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 askedAmersi, 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 thestunning Orpheum Theatre downtown. Amersi was there, greeting us and an arrayof Jewish and Christian representatives. There are several thousand Ismailis in California, and they have regularly put on an annual theatrical spectacle asa way of educating their children and bringing together their community. Butonly in the past two years, explained chapter president Anwar Mohammed, did thecommunity 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 theperfect world: Christians, Catholics, Jews of all denominations and Muslimschatting volubly and extending handshakes over platters of delicious MiddleEastern food — all kosher. L.A. Mayor James Hahn pointed out that as the city’spopulation becomes majority immigrant, such demonstrations of cultural bridgebuilding are not just ideal, but imperative.

The performance itself was a kind of pageant of Muslimhistory through liberal eyes. I couldn’t help but notice that when theperipatetic Nasir Khusraw, a Muslim Benjamin of Tudela, arrived in Jerusalem,the play presented a version of that hotly contested city’s history that was asbalanced and open-minded as one could imagine. At a time when Shiite leadersand followers in Iraq are presenting a violent and incendiary face to theworld, the question again popped into my head, Why hadn’t I heard more aboutthese 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 inthe 10th century, making it their capital, and produced a 200-year period ofrenaissance in Islamic culture that spurred contributions to arts, science andphilosophy. This came to an end when first Saladin, then the Moguls, defeatedthe Fatamids and dispersed their followers across the globe. There are about 14million Ismailis in the world today — about the same as the number of Jews.

Their leader encourages intellectual freedom, tolerance andeducation. The men and women we met at the Orpheum were engineers, doctors,lawyers and entrepreneurs. Their children attend the best schools. They praynot through imams but according to liberal texts disseminated by theHarvard-educated Aga Khan himself. 

The Ismaili, then, is a sort of Reform Jew of the Muslimworld. But it seems that proportionately, Ismailis are as few in number amongMuslims as Reform Jews are as plentiful among Jews.

This fact has not been lost on those Muslims who have spokenout on behalf of liberalism in their faith. Irshad Manji, author of “TheTrouble With Islam,” has pointed to Ismailis as an example of the liberalpotential of Islam. At the same time, she is clear that such potential is farfrom having been reached.

“The problem is that these denominations are absurdlyperipheral within the world of Islam,” she said in an interview senior producer Deborah Caldwell. “All of them deserve to havemore 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 morephilanthropic than most other Muslims…. As a result of those traits, they arealso often accused of being Jews. In fact, they are often called, ‘the Jews ofthe Muslim world.’ And it’s not surprising that being accused of being anIsmaili 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 thatgravitates toward absolutism. There are Jews who would embrace the Ismailis butreject their own Reform brethren, and we know there are Muslims who prefer toalloy their hard-line faith with militant nationalism, the results of which areon the evening news. 

I’m under no illusions that Ismailis will become the Islamicmajority. But, in our continuing education about Islam, it’s important not toneglect the lessons they have to teach.