Amaana.org’s interview with NanoWisdoms’ founder, Mohib Ebrahim
Nina Jaffer: You mentioned you conceived of and developed the Archive by yourself. What keeps you fuelled to continue this endeavour?
Mohib Ebrahim: Many factors. Ismailis differ from other branches of Islam because we have a living Imam and, as we know, the Imam’s guidance and knowledge is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Imamat. Indeed, the Imam’s guidance and knowledge may well be his raison d’etre. Given this, I think the question is really: “How can we, as Ismailis, not archive and make his knowledge better available?” Nevertheless, I see it as a duty and obligation simply out of respect for the Imamat, if for no other reason. Not to do it says, in a sense, that we don’t value the Imam’s knowledge sufficiently to make the effort to organise it so we can access it, study and learn from it or preserve it for future generations. Preserving and organising the Imam’s knowledge was done in the past, must be also done today and I believe it is a duty for each generation to continue to do so in the future. Of course public introduction of such archives must be done with the proper permissions.
Interviewer: Nina Jaffer
Originally published at amaana.org, 24 April 2012.
Introduction from Amaana.org
The NanoWisdoms Archive of Imamat speeches, interviews and writings is a unique website which last week celebrated its first anniversary and we at Amaana.org are privileged to interview the Archive’s founder and editor, Mohib Ebrahim, as part of those celebrations. His unique all-encompassing perspective is truly inspirational in helping us grasp how the Archive, and projects like it, fit in the “bigger picture.”
In this wide-ranging, engaging interview, Mohib offers his views and discusses:
- the genesis and development of the NanoWisdoms Archive,
- the special permission it received from Aiglemont to publish His Highness the Aga Khan’s speeches,
- the Archive’s collection, various quote services and future plans,
- the spiritual facet of the Imamat’s public presentations,
- the positioning of the Archive, and other such private initiatives, within the community,
- the advantages of small, private, focused teams,
- overcoming the challenges of scarce institutional capacity,
- simple ways you can help increase awareness of the Archive amongst your jamat,
and much more.
- Click here for part 1 — On the development and genesis of the Archive
- Click here for part 2 — On the collection and importance of the Imam’s speeches
- Click here for part 3 — On private Ismaili initiatives
Part 1 — On the development and genesis of the Archive
Nina Jaffer: Mohib, the NanoWisdoms Archive is a fantastic resource and an amazing project. Please explain it for our readers who may not be familiar with it.
The Archive was launched a year ago after being granted special permission by Aiglemont to republish Mawlana Hazar Imam’s speeches …
Mohib Ebrahim: Thank you and thank you for offering me this interview. The NanoWisdoms Archive is a unique website dedicated solely to the Ismaili Imamat’s knowledge: its speeches, interviews and writings. The Archive was launched a year ago [April, 2011] after being granted special permission by Aiglemont to republish Mawlana Hazar Imam’s [as His Highness the Aga Khan is known to his followers] speeches and at present it contains over 500 readings gathered from akdn.org, iis.ac.uk, theismaili.org, aku.edu, archnet.org, institutional publications, printed materials, media web sites and other public sources. Having all this in one place not only saves us the time and effort of scouring through all these sources one by one, but allows comprehensive searches that were not possible before. So, for example, if you want to see everything Hazar Imam has said about nuclear energy, it’s efficient and effortless because there is no other content in the Archive except the Imamat’s remarks.
NJ: And the name “NanoWisdoms,” why did you choose that name?
ME: Well I think the name has generated no end of discussion from, “How can you call the Imam’s wisdom ‘nano‘?” to “Fantastic!” We think of “nano” as being small but small doesn’t mean insignificant. On the contrary “nano-scale” technologies are actually very powerful and influential, and often revolutionary and transformative. Consider computer technologies and the impact they have had. While “nano-scale” biology, like DNA, it lies at the heart of life itself. So small doesn’t mean insignificant. Similarly I’ve always found the way our Imams can explain profound knowledge, succinctly and elegantly, simply brilliant. In fact one of my favourite quotes of Hazrat Ali says just that: “When wisdom reaches the climax, words become fewer,” and was actually the inspiration behind the name NanoWisdoms. It’s a reminder that inspired wisdom is succinct and concise, influential and transformative — fundamental.
NJ: Is this a TKN effort or were you hired by Aiglemont?
ME: No, the Archive is not a TKN project nor was I approached or contacted by Aiglemont to create it. It’s solely my own initiative.
NJ: Whose idea was Nano and how did you determine the need for it?
ME: For many years I have collected Hazar Imam’s speeches and interviews in a database which has been invaluable whenever I needed to dig out a particular remark or research his guidance on a particular subject. Trying to do that kind of research on the Internet with Google was futile because it is impossible to narrow the search to those web pages which only have Hazar Imam’s comments in them and so you have to wade through hundreds of other irrelevant hits which always get returned.
Similarly, trying to search any of the dedicated Ismaili sites — official or private; I don’t like the term “unapproved” or “unofficial” as they wrongly convey negative overtones suggesting private initiatives should not be undertaken — was usually not much better because of all the other content these sites contain. Furthermore, none of these sites had all of the interviews or speeches and rarely had indexed any of Hazar Imam’s writings, like forwards or introductions he wrote for AKDN publications or other books, if they even had them in the first place. Eventually people started asking me if they could have access to my database. It was obvious there was a very real need for a public archive dedicated to Hazar Imam’s speeches, interviews and writings.
NJ: So how did the special permission you received come about? It’s a remarkable achievement and congratulations!
ME: Thank you. Well after the website was complete, but still private and not publicly accessible, I showed it to Aiglemont and asked for their comments. They were very impressed and after reviewing it for several months suggested some changes, which I made, and then one day they simply told me that I had permission to publish Hazar Imam’s speeches, which are otherwise protected by copyright. That was a very special day because it really is a singular honour and privilege to publish the Imam’s speeches. It was the icing on the cake for all the work.
