November 11, 2006 at 1:47 pm (ginans)

The following is a very useful introduction of the ginans in Tazim Kassam’s book ‘Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance’. This book is a complete English translation of Pir Sham’s ginans. For those interested in ginans, this is an invaluable book to have.

Ginans: A Wonderful Tradition

Coursing through cultures and time, tuneful verse has given immediate and moving expression to the human longing for the divine. Poetry strung on sweet melodies, sacred hymns and songs bear testimony to the religious life of the devout and to the sonorous and inspiring vocal artistry of saints and minstrels. Such is the ginan tradition of the Satpanth Khojahs, Indian successors of the Fatimid and Nizari Isma’llI sect of the Shi’ah Muslims. A heritage of devotional poetry, the ginan tradition is rooted in the musical and poetic matrix of Indian culture where, from village street to temple stage, the human voice sings in love divine. Traditionally recited during daily ritual prayers, ginans have been revered for generations among the Satpanth Isma’llls as sacred compositions (sastra). The term ginan itself has a double significance: on the one hand, it means religious knowledge or wisdom, analogous to the Sanskrit word jnana; on the other hand, it means song or recitation, which suggests a link to the Arabic ganna and the Urdu/Hindi gana, both verbs meaning to sing.1

The present imam or spiritual head of the “Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims,”2 His Highness Prince Karlm al-Husaynl Agha Khan IV, has plainly endorsed and recommended the ginan tradition many times to his followers in his directives (farman). During his visit to Dacca in 1960, he described the ginans as a “wonderful tradition”:3

“I feel that unless we are able to continue this wonderful tradition . . . we will lose some of our past which is most important to us and must be kept throughout our lives.” Dacca, 17.10.1960

Four years later, he reminded his followers in Karachi of the unique importance of the tradition:

“Many times I have recommended to my spiritual children that they should remember the Ginans, that they should understand the meaning of these Ginans and that they should carry these meanings in their hearts. It is most important that my spiritual children from wherever they may come should, through the ages and from generation to generation, hold to this tradition which is so special, so unique and so important to my jamat.” Karachi, 16.12.1964

The Satpanth Isma’Ilis regard the ginans as a sacred corpus of devotional and didactic poetry composed by their da’is or pirs (revered teachers and guides) who came to the Indian subcontinent between the eleventh and twentieth centuries C.E. to preach Isma’lli Islam. Known as Hind and Sind by medieval Muslim geographers at the time, this area stretched from the highlands of Baluchistan to the Bay of Bengal and from Kashmir to Sri Lanka. The landmass is now divided into the nations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The activities of the Isma’llI da’wah (mission) were mainly concentrated in the northwestern area of the subcontinent, including the provinces of Sind, Punjab, Multan, Gujarat and Malwa, Kashmir, and present-day Rajasthan, Cutch, and Ka-thiawad.

Ginans are thus extant in several Indian languages, among which Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, Saraiki, and Sindhi are prominent. Ginanic vocabulary is also peppered with loan words from Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit. The songs are rich in imagery and symbolism drawn from the spiritual and cultural milieu of the Indian subcontinent. Indeed, they have been so deeply influenced by the distinctive religious idiom and vocabulary of Hindu, Sufi, and Tantric traditions that their links to Fatimid or Nizari Isma’Ilism are not easily discerned. The entire ginan corpus consists of about one thousand works whose lengths vary from five to four hundred verses.4 Less than a tenth of this sizable vernacular South Asian Muslim literature has been edited and translated, much less analyzed.

Ritual Performance

The performative context of the ginans and their intimate link to the ritual practices of Satpanth Isma’llism demonstrate the central place of this tradition of hymns in the religious life of this South Asian Shi’ite Muslim community. Ginan recitation in the daily communal
services of the Satpanth Isma’llis represents a long tradition of liturgical prayer. The religious meaning of these hymns is centered in their ritualized performance. Religious benefit is accrued by the actual vocalization or recitation of a ginan, and, thus, it is uncommon for a book of ginans to be silently read in prayer. In the context of Satpanth practice, ginans come to life when they are sung, and to sing a ginan is to pray. Singing is thus ritualized into worship, a characteristic feature of the religious setting of India. The ginan of the Isma’ill pir is the Satpanth counterpart of the Hindu geet, bhajan, or kirtan and forms a continuum in the expressive and inspirational aspects of the North Indian Sant and Bhakti traditions in the context of which poetry, melody, and communal worship fuse to create religious ardor. In terms of their ritual role, ginans function primarily as performative texts or songs inasmuch as the spirit of a ginan comes alive when it is being recited.5

According to the older religious specialists (al-wai’zin) within the community, the melodies (rag) of ginans were set by their composers to create the proper mood and disposition for prayer. The traditional view is that a ginan ought to be recited by heart truly to have effect because singing from a book places undue reliance on an external source and introduces an intermediary between worshipper and God. The most faithful rendition of ginans was once considered to be found in oral memory, not in written manuscripts.6 Hence, elderly ginan teachers of the community (jama’at) put great emphasis on the memorization of ginans, arguing that, as ritual prayer and invocations, they should issue directly from the heart. Only when thus memorized and internalized would ginans manifest the power of sabda (sacred word), a requirement analogous to that held for the efficacious recitation of the Qur’an and the Vedas.

This unmediated link between the ginans and the believer’s heart is stressed, not only by an emphasis on memorization, but also on the correct receptivity or audition of the ginans. A verse from a ginan attributed to Pir Sadr al-Dln describes what impact the recitation of ginans may have on the heart of a devotee:

gindna bolore nita nure bharlyd,
evd haide tamare harakhand mdeji

Recite ginans and the self fills with Light! Thus will your hearts be made blissful.7

Ginans are also believed to have this power to transform and to enlighten if properly attended to. Many stories in the tradition describe the miraculous conversion to Satpanth of Hindus, bandits, wild beasts, and pigeons upon hearing the sweet and melodious words of the ginans.8 This belief in the transformative power of melodic recitation combined with the fervent chorus of congregational singing has been captured in a popular tale about the late Ismail Ganji. Reputedly an impious Isma’llI of Junagadh in Gujarat, he heard a verse of a ginan one evening in the jama at khanah which so touched him that he burst into tears. Immediately, he repented his wayward ways and began a new life. So thoroughly did he reform himself that he was eventually appointed chief minister in the court of the ruler of Junagadh.9

As an integral part of their communal worship, the recitation of ginans in the religious life of the Satpanth Isma’ills has served the multiple purposes of prayer, expressing devotion, and imparting the teachings of Satpanth. It is not surprising, therefore, that ginans are a deeply cherished tradition. G. Allana describes an attachment widely shared in the Satpanth Isma’li. community for this tradition of devotional singing:

“Ever since my early childhood, I recall hearing the sweet music of the ginans. When I was a little boy, my mother, Sharfibai would lift me, put me in her lap and sing to me the ginans of Ismaili Pirs. She had a very serene and melodious voice. I did not understand, then, as to what they were all about. I loved my mother, as well as her enchanting voice. My initiation into the realms of poetry and music was through the ginans“.10

Later on, Allana describes the stirring and uplifting mood created by his mother’s predawn recitations of ginans in the jama at khanah (hall of prayer or assembly):

“Everybody listened to her bewitching voice, singing a ginan. No other person, as is normally customary, dare join his or her voice with hers to sing in a chorus. . . . The fragrance of that spiritual atmosphere still lingers in my mind. . . . The weight of life’s burdens dissolved.”11

Ginans are recited daily in the jama at khdnahs during morning and evening services. Unlike the Sufi practice of sama or the Hindu kirtan, however, ginan recitation is not (presently) accompanied by any musical instruments.12 A member of the congregation, male or
female, who knows how to recite ginans is usually called upon by the mukhi (chief of ceremonies) to lead the recitation. Although singers may vary in how they embellish the tunes, in general, they follow a simple and uniform melody. In most instances, ginan tunes can be learned without difficulty, and singers rarely have any formal musical or voice training. However, good singers are easily identifiable by their melodious voices, tuneful renderings, and correct pronunciation. Beautiful recitation is praised and encouraged, and it is not uncommon for individual members of the congregation to express personally their feelings of appreciation to ginan reciters. On special festivals, reputed reciters who can sing a large repertoire of ginans, and who have been noted for their moving delivery, are called upon to sing. These individuals, however, do not collectively constitute a special or distinct class of performers within the jama at (congregation).13

