Ismailis, the followers of Karim al-Husaini or the “Aga Khan”, govern their religious practices in accordance with the ginans (religious hymns) of their pirs and the farmans of their Imams. As with all other doctrines of Ismailism, some Ismailis today might claim that they fast throughout the month of Ramadhan, or otherwise depending on who is asking the question and who is answering.
The Resurrection – Abrogation of Saum in 1164 C.E.
Historically, it is recorded that on the 17th day of Ramadan, 559 A.H. (8 August 1164) – the anniversary of the murder of Hazrat Ali (ra) – Hasan II, a representative of the Ismaili Imam made the following historical declaration at Alamut:
“The Imam of our time has sent you his blessing and his compassion, and has called you his special chosen servants. He has freed you from the burden of the rules of Holy Law (Shari’a), and has brought you to the Resurrection (Qiyama).”
(Source: ‘The Assassins’ page 72 Al Saqi Book – 1985)
Hasan II then called for his followers to join him in a banquet, contravening the strictures of Ramadhan. This event is termed as ‘The Resurrection’ in Ismaili history. It is believed that ever since this event for the past 900 years, Ismailis have abandoned fasting in the month of Ramadhan.
Evidence from Ismaili Texts on the “True Spirit of Fasting”
However, we will have a look at the more recent religious texts of the Ismailis themselves to find out what exactly has been prescribed for them according to their holy scriptures, including ginans and farmans.
Ismailis believe that abstaining from eating and drinking is not the true spirit of fasting. The following was mentioned by Sultan Mohamed Shah, Aga Khan III:
“The life in this world is of two days (meaning a short time). So you should think of getting purified through worship of God. A true momin does not fast only during the month of Ramadan but all 365 days of the year. He does not commit any sin during all these 365 days of the year. This is the true spirit of fasting. It is not (the spirit) of fasting not to eat anything and indulge in evil acts at the same time. It is an illusion.”
(Source: Kalame Imame Mobin Volume 1, page 168)
Therefore today, if you were to catch a Ismaili red-handed eating during Ramadhan, the Ismaili would still claim that he is fasting and that he fasts 365 days of the year because the true spirit of fasting is to not commit sin and not to abstain from eating and drinking. This is in direct contradiction of al-Baqara 2:185 quoted later here.
Inception of Shukravari Beej
One of the major pirs, who Ismailis claim to be theirs, has been Pir Shams Sabzwari (d. 675 AH/1276 CE) whose writings, or ginans, govern many of the Ismaili practices. Saloko Moto is one such ginan recited regularly in the Ismaili Jamatkhanas. Here is a paragraph from this ginan which encompasses the commandment on Shukravari Beej – the Ismaili version of fasting:
Satgur Kahe re,
Satnu vrat shukr-vaari beej chhe
Ane baar pahor pura jaan
Ardho aahaar kari je raakhshe
Te paamshe amar thaam re
(Source: Saloko Moto (178) by Pir Shamsuddin Sabzwari)
The true guide says,
The vow of Truth is to observe shukr-vaari beej
The fast is for 12 pahor, [Ed., i.e., 36 hours]
Start your fast with a half filled stomach
For this vow of Truth, you will gain the Eternal Abode
Pir Shams of the Ismailis mandates fasting for Ismailis for 12 pahor. A pahor is a unit of time which consists of three hours and 12 pahor would thereby equate to 36 hours. The ginan above is in clear contradiction of the Quran, which prescribes fasting from dawn to dusk:
“…and eat and drink, until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from its black thread; then complete your fast Till the night appears…”
(Holy Quran, Surah al-Baqara, 2:187)
Recent modifications to the practice of Shukravari Beej
The religious pronouncement by Pir Shamsuddin Sabzwari has however been ‘patched’ in a recent publication by one of the leading Ismaili missionaries, Alwaez Abualy, who writes the following in his book, ‘Ismaili Tariqah’:
“Beej means the second (day) and Shukrawar means Friday. In the past, the momins started the fast after the morning prayer on Thursday and broke it on Friday after evening prayer. Friday being the second day of the fast, was known as Beej. Hence Beej-Shukarwari. This is observed when there is a new-moon on Friday.
The fasting lasted twelve pahor, thirty six hours, during which the whole night should pass in prayer. No work, sleep or other worldly affairs are allowed.
Our Holy Pir Aga Ali Shah, during the Imamat of our Holy Imam Aga Hassan Ali Shah, reduced the duration of the fast to twelve hours, from dawn to dusk on the Friday, if it was the new moon.”
(Ismaili Tariqah by Alwaez Abualy)
Therefore, Ismailis maintain dual standards on fasting: on one hand in Ramadhan, they portray the belief that the “true spirit of fasting” is not to abstain from eating and drinking. On the other hand, they observe Shukravari Beej, during which they abstain from eating and drinking.
Inconsistencies in Shukravari Beej
Another interesting aspect of Shukravari Beej is that the current practice breaking the fast in Jamatkhanas (aka Community Centers or worship halls) of the Ismailis is done at the fixed time of evening prayers, regardless of the time of sunset. This is specially evident in the months of summer in North America where the sunset can go well beyond 9pm whereas Ismailis convene at their Jamatkhanas at a fixed time of usually 7:30pm in those countries. Therefore, even the patched version of ‘dawn to dusk’ given by Alwaez Abualy does not hold true in all cases. Muslims on the contrary, observe Saum as prescribed by the Quran and as practiced by Muslims over the past 1400 years.
It is clear that the Ismaili Imams and pirs, over the generations have been ignoring the violating the commandments pertaining to fasting in the Holy Quran and have been giving their own judgments on fasting. Unfortunately, Ismailis of today do not inspect the Holy Quran themselves to see that Allah has made fasting from dawn to dusk in Ramadhan mandatory:
“Ramadhan is the (month) in which was sent down the Qur’an, as a guide to mankind, also clear (Signs) for guidance and judgment (Between right and wrong). So every one of you who is present (at his home) during that month should spend it in fasting, but if any one is ill, or on a journey, the prescribed period (Should be made up) by days later. Allah intends every facility for you; He does not want to put to difficulties. (He wants you) to complete the prescribed period, and to glorify Him in that He has guided you; and perchance ye shall be grateful.”
(Holy Quran, Surah al-Baqara, 2:185)
And Allah knows best.