NJ: What have you done to bring awareness to your project and motivate people to use it?
ME: Exposure has been my greatest challenge. This month is the Archive’s first anniversary so to drum up interest I’ve planned an exciting programme of new content and events, like this interview and a live webinar, next week, to introduce the Archive to the jamat. Webinar technology is quite amazing and lets me make presentations across the Internet to any group so I’m also offering webinars to groups like BUI classes, ITREB staff, book clubs, jamati seminars, and so forth. If any of these or other groups would like a presentation, I’d be pleased to hear from them.
I would really like to increase Nano’s exposure in the jamat generally, but that is proving challenging without local support. One small action that would help a lot would be to simply post the thematic charts or the PDF copies of the Facebook quotes on your local jamatkhana notice boards.
However, after a year of operation now and thousands of visitors, I have to admit awareness is far lower than I would have expected despite all the initiatives to help increase exposure I have going. For example after being on Facebook for over 6 months now I’ve got less than 200 “likes”, so there’s a lot of work to do still. I hope by the end of this campaign to raise that to at least 300. I’d be grateful if all who are on Facebook, could help spread the word by “sharing” Nano’s Facebook page.
However besides the on-line audience, I would really like to increase Nano’s exposure in the jamat generally, but that is proving challenging without local support. One small action that would help a lot would be for the jamat to post the thematic charts or the PDF copies of the Facebook quotes on their local jamatkhana notice boards. We also have a small notice board poster/flyer which can also be posted at the literature counters. After all, the Archive is really just a publication — an anthology no different from K.K. Aziz’s two volume tome of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s speeches available at the literature counters — only Nano is in web format instead of hard-copy, free instead of charged, and also has Aiglemont’s special permission.
There are many other simple ways the word can be spread: our various weekly news bulletins, such as Al Akhbar and Khabar, could feature quotes from Nano’s Twitter and Facebook services as a regular column and list Nano in their web resources sections; our regional magazines and TheIsmaili.org could publish articles about Nano or also start a regular quote column; ITREB could advise its REC and BUI teachers, alwaez and students, as I have no doubt the Archive will be of use to all of them. All these simple methods would help get the word out and also increase interest in Hazar Imam’s knowledge and perspectives, which after all is the ultimate objective.
NJ: Has it been a help or hindrance to have Aiglemont’s buy-in and what has been your experience in dealing with the leadership to get their support with what you’re suggesting?
As for working with the leadership, well all bureaucracies are a challenge and require patience! That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact.
ME: Without doubt having Aiglemont’s buy-in has been hugely important. After all such permissions are not given lightly and so it’s an important validation of the project and a vote of confidence in the standards which I strive to ensure so the Archive always reflects well on the Imam and the community. In the final analysis, as I said, it’s not so much about Nano as it is about increasing interest and understanding of Hazar Imam’s wisdom and knowledge among the jamat, for whom the Archive was really created for. As for working with the leadership, well all bureaucracies are a challenge and require patience! That’s not a criticism; it’s just a fact.
NJ: Have you noticed a drop in interest after initial curiosity?
ME: Well when something is new it always generates a lot of noise so naturally interest peaked when Nano went live. And while I’d like the Archive to be buzzing with activity, by and large most people visit it when they need to do some research or look up something. However, when something new is announced, like a thematic chart or Suggested Reading, there’s always a spurt of activity which tells me there is a segment of the jamat that is interested. I think offering some direction on where to turn, when trying to choose what to begin with, makes it less overwhelming with so much material available. That’s one reason why I created all of Nano’s other related “services and publications” — the Facebook and Twitter quote services, the Suggested Reading series, the thematic charts, even the randomised home page and now the Thematic Quote Browser and webinars. The other reason is to try and generate more interest among the jamat to study what Hazar Imam says because, from what I’ve seen, there just isn’t the awareness and understanding of his knowledge that one would hope or think there is. For example, at an ITREB function I attended earlier this year, there were, I think, about 100 people yet only half a dozen were aware of Hazar Imam’s important message to the Amman Conference in 2005.
NJ: Tell us about the Twitter quote service.
Today, neither our magazines, which are only published three times a year, nor our weekly jamati bulletins, like Al-Akhbar, regularly publish such quotes — at least in all the regions I’m familiar with. It struck me that if we don’t make our Imam’s wisdom known to the jamat then who else will?
ME: Back in the late 1960’s my grandfather, the late Rai A.M. Sadaruddin, began publishing Africa Ismaili — later renamed Ismaili Africa — which many of your readers from East Africa may remember. At the time it was a weekly publication and used to feature a small column with half a dozen or dozen quotes from our Imams or the Holy Prophet (pbuh). Through it the jamat was exposed to their wisdom on a regular basis and had a regular, “physical” connection to the Imam’s knowledge through these. Today, neither our magazines, which are only published three times a year, nor our weekly jamati bulletins, like Al-Akhbar, regularly publish such quotes — at least in all the regions I’m familiar with. It struck me that if we don’t make our Imam’s wisdom known to the jamat then who else will?
So on various occasions such as Navroz, Imamat Day, Eid and so forth, I started sending electronic greeting cards to friends and family which I assembled from motivational posters featuring an inspirational message and image — either the original or ones of my own choosing — with a related quote from Hazar Imam or a previous Imam. However, sending out a quote 5 or 6 times a year was clearly insufficient and a daily quote service was what was really needed. So in May 2010 the NanoWisdoms’ Twitter service was launched. To date over 700 quotes from Hazar Imam, previous Imams, the Prophet (pbut) and the Qur’an have been broadcast. They can be found on NanoWisdoms’ Twitter page [and now also in NanoWisdoms’ new Thematic Quote Browser for Short Quotes].
