"Isamilis do not look Muslim". The Ismaʿili Community and Constructions of Islam and Modernity in Germany

Master's Thesis, 2016

62 Pages, Grade: 1,5


Table of Content

1. Introduction
1.1 Research Purpose
1.2 Disposition

2. Historical Background
2.1 The Development of an Ismaʿili Belief System
2.2 Ismaʿili Principles

3. Literature Review
3.1 Ismaʿilis as a Whole
3.2 Ismaʿilis in European and Canadian Societies

4. Theoretical Framework
4.1 Anthropology of Lived Religion
4.2 A Theoretical Foundation: Modernity and late-Modernity
4.3 Response to Modernity
4.4 Pluralism

5. Methods
5.1 Design of the Study
5.2 Semi-structured Interviews
5.3 Validity
5.4 Choice and Implementation of Analysis of Data
5.5 Limitations and Biases
5.6 Ethical Considerations

6. Findings
6.1 Participants’ Profile
6.2 Education and Language
6.3 Professional Fulfilment
6.4 Volunteering and Solidarity Thought
6.5 Acceptance, Integration and Adaptability
6.6 Thoughts on Modernity

7. Analysis
7.1 Daily practices
7.2 Values of Caring and Adapting
7.3 Ismaʿili Identity and Belonging
7.4 “Being Modern”

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

10. Appendices


This thesis examines Ismaʿili individuals’ “lived religion” through personal views on religious values combined with daily practices in German society. Since a Eurocentric view on Islam often fails to recognize the complexities of Muslim communities while emphasizing the Muslim faith as incompatible with “modernity”, the current study of the Ismaʿili branch serves as an example of Muslim practices that adapt and adjust its divine principles to a modern and secular society while maintain its unique religious identity. Important values of everyday life are observed in connection to Ulrich Beck’s and Anthony Gidden’s “reflexive modernity” theory as a process that encompasses old and new traditions while adapting ambiguous and pluralist forms of contemporary societies.

Key Words: Isma’ilism, Aga Khan, Islam in Germany, Modernity, Pluralism


First of all I want to thank my supervisor Leif Steinberg for his support regarding my research choice from the very beginning. Moreover, I want to thank CMES for my academic development and especially Tina for her incredible talent of keeping everything and everyone together.

A big thank you also to the participants of this study, without them this study would not have been possible. I am glad you shared your personal stories with me; a complete stranger.

I would also like to thank my companions Eva, Daniel, Reece and David for backing me up in desperate moments and becoming very good friends during the last two years. An endless thank you goes out to my friends at home, but especially to Vroni for the everyday friendship that you return wherever I am in the world.

In the end I particularly want to thank my family; my sister for being the sweetest thing on earth; and also my parents and grandparents who always supported me in following my dreams, regardless of how crazy they might have seemed to them; despite the fear they often experienced when I travelled through the Middle East.

May we never stop dreaming; may we never stop hoping for our dreams to come true.


AKDN - Aga Khan Development Network

DMG - Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft

ERC - Ethical Review Committee

IIS - The Institute of Ismaʿili Studies

UK - United Kingdom of Great Britain

US - United States of America

1. Introduction

When I entered the secluded Jamaʿat1 Khana2 I heard some prayers coming from the room far left while I could smell incense sticks. The hallway was very simple in style with a large mirror, a wardrobe for jackets and shoes, and a small pin board. On it was a list of contacts of the Ismaʿili administrative committee for Germany and Austria, a calendar noting important Ismaʿili holidays and a poster about an international training programme by the Institute of Ismaʿili Studies (IIS). Beside that was a small letter by the National Council “expressing condolence to the people of France”3 ; reminding the community to focus on greater safety in their daily lives. In troubled times, the Jamaʿat offers prayers for peace and safety for its community, but also for those “among we live”4. I perceived this letter to be very moving as it showed a concern about the peace and safety for all humans regardless of religious faith. Next to the pin board was a small room with children books about Islam and boxes scattered around. “Here we teach children about Islamic and Ismaʿili history” as Noor tells me later. On the opposite side was a room with a sofa and more books about Islam and Ismaʿilism. I sat down in the big kitchen to the right where I could hear the prayers through the door. The whole Jamaʿat was designed in a modest way and also the kitchen was decorated very simple with some dry plants and a long table with an old-fashioned tablecloth. On the wall was a picture of the Ismaʿili Imam, Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini aka Aga Khan IV. The unique group of Shiʿa Muslims follows to a large extent the advices of the Aga Khan IV, as a religious authority, with a personal wealth of around $1 billion that is mostly funded by the tithes paid by his religious followers (Zachary 2007). While I absorbed the calming atmosphere that the Jamaʿat radiated, the prayer finished and about five people came outside the big prayers room furnished with a carpet and several chairs. Compared to many mosques I had visited before, the Jamaʿat seemed rather like a community centre than a religious institution since there were no religious symbols visible. This space evoked my interest as it showed a different manifestation of Islamic faith contrary to the primarily European and North American approach of demonising “Islam” as backward, fundamentalist, aggressive and dangerous (Said 1997, 1978). This view on Islam often fails to recognize the complexities of Muslim communities by emphasizing the Muslim faith as incompatible with “modernity” (Varisco 2005). Yet, the Aga Khan IV stresses that it is possible to combine Islamic discourses with modern concepts while he attempts to create a balance between religious values and the secular worlds that many of his community members live in (Clarke 1976, 486). The Imam, as authoritative, unquestionable religious leader, builds upon institutional work carried out by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), an independent self-governing system of institutions, agencies and programs (Poor 2014). It represents ethical visions of the contemporary Aga Khan along with his religious understanding. The 49th Ismaʿili Imam is the leader of a minority Muslim community that is spread all over the world5 ranging from East Africa, Canada, Europe and the Unites States (US) to Pakistan, Tajikistan and India, with followers amounting to more than 15 million believers6. Despite the lack of a territorial rule, he has a large transnational7 network of bureaucratic institutions while his position as a superior religious leader of the transnational Ismaʿili community is a unique form of authority within the Muslim faith (ibid., 20). In order to strengthen his authority, the Imam funds modern education, health care systems as well as housing and economic institutions to develop the community through ethics of pluralism, tolerance and gender equality while preserving spiritual and traditional values (ibid., 1-2).

