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16. Tradition of Annual Majlis in India

The Indian Ismailis were quite isolated from one another devoid of the spirit of pluralism when Imam Hasan Ali Shah arrived in India in 1842. In order to bring the scattered Ismailis at one platform, the tradition of holding annual majalis in different parts of India was started for socialization.

The Panjibhai group of Kandi Mola, Bombay under Daud Khan Muhammad made humble request to Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah for inaugurating the annual majalis in Kathiawar. The Imam graciously granted permission, and thus the first annual majalis started in 1887 in the village of Goga, Kathiawar. It was attended by 500 Ismailis. Varas Essa, Muhammad Budhwala and other delivered waez. The jamat was provided facilities of lodging and boarding. In 1888, Varas Ibrahim Varas Ismail Gangji deputed Mukhi Jamal Megji in Babariyawad to make survey for inaugurating the majalis in other regions. In 1892, another majalis started in the village of Unna, then in 1893 in the villages of Khamba, Saila, Akhiyana, Zalawad and finally in Rajsitapur in 1894. For overcoming the management of the majalis, few majalis were merged with one another, and only three majalis remained continued in Goga, Khamba and Rajsitapur. The Imam visited Kutchh in 1900, where Kamadia Haji urged for the annual majalis in Kutchh, which was allowed, and thus it was started in Jamanagar. On other side, the 4th annual majalis in Kathiawar also started in 1903 in the village of Vardha, then also in Poona and Ahmedabad. Besides, the similar majalis also began in 1904 at Kotada Sangani, Rajkot and Vankaner. In short, the tradition of annual majalis became more famous in Kathiawar, Kutchh and Gujrat. In 1920, Pir Sabzali also started an annual majalis in Sialkot due to the reason that the Ismailis were scattered in 71 different villages. In 1912, another three monthly majalis on every 14th of lunar month were started in Var, Ghulam Mulla and Mirpur Sakaro in District Thatta.

In the above annual majalis, the aim and objective were apparently to impart the jamat religious knowledge and save them from going astray. On other hand, its purpose ensuing from different farmans of the Imam was to bring the scattered Ismailis on one well-knit platform, to give them religious knowledge and latest news of other jamats and to enter them into mercantile as well as matrimonial relations.

The above annual majalis were not started in some other parts of India, where the purpose of socialization was already in operations to some extent, such as the annual fair of Pir Dadu, Hasan Shah and Syed Ghulam Ali Shah in Kutchh, Syed Fateh Ali in Kathiawar, Hasan Pir in Ganod, Kathiawar, Pir Kassim Shah in Mudana, Gujrat, Shah Turel, Shah Kapoor and Amir Pir in Sind. Both the annual majalis and the annual fairs served the same purpose, except that the fairs in the shrines were famous in addition for veneration. On this juncture, Imam did not feel it necessary to touch the issue of annual fairs of different shrines. Whenever the Imam was asked to wind up the mela of a certain shrine, he ordered to build there Majalis Hall or Jamatkhana.

Be it known that during the Aga Khans period in India, the traditions, customs and practices of the Ismailis were quite different. The Imams had three options to operate. Either purge it by direct ruling, or by indirect injunction, or create such environment that the awakened minds should apply their own reason to judge the fact. These three methods highly proved beneficial in changing the religious and social conditions of the Indian Ismailis.

For instance, the Ismailis observed the Sunnite precepts on many occasions. In order to emphasize the Shi’ite root of the Ismailism, Imam Hasan Ali Shah issued a decree on October 20, 1861, in which he expressed his desire to bring the Ismailis to conform to the practices of the Shia Imami Ismaili creed of his holy ancestors, regarding marriage ceremonies, ablutions, funeral rites etc. The decree ended thus, “He who may be willing to obey my orders shall write his name in this book that I may know him.” Hence, the Indian Ismailis were relieved from the bondage of the non-Shi’ite rites.

The Indian Ismailis thus knew it well that they were a branch of the Shi’ites. Being the Shi’ites, they commemorated the mourning congregations in the Moharam. It was therefore further necessary to make them known that they have no concern with such practice. The Imam made the indirect injunctions, such as Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah said, “The throne (gadi) of Imam Hussain is with me. I am Imam Hussain” (Nagpur, 28/11/1903), “It is the work of the Ithna Ashari to shed tear in eyes” (Rangoon, 17/2/1914), and “Keep yourselves away from the Yazid of present time” (Karachi, 26/1/1938).

