Objective and inspiration
At the 1996, Centro Ismaili Lisbon Foundation Stone Ceremony, in Lisbon, Mawlana Hazar Imam (as His Highness the Aga Khan is known to his followers) said “[The Ismaili] interpretation of Islam … is intellectually strong and humanistic in outlook.” Earlier, in 1985, he had said:
The faith urges freedom of intellectual enquiry and this freedom does not mean that knowledge will lose its spiritual dimension. That dimension is indeed itself a field for intellectual enquiry. I can not illustrate this interdependence of spiritual inspiration and learning better than by recounting a dialogue between Ibn Sina, the philosopher, and Abu said Abu-Khyar, the Sufi mystic. Ibn Sina remarked, “Whatever I know, he sees.” To which Abu Said replied, “Whatever I see, he knows.”
Through short, easy reading articles, book reviews and synopses, interviews and, yes, even opinion pieces, The Essential Ismaili aims to be a place of discovery, of “intellectual enquiry.” With a focus on the “essentials,” Ismailism’s spiritual, intellectual and humanistic facets, Hazar Imam spoke of, are explored from five dimensions or perspectives: philosophies, traditions, heritage, community and visions. Together they represent a continuum from the historical past, to the present and future, the evolving traditions that bridge these eras and the eternal philosophies which unite and bind them together.
However, the Ismaili intellectual tradition and humanistic world-view go beyond just understanding the rationale and significance behind our philosophies, our theologies, our traditions, our history and our ethical framework. The Ismaili intellectual engagement permeates all aspects of Ismaili life, including, in particular, conceiving of innovative solutions to issues and challenges we face today. For indeed, Hazar Imam roots the very notion, the very ethic, of conceiving innovative solutions to issues of the day, in the Prophet’s own example:
In the face of this changing world, … I ask, do we have a clear, firm and precise understanding of what Muslim Society is to be in times to come? And if as I believe, the answer is uncertain, where else can we search then in the Holy Qur’an, and in the example of Allah’s last and final Prophet? …
The Holy Prophet’s life gives us every fundamental guideline that we require to resolve the problem as successfully as our human minds and intellects can visualise. His example [… and] his wisdom in conceiving new solutions for problems which could not be solved by traditional methods, without affecting the fundamental concepts of Islam, surely all these are foundations which, correctly understood and sincerely interpreted, must enable us to conceive what should be a truly modern and dynamic Islamic Society in the years ahead. [Emphasis added]
And so, while we of course review Ismailism’s spiritual, intellectual and humanistic facets from their traditional philosophical and historical expressions, we will also seek to understand them — guided by Mawlana Hazar Imam’s current articulation of them in his public speeches and interviews — relative to our current, contemporary context with an eye to better appreciating their importance, relevance and application towards our own community’s development.
The Essential Ismaili is inspired not only by Hazar Imam’s call for “intellectual enquiry,” but also by Prince Sadruddin’s advice, given 40 years ago, in 1975, in Vancouver — just a few years after the pioneering Canadian Jamat had started to migrate there — when he said:
I would like to see every Ismaili and particularly every young Ismaili become an ambassador, a real ambassador of the community. And I mean active ambassadors, ambassadors who really work hard. I want you to be active ambassadors. I want you to explain to your Canadian friends, to your neighbours, to the people that you work with, that you live with, the people that entertain you, or that you will be entertaining, what you are, where you come from, about your traditions, about your culture, about your religion, about the way in which the community functions … Explain the role of the Imam, not only his religious functions but also the economic and social advice that you receive from the Imam and what has happened to the community as a result of its unity in other parts of the world. [Emphasis added]
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
Vancouver, Canada, 22 January 1975
As mentioned above, The Essential Ismaili explores the “essentials” of the Ismaili spiritual and intellectual tradition and its humanistic world-view from the following five perspectives:
- Philosophies: Ismailism’s eternal ethical and theological principles. Ismailism’s foundation and value system.
- Traditions: The expression of those philosophies within the various traditions of Ismailism, historically and geographically.
- Heritage: Ismaili history and culture.
