Shortly after the end of the First World War, a group of foresighted individuals based in Bombay set their sights on determining a way to bring their community’s social progress in line with its more recent success in commercial activities. While the group’s initial interests lay in literary pursuits, these founding members of the Vidhya Vinod Club wanted to find an opportunity to increase the spirit of self-reliance and self-respect in the Ismaili community, while simultaneously bringing a greater degree of professionalism and organization. Their efforts resulted in the establishment of a Volunteer Corps in 1919, dedicated to the service of the Imam-of-the-Time, the Ismaili community, and the wider society to which they belonged.
The Ismailis adopted the prevailing model of these volunteer organizations, by imprinting its own ethos of service upon it, drawn from its long tradition and history. The endeavor was so successful, it was quickly shared and adopted well beyond the contours of the Indian Subcontinent to Ismaili communities around the world.
The Volunteer Corps is based on “the supreme idea of self-sacrifice and service for the communal good.” The Corps exemplifies the ideals of “self-determination, self-reverence, self-control, moral courage, coupled with humility, and mental firmness coupled with civility,” mentions Mr. Hussainboy, Leader of the Ahmedabad Volunteer Corps, in a speech at the Kathiawar Ismaili Volunteer Conference, December 7, 1922, Rajkot, India.
Official inauguration of the Ismaili Volunteer Corps
On March 2, 1920, after a five-year absence in Europe, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah arrived in Bombay and was greeted with jubilation by the Ismaili community, Muslim dignitaries and important
personalities in Bombay society. As part of the celebrations, the newly formed Volunteer Corps maintained order for the large gathering there to welcome their Imam back on Indian soil. It was the first time the late Imam had encountered the Corps. He was impressed with their professionalism, organization, and integration into Bombay civic life. In appreciation, he renamed the Corps, the “Aga Khan Volunteer Corps,” and gifted them with his crest, the Taj, which they proudly wore on their hats.
The Imam wore the uniform himself for the first time the following year as the Colonel of the Corps and both he and his eldest son, Prince Aly Khan, became its patrons. In 1932, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah appointed his son to the position of Colonel of the worldwide Volunteer Corps and set in motion the merger of the various independent volunteer groups into a single body.
Almost immediately thereafter, independent Ladies Volunteer Corps’ began to mushroom in the city’s neighborhoods. The scouting movement also became the initial model for younger members of the Ismaili community to serve, inculcating from a young age the skills and values that volunteering provided.
On March 12, 1924, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah penned the motto eventually adopted by the Corps and printed on its badges – “Work no Words,” and said, “Labor for the welfare of others is the way of improving oneself because its results are sure and certain….This is not a new idea but this is an outcome of experience of a thousand years of history.”
Volunteer Corps becomes a global service organization
Less than a year after its establishment in Bombay, Karachi formed its first two Volunteer Corps, with others following in South Asia, East Africa.
The Ismaili Volunteer Corps quickly became an important civic body, providing assistance in times of calamity and misfortune. In 1927, volunteers saved many lives during the torrential rains and floods in Gujarat and Kathiawar. During World War II, the Volunteer Corps actively participated in air raid precaution activities and helped the injured and homeless. In 1947, during the partition of the Indian Subcontinent, the Ismaili Volunteer Corps played an active role in ensuring the safety of those moving to the newly independent countries of India and Pakistan.
As Jamats began to establish themselves throughout the world for reasons of dislocation, migration, and access to education, the tradition of service traveled with them. Many Jamats began with informal and non-uniformed volunteers, which eventually grew into fully-fledged uniformed Corps. The UK saw its first formal Volunteer Corps in 1967 with 12 members. In the US, the first informal Volunteer Corps was established in Chicago in 1969, and the official one in New York in 1972, as it was in Canada also.
Today, the tradition of service exemplified by the Ismaili Volunteer Corps is a global tradition. It is an opportunity to live Islam’s ethic of social conscience to selflessly improve the quality of life of one’s community, and those most in need in wider society. Its membership remains voluntary and is rooted in the Jamat’s history and individual members’ love for their Imam-of-the-Time, and their dedication to their community and fellow human beings.
This is an edited version of the article that appeared in The Ismaili USA. The full article may be seen here on pp.5-10: