Since the earliest days of Islam, the Shia notion of nazrana — the offering of an unconditional gift to the Imam of the Time as a gesture of a murid’s love and homage — has been a time-honoured tradition in the Jamat. With the approach of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee, Ismailis around the world are renewing this age-old tradition.


Nazrana honours the tireless efforts of the Imam in fulfilling both his spiritual and worldly mandate. In the modern context, nazrana may be pledged as a material gift of wealth or as an individual offering of time and knowledge. Through the Time and Knowledge Nazrana (TKN) established for the commemoration of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Golden Jubilee 10 years ago, some 31,000 volunteers have completed over 48,000 assignments around the world.

“We have volunteers who are contributing in every area of development,” says Zahir Janmohamed, Executive Officer at the TKN Central Office in Toronto. The difference they have made is wide-ranging and impactful, he says, “from establishing high quality cardiology programs at the Aga Khan Hospitals in Dar es salaam and Mombasa or making recommendations to improve neonatal care at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Karachi, to helping new immigrants with their career and education goals and organising local sports tournaments to promote healthy lifestyles in the Jamat.”

The process begins when a Jamati member submits a niyat (an intention to serve). Afterwards, they create a profile detailing their skills and experience, which are matched with TKN volunteer needs of Jamati and Imamat institutions. Where there is a fit, the best qualified volunteer is selected to serve with the host institution on the TKN assignment.

The University of Central Asia was among the first institutions to engage the talents of TKN volunteers. Since 2008, volunteers from 14 countries have completed 124 placements.

“Over the years, the University of Central Asia has benefitted immensely from the diverse contributions of TKN professionals,” says Dr Shamsh Kassim-Lakha, Chairman of the University’s Board of Trustees. Mandated to provide world class undergraduate education that serves the unique needs of high mountain societies, the university has been ambitiously building campuses in three countries, while putting in place faculty, programmes and curricula.

The UCA campus in Naryn, Kyrgyz Republic opened in September 2016 offering majors in Computer Science and Communications and Media. A campus in Khorog, Tajikistan due to open later this year will add degree programmes in Economics and Earth and Environmental Science, with a third campus to follow in Tekeli, Kazakhstan.

“Volunteers have worked closely with our faculty and staff in developing our curriculum, administrative systems, student life counselling, library resources, and safety protocols — to name a few. While we have benefitted greatly from the expertise of TKNs, we also hope that their stay at UCA was enriching and rewarding, and that we played a small part in their professional development and growth,” adds Dr Kassim-Lakha.

For institutions that might otherwise be constrained financially, or by the limited availability of expertise in their part of the world, partnerships with TKN volunteers can set in motion new possibilities for transformative change at unprecedented scales.

“When I helped the Ismaili Council for Pakistan to develop and implement the first early child development programme,” says Dr Almina Pardhan, “we never envisioned that three years later we would be rolling it out successfully in five countries.”

Known as Parwaaz (which means “taking off”), the programme that Dr Pardhan spearheaded is for children aged six months to three-years-old, as well as their parents. It was setup in Pakistan in 2014 with the aim of making early childhood programming accessible to 100 per cent of the Jamat.

Dr Pardhan has since been instrumental in overseeing the expansion of this community-based early child development model to countries like Afghanistan and Tajikistan. But she says that children and parents are not the only ones to have benefited from her TKN service.

“When I submitted my TKN niyat in 2007, I had no idea how things would transpire,” says Dr Pardhan. “The opportunity to learn from the cultures and traditions of other Jamats has given me another perspective about pluralism, a deeper sense of gratitude for the richness of diversity within Ismaili traditions.”

The experience has broadened her knowledge in her own field of specialty, she says: “I’ve learned about the contexts of child development in other countries, and how significant access to equitable ECD is for all children as part of their overall development trajectory and life-course.”

In his address to the Parliament of Canada in 2014, Mawlana Hazar Imam cited the establishment of the Time and Knowledge Nazrana during his Golden Jubilee as an example of the impact that structured volunteerism can have in the strengthening of civil society.

“Ismailis from around the world volunteered their gifts, not only of wealth, but most notably of time and knowledge,” said Hazar Imam. “Many of them traveled to developing countries as part of this outpouring of service… their impact has been enormous in helping us to achieve best practice standards in our institutions and programmes.”

In the Shia Ismaili tradition, explained Mawlana Hazar Imam, offering voluntary service “is not a matter of philanthropy, but rather of self-fulfillment — ‘enlightened self-fulfillment.’”

For Ismailis, the Time and Knowledge Nazrana reaffirms a commitment to the Islamic ethic of leaving the world a better place than that in which we encounter it, through service to humanity. Through the small difference that we can each make individually, it is an opportunity to produce a meaningful impact that can resonate throughout society and across generations.

Indeed, it is both a gift and a privilege of a lifetime.

This article is part of a series published in the lead-up to Mawlana Hazar Imam’s Diamond Jubilee.