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Book: A Modern History of the Ismailis

Farhad Daftary, A Modern History of the Ismailis: Continuity and Change in a Muslim Community, London, I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2011.

“The Ismailis have enjoyed a long, eventful and complex history dating back to the 8th century CE and originating in the Shi’i tradition of Islam. During the medieval period, Ismailis of different regions – especially in central Asia, south Asia, Iran and Syria – developed and elaborated their own distinctive literary and intellectual traditions, which have made an outstanding contribution to the culture of Islam as a whole. At the same time, the Ismailis in the Middle Ages split into two main groups who followed different spiritual leaders. The bulk of the Ismailis came to have a line of imams now represented by the Aga Khans, while a smaller group – known in south Asia as the Bohras – developed their own type of leadership.This collection is the first scholarly attempt to survey the modern history of both Ismaili groupings since the middle of the 19th century. It covers a variety of topical issues and themes, such as the modernising policies of the Aga Khans, and also includes original studies of regional developments in Ismaili communities worldwide. The contributors focus too on how the Ismailis as a religious community have responded to the twin challenges of modernity and emigration to the West. ‘A Modern History of the Ismailis’ will be welcomed as the most complete assessment yet published of the recent trajectory of this fascinating and influential Shi’i community.”

The introduction can be downloaded on the website of the Institute of Ismaili Studies. The table contents and the entire bibliography of the book can also be consulted from there.

“Farhad Daftary is Associate Director and Head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications at the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. An international authority on Ismaili studies, his many acclaimed books in the field include The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis, and A Short History of the Ismailis.”

Interview with Ali S. Asani, 2011

Ali Asani is Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures, Faculty of Arts & Sciences at Harvard University. He is a renowned specialist in the field of Sindhi literary studies. Michel Boivin interviewed him during his passage to Canada for a conference in May 2011.

Could you tell us a few words about your background and training as a scholar?

I received my undergraduate and doctoral (Ph.D.) education at Harvard. My undergraduate (B.A.) degree was in the Comparative Study of Religion with a specialization in Islam and Indo-Muslim literatures, while my doctorate was from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations where I specialized in the study of Islam and Muslim Cultures in South Asia. In receiving this education, which combined the study of religion with the study of South Asian Muslim literatures and cultures, I was fortunate to have two renowned mentors, Professors Annemarie Schimmel and Wilfred Cantwell-Smith. Continue reading Interview with Ali S. Asani, 2011

Sindhi poetry from Miyun Shah Inat, translated by Ghulam Ali Allana

The works of Miyun Shah Inat (c. 1623-1712), not to be confused with Shah Inayat of Jhok, can be seen as a bridge between the pioneers of Sufi poetry in Sindhi, like Qadi Qazan or Shah Abd al-Karim, and the classical poetry of Shah Abd al-Latif. He used folktale heroines to symbolize the quest of the soul for God. He also addressed the issue of jogis as models of renunciation. His kalam was published by N. B. Baloch in 1963 but his verses were first translated into English by Ghulam Ali Allana (d. 1984).

 

Behold the flushes of fire,

Aroused by the Yogis and their ire,

They, in the darkness of the night,

Betook themselves to flight.

How can I of their love speak publicly,

Which to me they entrusted secretly?

Throughout the night I weep,

And in my heart their remembrance keep.

Insatiable is their greed,

Which in their hearts they feed.

They beg from country to country,

These Yogis with blankets heavy.

Where others feel uneasy,

There the Yogis rest easy.

Ram, the Lord, they entreat,

As begs the lotus sweet.

“I trust in God,” say and repeat,

These words repeat, these words sweet.

Listen the Sayed say “O Sanyasi,

Learn to master that mystery.

O yogis, from your heart efface

Scepticism that within yourself you face,

Learn to practice what you preach,

Then from love learn to beseech.”

Inat says the rains have arrived,

And the river’s tributaries are flooded.

The grass has sprouted in abundance,

Of every kind, hue and refulgence.

O Lord, end my days of imprisonment,

You are the Mighty, the Omnipotent.

O Lord, let those days arrive,

I see my family members and thrive.

 

Source: G. Allana, 1983, Four classical poets of Sindh, Jamshoro, Insittue of Sindhology, University of Sindh, pp. 12-15.

Book: A Modern History of the Ismailis

Farhad Daftary (Ed.), A Modern History of the Ismailis. Continuity and Change in a Muslim Community, London New York, I. B. Tauris Publishers in association with The Institute of the Ismaili Studies, 2011.

The book edited by the well-known scholar Farhad Datary, the co-director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, is a welcome one. It is indeed the first synthesis proposing academic papers on a number of Ismaili traditions in the Modern period. The 400 pages book is divided into four parts: Nizari Ismailis in Syria, Central Asia and China; Nizari Ismaili in South Asia and East Africa; Nizari Ismaili in Contemporary policies, institutions and perspectives; and Tayyibi Mustalian Ismailis. FD coins the volume as a “modest first attempt at piecing together a history of the Ismailis during approximately the last two centuries”. According to him, the Modern period was distinguished by two main features implemented by the Ismaili imams, better known as Agha Khans. First is the construction of a “distinctive Ismaili identity” and second a focus on reform and modernization (pp. 12-13). Interestingly, the book highlights the diversity of the Ismailis in terms of cultural area, although the majority of the papers are devoted to the Khojas, the South Asia Ismailis. Last but not least, the book ends with three papers on the Tayyibi Ismailis, authored by Bohra scholars belonging to the other South Asia Ismaili community who does not acknowledge the Agha Khan as their spiritual head.