Especially in times of terror, a so called Islamic fundamentalism and the increasing number of Muslim refugees in Europe it is substantial to stop essentializing and stereotyping “Islam” and “Muslim” as such. Instead, it is more important than ever to recognize different practices and traditions of Islamic religion carried out by heterogeneous Muslim communities. Instead of reducing the religion of Islam to one image, this study aims to illustrate the practice of a different expression of Islam while the Ismaʿili branch serves as an example of Islam’s diversification portraying a Muslim religious practice8 that adapts and adjusts its basic ideas to modernity while striving to maintain its unique religious identity (Weisinger 2014, 12).

1.1 Research Purpose

The purpose of this study is to observe and analyze the Ismaʿili community through a religio-sociological perspective within a contemporary European - in this case German – context9. The study examines six particular stories of Ismaʿili individuals in order to narrate their “religion-as-practiced” with all their complexities and dynamics, and personal perception of religious and modern values within German society. Consequently, this study intends to give Ismaʿilis in Germany a voice to speak about their religious and daily experiences as a Muslim minority, highlighting different (sometimes hidden or forgotten) practices of Islam in European societies, rarely mentioned in the context of Islam and Muslims in Europe. The aim is to give a more profound insight into Ismaʿilis’ personal views on religious values combined with daily practices. The stories can be understood as complementary with regards to the focus on the study of Islam in Europe. Consequently, one contribution of this research is to provide an inquiry that takes everyday Ismaʿili life and their individual narratives into consideration while observing prevalent values of Ismaʿili individuals living in Germany. Moreover, it observes which religious practices are carried out and how they relate to modern secular values. Therefore, the research questions of this thesis are:

1. What are important values of Ismaʿilis in the context of Germany?
2. How do the narratives define a modern lifestyle and balance traditional and modern values in their everyday life?

According to Yusuf (Personal Interview, 03.12.15) there are about 700 Ismaʿilis in Germany, yet due to currently increasing Ismaʿili asylum seekers this number is uncertain, with no official numbers. Therefore, I exclude recently arrived Ismaʿilis that still seek asylum status as I believe this would be another topic to be discussed in a different research. In my study, I solely interviewed Ismaʿilis that have been employed and lived in Germany for several years. Thus, I focus on Ismaʿilis who interactively engage with German society in their daily life and thus have been exposed to a secular life style. Furthermore, I believe that the voices of individual Ismaʿilis are often unheard and that this study may contribute to grasp a different perspective of the Muslim faith within German society, and perhaps more generally.

There are heated debates in German media, in the public and in academic circles concerning if Islam can be modern (Nielsen 1955, Ben-Meir 2013, Fritz 2015). The terms “Islam” and “modern” can be defined in many ways. For this study, I borrow Ulrich Beck’s and Anthony Giddens’ theory of “reflexive modernity” as a process that encompasses old and new traditions while adapting ambiguous and pluralist forms of globalised societies (Beck 1994). I further elaborate on this discourse in the theory section. In addition, this study can be beneficial in Islamic research contexts as a comparative material in reference to other Ismaʿili communities and AKDN projects portraying how religious values and modernity concepts are framed but also combined since “post-Islamism” (Bayat 2005) and “modern Islam” (Azmah 2009) are noteworthy topics not only in Europe, but also in Muslim countries. A foundation for this perspective is the view that the production of new ideas and various interpretations of Islam is a global phenomenon, no matter where we are today.

1.2 Disposition

This thesis begins with a depiction of the historical background describing Ismaʿili religious principles in order to grasp a general understanding of this specific community. Chapter 3 discusses significant literature relating to the research topic, examining publications about the Ismaʿili discourse and the Aga Khan’s ideology. Furthermore, I investigate ethnographic research about Ismaʿili communities living in European and Canadian societies, as a form of comparative literature. Chapter 4 discusses theories of modernity, late modernity and post-modernity in relation to pluralism thoughts that are relevant in the study of “progressive Muslims” and “modern” Islamic approaches. Subsequently chapter 5 illustrates the methodological considerations serving this study and my approach of semi-structured life-history interviews as a narrative research design. The study concludes with the findings and analysis sections in chapter 6 and 7 which focus on main values of the studied narratives and their perception of modernity in connection to the chosen theoretical framework.

