Allah says in the Holy Qur’an, “Oh humankind, We have created you male and female and appointed you races and nations so that you may know one another. Surely, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the best in conduct (49:13)”. Mawlana Hazar Imam (Aga Khan IV) has also always emphasized an important and necessary characteristic of the Ismaili Muslim Tariqah: the concept of Brotherhood.
The Ismaili community comes from a variety of backgrounds and cultures united by a common allegiance to their Imam-of-the-Time. There are numerous traditions within the Ismaili Tariqah whose origins can be traced to the Middle East and Iran, to Central Asian and the Indian Subcontinent. Ismaili emissaries, in the forms of da’is and pirs, traveled the regions to spread the word of the Imam-of-the-Time primarily between the 10th and 15th centuries. Through the guidance of the Imam, practices developed that were specific to local cultures and context. Some of the names of these figures who helped in rooting the Ismaili Tariqah in various parts of the world are familiar to us, and include Da’i Qadi Nu’man in the Fatimid era, Rashid al-Din Sinan in Syria, Hasan-i-Sabbah in Persia, Hakim Nasir Khusraw in Central Asia, and Pir Satgur Nur and Pir Sadr al-Din in the Indian Subcontinent. The breadth of cultures and varied geographies of the people who embraced Ismaili teachings during these centuries, and the legacy of these Ismaili communities today is a testament to the diversity of the Ismailis around the world. Having origins in and associated with the traditions of places as apart as Syria, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan, clearly demonstrate that there is rich diversity in the practice of Ismaili Muslim faith. While certain religious practices are unique to certain areas and influenced by local cultures, these traditions are vibrant parts of the makeup of the global Ismaili community.
Ismaili community of Syria and its role in the development of Ismaili Tariqah
During the ‘period of concealment’ in Ismaili history, Dawr-al-Satar, starting with the 6th Ismaili Imam Mawlana Ismail (a.s.), through the 11th Ismaili Imam Mawlana Muhammad al-Mahdi (a.s.), the Imams primarily lived in and around the city of Salamiya, Syria. Secretly, and sometimes under concealed identities, they guided the activities of their followers, who lived in places far flung as North Africa to Khurasan and Central Asia, through the works of specially appointed Dai’s.
However, for much of that history, the Syrian Ismaili community thrived while the Imams were stationed elsewhere. Unlike today, where the Imams can visit the community relatively easily, in the pre-modern period, contact with the Imam was extremely rare. In the absence of this contact, a ritual known as the mubay’a developed in the Syrian practice of Ismailism. Through this ritual, murids demonstrate their devotion and love for the Imam by reaffirming their ba’yat. The murid then receives najwa, or sweet, from the Mukhisaheb. The mubay’a ceremony is an important and defining ritual of the Syrian Ismaili tradition.
As we learn about the distinct practices of the various traditions within Ismaili communities, we can reflect on how the essential values of our faith were expressed through the diversity of our traditions. In learning from the practice of mubay’a, we can assert on how we are united as a global community under the leadership and guidance of the Imam-Of-The-Time, the Imam-e-Zaman.
Ismaili Traditions of Badakhshan
The traditions of the Ismailis of Badakhshan, often known as the Nasir Khusraw tradition, is one of several traditions associated with the Ismailis of Central Asia.
Badakhshan is a large, predominantly mountainous, region that includes parts of four modern countries: the southeast of Tajikistan, northeastern Afghanistan, Northern Pakistan including Hunza, Gilgit and parts of Western China. This large area comprises many cultures, ethnicities, and ways of life and the Ismailis of this region represent and speak more than a dozen different languages such as Tajik, Dari and Urdu, Hazar-gi, Russian and Waakhi. Some Badakhshani Ismailis can trace their conversion to Islam back to our 4th Imam, Mawlana Muhammad al-Baqir (a.s.), but the figure most associated with this tradition is Da’i Nasir Khusraw the 11th century Persian scholar, poet, theologian, and philosopher. His writings, which include his poetry, embody his teachings and have helped preserve the Ismaili faith in this region. Some of his poetry is also preserved in the devotional literature of the Ismailis of this region, known as qasidas or maddoh.
The Traditions of the Ismailis of Iran
The Ismailis of Iran, or Persia, have their own distinct traditions and belong to several ethnic groups. Today they are mostly concentrated in the geographic regions of Khurasaan and Kermaan in the country’s east, and Mahallat, the former residence of our 46th Imam Mawlana Shah Hasan Aly. In more recent times, migration to urban centers has given birth to significant communities in the cities of Mashad and Tehran.
However, the Persian Ismaili community has a long history, tracing its origins to before the establishment of the Nizari Ismaili state centered at Alamut and its network of other fortresses in 1094 AD. For more than seven centuries, 25 Ismaili Imams established Persia as their base until the departure of Imam Shah Hasan Aly in the 1840s through Afghanistan to the Indian Subcontinent.