While the recitation of a ginan constitutes a ritual in itself, ginans also play a vital role in the conduct of other rites of worship performed by Satpanth Isma’ills in their jama at khanahs. This intimate relationship to rituals is indicated by the classification and arrangement of ginans found in several ginan manuscripts and printed editions. Specific ginans are indicated for different times and types of prayer, for special occasions, and for various religious ceremonies. Evening prayers, for example, usually commence with ginans that emphasize the importance of prayer during the auspicious hours of sunset.” Certain ginans that dwell upon mystical themes are recommended for the subhu sadkhak (literally, the quester before dawn). These ginans are recited before or after periods of meditation in the early morning hours. Ventijo ginans are recited for the sake of supplication or petition for divine mercy. Ghatpat ginans accompany the ritual of drinking holy water, and a subcategory of these are sung when the water is actually sanctified. Similarly, select ginans are recited at funeral assemblies, during the celebrations of Navruz (the Persian New Year), and to commemorate the installation of the Imam of the time (hadir imam). Thus, a native taxonomy of ginans has been developed within the tradition for specific occasions and ritual usage.15

The recitation of ginans is not restricted to worship but permeates the personal and communal life of the Satpanth Isma’ills. Frequently, social functions and festive occasions commence with a recitation of a Qur’anic verse followed by a few verses of a ginan. Various councils that administer to the religious and secular needs of the community may similarly begin their meetings with a ginan recitation. In addition to sponsoring ginan competitions to encourage beautiful recitation and correct pronunciation, the community occasionally holds “special concerts or ginan mehfillmushairo . . . during which professional and amateur singers recite ginans to musical accompaniment.”16 With the arrival of the tape recorder in the modern world, many mushairas as well as individual singers have been recorded, and it is not uncommon to find prerecorded ginan audio tapes constantly replayed at a Satpanth Isma’ili’s home to fill it with an atmosphere of devotion and invoke blessings (barakah) upon the household.

The significance of ginans in the Satpanth Isma’ili tradition derives from this nexus among devotional song, ritual worship, and sacred community.” The recitation of ginans marks off sacred time and space by creating a feeling of “majestic pathos and beauty,”18 while it also gives expression to a sense of communal identity and fraternity. Binding its participants to an experience of listening, singing, and feeling, this performative aspect of the ginan tradition has played a crucial role in sustaining the spirit of the Satpanth tradition and its teachings.19

Historical Significance

Given its vital role in their daily religious life, clearly the modern Isma’ili community cannot be understood without a historical appreciation of the significance of the ginan tradition and of the evolution of Satpanth Isma’ilism in the Indian subcontinent. Not only has this cumulative tradition been pivotal to the genesis of a unique South Asian Shi’ite Muslim subculture through the conversion and intermarriage of Isma’ili Muslims with Hindus, it has also sustained and preserved a small and generally beleaguered religio-ethnic community over a period of some eight centuries. Furthermore, the successful creation and establishment of the Satpanth Isma’ili community in the region of the Indian subcontinent has had economic ramifications that have helped firmly to secure the institutional foundations of the contemporary Isma’ili community. Despite this role, it is a disquieting fact that scholarship on this Shi’ah Muslim sect has yet to appreciate fully the religious and historical significance of Satpanth Isma’llism.

It has been rightly remarked that the Isma’ilis are “a tiny minority of a minority within the Muslim faith.”20 The sect is estimated to be about eight percent of the Shi’ah branch of Islam, itself comprising a mere fifth of the Muslim world. The Isma’ilis form an international community of about fifteen million people spread across more than twenty-five countries. As a result of successive emigrations throughout their history, Isma’ili communities are to be found in many different parts of the world.21 There are three main subdivisions within the present worldwide Isma’llI community based on ethnic origin, a common history, and cultural tradition: Middle Eastern, Central and East Asian, and South Asian. For many centuries, however, fearing persecution on account of their religious identity, the Isma’ilis of Central and East Asia (Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Chinese and Russian Turkestan) and parts of the Middle East (Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Iraq, and Kuwait) have lived in secrecy. Hence, to date, little is known about the regionally specific religious practices and traditions of these Isma’ili communities.

Of the tributaries of successors of the Fatimid and Nizarl Isma’ili tradition, the most visible is the Satpanth Isma’ili community of the Indian subcontinent whose offspring are found in South Asia (Pakistan, India, Indonesia), Africa (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, West and South Africa) and the West (Europe, Britain, Canada, Australia, and the U.S.A.). Mainly descendants of the Khojahs (the name of the Indian converts to Satpanth),22 these Isma’llls have played a prominant role in shaping modern Isma’llI history, and in building up its numerous institutions. While this is slowly changing, Isma’llls of South Asian descent currently occupy the most influential and high-ranking positions of Isma’ili regional and international councils, and constitute the main economic base of the community.

As political changes occur in Central and East Asia, Russia, and the Middle East, it has become increasingly apparent that, since the decline of the Fatimid empire, pockets of Isma’ilis have managed quietly to survive in many discrete areas, and they have embraced over the centuries aspects of their cultural and linguistic environment.23 However, the existence of this plurality of Isma’ili traditions has yet to have an impact on the prevailing religious structures and mores of the modern Isma’ili community. The prevalent ritual and devotional ethos found among the Isma’ilis today in religious centers and prayer halls across the globe continues to be that of Satpanth Isma’ilism, the form of Isma’ilism that evolved in the Indian subcontinent.24 From showcase Isma’llI edifices, such as the Ismaili Centre at Cromwell Gardens in London and the monumental Burnaby jama at khdnah in Vancouver, to simpler places of prayer and communal gathering spread across East Africa, Pakistan, and the Indian subcontinent, with the exception of the central dua which is recited in Arabic, religious ceremonies are conducted mainly in Gujarati or Urdu and follow the practice of the Satpanth tradition. In a world marked by constant and dramatic changes, particularly in the last two centuries, this heritage of Satpanth Isma’ili devotions and practices has provided a liturgical language of continuity, stability, and cohesion to an otherwise scattered and often oppressed religious minority.

As noted earlier, despite the formative historical role of the Satpanth tradition, it has barely received the scholarly attention it deserves. This book is but a small step towards remedying this situation. Too little is known about the foundations of this stream of Isma’ili Islam and how it spread from the Middle East to the Indian subcontinent through the deft maneuvers of Isma’llI pirs or preacher-poets. To investigate this early period, I have focused attention on the ginans attributed to one of the first preachers of the tradition, Pir Shams. Next to an obscure figure who may have preceded him called Satgur Nur, Pir Shams appears to have played a seminal role in the establishment of Isma’llism in Sind. Part II of this work makes available for the first time a complete translation of an anthology of 106 ginans attributed to this venerable Isma’ili dai of the twelfth century.25

In the first part of this book, I advance a theory of the origins of Satpanth that significantly revises current views concerning the formative period of the Satpanth Isma’llI tradition. In general, the successful spread of Isma’ili ideas in the Indian subcontinent has been viewed in terms of the literary activity and preaching of the pirs which gave rise to the ginan tradition. That is, the Isma’ili pirs supposedly won converts to Isma’llI teachings, which they called satpanth (true path), by conveying them in hymns using Hindu symbols and themes. However, a careful reconstruction of the historical period marking the entry of Isma’llism into the Indian subcontinent and a cautious but trenchant reading of allusions preserved in the ginans associated with the name of Pir Shams strongly suggests that the origin of Satpanth Isma’llism was a much more complex affair involving not just religious but also political realities. I will attempt to demonstrate that, in addition to the inspirational oral teachings of the pirs embodied by the ginan tradition, a number of social and political factors played a crucial role in giving birth to the unique form of Isma’llism called Satpanth.


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New Speech by the Imam Aga Khan IV

October 12, 2006 at 4:56 pm (Imam's Speeches, Uncategorized)

SPIEGEL ONLINE – October 12, 2006, 02:34 PM
SPIEGEL Interview with Aga Khan
“Islam Is a Faith of Reason”

Karim Aga Khan IV, descendant of the prophet Muhammad and spiritual
leader of 20 million Ismaili Muslims, discusses the foundations of his
faith, the controversy over the pope’s recent statements about Islam
and ways of preventing a global clash between religions.

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, in a lecture Pope Benedict XVI quoted Emperor
Manuel as saying: “Show me just what Muhammed brought that was new,
and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as a
command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” This quotation
from the 14th century has caused great uproar in the Muslim world.
Why? And what was your reaction?

Aga Khan: From my point of view, I would start by saying that I was
concerned about this statement because this has caused great
unhappiness in the Islamic world. There appears to be momentum towards
more and more misunderstandings between religions, a degradation of
relations. I think we all should try not to add anything to worsen the

SPIEGEL: Benedict XVI did explicitly dissociate himself from the
emperor’s quoted statement. The pope’s own position with regard to his
lecture is that he wanted it to promote a dialogue; and since then,
several times, he has expressed his respect for the world religion
that is Islam. Was it just an unfortunate choice of words? Or was he
deliberately misunderstood?

