Reports from First Ever Ismaili Studies Conference at University of Chicago

Reports and pictures from first ever “Ismaili Studies Conference” at University of Chicago. Full program of presentation topics is available at the link above. It is recommended that the commentary below be read with the program.

The handout from a presentation and the Ismaili Studies notebook
The handout from a presentation and the Ismaili Studies notebook

Day 1: Thursday, October 16, 2014


We have several Ismailis here from Canada and USA – including a contingent of STEP teachers from USA, several senior ITREB scholars and wa’zin/missionaries from Canada, IIS scholars, scholars from the Bohra Ismaili community, and members of the academic community.

There are about 150+ people here and they have come from as far as Japan and India.

9:24 AM: Tahera Qutbuddin, Professor of Arabic literature at UChicago is giving her opening address.

9:25 AM: She says that when she studied Arabic literature in Cairo, Fatimid literature was barely covered and dismissed as “heresy”.

9:37 AM: She is now stressing that Ismaili sources must be studied and looked at on their own terms and not through the lenses of their enemies.

10:48 AM: Shumaila Hemani just ended her presentation on the Ismaili Bands with a video clip of Mawlana Hazar Imam in the 1960s arriving in East Africa.

10:52 AM: Now Karim Tharani is talking about University of Saskatchewan’s collecting Ismaili Ginanic literature and the challenges of obtaining Ginanic literature.

11:07 AM: Ginan collection website built by Karim Tharani:

11:49 AM: Now we have Paul Walker speaking about Fatimid Ismaili manuscripts

Lunch Break

1:36 PM: Lunch break is over and the next panel is beginning:

2:10 PM – Warm moment when audience members at Conference start singing along with the Ginan that Karim Gillani plays on the sound system. Karim’s presentation looked at the cultural context of the Ginans and their distinctive tunes.

2:20 PM: Dr. Aziz Qutbuddin, in his study of Fatimid Tahmid, just mentioned how the Ka’ba is the symbol, the physical qiblah of bodies and the Imam is its spiritual counterpart – the qiblah of the souls.

Synopsis of the Ismaili Thought Panel

This was one of the most anticipated panels of the conference. The presentations also drew numerous questions from the audience.

Khalil Andani: From Divine Word to Prophetic Word: Revelation in the Thought of Nasir-i Khusraw

Khalil explored how Nasir-i Khusraw – the Fatimid Ismaili Hujjat, Poet and Philosopher – understood the process in which the Word of God is revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. He first explained how Sunni exegetes held that the Qur’an is God’s eternal and uncreated word that was verbally dictated to the Prophet Muhammad by Angel Gabriel, while Ismaili models of revelation espoused by Sijistani, Imam al-Mu’izz and Nasir-i Khusraw accord an active role of the Prophet who translates and expresses spiritual inspiration [ta’yid] in the form of parables (amthal) and symbols (rumuz). Nasir explains how the Prophet receives the Qur’an as non-verbal and simple knowledge and renders it into Arabic letters, words, and phrases. Central to this process of ta’yid are the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul who send ta’yid to the souls of the Prophets. The Universal Soul plays a major role in Nasir’s cosmology and he interprets certain Qur’anic addresses to the Prophets as the address of the Universal Soul.

Alnoor Dhanani: A Fāṭimid response to the question of the integrity of the Qur’an. Qāḍī al-Nuʿmān’s interpretive strategy in the Kitāb al-walāya of al-Daʾāʿim fī l-islām

Alnoor’s presentation compared Twelver Shia and Fatimid Ismaili commentaries on specific Qur’anic verses. He notes how Twelver Shia exegetes like al-Qummi and al-Ayyashi read certain words in the Qur’anic verses in a different way from the Uthmanic rendition of the Qur’an and sometimes claimed that the Qur’an was altered. For example, the word Ummah is read by Twelver scholars as “Imams” (a’imma) in 2:143 “We have made you a just ummah / imams so that you bear witness over the people and the Messenger may bear witness over you” – to argue that the verse is describing the Shia Imams. Meanwhile, the Fatimid da’is like Qadi al-Nu’man and al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi maintained the standard Uthmanic reading when dealing with these same verses but came to the same conclusions that the ummatan wasat of 2:143 refers to the Shia Imams as witnesses over mankind.

