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A Nizari-Ismaili approach to living together

Published onFeb 13, 2024

While the word itself has Arabic and Persian roots, ‘Jamat’ is defined in the Ismaili Constitution of 1986 as “the murids of Mawlana Hazar Imam,”[Aga Khan 1986, Article Two] i.e. the group of local communities of Shia Nizari-Ismaili Muslims (murids) who follow the teachings of Aga Khan IV (Mawlana Hazar Imam) and believe him to be the 49th Imam ordained by hereditary succession. Living across more than 25 countries, the Jamat is a multilingual, multicultural, supranational religious community, strongly connected through shared English language, social media, and a vast charitable network, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), all of which strengthen the idea of a Nizari-Ismaili citizenship as non-exclusive, if not flexible. As a repertoire of living together, Jamat is realised in the strong multidirectional connections between the individual, the Aga Khan, the rest of the Jamat, as well as the Jamat’s role in the societies in which Nizari-Ismailis live.

Jamat and the Aga Khan

Often named the ‘Imam of our Time’ (Hazar Imam), Prince Karim Aga Khan was named successor to the Imamat upon the death of his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, in 1957 and will remain the Imam until his death, at which point he will appoint a close family members as his successor. This belief in a living Imam sets Nizari-Ismailism apart from most other Islamic sects and means that with a new Imam comes a new interpretation and direction for the Jamat. Concretely, the Imam is responsible for interpreting Islamic scripture in accordance with the current times, meaning that the beliefs and practices of Nizari-Ismailis, and thereby the characteristics of the Jamat, can differ greatly from epoch to epoch. With new interpretations come reforms to Nizari-Ismailism and the Jamat has undergone various reform processes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries which have led to, at times drastic, theological and structural changes. The former Aga Khan, for example, sought to align Nizari-Ismailis within the broader Muslim community during the last days of colonial India, creating an Ismaili-Muslim identity in contrast to a previous singular Ismaili identity [Mukherjee 2011]. Through such reforms, the Jamat has developed a “strong ethos of self-reliance, self-regulation, organization, and education” [Andani forthcoming, 2], a path which it will presumably continue on after the passing of the current Aga Khan.

The Jamat has a vast geographical scope, stretching from the Pamirs of Central Asia to sizable diaspora communities in North America, making it a multilingual, multicultural community. Reforms introduced to the Jamat have therefore often aimed to bring the many murids into one unified Jamat, for example that of the Ismaili Constitution. Introduced by Aga Khan IV in 1986, the Ismaili Constitution regulates membership into the Jamat and is realised in localised murids across the world signing the constitution and thereby reforming its practises accordingly. According to Andani [forthcoming, 3], such changes to beliefs and practices have led to conflicting understandings of Nizari-Ismailism and, at times, a lack of theological comprehension. These “constraining effects” mean that there is a disparity between the proscribed Nizari-Ismailism of the Ismaili Imamate and the lived experience of individuals of the Jamat [Andani forthcoming, 48].

Part of the Jamat’s diversity lies in its relatively recent unification. Conventions of worship, local organisational structures, and language of communication, while all theoretically unified according to the Constitution, can all appear very different at any given location and characterise the Jamat as extremely diverse in a cultural, social, and linguistic sense. For example, marriage ceremonies predominantly take place in the Jamatkhana (Ismaili prayer house) in most Nizari-Ismaili communities, while in the Pamirs they typically take place within the home. The diversity of Ismaili traditions and experiences of the Jamat are rooted in the varying ways in which local communities came to Ismailism. For the Pamirs, the 11th century theologian and da'ī (Ismaili missionary), Nāṣir-i Khusrau, is seen as the founder of the murid and establisher of Nizari-Ismailism in the region. Under Sunnat-i Nāṣir-i Khusrau (the Tradition of Nāṣir-i Khusrau) are, alongside his many metaphysical texts and poems, the adaptation of many indigenous cultural artefacts, giving them an Ismaili meaning. This adaptation extended to Pamiri houses with their setting being given a religious meaning, strengthened through the performance of musical religious rites such as qasīda-khānī [Goibnazarov 2017]. Such adaptations, coupled with the use of local languages signalling a shift away from the Quranic Arabic, was practised by other da'ī of the time, for example 14th century theologian Pīr Ṣadruddin who similarly adapted aspects of Hindu religion in South Asia[Ivanow 1948]. In addition to varying historical Ismaili traditions, the presence of large diaspora groups among the Jamat means that, often in one local Jamatkhana (Ismaili place of prayer), there are members of several different communities. Therefore, the Jamat cannot be viewed homogeneously and it is difficult to define a sole ‘Ismaili’ experience. 

