Q & A: Why Does Joining a Majlis Require a Monetary Offering?

The Question

Why do certain majlises cost certain amounts in “entrance fees”? How does this relate to the notion of “equality” and “equal opportunity” in our faith? Isn’t this practice discriminatory against those Isma’ilies who cannot afford to join majlises?

The Answer

This question is best answered by going back to the origin and concept of the majlis. The word majlis itself just means gathering or session. In the Ismaili tradition, there are at least two types of majlis.

Firstly, in pre-Fatimid and Fatimid times, a majlis was a teaching session actually referred to as a majlis al-hikma. In these, whose level varied according to the knowledge of the murids, the Imam’s da’is instructed the murids on the esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an and ritual practice.

Lessons in the batin, known as the “sessions of wisdom” {majalis al-hikma), on the other hand, were only accessible to initiates. They were held not in the mosque, but within the palace, where admission of the participants was easier to control and where privacy was guaranteed. A special room was reserved for the purpose. Al-Nu’man [see his life story here] held these sessions in person, as he repeatedly points out. They took place on Fridays, but after the afternoon prayer (‘asr), when the crowds had dispersed and only the “friends of God” (awliya’ Allah), as the Ismaili initiates called themselves, had stayed behind.

Heinz Halm, (The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris, 1997, p28)

The teaching sessions for the initiates did not merely serve to instruct them. Our text reports that on these occasions the believers also had to pay certain dues, the najwa and the fitra. The term najwa means “confidential discussion” and probably refers to the Quran (58:12)… So, according to Ismaili doctrine, the The najwa is a charitable gift which the believer makes to show his gratitude for the favour of the instruction.

Heinz Halm, (The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris, 1997, p 28)

For being part of the majlis, its members made a monetary offering (sadaqah) — called najwa — to the Imam. During the Prophet’s lifetime, believers held private consultations, called najwa, with him and were encouraged in the Qur’an to make offerings for these. These offerings were said to be a means of purification for the believer.

O ye who have faith! When you privately consult the Messenger, then present an offering (sadaqah) before your private consultation (najwakum). That will be best for you, and purer for you. But if you find not (the means), God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Holy Qur’an 58:12

The second form of majlis is one in which Khoja Ismailis partake in today. This form originates after Imam Hasan ‘Ali Shah (Aga Khan I) migrated from Persia to India and, after his arrival, some Khoja Ismaili murids wished to offer the Imam services akin to what murids had offered in the past, during the Fatimid and Alamut periods. Services such as being the Imam’s maid, servant, chamberlain, cook, army general, entourage, and so forth. Imam Hasan ‘Ali Shah explained that he no longer had physical need for such service due to changed circumstances — he was, by these times, accompanied by a large group of servants. However, the Khoja murids insisted and offered to give an amount equal to the salary of a servant as a substitute of doing actual service (which the Imam could not accommodate). The Imam appreciated this devotion and graciously accepted their loving offer.

When our Mawlana Imam Aga Shah Hasanali Shah had settled in India, an ardent mureed offered his voluntary service. The Holy Imam explained to him that there were more than enough servants in his service. The mureed offered to pay an amount equivalent to the salary of a servant for a year as a substitute of his service. Appreciating his sentiment the Imam gladly accepted his loving offer.

Al-Wa’z Abualy A. Aziz, (Ismaili Tariqah, Volume II, 1985, p 106)

In time, Khoja murids made various offerings symbolising 5, 12, and 50 year’s of service, which the Imam graciously accepted. Since the average life in those days was about 50 years, 5, 12, and 50 year’s of service amounted to roughly 10%, 25% and 100% of a life, the offerings were assigned that percentage of a servant’s lifetime’s earnings. During the time of Mawlna Sultan Muhammad Shah, murids who had symbolically offered these amounts of service were organized into corresponding formal majlis groups — today known as Panch Bar Saal (5 to 12 year’s service), Life Dedication (50 year’s service), and so forth — which met monthly. He also issued specific farmans to each. Note, the Qur’an praises those believers who offer their wealth and lives in service to the Prophet and the Imam:

Lo! those who believed and left their homes and strove with their wealth and their lives for the cause of Allah, and those who took them in and helped them: these are protecting friends one of another.

