EDITORS’ NOTE: We commend this important, academic review of three books that discuss Ismaili leadership to all. Included among the three is Daryoush Mohammad Poor’s recent book Authority without Territory. We recently featured, here, Mohammad Poor’s recent presentation, Ismaili Imamat: Institutions and Ethical Underpinnings, in which we noted our disagreement with a few of his points. Some of those points — which were discussed by our readers in the comments at the end of that post — are also highlighted by Dr. Karim H. Karim in his review, from which extensive excerpts follow. We would also like to point out that Karim’s reference to “members of the community who are increasingly active on the Internet” refers to individuals engaged in private email discussions on the topics he mentions, and not those engaged in legitimate discussions and publishing of content relevant to the community.
Daryoush Mohammad Poor’s monograph is an analysis of the Ismaili Imama and AKDN on a broader scale [and] engages with sociological concepts, particularly those of Max Weber, to develop what he calls ‘the first comprehensive study of the modern institutions of the Ismaili imamate and its functions in the globalized and cosmopolitan world today’ (p. 229). This ambitious, bold, and contentious book tends to invite debate. Whereas there have been several journal articles, book chapters, and theses written about this topic in the last decade, Poor’s monograph provides an extended conceptual discussion of the Ismaili Imama in relation to its institutions. The work is replete with paradoxes….
This ambitious, bold, and contentious book tends to invite debate…. The author appears to make a weak argument in stating that the Ismaili Imama’s institutions resemble “the ideals of a semi-democratic system … “
The author appears to make a weak argument in stating that the Ismaili Imama’s institutions resemble ‘the ideals of a semi-democratic system … partly because the community is made of highly educated and successful members and above all as a result of the non-state formation of the Community’ (p. 53). He admits that the Imam is unelected, but finds ‘a clearly democratic quality’ (ibid.) in the rotational appointments of the community’s subsidiary leadership. These statements do not address how problems (e.g., nepotism) are avoided by the continual circulation of elite families and individuals in positions of power. Despite the Aga Khan’s promotion of meritocracy, vocal members of the community who are increasingly active on the Internet frequently complain about the amassing and misuse of power by those who hold multiple appointments in the bureaucratic structures….
One of the more contentious aspects of Poor’s theory about the current status of Ismaili leadership is that the ‘imamate has transformed itself from a personalized and individual authority to the “office of the imamate”‘ (p. 55). The book makes a major issue of the fact that, instead of only the name of the current Imam, the term ‘Ismaili Imamat’ has appeared on various official documents in recent years. Articulations of Ismaili concepts about the nonpersonal nature of the Imama are not new; they can be traced back at least 1,000 years to the Fatimids, a time when messianic expectations among the Shia were very high. Moreover, the Twelfth Imam, who had gone into concealment in 873, was expected to return as the Mahdi.
One of the more contentious aspects of Poor’s theory about the current status of Ismaili leadership is that the “imamate has transformed itself from a personalized and individual authority to the ‘office of the imamate'”.
The emergence of the Fatimids from concealment was viewed in this context when their rule was initiated in 909 by an Imam-Khalif whose personal title (laqab) was Al-Mahdi. His successor bore a similarly messianic title: Al-Qa’im. During the time of his grandson Al-Mu’iz, the concept of the ‘dynasty of Mahdis’ was expressed: each of the Imam-Khalifs continues the mission of his predecessors. Current references to the ‘Ismaili Imamat’ in agreements with governments and other entities, therefore, are not introducing a completely new way of viewing this institution as consisting of a succession of Imams. On the other hand, they do not change, as Poor himself states, the individual Imam’s ‘unfettered’ autonomy (p. 56). This is indeed, as the author writes, ‘different in many ways from other institutions of authority in the Muslim world’ (p. 20), but in the context of Ismaili history we do not seem to have here ‘a new form of authority which is unprecedented’ (p. xiii).