Aga Khan: I do not wish to pass judgement on that, nor can I. And it
might also be unreasonable for me to presume that I know what he
meant. But that (medieval) period in history, to my knowledge, was one
of the periods of extraordinary theological exchanges and debates
between the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world. A fascinating time.
The emperor’s statement does not reflect that, so I think it is
somewhat out of context.

SPIEGEL: The theme of Pope Benedict’s lecture was different, it was
one of his favorites: the link between faith and reason which, he
said, implies a rejection of any link between religion and violence.
Is that something you could agree on?

Aga Khan: If you interpret his speech as one about faith and reason
then I think that the debate is very exciting and could be enormously
constructive between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world. So I
have two reactions to the pope’s lecture: There is my concern about
the degradation of relations and, at the same time, I see an
opportunity. A chance to talk about a serious, important issue: the
relationship between faith and logic.

SPIEGEL: If the pope were to invite you to take part with other
religious leaders in a debate about faith, reason and violence, would
you accept?

Aga Khan: Yes, definitely. I would, however, make the point that an
ecumenical discussion at a certain stage will meet certain limits.
Therefore I would prefer to talk more about a cosmopolitan ethic
stemming from all of Earth’s great faiths.

SPIEGEL: Does Islam have a problem with reason?

Aga Khan: Not at all. Indeed, I would say the contrary. Of the
Abrahamic faiths, Islam is probably the one that places the greatest
emphasis on knowledge. The purpose is to understand God’s creation,
and therefore it is a faith which is eminently logical. Islam is a
faith of reason.

SPIEGEL: So, what are the root causes of terrorism?

Aga Khan: Unsolved political conflicts, frustration and, above all,
ignorance. Nothing that was born out of a theological conflict.

SPIEGEL: Which political conflicts do you mean?

Aga Khan: The ones in the Middle East and in Kashmir, for example.
These conflicts have remained unresolved for decades. There is a lack
of urgency in understanding that the situation there deteriorates,
it’s like a cancer. If you are not going to act on a cancer early
enough, ultimately it’s going to create terrible damage. It can become
a breeding ground for terrorism.

Now to the issue of spreading faith by the sword: All faiths at some
time in their history have used war to protect themselves or expand
their influence, and there were situations when faiths have been used
as justifications for military actions. But Islam does not call for
that, it is a faith of peace.

SPIEGEL: It’s true that horrible crimes were committed in the name of
Christianity, for example by the crusaders. That was long ago, that’s
the past. But jihadists commit their crimes now, in our times.

Aga Khan: It is not so far in the past that we have seen bloody fights
in the Christian world. Look at Northern Ireland. If we Muslims
interpreted what happened there as a correct expression of
Protestantism and Catholicism or even as the essence of the Christian
faith you would simply say we don’t know what we are talking about.

SPIEGEL: “The West (will stand) against the Rest” wrote Professor
Samuel Huntington in his famous book “Clash of Civilizations.” Is such
a conflict, such a clash inevitable?

Aga Khan: I prefer to talk about a clash of ignorance. There is so
much horrible, damaging, dangerous ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Which side is responsible?

Aga Khan: Both. But essentially the Western world. You would think
that an educated person in the 21st century should know something
about Islam; but you look at education in the Western world and you
see that Islamic civilizations have been absent. What is taught about
Islam? As far as I know — nothing. What was known about Shiism before
the Iranian revolution? What was known about the radical Sunni
Wahhabism before the rise of the Taliban? We need a big educational
effort to overcome this. Rather than shouting at each other, we should
be learning to listen to each other. In the way we used to do it, by
working together, with mutual give-and-take. Together we brought about
some of the highest achievements of human civilization. There is a lot
to build on. But I think you cannot build on ignorance.

SPIEGEL: Nonethless, it is striking that a particularly large number
of Muslim-dominated states figure among the most backward and
undemocratic states in the world. Is Islam in need of an era of
enlightment? Is the faith even incompatible with democracy as others

Aga Khan: As I said before, one has to be fair. Some of the political
leaders have inherited problems that are in no way attributable to the
faith. New governance solutions have to be tested and validated over
time. Nor do I believe Muslim states are systematically economic
underperformers. Some of the fastest growing economies and some of the
most successful newly industrialized countries are in the Islamic
world. Now concerning democracy: My democratic beliefs do not go back
to the Greek or French (thinkers) but to an era 1,400 years ago. These
are the principles underlying my religion. During the prophet’s life
(peace be upon him), there was a systematic consultative political
process. And the first imam of the Shiites, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin
and son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, emphasized: “No honor is like knowledge,
no power is like forbearance, and no support is more reliable than

SPIEGEL: If pluralism, civil society and Islam can coexist
harmoniously, as was proven in the past, then why is this so seldom
achieved nowadays?

Aga Khan: I think we have a very diverse situation in the Islamic
world. Wealthy countries with enormous ressources, newly
industrialized countries, extremely poor ones.

SPIEGEL: Not many are functioning democracies.

Aga Khan: People speak about failed states. I do not think that states
can fail, but democracies certainly can. The failure of democracy is
not specific to the Islamic world. Indeed, about two years ago, the
United Nations carried out an in-depth analysis of democracy in South
America. About 55 percent of the population in South American states
said that they would prefer to live under a paternalistic dictatorship
instead of an incompetent or corrupt democracy that is not improving
their living condition.

SPIEGEL: Most of your Ismaili constituency lives in states that cannot
be called perfect democracies: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.
What makes democracies fail?

Aga Khan: I ask myself every day what we can do to sustain the
multiple forms of democracy, to make these forms of government work,
whether it is in Latin America, Africa or the Middle East.

SPIEGEL: And what do you believe to be the answer?

Aga Khan: I admit that I live in a mood of frustration. What is the
point in these areas of the world of carrying out a referendum in a
population that essentially cannot read and write? What is the point
in testing a constitution with a population that knows no difference
between a presidential regime or a constitutional monarchy? Elections,
constitutions — all this is necessary, but not sufficient. I think we
have to accept that countries have different histories, different
social structures, different needs, so we have to be a great deal more
flexible than we have been.

SPIEGEL: Nor is democracy monolithic. The American model of democracy
is no panacea for the rest of the world. Has George W. Bush aggrevated
the situation with his particular way of bringing democracy to the
Middle East? Can the United States still win the war in Iraq?

Aga Khan: I am very, very worried about Iraq. The invasion of Iraq had
an impact across the world like nothing before in modern times. The
invasion has unleashed every force in the Islamic world, including the
relations between the Arabs and non-Arabs and the relationship between
the Shia und the Sunni.

SPIEGEL: You mean the war created a new terrorist base and radicalized

Aga Khan: Indeed. It mobilized a large number of people across the
Islamic world, who before then were not involved, and indeed I think
they did not want to be.

SPIEGEL: Do you share the view of the American professor and Islam
expert Vali Nasr that the balance of power in the Muslim world is
undergoing a decisive shift, that Shiites could become the most
influential force from Baghdad to Beirut, that the future of the
Middle East will be shaped by wars between different Muslim factions?

Aga Khan: When the invasion of Iraq took place, we were told two
things: (that there would be) regime change and democracy. Well,
anyone who knew the situation in Iraq, as you did, I did, but what did
that mean? That meant a Shia majority; it could not have been
otherwise. Anyone who then concludes that the next issue is a Shia
majority in Iraq is going to start thinking, What does that mean in
the region, what does it mean in the Islamic world, what does it mean
in relation to the West? All that was as clear as daylight, you didn’t
even have to be a Muslim or a scholar to know that.

SPIEGEL: In your opinion, was it pure ignorance and naivete that made
the Bush government start the war? Was it really about introducing
democracy or a strategic decision about conquering oil fields and
military bases?

Aga Khan: I wish I could answer that question.

SPIEGEL: Are you in contact with the religious leaders in Iraq, like
Grand Ayatollah Sistani? And with the religious leaders of Iran as well?

Aga Khan: We have frequent contacts with important personalities in
both countries.

SPIEGEL: What would it take to get you to go to the region as a mediator?

Aga Khan: This is, at the moment, not one of my priorities. One day
maybe, we might consider (participating in the) reconstruction (effort).

SPIEGEL: When you compare the invasion in Iraq with the one in
Afghanistan, where the Taliban and al-Qaida worked hand in hand …

Aga Khan: … there I see a completely different picture. First of
all, the Afghan regime at the time was quasi totally detested by the
people; it was equally unpleasant for Sunnis as it was the for Shias
and it was totally unacceptable I think just in terms of overall
civilized life.