2. Historical Background

2.1 The Development of an Ismaʿili Belief System

This chapter shortly outlines the history of Ismaʿilis in order to emphasize the structural development of the community and to get a better understanding of the belief system the transnational community of Ismaʿilis follows. The second part illustrates some significant Ismaʿili principles in theology and religious practice.

As stated, the Islamic faith is often perceived as a homogenous religion despite its numerous traditions and divisions concerning interpretations and practices as well as whom to consider the legitimate successor of the Prophet. According to a Shiʿa perspective, Prophet Mohammad (d. 632) appointed ʿAli Ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) to be his successor. However, after Mohammad’s death, ʿAli was rejected by close companions of the Prophet who instead elected Abu Bakr (d. 634) as successor. Eventually ʿAli became the fourth successor for Sunnis while in Shiʿa traditions ʿAli is believed to be the first successor (Halm 1994, 2005, Davis 2007). This early conflict about leadership in Islamic history split the Muslim community into two branches; Sunni and Shiʿa whereas the Ismaʿili community belongs to the Shiʿa branch. The name arises from Ismaʿil Ibn Jafar who was the selected spiritual inheritor and seventh Imam to follow ʿAli. In Shiʿism, the Imam has to be a male offspring of the previous Imam carrying spiritual qualities inherited by ‘Ali from the Prophet Muhammad, hence to Ismaʿili belief the Aga Khan inherited the leadership along a specific family line of Prophet Muhammad. In history, also the Shiʿa faction had internal disagreements about the succession of the sixth Imam whereby the community split again (Cf. Daftary 2004). Some Shiʿites followed Jafar al-Sadiq’s (d. 765) previously appointed son Ismaʿil (d. 760) while others followed his brother Musa al-Kazim (d. 799)10. The branch that believed in Ismaʿil and his descendants are nowadays the Ismaʿili Muslims who are represented through the “Imam of Time”, currently the Aga Khan IV who inherited his position from his grandfather in 1957 (Halm 2005, 28).

In Ismaʿili history, the Fatimid Era represents the “Golden Age” of Ismaʿilism with the Fatimid Empire understood as an “Ismaʿili State”. During the Fatimid Empire11 the community split over who was to succeed the 19th Imam (Daftary 2004, 21-38), leading to the establishment of different Ismaʿili communities in Yemen, India and Iran12 from where they spread their ideas (Cf.Davis 2007). In South Asia many Hindus converted to the newly arrived faith and developed a collection of devotional poetry that became part of the praying session; so called ginans13 (Daftary 1998). The Mongolian Empire destroyed the communities’ belonging to the Ismaʿili branch in Iran and the subsequent Imams and his followers went into “hiding” (taqiyya14). Many Indian Ismaʿilis moved to East Africa for work and political reason, but were expelled in the 1970’s and left to Europe and North America. Some Ismaʿilis still practice their faith in privacy as they often fear oppression in Sunni led societies (Cf. Davis 2007). The Aga Khan III behaved in a “westernized way that made him a good Muslim interlocutor” (Devji 2009, xi) and negotiator in Europe and North America for his community. He began to develop his community and relocated wealth, paid by the tithes15, from the rich to the poor people through charities, education, health insurance and banking (ibid.). The current Imam expanded that development process and created a development network to reach Ismaʿilis all over the world. Unlike the Twelver Shiʿi community in Iran, Ismaʿilism is not a religion that is defined by its belonging or connection to a particular country. The Aga Khan does not seek to be the head of an “Ismaʿili Islamic State”, but aims to be the head of a network of institutions (Poor 2014, 82). In the last century, Ismaʿilis established a unique social and political organisation for their community, whereby the Aga Khan, as a representative descendant of Prophet Mohammad, became the authoritative, religious leader who is perceived as the father figure of his community (Clarke 1976, 485). The Imam-e-zaman “Imam of time” is understood as having “the sole authority to interpret the Koran according to the time and place” (Davis 2007, 10). In this fundamental idea within the Ismaʿili faith he presents the divine reality and interprets the Qur’an according to the present time.

2.2 Ismaʿili Principles

Ismaʿilis are expected to attend a community centre, Jamaʿat Khana, twice a day; in the morning and sunset. Jamaʿat has various purposes, whereby religious and spiritual practices are performed, but also social activities are encompassed. Among the participants it is perceived as a social, relief and religious centre16. It assists to give Ismaʿilis a greater feeling of community and uniformity while being in contact with the spiritual self and the faith in the holy Imam. Thus, there is a kin relation between Ismaʿilis from all over the world despite ethical and cultural differences (Clarke 1976, 492). The Jamaʿat forms a sub-system within the total society, which helps members to build a common identity as an Ismaʿili .