NJ: So then why did you launch the Facebook quote service?
ME: Well the problem with Twitter is of course its 140 character limit and so in September last year I launched Nano’s Facebook quote service which provides extended quotes and links to the source documents in NanoWisdoms for further reading. Over 100 quotes have been posted so far and with about 15 new quotes added to the collection each month, it won’t be long before there will be hundreds. In fact it has already become difficult to locate quotes on particular topics, so I just launched an exciting new feature that helps address this problem: the Thematic Quote Browser which organises the Facebook quotes by theme.
If you click on “Education” you’ll get a chronological listing of all Facebook quotes on that theme. What’s particularly nice, is that if a quote touches on more than one theme it will appear in the lists for all those themes. Also linked with each quote listed is the PDF copy of the quotes which can be posted on jamatkhana notice boards, used as class references, etc. I believe this is the first on-line reference of quotes from Hazar Imam organised by theme and, over time as all of Hazar Imam’s key quotes slowly make their way into the collection, I think it is going be one of Nano’s most popular and important features.
By the way you don’t need to be on Twitter or Facebook to receive the quotes. You can subscribe to get them by e-mail.
By the way you don’t need to be on Twitter or Facebook to receive the quotes. You can subscribe to them by e-mail. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq has said those who relay the Imams’ traditions and “have an impact on people is better than a thousand devotees” so here is an opportunity for everyone to help make that impact and I hope the jamat will subscribe and share the quotes by e-mail, Twitter and Facebook with their friends, families and jamats.
NJ: How do you decide which quotes to use?
ME: Well firstly I try to mix Hazar Imam’s quotes with those of earlier Imams’ although I am running short on quotes from the early Imams and would welcome contributions from your readers as well as quote suggestions from Hazar Imam or Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah. Then I try and keep the topics changing everyday although sometimes it ends up being whatever piqued my interest that day. I’ve noticed that quotes about some topics, like development strategies and principles, don’t seem to be as popular as those from themes more directly related to the faith or guidelines for personal conduct. Interview quotes, especially when Mawlana Hazar Imam reveals a little about himself, are always among the most popular. My favourites, however, are always those bits of wisdom, regardless of the topic, that have more subtle implications and deeper ramifications not readily apparent on a first reading. Gaining those insights, of ever more profound implications of what otherwise appears quite innocuous, simply reinforces my faith.
NJ: How much time did it take you to create Nano?
ME: The collection has taken years to assemble but the website itself took about a thousand man hours to design and populate.
NJ: And how much time, how many hours, do you spend on Nano each day?
ME: About 10 to 12 hours a week to keep the Facebook, Twitter and Suggested Reading services going. Actually it takes more time trying to decide what quote to use than making the post, because there are so many great ones to choose from! If there’s a new speech or interview, or I find an old one that I had missed, then I probably spend a couple of hours more. Of course setting up new features like the webinar or the Thematic Quote Browser take a lot of time. However, most of my focus right now is on the thematic charts. Working about an hour a day, it takes two or three weeks to do a chart as there’s a lot of reading and re-reading involved, although I’ve fallen behind these past few months.
NJ: Do you have assistants?
ME: No, it’s just me, although I have a few very good friends that have provided immense help with editing and proofreading Nano’s own content; I’d especially like to thank Mohamed Jiwa of Nairobi for going through this text with a fine-tooth comb. However, I do need volunteers to help track down missing or incomplete material, as well as original sources.
NJ: How do you find time for such dedication and excellence?
ME: I’d like to say where there’s a will there’s a way, but due to an injury I’ve been lucky to have some extra time on my hands which I was able to put to good use. That’s what it really comes down to: putting what time you have available to good use — some may have more time than others. In the end I suppose it really is about will and persistence. Take yourself for example. How do you find the time for the amount of material you write and publish on amaana.org? With a family, you have far less free time than I have but still you manage to find an hour or two, or more, here and there every week. Similarly look at the team over at IsmailiMail. Every morning without fail they post at least half a dozen news items after screening several dozen more I’m sure. And just look at Malik, who publishes Simerg. What he turns out all by himself, week after week — and with such variety and commitment to excellence — is nothing short of amazing.
Part 2 — On the collection and importance of the Imam’s speeches
NJ: Where did you find all the speeches? How difficult was it to locate all of them?
[T]here are actually two sets of speeches — those published on the official sites and those that aren’t. Most of what is on the official sites only goes back to 1998/99 with about 75% of these on akdn.org and the rest scattered across aku.edu, theismaili.org, iis.ac.uk and archnet.org.
ME: Well there are actually two sets of speeches — those published on the official sites and those that aren’t. Most of what is on the official sites only goes back to 1998/99 with about 75% of these on akdn.org and the rest scattered across aku.edu, theismaili.org, iis.ac.uk and archnet.org. As for speeches before then, IIS and archnet.org have several dozen going back to the early 60s. As for the rest of these older speeches — there are about
190 215 — one needs to go back to the original publications — mostly out of print community magazines and half a dozen or so books which republished a good portion of these earlier speeches. I have most of those books and combined with the pioneering work of other private Ismaili websites, like yours [amaana.org], I think I have probably managed to collect about 80%-90% of all the speeches. But even then it’s taken years of slowly scouring every page of the main Ismaili websites — both official and private, checking broken links to original sources in the WayBackMachine, and so forth.
Now many have noticed, when searching or browsing the lists, that these older speeches are “missing” from the Archive. Actually they’re just not publicly available at this time as I have been asked to only publish speeches which are currently available on the official sites, even though most, if not all, of these earlier speeches [click here for a list] have been previously published in our various community magazines or other official community publications and/or newspapers. I look forward to the time when I can publish them because many of those older speeches, like Hazar Imam’s speech when accepting the Charter for AKU, are seminal and timeless.