SPIEGEL: Afghanistan is currently being confronted with major problems
and the situation seems to be deteriorating by the hour. What went
wrong? And what can the West do to make the situation more stable?

Aga Khan: The security situation is indeed very worrying — it is
getting worse, especially in the south. Most of our projects are in
the capital and in the north where (the situation) is better but not
satisfying. We can supply energy from Tajikistan, we can provide civil
services. We try to avoid the danger that certain areas in Afghanistan
will be rehabilitated more quickly than others. If this development
overlaps with ethnic divides you have another problem. But the main
problem is that most people in Afghanistan have not seen an
improvement in their daily lives. The process of reconstruction does
not seem to be penetrating. We have not succeded in bringing a culture
of hope to this country. One of the central lessons I have learned
after a half century of working in the developing world is that the
replacement of fear by hope is probably the most powerful trampoline
of progress.

SPIEGEL: President Karzai is a personal friend of yours. Many people
see him as a weak leader, and some call him “Mayor of Kabul” because
he is unable to control large parts of the country.

Aga Khan: We should do everything to help him. He has an enomously
complex agenda to deal with. He is our best hope. And besides, he is
the elected leader and we have to work with the parliament.

SPIEGEL: Even if warlords and a former members of the Taliban are
represented in Afghanistan’s parliament?

Aga Khan: You either accept the results of democracy or you don’t.
Otherwise you talk about qualifying democracy.

SPIEGEL: That means the West should deal with the radical Islamist
Hamas as well?

Aga Khan: You have to work with whoever the population has elected as
long as they are willing to respect what I call cosmopolitan ethics.
Now, it’s true that Hamas has a record of conflict …

SPIEGEL: … of outright terror …

Aga Khan: … but it would not be the only time that movements that
have such a record make it into parliament, and even end up in charge
of government later on. Can I remind you of Jomo Kenyatta and his Mau
Mau movement in Kenya, for example, or the ANC in South Africa? Take
away the causes of extremism and extremists can come back to a more
reasonable political agenda. That change to me is one of the wonderful
things about the human race.

SPIEGEL: You know Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, very well. You
recently visited him again in Damascus. In contrast to the American
administration, the German government is trying to get him involved in
the Middle East peace process.

Aga Khan: I would like to compliment the German government and others
in Europe who have taken the decision to invite President Assad to be
a party to the peace process. The process of change from decades of
political directionalism is something that needs time, as you saw in
East Germany. I think there are many reasons to go out of our way to
assist Syria in making the transition from the past to the future.

SPIEGEL: If you look back at the years that have passed since World
War II — the Cold War between the East and the West, the ideological
conflict with communism — would you ever have thought that this
conflict could be replaced by one between the West and radical Islamists?

Aga Khan: I beg you, please get away from the concept of a conflict of
religion. It is not such a conflict. Nobody will ever convince me that
the faith of Islam, that Christianity, that Judaism will fight each
other in our times — they have too much in common. That’s why I am
talking about this global ethic which unites us all. That’s why we are
trying to work with the Catholic Church in Portugal on a program aimed
at immigant minorities. I am aware of a sense of disaffection with the
society that many young Muslims feel because they think that the
Western society has the intention of marginalizing or damaging them.

SPIEGEL: The German government just organized a conference with many
different Muslim groups and personalities who live in Germany. Do you
consider such a forum useful or is it just window dressing?

Aga Khan: We can avoid misunderstandings by having such a forum where
people from different faiths consult each other so they understand
what really affects them. Once you have committed an offense all you
can do is to try and reverse it. Anyone who knows the faith of Islam,
for example, would have known that the caricatures of the prohet were
profoundly offensive to all Muslims.

SPIEGEL: Again, this whole affair was misused by radical Islamists.
They added caricatures much more offensive than the original ones to
incite the masses.

Aga Khan: But I am told that there was an internal debate between the
editors of that publication and they actually knew what they were
doing. They took a risk and somebody should have said to them, Why get
into that situation? Now we are talking about civility, which is a
completely different concept. If we are talking about civility in a
pluralist society, then how do you develop that notion of civility,
particularly where there is ignorance. And that’s the thing that’s
worrying. And that’s why I get frustrated when I see these situations
that go on and on and on. Because I’m not willing to believe that they
are all inspired by evil intent.

SPIEGEL: Provocative, sad and distasteful. But the freedom of the
press is one of the highest values in our democracy. We have to
balance one thing against the other and we will allow non-believers to
express even outrageous opinions.

Aga Khan: I think that you are now referring to one of the most
difficult problems that we have and I don’t know the answer. The
industrialized West is highly secularized; the Muslim world is much
less secularized and that stems largely from the nature of the faith
of Islam, which you know and I know has an intrinsic meshing with
everyday life. And that is a scenario where people of goodwill need to
think very, very carefully.

SPIEGEL: In some of your speeches you mentioned Kemal Atatürk in a
positive context. Turkey followed his path and is one of the very few
countries with a predominant Muslim population where there is
separation of church and state. Would you like to see others go the
same way?

Aga Khan: I am not opposed to secularism as such. But I am opposed to
unilateral secularism where the notions of faith and ethics just
disappear from society.

SPIEGEL: Your Highness, we thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Stefan Aust and Erich Follath.

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The teaching of the Imam is Paradise

September 11, 2006 at 9:34 pm (doctrines)

Paradise has two forms:

potential and actual.

The potential paradise is the teachings of the Imam-e-zaman.

It is called a potential paradise

because the momin has yet to put the teachings into practice.

After hearing the call,

the momin accepts initiation,

and then is taught according to their capacity,

stage by stage,

the straight path (batini islam).

But then the momin must overcome their animal natures,

converting evil into good,

and only then is actual paradise achieved.

based on the 1st Lecture of Al-Muayyad (a Fatimid Dai)

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September 11, 2006 at 9:31 pm (Uncategorized)

A Short Critique of Meherally’s

“A Brief History of the Aga Khans”

Meherally has devoted an website to propagate information he feels will damage the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslim faith. It is from this website that naive anti-Ismaili Muslims get the files that they then post to various newsgroups. Most Ismailis have been very reluctant to engage him in debate since he has separated himself from their faith by violating his oath to the Imam of the Time, Imam Karim Aga Khan IV. Since I am not an Ismaili, tho I am sympathetic to its beliefs and practices, I have no problem taking this critic on. The following are just a few notes concerning Meherally’s text on the History of the Aga Khans (which is actually a short summary of Meherally’s two books attacking the Ismaili faith and its Imam).

One thing right off I noticed about Meherally is his envy over the wealth of the Imam and the Ismaili community. Page after page in his books and articles show an envy that borders on the pathological. He appears to resent having to pay tithes in cash to his religious institutions and feels that other should do the same. Yet all faiths collect funds from their believers in order to maintain their institutions and clergy. He fails to show how these funds are being misused. He merely shows how he dislikes the way they are collected. Considering how much the Imam spends on Third World development, the world would be a much better place if all religions would spend their monies in the same way (see Akbarali Thobhani’s Islam’s Quiet Revolutionary: The Story of Aga Khan IV).

Meherally states that “the Emperor of Persia” did not give the title “Aga Khan” to the current Imam’s great-great-grandfather since he was “an unsuccessful insurgent.” However, all histories, except for Meherally’s , all show that the Qajar ruler did bestow that title to him and even gave him one of his daughters in marriage. He also made him the governor of the City of Qumm. All of this was in compensation for the murder of his father the 45th Imam in 1817 CE. The Aga Khan I did resist the Qajar State in 1837, when an attempt was made to replace him from his acquired governorship of the province of Kirman, by armed struggle. There is evidence that his removal was related to a power struggle within the Iranian Sufi community with the Aga Khan supporting a faction that the ruling Qajar did not. He was pardoned for his revolt, however, and lived in peace for about two years. Then politics forced his hand (and one needs to keep in mind that Persia had numerous other rebellions during this period) and he led a failed uprising and was forced to go to India (this was in 1841 not in 1840 the date Meherally gives). So Meherally gives a very inaccurate account of Aga Khan I’s activities in Iran.

I find it very interesting that Meherally likes to quote Sir Richard Burton even after calling him an “orientalist” and “British Spy.” As for Burton’s comments that the Aga Khans revolt was “ridiculous” that is his opinion and not facts. The Aga Khan was forced to revolt or be murdered like his father.

Meherally makes a big deal that Aga Khan I assisted the British in their colonial undertakings. Many Muslims did the same during that time and the defenders of Sunni Orthodoxy, the Saudi’s, were British and American puppets.