In Ismaʿili theology there is a difference between the zahir, often translated as “outer appearance” or “actual practice” and the batin understood as the inner esoteric meaning of a sacred text or religious ritual (Davis 2007, 16). The principle of batin, the recognition of the Imam of time and following his farmans17 “advice of the Imam” remain central whatever outside form of faith Ismaʿili followers pretend to have (ibid.). Ismaʿilis are open to converts, yet they do not actively carry out missionary work. Furthermore, they follow Islamic principles18 but differently from other Muslim branches. For example, Ismaʿilis do not pilgrimage to Mecca but to their Imam as he represents “the light”, al-nur, of Allah (ibid., 18), while some Ismaʿilis do not pray towards Mecca “because God is everywhere no matter which direction you pray” explains Noor. The zakat “almsgiving”, 10% of income, is not directly given to poor people, but to the Imam who funds the AKDN institutions as charity foundation (Cf. Davis 2007, 17, Poor 2014). The Imam plays the role of the higher truth concerning the esoteric (batin) because he connects the sacred and profane of present time (Clarke 1976, 494). He combines esoteric principles with exoteric reality, and thereby produces ta’lim, an authoritative religious doctrine (Weisinger 2014, 5). Thus, the Qurʿan is not the final revelation as Ismaʿilis rely and trust on the Imam’s interpretation. He embodies morality and truth and thereby represents a divine guidance of God (ibid., 7). The Ismaʿili discourse offers a different interpretation of Islamic faith, whereby advices of the Imam offer a guidance for contemporary times which will be explored in the narratives of this study.

3. Literature Review

The literature review covers two aspects. First of all it examines publications about the creation, belief and network system of Ismaʿilis which were useful to grasp a general overview of Ismaʿili principles. The second part focuses on ethnographic research about Ismaʿili communities living in European and Canadian societies. However, there is a limited amount of ethnographic studies on current Ismaʿili communities; especially within European societies. Literature on modernity discourses and pluralism, while touched upon within the literature review, is primarily addressed in the theory section.

3.1 Ismaʿilis as a Whole

There is a vast amount of literature about the history and creation of the Ismaʿili branch and their divine understanding. The most significant scholars Heinz Halm (1982, 1988, 1994, 1996, 2004, 2007), Farhad Daftary19 (1994, 1996, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2014) and Paul E. Walker (2008, 2002) issued several publications about the historical events of the Ismaʿili community and its formation. These publications give a good overview of the historical background and the formation of the Ismaʿili branch, which is important in order to apprehend the formation of the Ismaʿili communities as they are today. Many studies about the Ismaʿili branch focus on historical and poetic literature often based on manuscripts, commonly issued by the institutional research basis the IIS20 in London. The institute has not extensively developed an independent research field for Ismaʿili thoughts of present days. Hence, the Ismaʿili branch is still examined as an historically important branch due to the Fatimid Empire contributing greatly to poetry, politics and knowledge (Halm 1996). Yet, such studies are primarily historical while research on contemporary communities seems a sensitive issue, possibly because internal issues could harm the glorified image of the Imam, while talking about historical successful times might be easier.

In history, Ismaʿilis went through various phases of development which influenced the office of the Imamate in several ways. The Iranian Ismaʿili scholar Mohammad Daryoush Poor (2014) deals with recent changes in the current Ismaʿili Imamate. He examines the role of the Aga Khan IV who transformed the institutional apparatus of the AKDN. Poor examines the role of the Aga Khan as a hybrid leadership model through the Weberian terms of “authority” and “leadership” in order to fit it into a contemporary Muslim context. Additionally, Poor explains the shift of authority from “the person of the Imamate” to the institutionalisation of “the office of the Imam ate” (ibid., 79) through activities of the AKDN in order to connect the transnational community. He describes the work and structure of the AKDN as a transnational NGO that entails an ethical framework of progressive Islam which combines modernity with traditional values, whereby the Aga Khan acts “as a “balancer” between state and society” (ibid., 99, 104). Poor believes that the role of modernity is important to keep in mind within the changing role of the Imamate. The AKDN embodies the Imam’s visions in order to develop and improve the quality of life of Ismaʿili communities especially in less developed countries21. Even though this book does not contain Ismaʿilis’ personal perception of the Imamate and his institutional work, it gives a detailed understanding of the AKDN’s work and agency of the Aga Khan. This given framework may be influential for Ismaʿilis’ view on values. Thus, it is also important to understand the significance of the Imam and his opinions. Also, Poor aims to show, as does this study, that Eurocentric studies fail to recognise complexities of Muslim groups and their approaches to modernity (ibid., 227).