NJ: And what about the interviews and writings?
ME: Well most of the interviews pre-date the Internet and had it not been for the earlier work by existing private Ismaili websites to preserve these, I think that by and large they would have been lost. Even then, although the Archive has some 100 interviews, going all the way back to 1958, I have no doubt some are still missing. All the interviews but one are publicly available.
As for the writings, again these are hard to locate and the Archive contains a couple of dozen, a few of which are Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s — whose works I’ve not yet focused on. Hazar Imam’s writings are generally articles printed in the media — usually edited versions of a recent speech — or forwards, prefaces or introductions to AKDN publications or other books. To find these, I went through every publication I could find on akdn.org and I found some real gems hidden in them. I think I also found a few more digging through archnet.org.
NJ: How do you know you have a complete archive of speeches from the Imamat?
ME: Well I can never be sure the Archive is complete and I know many speeches are missing or incomplete. However, unlike conventional archives which usually only list their contents, I’ve also listed material I know exists — usually from news reports — but don’t have. This missing material includes about 100 speeches. In addition to these, there are about 60 events which Hazar Imam attended but it is unclear if he made a speech. And finally, there are about 70 speeches and interviews which are incomplete as I only have excerpts, again usually from a news report. In addition to these, there will of course be other material I’m not even aware of.
All this missing, incomplete and unpublished material can be found listed and flagged in the Archive’s index and I would be very grateful if your readers and our visitors, who collect Hazar Imam’s speeches themselves, would review the index and contribute any material which they have in their personal collections that is flagged as missing or complete, or not even listed in the index at all. Instructions on how to contribute material are provided on the site. Nevertheless, at almost 700 entries, of which about 500 have full texts, I think the NanoWisdoms Archive is the most comprehensive, publicly accessible repository of Hazar Imam’s wisdom and knowledge today.
NJ: What quality assurance methods have you employed to ensure the accuracy of the speeches?
The Archive aims to be a credible, reliable and professional resource not only for the jamat and public generally, but also for professionals, scholars and the media and so without holding to the highest standards no one will have confidence the Archive is a reliable source …
ME: This is a very important point. The Archive aims to be a credible, reliable and professional resource not only for the jamat and public generally, but also for professionals, scholars and the media and so without holding to the highest standards no one will have confidence the Archive is a reliable source and there would be little point in doing the project in the first place. So I’ve made every effort to ensure accuracy and every entry has its sources listed. All publicly available speeches use primary sources. For the unavailable
190 215, I have used primary sources whenever they were available to me, otherwise a reliable secondary source has been used and identified as such. As I am able to locate primary sources, I verify texts against them. So far all the secondary sources have proven to be completely reliable, save for one interview [which has now been confirmed as authentic] and one speech — which was merely incomplete.
In the 60s, 70s and 80s Hazar Imam’s speeches were published in several books and except for two [which have now been obtained], I now have all of these thanks to help from Nano’s visitors. The two
I’m still was looking for are Speeches II, which I believe was published in the late 60s, and Silver Jubilee Speeches I, a 100 page book. Note, this is different from the colourful, souvenir boxed set of Silver Jubilee speeches that was published by Aiglemont. If any of your readers have either of these two books, I would be very grateful if they would contact me.
Similarly for the interviews, where possible I have used primary sources but these are much harder to come by. For those interviews that come from secondary sources, I would be very grateful if your readers could help by sending photocopies or scans of the original newspapers or magazines, local to their countries, in which the interviews were published. I’m sure they’ll be able to find them at major public or university libraries in their cities, or in the publisher’s own archives.
NJ: Do you have plans to bring Nahjul Balagha into your treasury?
ME: Oh yes! As the website says, its purpose is to archive knowledge from the Imamat. However, once I have completed the thematic charts, my next focus will be on Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s works — I only have a few items of his in Nano at this time — and again, I would be grateful for submissions from your readers. Similarly for earlier Imams, if your readers have any documents or books which quote them — even small passages, I’d be very grateful for copies of the relevant pages.
NJ: Do you have any tips or suggestions on how visitors can be most effective when using the NanoWisdoms Archive?
ME: That is exactly the purpose of the new webinars. In them I’ll be explaining the organisation of the Archive and demonstrating various tips on how to search effectively. For example, I’ve noticed often people perform a search that doesn’t return any results when Mawlana Hazar Imam has spoken on the subject. The problem is they are unfamiliar with Hazar Imam’s vocabulary so they will search “drinking”, for example, when he doesn’t use that term in his speeches but instead talks about “alcohol.” Similarly visitors will search on dasond while in the interviews he addresses it in response to questions on “tithe.” Another problem is visitors search on tariqah related concepts like ginans or bandagi when Hazar Imam generally doesn’t speak on such topics in his public speeches. However, if visitors are having difficulty locating information they need and want some assistance, they’re welcome to contact me for help.
NJ: Do you feel the speeches speak to you?
ME: I wouldn’t say they “speak” to me as such, but when you’re able to see everything Hazar Imam has said on a particular theme, subtle nuances become apparent, especially when read in conjunction with his farmans. Stumbling upon these nuances is, for me, the most exciting facet of all this work as it leads to whole new insights and perspectives which let me better understand Hazar Imam’s perspectives and thus our faith. For example, Hazar Imam once pointed out that education should encourage students to consider questions such as “What is truth? What is reality?” Notice he did not say “What is the truth? What is the reality?” but what are truth and reality intrinsically. These are profound questions and reflecting on them helped crystallise and clarify many notions about our faith which I had otherwise only suspected for some time and had been murky and amorphous for me till then.