David Hollenberg: Fāṭimid taʾwīl and daʿwa knowledge

David’s presentation referred to the key features of the Ismaili ta’wil employed by Ja’far ibn Mansur al-Yaman in his Sara’ir wa Asrar al-Nutuqa and then presented, as a sample, Ja’far ta’wil of the mission of Jesus. This ta’wil includes an explanation of how Jesus ascended through the ranks of the da’wa before reaching the rank of Natiq-ship (prophethood). The ta’wil notes that Jesus was unable to establish an abode of emigration (dar al-hijrah) and he therefore had to conceal the inner meanings of his message in the form of symbols – including symbols that are well known among Christians today such as the Cross, the Trinity, and the Eucharist. The presentation noted how this ta’wil is aware of the religious symbols of other religious communities and positions the Fatimid Imam as the bearer of the inner meaning of all religions.

Shin Nomoto: Did the “Night Journey” lead the Prophet to eschatological visions? — Abū Ḥātim al-Rāzī’s (d. ca. 322/934) interpretation of the Qurʾanic Verses Related to the Prophet’s “Night Journey”

Shin explained Abu Hatim al-Razi’s exegesis of the Qur’anic verses about Mi’raj and how this da’i interpreted the spiritual ascent of the Prophet Muhammad in light of Neoplatonic cosmology. In Razi’s interpretation, the mi’raj consists of the Prophet ascending to the Universal Intellect and Universal Soul by means of the Archangel Jadd (identified with Buraq). The peak of the mi’raj is when the Prophet Muhammad attained nearness to the Universal Intellect. In specific, the reference to the “two bows or nearer” in 53:9 means that the Prophet experienced the Word of God of by means of the Two Roots (Universal Intellect and Universal Soul). The mi’raj of the Prophet also includes his spiritual initiation of Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib. Al-Razi also understands the Qur’anic terms “the lotus of the limit” and the “garden of the abode” as references to the rank (hadd) of Natiq-ship and the rank of the Qa’im al-Qiyamah, respectively.

Day 2: Friday, October 17, 2014


9:20 AM: Shainool Jiwa is speaking about Fatimid governance and its inclusiveness with respect to other religious communities – will be looking at how Fatimid governance was articulated and evolved over the course of their rule.

9:22 AM: The Fatimid investiture was rooted in the divinely-ordained sequence of Prophets and Imams – the allegiance to the Imam as God’s representative on earth was incumbent for the believers. The Imam is authoritative in law and doctrine. The ‘Abbasids sought to realize a similar model but Sunni consensus agreed that the ‘ulama (scholars) not the ‘Abbasid Caliph who had religious authority. Only the Fatimids realized a model of governance where religious and temporal authority is held by the Caliph-Imam.

9:37 AM: “Universal authority remained the rasion d’etre of Fatimid rule”

9:36 AM: Basically Fatimid rule and admin evolved over time from being exclusivist to universalist and pluralist – even still maintaining the universality of the Fatimid Imam’s spiritual and temporal authority.

9:39 AM: The Imam al-Muizz issued a document called the Amaan document that guarantees protection for all Fatimid subjects, especially religious minorities. This document reflects the policies of the Prophet Muhammad in his own time. The Amaan offers a unifying vision of Islam in which ALL traditions – Shia, Sunni, various madhabs, Jews, Christians etc. – are free to practice their interpretations of faith.

9:50 AM: The next paper by Rachel Howes is about how the Ismaili community perceived and dealt with the political and social crisis in Cairo – in the mid 11th century when there was social unrest and a famine. It was also the time when Badr al-Jamali came to put things in order but also effectively took over power over the Fatimid state. Howes refers to Fatimid Majalis literature of al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi and al-Maliji – teaching sermons delivered to Ismailis in the Fatimid palace.