Different regions in Iran have maintained different practices. In northern Khurasaan, there is a yearly pilgrimage to the mountainous village of Naw Hisar, associated with a visit of our 36th Imam, Mawlana Nuruddin Ali. To the south, in the city of Birjand, there is a practice of Daw’reh-ye Qur’an. Here, weekly gatherings provide an occasion for Ismailis to recite and reflect upon the Qur’an in the light of Ismaili beliefs and practices.
One of many practices that unite all Persians, including Ismailis, is the observance of Navroz. This three-week long celebration culminates on the first day of Spring, which for Iranians and many other Muslim communities is also the start of the New Year. Beginning with the khana-takani or “shaking of the house,” Ismailis participate in a spring cleaning of the Jamatkhana. To welcome Spring, they gather together in the Jamatkhanas on March 20th or 21st to wish each other Eid Mubarak at the precise moment at which the New Year arrives. This is followed by the mukhi offering prayers for a successful and blessed year ahead.
The Jamat brings with it a variety of cultures, backgrounds, histories, and traditions. It is not always enough to admire this beauty from a distance. We must ask ourselves, what are we doing to learn about the rich histories and backgrounds of our Ismaili brothers and sisters – including those which live amongst us with different Ismaili traditions.
Traditions of Hazara Ismailis of Afghanistan
The Ismailis of Afghanistan belong to at least three cultural groups, each with different histories, languages, and religious practices. The Badakhshani tradition is also shared with the Ismailis of Northwest China, Tajik Badakhshan, and Northern Pakistan. The second of the groups are Pashayi-speaking Ismailis who have links with Pashtun tradition, which many of the country’s Shia Ithna Ashari Muslims also belong to.
The Hazara Ismailis have their largest concentrations in central Afghanistan in an area known as Hazaristan, where they have lived for centuries. They are concentrated in the regions of Bamiyan, Orozgan, Ghur, and in the capital, Kabul. Traditionally, members of the community were engaged in agriculture and animal farming, but today they are involved in a wide range of industries and professions. While Persian is the country’s dominant language, many Hazaras also speak a dialect known as Hazaragi.
The Ismaili da’wa in central Afghanistan is linked to a line of hereditary Pirs who trace their lineage to Imam Mawlana Ali (a.s.) and other Sayyids of Mecca. In the mid-18th century, a number of these Pirs settled in Iran and later migrated to central Afghanistan, where they found established Ismaili communities.
In the past quarter century, many Afghans, including Hazaras, migrated to Pakistan as refugees. While some settled in Pakistan, many returned to Afghanistan or re-settled in western countries such as Canada.
Just as ginans link Ismaili communities of the Subcontinent, regardless of their origins or their languages, the qasidas bind together Ismaili communities from other traditions, including Afghanistan. Qasida is a form of poetry found in many languages in the Muslim world. Amongst Persian-speaking Ismailis, qasidas that are most cherished and recited are attributed to several figures, including Ismaili Imams, Da’is, Pirs, and members of various Sufi traditions such as Hafiz, Rumi, and Shams Tabriz. In some instances, qasidas continue to be written today, making them a living tradition, not only in their recitation but also in their composition.
The qasidas that we recite most often in Jamatkhanas are in Persian. Many are older than ginans and are attached to an ancient wisdom where the sentiment, mood, and symbols are quite different from the ones we are used to but share in a common devotion to Allah (swt), Prophet (saws) and His Progeny (a.s.).
South Asian Ismaili Traditions
The Ismailis of the Indian Subcontinent are far from uniform. They have historically inhabited the regions of Sindh, Kutch, Kathiawar, Gujarat, Punjab, and Rajasthan. Many trace their conversion to the Ismaili faith through several Pirs of Persian origin including Pir Satgur Nur, Pir Shams and Pir Sadr al-Din between the 12th and 15th centuries. Historical sources and community documents suggest that the majority of these communities collectively adopted the “Satpanth” or True Path, a term which frequently appears in the ginans to refer to the Ismailism of the period. As entire villages and tribes adopted the new religion, their new identities were marked with caste-names such as Momin, Khoja and Shamsi, replacing previous labels associated with Hinduism or Buddhism. Despite differences in language, caste, profession and conversion through different pirs, each of these groups were united in their common allegiance to the Ismaili Imam in Persia. The term “Ismaili” only came into common usage in the 19th century to refer to the wide range of communities that gave allegiance to the Imam-of-the-Time, the Imam-e-Zaman.
In the Ismaili community’s historical understanding, it was Sayyad Noor Muhammad, known in the tradition as Pir Satgur Nur, who first arrived in India. He was likely sent from Fatimid Cairo by our 18th Imam, al-Mustansir-billah (a.s.), just as the Persian Nizari State as Alamut was being formed. Arriving sometime in the late 11th or early 12th century, he made the Gujarat’s town of Navsari his base from where he converted thousands of people to Islam. It is in this wave of conversions in which Ismailis who refer to themselves as Momins trace their origin. Today, most Momin Ismailis are Gujarati-speaking and can be found in large concentrations in parts of Gujarat that include Siddhpur, Malia Hatina and Junagadh, Hyderabad-Pakistan, and larger centers of Ismaili population in India, Pakistan and North America.