Some case studies and ethnographic works on contemporary Ismaʿili communities observe educational and social developments influenced by AKDN projects (Manetta and Steinberg 2008, Sales 1999). Jonah Steinberg (2011) discusses the agency of the Aga Khan IV, his transnational organisations and expansive practices of identity building in the processes of globalisation. He emphasizes the different institutions of the Imam and the importance of those projects in order to create a unified “global Ismaʿilism” (ibid., 3) which determines a transnational identity. He documents the emergence of various networks that connect the Ismaʿili community and analyzes the formation of a transnational identity. Steinberg enquires an „institutional ethnography” (24) by observing Ismaʿili institutions as beneficial for Ismaʿilis’ life. The author complements his textual analysis with observations from his fieldwork in Pakistan and Tajikistan with a few short examples of interview excerpts which remain unanalyzed. Despite a local engagement with the community, the author lacks to describe individual Ismaʿili experiences. Hence, some questions about transnational identity seem unexplored. This anthropological work, in spite its gaps, is an extensive contribution discussing transnational identity formation and gives a good overview of the Ismaʿili community, their history, bureaucratic organisation of the AKDN and structure of their development projects. Since Steinberg emphasizes the “liberal modernist values” (75) within Ismaʿilism his work is a valuable comparative source for this study.

Azim Nanji (1974) discusses the framework of modernisation and change in Ismaʿili communities in East Africa. He observes the modernisation process that concerns many Muslims nowadays and led to re-evaluating their theology and practice within the existing situation. Nanji talks about two development types; firstly, the creation of institutions and organisations which established a collective and individual identity. Secondly, he discusses political changes in East Africa and observes how the “close-knit community” (ibid., 125) aligns with complex national policies. He describes the independent community system as highly organised with their local councils, social community centre, education and health institutions that arrange religious and social ceremonies. Those institutions act as extension to the Imam’s guidance whereby Ismaʿilis are involved on various levels (ibid., 131). Since Nanji elaborates on certain Ismaʿili value principles his publication is useful for my findings section in order to see if there are shared Ismaʿili principles or if certain aspects mentioned by participants are rather context specific.

Much of the literature is not very critical of the AKDN; instead voices of Ismaʿilis, affected by AKDN projects, seem unobtrusive. Some issues may remain unaddressed such as inequalities when it comes to gender, class, power within hierarchical structures, access of income and decision-making processes. Faisal Devji (2014) is one of the few scholars who analyzes the Ismaʿili leadership more critically and examines the discourse of the AKDN from a different angle. He states that most analyzes on Ismaʿilism “tend to result in a scholarship that is about an increasingly narrow classification of differences” (ibid., 51). He believes that the original thinking of Ismaʿilism as a “form of thought” (ibid.) is being dismantled by the current leadership that praises an idea of progressive Islam and forbids certain traditional Shiʿa narratives that represent failure e.g. mourning for the martyrdom of Imam Ḥussayn (d. 680) or wearing black clothing to honour it (ibid., 54). Devji claims that this turns “Ismailism into a secular cult of personality in process” as the AKDN is neither a religious body nor does it benefit only Ismaʿilis (ibid.) Even though the AKDN aims a secular expression within a religious obligation Devji states that “it is not clear what kind of religion lies behind the AKDN” (ibid., 55) as it seems rather like an NGO that uses religious bureaucracy to create work. He criticises the dependency of the Imam who is the first and final objective of any claim or conflict within the community because people within the institutions are unable to exercise authority. Due to the Imam’s meagre availability in person, the field of religious thought seem to be unfilled (ibid., 56). It appears as if the autonomy has lost its original form of thought which also produced clashes with Sunni societies (ibid., 61). Devji’s criticism sheds light on the Imam’s vision from a critical angle and informs the current study about how to analyze statements on the Imam and the Ismaʿili community by the interviewed narratives of this study.

3.2 Ismaʿilis in European and Canadian Societies

Some articles about contemporary Ismaʿili communities in Canada and the United Kingdom (UK) are valuable as comparative literature. Karim H. Karim (2011) for example writes about contemporary Ismaʿili communities in Canada22 and explains discourses of tradition, modernity and postmodernity that shape Ismaʿili everyday lives. Despite various subjective views on tradition and modernity, he maintains that Ismaʿilis are aware of the influence of tradition, modernity and postmodernity and negotiates between those discourses every day (ibid., 287). Karim claims that tradition and modernity are not seen as a clash, but rather as a “dialogue between two individuals who have differing inclinations but who commonly seek the path of living in accordance with Islam” (ibid., 267). According to Karim, Ismaʿilis in Europe and North America experience a juncture between traditions, modernity and postmodernity while tradition is explained as guidance for ethical conduct of lives, they also embrace modernity. Canadian Ismaʿilis interactively engage with Canadian society and are successful entrepreneurs who coexist within multicultural groups (ibid., 285-286). In Canada, Ismaʿilis have been portrayed as contributors of the state that adapt well to modernity. Thereby Karim asks, “can Muslims be ‘modern’?” (ibid., 266). This is a significant question overlapping with the research aim of this study. Karim’s article is a valuable reference for comparing this study with the case of Germany.

