Crash Course: Meetings
Here’s a brief overview of some of the secondary congregations in Indo-Pak, African and Western Ismaili practices. If you’re looking for more information, check out Majalis and Tasbihat, by Kamaluddin Ali Muhammad and Zarina Kamaluddin.
There’s a lot that goes into Ismailism on top of the mandatory prayer and ethics. A lot of what’s practiced around the world are cultural, created with the assistance of the Imam, but at the request of Ismailis (mostly from the subcontinent). These secondary congregations are called majlas (plural: majalis) meaning “meeting”. The word comes from the Arabic root J-L-S, meaning “to meet”.
Majalis rose in popularity after the Imam moved from Iran to India; the Indian congregation were looking for new opportunities to pray and to serve the Imam. This coupled with a leisurely lifestyle and short work days gave Ismailis more time, especially after Jamatkhana ceremonies, to dedicate to the religion. As times change Imams Sultan Muhammad Shah and Shah Karim alHusseini have worked to reduce the number of these extra meetings, shifting the focus toward the core Ismaili practices.
Meeting of Knowledge
In Fatimid times, the Caliph would often open his court to scholars and people of all backgrounds to discuss philosophical and religious ideas openly and constructively. Even though it uses the same name (Majlas alIlm) as modern secondary congregations, it’s not the same in structure or purpose to what’s practiced today.
Majalis in India
When the Imam moved to India, Ismailis there were looking for more and more ways to show their devotion to the Imam. In addition to actually giving the Imam food and attending to his assets, Ismailis started serving symbolically by creating meetings/majalis where they could participate in more prayers and donate to the Imam. The religion became so overcrowded with these extra meetings that in 1903 Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah told the Jamat to limit their meetings to three times a week. By 1970, all the small meetings (usually confined to one Jamatkhana with attendance of around 100 people each) were merged into two monthly meetings.
One of the most popular majalis practiced is Chandraat (Urdu: چاند رات, Hindi: चाँद रात, English: Moonnight). It falls on the New Moon, which is also the first night of each month, according to the lunar and Islamic calendars. Moonnight was officially established in 1894 as a time for all Ismailis to come together and pray. Before this, most majalis were limited by age, gender, or economic factors; Moonnight provided an opportunity for all Ismailis to come together. During Moonnight, members of the Jamat could pray for each other, as well as the deceased, and the Imam gave special blessings to those who donated.
Moonnight started in Garden Jamatkhana, but that soon became too crowded. Some members of the Jamat came together to build a new two-story Garden Jamatkhana to accommodate all the people coming to Moonnight. After this, attendance declined to about 12 % and the Imam encouraged those attending to bring their friends and neighbours to the majlis. Donations from regular attendees of 1-8 paisas (0.001 USD) each paid for maintenance of the new Jamatkhanas.
When Imam Hasan Ali Shah moved to India from Iran, the Indian Jamat wanted to recreate the same service structure employeed in Fatimid Egypt, with Ismailis attending to aspects of government, civil services, and military. Unfortunately, the Imam in India didn’t have as many state affairs that needed attending, so he instead created a format where Ismailis could serve symbolically, while still receiving appropriate blessings. At the time, in India, the average life expectancy was under 50 years, so the Imam created delineations of 5 years (10% of someone’s life) and 12 years (about a quarter of someone’s life) that they could “serve”. These delineations, “paanch” (5) and “baar” (12) “saal” (years), gave this meeting its name.
Imagination House (Bait alKhayal in Arabic) is a little different from the other meetings discussed here because it’s less about the community and more about an individual search. While other meetings have their origins in guidance from an Imam, or a practice adopted from a neighbouring religion, the actual origins of Imagination House in Ismailism has unclear origins. The purpose of this meeting is to engage in individual, silent meditation, a practice that can be traced back through many cultures all the way to the beginning of religion. While the meeting takes place once per month in Jamatkhana, there’s an expectation that those who enroll practice this silent meditation every morning at certain times and using certain mantras. The specifics of this meeting probably deserve their own post.
General Men’s and Women’s Meetings
As stated earlier, there were many small meetings spread across India, Pakistan, East Africa and spreading westward. In 1969, The World Ismailia Association met with Imam Karim alHusseini to figure out what to do about all the different meetings. The Imam decided to combine the small meetings into two General Meetings. One would combine all the male-specific meetings (Aam Panjebhai) and another would combine all the female-specific meetings (Aam Panjebhenu). This was part of the modern push to refocus Ismaili practices on the spiritual union of the greater congregation.
The Lord’s Fast
After the fall of Alamut, Ismailis settled in Iran and integrated with local Twelver communities. One of the practices adopted by the Ismailis was Seventh Day (sataima in Persian). Twelver women would fast for the first half of the seventh day of each lunar month; seventh day in honor of the seventh Twelver Imam: Musa Kazim. The fast was followed by celebrations and story-telling about Musa Kazim. When Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah worked to seperate Ismaili and Twelver practices within the Jamat, he kept the fasting and celebrations, but shifted the focus from Musa Kazim to Imam Ali. In 1961, Imam Karim alHusseini renamed the celebration to Lord’s Fast (Mawlano Rojo) and encouraged the reading of Faramin, instead of traditional stories.
Today, The Lord’s Fast is no longer promoted. Historically, it’s been practiced by women, but it soon opened up to the entire Jamat. Jamatkhanas that have not already established the tradition are not allowed to start, so you’ll only find this meeting in India and parts of East Africa, as well as a few older congregations in the West.
Metropole Fruit Meeting
After Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah moved to Europe, he still kept a property in India to visit. When he would come to visit, a small group of Ismailis would bring fruit especially for the Imam. After India and Pakistan split, a large amount of the Jamat moved to the newly-formed Pakistan. When Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah visited Pakistan in the 1950s, the fruit-gathering group asked if they could continue their service in Pakistan (since they no longer had access to the Imam’s home). The Imam agreed and a group of about 50 people continued to serve Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah fruits when he visited the Metropole Hotel in Karachi. Since then the group has grown to 152 men (150 members plus 2 leaders) and they meet regularly in Garden Jamatkhana. When the Imam visits Pakistan, this group is responsible for the fruits and sweets given to the congregation and the Imam.
In 1903, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah designated meetings for adult males, youth, and children. Because the Imam kept encouraging the Jamat to participate in these meetings, the women of the congregation wanted their own meetings. So, they approached Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah with their own requests.
The Imam invited women in India to his home in Walkeshwar to participate in extra prayers and service. Eventually, this practice spread to other Jamatkhanas around the world and is known as Huzur Panjebhenu Majlis (Noble Women’s Meeting).
This is a majlis started by the women of Karachi. Initially, this meeting only convened in Garden Jamatkhana in Karachi. It was given the name Roshni (Light) by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.
In Islam, the majority of the funeral ceremonies are performed by men. Ismaili women asked Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah for the ability to perform funerary ceremonies, especially for a large number of women who die during childbirth and don’t have the opportunity for ritual purification beforehand. The Imam performed ablutions personally to these women and the meeting continues on the third day of every second Islamic month.
Unlike the previous mentioned majalis that are regularly scheduled based on the Islamic, lunar calendar, Ruhani Majlas (“spiritual meeting” in Arabic) can be requested by families in order to secure more blessings for the recently departed. Although divine judgment is only applicable to the individual and their own actions on Earth, it’s thought that prayers from loved ones after death can affect one’s soul in the afterlife. This also gives the congregation a chance to come together and appreciate the deceased together.
Hayati Majlis (Life Meeting) is often held in conjunction with Ruhani Majlis. While Ruhani is held for the benefit of the recently deceased, Hayati is held for those who think they are going to pass away soon. The subject of Life Meeting uses this opportunity to vow withdrawal from the physical world. They often give away the majority of their possessions in order to alleviate the burden of materialism.