April 8, 2004
The Other Shiites
The invitation to the gala event came out of the blue, from a woman I had never met, belonging to a group I had never heard of, part of a religious sect I knew nothing about.
Naturally, I accepted.
The evening was billed as, "A Journey Along the Cradle of Muslim Civilizations: Based on the Eleventh Century Travels of Nasir Khusraw." It was presented by His Highness Prince Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismaili Council for Western United States. Since Sept. 11, we have all been pursuing a continuing education in Islam, but this name, Ismaili, was new to me. The woman who extended the invitation, Dr. Nur Amersi, the council's communications chair, explained that the Ismaili are a small sect within the Shi'a denomination of Islam. They follow the liberal teachings of Agha Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. I asked Amersi, a Tufts University-trained veterinarian, why I hadn't heard more about these Shiites. "There aren't very many of us," she said.
The night of the event, March 27, my wife and I entered the stunning Orpheum Theatre downtown. Amersi was there, greeting us and an array of Jewish and Christian representatives. There are several thousand Ismailis in California, and they have regularly put on an annual theatrical spectacle as a way of educating their children and bringing together their community. But only in the past two years, explained chapter president Anwar Mohammed, did the community open up the celebration to non-Muslims.
"We think it's important to show a different face of Islam," he said.
The result was a warm and welcoming reception, a peek at the perfect world: Christians, Catholics, Jews of all denominations and Muslims chatting volubly and extending handshakes over platters of delicious Middle Eastern food -- all kosher. L.A. Mayor James Hahn pointed out that as the city's population becomes majority immigrant, such demonstrations of cultural bridge building are not just ideal, but imperative.
The performance itself was a kind of pageant of Muslim history through liberal eyes. I couldn't help but notice that when the peripatetic Nasir Khusraw, a Muslim Benjamin of Tudela, arrived in Jerusalem, the play presented a version of that hotly contested city's history that was as balanced and open-minded as one could imagine. At a time when Shiite leaders and followers in Iraq are presenting a violent and incendiary face to the world, the question again popped into my head, Why hadn't I heard more about these Shiites?
The Ismaili spiritual leader is the Aga Khan, a descendent, according to the group's history, of the Prophet Mohammed through his grandson, Ali.
Ali's descendants, known as the Fatimids, founded Cairo in the 10th century, making it their capital, and produced a 200-year period of renaissance in Islamic culture that spurred contributions to arts, science and philosophy. This came to an end when first Saladin, then the Moguls, defeated the Fatamids and dispersed their followers across the globe. There are about 14 million Ismailis in the world today -- about the same as the number of Jews.
Their leader encourages intellectual freedom, tolerance and education. The men and women we met at the Orpheum were engineers, doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. Their children attend the best schools. They pray not through imams but according to liberal texts disseminated by the Harvard-educated Aga Khan himself.Â
The Ismaili, then, is a sort of Reform Jew of the Muslim world. But it seems that proportionately, Ismailis are as few in number among Muslims as Reform Jews are as plentiful among Jews.
This fact has not been lost on those Muslims who have spoken out on behalf of liberalism in their faith. Irshad Manji, author of "The Trouble With Islam," has pointed to Ismailis as an example of the liberal potential of Islam. At the same time, she is clear that such potential is far from having been reached.
"The problem is that these denominations are absurdly peripheral within the world of Islam," she said in an interview with Beliefnet.com senior producer Deborah Caldwell. "All of them deserve to have more theological influence than they actually do."
Manji, herself a marginal figure within mainstream Islam, went on to draw the parallel even more sharply: "In the world of Islam, Ismailis tend to be better educated, more entrepreneurial and more philanthropic than most other Muslims.... As a result of those traits, they are also often accused of being Jews. In fact, they are often called, 'the Jews of the Muslim world.' And it's not surprising that being accused of being an Ismaili is the second-biggest accusation that I get, second only to what -- being accused of being a Jew."
There is some group in every religious tradition that gravitates toward absolutism. There are Jews who would embrace the Ismailis but reject their own Reform brethren, and we know there are Muslims who prefer to alloy their hard-line faith with militant nationalism, the results of which are on the evening news.Â
I'm under no illusions that Ismailis will become the Islamic majority. But, in our continuing education about Islam, it's important not to neglect the lessons they have to teach. Â