Mohammad N. Miraly – Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University, Montreal, April 2012
A thesis submitted to McGill University in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Religious Studies
Contemporary Ismaili thought views the Ismaili tradition as connected to a historical past deriving from Qur’anic principles and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his heirs, the Shi`a Imams. Thus, contemporary Ismailism’s focus on liberal values like democracy, pluralism, and education are articulated as contemporary forms of eternal Qur’anic ethical principles.
The current and 49th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan IV – who claims descent from the Prophet through his daughter, Fatima, and son-in-law, `Ali – articulates the principles of liberal democratic pluralism as the best means to realize ethical Islamic living in the present day. In order to fulfill what he articulates as his dual mandate to improve the quality of both the spiritual and material lives of his followers, he founded the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).
Through its rural development programmes, the AKDN teaches liberal values and best practices, and, furthermore, instills an overarching sense of loyalty and fraternity, becoming thereby a key instrument in the formation of the transnational Ismaili community. The Ismaili community concretises through the practical and ideological work of the Imamate institutions, such as the Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London (UK), an academic institution that publishes works on Ismaili history and thought.
The IIS is the main source of contemporary scholarship about Ismailism, the study of which suffers from a lack of information due, in the main, to the tradition’s long history of persecution and marginalization within Islam. There is thus a lacuna of present-day academic scholarship about the tradition, especially regarding the contours of its contemporary thought. Considering the dearth of work by other scholars and the breadth of work by the Ismaili institutions, the IIS thus becomes a critical player in understanding contemporary Ismaili historiography and concerns.
The body of literature relevant to this project is confined therefore to the scholars working in the fields of Ismaili history and historiography as well as those who probe the confluence of contemporary Islamic and liberal political ethics. The main interpreter, however, of the contemporary Ismaili tradition is the Ismaili Imamate itself. While there is a lack of scholarly material about the work of the Imamate, there is an implicit historiography in the output of the Aga Khan – his speeches, interviews, and direction of the Imamate institutions – which highlights the themes that he and the Ismaili community consider relevant to their conception of the lived ethic of Islam in the modern world.
The contemporary Ismaili construction of its own historical narrative paints a picture of an intellectually influential minority that buttresses its commitments to institutionalized education and ethical governance on an unshakeable dedication to the ethic of pluralism, supported by the strength of the interminable Imamate, which leads the community through the vicissitudes of recurring persecution.
Contemporary Ismailism, therefore, relies heavily on its past to provide both legitimacy and impetus for its present.
In the final analysis, contemporary Ismaili thought sees itself as grounded firmly in the Islamic tradition and, with the guidance of the Imam, as a liberal interpreter of Qur’anic principles. It sees its past as informing its present, and – though it views modern liberal values as concordant with Qur’anic ethics – it argues that its interpretation of the essential principles and ethics of the faith remains unchanged, but that, in accordance with Shi`i doctrine, it adjusts the shape of that faith to the form of the day.
Source: McGill Library & Collection