Is the Aga Khani only half a Muslim?

Recently there were some nasty remarks made about the Aga Khanis. I responded where it needed to be responded to. This, despite the fact that I have been critical of some aspects of the community (I think where it mattered) and some of its overly enthusiastic members have lashed out at me in the past. It is often that people strive to be more loyal than the king. Their comments were ill-informed, at best...

Here is an article I had written about a group that not many know much about...posting it in full...

Is the Aga Khani only half a Muslim?

She was a Farzana too. Beneath the grey pinafore that was our school uniform, she wore a white shalwaar and her dupatta was neatly pinned to her shoulders. My hemlines would have to be ripped open on inspection days and the stray threads would tickle my knees. Farzana was a Muslim. And I?

It was then that I realised we were different. What appears as confusion today stems from this. Just the other day I was told that my link with the religion is weak. We are the cowards allowing ourselves to be butchered.

When you are born into a community that seems to be an unholy alliance between several streams of thought, you feel like a leper clapping his hands in glee but unable to produce any sound.

Being an Ismaili has meant never being sure whether you are right or wrong, coming or going or already gone. That the head of this 20 million strong community is not cast in the mould of a typical godman does not seem to worry his devotees one bit. Prince Karim Aga Khan remains the god-head anointed in 1957 in preference to his flamboyant father. It is a small community, two per cent of the world’s Muslim population, but it is spread across the world.

A few months ago, I accompanied my mother to the old Ismaili mosque in which there is a small shrine of Hazrat Abbas. Aware of my lack of interest, she asked me to just stand near the strings of flowers. I do not know how and why it happened, but there I was shamelessly weeping, clutching at a wilting red rose. Off the marble platform there was this ‘well’, where people would fill sweetened milk sprinkled with almonds; memories came flooding back. Of walking down the street especially for the sticky toffee. Of stopping at the ittarwalla’s shop and being handed a plastic rose with a cotton ball soaked in the incense; I hated the scent, but loved the kitschy gulab. Of waiting as the smoke rose from the coals where skewers of kebabs were being readied for us to take home. Now I wanted none of this. My moist eyes told me I did not know what I wanted.

Whatever ties I had with the community were snapped early in adolescence, less as a protest and more due to the desire to fulfil my 15-year-old yearnings. Religion does take up a lot of time. But distance makes you question. How can ‘god’ own an island and race-horses? Why has he, who talks of cohesiveness, married outside? Why does he stay away from his people, most of who live in the Third World? If he is an Imam, as Ismailis believe, and a man of god, why do the believers insist on clothing him in royal raiments and refer to him rather quaintly as His Highness Ya Noor Maulana Shah Karim Haazar Imam?

Yet today if the Ismailis can walk with their heads held high it is not so much because of what they are but because of who they owe allegiance to. Belonging to the Aga Khan, so to speak, has tremendous snob value. How many people can claim to be followers of a man based in Chantilly near Paris, who has a British passport, is a Harvard graduate, owns and breeds 600 horses, has investments in a luxury chain of hotels, a newspaper publishing empire, a Mediterranean airline and a tourist resort? How does it feel to be a part of a community where the spiritual head issues a firman, no less, that the followers’ behaviour, even in superficial matters, must be in keeping with the country they live in? Do in Rome as the Romans do. So, one often got an eyeful of fat, middle-aged Africa-returned relatives in swirling skirts attending the prayers while on a visit here.

What was it like being an indifferent believer in those days? To be honest, it was fun. There was pride in the fact that you rarely saw an Aga Khani beggar – there were scholarships, free education, developmental programmes, open to everyone.

A visit to the jamaat khaana (the local mosque) was a social event, with men and women often sharing the same space on two sides of the hall; it was a social event, especially on chaand raat every month. Gathered around would be perfumed women in their best chiffons, clutching fancy purses from which they would remove fancier prayer beads with tassels; the men would be dressed quite dandily, sometimes even tossing on a jacket, the fur caps they carried with them put on at a rakish angle.

The prayers themselves were eclectic – ranging from the dua (prayer) in Arabic to the tasbeeh, where the faithful beseeched HH to shower blessings so that the country prospered and all calamities were averted. There was a lot of getting up and sitting down to be done, which was a true test of devotion. And when you finally got to plonk down, there was s small dua during which, and you must believe me, we took the hand of the person nearest us in a light handshake and said, “Shah jo deedar”. The idea being that we saw him in each other’s eyes.

A real deedar is something else. To soak in a glimpse of the divine presence the devotees start planning days ahead. Most big jamaat khaanas are in the smaller mohallas in Bombay, so security would be a problem. But the Ismaili community trains scouts and guides. The one deedar I attended was most revealing. People did take the trouble to be dressed and waited for hours to find a strategic place. But the conversation was pure gossip – household woes, marriages to be fixed.

Till the Aga Khan walked in along the red carpet laid out for him, followed by his then wife, Begum Salima, the former Lady Sarah, looking serene, dressed in a mauve saree, her feet unshod like the rest of us. There was a hush, some tears, some smiles; after he had passed the length there was an audible intake of breath. Tidbits were exchanged about how his face shone, about the unseen halo. After minutes it was all over and people rushed to the canteen, which is as much an integral part of the jamaat khaana as the prayer hall.

