Scholar who speaks truth to power— 29-minute read
On a cool December morning I knock on the door of a house in a posh Los Angeles county. A diminutive man opens the door. He is Ismail K. Poonawala, former professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at UCLA. There is renovation going on in the house, Prof. Poonawala apologises for the mess. We make small talk as he gives me a tour of his study, it is lined with books on three sides, the fourth is held up by glass doors overlooking the Pacific Ocean in a distance.
We retire to the kitchen, it’s warm and cozy, and talk over a cup of tea. Prof. Poonawala speaks with a certain gravitas, an attitude that comes from five decades of researching, writing and teaching. He is most famously known for his monumental work on translating and editing Daaim ul Islam. Written by Qadi Noman, the 10th century Ismaili jurist and historian, Daaim is the book of fiqh for Ismailis. For Dawoodi Bohras it is second only to the Quran as a source of Islamic law and guidance.
I remind him that the Dawoodi Bohra clergy does not consider his version of Daaim as authentic. Prof. Poonawala chuckles knowingly, and quips, “Okay, let them publish the authentic version, then.” When Daaim was published 10 years ago, Bohras were forbidden from reading it, but not everyone obeyed. “Whenever I visit my publisher in Mumbai,” he adds wistfully, “they tell me, ‘Professor, it’s people in white clothes who mostly buy your books’.”
Originally translated by Asaf Ali Asghar Fyzee, Daaim was completely revised and annotated by Prof. Poonawala. In fact, it almost never came to be published. “Asaf Fyzee was my elder but we were more like friends,” Prof. Poonawala says, “and just before his death when I was visiting him in Mumbai, he requested me to complete this work he had undertaken. I said, ‘I do not promise but I’ll do what I can.’” This was 1981. More than 20 years would pass before the translation saw the light of day. The saga leading to its publication deserves a book of its own. It was a true labour of love. Daaim is much in demand today and has gone into a fifth print, thanks mainly to the disobedient men in white clothes.
Like father like son
Prof. Poonwala caught the bug of Islamic learning from his father Mulla Kurban Hussain, an Islamic scholar in his own right. He had studied in Deoband and other Muslim/Sunni seminaries, and was well versed in Arabic, Persian and Urdu. He also studied in Saifee Daras in Surat, and was awarded the title of al-Faqih al-Jayyid, but unlike the clergy he used his learning for the educational development of Bohras. He started a primary school and slowly brought it up to the secondary level. He also regularly contributed articles to the Gujarati magazine Naseem-e-Sehar, a popular monthly which was widely read in the 40s and 50s. He would hold evening classes at his house to teach Arabic and Islam and other deeni stuff. The house took on the appearance of a madrassa.
In this atmosphere, suffused with learning and scholarship, the young Poonawala grew up. The foundation of his future calling as a scholar of Arabic and Islam was probably laid during those formative years. But it was not just the yearning for scholastics alone that he inherited from his father. He also imbibed from him the quality of critical thinking.
It seems his father was aware of the antics of Sayenda Taher Saifuddin and the money scandals that plagued the Kohtar at that time, and was secretly guiding the reform movement. All this did not escape the notice of young Poonawala who began to sense that all was not well with the community, and increasingly grew suspicious of religion and especially of the Bohra religious establishment.
When he was in high school his father passed away suddenly, leaving him alone to grapple with the doubts that had taken hold in his mind. Determined to find answers for himself he joined the Ismail Yusuf College of Bombay University to study Arabic and Islam.
“During that time in 1953,” Prof. Poonawals says, “along with two of my friends (one of them being Zainuddin Vali) I started writing weekly articles in Mumbai Samachar citicising the highhandedness of the Bohra establishment as well as social customs which were outdated and oppressive. One such custom, for example, was Iddat which required even an old widow to be completely isolated in prison-like conditions for four and a half months. From my studies I found out that this was not an Islamic practice, but was probably influenced by Indian or Hindu customs.”
Autonomy of jamat was another issue they wrote about. Then, as now, jamat committees were handpicked by the local amils, “and those appointed were so called “chamchas” or yes men. We wanted some kind of democratic procedure to elect committee members,” Prof. Poonawala adds. “Financial transparency was also a big problem. There was no accountability for all the dues and fees that were collected from the people and from various gallas. We knew that that money was not being spent on the welfare of community, so we wanted to know where the money was going.”
“The other issue was public charity, the two mosques in Godhra,” he says, “were built by philanthropists who made money through lumber trade. Our musafikhana, jamatkhana and many other community assets were built by such rich families.”
This was true of every town and city where Bohras lived. Rich families would generously give their wealth for the welfare of the community. But such charitable work was frowned upon by Sayedna Taher Saifuddin. “Mullaji told these rich sethiyas,” Prof. Poonawala adds, “you cannot do charity on your own, give me the money and I’ll do it. But of course he would pocket most of the money and little, if at all, was given to the people.”