Holy Qur’an 8:72

In thinking about these majlises today, we should remember that, firstly, offering service to the Imam, in any form — actual physical service or symbolically through a majalis — is always a voluntary offering of devotion to the Imam murids choose to make themselves. It is not ordered by the Imam, and volunteering service symbolically, monetarily, was requested by the murids and accepted by the Imam. This is different from the Chandraat majlis, which the Imam himself established for his murids and whose attendance is obligatory. Secondly, the actual amount offered is not an entrance fee, but a symbol of service, with a different amount symbolically representing a different amount of service — such as 5, 12 or 50 years service — that the murid wishes to offer the Imam. For some 100 years — since the period of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah — the amount of money representing years of service has not increased with inflation; so the amount for the various majlises remains quite nominal even today.

10 thoughts on “Q & A: Why Does Joining a Majlis Require a Monetary Offering?

  1. I have not been able to locate your quotation in the Holy Quran at 58:12. Please see below. Kindly mention the Sura and the position therein so that I am able to understand the matter.

    O ye who have faith! When you privately consult the Messenger, then present an offering (sadaqah) before your private consultation (najwakum). That will be best for you, and purer for you. But if you find not (the means), God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

    Holy Qur’an 58:12

    Many thanks.

  2. How do I send questions pertaining to our traditions? I would like to know why Hajj pilgrimage is not obligatory to us Ismailis? Why Arabic and Persian languages are not taught in our religious schools in India? Similarly, why Qu’ran Sharif recitation or Tilawat not taught in our religious schools? Kindly answer these queries or else give me some reference to get the above answers. Thanking you, With warm regards. Hamida Currim from Mumbai, India.

  3. I know you say in bold that offering a monetary offering was requested by the murids, but as the Imam, would he not put a stop to this because how can this in any way be fair for the poorer members of our jamat?

    It’s very easy for well off members of our jamat to give large donations and faro, but there are many in the jamat that are quite religious but do not have the material means to offer something similar. I’ve asked this question to a missionary who said that if people really want to join the big mijalis, they will find a means but this really reminds of rhe Republican policy of trickle down economics of which the sad reality is most people do not find the means because it simply is not possible financially.

    If we wanted to make things fair, why not offer voluntary service within khana for a certain number of hours before being accepted into the bigger mijalis. Time and/or knowledge is something everyone can offer.

  4. In the ayat mentioned, the gift of sadaqah was intended to be given to the poor, needy and dispossessed. A gift.

    You seem to have misconstrued this to make it seem as if it’s a payment or remuneration for initiation to be paid to the Imam, who already is vastly wealthy.

    Two different things.

    1. Sadaqa historically was given to the Prophet Muhammad; in the Shia tradition it was given to the Imams after him. The Prophet and the Imams after him then distributed and utilized the sadaqa as they saw fit.

      Quran 9:103 states to the Prophet: “Take sadaqa from their wealth so that you may purify and cleanse them by means of it.”

      The idea of sadaqa being charity and given directly to the poor is actually a later development. In the Quran, the sadaqa is a due given to the Prophet so he can purify you.

      1. You are confusing sadaqah with khums (1/5).

        Khums is to be paid to the Imam or (in the Twelver case) the representatives of the Imam (usually a Marja or a shaykh), and one part is distributed to the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), one part is divided equally for the Imam and the clergy, and the other part goes to orphans and needy Muslims.
        Zaydi Shia Muslims believe that each believer may pay khums to whoever is entitled to receive khums without necessarily paying it to a shaykh or Islamic Scholar for them to distribute.

        Sadaqah is a means of purification and also a way for sins to be forgiven.

    2. Furthermore, the Khoja majlis tradition is based on a murid freely offering service to the Imam in support of the Imamat – not a charity offering to the poor. So this must be kept in mind.

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