Ismailimail Interviews: Daryoush Mohammad Poor of ‘Authority without Territory’ fame

Congratulations on your new book, Daryoush. It has been a profoundly penetrating analysis of the authority of the Ismaili Imam and the scope of the Imam’s engagement with the world through the creation of the Aga Khan Development Network in the context of a cosmopolitan ethic.

We are curious to know in the first instance why you chose to publish this book independent of the IIS. One might get the sense that your analysis did not receive any form of official endorsement or would have been subject to some form of editing and censorship. What were your own considerations?

daryoush_swThank you for your kind words. As regards your question, there has never been any kind of official or unofficial control over my work or any kind of objection to it; none whatsoever. The work is a product of my PhD work and I have been consulting very closely with various people in the AKDN and the community for these questions. So, the theme of the book was no secret; nor were the questions or the theory that I have set out. People would normally find strange a theory which is unconventional or new but the short answer is that while I was writing the book and when I decided to publish, I was never under any kind of pressure at the IIS for it. Indeed, the IIS has proved a liberating place. Apart from this, I wanted my book to be published as soon as possible after the completion of my PhD work for obvious academic reasons. Secondly, my own assessment is that this book is saying something positive, even if there is a critical academic approach to it, about the Ismaili imamate. Therefore, in hindsight, it would be more appropriate for the IIS to allow other publishers address more contemporary issues. The other considerations were of course about the publisher and the series in which it was published. I have known Professor Hamid Dabashi for years now and he warmly received the idea of the book, so I already had someone who was unreservedly supportive of the entire idea.

In the Introduction, you review the meaning of charisma from the Ismaili and Sufi perspective of walaya and you also discuss the Weberian sense of charisma and recognize the influence of Christian theology. What strikes us as interesting is that you did not discuss the notion of Noor or the Light of the Imam in the same context. Was this an intentional decision or would this not have been the appropriate terminology to explain the spiritual dimension of the Imam’s charisma?

I have actually discussed this in the book. The only difference is that the term does not appear in the text. If you look at the footnotes, I have quoted extensively from Tusi (note 14 of introduction). Other than that, it is purely a choice of different words. The term ‘light’ comes into frequent use after the fall of Alamut when Ismailis are under the guise of Sufism and extensively appropriate or internalize Sufi terms. So, discussing the light of the Imam is entirely wrapped in the language from the Alamut period. The subject has not been sidelined or ignored. There are merely different ways of expressing the same idea. I have also tried to show another dimension of the issue of authority when I try to make a distinction between political authority and spiritual authority. I have briefly touched upon the background of the interactions of Ismailis and Sufis in various periods in different parts of the book. I did not find it particularly important to emphasize this point because anyone who follows the footnotes would easily make the conclusion.

In Chapter 1, you make the declarative statement that the Weberian framework is inapplicable for understanding the Muslim world. Would you say that the anthology of essays, “Max Weber and Islam” by  Ira Lapidus, Nehemia Levtzion, Richard M. Eaton, Peter Hardy, Rudolph Peters, Barbara Metcalf, Francis Robinson, Patricia Crone, Michael Cook, and S.N. Eisenstadt all fell short off the mark? Or did you mean that the Weberian framework was largely inadequate or insufficient to utilize in approaching the study of Islam in general? Inapplicable is a term that seems to debunk the work of these other scholars.

The fact that many people have drawn on Weber does not necessarily mean that everything that Weber said is right. Most of these people have looked at Weber in a critical and scholarly way. I stand by all these terms: inadequate, insufficient and inapplicable. The first two are rather obvious. Bryan Turner has addressed the issue very well, but Weber is still a reference point and I think will continue to be (and should be). I used Weber as a corrective lens; referring to Weber is methodologically justified. If we overlook this critical point, Weber will become misleading, for reasons that I have explained in the book (namely that he is Eurocentric in his approach). All these scholars shed light on the problem. I have also tried to elaborate on an aspect of it which has remained in the shadows when it concerns Ismailism and Shia Islam. So, it is not debunking; it is rather reinforcing an argument and taking one step forward (and by the way, Eisenstadt can hardly be seen in line with Weber given his views on multiple modernities).

In Chapter 2, you make mention of the fact that Jafar al-Sadiq urged his followers to write and communicate their knowledge, p. 66.  The practice of taqiyya has often been used by the community to protect it from persecution by its adversaries.  Would you say that the contemporary era requires the very opposite of taqiyya, and that the Imam is instead urging greater transparency of the faith and its tenets?

