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The Importance of Studying Ismailism

By Professor W. Ivanow

Should we study Ismailism, its history, its evolution, its influence upon Islamic civilization? Different answers may be received, but there are two varieties of these which will predominate.

The conservative people say: our fathers and grandfathers carried on their business, and were quite happy without special inquiries into what our ancestors did or said. Why should we waste our time and labor on all such studies which do not promise to bring us any practical advantage?

The "modernist" would say: all these old books and ideas were quite good, perhaps, at their own time when conditions in the world were quite different. Now they have become quite useless. What matters is prosperity, the rest is of secondary importance.

Both these trends, which exist not only amongst the Ismailis but also among the followers of other religions, are fundamentally wrong. They are based on personal and selfish standpoint, centered around one’s own advantages, and are hopelessly shortsighted.

Man alone is nothing, that is why there are communities, organizations, nations, etc. The Ismaili community has attained prosperity only because they were an organized body guided by their Imams. This helped them to survive the terrible catastrophes which overtook them in the course of history.

Such organization, with such long tradition, is a priceless heritage, and it would be simply stupid to underestimate it, or speak about it slightingly. It is the duty of every intelligent member to guard it and to contribute to its strengthening.

The world as it is at present, with the untold hardships of economical and political strain, demands desperate struggle for survival. This can be achieved only by arming oneself with education. Specialization, intellectual superiority over one’s competitors. The main stream of the world’s progress is technical advancement. Various religions which could withstand centuries of strain, now become finally powerless to exercise any influence upon the life of the society, nation, humanity. If they are still preserving some meaning, it is only in the backward strata of the nation, where religion is almost indistinguishable from bare superstition.

But, as it happens in many religions, education not only adds to qualifications but also greatly broadens the outlook of the individual.  Questions inevitably arise in the minds of young educated men and women, about which their religious literature is unable to answer. This inevitably leads to its greater and greater depreciation, so that in the eyes of some it may become something quite useless and superfluous. Thus the situation automatically becomes created—that exactly those better educated and therefore useful members, become the less steady in the community, and often simply abandon it.

This development is quite well-known and causes great anxiety to the responsible and thoughtful leaders. But in reality there is no sound reason that such an undesirable development should not be combated and even prevented, at least from taking the form of a regular process. And it seems that the best means would be exactly the proper, serious, honest study of Ismailism, its history and philosophy.

Ismailism, as it developed a thousand years ago was not only a religion, i.e., a system of organized inner life of an individual, but also an ideology, a system of social organization. Its great ideal was surprisingly modern: equality in what is now called a classless society, based on a thorough and effective system of cooperation.  Stagnation which is inseparable from many great religions which preach “eternity” and unchangeability of their eternal principles, works as a powerful brake on every form of advance in all aspects of life. The priceless advantage of the Ismaili system is its doctrine of Imamat and ta’wil. Both these together imply an ample means of what resembles automatic regulation. The doctrine of the obligatoriness of the ta’wil authorized by the Imam removes the effect of obsolescing, of lagging behind the progressing life. In many other religions every “innovation”, however legitimate, is bound to be the source of fierce accusations of “altering the eternal law given by God”; this leads to dissensions, fights, hereticism, etc. In Ismaillsm, if properly used,the system of authorized ta’wil explains the application of the basic religious principles to the everchanging forms of life in the society, and guides the community in its attitude to all that is of advantage for its progress.

But the proper use of the organized functioning of the principle of ta’wil demands a broad religious education, of one being conscious of the life of his community in the course of its whole history. Only this may show that various changes which the Imam introduced through ta’wil are not incidental and haphazard, but form a part of a long tradition.

A proper guidance of the community depends on the Imam, but the Imam has to have suitable, reliable, responsible, dependable and intelligent assistants who could convey the Imam’s will and guidance to the community, who may assist it to apply the principle of ta’wil as authorized by the Imam. This demands well-trained and well-educated people. And these may be of great help in seeing that serious questions of educated members of the community may receive intelligent and honest answers, not merely consisting of sophisms and manipulations or misinterpretation of verses of the Quran or hadiths.

Ismaili philosophy did not develop in a vacuum—the student must also know the historical background of its evolution. Only this may give its study firm and solid foundation which would make it a reality, not a series of theorizings. Ismailism must be studied as a whole as regards time and also as regards its different schools and divisions.

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