Muharram 1443 – 8th August 2021
The Jamatkhana and its relationship with prayer
For Ismaili Muslims, it is the jamatkhana that provides the space for congregational prayers and rituals. The word jamatkhana means communal house or communal gathering place or assembly hall. The Persian word khana means house or place. From the moment we enter the prayer hall, we acknowledge its special status by acknowledging the presence of God. When many of us leave the prayer hall, we often stand at its threshold, some offering personal prayers while others bowing their head in sajda. All of these are personal rituals, ways in which our bodies and our minds acknowledge that the space we are in is sacred.
In this way, the place of worship is a space that invites a sacred encounter, a connectedness with the Divine as well as a center of learning. When we pray at home, whether reciting our salat, or du’a or tasbih, or hamd, or naat, or a qasida, we are invoking Allah’s name through our breath, our words, our intentions and our thoughts. When this happens in a group, such as within the family or in congregation with the jamat, both the space in which we pray, and our spiritual sensitivity is heightened. Praying together not only builds a sense of community, but it also affects the space in which we pray.
The Holy Qur’an says: “(This lamp is found) in the house which God has permitted to be exalted, and His name to be remembered therein, where He is glorified in the mornings and the evenings.” (24:36).
Religious spaces require us to be humble in the face of the Divine. They are, in certain ways, the court of the Beloved, the place where we wait patiently to meet the Divine. When the jamatkhana also acts as a social and educational space, it is easy for us to forget that it is also a sacred space. Every ritual that takes place within a place of worship such as the jamatkhana, masjid, church, synagogue or a temple, reinforces and acknowledges the presence of the Divine.
The most impactful rituals are often ones in which we unite our bodies and words in singular actions. However, these are often always the most difficult to understand and give meaning to because they draw upon sacred vocabularies and ancient actions. One way to help us navigate these is not to look at rituals in isolation, but rather as an interconnected conversation. When our foreheads touch the ground in sajda during du’a or when we recite the namaz, we acknowledge our humility before Allah (swt) and submit our allegiance to Him alone. This is the same ground our hands touch, and later bring to our faces when we recite the Shahada serving as an additional reminder, to each of our senses, of this humility. Our rituals are very much intertwined and linked. And it is up to us to derive ‘meaning’ from these – meaning that is relevant and personal to us, not just meaning that is given to ritual by others. For meaning can equally be personal as much as it is communal.
In this way, the jamatkhana can be understood not only as a space or religious gathering for the Ismaili Muslim community, but also a place where ritual becomes meaningful and where we have the potential to encounter the Divine. But the Divine can only be encountered if we acknowledge that the presence of the Divine is here, in our midst, and act accordingly. One way to do this is to perform our rituals with appropriate intention (niyyah) and an open heart. In doing so, we are drawn closer to the Divine and the Divine is drawn closer to us. The Holy Qur’an reminds us that Allah is closer to us than our jugular veins. Our rituals allow us to feel His presence and to feel solace and comfort in it.
Jamatkhana and the Majlis
The term majlis comes from the Arabic word jalasa meaning “to hold a session” or “sit down.” The plural of majlis is majalis. Given its broad meaning, the word majlis is used in many different ways. In many Arab countries, majlis ash-shura is the term used for parliament. Amongst some Shia Muslim communities, the term majlis is most often used for gatherings or assembly that surround the month of Muharram and commemorate the tragedy of Karbala. For Ismailis of the Fatimid period, it was the name given to gatherings of wisdom and knowledge presided over by the da’is and the Imams. For Ismailis of Indian Subcontinent origins, the term majlis has become associated with a special gathering held in addition to the daily congregations, for additional prayers, devotion, supplication and spiritual benefit.
It is said that the members of the Ikhwan al-Safa in the period of 9th Ismaili Imam Mawlana Taqi Muhammad (a.s) (790-843) formed a sort of “personal lodge,” for those who lived in the Lower Mesopotamian River port of Basra. Their philosophical majalis took place on three evenings each month at the start, middle and sometimes between 25th and the end of the month. They also celebrated three major majalis during each year in their lodge, i.e., Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and Eid-e Ghadir. They also held special majalis, each one every twelve days.
One way to think about majalis in our Ismaili tradition is to categorize them into different types. For example, there are majalis associated with festivals and events such as, Milad-un Nabi, Yawm-e Ali, Shab-e Miraj, Laylat al-Qadr, Eid-e-Ghadir, and Chandraat, to name a few. These celebratory occasions provide opportunities for the community to come together and participate in special prayers and devotion as well as to reflect upon ideas specifically relevant to each of these festivals. In addition to festivals, we have majalis that are centered on specific themes considered important in the Ismaili tariqah. For example, Baitul-Khayal, which specifically focuses on promoting a commitment to personal spiritual search for the enlightenment through regular practice of meditative prayer or bandagi during pre-dawn hours.
There are also other majalis which focus on the core Muslim ethic of voluntary service allowing a symbolic offering of years of service to Allah and His Creation. Many of these service majalis that are with us today, began as requests by the community to the Imam-of-the-Time. The historical background to this is as under: the 46th Imam Mawlana Hasan Ali Shah (a.s), Aga Khan I (1804-1881) migrated to India from Iran in the mid-19th century. Around the same time the community began to move from towns and villages to urban centers and to settle in cities such as Bombay and Karachi. As followers became more knowledgeable about the history of the Imamat, many expressed a desire to serve the Imam personally as had happened in the past when Imams lived in the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Persia and elsewhere. It was not possible to allow many followers, who came forward, to serve the Imam in person. The Imam graciously agreed to allow followers who wished to do so, to symbolically present to the Imam a number of years of voluntary service by becoming members of service majalis.
Over time, special ceremonies such as prayers, tasbihs, bandagi, munajat, qasidas manqabat and ginans, etc., became associated with some of these majalis, by which an individual can submit to the Divine and protect himself/herself against the materialism of secular life and many other challenges of daily life.
At times, the Imam would also graciously bless newly enrolled members to the majlis with in-person mulaqaat from time to time and provided special guidance to those present.
The example of selfless services of the Companions of the Prophet and the followers of the Imams have been incorporated symbolically in different majalis in the Ismaili tariqah.
Let us reflect and ask ourselves: What is the impact of praying together in congregation as a community and how does it affect our personal individual journeys? We have been blessed by the grace of God Almighty with opportunities, such as the majalis to gather together, to offer prayers and to demonstrate our gratitude and devotion to our Creator.