9:51 AM: Looking at al-Mu’ayyad’s Majlis 5, she notes how there is an emphasis on how the physical bodies are temporary and that the material troubles will end – perhaps this is a reassurance to the believers that calamities will pass.

9:53 AM: She also notes nature symbolism – where the food and drink of the next world are said to be superior to those of this world. Many references to fountains and springs of Paradise.

10:01 AM: Now Daniel Beben is up – “Between Orality and Textuality: Isma?ili Conversion Narratives from Badakhshan”

10:10 AM: Due to the Mustali-Nizari split, Nasir-i Khusraw does not seem to be recognized in Ismaili sources of that time. He has “fallen through the cracks” so to speak.

10:23 AM: Beben gave a great talk about how Nasir-i Khusraw became a symbol within Badakhshani conversion narratives about how Ismailism came to the area.

11:58 AM: Professor Karim H. Karim mentioned how the Fatimid period is given much more coverage among modern studies of Ismaili history. It appears “paradoxical” that the scholarly focus is on dead authors from the Ismaili past. Whereas the present situation of the group that calls itself Ibn al-Waqt is hardly the object of academic study. He also noted how Nizari Ismaili traditions tend to be studied from an Arabo-centric viewpoint.

12:05 PM: He also mentioned the recent books by Daryoush Mohammad Poor, Jonah Steinberg and the article by Faisal Devji. He referred to the latter as a rare example of self-criticism within a community that values the intellect.

12:12 PM: Sumaiya Hamdani is now speaking about how communities become sects. She is offering another viewpoint about Fatimid governance vis a vis pluralism and zahir/batin.

12:13 PM: Her paper is about the 19th century Tayyibi Daudi Ismaili Community under Colonial rule – following the fall of the Fatimids and the transition from Yemen to India.

12:28 PM: Professor Iqbal Akhtar is now speaking about the Khojas and focusing on Khoja oral tradition.

12:29 PM: He speaks of the Khoja originally as an Indic social caste located between Sindh and Gujarat – bound by endogamy, commerce and cast practices called khoja-panth.

12:35 PM: Akhtar is now describing the Khoja story about the woodcutter – where a woodcutter down on his luck in the forest meets the Imam Ali. Imam Ali asks the woodcutter to observe a fast of the seventh day of each year after which he is blessed. One year, the woodcutter forgets to fast and it brings misfortune upon him until he starts observing the vow again.

12:45 PM: He notes how this woodcutter story is present in several Khojki manuscripts such as a Nikah manuscript, and ethical treatises attributed to the Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. The story then appears in Gujarati script used by East African Khoja communities. These translations also affect the content of the story itself.

Brief diary of Roundtable Discussion with Alnoor Dhanani, Shainool Jiwa, Paul Walker, and Sumaiya Hamdani

Dhanani as the Chair has raised several areas of discussion – lines of demarcation, subfields, methods and tools, interdisciplinarity, community and representation, and integrating Islamic studies and Islamic studies.

3:10 PM: Hamdani raises the question that the great Ismaili material produced by the IIS is not being read by Islamic studies people. Islamic studies scholarship still prioritizes Sunni sources Part of this is due to Orientalist scholarship, politics, etc. to see Sunni sources and communities as normative. The only time, she notes, when a Shi’i event provoked a discussion of Islam in the academia was the Iranian revolution. Hamdani raises the question about what does one mean by “sect”; what makes Ismaili Shiism a “sect”?

3:16 PM: Paul Walker is speaking now. He is describing the advances in academia which includes Ismaili thought being included in the discipline of Islamic philosophy. He remarks then Sijistani, when he first studied him, was barely recognized for his intellectual contributions. There is a lot of work left to do and we must take seriously – including Sijistani, Kirmani, and other Ismaili thinkers.

3 thoughts on “Reports from First Ever Ismaili Studies Conference at University of Chicago

  1. The above summary is illuminating and thought provoking – so yes please, can we please have access to the full presentations. With many thanks for your efforts

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