Event Date: 9-10 September 2011
Royal Holloway, University of London
Contesting Shi‘ism: Isna ‘Ashari and Isma‘ili Shi‘ism in modern South Asia
Religious and social identities of the Aga Khani Isma‘ilis, as seen through the firmans of Sultan Muhammad Shah at the beginning of the twentieth century
At the end of the 1920s, some of the firmans attributed to Sultan Muhammad Shah (1885-1957), Imam of the Aga Khani Isma‘ilis, were compiled and printed in Bombay. The Imam’s speeches form an insight into the religious community, revealing the intimacy of the meetings occurring in the jama‘at-khana between followers and their religious leader. From the two hundred firmans which composed the re-published Bahere rahemat firmans and Khangi firmans books, we will extract thirty-five of them relating to a crucial historical period for the community. Twenty of them, from the first volume, were delivered in Zanzibar during Sultan Muhammad Shah’s first visit there in 1899. The fifteen others, taken from the Khangi firmans compilation, were given in India, mostly in Bombay, in the early years of the twentieth century. In both places, Sultan Muhammad Shah had to face some internal divisions, with his legitimacy being called into question.
This paper will firstly examine religious identities, principally the vocabulary used by Sultan Muhammad Shah to define the different protagonists in question, discussing how they were perceived and described. We will then analyse the content itself, to conclude that Sultan Muhammad Shah’s talks were mainly directed to two recurrent themes: the raising of the moral behaviour of his followers, and the promotion of the unity of the social group. Finally we will unravel the socio-religious dynamics involved in the building of the community. Some of the devotees, united by vows and secret and specific rituals, composed a new internal stratification. Added to these special practices, a new consciousness of responsibility towards their religious leader and the community was widely diffused among themselves.