NJ: Yes, we’ll be publishing a fascinating article of yours — Truth, Reality and Religion: On the use of Knowledge and Intellect in Deen and Dunia — later this month. [Click here to read online or click here for a printable PDF version.]
ME: Similarly, when we think of the themes Hazar Imam talks about, we usually think of the “biggies” — pluralism, democracy, clash of ignorance and so forth, yet when you are able to study his speeches in depth, subtle undercurrents become apparent. For example, not immediately obvious are Hazar Imam’s repeated appeals for confidence, for a spirit of adventure, for the courage to think independently, to break new ground and not get mired in dogma. In 1960, at Mindanao University in the Philippines, he even went so far as to say:
I am afraid that the torch of intellectual discovery, the attraction of the unknown, the desire for intellectual self-perfection have left us [i.e. the Ummah].
And then in 2007, at the academies in Mombasa and Uganda, he specifically called for education that instills a “spirit of adventure” in students. Similarly in his vision for the Academies, he wrote:
The true test [of education] is the ability of students and graduates to engage with what they do not know and to work out a solution.
In fact directly related to this is the Research and New Knowledge theme, which though not considered one of the “biggies” is actually one of the most frequently mentioned topics in Hazar Imam’s speeches and writings. This is especially obvious on the word cloud of theme frequencies we published a couple of weeks ago.
I believe that constantly challenging established ideas, pushing the envelope, thinking in new directions — seeing how one can “make a dent in the Universe” as Steven Jobs put it — are not just nice platitudes but imperative attitudes any community needs to adopt to protect itself from inadvertently developing a corpus of unchallengeable dogma which would inevitably choke thought and adaptability, and stifle progress, perhaps for generations. Some of my favourite quotes of Hazar Imam on this theme are that we must “constantly review and revise and renew what we think we know” and that “knowledge is constantly changing, must ever be challenged and extended.” Even Hazrat Ali said:
No one establishes the order of God the Glorified except one who does not flatter, is not a conformist, and is not subordinate to objects of desire (emphasis added).
[T]his whole notion of engaging with the unknown and thinking independently, having the courage and confidence do so … is, I think, a very important, yet subtle, theme that the Imams have always emphasised. I think it’s because this is a key pillar upon which our intellectual tradition actually rests …
So this whole notion of engaging with the unknown and thinking independently, having the courage and confidence do so — notwithstanding the risk of failure or the ridicule of going against the “consensus”, if that’s where truth lies — is, I think, a very important, yet subtle, theme that the Imams have always emphasised. I think it’s because I believe this is a key pillar upon which our intellectual tradition actually rests as I explain further in that upcoming article.
Besides such subtle themes, at other times in what appears to be a rather modest speech, on say “just health care,” Hazar Imam will speak to contemporary social issues. For example, at the opening of the Singal Medical Centre, Gilgit, in 1983, he said:
Children need to be cared for from the time they are conceived until they reach maturity …
NJ: Mawlana Hazar Imam has given us a lot of advice in his speeches — what are the main points a devotee can take away from them to change one’s life and help others?
ME: That’s an impossible question! One of the most remarkable characteristics about the Imam’s words is how apparently simple, innocuous statements often capture all the facets of wholesome human character and our relationships both to each other and to Allah. Consider for example:
Uncompromising excellence is also an ethical principle.
[I]n Islam, the links between faith and knowledge are very strong and we are constantly encouraged to learn. This is an extraordinary message for humanity.
Think about that — an extraordinary message for humanity.
If you reflect on these succinct statements, and understand their full ramifications, I think you could live your entire life by either one of them.
However, I would look at your question from different perspective. As we know, the Imam’s primary purpose for us as Ismailis is to interpret the faith and so for me one of Hazar Imam’s most revealing statements has always been:
The ethics of Islam guide all my activity.
In other words, if the ethics of Islam guide all his activity, then he is telling us without any ambiguity, that all his actions are a reflection of his interpretation of Islam.
Now, as I mentioned, I have noticed that when I post quotes, those related that appear to be related directly to the faith, such as interpreting the Qur’an or about the Imamat or Ismailism, far and away get the highest response, as compared to a quote on, say, regionalism or architecture or something “worldly.” I believe this is because we generally tend to think about our faith only in “spiritual” terms. In my opinion, however, that is not only far too narrow a view of what is spiritual but also severely constrains our openness to the breadth of avenues the Imam uses to express and interpret our faith for us, narrowing our understanding of the faith. Consider another of his most important statements:
In Islam, [worldly and spiritual life] are the same thing. One cannot separate faith from the world (emphasis added).
Now, immediately most of us would take this to be a statement about deen and duniya, but consider the words again. Is he really talking about two things — deen and duniya — or just one? In other words, taken with the first quote — the ethics of Islam guide all his activity — the “spiritual” facets of our faith also lie in everything that Imam does.
For me, each point of view of [the Imam’s] is an interpretation of some aspect of our faith and so each action of his is itself an act of spirituality that is an example or lesson for us to reflect on, understand and emulate as best we can.
If we now reconsider Hazar Imam’s emphasis on regionalism or “helping those among whom we live,” for example, the question becomes: what are the ethics and values of Islam that are inspiring him? I would suggest one value would be: “help thy neighbour.” He’s just looking at a bigger neighbourhood than we normally think of! Another value would perhaps be his concept of Islam as a “frontierless brotherhood.” So to answer your question, “What are the main points someone can take from all his speeches and interviews to change one’s life,” I would say reflect on the two earlier quotes I gave and try and discover what ethic or value is driving each aspect of his work and his articulation of it. For me, each point of view of his is an interpretation of some aspect of our faith and so each action of his is itself an act of spirituality that is an example or lesson for us to reflect on, understand and emulate as best we can.
Part 3 — On private Ismaili initiatives
NJ: You mentioned you conceived of and developed the Archive by yourself. What keeps you fuelled to continue this endeavour?