Direction of the Jamat in the 21st Century

According to Steinberg [2011], the situation of the Jamat as a mix of diaspora and non-migrated communities means that there exists varying experiences and connections with the Aga Khan and the rest of the Jamat. Building on this point, Bolander [2017] argues that English, which is given the status of “authoritative language” of the Jamat in the Constitution, is one way Ismailis form this connection. In addition to English being in-line with Aga Khan IV’s approach to development, it supports the instillment of a transnational Ismaili identity through connectivity, both in terms of the individual and the Imam, but also between individuals [Bolander 2016, 2017]. English is the language with which the Aga Khan communicates with the Jamat, both in regular greetings (farman) and special letters (talika), meaning that, through English, members of the Jamat can understand the messages of Hazar Imam directly, but also communicate with each other across the Jamat’s vast geographical scope. This language policy is supported by the Constitution which enables a “dual citizenship that coexists with, and transcends, the traditional boundaries of the nation-state,” [Kadende-Kaiser & Kaiser 1998, 462] and is further strengthened by a strong social media presence which connects communities digitally over its wide geographical scope. Central to this digital strategy is the website ‘the.Ismaili’ which offers a wide range of resources for Nizari-Ismailis, as well as performing a key public relations role for the Imamate and Jamat. Through social media campaigns, for example the hashtag ‘#onejamat’, Nizari-Ismailis can interact with each on a content-creator and consumer level, using the hashtag to point other members of the Jamat to their social media posts. Through the English language, the Jamat is therefore connected to both Hazar Imam and the rest of the Jamat, enabling a fluid communication over many locations, time zones, and languages.

In answer to the growing diversity of the Jamat, Aga Khan IV preaches the concept of pluralism, i.e. “an ethic of respect which values the beauty and strength of diversity”[the.Ismaili]. Through pluralism, the Jamat is intended to be a unified, highly mobile community, encouraging a coming-together of cultures and languages in the shared pursuit of knowledge and the betterment of the quality of life. In essence, pluralism is the Aga Khan’s response to an ever-dividing world, prompted by the renewed contact with murids in Tajikistan and Afghanistan after the fall of the Soviet Union [Andani 2019]. Pluralism has been one of the main missions of the current Aga Khan and many resources of the Ismaili Imamate are invested in promoting pluralism. For example, the Global Centre for Pluralism in Canada was founded by Aga Khan IV and the Canadian Government as a think tank focused on the “transformative power of pluralism”, providing educational materials and policy advice [Global Centre for Pluralism]. On an individual level, Aga Khan IV stresses the Nizari-Ismaili commitment to pluralism frequently in his speeches and farman, meaning that pluralism is not simply an abstract directional concept, but an integral part of current Ismaili beliefs.

The current Aga Khan has also focused heavily on community development and charitable endeavours, founding the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in 1967, which not only aids vulnerable communities in over 25 countries, but also actively connects the Jamat together. The purpose of the AKDN is to improve the quality of life in the societies in which Nizari-Ismailis live, meaning that, as a repertoire of living together, Jamat has a strong charity-based ethos. Under the current Aga Khan, the Jamat has become an extremely mobile community and is far better connected than it was previously. Through initiatives such as Global Encounters, a collection of summer camps organised annually around the world for young Ismailis, the Ismaili/Jubilee Games, a sports competition held in Dubai and the US, or study programs such as the Graduate Programme in Islamic Studies and Humanities (GIPESH) which brings Ismaili students to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, Ismailis from all across the Jamat have the opportunity to come together and network, creating a closer community despite its vastness.

In conclusion, Jamat is not simply a collective term for Nizari-Ismailis, comparable with congregation, but rather a lived experience which focuses on a strong connection to Hazar Imam and the rest of the Jamat. This multidirectional connection is supported through reforms such as the Ismaili Constitution and language planning, and strengthened by networking opportunities through the AKDN and social media. Through such connections, the core concept of pluralism is shared through the Jamat’s vast geographical scope and therefore, as a repertoire of living together, actively practised in the societies in which Nizari-Ismailism all around the Jamat live.

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