Michel Boivin

Book review: Mystiques et Vagabonds en Islam. Portraits de Trois Soufis Qalandar

Alexandre Papas, Mystiques et vagabonds en islam. Portraits de trois soufis qalandar, Paris, Editions du Cerf, 2010, 338 p.

The book by Alexandre Papas, a specialist of Sufism and a historian of Central Asia, is a poetic peregrination in the universe of the Qalandars of the Oriental Turkish world (from Xinjiang to the Bosphorus), from the middle of the 17th century until the middle of the 18th century. It arouses as much the emotion as the reflection on this mystic lifestyle, so far largely unknown.

Right from the start, the author questions the relevance of writing the history of the Qalandariyya’s path, considering the heterogeneity of its principles and practices (p. 13). He suggests following instead the journeys of three Qalandars as attested in their writings, inviting us to familiarise ourselves with the enjoyments and sorrows of their lifestyle, characterized by wandering, poverty and provocation. Based on their own writings (poetry, journey story and Sufi treatise), the author thus draws contextualized portraits of Mashrab the Drinker (1640-1711), Zalîlî the Vile (1676-1753) and Nidâ’î the Boisterous (1688-1760), three mystics who follow each other in time and space. The book closes with two appendices describing the Qalandar of Xinjiang at the turn of the century. These stand for yet another aspect of these mystics, accentuating, if it was really necessary, their irreducibility. However, the material presented in the first appendix enables to draw analogies between ancestor cult and mystic practice, an aspect which remains regrettably ignored in most studies on Sufism.

Despite his unusual approach, the author does not give up any idea of studying history. He tries to grasp the steppes of Asia through the mirror which these three Qalandars hold out to him and which reflects, on one hand, the effects of their practice of wandering, of provocation and of poverty on their society and, on the other hand, the life of the people. It is regrettable that the central hypothesis of the study, the idea of a resurgence of the Qalandar’s movement as an answer to a changing society in Central Asia and at an important turning point of its history is not supported by much evidence. Is this hypothesis only the result of the author’s analysis of the qalandari writings presented here or is it also based on other data, not set out in this book?

This book is an important contribution to the knowledge of a mystic path relatively unknown so far. It gives for the first time access to data concerning Central Asia in a western language. The second remarkable achievement of the book is its demonstration of how Islam is perceived by us, as clearly defined and limited categories “rarely find its reality in history” (p. 263). Indeed, during more than a century, the most opposite paths – Qalandariyya and Naqshbandiyya – were inseparable in the Central Asia Sufi practice. This book concerns all those interested in Sufism and the important historical data that the author provides will certainly help drawing a comparative approach between the Qalandariyya of Central Asia and of South Asia.

By Delphine Ortis

More about Alexandre Papas

With Thomas Welsford et Thierry Zarcone, Central Asian Pilgrims. Hajj Routes and Pious Visits between Central Asia and the Hijaz, Berlin, Klaus Schwarz-IFEAC (under press).

With Lisa Ross, Les saints, la vie, la mort. Essai sur l’islam des Ouïghours au Xinjiang (forthcoming).

Voyage au pays des Salars (Tibet oriental, début du XXIe siècle), Paris, Cartouche, 2011.

Soufisme et politique entre Chine, Tibet et Turkestan. Etude sur les Khwajas Naqshbandis du Turkestan oriental,Jean Maisonneuve, Paris, 2005.

 

Book: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab

Farina Mir, The Social Space of Language: Vernacular Culture in British Colonial Punjab, New Delhi, Permanent Black, 2010.

Farina Mir’s book is the published version of the Ph. D. she defended with Ayesha Jalal as supervisor. The author is currently Assistant Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Her book is a highly sophisticated study of the vernacular culture in colonial Punjab. It argues that Punjabi vernacular culture “reveals a different story of social and cultural relations that suggested by socioreligious reformists’ tracts, language activists’ propaganda, and the Urdu press” (p. 24). Mainly based on literature published into booklets and other tracts, which were neglected both by the English officers and nowadays by scholars, Mir’s book is a quite innovative study since it gives evidence that the imposition of Urdu by colonial power in Nineteenth Century Punjab did not destroy vernacular culture of Punjab. Her study is mainly based on the exploration of what is usually coined as folklore in a more or less derogatory tone, like for example the different versions of the tale of Hir and Ranjhe. It allows her to demonstrate how vernacular culture, and also the use of Punjabi language, was able to resist State policy as well as religious nationalist discourses.

Farina Mir’s book is the published version of the Ph. D. she defended with Ayesha Jalal as supervisor. Her book is a highly sophisticated study of the vernacular culture in colonial Punjab. It argues that Punjabi vernacular culture “reveals a different story of social and cultural relations that suggested by socioreligious reformists’ tracts, language activists’ propaganda, and the Urdu press” (p. 24). Mainly based on literature published into booklets and other tracts, which were neglected both by the English officers and nowadays by scholars, Mir’s book is a quite innovative study since it gives evidence that the imposition of Urdu by colonial power in Nineteenth Century Punjab did not destroy vernacular culture of Punjab. She demonstrates how vernacular culture, and also the use of Punjabi language, was able to resist State policy as well as religious nationalist discourses.

Michel Boivin