He states that the British gave the Aga Khans a hereditary title of “Highness”. This is not true. This title must be given to each new Aga Khan upon their succession to the Imamate and is not automatically given (this is covered in Akbarali Thobhani’s “Islam’s Quiet Revolutionary: the Story of Aga Khan IV”).

Meherally makes the claim that the Khojah’s were originally Sunni Muslims before the Aga Khans were given authority over the Khojah community by the British Court in 1866. My question to Meherally is if the Khojah’s were Sunni why did they recite ginans in their services? These ginans can be traced back in written form to the 15th-16th centuries and contain religious teachings which Sunni’s would never have recited. Meherally tries in other texts to claim that the ginans were made up or revised to the current state during the last century thus they did not have the Hindu elements before the Aga Khans came. However, the history of the ginans is well documented and their contents can be confirmed as reflecting the true faith of Khojah Ismaili community. There were many split off groups from Khojah Nizari Ismailism ( which split off before the First Aga Khan came to India) and these groups preserved their own ginans which many are identical to the Nizari ones. The ones that are the most identical are those which present Islamic ideas within Hindu metaphors and myths. Of course, Meherally doesn’t like the ginans as they were the main evidence that the Khojah’s were Ismaili and this was confirmed by several court cases in India.

The Khojah’s used Sunnism during the period before the Aga Khan arrived as taqiyya (concealment of one’s true beliefs to prevent oppression). Also the Aga Khan I was practicing taqiyya when he practiced Sufism and Twelver Shiism. Taqiyya has been a historical Ismaili practice and Meherally is well aware of it. He chooses to ignore it to suit his own purposes. In Ismailism the outer form is always an illusion; the center of the faith remains the same. Taqiyya was ended only during the Imamate of the 3rd Aga Khan due to the spread of religious freedom under British rule. The Aga Khan III did not induces new doctrines and practices, he restored to some communities practices that were forgotten during the period of taqiyya. All of the doctrines and practices that the Aga Khan restored can be found in the ginans and in the Iranian Nizari literature on the Imamate written during the late Middle Ages.

I will end my critique now but I could go on and on pointing out the numerous errors which litter Meherally’s texts. I would suggest that those who are interested in Ismaili history to ignore Meherally and study the work of real Ismaili’s. Meherally, while once an Ismaili, is no longer one. Furthermore, he has a major axe to grind against his former faith and therefore is extremely bias against Ismailism. I would suggest reading the already mentioned book by Thobhani as well as anything by Farhad Daftary.

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Corbin and Massignon on the “Imam-of-one;s-own-being” by Corvus

September 2, 2006 at 12:59 pm (Uncategorized)

There is circulating among the qiyamati faction the legend of the Imam of one’s own being, a saying which comes most
directly from Peter Lamborn Wilson and his post-modern Islamic guerrilla
ontology. The Imam of one’s own being may be traced back to the work of Henry Corbin and his tawil on Imamat,
particularly in the compilation of essays entitled “Temple and Contemplation” (London, 1986) published under the aegis of the Institute for Ismaili Studies, to wit:

“To whom then does the present tawil lead us? To the Imam within, the
secret personal guide of each of us, to the rabb or lord of whom each
faithful vassal is
the knight According to our shaykh, there is an Imam Husayn within each
man: his intellect, whose divine splendour is a light that derives from
the Imam. But
this inner Imam is surrounded by enemies, and these are all the powers
of the carnal soul that issue from from the shadow of the Imam’s
enemies.” (pp.

This is not a verifiably Ismaili teaching, the author, Corbin, cites a
work by KarimKhan Kirmani, a later exponent of Shaykhithought of the
19th century.

It is msitaken to presume that Corbin relates his ideas on Imamat from a
perspective of Ismaili “doctrne”.

Corbin’s views are heterodox culling from ghulat as well as 12er and
Ismaili shiism, zoroastrianism, manichaeanism, mithraism, mandaean and other sources. Not the least of which wasCorbin’s own gnosis, and indeed
he was an arif whose understanding of Imam was sublime.

This is where the conflict between the arif and the orthodox comes in:

revisit Hallaj and the orthodoxy of Basra.

Which brings me to another topic:

Apologists assert that Hallaj spoke from a state of ecstatic loss of

In reading Massignon there is nothing t support that claim by orthodoxy.

Hallaj statements about Al Haqq were thought out deliberate and
premeditated, he spoke with a position of authority regarding the nature
of thr Divine and on more than a few occasions.

His ecstasies were the result of his sober realization of Ana ul Haqq,
his statements “ana-ul haqq” are not the result of ecstatic loss of
control and “fana” as orthodox among sufis have tried to maintain.

It is also known that Hallaj traveled extensively in India and Central
Asia and his views may also represent a synthesis of late Manichaean
thought, and Islam. This does not make them less valid since we are
admonished to “seek knowledge even in China”.

But I urge anyone who hasn’t tackled Massignon’s opus on the subject to
do so. I hope to discuss more on this topic.

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Thoughts on Ismaili mantra meditation

August 26, 2006 at 4:37 am (Uncategorized)

Silently chanting the names of God given to an Ismaili momen by the Imam-e-zaman is considered an important, tho not a mandatory, practice.

I had read that this name could be given by the jamatkhana leader acting in the name of the Imam, but this has been denied by several Ismaili’s on my mailing list.

Is this a case taqqiyya?

The ginans all suggest that the mantra chanting is a good practice. All of the ginans which speak of this practice are pre 1840. Also, these ginans were composed in India for the Indian jamat. The Imam never visited India til the Imamate moved there in 1841. So the name had to be given by someone else. Who is that someone?

The title of Guide is often given in the ginans which can mean either Pir or the Imam in a spiritual sense. This guide appears to have been able to give the name. Also, a book of farmans from an Imam was sent to India once and was given the status of Pir.

All of this would suggest that it was possible for someone else (and maybe even a book) to give the momin this important practice. If not, then the Khoja Ismaili community could have never practiced this practice til after 1841. Since the ginans speak of it as a current practice which should be undertaken, then someone had to have been given out the divine name.

Of course, an Imam can change the way the Ismaili faith is practiced. And is probably current Ismaili practice to receive the name from the Imam-e-zaman (especially in the age when he is accessible to almost the entire Ismaili community).

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The Ismaili Equation

August 20, 2006 at 3:20 pm (modern info)

In the last three decades they’ve built some of B.C.’s biggest companies, raised
stacks of cash for good causes and quietly joined the golf and country club set.
But who are these modern-thinking Muslims, and where did they get their Midas

Adriana Barton

From the July 2006 issue
Dina Goldstein

“My main mosque is my car,” jokes Mossadiq Umedaly, an Ismaili Muslim. And what
a lavish “mosque” it is: a silver Porsche Turbo he tools around in daily as he
commutes from his West Vancouver home to Burnaby’s Xantrex Technology Inc.,
the power-technology company he plans to build into the next Ballard Power
Systems. His goal isn’t all that far-fetched. Umedaly and former Ballard CEO Firoz
Rasul, also Ismaili, first met as 16-year-olds in an Outward Bound school at Mount
Kilimanjaro. Reunited decades later in Burnaby, with Umedaly as Ballard’s CFO, they
raised that company’s value to a cool US$6 billion in 1998.

As chairman of both Xantrex and Premier Campbell’s Alternative Energy and Power
Technology Task Force, Umedaly is lucky Ismaili prayer is less ritualistic than daily
prayers in many Muslim traditions. As he puts it: “If I’m in a business meeting, I
can’t stop everything and say, ‘Look, I have to kneel on the floor and pray.'”

Umedaly says three prayers a day (often in his Porsche) and pays visits to a
jamatkhana, or house of prayer and community. There, he joins other Ismailis to
revere Allah and to hear readings in English or Gujarati taken from writings by the
Ismaili spiritual leader, a man called His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, or the
Aga Khan. In the prayer hall, Ismailis meditate and sing spiritual poems called
ginans. They also donate up to 12 per cent of their income in cash, without
expecting a tax receipt. Privacy is crucial; outsiders are not allowed to observe
Ismaili rituals and all seven jamatkhanas in Greater Vancouver are inconspicuous by

Driving past the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre on Canada Way, you’d never guess
this Burnaby site was designated by the Aga Khan as one of only three “high-
profile” jamatkhanas in the world (the others are in Lisbon, Portugal, and London,
England). In fact, you might not notice it at all. Designed by Bruno Freschi and
opened in 1985, the fortress-like structure is graced with copper domes and a
sunken courtyard garden – a symbol of earthly paradise. But this “paradise” and
the three-storey building are barely visible from the road. The structure was
largely dug below ground and “hidden deliberately,” says Farrah Jinha, an Ismaili PR
professional who used to give tours of the centre. “It’s very much assimilated into
the community.”

