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
Of ‘religious and social welfare’ and ‘progress of the community’: religious inspiration, leadership and idioms of welfarism among Shi‘a Imami Isma‘ilis in twentieth century South Asia and East Africa
The 1950s and 1960s mark two crucially important decades for the Imami Isma‘ili community as represented by the Aga Khani Khojas; this was true both in South Asia and in Africa, where there had historically been migrations of Khojas from the western parts of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. A concatenation of a varied range of forces had momentous repercussions on this community, under the leadership of the Living Imam embodied in the person of the Aga Khan. With more and more countries in Asia and Africa coming out of colonial domination in the post-World War II context, with Shah Karim Aga Khan IV succeeding his grandfather Aga Khan III to the Imamate after the latter’s death in 1957, and with the establishment of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in the 1960s, the Imami Isma‘ilis entered a virtually new phase of social life. Old forms of community ties had to be renegotiated, and the old rhetoric of legitimation of the Imam’s position reassessed. Such reappraisal and negotiations emanated from the Imam’s establishment, addressing audiences both within the Isma‘ili community, as well as beyond it.
It is this latter aspect that most notably distinguishes the AKDN from the pre-AKDN organisations. Evidently, while the basic moral position has remained undergirded with an interpretation of Islam’s strong message of social responsibility and with the Imam at its centre, at the level of praxis the modes of communication have varied depending on the audience. Sensitive to these nuances of the Aga Khani version of social welfarism, often neglected in studies of the AKDN brand of developmentalism, this paper seeks to retrieve some of the idioms of legitimation and negotiation circulating within the community’s social sphere in South Asia and East Africa, dedicated to the ‘religious and social welfare’ of ‘the community’, as opposed to the AKDN’s broader all-encompassing developmental ventures. In so doing, the paper will shed light on multi-faceted aspects of the religio-social welfarist imagination of the Aga Khan’s establishment that is, in a qualified manner, both central to understanding the AKDN’s moral underpinnings, as well as the social landscape of the Isma‘ili community.