Ismaili volunteer corp. has a unique history which is both modern and with a past that is tied to the time of the holy Prophet Muhammed and the history of the institution of Imamate from the time of Hazrat Ali. Throughout Ismaili history, Ismaili sevadaris (volunteers) served the military, educational institutions, tariqa institutions and other Imamate governance oriented services on a ‘service without pay basis’ and sometimes risked their lives for Imamate work. This form of personal service also developed within the Ismaili communities where sevadaris helped to support and govern far flung Ismaili communities in particular during the period of Ismaili Dawr-e-satr (when the dawa had to go underground). During such periods Ismailis lived around the homes of the Imam and provided service not only to the family of the Imam, but to the Jamats and the Sufi orders under which the Ismailis performed their regular prayers, Jamati work and other work for the Imam and the secret community. Service, in the Ismaili community has been rendered in the Middle East, later in Central Asia and finally during the transition of dawa from Iran to India during the period of Piratan, where Ismailis offered seva and undertook study under the guidance of Pirs. This is the past under which the modern corp took its foundation of service.
During the evolution of Ismaili faith and its historical struggles to establish a pluralistic foundation of political hierarchy and governance under Hazrat Hazrat Ali and the institution of Imamate, there were no particular titles to sevadaris. Personal service was offered by the Ansars of Medina and other seva daries from other places under the request and guidance of the Prophet and the Imam and other well regarded personalities who were close to him. Later, when the period of Nabuwah ended and the Institution of Imamate was formed, the sevadaries offered service under the guidance of the Imam’s dais. Men, in particular, in the zahir, given the sociological conditions of the period, and women, more secretly in the batin, quietly offered such service from the heart, and free of any expectations save that of the improvement of the community and personal spiritual life. Such sevadaris took time from their families and economic interests to serve special missions for the Imams of the period.
Within the values of service, the term ‘Volunteer’ was defined during the establishment of the modern corp. at the time of Prince Alykhan in India. Prior to that, the first reference to such service was “Ansar of Medina” and these were the helpers of the Holy Prophet during the nascent period of the evolution of Islam under the Holy Prophet and Imam Hazrat Ali. The Ismailis developed the modern version of service as the volunteer corp. in 1904, after they received the support of Imam Sultan Muhammed Shah and were offered acknowledgement and a military type hierarchy by His Highness Prince Alykhan. The root influence came from an Ismaili club titled, the Ismaili Vidhya Vinod Club in Bombay. Their vision and mission was to serve through literary and missionary type activities. Later, the club formed its first group of disciplined volunteer Corps under the influence of Ismailis who had military background. Imam Sultan Muhammed Shah accepted the volunteers as part of Imam’s Lashkar (or army of youth) and named it, H.H the Agakhan’s Young volunteers and gave them a badge with clear and well-defined symbols and a coat of arms. The ladies volunteer corps followed.
The term ‘volunteer’ comes from the Latin ‘Voluntarius’ which means to act from one’s free will. Later, it was modernized and reformed and used for secular and Christian oriented services. It developed under the notion of philanthropy, which means ‘an act for public good’ without any remuneration but only for God’s pleasure and the need to serve through pure servitude. In the same line, this work as doing God’s work for Christ evolved, and through it began the work of proselytization. There was the belief that only the chosen could do volunteer work. This archaic value, however, changed through modernization and insight about human rights. What you had than were volunteers in the Christian secular and spiritual worlds who engaged in serving their nationals and others for three reasons:
a) to be preferred by God;
b) to spread the word of God
c) to serve in the desire to perform deeds.