Hidden deliberately. This jamatkhana could be a metaphor for the local Ismaili
community, whose low profile belies its tremendous impact on the B.C. economy.
Larco Group of Companies owner Aminmohamed Lalji and his kin are routinely listed
among Canada’s 100 richest families in magazines such as Canadian Business;
Report on Business magazine estimated his wealth at $884 million. Abdul and
Shamim Jamal, who started out with a chicken farm in Chilliwack, now privately
own and/or operate 14 seniors’ facilities under the Retirement Concepts banner
with their son Azim. Among other real estate holdings, Noordin and Farida Sayani
privately own five of the 17 Executive Hotels and Resorts, a chain they founded
and run with their son, Salim.

And for every Lalji, Jamal, Umedaly and Sayani (all of whom live in West Van
mansions), there are countless Ismaili realtors, bankers, medical doctors and
lawyers in B.C., including Liberal Mobina Jaffer, who in 2001 became the first
Canadian senator to be sworn in on the Koran. You didn’t know she was Ismaili?
How about CTV/TSN sports reporter Farhan Lalji? Or UBC alum Nadir Mohamed, now
based in Toronto as president and COO of the communications division of Rogers?

Islam-a-phobia in the West, especially after 9/11, could explain why Ismailis don’t
advertise their faith. But Ismailis of Indian background have been living in B.C. in
significant numbers since the early 1970s. And like many other Muslims, they have
about as much in common with Islamic extremists as George W. Bush does. “It is
not natural for people to blow themselves up,” says Umedaly. “We as a society
should be wondering how we have put people in the situation that they do so.” So
why haven’t Ismailis played a more public role as modern-thinking Muslims?

The Vancouver Sun’s religion reporter, Douglas Todd, has often bemoaned the
community’s secrecy during his decade of trying to cover Canada’s Ismaili. (That
community by the way, has close to 75,000 members in Canada, according to the
Aga Khan’s Secretariat in France, and about 11,000 in Greater Vancouver.) His
frustration reached a peak after the Aga Khan paid a brief visit to Vancouver in
June 2005. “Ismailis are happy to highlight the Aga Khan’s many valuable charity
projects,” wrote Todd. “But try to dig below the polished surface of their tight-knit
community, and the door is invariably shut.”

Well, maybe not invariably. Few among the 20 or so Ismailis approached for this
BCBusiness article declined to be interviewed. And contrary to Todd’s experience,
local Ismailis were generally open about their spiritual beliefs, their personal lives
and the secrets behind their often staggering financial success.

Ismailis tend to be charming, well dressed and exceedingly gracious; they might
insist on giving you a lift or picking up the tab for lunch. And lunch, at their
suggestion, is more apt to be at the sumptuous Wedgewood or Sutton Place hotels
than at one of Vancouver’s few Ismaili restaurants (where African dishes such as
fried cassava root might be followed by Indian tandoori chicken).

Ismailis of a certain age speak with the eloquence and diction of the highly
educated; many attended Aga Khan schools in East Africa and completed their
PhDs in Europe. Before their expulsion from Uganda by dictator Idi Amin, they were
bankers, lawyers and coffee plantation barons. “We were referred to as the Jews
of East Africa,” says lawyer-turned-real-estate-broker Farouk Verjee, “and that’s a
compliment, by the way.”

Hanif Muljiani was eight years old when his family arrived penniless in Vancouver in
1972. His father, formerly the principal of the Muljianis’ privately owned school in
Uganda, worked as a parking lot attendant and took other menial jobs – a typical
story for B.C.’s Ismailis. “To come here and have to start again, literally from
scratch – it’s quite a humbling experience,” Muljiani recalls. He paid his own way
through university and became a chartered accountant. At 42, Muljiani is now
president and owner of The Portables, a company that supplies display booths and
marketing services, and recorded revenues of $13 million in 2005.

If Ismailis didn’t lose their Midas touch after their exodus from East Africa, it’s likely
because their role model is a multibillionaire. The Aga Khan owns a bank in
Pakistan, plantations in Kenya and a chain of luxury hotels, not to mention his own
jet, stables of racehorses and an estate outside Paris. In all, his holdings generate
an estimated US$1.36 billion in sales annually, according to a November 2005 article. For Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan’s riches do not detract
from his role as their spiritual leader, or imam, who they consider a direct
descendant of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. “The beauty of Islam is it doesn’t see a
distinction between the secular and the religious; you don’t have to be doing good
and be poor,” explains Umedaly.

The Aga Khan, 69, has devoted much of his life to good works. After receiving an
honorary Companion of the Order of Canada last year, he was awarded the Andrew
Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy for health, education and development initiatives in
strife-torn countries undertaken by the Aga Khan Development Network, which
disburses about US$300 million annually for such projects. Ismailis follow in his
philanthropic footsteps – literally. In Vancouver, the annual Ismaili Walk for Kids
raised $200,000 last year for a United Way children’s program. The 2005 annual
World Partnership Walk, a countrywide Aga Khan Foundation Canada event, raised
over $4 million for development initiatives in Asia and Africa.

“I think one of the reasons the Ismaili community is so very successful in business
is because we have been inspired by Aga Khan’s work – in all aspects, like the
philanthropy, the promoting of architecture and art, and his focus on business as
well as spirituality,” says Farida Sayani, managing director of Executive Hotels &
Resorts, who personally raised about half a million to fund the BC Cancer Agency’s
new research centre on West 10th Avenue in Vancouver. “We’re always connected
with him, spiritually and mentally, and in other ways.”

Ismailis rely on their spiritual leader to interpret Islam for contemporary times. “In
the Muslim world, there are sections that are very orthodox and there are sections
that are very advanced and allow the freedom to the women to grow,” says
Sayani. “For example, you see this a lot in the Croatian community, the Iranian
community and others, as well.”

The Aga Khan’s championing of higher education and independence for women has
directly impacted Sayani’s life. She went into business in the mid-1980s at the
urging of her husband, Noordin, who was able to get some of the family’s capital
out of Uganda before it was seized. “He found a nice piece of land [in Richmond]
and he thought that it would be just tidier for me to get a nice boutique hotel to
manage. At that time my youngest son was 14 and I was ready to get into the
workforce, and so that idea really appealed to me,” she says.

The first Executive Hotel opened just in time for Expo 86 and was marketed as a
high-end hotel at an affordable price. “It was not a very common thing to open an
all-suite hotel, which was ahead of its time and very successful,” says Sayani.
Those first 80 rooms have multiplied to 850, divided among Executive Hotels in the
Vancouver area. “To start your own creation and see it fly high, it’s very

Other Ismailis describe her as brilliant, but Sayani is quick to share the praise. “My
husband is a very smart business person and, given the opportunity, I excel in my
own way, too. The strength of both of us is our success.”

Ismailis are not ones to brag about their accomplishments; humility is paramount in
their faith. But that may not be the whole story. In this small and tight-knit
community, everyone knows everybody else – and is eager to know how much
others make. “We’re a very competitive community,” Verjee says, chuckling. “There
can be a lot of envy.”

There is also remarkable community support for aspiring entrepreneurs. The Ismaili
Council for British Columbia, which has counterparts worldwide, is divided into
boards responsible for various aspects of the community’s well-being. Muljiani
chairs the economic planning board. To be financially successful, he says, “You
need role models, enough security to take risks, mentors, a drive to succeed and a
belief in higher education. Our community has every single one of those.”

He describes a hypothetical family of four with two incomes of $45,000 a
year. “Try and buy a home, and it’s tough in Vancouver,” he says. “If we can help
get them up to $60,000 or $70,000, their quality of life improves and they are able
to give back.” Support from the council might include career-planning and skills
development, seminars on financial planning, mentorships and events that
emphasize business ownership as a proven means of increasing prosperity.

The global network of well-heeled Ismailis is an added boon to some entrepreneurs.
Verjee, who founded Chase Realty in Vancouver 26 years ago, brokers major
commercial real-estate deals with offshore clients, many of them Ismaili. “A lot of
investors in the Muslim world want to invest in Canada and not the U.S., and I
have connections in that world,” he says. Although he reports annual sales in the
$20-million-plus range, he doesn’t dream of co-investing. “Most of the people I
deal with are so big, they don’t need a little fly [like me] with them.”