Then, the Imam issued direct orders: “People go to Kerbala, where they physically look at the houses (shrines) of stones, clay and golden. So what? Make the esoteric houses, which are useful indeed” (Zanzibar, 16/8/1905), “There is no benefit in weeping and striking (the breast) while (listening) the story (kissa) of the Kerbala. Imam Hussain had laid down his life for the cause of Islam and showed prowess. You also perform such feats, do virtuous deeds and bring others in the path. Imam Hussain sacrificed his life for such works, not for weeping or striking. Do virtuous work in place of the kissa” (Bombay, 21/12/1934), “They have taken (the path of) paganism, who make the tabut (miniature of Imam Hussain’s tomb) in Lasbela. Close it who prepares the tabut. This is a wrong” (Karachi, 1/5/1920) and “I have made farmans thousand times not to make tabut. You have been told thousand times not to do it. It is not the Ismaili base to perform such practice of Moharam” (Karachi, 26/1/1938).

Likewise, it seems that the reverence to the shrines and making vows thereof during particular mela was left upon the rational thinking of the followers to decide with reason (aql) in the light of the Imam’s guidance whether such practice was permissible and forceful in Ismaili tariqah or not. For instance, the Imam said, “Do not bow before others except me. I give you what you demand, therefore, you do not run behind others.” (Hydrabad, 26/2/1900) and during the forgiveness of the vows, he said, “This time I forgive you. Do not make vows for anyone in future or on any occasion. I make this farman for all. Do not make any vow except in the Jamatkhana” (Zanzibar, 27/7/1914). The believers gradually pondered upon Imam’s exhortations with their reason (aql) and forsook all such immaterial trends. Consequently, it brought tremendous impact in the religious life of the followers.

In some places, the culture of veneration had a powerful hold as if the nails are set in the flesh. It is probable that a small lobby of the venerators would have given priority to their old practice, deviated or become an isolated body in the mainstream of the community had the Imam prevented them openly not to visit the place like Amir Pir Mela. Imam’s root policy was to consolidate the isolated community without hurting feelings of few followers. The Imam however ordered to build Majalis Hall in the mela to bring them close to their religious practices.

We have discussed heretofore that the Imam did not wind up the old traditional mela in India through direct injunctions for some reasons. Nevertheless, he never provided a free rope to the followers to start, grow, develop or nourish any rotten trend or immaterial practice newly crept in the community, and ordered to close it immediately. For illustration, Syed Hyder Shah belonged to another line of Pir Hasan Kabiruddin. He had a stable in the locality of Kharadhar, Karachi, known as “Hyder Shah’ji Kothi” (warehouse of Hyder Shah). He tied his horse in it, where a lamp remained lighted all the time. He died most probably in 1812 and was buried in the cemetery of Mian Shah. In 1898, his ruined warehouse was being sold, but some people opposed its disposal, rumouring that the warehouse (kothi) could not be sold because of its sanctity. Different stories were invented to prevent the sequestration of the property. The people concerned prepared an artificial grave of Syed Hyder Shah in it, and the local people were made to believe that Syed Hyder Shah was buried in the warehouse. It was also rumoured that he made his appearance on every Thursday night. The fabricated stories became effectual and prevented the sale of the warehouse on one side, but brought forth its negative effects on other side. It began to be venerated seriously on small scale as if a mausoleum, where the lamps were lighted in a row. Before the time it became a new venue of reverence, Chief Mukhi Rahmatullah Lutf Ali sent a report of the curious tendency of few people in 1918 to Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah at Bombay. During his visit to Karachi, the Imam made direct orders on May 3, 1920 that, “All of you listen to the farman attentively, which I am making now. The lamp is lighted and some people make vows in the warehouse (kothi) of Hyder Shah. Lighting lamp and making vow are quite incorrect. This is an act of major sin. This place does not have a Pir, nay the grave of the Pir. (Making reverence) is not the Ismaili practice. Granted that there exists grave of a Pir and to keep a memory - it is too not permissible (in Ismailism). It is not appropriate in Ismailism if there is a grave; it is a house of paganism. No person, therefore, light the lamp. There would have been equally thousand of warehouses. What is its benefit? It is absolutely harmful, therefore, I forbid you.” The Imam’s direct and timely guidance exterminated the growing plant of veneration in its embroidery stage. The warehouse of Syed Hyder Shah thus finally sold in November, 1920 without any opposition.

The importance of the mela in Indian subcontinent has largely melted away, and wherever the mob of the pilgrims is seen, it indicates that most of them are not coming for that “purpose” in comparison with the “purpose” of the Ismailis of a century ago. It is also important to note that the Imam attended many annual majalis in India, but never participated in the mela of any shrine.

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