ME: Many factors. Ismailis differ from other branches of Islam because we have a living Imam and, as we know, the Imam’s guidance and knowledge is one of the most fundamental aspects of the Imamat. Indeed, the Imam’s guidance and knowledge may well be his raison d’etre. Given this, I think the question is really: “How can we, as Ismailis, not archive and make his knowledge better available?” Nevertheless, I see it as a duty and obligation simply out of respect for the Imamat, if for no other reason. Not to do it says, in a sense, that we don’t value the Imam’s knowledge sufficiently to make the effort to organise it so we can access it, study and learn from it or preserve it for future generations. Preserving and organising the Imam’s knowledge was done in the past, must be also done today and I believe it is a duty for each generation to continue to do so in the future. Of course public introduction of such archives must be done with the proper permissions.
Now obviously there must be extensive archives at IIS and/or Aiglemont which have all these speeches and interviews and more, but these are not publicly available. I’m sure they would like to make them available, but, like all institutions, they have resource constraints and other priorities, so shouldn’t we help contribute? Hazar Imam has said:
Even the materially rich countries are rethinking the notion of the State and are emphasising the State’s role in helping to free and mobilise the energy and creativity of civil society to meet the challenges of development…. A richly diverse yet purposefully united citizenry is capable of making a critical contribution to social development in the struggle against poverty.
In other words, we can’t expect governments to do everything because they just don’t have the capacity and so private initiative is essential, with civil society being part of that private initiative. I think it is no different for our own community and institutions.
If you’ll allow me I’d just like to elaborate on this point because I believe it is of prime importance to properly situate the relationship between private Ismaili initiatives, like the NanoWisdoms Archive, and our institutions so that more such initiatives can be undertaken by the jamat and hopefully supported by the institutions, without anxiety on both sides.
NJ: Please do.
I see a continuum of civil society layers, if you will, in which new grassroot layers continuously arise in reaction to new needs when existing, higher ranks face capacity constraints or the new needs are outside of their mandates or priorities. As Hazar Imam has said, “the role of civil society is to complement government efforts, not compete with them.”
ME: We tend to think of civil society as something that engages with society at large, working in co-operation with governments. However, I think this view is far too narrow and limiting: I view civil society as the constituents of a community applying themselves to address their needs instead of waiting for the existing bodies or institutions — whether governments or, in our case, community institutions — to address them. In other words, I see a continuum of civil society layers, if you will, in which new grassroot layers continuously arise in reaction to new needs when existing, higher ranks face capacity constraints or the new needs are outside of their mandates or priorities. As Hazar Imam has said:
The role of civil society is to complement government efforts, not compete with them.
And so to me civil society is about the citizenry having the will and the confidence to step up to the plate and take action when it is clear something needs to be addressed.
Consider, for example, our own institutions, not just the AKDN institutions, but also our various community boards and councils, from a local library committee right upto the LIF. From Hazar Imam’s vision of civil society, as I understand it, these are all civil society institutions. Some, like our schools and hospitals, arose over a hundred years ago, in East Africa and elsewhere, in response to needs we faced as a community but which were not adequately met by existing national institutions. Others, like our community boards and councils, help and offer the infrastructure to enable us to organise ourselves so we can help ourselves. However, like all institutions, as ours matured they were tasked with specific mandates and became unavoidably bureaucratic to some extent — this is not a criticism but just the reality of institutions as they grow. And, in particular, they develop inevitable capacity constraints. When institutions reach this level of maturity, they automatically become less responsive to new needs due to their own inertia and that is when the opportunity arises for the constituents of the community to forge a new, grassroots layer of civil society to address those unmet needs.
NJ: And that’s when the people can step in?
[T]here is a very crucial underpinning to this layering process, without which it risks degenerating into a free-for-all: It is essential and necessary that a relationship of mutual recognition exists between a civil society organisation and the layer above it. To me the nature of this relationship is best characterised by what I call “co-operative autonomy.”
ME: Exactly. However, there is a very crucial underpinning to this layering process, without which it risks degenerating into a free-for-all: It is essential and necessary that a relationship of mutual recognition exists between a civil society organisation and the layer above it. To me the nature of this relationship is best characterised by what I call “co-operative autonomy.”
What I mean by this, is that for a civil society organisation to work creatively and efficiently it needs to be autonomous from the organisation or institution with jurisdiction over it but, at the same time, it must work in co-operation with that higher authority to maintain order. So for example, AKDN institutions are autonomous yet work in co-operation with the governments under whose jurisdictions they fall. Similarly, when we engage in new private Ismaili initiatives outside of our community institutions, and create the next layer of civil society, we need to work in co-operation with our institutions. As in all partnerships, such co-operation necessarily requires mutual compromises and a mutual spirit of good-faith, respect and reasonableness. We all are aware of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah’s advices about the importance of compromise as a means to bridge differences and move forward.
NJ: Do you think our community institutions hold these notions?
ME: Yes I think they do, although perhaps not all to the same degree. Mawlana Hazar Imam has spoken of the Enabling Environment which governments must foster in order to encourage private initiative, stating in particular that:
What a sound Enabling Environment must do is to create a favourable framework in which human creativity can flourish (emphasis added).
To me this extends across all the layers civil society — each layer of authority must create an Enabling Environment for the layer below it, only then can the creative spirit and energy of a community’s constituents be unleashed without reservation and anxiety. Indeed Hazar Imam said as much in 1981:
Man is an extraordinary creature, a creation, and that assisting him to become creative, productive within his national context, is the most productive thing an institution can do (emphasis added).