Authority without Territory  The Aga Khan Development Network and the Ismaili Imamate.  ISBN-13: 978-1137428790 ISBN-10: 1137428791
ISBN-13: 978-1137428790 ISBN-10: 1137428791

There are two aspects to taqiyya: a political and a spiritual/intellectual. In the political sense, taqiyya is primarily redundant because Ismailis and the Ismaili imamate is almost everywhere out in the daylight. Ismailis today do not do anything secretive. There is no hidden political agenda. It is what it is and it is out there. The functions of the institutions and the mandate of the imamate is very clear and the Imam does not ever shy away from explaining in unequivocal terms what he thinks his function and role is and should be. So, on this level, I do not believe there is any taqiyya. Then, there is a spiritual or esoteric level which has to do with how ‘knowledge’ is defined or rather understood in the context of a Shi’i Muslim community. People have different intellectual capacities, but knowledge in this sense cannot and must not be irrational or completely at odds with intellect and reason. There is often a tendency of seeing religion as being at odds with human intellect, even some times inside the community, which is more than anything else a reaction to radical, fundamentalist and atheist ideologies. Thus instead of responding to questions which can actually be responded to, we sometimes evade response and responsibility by arguing that there is a level beyond human reason (which is a fair point), and then the corollary would be that no one should ask any questions (which is a fallacy) and must only submit and surrender to what is said in religion. It is in this sense that I believe the question is redundant and indeed it is sometimes mischievous and irresponsible to make this argument. The Ismaili imamate today is visibly promoting reason and is clearly proposing a humanistic approach to reason rather than engulfing itself in medieval narratives of reason and creating a sharp distinction between what human beings can realistically achieve and what is seen as divine knowledge. I think the greater part of the strategy of taqiyya was born out of political necessity. Taqiyya is not and has never been an end in itself. Even in the context of the argument of medieval Ismaili da’wa system, preparing and initiating someone to higher levels of knowledge first and then making that knowledge available seemed a reasonable thing to do. I think that setting, that context, has now significantly changed and the Ismaili imamate has been able to open up new vistas for the engagement of reason and revelation.

In Chapter 2, you provide some fascinating research on the concept of ‘isma or the infallibility of the Imam, as an idea that was introduced after the Imamate of Mawlana Jafar al-Sadiq by Hisham bin al-Hakam pp. 90-91. The translation of ‘isma into infallibility or immunity from sin seems to have been extended in the contemporary era to the sense that the Imam also has supernatural powers of precognition. Our readers would probably appreciate some elaboration and clarification of your understanding of these distinctions within the context of the Imam’s authority?

We must remember what the book claims to be doing. It does not respond to theological questions, nor is the book a personal or individual evaluation of the Imam. When we speak about the Imam’s vision, those critical parts are used to shed light on how the institution of authority and the office of imamate have been reshaped and how new functions are defined for it. Therefore, given modern theories of knowledge and our epistemological positions today, our understanding of what may be labelled as ‘infallibility’ in its pre-modern sense is different from what can now be seen in contemporary times. When you change the axis and focus of work from theology to development, you then have to reassess and rearticulate your position with new coordinates. This is all I have been trying to say. I have not approached it from a theological angle only. The theological context and background given were necessary for explaining the shift rather than claiming a rupture or arguing for breaking away from a tradition. The only point I wish to highlight here is that unlike other Shi’i communities, Ismailis have a present living Imam and the very fact of this presence gives the idea of infallibility an entirely different weight and meaning.

In Chapter 3, you suggest that in order to engage with the modern world, “the imamate would no longer wish to establish its authority without a modern appeal merely relying on pre-modern criteria”, p. 109.  But it would seem that the focus of IIS and ITREB and many Facebook groups has been to begin by retrieving the pre-modern era of the imamate, with the ultimate intention to evolve a modern and post-modern vision. Is this what Mohammed Arkoun was driving at when he observed that the reason for any deficiency in communication between the Imam and the community is “that the Community is too dependent on the Imam in all its day-to-day matters?”  p. 135. This would imply that the Community is really not in step with the vision of the Imam of the Time. Your analysis, on the other hand, makes it clear that the Imam is clearly engaged in deep consultation with the leaders of the community. Where would you say that this breakdown in communication lies? Is it that the leaders of the community rely more on the institutions such as ITREB which comprises many lay volunteers who are still attached to the pre-modern concepts which are communicated through satpanthi content of the devotional literature, the ginans?