The Sayedna saw private acts of charity as a threat to his prestige. Having assumed the role of Ilha ul-ard (Lord of the World) of Bohras he could not allow lesser mortals to become benefactors and steal the limelight from his halo. Slowly and shrewdly his administration manipulated its way into all the trusts and associations in India, Pakistan and East Africa, and either dissolved them or brought them under his direct control. Many rich families that opposed his moves were ex-communicated and publicly denounced for daring to challenge his authority. That was the beginning of the end of charity among Bohras, and that shameful legacy continues to this day.
“Let me stress,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “that the issues we raised were about social and administrative matters. We were not questioning religion or the religious authority of the Dai.” Nonetheless, the clergy would portray all dissent as “enmity against dawat” and increasingly and desperately tried to keep Bohras in line. While the majority complied, Sayedna Taher Saiffudin continued to face challenges from educated Bohras right from the time he took office. That opposition culminated into the first reformist conference, the Bagasra Sammelan in 1957. Prof. Poonawala and friends attended it. Noman Contractor was the leader of the movement. “We were the pioneers of the reform movement and we were there when history was being made,” he adds proudly.
When he left India soon after the conference, the reform movement had gained a real momentum. Those were heady times and there was a sense of euphoria, reformists thought they would see the results in a few years. But that was not to be. “My departure,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “marked the end of my active participation in the reform movement. But my heart and mind were always with the cause, and I kept in touch with friends and reform activities.
He went to Cairo first to master Arabic, because “all our source books are in Arabic and it made sense to learn the language if I wanted to understand Islam. There I had the good fortune of meeting Husayn al-Hamdani. He was from the well-known Hamdani family, had studied in London and was fluent in Arabic, Persian and German. He was a very progressive thinker like Zahid Ali and Asaf Fyzee – the other two great Bohra scholars who were educated in the West. They all eventually returned to India and tried to educate the community but the community was not ready to accept them.”
Scholars under attack
Prof. Poonawala speaks fondly and admirably of these scholars. He rues the fact the Bohra establishment not only shunned them but also tried to discredit them. “Zahid Ali remained unaffected by the attacks of Mullaji,” says Prof. Poonawala, “as he lived away in Hyderabad. He wrote two major works Tarikh-e Fatimiyyin-e Misr (History of the Fatimid Egypt) and Hamare Ismaili mazhab ki haqeeqat aur uska nizam (Our Ismaili madhhab’s true origins and its organization) in an attempt to describe our history and its origins objectively as depicted by the historians and awaken the Bohras from the clutches of the religious establishment. It is a critical evaluation of Shiite Bohras’ history and their belief system. If he had not been in Hyderabad I suspect Mullaji would have made an attempt on his life and gotten rid of him.
“Asaf Fyzee was a Sulaimani Bohra from the prominent Tayyebali family,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “which participated in India’s freedom movement. Mullaji of course could not touch him. He was a leading expert in Islamic and Ismaili law in India, principal of the Law College in Bombay and later was appointed Vice Chancellor of Jammu and Kashmir University. He was also India’s ambassador to Egypt.
“These Bohra scholars,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “were my idols. I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Husayn al-Hamdani became my mentor. He taught in Surat College, then in Ismaili Yusuf College, Bombay. He later migrated to Pakistan and was appointed as Cultural Attache to Pakistani Embassy in Cairo. He was also granted Yemeni citizenship by the Zaydi Imam/ruler of Yemen. In Cairo he was invited by Dr. Taha Husayn, a famous dean of Arabic literature and Minister of Education to teach Fiqh al-lugha (philosophy of a language) and Persian language and literature at the Teacher’s Training College attached to the Cairo University. This was a big deal. To appreciate it you have to know that Arabs normally don’t appoint non-Arabs to teach them their own language. This was a great achievement not just for him but for the whole community. But instead of embracing him, our religious establishment ex-communicated and attacked his family.
“This came about because Husayn al-Hamdani’s father Faizullah Hamdani was a classmate of Mullaji, they grew up together in Surat. Faizullah Hamdani knew what Mullaji was up to, and was the first one to testify against him in the Chandabhai Gulla case. Mullaji returned the favour by attacking the Hamdani house and boycotting the family.”
Husayn al-Hamdani knew Prof. Poonawala’s father and was glad to discover that the son too possessed progressive outlook and was open to new ideas. He persuaded him to take up Ismaili studies, for he thought that Ismailis had an obligation to study their own heritage which was misunderstood by other Muslims. Prof. Poonawala says he is greatly indebted to his teacher for inspiring him to study Ismailism. He wrote his dissertation on Syedna Khattab bin Hasan, the Mazun of the first Tayyebi Dai ul Mutlaq, Sayedna Zoeb bin Moosa.
“My thesis,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “started with the satr period and what came to be known as silsilat u duat al mutlaqeen (the chain of Dais). With the help of Husayn al-Hamdani I edited Khattab’s diwan, it was considered a major secret book of Dawah. In olden times Dai’s permission was needed to study such works. But that system was not meant to deny knowledge but to make sure that students were properly prepared to receive it.
“Also, there were certain secrets that could not be revealed to the uninitiated. But like everything else, our clergy has distorted this requirement into one of denial and control. They don’t want people to know the truth. Our important religious literature is hidden away. Khattab’s book was found in our reformist Ismaili collection. Khattab was not only a poet and a literary figure but also a warrior. My goal was to reconstruct his life – a life full of family tragedy, drama, betrayal and religio-political wars of the time.”
