In case you missed it last month, Professor Zayn Kassam, Director of The Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS), joined us for an exclusive interview with The Ismaili TV. She talked about her journey in academia and offered her insights on the multifaceted role and mandate of the IIS.

Founded in 1977 by Mawlana Hazar Imam, the IIS is a leading academic institution centred on higher education and academic research. Focusing on Islamic history, philosophy, and literary traditions, the Institute specialises in Ismaili and broader Shi‘i traditions. Its mission extends to addressing contemporary challenges faced by Muslim communities worldwide.

Professor Kassam began by sharing a personal reflection on her journey within the Ismaili community, highlighting the deep-rooted tradition of love for the Imam and dedication to service. Born and raised in Kenya and having attended the Aga Khan High School in Nairobi, her academic journey from English literature to Islamic studies was fuelled by interests in philosophy, religion, gender studies, and environmental issues. 

Reflecting on her study of Syedna Nasir Khusraw's teachings, she resonates with the notion that human beings possess an innate thirst for knowledge, aligning this with her own journey of intellectual inquiry and spiritual enlightenment: 

“Nasir Khusraw said that human beings have a knowledge-seeking soul.  So, for me, my academic and intellectual training is in no way oppositional to my faith and my search for meaning and for my actualisation of inner illumination within myself, which comes through practice of the faith.”

As a research fellow at the IIS in the late 1990s, she observed the institution's evolution from its formative stages to its present status. She reflects on Mawlana Hazar Imam's vision in establishing the IIS to promote a greater understanding of Islam, and bridge gaps between different communities.

At the core of the IIS's approach lies a commitment to knowledge dissemination and capacity building. Professor Kassam elaborates on its model of training teacher educators, a cascading approach where one trained educator can potentially influence the training of numerous others, creating a ripple effect of knowledge transmission. Additionally, the Institute actively engages its faculty and staff in various outreach activities, from delivering talks and workshops to participating in book launches.

On the perceived issues of IIS publications being too academic and not widely accessible to the average reader, she highlights ongoing efforts to make scholarly content more engaging through initiatives such as the “World of Islam,” and “Living Ismaili Traditions” series. These aim to translate complex scholarly works into easily comprehensible language for a broader audience, catering to diverse educational backgrounds and interests.

Looking ahead, Professor Kassam emphasises the need for continuous adaptation to meet the evolving needs of the Jamat in addressing contemporary challenges. She concludes by expressing her personal experiences and profound moments of inspiration and transformation, reinforcing her deep connection to the community and continued service to the Jamat. 

To watch the interview in full, and learn more about The Institute of Ismaili Studies, visit The Ismaili TV On Demand.