual traditions, is a call to the community to engage in theology.

    “I think that the notion of what Hazrat Ali left, in terms of the interpretations of Islam, the interconnections between intellect and faith, these are all dimensions of Shia Islam which are very important … Every individual is expected to use his intellect, his knowledge, to help him understand his faith — at least that is the way we interpret the faith.” (Sociedade das Nacoes Interview, Lisbon, July 21, 2008, http://www.nanowisdoms.org/nwblog/8856/)

  5. @ Gnostic

    Many thanks for your very informative comments. I totally agree that theology and development/quality of life are mutually including and go side by side. There is no drop of doubt that accepting the Imamat itself is a theological postulate. No one refutes it. Yet, when Mawlana Hazar Imam says about institutional action, it is definitely away from ideas and terms of medieval theosophy.

    In regard to the 1975 Paris Conference, as it is known, the Imam’s guidance to Ismaili scholars was to do, among other things, theological research within a coherent institutional framework. The establishment of the IIS itself was a result of those resolutions. Should contemporary theological endeavour be accomplished within or outside the existing institutions is another question. Everyone is aware of the Imam’s emphasis on the institutional undertaking. One’s intellectual personal search should not undermine or ignore the existing institutional activity. Let’s not forget that Kirmani, Nasir Khusraw, Tusi etc. were operating within (not ouside!) the da’wa establishment.

    WRT your words: “The only reason we do not see more Ismaili theological activity today is because the Jamat has, of yet, failed to produce a class of Ismaili theologians and philosophers”, this is an extremely astonishing viewpoint, but is it the Imam’s position? As far as known, the Imam had praised the outstanding work done by the IIS so far.

    Last but not least, understanding one’s faith by intellect also means to distinguish confessional preaching or proselytizing from the academic scholarship and unbiased research. Our constitution clearly states that no murid is in position of holding himself as purveyor of goods or services to Hazar Imam (article 16.5).

    Thank you again and Nawruz mubarak!

  6. Thank you, Ismaili Gnostic, for your thoughtful clarifications. Your discussion resonated deeply with me as an Ismaili Muslim. Here’s a thought I’d like to share that is rooted in my personal understanding of my faith: All good action arises out of Divine inspiration, and therefore the impetus for development, for improving quality of life arises out of intellectual, spiritual search and understanding. They are not separate, one cannot replace the other. They are, in fact, inextricably linked.

  7. Dear Olim,

    Glad you agree that theology is important and that theology is different from development and cannot be replaced by it.

    WRT “Yet, when Mawlana Hazar Imam says about institutional action, it is definitely away from ideas and terms of medieval theosophy”:

    Hazar Imam has made NO SUCH STATEMENT against medieval theosophy. On the contrary, in Karachi, Pakistan, October 25, 2000, Mawlana Hazar Imam explicitly commanded the youths to read, learn and draw faith and knowledge from the Ismaili historians and philosophers of the PAST. Hazar Imam was emphatic on this point and said that our “remarkable intellectual tradition” was a “magnificent legacy” and must be given “continuity and respect.” That completely refutes the claim that Hazar Imam’s view is “definitely away from ideas and terms of medieval theosophy.” Indeed, the Imam’s view is opposite – he asked the youth of the Jamat to LEARN FROM the PAST. Further in December 13, 2008, Hazar Imam asked the youth to “go out” and “find the traditions” from the Ismaili history and “revive them.”

    It seems you feel the ideas of Sijistani, Kirmani, Khusraw, and Tusi – of God, Universal Intellect,and Universal Soul – are no longer relevant, or perhaps, even, valid or true. This is quite sad and astonishing because only a fresh, contemporary philosophical and theological analysis of these can inform us whether these classical Ismaili metaphysical claims are still credible or not today. If you have undertaken such a philosophical analysis that does so inform us, then please do share it here. In the mean time, Ismaili Gnosis has written a 10,000-word book chapter in the upcoming “Pandeism: An Anthology” that argues, using modern philosophy and scientific findings, that the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul are robust, sound metaphysical concepts, are still relevant to present day worldviews, and should be studied seriously by Ismailis and non-Ismailisalike. Our chapter is called “From Pandeism to Ismaili Muslim Metaphysics” (http://ismailignosis.com/2016/03/10/ismaili-gnosis-to-contribute-book-chapter-to-pandeism-an-anthology/).

