‘Awakening the Spirit of Enquiry: The Future of the Khoja Shi’a Ithna Asheri Muslim Community’
A Discussion Paper
Dr. Sibtain Panjwani
Former Secretary General of the World Federation KSIMC, 1997-2003
After due deliberations, the World Federation KSIMC Conference held in May 2010 in Dar es Salaam followed by the Constitutional Conference held in December 2010 in Birmingham, finally amended the appropriate parts of the constitution to tighten the election processes as well as the role of Executive Council. This was in order to prevent the crisis of confidence that the community plunged into in 2009. It also set new dates for the post of President in April 2011 and a conference in May 2011 to elect the new Executive Council of the World Federation.
The community representatives who attended the 2010 conferences, on the whole, kept aside their differences and, on balance, acted for the community thus creating the right ambiance for broken spirits to be mended. Now that the healing process has begun, we can be optimistic that this should pave the way for our community in Gujarat to be effectively represented at World Federation forums, God willing. Shortly after, the need to hold a Madaris Retreat in Dubai in February 2011 was decided. This is a sign of a community that is alive and if jolted, will reflect on its state of affairs.
At this critical juncture, the KSIM community can make certain decisions which will guide its vision, processes and efforts for the next 50 years or more. This article is precisely written with a view to offer some reflections, after the string of events above, which have resulted in some calm for the community. What are the enduring foundations of the KSIM community and how we can use them to ensure successful movement to Allah (s.w.t)? What kind of challenges do we as a community and within the wider Shi’a, Muslim and global milieu face? It seems at the least appropriate if not necessary to start debate on these issues as the KSIM community embarks on making key decisions at its forthcoming conferences and the World Federation completes approximately 35 years of existence.
In any community, there are some basic points of identity, foundation or culture which contribute to its growth. These may be the community’s country, landmarks, language, religion, social culture and more which allow it to reconnect and redefine itself when internal and external challenges occur. What can we identify as the enduring foundations of the KSIM community? In my humble estimation, there are three: Madrasah, Mimbar & Family.
It seems that when internal or external challenges face the KSIM community, these three institutions are evoked with a view of either saving them, helping them or simply thinking about them. I wonder though, have we gone so far as to redefining them for the next generation? And why should these three institutions be cited as the enduring foundations for the KSIM community?
Since our existence as a community of over 160 years, madrasahs have been the backbone source of religious education for our youngsters. The majority of us learn our religious fundamentals from fiqh to tarikh and as we grow older, we identify the madrasah as giving us the basic knowledge for our religious understanding and practice. It seems that where there has been a KSIM centre, there has been a madrasah to ensure religious guidance. This is interesting; it means that for a community without national educational policies or centralised funds, we want to make sure that the values and practices of the Ahlulbayt (a.s) are disseminated to every generation.
Secondly, in order to keep the spirit of understanding and praising the Ahlulbayt (a.s) alive and to gather our members together for this religious purpose, the mimbar has held an important place in our centre. Historically, it is a sanctified place – one that draws people to the centre, the speaker’s lecture, the dissemination of knowledge or at the least, to simply attend a religious gathering. For the KSIM, a community without centralized religious and government leadership, the mimbar has given the platform for scholars to offer guidance, which the community chooses to accept or reject. Again, there seems to have been an enduring value of the mimbar – the ability to be a focal religious, social and communal point for our community members. It has resulted in more than religiosity and learning; it has resulted in a unique bond between community members and the scholar, thus paving the way for the community’s religious direction. It has also led to community members being attracted to a particular centre and the brothers and sisters that attend there.
Finally, the institution of family in the KSIM has been treated more than simply a family unit consisting of parents and children living their daily lives. For the KSIM, a community without a country, family units have been the source for nurturing social ties, communal bonds and values in youngsters so that all the families contribute to a cohesive community. The closeness felt within a family but also between families has nurtured respect, love, warmth and religious upbringing between community members. This has created a moral fabric that runs throughout the community but wholly dependent on there being spiritual and happy family units.