Authority without Territory  The Aga Khan Development Network and the Ismaili ImamateThere seems to be an assumption that if the Imam engages in consultations with individuals and institutions and gives them advice and guidance, they necessarily follow it verbatim or even creatively promote and extend it. First of all, this assessment disregards human agency and the role of individuals (institutions are also run by individuals, no matter how collective deliberations may shape it). Individuals can change things. It is only by assuming that they are robots or machines that someone (in this case the Imam) can push their buttons. They are imperfect human beings with their built-in limitations. There is also the assumption that the Imam’s voice is not really heard or he becomes obsolete here (because these people do whatever they wish and just hide behind him). This narrative is also inaccurate. I think I have managed to show how the axis of action in Ismailism has shifted from theological and polemical debates towards a concern for the improvement of the quality of life. This is the lifetime achievement of the Imam alongside the faithful obedience and collaboration of the community (even if they have not probably fully grasped the weight and importance of this shift). Therefore, I find this imperfection not strange or disturbing except in cases where it overtly upsets the balance between faith and reason. This concern, for me, builds on the history of the community which has put a premium on intellect century after century. If I want to introduce a methodological framework into this question, by analogy, it would look like the incremental growth of knowledge by gradually eliminating errors in our knowledge (and our theories), which is what critical rationalists say. The end result will never be perfect or flawless. It will not be ‘infallible’ and it is precisely for this reason that we need to be constantly alert in order to eliminate errors and learn by experience. It is a matter of problem solving. Indeed, if we do not integrate the medieval perception of ‘infallibility’ into this narrative, the question hardly arises in the first place. What Arkoun is pointing to can also be seen in the same light. When individuals expect perfection and infallibility, they always wait for someone else to solve problems that could be solved by themselves. Not everyone can solve every problem but everyone is endowed with intellect; everyone can ask questions, to various degrees and qualities. Therefore, there is no final and ultimate answer or solution in any text or guidance. Nothing will ever make you completely and fully independent of your own rational and individual engagement and contribution.

You very bravely raise questions around pluralism within the community in suggesting “it is not clear whether and to what extent this pluralism can be reflected in the institutions of the Community” p. 152. You mention that the dominant elite who run the community institutions are mostly from East Africa. As an Iranian Ismaili, do you feel that other diverse groups that make up the community are marginalized or in some way neglected by the elite?

Pluralism articulated in an abstract sense does not always work out in practice in an ideal way. I think there are two elements to this discussion. One is whether leaders of the institutions deliberately marginalize people from other backgrounds or not. The second is how and under what circumstances this pluralistic contribution can be expanded. In the first case, in all countries, the community has leaders coming from its own background. Wherever community institutions are established they have their own local leaders. Then there is a higher level of administration which is at the Imamat delegation in Aiglemont. I think there is still some work to be done on this front, but the question then is about the second point I raised. Do we have competent leaders and highly qualified individuals from every background to be able to serve in those positions? I think this is the more serious question. This problem cannot be solved only by the Imam or the current high profile leaders of the community. Individual communities with different backgrounds should also invest for the future and build capacity. So, the bottom line, the way I see it, is how you build capacity in various communities. This is a shared responsibility. It cannot be completed by one single group or one actor only.

Your comments on the Imam’s reflections on the need for a cosmopolitan ethic suggest that perhaps such an ethic transcends or is at least a departure from sharia laws, even as understood and interpreted in the Ismaili context: “I speak of an ethic under which all people can live within a same society, and not of a society that reflects the ethics of solely one faith.” p. 157. Would you say that such a framework would be acceptable to other religious authorities within mainstream Islam, or is the Imam blazing a different trail as regards an ethics that applies to all of humankind, which is perhaps what the initial legal hermeneutic of the Quran attempted but failed to establish?

I have serious problems with the appellation ‘sharia law’. What is now so frequently used by the media as ‘Islamic law’ is the product of recent centuries and the domination of the Orientalist tradition. So, we have to ask if the Ismaili imamate or community ever in its history adhered to this abstraction of ‘sharia law’ or not. I would argue that even during the Fatimid times when they had an elaborate system of administration and a state apparatus, they never saw it as ‘Islamic law’ (as we use it today in contrast with whatever is not considered ‘Islamic’). So, in this sense, the position of the Ismaili imamate in these matters is different from that of the purported flag bearers of ‘Islamic law’. I think that the acceptance or rejection of such frameworks is very much dependent upon politics and ideologies which shape the position of certain religious leaders. Other than that, there are certainly religious authorities in different communities in the Ummah who would argue the same: that there should be no discrimination in providing a good quality of life to all people or citizens without regard for their faith or belief. The only difference is that the Ismaili imamate by highlighting this position continues to defy the common clichés about Islam, Muslims or its ‘laws’ which have been produced mostly by the Western media and often unconsciously adopted by Muslim communities.

In Chapter 3, you made reference to Tom Kessinger’s observations on the Imam’s thoughts on managing risks and opportunities. In your overview of the tremendous successes of the AKDN’s activities in Chapter 4, no mention was made of the recent destruction of the Citadel of Aleppo after the AKTC completed its restoration and no discussion was engaged about the potential political risks to the community as a result of the private/public partnerships with various despotic governments. Would you say that the complexity of the management of risks and opportunities is increased by a lack of political intelligence on the ground in the multiple countries in which the AKDN operates? Syria and Afghanistan both come to mind.

