Money plays a very important role in the Ismaili community. If money can be extracted under any guise, you can trust the Ismaili leadership to find that way and implement it in the jamaat. For instance, when it was realized that a vast majority of people who cannot aford majlis memberships, and therefore they do not contribute to memhmani given in those majalis by members, a free majlis was invented, called chaand raat ki majlis. More on this later in this article which is an eyewitness account of the Ismaili religious practices and rituals conducted secretly inside the Ismaili Jamatkhana.
A community of traders finds it easy to understand the simple logic of buying and selling. You want your dead relatives to be fed? No problem, it can be done. Just bring food to Jamat Khana and the mukhi or the kamadia (honorary congregational leaders representing the Imam – selected for a term of 2-3 years) bless it and then the food is auctioned off to the highest bidder in naandi and the proceeds end up in Aga Khan’s coffers. The rich buyer of the naandi enjoys a meal from what is referred to as “The Imam’s Restaurant” without having bothered himself or the Imam for the cooking.
Nobody asks why is it that in the Imam’s Darbar, where the departed Ismaili souls go, is there no food?
What happens to those wretched souls whose family members remember them only once a year on their anniversary? How do those souls get fed? What happens to the Ismailis who died so long ago that no one remembers them and no food offerings are sent on their behalf? Do they suffer with pangs of hunger for the rest of the days through eternity?
Aga Khan collects 10% of monthly income from his Ismaili followers for being an Imam, which is his primary responsibility. He also collects an additional 2.5% for being a pir, but he doesn’t seem to do any work of dawah (propogation of religion) which pirs historically used to do. Some adherents also offer “pir ji sani” (The Plate for the Pir) as mehmani in the Jamatkhana which again gets auctioned off in naandi. Offerings for the pir, like other food offerings, are also sold to the highest bidder among the group of Ismaili bidders in the Jamatkhana after daily prayers.
Seemingly, the Imam has a separate stomach for hi sown food offerings as there is also an auction (naandi) called awal sufro (premium banquet) which is for the Imam’s benefit. Awal sufro is an auction held in the main prayer hall open to the whole congregation – there is visible competition during the bidding and so is an opportunity for showing off one’s wealth and how much of it is one willing to spend in the name of piety.
Dua Karawi and Forgiveness of Sins
Whenever one enters a Jamatkhana, the first people who one encounters are the money changers – seated near the entrance. The entrant gets some change and then dutifully walks to the leaders who are sat right in the front of the hall so that everyone notices who goes to those leaders and does dua karawi (paid supplications for special services). One hands out some coins – a note if you are well-provided and utters man murad (whatsoever your heart desires), and the leader says slowly if the amount is reasonable or quickly if the amount is small: “Hazar Imam aanji man murad qabool kare” (Hazar Imam or Aga Khan grants to you, whatever your heart desires).
One gives more money and utters “mushkil aasaan“, and the leader accepts cheerfully and says: Hazar Imam aanji mushkil aasaan kare” (Hazar Imam ease all your difficulties).
You remember your dead and so hand over more money and say “ruhani” and the leader takes the donation with serious mode and says: “Hazar Imam ruhani ke asal mein vasal kar” (Hazar imam make the hereafter safe for the deceased).
You are not done yet for you remember you are a sinner and so give some more an utter “gunah bakshamani” and the leader accepts with a smile and looking right into your eyes and says: “Hazar Imam aanja gunah maaaf kare” (Hazar Imam forgives your sins).
But then during the course of the evening you stand with the rest of the congregation and make supplications for various things which include forgiveness of sins, easing every Ismaili’s difficulties, long-life blessings in every Ismailis wealth, progeny and also prayers for the departed.
On Friday and chaand raat (new moon), everyone queues up to partake of niyaaz and sukreet (water and a sweet blessed by the Imam) for one’s purification and you guessed it – there is a plate for you to make a contribution for people around to see so one tries to donate as much as one can afford.
On the new moon night and various other congregations there is chaanta ceremoney (sprikling of holy water) whereby one’s sins are forgiven – and again one pays and audibly recites the formula that one is a sinner and may the imam and the community forgive one’s sins.
Ladder of Piety: Majlis Memberships and Titles
Then the Imam has a ladder of piety – consisting of several steps – which one rises on, again, by paying membership. In these gathering the process of dua karawi, sufro, chhanta and mehmani are repeated and more money is collected.
One such gathering is referred to as paanch baara saal meaning service to the Imam for 5 or 12 years. The admission to that gathering has to be purchased. If you actually serve those number of years, you get nothing.
Then there is membership to a majlis called life dedication, to which entry is also by financial contribution. If any individual served a long time then such individual might be gradgingly given a title like Huzur Mukhi.
However, if one makes a large donation, one is given the title of vizier and if a vizier makes a further very large donation, he becomes a Count.
These title holders get the privilege of sitting along the mukhi and the kamadia – the two representatives to the Imam. The result is that the rest of the congregation, who forever envied those who sat in front of them, actually bowed to them in their prayers. The leaders were prevented from bowing to those facing them because there are tabls in front of them.
The competition got so intense that there was no space for the viziers to be accommodated and they ended up with the rest of the adherents who faced the Counts and Presidents of various Councils and bowed to them.