Another group, the Shamsis, embraced Islam at the hands of Pir Shams, who was sent from Alamut about 150 years later to continue the mission of Pir Satagur Nur. During Pir Shams’ long life, he traveled to Badakhshan, Tibet, and Rajasthan. However, it was during his missions in Sindh, and in particular Punjab, where his descendants and those he converted adopted this name. As a result of his travels, the ginans attributed to him include linguistic elements of Purbi, Hindi, Gujarati and Sindhi alongside Saraiki and Punjabi. To this day, many of the Ismailis of Punjab, including those in Multan, where he is buried, still refer to themselves as Shamsis.
The term Khoja was adopted by those Ismailis who trace their conversion to Pir Sadr al-Din, who was born in Persia and was a descendant of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (a.s.). He trained under Pir Shams and traveled with him on many of his missions. While the earliest Satpanthi groups must have prayed in a variety of ways and in a range of spaces, Pir Sadr al-Din is believed to have established the earliest place now associated with the Jamatkhana in Punjab.
Despite being converted to Islam by different Pirs and belonging to different castes before their conversion, today each of these communities shares in an unwavering devotion to Allah (swt), Prophet Muhammad (saws) and His Progeny (a.s.) and shares common ceremonies and practices. Our beloved Imam wishes for all his Jamats from various traditions and backgrounds such as Syrian, Badakhshani, Hazaara, Momin, Khoja and Shamsi Ismailis to come together as a single frontierless brotherhood and live an ethical life while upholding the principles of our Ismaili tariqah.
Indian Subcontinent Jamat in the 19th & early 20th centuries
The 1800s saw remarkable changes in the Indian Subcontinent. The Mughal dynasty, which had ruled large parts of India for more than 300 years, gave way to the British Raj. The South Asian Jamat, which was primarily concentrated in the villages of Gujarat, Sindh, and Punjab, was impacted by several droughts, which made life increasingly difficult. With the growth of cities like Mumbai, Karachi and Calcutta, these Ismaili villagers with the guidance of the Imam, began to migrate in search of new opportunities. Just as they had to adjust to their new lives in urban environments, their religious practice also began to adapt to the rhythms of city life. In 1845, Imam Hasan Aly Shah (a.s.) relocated to the Indian Subcontinent from Iran. Over the next few decades, he began standardizing the ritual practices of the community which had developed in different directions over the previous centuries.
With directions of Imam Hasan Aly Shah (1804-1881) (Aga Khan I) and later Imam Aqa Aly Shah (1830-1885) (Aga Khan II) and Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (1877-1957) (Aga Khan III) (peace be upon them), Ismailis were encouraged to seek opportunities beyond the Subcontinent, in various centers connected by the trading routes of the Indian Ocean. Young Ismaili men, and later entire families, took the long and uncertain journey by ship and eventually settled in the port towns of Gwadar, Muscat, Aden, Rangoon, Colombo, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the cities of Malaysia. Others traveled southward, down the coast of eastern Africa to Zanzibar and what later became Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Some even ventured as far as South Africa.
The South Asian Ismaili community, once united by a common land, was now separated by an ocean. As they moved, their religious practices, often different from village to village, migrated with them. In time, the community in these foreign lands began to understand their identities in new ways as they adopted local languages, embraced new lifestyles and cultures. Over several generations, subtle changes became even more pronounced and connections with the Indian Subcontinent became one of cultural affiliation rather than a home to which they could return. As the community grew, new jamatkhanas were established in the new towns where Ismailis found themselves and became important centers of community life.
Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (Aga Khan III) (a.s.), the first Imam born in the Subcontinent, maintained and encouraged the diversity of practice within the various South Asian Jamats. At the same time, he established a series of formal majlises in which special guidance were offered and rituals established. In this way, each Jamat, whether from Burma or Mumbai or East Africa, maintained distinctive traditions while at the same time sharing in a larger practice common to all Ismailis whose origins lay in the Subcontinent. These differences included everything from the language of religious rites and ceremonies – whether Sindhi, Kutchi, Gujarati, or Urdu – to festivals and feasts that were observed. Some of this diversity can still be seen today. For example, in Mumbai, there are certain majlis for ladies only during the months of Muharram and Ramadan. In Zanzibar, the Jamat not only fasts during Ramadan but also during the month of Safar. Ismailis from many of these countries have migrated to Europe and North America over the last half century, reflecting the diversity in practice and rituals of the wider Ismaili community from around the world.
These rituals, which have deep roots in culture and geography, allow us to express our unwavering love, devotion and gratitude to Allah, Prophet Muhammad and His Progeny, the Imam-e-Zaman, which binds all the Ismaili communities together as a global Ismaili Jamat.