Redefining our Foundations for Future Generations
Taken together, the madrasah, mimbar and family form the backbone of the KSIM community. However, how do you keep these institutions from losing their significance in the face of an evolving society that throws both opportunities and challenges? How do we ensure that this backbone can provide a foundation for our communal growth as well as a pillar of support in times of hardship? I would like to suggest a possible model for each of these institutions, which I hope would be a pause for reflection for the reader.
After the home, the madrasah constitutes the main source of religious education for our dear youngsters. Yet it seems that our model of madrasah has remained stagnant for over 30 years. We do not seem to trace the original vision of a madrasah as place of interactive, critical, free and evolving education, which started with the notion of the majlis (literally, a seated gathering) inside and outside mosques during Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w) time. Men, women and youngsters used to ask him questions they desired and fruitful dialogue would occur. This continued in the Imams’ time with huge emphasis on deep learning and enquiry. Overtime in Islamic history, maktabs (elementary schools) were formed to provide a primary type of education. Eventually, madrasahs (a place of study) and hawzas (seminaries) were created but they intended to offer university level education. Today, our concept of madrasah has not taken this evolution into account and instead of trying to provide a critical level of education, we focus on rote-learning of rules, lack diverse subjects such as ethics, theology and sociology and do not contextualize the relevance of Islamic messages to our children’s lives. Even our most celebrated books, Nahj al-Balagha and al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyyah, are not taught and questions on contemporary issues are obstructed. As a result, we do not forge an ‘active, intellectual and spiritual’ bond between the child and our sources, the Qur’an and Ahlulbayt (a.s).
I propose that the madrasah should be a ‘mini-university’ that focuses on the holistic nature of a human being. Human beings cannot only learn laws or engage in recitation – they are multi-dimensional creatures with ethics, emotions and desires. Accordingly, social ethics (not just in terms of personal development but in terms of social relationships), applied ethics (e.g medical ethics), theology, philosophy, tafsir, poetry and art need to be taught to students, at least at a foundational level. This will intellectually prepare them for the numerous ideologies which we find in a pluralistic and globalised society. It will also satisfy their thirst for answers and allow them to seek confidence in the institution of the madrasah, rather than outside of it. Here, we must target what we want students to become, how they should develop and what kind of intellectual and moral standards they should reach. Our failure here is perhaps best shown by our lack of attention to post-16 students who finish madrasah.
I would argue that redefining the madrasah in this way will create a vibrant intellectual and spiritual institution, capable of adapting to evolving and modern needs. So far, madrasahs face the advent of internet technology and the need to be responsible when using it, the notion of faith in a pluralised world, spiritual humanism, the relationship of human rights to Islam, developing morals in an increasingly corporate and material culture, deriving laws appropriate for the Western culture and bringing the actions of the Ahlulbayt (a.s) closer to our lives. All these challenges require deep responses, not dismissals. At times, they may force us to look at our own interpretation of Islam and we may realise that we need to change our outlook on the world. At other times, we may realise that we need to understand our religious foundations even more. Whatever the response required, the madrasah as a ‘mini-university’ would be a good starting point with the aim of producing an enlightened human being capable of participating in wider society, inshallah.
The mimbar, being the central attraction point of learning, guidance and attendance in our community centres, has always occupied a prestigious position. This is not only because it has a historical link with those who have guided humanity, such as Prophets, Imams, saints and scholars but also because one who speaks from the pulpit is expected to possess a high level of knowledge and piety. When we look at the sermons of Imam Ali (a.s), we often point to his eloquent expression. However, the base of these sermons was his diverse knowledge and the fact that he practised what he spoke. In other words, he was both an intellectual and moral personality; his humility in never wanting any kind of position is astounding, as per Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w) morals. Moreover, during Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq’s time, we can see a huge emphasis on training his companions to gain knowledge – not just in fiqh and hadith but also in sciences and mathematics. Today, can we say that the mimbar is following this example? I would argue that the mimbar has essentially become a place of oratory with prestige and at times, money, becoming easily obtainable. Whatever happened to the critical learning, diverse knowledge of sciences and humility of the Ahlulbayt (a.s)?