The term volunteer was used by the Ismailis in India with the simple view that it reflected the meaning of ‘Seva’ in the best value and form the English language could offer. It was a benign decision influenced by Ismailis who served the British Military through different ranks. There were other reasons one can consider as well. Prince Aly Khan’s role as a colonel in the British Military as an information officer during their war efforts in the Middle East and of course Imam Sultan Muhammed Shah’s role in aligning with the English in influencing them to work towards ending colonial hold and supporting them in the war effort during the two great world wars had an indirect and social and spiritual motivation on the decision to borrow the term ‘volunteer’ for our Ismaili sevadaris. Ismaili corp., therefore, with political, social and spiritual astuteness during its nascent period simply adopted the conception of ‘volunteer’ as that of service to reflect seva and sevadari, and its own unique history of sacrifice and service in the zahir and batin since the ‘open dawn’ of Imamate from the periods of the Holy Prophet and that of Hazrat Ali. Imam Sultan Muhammed Shah and his first born son Prince Alykhan supported the modern development because of their own history of service to the British Empire during the period of de-colonization and the evolution of new nation states which included the birth of Pakistan.
The badge has the following symbols; the colors red, green and gold, a horse and a neck in reigns, a sword and a walking stick. The colors red and green refer to the history of hard work and sacrifices the seva daris have performed through out Ismaili history. The colors red and green refer to the willingness to undertake the most darkest forms of reactions and serve through patience and tolerance like a tamed horse. The colors are also given reference to the sacrifice of Imam Hassan and Hussien for the protection and servitude of the Ismaili tariqah. Imam Hassan and Hussien in the Ismaili tariqah are known as the holy members of the Panj tan Pak. Therefore, the colors also refer to the work of the Panj tan Pak. This means, the vigilance of service in the form of exceptional modeling of servitude can bring purity and gentleness in the soul of the sevadari. The horse is in reference to the inner form of conflict which exists in all human beings and is referred to as the “nafs” which is symbolized as a rogue horse which needs to be tamed, controlled and managed through perseverance, forbearance and tolerance and in time even consultation. Consultation is where the whole area of talk comes into play. Talk can influence our darkest places because the motion of positive speech can be a healing elixir; It offers insight. Those who are struggling with the need to tame their personal forms of conflict can readily react to it and use it to settle the rogue in their emotional and spiritual condition. The heart and the mind are both co-existents who need to work in parrell and through the inter -spiritual and intellectual conditioning of unity and mutual respect. Otherwise, they can remain rogues who can infect and sicken each other to the point where the person’s values, human nature and spiritual life can turn into a permanent dark place. It is engineered from our own internal life because of our own inherent and natural heritage, tendencies and cultural references, and the way we make choices and form our spiritual and intellectual direction. It can be stimulated by external associations, symbols and triggers. The stick refers to the notion of control that we have to develop. Once the rogue horse is tamed, it follows order, and the directions of servitude and that is the stick. The stick is given to those who have mounted the horse to continue to train it on the path of service and servitude.
Discipline of volunteer service:
The volunteers have to observe exceptional discipline on a regular basis so that they may become role models and examples of service and discipline Therefore, silence of the heart, forbearance of the spirit and absolute withdrawal of ‘words’ (harsh or reactive language) is the key etiquette through which the volunteers are expected to serve. They have to be on time for their period of service and engage in defining areas in which they may best serve, but also be ready to serve in other areas where the need is greater and learn and relearn to serve through internal peace. They also have to be ready to share the service and teach the method of service to others who choose to enter into this very disciplined and sometimes toiling form of service with rigorous expectations of discipline.
And, there is a psychological and spiritual reason for that. The actions of service, through the silence of the heart and speech influence internal transformation and the formation of insight and allow those who are receiving service to offer prayers ‘dua’ of gratitude for it, to the volunteers. Such duas could be vocal, directly from the heart and that of that of the spirit and sometimes in hind and later on after the service is complete and given. Duas can also influence the formation of gentleness in the hearts of the volunteers, because this service allows them to work at developing a gentle disposition and build internal strength.
Courage of Modern volunteers:
Volunteers used non-assaultive methods to serve and protect the Ismailis and members of other communities through periods of danger during the Indian/Pakistani partition and later the creation of Bangladesh. Volunteers played a key role in protecting Ismailis during the Ugandan crisis in the 70s to protect lives and even in Tanzania during the political disturbances of the period. Volunteers even in the modern period have served communities in war torn areas such as during the civil war in Tajikistan from 1991 onwards and also in Afghanistan to help Ismailis seek refugee help. Volunteers have worked to feed, protect, guide and offer emotional hands to distraught individuals during this periods of war reflecting the work of ‘Ansars’ and other sevadaris of the period of the Holy Prophet and Imam Hazrat Ali. Volunteer corps also performed with angelic courage during the Zanzibar revolution and there are miraculous examples of how the volunteers were able to feed the Jamat and bring water to them without being affected by the violence outside of the Jamat-Khana compounds.
