The 11th of July 2007 is a date I remember as vividly as if it were yesterday.
At 4:00 AM, the usually quiet Nairobi suburb of Parklands was a scene of excited commotion and traffic gridlock, as Ismailis made their way to Jamatkhana for morning prayers. There was a happy anticipation of the special ceremony that would commemorate the start of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Golden Jubilee.
A nervous eagerness consumed me and my volunteer colleagues through the day, as we coordinated the first ever global telecast from France to several towns in Kenya and neighbouring African countries. I cannot think of a time when such euphoria, raw emotion and love brought murids from so many diverse backgrounds and places together as one.
I will cherish the events, experiences and memories of that day, and the commemorative period that followed, for the rest of my life. It is difficult to believe that ten years have gone by — so much in the world has changed.
In just a few days the global Jamat will have the profound privilege to be a part of another historic milestone for our beloved Imam. This compels some reflection on where the Ismaili community is now and where we are headed in the years to come.
Identity in a changing world
We live in hyper-connected, rapidly shifting times. Whether seen from a geopolitical, cultural, technological or even an environmental perspective, the world is changing quickly. As Ismaili Muslims, we always have the benefit of our Imam’s guidance in material and spiritual matters, but the faster things change, the more attuned we must be to adapting proactively.
One of the greatest challenges we face today is maintaining our identity. In a generation where ideologies and social constructs are largely cultivated and influenced by tenuous interactions on handheld devices, it can sometimes feel like we (or our children) are losing touch with the unique sense of who we are.
Amidst a wave of accelerated globalisation, what does it mean to be a Shia Ismaili Muslim? Is it about practicing the rites and rituals of our tariqah, and having a sound theological knowledge? Is it about being compassionate, generous, ethical, and accepting of ‘others’ in daily life?
“Experience tells us that people are not born with the innate ability nor the wish to see the Other as an equal individual in society,” observed Mawlana Hazar Imam in the Peterson Lecture he gave at the Atlanta meeting of the International Baccalaureate in 2008. “Pride in one’s separate identity can be so strong that it obscures the intrinsic value of other identities. Pluralism is a value that must be taught.”
How we equip ourselves to answer the question of identity and articulate it for ourselves and for others, will form a critical foundation going forward.
Confidence and open spirit
In 2016, while on a visit to the Kyrgyz Republic, Mawlana Hazar Imam talked about why Central Asia “led the world” a thousand years ago in trade and investment, in urban development, in cultural and intellectual achievement, in philosophy, and the arts and sciences. It was, in that era, a place to which world thinkers looked for leadership.
Hazar Imam attributed this to the quality of openness — an openness to new ideas, to change, and to people from many backgrounds and with a variety of gifts. “That kind of openness,” he noted, “can again be the key that unlocks the doors to the future.”
In these times, when ‘Muslim’ is sometimes treated as an indictment of character, it is critical that we should be confident in the knowledge of who we are. By embracing a spirit of openness, collaboration and partnership and inviting it in others, we can hope to create a positive understanding of our faith, to replace prejudice with peace, and to build a safer world for our children.
Jubilees provide ideal junctures to reflect upon the work of the Imamat institutions. They can be platforms to promote greater understanding of the values that guide the institutions — relieving society of ignorance, disease and deprivation without regard to the faiths or origins of the people they serve, and in societies where Muslims have a significant presence, revitalising and broaden the understanding of cultural heritage in the full richness of its diversity.
I have been fortunate to have visited projects such as the Aga Khan Foundation’s Coastal Rural Support Programme in remote parts of Kenya. I have witnessed the difference that access to clean water and other basic infrastructure has on the standard of living in a community. I’ve seen the economic empowerment that flows from social agribusiness initiatives of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, and the impact of education programmes ranging from rural madrasas to the pluralistic network of the Aga Khan Academies, and the tertiary-level healthcare training of the Aga Khan University. I’ve experienced urban revitalisation projects such as Al Azhar Park in Cairo and cultural restoration in places like Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi.
The scale of these programmes is breathtaking, and they impact not only the communities around them but entire economies. Living in Kenya makes many of these projects more accessible to me, but each of us can educate ourselves and others about the work being done and all that is yet to be achieved. We can volunteer through the Time and Knowledge Nazrana, support a cause in a personal or corporate capacity, or indeed visit AKDN projects and institutions during our travels.
Seeds for the next generation
Whether it is being at ease with our own identities and the ethos of our shared values, being able to articulate this within the context of our families, friends or communities, or indeed on an amplified scale through civil society and advocacy groups, Ismailis have a compelling story to tell.
Countries such as Canada, where the Jamat actively participates in civil society, government and other avenues through which pluralism can be understood and embraced are better for it. The Jamat’s progress in many parts of the world and the achievements of the Imamat institutions are staggering in the context of six decades. Looking ahead, we must plant seeds for the next generation’s well-being and successes now.
The Diamond Jubilee gives pause to reflect, not just this once, but every day that we live and breathe, upon the tireless commitment, sacrifice and love with which our Imam has dedicated his entire life for our benefit. Let us appreciate the immense fortune to be able to call ourselves Ismaili Muslims, but most of all, let us also recognise that there is still much work to be done.
We must evolve from being knowledge gatherers to knowledge creators and thought leaders as were our ancestors centuries ago. With the Imam’s continued grace and direction, the responsibility shifts upon us to find ways in which we can make a positive difference.
In Hazar Imam’s words: “Even as we rejoice today, we look forward to the many wonderful steps that are still to come.”