At the centre of this global network is the enigmatic figure of the Aga Khan. Entire
websites are devoted to his speeches, photos, achievements and marriages (he is
twice-divorced). The Ismailis’ fascination with their leader may be no different from
the Catholics’ devotion to the Pope, except that certain Ismailis believe the mere
sight of His Highness in person is a hajj, or spiritual pilgrimage. To revere the Aga
Khan “is not correct,” says Verjee, “but who are we to tell people how it should

For fundamentalist Muslims, however, even the remote possibility that god might
take human form is blasphemy; they dispute the Aga Khan’s ancestral link to the
prophet Muhammad and have denounced the Ismailis throughout history. Umedaly
recalls a conversation he had with a Muslim cab driver soon after the Aga Khan’s
last visit to B.C. “These Aga Khan-ers,” the cabbie apparently scoffed, “these are
not real Muslims.” Umedaly says he responded by “educating him, because it is
important to do so. But he was quite adamant that if you have any modern
interpretation of religion, then you are a traitor to it.” Akbarally Meherally, a former
Ismaili living in B.C., claims that Ismailis glorify the Aga Khan in private. He has
even started an online registry of disgruntled former Ismailis, but the rants on his
website ( smack of conspiracy theories.

The Aga Khan publicly declares he is not a deity. As for the title His Highness, it is
not a sign of ego run amok, but a moniker bestowed by Her Majesty Queen
Elizabeth in 1957, when the Aga Khan was 20. (Although he has two sons, he has
yet to name a successor; some Ismailis believe his daughter, 35-year-old Princess
Zahra, should inherit the title.) Harvard-educated, the Aga Khan was born in
Geneva to an English mother and a half-Indian, half-Italian father. By all accounts,
he is a spiritual leader who emphasizes intellect and independent thought.
Frequency of attendance at jamatkhanas and lifestyle choices such as drinking
alcohol are individual decisions. As Muljiani explains, “Nobody says, ‘You can’t do
this or that or you will go to hell.'”

Ismailis keep their religious rituals private, either out of fear of persecution or due
to the meditative nature of their prayer. “You’ve got a bunch of people and they’re
all praying,” says Muljiani. “From a spiritual point of view, there’s a lot of energy
and it’s all coming together. If there is someone there who is not a part of that,
will that affect the psychic energy?”

While the Ismaili faith can be esoteric behind closed doors, the Aga Khan, in his
public speeches, is anything but. He promotes pluralism, tolerance and civil
society – principles that couldn’t be more in line with Canadian ideals. “His Highness
has said one thing to us,” says Jinha: “‘Do not impose our values onto others.'”

Pluralism isn’t just a token concept for Ismailis. “Interfaith marriage is perfectly fine
and accepted, which is actually counter to the general perception of Muslims,”
says Irfhan Rajani, president of Apparent Networks. (Rajani’s wife is Chinese
Canadian.) Muljiani, whose fianc�e is Sikh, suggests the only challenge for
interfaith marriages might be the Ismaili tradition of volunteering, which starts at
age eight. “What if the belief in volunteerism isn’t as strong in another faith?” he
asks. “Volunteering is very time-intensive and takes time away from your family.”

As interfaith marriage becomes more common in younger Ismailis, so does breaking
out of the doctor/lawyer/tycoon mould. “The next generation looks at the arts and
other things because they find sponsors in the preceding group,” says Umedaly,
whose musician son, Farhan, has partnered with a Lebanese woman to market
songs to Arabic countries. Last year, contemporary Ismaili artists presented a full-
scale exhibition at the Roundhouse Community Centre on False Creek. And this
spring, Ismailis took part in a show of traditional and contemporary art by Muslim
Canadians at the Maltwood Art Museum and Gallery in Victoria.

Artistic, well educated, generous, successful – could this community be too good
to be true? Well, the occasional Ismaili might be a little overzealous about making
money. Senator Mobina Jaffer’s law firm, Dohm Jaffer & Jeraj, was sued in April
2005 by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Members of the Catholic
order, who take vows of poverty, alleged that Jaffer charged the “unjustifiable”
rate of $450 an hour for her legal services. In a sworn affidavit, Jaffer countered
that the Oblates had previously suggested a fee reduction for outstanding legal
bills and then sent a cheque for the negotiated amount. The matter is still in court.
More disturbing is the case of Salim Damji, 36, who in 2002 pleaded guilty to
defrauding fellow Ismailis in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary of more than $40
million in a teeth-whitening scam. He claimed to have a patent that would be sold
to Colgate-Palmolive for more than $400 million. The Ismaili tithing system may also
be vulnerable to fraud, as Douglas Todd reported in a 1995 Vancouver Sun article.
Donations are collected on behalf of the Aga Khan and then distributed to
charities. But unlike most Christian, Jewish and Muslim organizations, jamatkhanas
do not issue tax receipts. Up to 12 per cent of an Ismaili’s gross income can add
up to a lot of cash, which is not subject to government tax audits. In 1989, a
money-laundering scheme involving religious donations led to convictions in Texas
and elsewhere against 12 U.S. Ismailis.

Corruption happens in every community, of course. What’s striking about these
incidents of controversy among Ismailis is how rarely they occur. Ismailis appear to
be exemplary citizens and employers. One would be hard-pressed to find an Ismaili-
run company in Vancouver that does not contribute to at least one worthy cause.

Orbital Technologies, founded by Amyn Rajan, has set up endowments at SFU, UBC
and UVic. Amir Ahamed’s Regency Auto Group is the title sponsor for World
Partnership Golf, a series of charitable tournaments held in major cities across
Canada. The B.C. edition of the tournament raised $140,000 last year, funds that
were matched by the Canadian International Development Agency. And Amica
Mature Lifestyles, run by the Manji family, delivered 900 Christmas gift baskets to
needy seniors in 2005.

From the start, Ismailis have immersed themselves in Canadian society to avoid
becoming what Verjee calls “hyphenated Canadians.” The Aga Khan, a friend of the
late Pierre Trudeau, recently strengthened his Canadian ties. A grand-scale Ismaili
centre will rise in Toronto, as well as an Aga Khan museum to house the world’s
largest collection of Islamic art. Ottawa will see construction of the Delegation of
the Ismaili Imamat (a quasi-embassy and secular facility) and the Global Centre for
Pluralism. “Canada is a very exciting place for Ismailis worldwide – it’s the place to
be,” says Jinha.

The exception might be the Aga Khan-related institutions in central Asia and
farther east. Former eXI Wireless CEO Karim Khoja left Vancouver more than three
years ago to head Afghanistan’s largest cell-phone provider, Roshan, a company
51-per-cent-owned by the Aga Khan Development Network. And Firoz Rasul of
Ballard fame is now in Karachi completing a decade-long volunteer term as
president of the Aga Khan University, an institution with teaching sites in more
than a dozen countries.

Rasul says he receives “a lot of phone calls and emails” in Pakistan from Ismailis
eager to follow his lead. Both Hanif Muljiani and Mossadiq Umedaly (who worked as
an administrator for seven years at the same Aga Khan university early in his
career) say they’d like to pursue pro bono work overseas down the road.

Meanwhile, Rasul is thinking of going into business with his daughters in Vancouver
once his term in Karachi is up. “I have always had some interest in publishing and
broadcasting, and in distance-education programs,” he says. Clearly he hasn’t lost
that entrepreneurial itch. “I’ve got that in my blood,” he says with a laugh.

Ismailis at a Glance

Ismaili history is as colourful as a Persian tapestry. Here is a short version.

Prince Karim Aga Khan IV became the present leader in July 1957, at age 20.

His stepmother was Rita Hayworth, the second wife of his playboy father who was
passed over as Aga Khan and died in a car crash outside Paris in 1960. And his
grandfather is famous for the story in which his followers in India matched his
243.5-pound weight in diamonds to mark his 60th anniversary as the Ismaili
spiritual leader in 1946.

The Aga Khan claims direct descent from Islam’s prophet Muhammad through the
prophet’s daughter, Fatima. The Fatimid rulers founded Cairo in 929 A.D.; later
their descendants moved to Syria and Persia. After the Mongol conquest in the
13th century, they dispersed throughout central Asia, the sub-continent and
farther east.

The Ismailis are part of the Shia branch of Islam. Shias make up about 15 per cent
of all Muslims; the rest are Sunnis. In the late 19th century, Indian-born Ismailis
built communities in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, which were then part of the
British Empire.

After living there for generations, the Ismailis were expelled from Uganda in the
early 1970s by dictator Idi Amin. Others left Kenya and Tanzania around the same
time because of socialist political regimes and a general sense of insecurity. The
present Aga Khan took steps to help them resettle in Europe, Canada and the U.S.