Peter B. Clarke (1978) studies the Isma’ili community in London and their attempt to adapt to changing social situations. Most Ismaʿilis arrived in the UK in the 1950’s and 1970’s due to the displacement of Ugandan-Asians23 (ibid., 73). Clarke describes the Ismaʿili community in the UK as a “westernised” (72) group of Islam that follows the advice of the Imam. According to Clarke, another important Ismaʿili belief pattern is adaptability. When faced with social change, Clarke states (1978) they try not to cling too much to notions defined as part of the earlier or the old culture, but they rather tend to re-work their traditions or belief system to be more effective because Ismaʿilism is “rational”24 and “worldly” (79). Hence, Ismaʿili traditions are less static and their believes are more flexible and adaptable because new farmans can contradict older ones while only the Imam has the power to change rituals or interpretations of the Qur’an according to the given situation and time (ibid., 72, 79). Furthermore, Clarke claims that Ismaʿili students in the UK are well known for their effort, competitiveness and desire to pass exams. Most Ismaʿilis are somehow involved in extra work in fields of part-time education, accountancy or Islamic studies (ibid., 77). Clarke’s work is somewhat old and new data is in need, however his study of interest as comparable literature about other Ismaʿili communities in Europe.

I have only been able to find one article about an Ismaʿili community in Germany, focusing on the Afghan-Ismaʿili youth by Yahia Baiza (2012)25. He describes the hybridised identity construction of young second-generation Afghani Ismaʿili living in Essen26. Baiza observes how religion, language and ethnicity influence the youth’ defined identity and if any of the three elements has a bigger impact than the others (ibid., 79). Baiza’s article highlights the importance of religion as a key element of identity shaping, where being an Ismaʿili is more important than being a Muslim. However he highlights the complexity and subjectivity of religious identities and the link between the construction of identities and local contexts. Some young Ismaʿili in Germany emphasize the positive effects of bringing Ismaʿili values into their everyday live e.g. sense of collectiveness, hospitality, respect for elders, sharing, and caring (ibid., 92). The Afghani Ismaʿili youth in Germany want to maintain religious, cultural and traditional Ismaʿili values, but still like to actively participate in German society and hence appreciate German cultural values such as freedom of expression and educational opportunities. They combine what is understood as communal and shared Ismaʿili values within German cultural context. This is a complex process of identity construction which is of interest for this study.

Prevailing trends in the literature about Ismaʿilis are mostly in line with the IIS and tend to focus on the Imam and AKDN projects whereby ordinary Ismaʿilis seem to remain silent followers. The current literature gives a general overview of Ismaʿili principles, their historical background and the present Imam’s aim of balancing tradition and modernity in order to practice what he describes as progressed Islamic principles. However, the contemporary development of the Ismaʿili Muslim minority is scarcely studied and primarily in relation to AKDN projects in East Asia or East Africa, while research on contemporary narratives in European contexts is lacking. Furthermore, the literature often characterizes the Ismaʿili community as a whole and lacks precise ethnographic examples and local opinions of how they perceive religious values, practices and the theological discourse of religious traditions. Few is known about Ismaʿili individuals, despite some effort to take personal opinions about AKDN projects into (Cf. Manetta and Steinberg 2008). This study aims to contribute to a shift from this dominant focus on historical studies and macro overviews of Ismaʿilism to contemporary micro individual perspectives. Moreover, reflecting on individual lived experiences can support and extend a more critical understanding of the complexities of current societies in a globalised world.

4. Theoretical Framework

There are many theories and ideas about the role of religion and Islamic faiths while countless publications discuss various expressions of the Islamic faith, Sunni and Shiʿa theologies and also Ismaʿili principles. Varisco (2012) states that “Islam”27 is mostly represented as an essence that often ignores the complexity of beliefs and behaviours while many important facts remain hidden. Thus, this theoretical framework aims to stress on the importance of anthropological work of individual Muslims’ lived religion. Furthermore, the role of modernity discourses is important to discuss since “development” and “innovation” are significant for Ismaʿili communities. Also the Imam’s emphasis on modernity and modernization28, liberal humanism and rational individualism through education, health institutions and economic development is of great significance (Shah 1954, Poor 2014, Kennedy 1996). To understand and conceptualize the discourse of “modernity , I borrow Giddens’ and Beck’s theoretical definitions of “reflexive modernity” . Furthermore, I will discuss John Hick’s understanding of “pluralism”, a term frequently discussed by the Imam, “advance global understanding of pluralism as an ethic of respect that values diversity as a public good and seeks to enable citizens to realize their full potential” (Global Centre for Pluralism Website). This supports the initial approach of discussing an interpretation of Islam that can be considered modern. Gidden’s and Beck’s thinking about modernity will serve as a foundation in order to contextualise the presentation of the Ismaʿili community in Germany as well as the statements of the informants and understand the discourse and context of the observed narratives.

4.1 Anthropology of Lived Religion

McGuire (2008) states that there is no general standard pattern of religion even within one branch thus “standard notions of religion are wholly inadequate” (4). Varisco (2012) also emphasizes the dynamic character of various Islamic beliefs and behaviours. In his perspective “Islam” is a faith that is diverse in its various aspects. Yet, most understandings of religion fail to acknowledge individual practices and individuals’ lived religion in their daily lives (McGuire 2008). However, every Muslim community shares certain values with other Muslim communities, yet each group and individual has its own way of living and practicing everyday life differently along those shared values (Varisco 2012). Furthermore, Varisco (2012) believes that anthropologists cannot observe Islam as such, but they can observe a certain group in their way of articulating and expressing a religion, while “Islam” can only be represented. Thereby I want to stress that I do not aim to represent “Islam” or “a truth”, but simply present a different personal understandings of Islamic faith. As Jocelyne Cesari (2007) claims, there is a difference of the actual reality of Muslim practices and theological discourses since daily religious practices reveal assimilation to the secular surrounding. Thus, Muslims in Europe adapt and personalise their religious belief according to their daily schedule depending on different interactions, contexts and experiences (Cesari 2007, 56). Practices are multifaceted, fluid and sometimes even contradictory to the given religious institutions. Studying the German Ismaʿili community and their personal actions and practices can contribute to breaking standard conceptions of Islamic religion and thereby expand the understanding of inner and outer aspects of Islamic values. I believe that in a globalized world diversities within religious branches need to be acknowledged in order to terminate stereotypes of “the Muslim” and “the Islam” as such.