- Community: The issues and challenges we face in the contemporary context and moving, life-changing personal experiences the faith inspired in people.
- Visions: The future which the community must forge for itself from the current context.
Below we outline, in detail, each perspective and how they are shaped by our editorial focus.
Philosophies, Traditions, Heritage
As Hazar Imam explains, having an understanding of our philosophies, traditions and heritage not only provides us with a foundation that helps us better appreciate Ismailism’s robust and proud legacy, but is itself a source of strength:
I wanted to just share with my Jamat leaders in Canada something which has been very important to me since many years back. And that is that the Jamat should learn about its remarkable history, should learn about the pluralism of its history, should learn about the great names, so that there is a sense of pride and an understanding of our past – of the greatness of the past of the Shia Ismaili Muslim Tariqah.
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Vancouver, Canada, November 2008
However, as Hazar Imam further explains, these foundations make our faith rational and understandable in today’s secular world:
You cannot give a child secular education and then expect him not to ask questions about his religion. This is one more reason why [Muslim] schools should have well-qualified teachers giving courses on the background of Islam, its history, theology, philosophy and all the other subjects which pertain to its glorious past.
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.
Furthermore, Hazar Imam clarifies that these foundations also provide us with the moral and ethical framework within which solutions — true to our values — can be formulated to address issues and challenges we face today:
My grandfather gave, and I have myself given, a certain interpretation to Shiism. The intellect is seen as a facet of faith, in the service of faith. Reason, reflection, form part of the process of decision making. This reflection is desirable, is necessary in the interpretation of religion.
Mawlana Hazar Imam (Translation)
La Croix Interview, Pierre Cochez and Jean-Christophe Ploquin (Paris, France), 8 April 2003
The final two dimensions by which we explore Ismailism’s intellectual tradition and humanistic world-view are: Community and Visions. Here, we reflect upon the contemporary community, the challenges it faces, the trends it must cope with, the future opportunities open to it. And, perhaps most importantly of all, we share here first hand, soul stirring experiences and stories of individuals touched by the faith. Touched not just intellectually, but at a personal, human level, deep in their souls. These are stories of courage and valour, of loyalty and steadfastness, of conviction and honour, of equity and justice, of patience and temperance, of personal triumph and tragedy, of love for the Imam and of all that makes us human. Stories of the heart that inspire us to not just stand up and cheer, or that bring a tear to our eyes, but stories that move us to action and “walk the talk,” for as Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah has said:
But Islam first and Ismailism much more so, insists on action.
Without action, faith is useless; without action prayer becomes pride.
Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah
Community and Visions are spaces where innovative ideas and visions can be expressed and their merits explored. These deliberations will be informed by in depth reviews of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s public advices with an eye towards how they can be applied towards community development. The search for new solutions, to be creative and innovative, to have a spirit of adventure, have been some of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s most fundamental messages. Ones that he has repeated over the past 50 years — some selections appear below. For, is not innovation and creativity the quintessential intellectual activity, for some?
Hazar Imam’s advices are universal, profoundly astute, penetratingly insightful and years, if not decades, ahead of conventional thinking and wisdom. However, although we, and others, would do well to not only understand them, deeply, but also act upon them, some quarters are of the opinion that Hazar Imam’s public messages — his advices to organisations and nations on how to be more effective, more responsive, more flexible, more humanistic, more accountable, more ethical, more creative, more innovative, more bold, more nuanced and sophisticated in thinking — do not apply within the community. We, however, are of the opposite view. For, if that was true — that his public advices do not apply within the community, then we are left with the bizarre situation where the institutions and nations of the world seek out, and benefit from, Hazar Imam’s advice about how to improve themselves while we are denied it and must instead seek out advice about how to improve ourselves from, say Tom Peters or Stephen Covey. On the contrary, however, Hazar Imam’s advice, from 50 years ago, to the community is clear and specific: “we must leave no stone unturned to strengthen ourselves.”
The world which we live on is indeed getting smaller every day, there is increased communication between human beings of different areas and we can already see how the technical intelligentsia of the world, regardless of all existing barriers, are joining together … If we, as a small community, are to face the challenge of the future and overcome it and make sense of it and use it for our own good, we must leave no stone unturned to strengthen ourselves in the years ahead.