    Additionally, both Imam SMS and Hazar Imam continue to mention and evoke theological concepts from Fatimid Ismaili thought: Imam SMS mentions the Holy Spirit (a name for Universal Intellect) twice in his Memoirs, mentions Universal Soul three times, and mentions the Will or Word of God (referring to the Command of God) three times. Mawlana Hazar Imam has mentioned the Universal Intellect in his 1985 AKU Speech, mentions the Nur of Imamat in numerous Farmans, and mentions the Universal Soul (the Single Soul) in almost every public speech post-2005. So please reconsider whether Hazar Imam has “definitely moved away” from medieval Ismaili philosophy, as you suggest.

    WRT “In regard to the 1975 Paris Conference, as it is known, the Imam’s guidance to Ismaili scholars was to do among other things, theological research within a coherent institutional framework”:

    I’m sure you have also read in it Hazar Imam’s request for Ismaili scholars to do theological research on the concept of Tawhid, Prophethood and Imamat, Tanzil, Ta’wil, Religion, Matter and Spirit, and the concept of Man. There was no restriction given at Paris nor in the Constitution that Ismailis outside institutions CANNOT do research on these points. In fact, MORE RESEARCH and commentary on Ismaili thought has been done OUTSIDE THE INSTITUTIONS than inside. See the works of Zayn Kassam, Tazim Kassam, Ali Asani, Karim H. Karim, Shafique Virani, Daniel Beben, and others. Indeed, IIS itself looks OUTSIDE for Ismaili academic talent.

    WRT “One’s intellectual personal search should not undermine or ignore the existing institutional activity. Let’s not forget that Kirmani, Nasir Khusraw, Tusi etc. were operating within (not outside!) the da’wa establishment”:

    There is NO Ismaili Da’wah today. Furthermore, Imam SMS has said, in his farmans, that every single Ismaili should consider himself and operate as if he is a Waezin. Hazar Imam said in 1983, and again later in 1997, that every Ismaili is an ambassador who must represent and speak about our faith. So theological activity, per the Imam’s guidance, is no longer restricted to the Da’wah – which does not exist anymore. Furthermore, every Ismaili in pre-modern times was a member of the Da’wah and those outside the Da’wah were NOT Ismaili to begin with. Even then, Nasir al-Din Tusi’s Sayr wa Suluk was written before he even became an Ismaili and joined the Da’wah. Also, let us not forget that all of their works were not official positions of the Da’wah, so while they were members of the Da’wah, they also created works outside of the Da’wah’s auspices. This is precisely why they debated the merit of their own personal, and published, positions with each other. In effect they wore two hats and wrote as officials of the Da’wah and also as private individuals.

    WRT “As far as known, the Imam had praised the outstanding work done by the IIS so far. Last but not least, understanding one’s faith by intellect also means to distinguish confessional preaching or proselytizing from the academic scholarship and unbiased research”:

    Without a doubt the IIS has done great ACADEMIC work, absolutely, but, like any institution, the IIS is not perfect. However, your comment CONFUSES a) academic research and b) theological research. To date the IIS has only produced historical, anthropological, or sociological academic research, which, by definition, does not involve any faith commitments nor argue for or against metaphysical or theological conclusions. On the other hand, theological research involves faith commitments and uses the sources of a religious tradition to argue for metaphysical and theological claims. For example, a research paper arguing for the existence of God or the proof of Imamat is theological and confessional. But please note that both academic and theological research have their own biases – NO WORK is UNBIASED. The IIS to date has NOT DONE any theological work, and neither has ITREB for that matter. The only theological work of Ismailis today comes from Ismaili waezin and scholars writing OUTSIDE institutions: this includes Abualy Aziz, Kamaluddin, Faquir and Rashida Hunzai, Mohib Ebrahim, and ourselves (Ismaili Gnosis). To date, Hazar Imam has NEVER spoken against Ismailis doing theological work of this type.

    Finally, Hazar Imam has said on record in farmans and interviews that he will not compromise on his murids personal search and that the Imam’s role is to SAFEGUARD the murid’s personal search. No institution can override or trump any murid’s personal search which is UNRESTRICTED – otherwise it would not be personal at all.

  8. I have been closely following all feedback and comments since the publication of my book whether online, official or unofficial, public or private. I take all feedback – positive and critical – into serious consideration for either revision, clarification or response in due course. What is important to note is that like any other academic activity of this nature, we are dealing with theories and conjectures and they are inherently prone to refutation and tests (in the philosophical and critical rational sense of the terms). Therefore, nothing in these theoretical speculations should be considered as factual, ultimate and certain propositions. I am grateful to all for their feedback. The processing, implementation or response is time-consuming though.

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