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Updated: April 24 2012
Amaana.org Exclusive - An interview with Mohib Ebrahim, founder and publisher of the NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings
Nina Jaffer: You mentioned you conceived of and developed the Archive by yourself. What keeps you fuelled to continue this endeavour?
Mohib Ebrahim: Many factors. Ismailis differ from other branches of Islam because we have a living Imam and, as we know, the Imam's guidance and knowledge is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Imamat. Indeed the Imam's guidance and knowledge may well be his raison d'etre. Given this, I think the question is really: "How can we, as Ismailis, not archive and make his knowledge better available?" Nevertheless, I see it as a duty and obligation simply out of respect for the Imamat, if for no other reason. Not to do it says, in a sense, that we don't value the Imam's knowledge sufficiently to make the effort to organise it so we can access it, study and learn from it or preserve it for future generations. Preserving and organising the Imam's knowledge was done in the past, must be also done today and I believe it is a duty for each generation to continue to do so in the future. Of course public introduction of such archives must be done with the proper permissions.
Interviewer: Nina Jaffer
The NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings is a unique website which last week celebrated its first anniversary and we at Amaana.org are privileged to interview the Archive's founder and editor, Mohib Ebrahim, as part of those celebrations. His unique all-encompassing perspective is truly inspirational in helping us grasp how the Archive, and projects like it, fit in the "bigger picture."
In this wide-ranging, engaging interview, Mohib offers his views and discusses:
- the genesis and development of the NanoWisdoms Archive
- the special permission it received from Aiglemont to publish His Highness the Aga Khan's speeches
- the Archive's collection, various quote services and future plans
- the spiritual facet of the Imamat's public presentations
- the positioning of the Archive, and other such private initiatives, within the community
- the advantages of small, private, focused teams
- overcoming the challenges of scarce institutional capacity
- simple ways you can help increase awareness of the Archive amongst your jamat
The NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings is a private initiative launched a year ago after it was granted special permission by Aiglemont to publish Mawlana Hazar Imam's speeches.
Besides publishing the Imamat's speeches, interviews and writings, the Archive offers several quote services including broadcasts on Facebook and Twitter, thematic charts and a new Thematic Quote Browser -- the first on-line reference of Imamat quotes.
The Archive aims to be a definitive resource of Imamat knowledge and makes every effort to ensure completeness and accuracy, identifying the primary and secondary sources for each item published.
Archiving Imamat knowledge was done in the past, should be done today and in the future. It is a duty we have.
The NanoWisdoms Archive needs your assistance to help inform your jamat about it.
The Archive is an example of the principles of civil society in the intra-community space and more such private initiatives should be encouraged and undertaken in the same spirit of "co-operative autonomy" with the institutions which the Archive enjoys.
Visionary leadership and institutional capacity are always scarce but can be compensated for if institutional processes and cultures foster an intra-community Enabling Environment which leverages vision and creative endeavour from the community.
Nina Jaffer: Mohib, the NanoWisdoms Archive is a fantastic resource and an amazing project. Please explain it for our readers who may not be familiar with it.The Archive was launched a year ago after being granted special permission by Aiglemont to republish Mawlana Hazar Imam's speeches ...
Mohib Ebrahim: Thank you and thank you for offering me this interview. The NanoWisdoms Archive is a unique website dedicated solely to the Ismaili Imamat's knowledge: its speeches, interviews and writings. The Archive was launched a year ago after being granted special permission by Aiglemont to republish Mawlana Hazar Imam's speeches and at present it contains over 500 readings gathered from akdn.org, iis.ac.uk, theismaili.org, aku.org, archnet.org, institutional publications, printed materials, media web sites and other public sources. Having all this in one place not only saves us the time and effort of scouring through all these sources one by one, but allows comprehensive searches that were not possible before. So, for example, if you want to see everything Hazar Imam has said about nuclear energy, it's efficient and effortless because there is no other content in the Archive except the Imamat's remarks.
NJ: And the name "NanoWisdoms," why did you choose that name?
ME: Well I think the name has generated no end of discussion from, "How can you call the Imam's wisdom 'nano'?" to "Fantastic!" We think of "nano" as being small but small doesn't mean insignificant. On the contrary "nano-scale" technologies are actually very powerful and influential, and often revolutionary and transformative. Consider computer technologies and the impact they have had. While "nano-scale" biology, like DNA, it lies at the heart of life itself. So small doesn't mean insignificant. Similarly I've always found the way our Imams can explain profound knowledge, succinctly and elegantly, simply brilliant. In fact one of my favourite quotes of Hazrat Ali says just that: "When wisdom reaches the climax, words become fewer," and was actually the inspiration behind the name NanoWisdoms. It's a reminder that inspired wisdom is succinct and concise, influential and transformative -- fundamental.