Individual groups, separated by thousands of miles, can no longer attempt separately to mould new ideas and new concepts into intelligible and acceptable forms. It is necessary, therefore, to have more and more consultation, discussion and investigation so as to find out what institutions, what organisations and on what foundations we can prepare ourselves to make good use of the future which Allah allows us to perceive.
[L]et me emphasise that healthy institutions will tap the widest possible range of energies and insights. They will optimise each society’s meritocratic potential, so that opportunity will reward competence, from whomever and wherever it may come …
The search for solutions is a voyage of discovery on which we must neither fail to gain from experience nor fear to explore further.
In everything we do we must look to the future, seeking always to think creatively, to innovate and to improve.
Human genius is found in its variety which is the work of Allah. Harnessing that genius to the fullest should be one of the goals of all modern societies and nations in addition to mobilising creative capacity from all segments of society.
The best way to manage change, whether positive or negative, is to anticipate it and prepare for it.
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Aga Khan School Opening Ceremony (Osh, Kyrgyzstan), 30 October 2002
However, lest we think that solutions to today’s challenges must all be invented today, Hazar Imam explains, that solutions can also be found in the past and adapted to today’s context, and also the past heritage must be respected and carried forward, which is why knowledge of the past is again important:
[The Imam] will look back into history with others and see how certainly Islamic history was dealt with, how current issues were contextualised at the time. There are periods in our own history which are exemplars or case studies, where there is an enormous amount to be learned. So we’re not always trying to develop new solutions. We may be looking at methodologies which were used in the past, which were legitimised in history, which showed that they were good solutions. And which we can simply try to adapt to our times. So it’s not a process where there is a deliteralisation of the past. It’s a process, on the contrary, of learning and interpreting. That is a very, very important aspect of the work. But as I said, it’s not cast in stone. Research cannot be simply rooted in history; it needs to be future oriented, too.
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Pranay Gupte Interview (United States, United Kingdom), Early 1999
The past cannot be repeated. By copying it, it proves that one cannot do better. By repeating the past, by designing the same thing is not the solution. Modernity cannot be denied. How do we merge the two? That is continuity. We can’t ask people to live in mud houses. We have to come up with new solutions.
These then are the five perspectives, the five lenses, through which we explore the “essentials” of the Ismaili intellectual tradition and its humanistic world-view.
Conspicuous by its absence in the above, are contemporary expressive endeavours, the Arts. This is by design. The Arts are, of course, as valid an intellectual and humanistic endeavour as any other, however, with our focus on knowledge of the “essentials,” we are not able to give contemporary expressive works their due consideration at this time but may expand to include them in the future. In the mean time, we do however touch on objective discussions of the Arts as a facet of tradition and modernity.
Inspired by Hazar Imam’s call for “intellectual enquiry,” Prince Sadaruddin’s advice quoted at the outset and the need for our own understanding of our faith, we hope that both the Jamat and institutions find The Essential Ismaili a valuable resource. And while the primary audience is the Ismaili community, we hope, too, that even those from other communities, looking to learn about Ismailism or solutions others have considered to the problems we all face in today’s world, find The Essential Ismaili of value. For, as Hazar Imam said at the 2006 Aga Khan University Convocation in Karachi, future social progress — both inside and outside the community — will not arise from “traditional top-down systems of command and control” but rather from collaboration, cooperation, openness, decentralisation and partnership so as to harness the strength of our collective, yet diverse, intellects:
A vast decentralisation of decision-making is already occurring in many countries; it has the advantage of placing new responsibilities in the hands of local communities…. For the key to future progress will lie less in traditional top-down systems of command and control — and more in a broad, bottom-up spirit of coordination and cooperation….
Social progress, in the long run, will not be found by delegating an all-dominant role to any one player — but rather through multi-sector partnerships. And within each sector of society, diversity should be a watchword…. The world … increasingly resembles a vast web in which everything connects to everything else — where even the smallest groups and loneliest voices can exercise new influence, and where no single source of power can claim substantial control…. [T]he key to intellectual progress will not lie in any single body of instruction, but in a spirit of openness to new expression and fresh insights….