4.2 A Theoretical Foundation: Modernity and late-Modernity

Theories on various aspects of modernity discuss the realms of development processes of society, while theorists agree that society passes through a period of modernity that contrasts an archaic past (Latour 1993, 10). Classical theorists (e.g. Marx and Engels 1867, Durkheim 1893, Weber 1947) examined processes of change that establish new institutions, reformed organisations, ideas and everyday life in order to define core features of modernity from rationalism and scientific perspective. This knowledge about the social world aimed to enlighten humans about social change, yet it homogenised narratives and missed regional or national differences (Antonio 1994). Vital aspects of modernity are an increased mobility, gender equality and education mostly out of a European and North American perspective which is often perceived as a universal model (Cottrell, Preston, and Pearce 2012). Yet, modernity cannot be limited to a certain set of criteria (Ballantyne 2008, Wagner 2001, Giles 1993). Though this study observes a German society it should be recognised that various civilisations and cultures in a globalised world developed multiple models of modernity according to time and space (Ballantyne 2008, Eisenstadt 2002). The homogenising image of societies has been challenged by postmodern theorists (Antonio 1994, Baudrillard 1982, Fukuyama 1992) who accentuate complex perspectives of contemporary societies and abolish the image of grand narratives of societies by classical theorists. This produces a critical awareness on changes that take place over new complexities and alterations of national and global structures (Antonio 1994). Scholars such as Giddens and Beck argue that societies did not move from modern to postmodern but instead believe in a modified form of modernity a so called “late” or “second modernity” (Beck 2005, Giddens 1990). According to Beck and Giddens, modern society is radically changing and becomes more dynamic and flexible while enhanced access of education and development of mass communication increase reflexivity where traditions become less important, yet are still part of life (even if altered). Socio-cultural processes of diversity and globalisation expands human activities while people become less static in their identity and more reflexive e.g. inter-faith marriages increase (Patel 2003). For this study I choose Gidden’s and Beck’s approach of social life to be organised by meanings, cultural reasoning and belief instead of viewing social life to be structured (Wagner 2001, 117).

Giddens (1990) argues that a vital aspect of modernity is the time-space separation that decreases. Mass media and technology create transnational connections and transformations of cultural ties, loyalties and identities beyond national borders which form a process of globalisation29 (Beck 2005, 554). People interact faster without being at the same place meaning that relationships are no longer bound to local spaces (Giddens 1990, 95). Furthermore, Giddens perceives social institutions like family, education, kin or politics to become “disembedding” (20) agents from local society and expand to a global scale while social traditions change. Individuals can gain information from different institutions and have access to alternative beliefs and opinions while they can choose among a variety of ways of living, believing and belonging upon choices humans make (ibid. 2000). Thereby old and new traditions simultaneously exist and create plural values. Furthermore, in a modern society individuals become agents who are able to choose their way of life independently in order to create or change social systems. According to Giddens the “reflexivity of the self” is vital in modern social interactions as individuals need to create their selves in order to change or develop society (ibid.). The autonomy of cultures and the emphasis on human agency as a creative actor change the view on modernity as an institutional structure to an open-ended set, gaining knowledge, demanding a certain political order and openness to varied and altering organisations (Ballantyne 2008, 56).


1 In transcriptions of Arabic terms I am using a simplified version of Encyclopaedia of Islam and Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft (DMG). That is, that I omit marking long vowels, but mark the letters ayn and hamza for an easier reading.

2 Jama‘a (Arab.) “group” or “community”, Khana (Pers.) “house”, lit. “the house of the community”. It is a place where people come together for prayers and communal gatherings. Though primarily associated with the activities of Sufi groups, Jamaʿat Khana’s are one of many types of worship spaces in diverse Muslim contexts.

3 Referring to the Paris attack in November 2015.

4 Words taken from the letter.

5 In over forty different countries (Clarke 1978, 68).

6 Since this community does not have their own nation state, various sources gave different numbers ranging from 15 to 20 million Ismaʿilis (Patel 2003, Gova 2005, Steinberg 2011, Poor 2014).

7 “Transnational” shall not be confused with “International”. “Transnational” refers to a wide range of social developments and relations across several borders and nations, yet it does not require a role purely for sovereign governments. Examples are organizations like Amnesty International or Oxfam. While “International” refers to interactions between ( inter -) two or more sovereign political agencies, mostly nation states (Mandaville 2007, 276).