Many observers heap praises on the AKDN’s considerable achievements while overlooking its occasional failures. The network is an imaginative response to a transnationalism and translocalism made possible by the growing degree of globalization over the last few decades. The title — Authority without Territory — seems appropriate, for it describes the creative development of institutions under the leadership of a small but transcontinental community that has no political control over any country. However, the author’s contention that ‘the authority of the Imam is increasingly embodied in the institutions that he has created rather than being concentrated in his own person’ (p. 55) is particularly problematic. This appears to be a misreading of core Ismaili theology, which distinguishes between, on the one hand, the Imama as a primary and essential institution that derives legitimacy from the criteria of descent from the Prophet and appointment by the previous Imam and, on the other, the (secondary) institutions that are established by the Imama itself. The author apparently tends to conflate the two.
[T]he author’s contention that “the authority of the Imam is increasingly embodied in the institutions that he has created rather than being concentrated in his own person” (p. 55) is particularly problematic. This appears to be a misreading of core Ismaili theology …
The ‘bureaucratization of the imamate’ (p. 228) is nothing new; it was present earlier, for example, in the massive apparatus of the Fatimid empire. When the Alamut state collapsed, the Nizari Imama’s presence remained in the persons of Imams who had no political power or significant bureaucratic institutions. Despite the AKDN’s relatively large presence of in the current Imam’s activities, it is merely a temporal expression, as were the Fatimid and Alamut institutions in their respective times. Viewed from the perspective of Ismaili theology and history, the structures are not necessarily a permanent embodiment of the Imama itself. The book appears to presume that the particular sets of relationships that the Ismaili Imama has currently established with various states and other entities will persist forever. Poor suggests that ‘lessons have been learned from the past’ and the ‘political neutrality of the Ismailis’ (p. 222) will insulate them from adverse developments in the future. However, the long course of human history has demonstrated that even what seem to be the most viable socio-political arrangements eventually give way to the ultimately unpredictable flow of worldly events. Ismaili history itself has shown how the Imama has alternated between manifestation and concealment.
Notwithstanding its apparent shortcomings, this book marks an important milestone in the theorization of the contemporary Ismaili Imama. The scholarly expression of the institution has largely been in publications on the pre-Fatimid, Fatimid, and Alamut historical periods. It is noteworthy that none of the three books under review were produced under the aegis of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. All three authors, in their respective ways, have made a contribution to the study of the past and current Shia Ismaili leadership….
All three authors have missed opportunities to address some of the sharper critiques of the AKDN, such as those posed in Faisal Devji’s writings over the last few years. Nevertheless, these publications are welcome additions to the scholarship that examines the significant, but much neglected, contemporary developments in a community whose historical studies generate several books every year.
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About the author
Karim H. Karim, Ph.D., is a Professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication, of which he was previously the Director (2006-2009). He is currently the Director of the Carleton Centre for the Study of Islam. Karim also served as a Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, UK (2009-2011) and was a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University in 2004. Before joining academia, he worked as Senior Researcher and as Senior Policy Analyst in the Department of Canadian Heritage. He has also been Chairperson of the Federal Digitization Task Force’s Working Group on the Accessibility to Digitized Collections and an elected Chairperson of Canadian Heritage’s Committee on Equal Access and Participation. Prior to his work in the Government of Canada, he reported on Canada for Compass New Features (Luxembourg) and for Inter Press Service (Rome). He holds degrees in Islamic Studies and Communication Studies from Columbia and McGill Universities. Professor Karim serves on the boards of the Canadian Journal of Communication and Global Media Journal — Canadian Edition. He is leading the preparation of a concept note for the development of a major in Communication and Media at the University of Central Asia. Karim has previously served as a member of the Advisory Committee of the Aga Khan University’s Graduate School of Media and Communications, Nairobi, Kenya. He is an Associate of Migration and Diaspora Studies and the Centre for European Studies at Carleton University.
Article: Karim H. Karim (Fair use)
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