NJ: Is this a TKN effort or were you hired by Aiglemont?
ME: No, the Archive is not a TKN project nor was I approached or contacted by Aiglemont to create it. It's solely my own initiative.
NJ: Whose idea was Nano and how did you determine the need for it?
ME: For many years I have collected Hazar Imam's speeches and interviews in a database which has been invaluable whenever I needed to dig out a particular remark or research his guidance on a particular subject. Trying to do that kind of research on the Internet with Google was futile because it is impossible to narrow the search to those web pages which only have Hazar Imam's comments in them and so you have to wade through hundreds of other irrelevant hits which always get returned.
Similarly, trying to search any of the dedicated Ismaili sites -- official or private; I don't like the term "unapproved" or "unofficial" as they wrongly convey negative overtones suggesting private initiatives should not be undertaken -- was usually not much better because of all the other content these sites contain. Furthermore, none of these sites had all of the interviews or speeches and rarely had indexed any of Hazar Imam's writings, like forwards or introductions he wrote for AKDN publications or other books, if they even had them in the first place. Eventually people started asking me if they could have access to my database. It was obvious there was a very real need for a public archive dedicated to Hazar Imam's speeches, interviews and writings.
NJ: So how did the special permission you received come about? It's a remarkable achievement and congratulations!
ME: Thank you. Well after the website was complete, but still private and not publicly accessible, I showed it to Aiglemont and asked for their comments. They were very impressed and after reviewing it for several months suggested some changes, which I made, and then one day they simply told me that I had permission to publish Hazar Imam's speeches, which are otherwise protected by copyright. That was a very special day because it really is a singular honour and privilege to publish the Imam speeches. It was the icing on the cake for all the work.
NJ: What have you done to bring awareness to your project and motivate people to use it?
ME: Exposure has been my greatest challenge. This month is the Archive's first anniversary so to drum up interest I've planned an exciting programme of new content and events, like this interview and a live webinar, next week, to introduce the Archive to the jamat. Webinar technology is quite amazing and lets me make presentations across the Internet to any group so I'm also offering webinars to groups like BUI classes, ITREB staff, book clubs, jamati seminars, and so forth. If any of these or other groups would like a presentation, I'd be pleased to hear from them. [Click here to register for the inaugural webinar on 30th April 2012 at 8:00am Pacific Time (11:00am East Coast, 4:00pm London, 8:00pm Karachi).]I would really like to increase Nano's exposure in the jamat generally, but that is proving challenging without local support. One small action that would help a lot would be to simply post the thematic charts or the PDF copies of the Facebook quotes on your local jamatkhana notice boards.
However, after a year of operation now and thousands of visitors, I have to admit awareness is far lower than I would have expected despite all the initiatives to help increase exposure I have going. For example after being on Facebook for over 6 months now I've got less than 200 "likes", so there's a lot of work to do still. I hope by the end of this campaign to raise that to at least 300. I'd be grateful if all who are on Facebook, could help spread the word by "sharing" Nano's Facebook page.
However besides the on-line audience, I would really like to increase Nano's exposure in the jamat generally, but that is proving challenging without local support. One small action that would help a lot would be for the jamat to post the thematic charts or the PDF copies of the Facebook quotes on their local jamatkhana notice boards. We also have a small notice board poster/flyer which can also be posted at the literature counters. After all, the Archive is really just a publication -- an anthology no different from K.K. Aziz's two volume tome of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah's speeches available at the literature counters -- only Nano is in web format instead of hard-copy, free instead of charged, and also has Aiglemont's special permission.
There are many other simple ways the word can be spread: our various weekly news bulletins, such as Al Akhbar and Khabar, could feature quotes from Nano's Twitter and Facebook services as a regular column and list Nano in their web resources sections; our regional magazines and TheIsmaili.org could publish articles about Nano or also start a regular quote column; ITREB could advise its REC and BUI teachers, alwaez and students, as I have no doubt the Archive will be of use to all of them. All these simple methods would help get the word out and also increase interest in Hazar Imam's knowledge and perspectives, which after all is the ultimate objective.