[The Ummah] must become full and even leading participants in the Knowledge Society of the 21st Century. That will mean embracing the values of collaboration and co-ordination, openness and partnership, choice and diversity — which will under-gird the Knowledge Society…. [I]n the Knowledge Society, productive research is most often partnership research … sharing agendas and exchanging insights.
As mentioned at the outset, The Essential Ismaili features well researched, easy reading articles, including book reviews and synopses, interviews, the best content on the web related to our editorial agenda, results from our own and other’s research, even innovative perspectives or proposals for consideration. In other words, our content is designed to not only inform, but to also encourage reflection and, yes, even instigate debate.
In 2001, in Syria, when speaking about the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (AKAA), Mawlana Hazar Imam explained its raison de etre was to create a forum for the development and discussion of new, challenging ideas, unhindered by dogma.
The goal was to create an intellectual space — something we might think of as a beautiful bustan in which there would be no possibility of suffocation from the dying weeds of dogma, whether professional or ideological; where the flowers of articulation and challenging ideas could grow without restraint; where the new plants of creativity and risk-taking could blossom in the full light of day.
So too The Essential Ismaili is an intellectual space where we push the envelope, where soundly presented, innovative and challenging interpretations, ideas, opinions and visions, relevant to our Editorial Agenda, are explored.
Hazar Imam has said debate is an essential component of any media (see below), but there can be no debate, nor even the intellectual space — the “beautiful bustan” — Hazar Imam spoke of above, without opinion and so we do not intend to be without opinion. And in this regard, we refer you to our inaugural Editorial, The Sad Story of Ismaili Journalism, here. However, we do ensure opinions — our own or others we publish (which may not necessarily be from “experts”) — are grounded in valid, reliable and authentic sources and information and, of course, Hazar Imam’s advices.
Spirited debate, intelligent inquiry, informed criticism, principled disagreement — these qualities must continue to characterise a healthy media sector.
Civil and private institutions have unique capacities for spurring social progress … [They] provide good laboratories for experimentation. Because they are multiple in nature, they can try a variety of approaches, sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, but always learning from their experiences. And because these institutions need not make short term accommodations to conventional wisdom or current fashions, they have greater freedom to be controversial — and creative. [Emphasis original]
Criticism will seldom be resented if it is reasoned, based on provable facts and in the context of the stability and maturity of the readership and the institutions which form the very fabric of a new nation. Criticism which sets out deliberately to destroy this fabric can never be in the national interest. There is inevitably, of course, a grey area between criticism which is clearly unacceptable or irresponsible and comment which is critical but remains objective, well informed, responsible and constructive. [Emphasis added]
We insist and will ensure, however, debate is civil, courteous, respectful and well reasoned. Therefore, we reserve — without apologies — the unfettered right to edit, or even refuse comments, we deem are not on topic, inappropriate for what ever reason, rants, insults, put-downs, ad hominem attacks, sarcasm, allegations, accusations and the like, against authors, other commenters, ourselves, the Imam or our faith. We will steadfastly guard The Essential Ismaili’s decorum to ensure it remains a safe, dignified space for all, keeping true to the ethics and teachings of our faith.
While we appreciate other websites allow their comment areas to degenerate into verbal free-for-alls, we at The Essential Ismaili take a different view of comments and will not allow that. To us, comments are the on-line equivalent of “Letters to the Editor” sections found in print magazines. And, just as print magazines are not obliged to publish every letter they receive, neither are we. However, print magazines may elect not to publish a letter either for space reasons or due issues with its content. Fortunately, and happily, space is not an issue for an on-line publication, but that does not mean content is simply ignored. So, if you are unsure if your comment is satisfactory, ask yourself: “Would National Geographic publish it in their print magazine?”
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In facilitating these and other publications, the Institute’s purpose is to encourage original research and analysis of relevant issues. While every effort is made to ensure that the publications are of a high academic standard, there is naturally bound to be a diversity of views, ideas and interpretations. As such, the opinions expressed in these publications must be understood as belonging to their authors alone.
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