With their presence in 25 countries across five continents, Ismailis are an international community, with trends of migration leading some of them from their settlements in Arabia, Persia and Indian subcontinent to Africa and further Westwards. This geographical spread of the community makes it difficult to categorisecategorize it by either nationality, language or culture. A better way to understand them is by keeping the Imam of the Time at the centre and reflecting about the identities of these various communities as evolving, through time and space.

A community numbering several millions that takes pride in being led by one Imam, and who hails an idea of ‘One Jamat’, could possibly also have their pride in singularity of a tradition? Very unlikely for the Ismaili community. Representing a variety of ethnicities, languages and cultures, the Ismailis have diversities of traditions as a hallmark of dynamic leadership. The Ismaili communities have mainly lived in three linguistic belts, namely: in the Middle East, Arabic; in Northeast and Central Asia, Persian; in India, Gujarati, Sindhi and Punjabi. The customs and traditions of Nizari Ismailis have been shaped to some extent by the intellectual currents in these areas. Azim Nanji suggests that the history of adaptation that characterizes the Ismailis has led to the flexibility and ability to relate to different cultural settings that is a “historically conditioned, built-in trait” .

But how do these variety of traditions form a unified community? Are there tools to understand this dynamic process?
Rather this diversity of cultural traditions as well as tariqah practices is understood to have developed ‘in the soil’ as opposed to ‘descending from the sky’. The possibilities in which this idea helps the Jamat in maintaining their distinct identity as well as allowing them to acculturate in new contexts are immense: first, it takes account of the cultural bedrock on which religion flourishes. Thus, a poetry of Hafiz can equally deepen a message in Iran as Kabir’s doha does in India. A possibility opens for the local flavor to have entered faith as age old wisdom in the form of Ginans, Madoh, Qasidas and Nashids.  Second, instead of keeping the religion at an intellectual plain, this idea allows for human touch. This means, not having purity or forgiveness as lofty concepts in intellectual domains alone and later finding expressions in faith through rituals, but having first touched the human condition through mediums like water and gesture such as bowing down.

The third implication of this idea is that it lets a believer witness faith tradition not as God-sent and thus cast-in-stone, but practical responses to our day to day human needs. This can inculcate a very broad outlook that allows space for acceptance in a faith tradition when it has to change in response to changing circumstances. With migration of the Jamat to West, practices have been adapted to take into consideration the norms of societies completely different from where these have originated. Lastly, such a perspective allows a believer to find value in the way a faith tradition evolves and even appreciate such evolution.
Despite such acculturation, the community tries to maintain a unique sense of identity. The community institutions play a very significant role in this creative endeavor. Seen in this way, it is not one Ismaili Identity as a monolith, but multiple ismaili identities, thus implying that there is no one ‘authentic’ way of being an Ismaili. A Syrian Ismaili in Salamiyya or a Tajik Ismaili in Khorog has a version of ‘being an Ismaili’ that is judged for its correctness in a very different way as compared to someone in Lisbon, Mumbai or Toronto. Such a vision discards any latent assumptions to the effect that there is one correct way to be part of the Tariqah, which can be prized over others. Above all, this understanding is actively explained by the Imam of the Time and where needed, even changes in the practices are closely guided by His benevolent vision.
That vision offers not merely a formula for harmonious coexistence to varied communities of the Ismailis alone but also enables them to live peacefully with other faith communities. For instance, as guided by Mawlana Hazar Imam, the quest for identity tends to become an exclusionary process if we define ourselves less by what we are FOR and more by what we are AGAINST.  He as well highlights two almost opposing impulses, the new globalism and the new tribalism as a challenge in this quest. The current trends globally and in various countries where Ismailis reside, tend to depict the struggle between these forces. But what more than the words of the Quran quoted by the living Imam can offer a resolve to reconcile the universal with the particular: “God created male and female and made you into communities and tribes, so that you may know one another (Quran 49:13). It is our differences that both define us and connect us. ”

About the author:

Nisha Keshwani is serving as a Head of Department and an active member of the Academic Staff at the Tariqah and Religious Education Board, India since last six years. She is currently pursuing Post-Graduate Research Fellowship with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London. She is also a GPISH Graduate and has a Master’s Degree in Social Anthropology from University of Oxford. She has worked with AKDN and Jamati institutions in India and abroad and brings forth experience of working with various constituencies in multiple capacities.


References: Raymond Brady Williams, Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan: New Trends in American Tapestry, Cambridge University Press, Augu. st 1988. pg. 192