I think the same applies directly to a person’s communal context too and the community institutions which serve him must similarly foster Enabling Environments so creative, private initiative within that community can flourish. [Click here for Hazar Imam’s quotes on the issue of instiutions, creativity, and Enabling Environments.] In fact in Gilgit, in November 1987, Hazar Imam specifically said his wish was for our Constitution to become an “enabling document” for the community. His choice of words at that time is noteworthy because remember he first coined the term “Enabling Environment” in 1982 and in 1986 convened the first Enabling Environment Conference in Nairobi. I didn’t understand then what he meant by the Constitution being an “enabling document”, but now I think I do. And by the way, this is a perfect example of how I find the speeches and farmans complement each other and help us understand both better.
I am committed to the two facets of the “co-operative autonomy” relationship because I am convinced of its validity. Without autonomy creativity and capacity are hamstrung and without co-operation communal order, cohesion, strength and unity are compromised, but when the two are combined — with intelligence, mutual good faith and reasonableness — progress can be very, very rapid. As I said before, it is self-evident the institutions can’t do everything and large, monolithic structures are not the future. In 2006 at AKU, Hazar Imam said:
A vast decentralisation of decision-making is already occurring in many countries; it has the advantage of placing new responsibilities in the hands of local communities…. For the key to future progress will lie less in traditional top-down systems of command and control — and more in a broad, bottom-up spirit of coordination and co-operation…. Social progress, in the long run, will not be found by delegating an all-dominant role to any one player — but rather through multi-sector partnerships.
I believe these observations by Hazar Imam are as valid and applicable within the context of our community as they are to the national contexts he was commenting on. No matter what their context, whether national or communal, people’s needs are the same and so institutional responsibilities are the same.
It is in all these spirits that the NanoWisdoms Archive project was conceived and operates and I believe the permission granted to it by Aiglemont is a tangible confirmation of their similar conviction to all these principles and in particular of encouraging private initiative within the community.
NJ: So you think more such private initiatives should be done?
I think those communities of people, whether religious, cultural, social, or professional, which embrace this decentralisation will, in the future, be the healthier, vibrant, more richer and most progressive communities because they will tap into and leverage the full spectrum of resources and talents at their disposal rather than limiting themselves to just what can be done through their community’s institutional efforts or auspices.
ME: Absolutely. I believe that private initiatives outside of the institutional framework — like Nano, your website [Amaana], Simerg, Ismaili Mail, Ashifa Asaria-Lalani’s photography competition project (which by the way has the benefit of institutional support and also of theismaili.org, no doubt giving her book and website immense exposure) — are the logical extension of the decentralisation process, Hazar Imam spoke of, to the intra-community space. I think those communities of people, whether religious, cultural, social, or professional, which embrace this decentralisation will, in the future, be the healthier, more vibrant, richer and most progressive communities because they will tap into and leverage the full spectrum of resources and talents of their community rather than limiting themselves to just what can be done through their community’s institutional efforts or auspices.
My father used to quote a farman Hazar Imam made in 1959 in
Tanzania Kenya where he said that there just aren’t enough openings within the institutions for hundreds of volunteers, and that in the long run the jamat can do a lot more, if we really set our minds to it, outside the institutions than inside by simply reacting intelligently and conservatively to changes and using our education to move forward and support the institutions. Although the term “civil society” was not in vogue then, what Hazar Imam said is a call for the citizenry of our community to step up to the plate and address unmet needs but always working in cooperation with the institutions, that is, within what I call the co-operative autonomy framework. I find what Hazar Imam said over 50 years ago as relevant, if not more so, today given the increasing capacity constraints our institutions face and, particularly, today’s breakneck pace of life.
It became clear that a very worthwhile initiative would be to set up what might be called an “Editorial Services Support Group” which could coordinate a crowd-sourced pool of talent which both AKDN and our community institutions could draw on when they need editing, translation, transcription and other language-related services.
For example in Nairobi, I have been asked by several AKDN institutions to help with copy for their literature or monthly publications and it struck me then that this must be a problem across the network both within AKDN and within our community. It became clear that a very worthwhile initiative would be to set up what might be called an “Editorial Services Support Group” which could coordinate a crowd-sourced pool of talent which both AKDN and our community institutions could draw on when they need editing, translation, transcription and other language-related services. With the Internet-based collaborative tools available today, the team could draw on volunteers globally and yet still work very efficiently with client institutions. Furthermore, seniors across the board, from retired secretaries to highly educated professionals to bilingual teachers, could be tapped to undertake this needed work and make their retirement more fulfilling. With a large enough team, the work load would be sufficiently spread out so that it is neither overbearing nor stressful for anyone.
This is a tangible, practical way, outside of institutional settings, we can increase community capacity using crowd-sourcing, which is a solid, proven approach that is here to stay and completely aligned with our ethic of volunteerism and civil society.
NJ: And so what would you advise others who want to build other archives or set up such support teams?
ME: As Nike says, just do it, but seek to do it well, to high, professional standards. As Hazar Imam has said, “uncompromising excellence is also an ethical principle.” Strive for excellence so the project reflects well on the Imam and community and is worthy of its rightful place amongst our community resources and which everyone can be proud of. Furthermore, excellence will always be a prerequisite in obtaining institutional support and buy-in once a project is ready for public introduction.
I am convinced that dedicated individuals or teams, driven by personal passion and interest, can easily surpass the scope, quality and flexibility of similar projects undertaken by the institutions who cannot always dedicate the time and resources for such projects, which may take years or decades to complete. Institutional volunteers just cannot marshal the passion and dedication of an individual or team working for themselves on their own project. Even though our institutions are volunteer driven, there is quite a difference between the passion of a person (volunteer or not) tasked with a duty, which they may or may not enjoy, and the passion of someone choosing to undertake an initiative out of personal self-interest and pleasure and I think it is this conviction Hazar Imam alluded to at the 1986 Enabling Environment Conference in Nairobi, where he said:
Leaders of government and business must arouse in their professionals, the will and conviction of the volunteer.
