It’s an odd and little-remarked-upon fact of our time that some of our most successful post-colonial nation states are not states at all.
And then we have the Nizari Ismailis (henceforth, the “Ismailis”), a diaspora with many of the hallmarks of a nation state (including a flag of their own), who have embraced modernity, choosing not to see irreconcilable differences between traditional faith and liberalism.
The Ismailis are an Islamic Shiite sect distinguished by its acknowledgment of its Imam, the Aga Khan, as a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed.
Today, the worldly Aga Khan is an internationally recognized statesman like his grandfather, who was the president of the League of Nations.
Through institutions such as the Aga Khan Development Network, the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic Art, and The Global Centre for Pluralism, the Aga Khan has further defined a role for Ismailis as Islamic advocates for the sort of liberal, humanistic values usually identified with the West.
(Interestingly, in another parallel with the state, these Ismaili institutions are funded by the “Dasond,” a sort of income tax that all Ismailis dutifully pay to their Imam, even without the coercive apparatus of the state.)
The kicker is that the last time the Ismailis had a state of their own (in Persia) was almost eight hundred years ago.1
During this long interregnum, the Ismaili Imams, facing persecution from a non-Ismaili majority, went into hiding. Without the guidance of their Imam, the scattered Ismaili community took a pragmatic approach to survival, adopting local customs so as to not draw attention to themselves.
The situation of the Khoja Ismailis of South Asia was especially curious. The Khojas were originally members of a Hindu merchant caste who adopted Ismailism between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The religion they practiced was syncretic, a mixture of Hindu and Islamic beliefs and customs. Many had Hindu names, sang devotional hymns in the Hindu manner (called ginans) and followed Hindu property law. Some scholars have argued that they were as much a Hindu caste as a Muslim sect.2
When an Imam of the Ismailis finally emerged from hiding in the nineteenth century, he moved from Persia to Mumbai (where he found a sympathetic British government). There, this Imam, now the Aga Khan, set about creating a nation out of the scattered Khoja Ismaili community and establishing himself as its leader.
Rightfully sensing that the pluralism of the old world would be at odds with the nationalism of the modern era, the Aga Khan knew that Khoja Ismailism had to be purged of its non-Ismaili beliefs and practices.
Thus, the Ismailis who had stayed within the fold were forbidden from marrying the Ismailis who had left, and also from mourning the martyrdom of Iman Husayn.
An Ismaili constitution was formulated and religious directives on Ismaili matters were regularly issued by the Aga Khan himself.
A highly centralized bureaucracy, with all appointments made by the Aga Khan, was set up to administer social and religious issues wherever the community had settled. Such matters were no longer to be left to the discretion of local authorities.3
The Aga Khan was aided in this social engineering by a belief in his final moral authority as the living Imam of the Ismailis.
Still, it was not just internal forces; external forces, such as the constant threat of Sunni violence and a need to prove their faith, shaped the Islamification of Khoja Ismailism too.
Additionally, Orientalists in the British administration, obsessed with “pure” forms of Islam and Hinduism, could not countenance the Khoja syncreticism. Was it Hindu? (Hindu reformists had also tried to reclaim the Khoja Ismailis by cleansing their beliefs of Islamic influence.) Was it Sunni? Was it Shia?
Fed up, a judge of the Bombay High Court finally defined it, according to a “classical, purist and Middle Eastern” paradigm, as a sect of Shia Islam with the Aga Khan as its leader.
Today, the Ismailis have replaced the pluralism of old with a new one. As long-lost Ismaili communities emerge from formerly inaccessible countries such as Tajikistan, China and Syria, the challenge is to find common ground with people from vastly different backgrounds. Meanwhile, minority Ismaili communities in Western nations must also engage the majority populations through education and other outreach efforts, in order to foster acceptance.
The case of the Ismailis raises larger questions about the nation state. Is pluralism fundamentally at odds with modernity? Can a strong nation be created out of multiple, conflicting identities? Or does social engineering leading to modernity have to come first, with pluralism following in the post-modern phase? Maybe it’s time to rethink the nation state altogether.