8 I ask the reader to keep in mind that there are significant differences between “religion which sets up certain meanings and aims of a religious institution, and “being religious” whereby the personal belief and practices can be different from what their religious institution advises or demands (McGuire 2008).

9 For further sociological studies on Muslims in contemporary Europe see works of Baran (2010), Allievi (2003), Bowen (2010), Sofos (2013).

10 Those followers are the so called Twelver Shias’ that constitute the majority population in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

11 The Fatimid Empire lasted from 909 until 1171 CE. The Ismaʿili Shiʿa Islamic Caliphate expanded from Egypt (the center of the caliphate) to areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and western parts of Saudi Arabia (the Hijaz area). The name of the empire originated from the followers of Ismaʿil who was a descendant of Fatima. Hence they called themselves Fatimids and therefore named their conquered Land al-dawla al-fatimiyya (Cf. Daftary 2004, Halm 1996, 2007).

12 For further information on Ismaʿilis’ successful rule from their fortress in Alamut mountain see” The Assassins of Alamut” by Campbell, 2008.

13 Sanskrit for “knowledge”; a poetic composition in Indian languages. Ginans have elements of didactic and mystical poetry and have been preserved orally. (Institute of Ismaili Studies glossary, available at http://www.iis.ac.uk/glossary/g, accessed on March 16, 2016, Asani, 2002).

14 Ismaʿilis were often persecuted and thus they were obliged to hide their practices and beliefs. In Iran some pretended to be Sufis, while in India they pretended to be Hindu as a self-defense until the Aga Khan I fled to South Asia and took charge of his followers. Many Ismaʿilis in South Asia started to abandon their taqiyya and began to perform their faith openly again (Cf. Davis 2007, 12).

15 Tithes are also the source of his personal immense wealth.

16 The Jamaʿat also helps to find a partner to marry, meeting business partners, and connect people with the same values and beliefs.

17 From Persian literature: ”command, authority, will, permission” The term “farman” was used in Ottoman Turkish to denote any order of the Ottoman Sultans. In the 15th century the word was mostly used for written documents which would open with an invocation to God and were addressed to a governmental official in the capital cities or in the provinces as well as to client rulers. In the Shi‘i Ismaili context, it refers to an address by the Imam to his community” (IIS Website, Glossary). For further farmans see Speeches of His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan (Mombasa; Ismailia Association for Africa, 1963-64).

18 Isma’ilis follow the five pillars of Islam and above include walaya, “ devotion to the Imam ” and tahara, “ purification”(Cf. Davis 2007).

19 Daftary published a monograph (2004) that lists literature on: Ismaʿili history, studies on early Ismaʿilism, a bibliography of Ismaili literature, Ismaʿili-related dissertations and publications by the IIS and the Ismaʿili Heritage Series.

20 IIS was established in 1977 and is based in London. It aims to promote scholarships and an understanding of Islam in relationship to other societies and faiths while attempting to explore an interdisciplinary approach of Islamic history and thought, especially within research areas that got less attention speaking of Shi’ism and Ismaʿilism particularly (see The Institute of Ismaili Studies Website www.iis.ac.uk).

21 “The AKDN does not have many (if any) social projects running in Europe as the Network rather focus on less privileged societies where there is no public health insurance or loans for women.” (Sana, Personal Interview, 19.02.2016).

22 Canada has the largest Isma’ili community in Europe and North America. Isma’ili migration to Canada increased in the 1950’s, 1970’s and 1990’s due to the Iranian revolution, collapse of the Soviet Union, the war in Afghanistan and the Ugandan exodus (Karim 2011, 265).

23 Many Ismaʿilis in East Africa are originally from India or Pakistan. In 1972, president Idi Amin issued a declaration that exiled the Asian community from Uganda. Many Ismailis left the country and mostly went to Canada and Britain (Nanji 1974).

24 By “rational” Clarke uses the Weberian definition that religious beliefs are re-ordered in line with experiences and surroundings (Clarke 1978, 72).

25 Upon e-mailing Baiza and he confirmed that he is not aware of any other publication about Isma’ilis in Germany “The case of Ismailis in Europe in general, and in Germany in particular, is very much unexplored. […]I hope more studies will be done in the future.” (Baiza, email correspondence 22.03.16).

26 Essen has the largest Ismaʿili community in Germany (Baiza 2012).

27 Varisco rather refers to terms such as “islams”.

28 “Modernity” describes a condition of social existence that is radically different to past forms of human experience, while “modernization” refers to the transitional process of moving from “traditional” communities to modern societies (Shilliam 2010).

29 Globalisation is defined differently but commonly describes an increasing transnational connection (Held 2002) where time and space are compressed which enables social interactions in real time (Cf. Kadiwal 2014, Castells 2000) .

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"Isamilis do not look Muslim". The Ismaʿili Community and Constructions of Islam and Modernity in Germany
Lund University  (Middle Eastern Studies)
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Ismailis Muslime in Deutschland Islam in Deutschland
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Linda Hewitt (Author), 2016, "Isamilis do not look Muslim". The Ismaʿili Community and Constructions of Islam and Modernity in Germany, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/513927


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