For an outsider this might sound nothing even remotely like a religion. The Ismaili seems to in fact blaspheme the very presence he deifies. How else can you explain all those shoe shops where the Aga Khan’s photograph is displayed, jostling for space among calf-skin boots and suede shoes? I find it dichotomous, this complete submission to a living person and yet the need to embellish one’s material lives. The closest analogy I can think of is the divine right of kings. For, isn’t it true that Islam does not permit idolatry?

But then the Ismaili is hardly Islamic. Converted generations ago, the influences are varied. There was a time when the jamaat khaana would be lit up during Diwali, a cake would be cut for Christmas and even the Parsi Navroze was celebrated with haldi-covered eggs. Even today the Aga Khan’s birthday is celebrated the way Navratri is, with dandiya raas, including the disco version. Not many Ismailis offer the namaaz on a regular basis, though the Aga Khan himself does. I suppose the catholicity of his beliefs makes the devotees supra-Islamic.

There is the Christian element too. Every jamaat khaana has a mukhi-mukhiyani (sort of local head) team, usually a married couple, whose only qualification is that they must be believers willing to give their time. They could be given to boogeying every Saturday night; that does not lower their status. Once a month some people out of choice, after the regular prayers, sit before this couple and ask for forgiveness silently, which is akin to the Confession, except that nobody is made privy to our sins. After this, holy water is sprinkled on our faces.

This Islam with a pinch of salt and spice has a major fallout. No Aga Khani male can have more than one wife. He will be excommunicated, perhaps the only time such a drastic action is taken. There are also no birth and death taxes, unlike in some other communities. An Ismaili is born and dies at his own risk!

In spite of all his popularity the position of the Aga Khan is a bit of a dilemma to himself. Some Ismailis in the frenzy of devotion tend to equate him (the only branch of Islam with a living hereditary Imam) with god. Although Prince Karim, like his ancestors, denies possessing any god-like qualities, he cannot do much to prevent the followers from exercising their right as believers. They want the euphoria of a magical moment.

His being the 49th imam is contested by the Shias and Sunnis. Ismail was the son of an 8th century Shia imam from whom the Aga Khan is said to have descended. However, all disputes were put to rest when a case came up for hearing at the Bombay High Court. Chief Justice Sir Joseph Arnold pronounced that the Khojas of Bombay were part of the larger Khoja community of India whose religion was that of the Ismaili wing of the Shias; they were a sect of people whose ancestors were Hindu in origin; they were converted and have abided by the faith of the Shia Imamee Ismailis, which in turn is bound by ties of spiritual allegiance to the hereditary Imams of the Ismailis.

They had been converted over 400 years ago by an Ismaili missionary from Persia, and had remained subject to the spiritual authority of the king of Ismaili Imams, the latest being the Aga Khan. These Imams were descended from the lords of Alamut, and through them descended from the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt and, ultimately, the Prophet.

Justice Arnold delivered this judgment on November 12, 1866. Since then no one has contested the lineage.

Someone had once asked me cheekily why my forefathers had not converted under the pressure of Mahmud of Ghazni and waited for the Aga Khan’s ancestors. I suppose that holding enviable positions in the courts of the Shahs of Persia and later the British Raj must have been seen as an awfully charmed existence. In fact, the title Aga Khan itself lends the position a certain accessibility while also being a titular head – it can mean a friendly brother or great chief.

The earliest Aga Khan seemed to promise release from the constraints of one religion and the diffused loyalties of another. The Islamic veil and licence for four marriages are looked down upon by the Ismaili and the idol worship of the Hindus is not permitted.

Westerners like to see the present Aga Khan as essentially an Occidental gentleman and his empire as a corporate enterprise. Which he is and isn’t, and it is and isn’t. The truth is that although his grandfather’s sympathies were with the British, through the Foundation and Fund for Economic Development he has built over 300 schools, 200 medical centres, universities, insurance houses and rural development projects to encourage Third World enterprise.

The community supports itself but has not yet fallen into the quagmire of ghettoisation. The point is: can the spiritual leader cope? He has set his followers free to lead a modern life and catapulted them to the technological league. Yet he has to accept their obeisance.

I always looked on the tamasha with cynicism till I realised that all of us are following our different paths and nobody finds it strange. Someone believes in doing the maatum during Moharram, another has declared he identifies with the Sunnis, yet another is an atheist…you can be all of these and yet belong.

And today when the image of the religion is getting a beating and I am being questioned from both sides (“Hindu basher”, “Islamic pretender”) I do believe that this state of constantly ‘becoming’ is liberating. And it started years ago on that chaand raat day when everyone was dressing up to go to the jamaat khaana. I could smell Nanima’s lavender talc and watched as she put on her salmon pink dupatta. I kept sitting in the arm chair. “Chalna naheen hai?” she asked. I said, no. “Kyon?” I don’t think I am sure I believe in all this, I said. And that was the end of the conversation, never to be brought up again by anyone. I was set free.

It would be tempting to state that in the cross-cultural clashes the Aga Khani is a nice balance, the process of religious bastardisation giving him legitimacy. But the fact is that he will not give the tolerant majority the benefit of basking in the role of Big Brother, and since the Aga Khani does not fit a stereotype the believer cannot be recognised. Neither will he put his lot behind fundamentalism, so he has no battle scars to show. It is unfortunate that despite the confluence of influences he is not above suspicion. Today when everyone wants an identity, the Aga Khani is really in a dilemma. So rather half-heartedly he scrawls: wanted an Allah. Dead or alive.

I cannot decide whether it is half a life or a very full one.