The history of the volunteer corp. since its inception has been unique. Ismaili volunteers have played the role of serving during hard and warlike periods and have also been engaged in grinding regular service. This service has its ties to the protection of Imamate, and the history of the Holy Prophet. Ismailis have offered unique service to the evolution of Ismaili faith and its history and settlements. This value continues to be exhibited even in modern times. What is unique is that the meaning of volunteer is not new for Ismailis, even though the term volunteer has been borrowed from the English language. While the meaning of volunteer means to “offer service with personal will”, the Ismaili meaning through its own history of seva and servitude means to serve the work of the mission of Imamate by searching out ways to engage without conflict. This means, the meaning has taken on the value of serving the “Din” in the “Dunya”. Din and Dunya are co-related concepts in Islam and in particular the Ismaili tariqah. The Imamate as an institution refers to it as an all encompassing notion of faith. This means that every action in Dunya has its consequences in Din. In addition, the Imamate further refers to spiritual life as an extension of humanity and the other central belief in Ismaili faith according Imam Sultan Muhammed Shah is that the soul in a human being is a complex compendium of particles each organized independently but inter-connected to form a personal world. This, therefore, means that each action of seva triggers change, purification and transformation in the person in the heart, mind and the spread of the personal spirit. It also develops personal values. Through volunteer service, the individual actually builds tolerance, perseverance and forbearance. This adds value to the meaning of service and servitude in Ismaili belief. A volunteer actually engages in acts of submission. Service refers to submission through servitude to seek favor, mercy and transformation. Servitude, therefore, enters into a deeper more remarkable spiritual and intellectual influential form of personal transforming exercise, if it is performed in conjunction with a moral and ethical practice of life. Servitude influences satisfaction, but it also surges and transforms the initial impulse for service into a more protracted desire to continue to serve for inner change and satisfaction.
– The Ismaili corp. is now faced with modern challenges. First of all, it has to continue to review the original root meaning of the term ‘Volunteer’. The term volunteer has Christian orientation and a legacy of colonial influences and of course it is through the use of the English Language as a main form of communication which has its roots in colonial period.
– Alternatively, there is nothing wrong in keeping this reference because the Greek origins have influenced all three great faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In addition, Christianity is considered as one of the faiths of Ahl el Kitab. This means it is an inspired faith of the same Allah who has guided other great faiths, including Islam. What is unique is that like any concept, the meaning changes across cultures and values. Perhaps this is how the term volunteer will have to be received for the Ismailis who engage in servitude for the love of service through their personal faith.
– Next, the volunteer corp. has spread through out the Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and other Asian and African countries and European and American nations. In each of these Ismaili settlements, the cultural influences will have some impact to influence and engage discussion on the volunteer model and perhaps in time the efforts to centralize it with its own original constitution.
– In addition, since the opening of borders and the break down of the Soviet Union, it will be re-introduced into the Ismaili communities of Central Asia and even in the Middle East where the original volunteers in the service of Islam and Ismaili faith were established as the ‘Ansars’. This means the volunteer corp. will have to undergo significant culture changes.
– However, because the volunteer corp. was blessed by the Imamate and its core values of din and dunya and the Imam as the original and central source of authority, the meaning of volunteer will adhere to its core value that will be the principle of unity in meaning, action and belief in the Imam as the head of the Corp. This key will remain central because after all, sevadaris have their roots in the co-parallel development of Islam and Ismaili faith under the roots of the Holy Prophet and Imam Hazrat Ali.
Amin Kanji MSW
April 12th 2012
Earlier related by Amin Kanji:
Mechanics, Ethics and Politics of the Spirit: The Hidden Seeds
Steady Wolf and Spirits of the Land