The “new” Majlis of Chaandraat
But the best part was when the chaandraat majlis was instituted. I heard a farman (royal decree recited in front of the Ismaili jamaat) from Hazar Imam that previously such majlis did not exist anywhere and Sultan Mohamed Shah started this scheme. It was to prepare for the time when dasond (tithe) would be abolished. So while everyone was required to pay dasond, they would also take out an insurance and pay for joining the scheme and prepare for the time tithe would be abolished which of course being the biggest money make, Hazar Imam never intended to abolish and the scheme continues under the new imam – Aga Khan IV.
In mubarak majlis (The Gathering of the Blessed), one undertakes to pay 25% of the income including 25% of the value of gifts one receives.
The leaders bless you on behalf of the Imam who, according to the daily dua, has knowledge and authority over everything.
Presumably Aga Khan has under his command some beings who carry out his bidding. Whether it is decreasing your difficulty, increasing your life span or income, or bringing peace and harmony to your life. If it does not happen, then surely your faith was not strong so next time you give more and trust more in the Imam to reward you. Presumably the dead gets nourishment too.
One wonders whether the imam or the pir‘s appetite is ever satiated as these practices are repeated in every jamatkhana in every part of the globe. No one dares to ask where did the Imam get his “authority and power”. He certainly did not get it from the Prophet (pbuh) because the Prophet (pbuh) did not have such abilities. Moreover, the Prophet (pbuh) always said that he wanted no reward for conveying the message.
Analyzing Evidence for mehmani from the Quran
Indeed every Prophet said: “O my people! I ask of you no wealth for it, my reward is from none but Allah”.
Some apologists (on such matters you never get anything in writing from the Imam) on behalf of the continuation of such practices suggest that it is provided in the Quran that whenever people visited the Prophet (pbuh), they were asked to pay him.
So asking mukhi saheb to give blessings is like asking the Imam who stands in the shoes of the Prophet (pbuh) so it is proper that there should be a payment.
Really? Is that so?
Presumably the relevant Quranic verse if 12:58 where it says:
O believers! When you consult the Messenger privately, give something in charity before your consultation. That is better and purer for you. But if you lack the means, then Allah is truly All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.al-Quran 58:12
Is it not strange that the above verse says absolutely nothing about payment to the Prophet (pbuh)? Is tells for payment to be given in charity and elsewhere in the Quran, those who are included among the deserving charity are specified and the Prophet is not included in the list of those deserving charity. Also the payment is not due from the poor but the Ismaili leadership conveniently skips publicizing that fact.
Again, the verse refers to a private consultation. It does not come into play for asking for blessings of Allah (swt) for the afflicted. It would be a duty imposed upon every Muslim to give support and ask for Allah’s help in times of adversity and that help would be given and prayers would be made by a believer as a means of earning reward for himself or free, but… no for the Imam himself – he needs a fee for asking for Allah’s help for his followers.
Let us consider the verse 58:12 a little further.
In the kingdom of Allah, all instruction and consultation is open and free. But human nature is weak, and people want special instruction or private consultation with the Prophet from one of the several motives:
- They may actually, or they may think they have a special case which they are not willing to disclose to their brethren.
- They may some sense of delicacy or dignity, which can only be satisfied with a private interview.
- They may even have been selfish enough to want to monopolize the Prophet’s time.
- They may even want to give the impression that they are superior to their fellow Muslims in that they enjoy a special relationship with him.
These motives are worth discouraging. Yet such persons cannot be shut out if an audience is going to help improve their condition. It makdes sense therefore, that they spendsomething in charity for the good of their bretheren before they indulge in such weaknesses.
But the “special charity” is not made obligatory, lest less fortunate persons should be shut out altogether from receiving beneficial advice. For them, the merciful and an indulgent lord offers free consultation. But the poor normally do not have big egos. Most of them are humble and they woul dnot wish to impose on the leader.
It is an established practice for the Ismailis that whenever they enter the jamat khana, they all dutifully walk to the mukhi saheb and pay their dues. But is it really the case that they are all so ungrateful? Has life dealt such a bad deal that they have to have special prayers for them every time they go to jamat khana? How about those who are blessed in life to simply take their seat and thank Allah for having blessed them without making a payment.
When you do this you will please Allah for being patient and content and grateful to Allah (swt).
Also, all those poor brethren of yours, who can ill afford to pay – they can happily take their seats without feeling awkward or being embarrassed?
And of course, there is nothing to stop one from spending in the path of Allah (swt) in private not to be seen by the whole jamaat but be seen by the Omnipotent Allah (swt) alone.
In recent years, using the energy and need among the young “to be seen and to see”, there is the visible found raising for the Aga Khan Partnership Walk. Then there is collection for Aga Khan Foundation which used to boast low administrative cost until it’s transparency issues were highlighted by the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA), though one would be hard put to find the charitable projects for which the collections are used.
Then there are schools and a couple of hospitals and a university – which were all built with extra donations and were for the benefit of the community which – as fate would have it – has not much use because Aga Khan Hospital has proved to be the most expensive hospitals in the cities it is present. Just like the hospital, all services have to be paid for and so these are all for profit institutions for the Imam.
“None so blind as those that will not see.”