The mimbar must provide deep-thought and practical solutions to acutely respond to our social and moral issues. But more than that, it must be a place of dialogue, not monologue, where people are engaged in active learning, note-taking and thinking. When the Prophet or Imams spoke, we find in our history that people exchanged views with them and informed them of their problems. In Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w) time, the oral tradition was the custom. Today, it is the written or even digital tradition which is our custom. We must utilise the valuable tools of our age and redefine the mimbar from its roots to be a ‘pro-active pulpit’ forging a greater link with the grassroots, instead of unduly elevating the speaker on it.
This humble suggestion comes at a time when mosques and mimbars are microscoped by governments because they are a perceived terrorist threat to society. They are regarded by governments and the media as dangerous and backward institutions. Whilst as Shi’a Muslims we do not share this view or promote radicalism, we are unfortunately caught in the limelight along with those apparent Muslims that do. At the same, the global world faces constant upheavals from poverty and disease to uprisings and invasions. Can’t the mimbar be a positive source of growth and renewal in a community? Can we not educate Muslims and non-Muslims from the mimbar on burning issues and how to tackle them? For me at least, this would be going back to the original concept of the mimbar, as used in our Prophets and Imams time.
The institution of the family is the foundation of any society; it is the spring of a person’s way of thinking, culture, social attitude, morals, personality and ultimately, way of life. We know that Islam places great value on cultivating this unit by emphasising respecting elders, honouring the father and especially the mother, building bonds with siblings and forging relationships with the surrounding community. Today, however, these roots are constantly under pressure from a fast-paced modern society that gives us little time to spend with our loved ones. As a result, it is difficult to focus on the education of our children. At the same time, the onslaught of materialism and openness in television, music and pop culture can negatively influence the child to base his/her life on fleeting principles. Divorces are rising, inside and outside of our community and new conceptions of the family unit are becoming the norm. Our elderly people suffer from loneliness and health problems and crave security within a family and communal surrounding.
We need to introduce a ‘value-based’ approach to the family unit that re-emphasises basic moral codes such as respect, patience, struggle, simplicity, reflection and social ties. Arguably, we live in a society where everything is accessible and quickly obtainable and when do not get what we want, we easily complain. We therefore lose our patience, the ability to struggle through issues and maintain a simple-orientated (not undignified) life. Commodities, values, relationships, and trust are easily replaceable or rejected depending on our preference and what we want. Yet these are the very things that we need to keep and struggle for. Relationships may not be easy but build over time, commodities may be obtainable but are ultimately transitory and trust may be hard to find but once found give security and happiness.
However, these values can only come about when we focus less on the external aspects of Islam and more on its internal moral spirit; the very thing that attracted people to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w) and the Imams. In fact, we rarely view the Ahlulbayt (a.s) as living, human personalities capable of being analysed and learnt from. We always seem to hold them at a distance, only praising them. Yet they are our role models and by focusing more on how they lived their normal lives getting through daily struggles will show us how they brought piety to society. This value-based approach can only occur if we focus on issues in our community which are directly affecting the family unit and scholars take a more practical attitude towards the lives of the Ahlulbayt (a.s).
Within the family unit, I humbly propose a ‘relation-centric’ approach. Perhaps we can revolve our lives around a greater interaction between grandparents, parents and children, less focus on television and media, greater emphasis on reading and searching knowledge, more family-based activities and teaching religion within the family (even simply reciting the Qur’an in English\local language or praying congregational prayer at home). All of these may shift the family structure from the periphery to its centre by uniting family members, enhancing communication and developing spirituality.
For the long-term unity and prosperity of the community, I believe we need to redefine the madrasah, mimbar and family. This must be done amidst a period of stability, spearheaded by moral and intellectual leadership in all our organisations from the Jamaats to the Regional Federations and World Federation. Here, jamaats are pivotal in developing these units, questioning the overall leadership and working with the grassroots. Our leadership must be consensual in its approach, confident in the direction set for the community and make all our foundations enduring again. The madrasah, mimbar and family must become meaningful entities for every community member to uplift their lives with hope and justice – not just for themselves but for humanity. The driving force in all of us as community members is to continually hope for a better future and children whose purpose is to expand their intellectual horizons, based on the Qur’an and Ahlulbayt (a.s) and develop personalities that will show anger at injustices and have the courage to ensure they do not remain.