NJ: Has it been a help or hindrance to have Aiglemont's buy-in and what has been your experience in dealing with the leadership to get their support with what you're suggesting?As for working with the leadership, well all bureaucracies are a challenge and require patience! That's not a criticism; it's just a fact.
ME: Without doubt having Aiglemont's buy-in has been hugely important. After all such permissions are not given lightly and so it's an important validation of the project and a vote of confidence in the standards which I strive to ensure so the Archive always reflects well on the Imam and the community. In the final analysis, as I said, it's not so much about Nano as it is about increasing interest and understanding of Hazar Imam's wisdom and knowledge among the jamat, for whom the Archive was really created for. As for working with the leadership, well all bureaucracies are a challenge and require patience! That's not a criticism; it's just a fact.
NJ: Have you noticed a drop in interest after initial curiosity?
ME: Well when something is new it always generates a lot of noise so naturally interest peaked when Nano went live. And while I'd like the Archive to be buzzing with activity, by and large most people visit it when they need to do some research or look up something. However, when something new is announced, like a thematic chart or Suggested Reading, there's always a spurt of activity which tells me there is a segment of the jamat that is interested. I think offering some direction on where to turn, when trying to choose what to begin with, makes it less overwhelming with so much material available. That's one reason why I created all of Nano's other related "services and publications" -- the Facebook and Twitter quote services, the Suggested Reading series, the thematic charts, even the randomised home page and now the Thematic Quote browser and webinars. The other reason is to try and generate more interest among the jamat to study what Hazar Imam says because, from what I've seen, there just isn't the awareness and understanding of his knowledge that one would hope or think there is. For example, at an ITREB function I attended earlier this year, there were, I think, about 100 people yet only half a dozen were aware of Hazar Imam's important message to the Amman Conference in 2005.
NJ: Tell us about the Twitter quote service.Today, neither our magazines, which are only published three times a year, nor our weekly jamati bulletins, like Al-Akhbar, regularly publish such quotes - at least in all the regions I'm familiar with. If we don't make our Imam's wisdom known to the jamat then who else will?
ME: Back in the late 1960's my grandfather, the late Rai A.M. Sadaruddin, began publishing Africa Ismaili -- later renamed Ismaili Africa -- which many of your readers from East Africa may remember. At the time it was a weekly publication and used to feature a small column with half a dozen or dozen quotes from our Imams or the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Through it the jamat was exposed to their wisdom on a regular basis and had a regular, "physical" connection to the Imam knowledge through these. Today, neither our magazines, which are only published three times a year, nor our weekly jamati bulletins, like Al-Akhbar, regularly publish such quotes - at least in all the regions I'm familiar with. It struck me that if we don't make our Imam's wisdom known to the jamat then who else will?
So on various occasions such as Navroz, Imamat Day, Eid and so forth, I started sending electronic greeting cards to friends and family which I assembled from motivational posters featuring an inspirational message and image -- either the original or ones of my own choosing -- with a related quote from Hazar Imam or a previous Imam. However, sending out a quote 5 or 6 times a year was clearly insufficient and a daily quote service was what was really needed. So in May 2010 the NanoWisdoms' Twitter service was launched. To date over 700 quotes from Hazar Imam, previous Imams, the Prophet (pbut) and the Qur'an have been broadcast. They can be found on NanoWisdoms' Twitter page.
NJ: So then why did you launch the Facebook quote service?
ME: Well the problem with Twitter is of course its 140 character limit and so in September last year I launched Nano's Facebook quote service which provides extended quotes and links to the source documents in NanoWisdoms for further reading. Over 100 quotes have been posted so far and with about 15 new quotes added to the collection each month, it won't be long before there will be hundreds. In fact it has already become difficult to locate quotes on particular topics, so I just launched an exciting new feature that helps address this problem: the Thematic Quote Browser which organises the Facebook quotes by theme.
If you click on "Education" you'll get a chronological listing of all Facebook quotes on that theme. What's particularly nice, is that if a quote touches on more than one theme it will appear in the lists for all those themes. Also linked with each quote listed is the PDF copy of the quotes which can be posted on jamatkhana notice boards, used as class references, etc. I believe this is the first on-line reference of quotes from Hazar Imam organised by theme and, over time as all of Hazar Imam's key quotes slowly make their way into the collection, I think it is going be one of Nano's most popular and important features.By the way you don't need to be on Twitter or Facebook to receive the quotes. You can subscribe to get them by e-mail.