Authority without Territory  The Aga Khan Development Network and the Ismaili ImamateThe case of Syria is clearly different from that of Afghanistan, but the vision is the same: the imamate does not engage in development work based on political ideologies. If the population of a country lives under a regime which some may consider despotic, you cannot withhold any humanitarian or development engagement with the population until the ruling system changes on Western or liberal democratic lines. The imamate manages its own risks and opportunities which are defined by its mandate and the function that the Imam envisages for his office. The imamate’s assessment of governments in the Middle East is not necessarily in line with the Western image (take ‘oriental despotism’ for instance). I think we ought to be acutely sensitive when comparing the AKDN with European or American NGOs or liberal institutions simply because the Ismaili imamate always adds its own signature to what is seemingly a Western notion. You will end up seeing an institution with a distinct identity and signature. There is a fundamental difference in perspective, in how you view politics, development, agencies, contingencies and the dignity of people. All these are beyond the scope of this question but deserve a lengthy discussions for which I have only sowed the seeds in my book.

In your inspiring chapter on the Imam’s hybrid leadership style, you invoke the late Arkoun’s insights on the leader and the led within the context of the transmission of the Imam’s authority through the leadership of the community. In your own words: “ If the leaders keep jeopardizing this trust by mismanagement and irresponsible leadership, his authority may still be there and its source will still remain the same, but he can no longer gain the satisfaction of the people he leads as he might have done had he pursued a better form of leadership. And here is the point at which “hybrid leadership” can transform into “authoritarian leadership.”” p. 220.  Do you think that this particular issue can be addressed by intensive continuing education programs in community leadership – perhaps managed by IIS so that the Imam’s vision can be transmitted appropriately? After all, the AKDN manages several universities – there must be an appropriate venue for community leadership training within the network.

Yes, surely educational and academic institutions can contribute but it is also the role and responsibility of individuals in the community. What I was trying to convey was that all of these tasks must not rest on the shoulders of the Imam alone. The community and the individuals in the community can and must contribute to the imamate’s vision. It does not happen overnight. It takes time. It needs patience and constant nurturing. It does not happen in a vacuum either. The leader or the Imam of an impoverished community with a poor quality of life, little education and intellectual mediocrity can change little in that community. It is here that the interaction between the community, leaders of the community, individuals in the community and the imamate can prove to be positive or negative.

You mention in your conclusion a call for a new metaphysics in the context of the paradigm of a cosmopolitan ethic: “What is now required is adapting theology and Imamology to this shift.” p. 228 Do you have a sense that the scholars at IIS and the volunteers at ITREB are ready to engage in this mission?

I am not sure whether everyone has yet fully grasped the shift, even though people tacitly feel it. The growing impatience among the younger scholars of the community might be an indication of searching for new intellectual paradigms, but in the absence of a coherent methodology it may not be really fruitful. The only concern that I have is that we may end up reproducing the past as a way of finding harmony with the present.  The legacy of the past is only a guideline. Scholars from the history of the community have been responding to the problems of their own time. We need to address the problems of our time. Neither the IIS nor ITREBs can be automatically assumed to be filling this gap. They are not machines. They are run by human beings, but surely I think that the potential to embark on this huge task is now greater than 25 years ago. We now have more resources, more literature, more scholars from inside the community who are now increasingly gaining global recognition and who have solid intellectual backgrounds. This is what we need for that job.

Finally, you reiterate that “On the side of the Community, there is still great discrepancy between what the Imam says and does and what the Community understands” and you identify the bureaucracy as one of the impediments to bridging this gap between the Imam and his flock. What role do you see for the leadership’s initiatives without the Imam’s explicit direction on this issue, given the level of dependence on the Imam which you have already identified?

Bureaucracy itself is not the problem. It can be extremely useful in the administration. What would turn it into an iron cage is individual choices, and the ‘specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart’. I would not dwell too much on what the Imam says ‘explicitly’ or ‘implicitly’. Most of what the Imam does is clear. The direction is clear. You do not need a very sophisticated mind to decipher the overall direction. I would treat such labels, as ‘explicit direction’, with caution because you would find people who become self-proclaimed interpreters of what the Imam actually means to say. His life, his legacy and his beliefs are quite clear and transparent. This is what can give direction to people. Other than this, I have tried to highlight the role of individuals and the community, their agency, and the role of contingencies.


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Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

2 thoughts

  1. An informed and genuine discourse on the contemporary Ismaili authority structure, linked to the past and future, by an in-sider for both the in-siders and the out-siders simultainiously !

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Although many of the terms used are unknown to me, what I did understand is an openness and benevolent spirit. Blessings be unto you!
    Best wishes in your work!
    Here’s to Your Health! (blog)


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