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Ritual and Daily Life: Transmission and interpretation of the Ismaili tradition in Vancouver

Publication Type  Thesis
Year of Publication  1985
Authors  Dossa, Parin Aziz
University  University of British Columbia
Degree  PhD Thesis


B.A., Makerere University,1969
M.A., University Of Edinburgh,1971

in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology

We accept this thesis as conforming to the required standard
Parin Aziz Dossa, 1985

Ritual and Daily Life: Transmission and interpretation of the Ismaili tradition in Vancouver, Thesis

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p. 30

(ii) Ismaili Doctrine

One of the keys to the understanding of the Ismaili (Shia) doctrine lies
in the way Ismailis view man. Man is made up of body and soul participating
in two worlds: the higher world of the First (Aql, an expression of the Divine Volition,
and the lower world of Nafs, which has emanated from Aql and is the
principle of animation from which matter has originated. As man is far
removed from his origins in the higher world, he needs to acquire knowledge of
the latter so that he can be motivated to achieve re-union. In this task man
receives help from the Imam who is the embodiment of the Divine Volition. The
Imam is regarded as a being who is endowed with the wisdom requisite for
infusing elements from the higher (spiritual) world into the lower world of
matter. The Imam's knowledge of the spiritual realities is bestowed by Allah
and is transmitted directly from one Imam to the other. The authority of the
Imam occupies a central place in Shiism and obedience to him is regarded as
the principal index of the believers attempt to understand the inner core of
the Islamic message and the values contained in the message. Obedience to the
Imam entails leading a life in accordance with his will which is expressed in
the firmans (guidance given by the Imam).

The relationship between the Imam and his followers can be elucidated
through two concepts which are given central importance in Ismaili thought:
the zahir (outward) and the batin (inward). Although there exists a
fundamental distinction between the zahir and the batin they are inseparable.
The zahir is the letter of the law as promulgated by the Prophet. The batin
represents the inner core of the faith and is contained in the zahir. In the
zahir, the Imam is the commander of the faithful by virtue of his having been
designated by the Prophet. In the batin, the Imam holds the key to the source
of ta'wil, the allegorical interpretation of the Quran. Through such an
interpretation, the Imam enables man to return to his origins. Through the
mediating role of the Imam, the juxtaposition of zahir and batin receives a
link. The Ismailis believe that once the batin is appreciated, the zahir is
understood as part of the batin. One of the essential functions of the Imam
is conceived as that of enabling his followers to go beyond the understanding
of zahir and penetrate into the inner meaning and experience of the batin.
In this way man can be in the zaheri world and continue to strive for the
batin at the same time. Based on this doctrine, the traditional Ismaili world
view is to achieve both material progress and spiritual salvation.

The Nizari Ismailis developed and stressed the doctrine that the Imam as
the bearer of Nur (Divine Light). The concept of Nur-i-Imama signifies the
innermost reality of the Imam. The Ismailis maintain that Nur is passed from
one Imam to the other in direct succession; all the Imams are therefore one in
essence. In this way, the real nature of the Imam is understood as lying
beyond the world of time and space. Comprehension of this reality is regarded
as the highest attainable goal by the believers. The importance attached to
the inward personal vision of the spiritual reality of the Imam led to the
convergences of the Ismaili and Sufi doctrines in Islam. The Imam is revered
as the murshid (guide) who provides spiritual guidance to the murid
(disciple). The Ginan literature stresses the quest for mystical

p. 54

A female teacher likewise explained that were it not for the Firmans on
education, her parents would never have sent her to a University as there was
no such facility in the town (Mbale) where they were living. A businessman
related his conviction that he attributed his success in business to the Imam's
guidance and grace. While in East Africa, he took up an industrial line based
on the directive of the Imam.


The Firmans have continually revitalized the fundamental dimension of
Ismaili cosmos. In other words, they have affirmed the presence of the
spiritual order in the context of material life and have created an awareness
and realization of spiritual life. Of special significance is the fact that
the Firmas are addressed to the existing circumstances and are repeatedly
read in Jamatkhanas The Firmans which have been published are kept in
Ismaili homes and may be referred to time and again. They occupy a unique
place among Ismailis as they are made in the vein of a spiritual father (the
Imam) addressing his spiritual children (his followers). This emotive content
makes them specially meaningful for the Ismailis whose view of their cosmos is
largely and significantly derived from them.

p. 56

The potential conflict which is implicitly present in an administrative
infrastructure, which necessitates the formation of distinct categories of
leaders and laymen, is ideally contained within the overall framework of
harmony, unity, and co-operation emphasised in the firmans:

None of you must forget that in your own areas you are in
positions of responsibilities, and those who have been given
responsibility must fulfill this responsibility — otherwise
they are misleading themselves, they are misleading the
Jamat and they are misleading the Imam, and I want you to
remember this. If the Imam has placed his trust and his
confidence in you, fulfill that trust and that confidence, and
make sure that you are serving the Jamat to the best of your
ability and that in so doing you are serving the Imam also.
(Bombay 1973, 'Precious Pearls':64/65).

Ritual and Daily Life Transmission and Interpretation of the Ismaili Tradition in Vancouver-Dossa.pdf13.23 MB

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