“Down through many centuries, great Muslim cultures were built on the principle of inclusiveness. Some of the best minds and creative spirits from every corner of the world, independent of ethnic or religious identities, were brought together at great Muslim centres of learning. My own ancestors, the Fatimids, founded one of the world’s oldest universities, Al-Azhar in Cairo, over a thousand years ago. In fields of learning from mathematics to astronomy, from philosophy to medicine Muslim scholars sharpened the cutting edge of human knowledge.” Mawlana Hazar Imam, Stephen Ogden Lecture at Brown University, March 10, 2014
In the previous article, we reviewed the nature of education in Islamic traditions in order to better understand the purpose of education, which is to: learn about God’s creation and leave this world improved. In this article, we will explore how these two purposes are rooted in the foundational beliefs of the Shia Ismaili Muslim Tariqah. We will also look at historical approaches to education by the Ismaili Imamat through examples from our history.
During the 10th century, the Ismaili Imams ruled over a major Muslim empire, the Fatimid caliphate, based primarily in North Africa and Egypt. During this period of Ismaili history, the palace library held one of the largest collections of rare and precious books anywhere in the world. It is reported to have included more than two hundred thousand bound books on a variety of subjects. The famous Shia historian of Aleppo, Ibn Abi Tayyi’, described the Fatimid library as a “wonder of the world.”
Qadi al-Nu‘man, the chief Fatimid jurist and a prominent Ismaili scholar, in his Book of Assemblies and Travels (Kitab al-Majalis wa al-Musayrat), narrated an interesting incident regarding the fourth Fatimid Imam-Caliph, Mawlana al-Mu‘izz (‘alayhi-salam).
One day, Imam al-Mu‘izz was searching for a book in the palace library and asked the librarian to fetch it for him. When the librarian came back empty handed, the Imam decided to look for the book himself. It was past nightfall. He sat himself in front of one of the cabinets where he thought the book may be and pulled a volume off the shelf. As he read through its content, he became completely absorbed by certain pages and began to read it more closely. Soon, he began to look through another volume, and then another and another. In the Imam’s own words, he said, “I completely forgot why I was there and didn’t even think of sitting down. It wasn’t until I felt a shooting pain in my legs from standing so long that I even realised where I was.”
Another example of the Ismaili Imamat’s patronage of knowledge comes from the time of Alamut in the 12th and the 13th centuries. Alamut and other Nizari Ismaili castles in Persia became centres of attraction for intellectuals of the time. Alamut itself housed a magnificent library, the fame of which, according to a historian of the time, “had spread throughout the world.”
Despite the eventual pillage and devastation of these famous treasured houses of knowledge, the community’s spirit was never destroyed. According to the great scholar Nasir al-Din Tusi, who lived at Alamut for more than three decades, this is because Ismailis always give primacy to the living Word; that is, to the Imam of the Time. “It is not only to the command,” he explains, “that the believers’ hearts should be attached to, but to the one who issues the command” – meaning the Imam of the Time.
The patronage of institutions of learning has continued in recent times. Our 48th Imam, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah (‘alayhi-salam), laid the foundations for education in places that were geographically inaccessible in areas of Pakistan including Hunza and Chitral. Communities in these areas have witnessed growth over the last two generations through the network of schools that were open to both boys and girls. This Imam’s contribution to the education of Muslims is well known through the important role he played in the development of Aligarh University and the endowments he established for the welfare and education of Muslims in East Africa.
These historical examples highlight the continuous emphasis on education and the search for knowledge by the Ismaili Imams throughout history. They demonstrate an inclusive commitment to enabling the search for knowledge and enlightenment in every age, to be used to deepen our understanding of Allah and His Creation, and in service to humanity at large by working to improve quality of life.
This history was emphasized by Mawlana Hazar Imam at the Foundation Ceremony of the Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad, India in 2006:
“It was just about a century ago that my grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, began to build a network of educational institutions in places where the Ismaili community had settled. This network would eventually include some 300 schools – 200 of which my grandfather opened personally. In addition, he was the founding figure of Aligarh University, and I have continued that tradition through the establishment of the Aga Khan University and the University of Central Asia.
The tradition I am describing, however, goes back much further than one hundred years. For it was some one thousand years ago that my forefathers, the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs of Egypt, founded Al-Azhar University and the Academy of Knowledge in Cairo. For well over a millennium, the pursuit of knowledge has been a central element in our tradition. Against this background, you can understand why this new educational beginning means so much to us.”
To learn more about the lifeworks of the Ismaili Imams:
1. Article: “Intellect and Faith” from The Ismaili Imamat by the Institute of Ismaili Studies
3. Article: Keynote Address at ‘Intellectual Traditions in Islam’ Seminar by Dr. Aziz Esmail
4. Book: Intellectual Traditions in Islam, edited by Dr. Farhad Daftary
5. Reading Guide: The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning by Dr. Heinz Halm
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