Ismailis now number 12 to 15 million and live in 25 countries around the world.

The Ismaili factor

B.C. companies owned or operated by Ismailis

Hotels and real estate:
Larco Group of Companies
Land developers specializing in hotel and retail properties throughout North
America, and self-storage facilities in Vancouver. Holdings include Park Royal
Shopping Centre, Whistler Village Centre and Larco Hospitality, which owns and/or
manages hotels under such brands as Marriott, Renaissance and Hilton (e.g.
Vancouver Airport Marriott and Renaissance Toronto Hotel Downtown).
Owners: Aminmohamed Lalji and family
Worth: An estimated $884 million

Executive Group of Companies
Management and development of boutique hotels and suites. Family company owns
five hotels (four in Vancouver, one in San Francisco) and is part owner of two
others; it also has a stake in the publicly traded Executive Inn Group Corporation.
Owners: Noordin and Farida Sayani, and son Salim
Worth: Projected revenue of $85 million in 2006 for the family-owned group of

Mayfair Hotels and Resorts
Privately owns and/or operates 10 hotels in Vancouver, Victoria and Nanaimo.
Among the properties: Robson Suites, Hampton Inn & Suites and Landis Hotel &
Suites in downtown Vancouver.
Co-owners: Akber Kassam and Zack Bhatia
Worth: N/A

Pan Pacific Vancouver AAA-rated five-diamond, 504-room hotel. Owners: The
Texas-based Mangalji family’s Westmont Hospitality Group, which has ownership
interests in about 380 hotels worldwide. Pan Pacific’s asset manager is Zul Somani
of Vancouver, who is a part owner of Vancouver’s Georgian Court Hotel, Granville
Island Hotel and Le Soleil Hotel. Worth: N/A

Sodican (BC) Ltd.
Real-estate ownership and acquisitions; holdings include 64,000-square-foot office
building in North Vancouver.
Owners: Azad and Yasmin Shamji
Worth: N/A

Retirement homes:
Retirement Concepts
Private, 1,500-employee company; owns and/or operates 14 seniors’ facilities and
three hotels.
Owners: Abdul and Shamim Jamal, and son Azim
Worth: N/A

Amica Mature Lifestyles Inc.
Publicly traded company. Manages, markets, designs and develops luxury housing
for seniors. There are 15 Amica Wellness & Vitality Residences across North
America, plus five in development.
Owner: Manji family share is about 35 per cent.
Worth: Communities under Amica management are valued at $300 million (2006),
with revenues under management of about $70 million.

Xantrex Technology Inc.
Power electronics company with 500 employees; publicly traded as TSX:XTX with
29,922,185 common shares outstanding (as of March 31, 2006).
Ismaili factor: Mossadiq Umedaly, chairman, and vice-presidents Nazir Mulji and Al-
Karim Kara
Revenue: US$143 million in 2005

Apparent Networks
Software developer focusing on networking and connectivity; clients include Telus
and IBM, Boeing and Bell Canada; 45 employees total in Vancouver and Seattle.
Ownership: Co-founder and CEO Irfhan Rajani is significant investor-owner; other
investors include Telus, IBM, BDC Venture Capital and GrowthWorks Capital.
Revenue: Last-quarter revenues grew 200 per cent year-over-year (as of Feb.

Orbital Technologies Inc.
Employee-owned software developer for larger companies such as Microsoft and
Adobe; 90 per cent of business is with U.S. and European clients.
Ismaili factor: Amyn Rajan, co-founder, president and CEO.
Worth: Less than $10 million in 2005

Regency Auto Group
Lower Mainland Toyota, Lexus, Nissan and Infiniti car dealerships with 140
Owner: Amir Ahamed
Worth: Annual sales in the $130 million range

Sleep Shop
Four Lower Mainland locations selling specialty mattresses and bedroom suites.
Owner: Haji Manji and son Farouq
Worth: Revenues surpassed $3 million in 2005

Shamin Jewellers Ltd.
Independent jeweller with 4,600-square-foot showroom.
Owner: Shahraz Kassam
Worth: Revenues of $1.69 million in 2005

The Portables
Integrated provider of trade show equipment and exhibits; 11 locations with 90
employees throughout Canada
Owner: Hanif Muljiani
Worth: Revenues of $13 million in 2005

FNMH Architecture
Designs airports, embassies, Ismaili centres, private
residences and hotels worldwide. Headquarters in North Vancouver; branches in
Pakistan and Nairobi.
Owner: Farouk Noormohamed, architect, and wife Farida, interior designer
Worth: Volume of construction at any give time equal to about $90 million

Golden Boy Foods Inc.
Western Canada’s largest manufacturer of peanut butter, with approximately 200
Owner: Virani family
Worth: Annual revenues estimated at more than $50 million

Orko Silver Corp.
Exploratory resource company with sole ownership in La Preciosa silver project in
Durango, Mexico. Publicly traded as OK (TSX.V), with 56,826,471 shares
Ismaili factor: Officer Minaz (Mike) Devji was a driving force behind the sale of
Canada’s Kemess deposit for $200 million in 1996.
Worth: Company value approximately $45 million (compared to $8.32 million the
previous year), based on shares trading at $0.79 in May 2006 l

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August 20, 2006 at 2:16 pm (Announcements, Uncategorized)

I will be putting up selected posts from the Ismailism mailing list on this blog especially those from its earlier days. Feel free to make comments.

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A Batini interpretation of The Sprites 72.16-18

August 20, 2006 at 2:12 pm (personal interpretations, Uncategorized)

(16) If they would only keep straight along the highway,
We will let them drink plenty of water
(17) so We may test them by means of it;
while it will lead anyone away to mounting torment
who avoids mentioning his Lord.
(18) Mosques belong to God,
so do not appeal to anyone besides God (in them).

An Ismaili friend I met over the Internet pointed out this passage to me as pointing to the latter Khoja Ismaili rite of Ab-e-shifa (‘water of purity”). The rite of Ab-e-shifa consists of drinking water blessed by the current Imam of the Time. This is done daily after prayers (dua) and on special occassions like Chandraat. It is symbolic of cleansing the soul of karmic impurities which are created by everyone in the course of their everyday
lives. One takes up the cup of niyaz, offering prayers for other Ismailis and
oneself, then saying “Farman” drinks the Ab-e-shifa.

“It is only when you drink Niyaz with complete and true faith that your heart
will be cleansed.” Imam Aga Khan III

If they would only keep straight along the highway,

Islam is often called the straight path, which in modern terms is ahighway. It is the simplest way to liberation for most people. Therea are many believers who have started on the path to knowledge of Allah. Many fall away form this highway detouring into blind paths and alley ways. Often well meaning individuals retreat into the safety of fundamentalism and its ideology of absolute unchanging truth. This verse is a warning to such believers.

To keep to a straight path is to go straight towards a destination. The aim of Islam is to awaken to one’s fundamental unity with Allah. This destination, tho
transcendent, has a foci in this world and that is the imam-e-zaman, i.e., Imam of the Time. So to keep straight is to put into practice the farmans of the current Imam.

We will let them drink plenty of water
so We may test them by means of it;

The rite of Ab-e-shifa is not part of Sunni Islam as it has been handed down in our times. So this rite is a great stumbling block for those non-Ismaili Muslims who
first hear about it. This verse points that this rite is a test, a test of true community. All Ismailis share in
the drinking of niyaz daily. To share niyaz means that all Ismailis must come together as a group daily in their jamatkhanas. It is a major symbol of unity and union; a symbol of the reality of tawhid.

This verse also points to the Ismaili division of people spiritually into three
classifications: people of opposition (enemies of the imam-e-zaman), people of order (regular believers) and people of union. Those who oppose the imam-e-zaman separate themselves from the ongoing Qiyamat and have to continually experience rebirth. One should remember, that the people of opposition are in a state of spiritual non-existence
(which is the real meaning of hell). Tho, given time all people will enter into the Qiyamat and Hell itself will empty.

Jim Davis

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A Few points concerning the Following article

August 12, 2006 at 1:19 pm (ethnic Ismailis, Uncategorized)

1. Ismailis pray du’a three times a day. It could be that the Chinese Ismailis pray twice a day due to circumstances not mentioned in the article.

2. Ismaili’s worship in jamatkhanas and not mosques

3. Ismailis only have one Imam at any given time. They do not call the leadership of their jamatkhanas “imams” which is a Sunni Muslim tradition.

4. Ismailis are also forbidden to drink alcholol tho they have no shariah system in inact penalities for those who choose to do otherwise. In practice, its basically an individual choice (you would be surprised at the number of Sunnis who drink in the West).  

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