By the way you don't need to be on Twitter or Facebook to receive the quotes. You can subscribe to them by e-mail. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq has said those who relay the Imams' traditions and "have an impact on people is better than a thousand devotees" so here is an opportunity for everyone to help make that impact and I hope the jamat will subscribe and share the quotes by e-mail, Twitter and Facebook with their friends, families and jamats.
NJ: How do you decide which quotes to use?
ME: Well firstly I try to mix Hazar Imam's quotes with those of earlier Imams' although I am running short on quotes from the early Imams and would welcome contributions from your readers as well as quote suggestions from Hazar Imam or Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah. Then I try and keep the topics changing everyday although sometimes it ends up being whatever piqued my interest that day. I've noticed that quotes about some topics, like development strategies and principles, don't seem to be as popular as those from themes more directly related to the faith or guidelines for personal conduct. Interview quotes, especially when Mawlana Hazar Imam reveals a little about himself, are always among the most popular. My favourites, however, are always those bits of wisdom, regardless of the topic, that have more subtle implications and deeper ramifications not readily apparent on a first reading. Gaining those insights, of ever more profound implications of what otherwise appears quite innocuous, simply reinforces my faith.
NJ: How much time did it take you to create Nano?
ME: The collection has taken years to assemble but the website itself took about a thousand man hours to design and populate.
NJ: And how much time, how many hours, do you spend on Nano each day?
ME: About 10 to 12 hours a week to keep the Facebook, Twitter and Suggested Reading services going. Actually it takes more time trying to decide what quote to use than making the post, because there are so many great ones to choose from! If there's a new speech or interview, or I find an old one that I had missed, then I probably spend a couple of hours more. Of course setting up new features like the webinar or the Thematic Quote Browser take a lot of time. However, most of my focus right now is on the thematic charts. Working about an hour a day, it takes two or three weeks to do a chart as there's a lot of reading and re-reading involved, although I've fallen behind these past few months.
NJ: Do you have assistants?
ME: No, it's just me, although I have a few very good friends that have provided immense help with editing and proofreading Nano's own content; I'd especially like to thank Mohamed Jiwa of Nairobi for going through this text with a fine-tooth comb. However, I do need volunteers to help track down missing or incomplete material, as well as original sources.
NJ: How do you find time for such dedication and excellence?
ME: I'd like to say where there's a will there's a way, but due to an injury I've been lucky to have some extra time on my hands which I was able to put to good use. That's what it really comes down to: putting what time you have available to good use -- some may have more time than others. In the end I suppose it really is about will and persistence. Take yourself for example. How do you find the time for the amount of material you write and publish on amaana.org? With a family, you have far less free time than I have but still you manage to find an hour or two, or more, here and there every week. Similarly look at the team over at IsmailiMail. Every morning without fail they post at least half a dozen news items after screening several dozen more I'm sure. And just look at Malik, who publishes Simerg. What he turns out all by himself, week after week -- and with such variety and commitment to excellence -- is nothing short of amazing.
NJ: Where did you find all the speeches? How difficult was it to locate all of them?[T]here are actually two sets of speeches -- those published on the official sites and those that aren't. Most of what is on the official sites only goes back to 1998/99 with about 75% of these on akdn.org and the rest scattered across aku.edu, theismaili.org, iis.ac.uk archnet.org.
ME: Well there are actually two sets of speeches -- those published on the official sites and those that aren't. Most of what is on the official sites only goes back to 1998/99 with about 75% of these on akdn.org and the rest scattered across aku.edu, theismaili.org, iis.ac.uk archnet.org. As for speeches before then, IIS and archnet.org have several dozen going back to the early 60s. As for the rest of these older speeches -- there are about 190 -- one needs to go back to the original publications -- mostly out of print community magazines and half a dozen or so books which republished a good portion of these earlier speeches. I have most of those books and combined with the pioneering work of other private Ismaili websites, like yours [amaana.org], I think I have probably managed to collect about 80%-90% of all the speeches. But even then it's taken years of slowly scouring every page of the main Ismaili websites -- both official and private, checking broken links to original sources in the WayBackMachine, and so forth.
Now many have noticed, when searching or browsing the lists, that these older speeches are "missing" from the Archive. Actually they're just not publicly available at this time as I have been asked to only publish speeches which are currently available on the official sites, even though most, if not all, of these earlier speeches have been previously published in our various community magazines or other official community publications and/or newspapers. I look forward to the time when I can publish them because many of those older speeches, like Hazar Imam's speech when accepting the Charter for AKU, are seminal and timeless.Continued on Page 2 >
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