Individuals or small teams are, by far, more agile, nimble and flexible than an institution because they are not encumbered with protocols and chains of command.
Individuals or small teams are, by far, more agile, nimble and flexible than an institution because they are not encumbered with protocols and chains of command. The founding team which develops the initial vision for a project can rapidly make decisions aligned with that vision, on the fly, without further approvals or delays. Small teams of like minded individuals sharing a common vision is where creativity and innovation flourishes — where the envelope can be pushed — because such teams don’t suffer bureaucratic quagmires or unpredictable chains of approval, which more often than not quash innovation and creativity. I always think of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) as the quintessential example of this.
In the 1970s, PARC had developed the graphical user interface and related technologies we all take for granted on our computers now: windows, the mouse, laser printers, scalable fonts, the Postscript language, Ethernet networks and object-oriented programming. Today all these form the technical foundation of personal computing, and indeed of software development as a whole. However, much to the frustration of the research team, Xerox’s management could not see the value of these innovations, any one of which would have been a breakthrough achievement in and of itself for any R&D lab. As we know, when Steven Jobs visited PARC in 1979, he immediately recognised their self-evident value. A few years later the Macintosh was born and the rest, as they say, is history.
We have all experienced the gridlock committees can generate, the incoherent decisions, recommendations and solutions that often emerge from such settings, not to mention the additional remedial work they create. Committees are important to be sure and have their purpose and place, but they are rarely incubators of creativity and innovation. One deciding factor upon which that depends is whether or not they are led by people like Xerox’s management or people of vision, passion, courage and confidence like Steven Jobs. The difference in outcomes given the same inputs from PARC is an example for all of us to learn from. Organizing Genius: The Creative Power Of Collaboration, by Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, is a brilliant book everyone should read.
NJ: And what kind of leadership do we have today?
[T]he question, in my mind, is not so much about how to find and engage these rare, visionary leaders, as it may be this: Do our institutional processes and cultures encourage, develop and instill in the leadership, at all levels, decade after decade, the confidence and courage to not only be creative and break new ground themselves, but recognize and leverage vision and creativity regardless of where it comes from?
ME: Well visionaries are rare. Furthermore, they jealously guard their independence so they can pursue their dreams and passions. Visionary leaders are even more rare. Finding visionary leaders willing and able to serve is probably harder than trying to find a needle in a haystack! And therein lies the real problem: capacity and sustainability. Visionary leaders are needed everywhere, yet they are exceedingly hard to find. And so the question, in my mind, is not so much about how to find and engage these rare, visionary leaders, as it may be this: Do our institutional processes and cultures encourage, develop and instill in the leadership, at all levels, decade after decade, the confidence and courage to not only be creative and break new ground themselves, but recognize and leverage vision and creativity regardless of where it comes from? In other words, do our institutions create the Enabling Environment which Hazar Imam stresses — that is, “a favourable framework in which human creativity can flourish” — both within the institutions themselves and among the community, or not? In my mind, that is the question because if they do, then vision and creative endeavour from the entire community is at their disposal to be tapped and progress is not dependant on that rare, visionary leader. Perhaps that is why Hazar Imam has stressed in his farmans that the jamat should have a clear vision of where it wants to be 10, 20 or 25 years in the future.
NJ: Have you worked on other community projects professionally for pay, or voluntary and who was your sponsor?
ME: I’ve not taken any paid positions nor worked for pay within the community, although I have been part of several community and AKDN projects voluntarily. Some of my recent ones were in Nairobi during the Jubilee where I designed and produced a dozen exhibition panels for AKF (Kenya) in preparation for Hazar Imam’s Jubilee visit. And for the Jubilee Games I designed and produced the exhibition panels and time-line murals for both the AKDN and Kenya booths at the International Bazaar. One of my most satisfying projects was putting together a summary of the main themes from Hazar Imam speeches and interviews made between 2000 and 2007, which was then used in the Jubilee Communications Kit sent globally. That summary can be found on Nano [click here].
NJ: Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?
ME: My degree is in Computer Science and Mathematics, and I have generally been involved in software development or IT since I graduated. Currently I am Chief Software Architect at MasterFile, which develops a state-of-the-art system for litigators, investigators, academics, historians and graduate students. You may wonder what all these have in common, but they all work with large amounts of documentary evidence from which they cull critical information that is pertinent to the relevant issues related to the matter they are researching or arguing. MasterFile lets them do this efficiently. Actually it’s quite unique and even Nano’s organisation is modelled directly from MasterFile’s design. In fact, I’ve used MasterFile myself for all the historical projects I’ve done to date.
NJ: And finally, what do you do for recreation?
ME: Well I’ve been an amateur astronomer for almost 40 years now.
NJ: What is it that you love about astronomy?
ME: There really isn’t quite anything that will give you the same feeling as looking at the universe first hand, even through a small amateur telescope where all you may see is a small, faint smudge. The point is that what you’re looking at is live — not a Hubble image. It’s the difference between going on safari and seeing a rhino for yourself, or seeing a photograph. There’s just no comparison no matter how excellent the photo. Of course some are not too impressed with small, faint smudges, but as one amateur aptly said, you have to bring your imagination with you to the eyepiece. Then, when you reflect on what you’re actually looking at is real, but so large and so far away that you can’t even begin to understand the numbers involved, and all you can see of this enormous creation is just a tiny, faint smudge, you have a new appreciation for the grandeur of Allah’s creation and just how magnificent it is — how, from the smallest microscopic scale to the grandest universal scale, it’s all connected together, layer upon layer of complexity all working in perfect harmony.
NJ: Thank you for your time and insights. It’s been eye-opening, very informative and thought provoking.
ME: Thank you.