The thesis was published by the most celebrated press in Cairo called Dar al Maarif in 1967. Khattab, according to Prof. Poonawala, was one of the key figures in supporting and promoting the Ismaili-Tayyebi Dawah in Yemen. Without Hurratal Malika Arwa, Sayedna Zoeb bin Moosa and Khattab bin Hasan the fledgling Tayyebi Dawah would not have survived those turbulent times.
“Hurratal Malika,” continues Prof. Poonawala, “was given the highest rank of Hujja of Yemeni Dawah by Imam Mustansir. After the death of Imam Amir and occultation of Imam Tayyeb, she created the seat of Dai al Mutlaq. This was necessary for the betterment of the community. Because the community was there – and in the absence of the Imam –a leader was needed to keep it together. Yes, it is true that Dai ul Mutalq could be interpreted as one having absolute power but it is not a blank cheque. There are certain qualities and qualifications to becoming a Dai.”
Not surprisingly, the last two Dais have been using this title – and the authority that comes with it – to do as they please but if one looks at recent history, their claim to being Dai al Mutalq are misplaced. “It is well known,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “that the 46th Dai Syedna Mohd. Badruddin died in 1840 without explicitly appointing his successor. So what was to be done in this situation? This was similar to what Hurratal Malaika faced when Imam Tayyeb went into hiding. The community was there and it needed a leader. So after Sayedna Badruddin’s death, four leading scholars got together and appointed Syedna Abdulqadir Najmuddin, the then Mukasir, as the new Dai. Please note that he was appointed as Dai al Nazim, a caretaker Dai, and not as Dai al Mutlaq.”
This is a controversial issue, and widely murmured among those who know Bohra history. But their number is dwindling, much to the delight of the clergy which violently suppresses inconvenient truths. The most famous victims of this violence are the four learned sheikhs who were booted out of the jamea in the early 70s. “Sheikh Ahmed Ali Raj and other three ustads,” says Prof. Poonawala, “dared to raise this topic and see what happened. But the interesting thing is that Yusuf Najmuddin admitted in an article in Dawn newspaper of Karachi that his was father was Dai al Nazim, not Dai al Mutlaq. It is all there if you care to check, but nobody cares in our community. Also you must know that history is always written by the victors. Saddam is gone but the history of Iraq is being written by USA, Shaitan al Buzurg (the great satan). Similarly, our dominant clergy is writing our history.” And also rewriting our doctrine, one might add.
After finishing his studies in Cairo, Prof. Poonawala went to the University of California in Los Angeles to do his PhD in Islamic studies. Like his idols he always wanted to go to the West because according to him whatever may be its faults, the West is the “Makkah of religious scholarship as far as research and methodology are concerned.” At UCLA the leading Orientalist Gustave Edmund von Grunebaum was his teacher. His dissertation was on Qadi Noman and his Al Urjuza al Mukhtara on the question of Fatimid Imamat. He edited and wrote a critical introduction to the Urjuza. The dissertation was published by the McGill University in Canada, where Prof. Poonawala also taught for three years. From there he moved on to Harvard where he worked on the most ambitious project of his career: The Biobibliography of Ismaili Literature.
Against the grain
“I finished this work in two years,” he adds, “and it was published by UCLA in 1977. This in my view is a major contribution to Ismaili studies. The book includes a brief sketch of every major Ismaili literary figure, with reference to all the sources – ancient as well as modern. What is also notable is that for the first time extant Ismaili books were listed with information about their location – in public libraries around the world or in private collections. This Biobibliography is the starting point for anyone interested in Islmaili studies. Now I’m in the process of revising it as new material and sources have come to light. It will take another year or so to get it published.”
Prof. Poonawala’s has written a number of scholarly books and tens of articles about Ismailis, the Quran and the early intellectual history of Islam and shiism as well as about modern challenges to Islam. He continues to research and write, but at a more relaxed pace now that he’s free from the demands of academia. Having undergone multiple bypass surgeries, he takes life easy nowadays. “I’ve proved the prognosis of my doctors wrong,” he says, “and I’m still here, by the grace of God.”
Fiercely independent in thought, he does not cater to the masses or follow any particular intellectual fashion or faction. He is not afraid to go against the grain of accepted belief, and expresses views that at times border on the iconoclastic. But that does not bother him. That is the job of a scholar. He knows what he is talking about. Pursuit of knowledge, informed by reason and objectivity, is its own reward. In the introduction to the revised edition of the Bibliography he intends to take a critical look at our Ismaili heritage.
“Unless we look in the mirror,” he says, “we will not know who we are. In my latest article on a debate among Ismaili scholars in 9th and 10th century Iran, we can draw a conclusion that applies not only to Bohras but to the rest of the Muslim world as well: That there is a total break in the Muslim personality. What I mean is, we as Muslims are very good at adopting Western science and technology and other material advances, but are slow to adopt Western values of democracy, equal rights and social progress.
“As Muslims who are we, what have we produced, how have we contributed to the betterment of the world? You can’t just keep talking about our glorious past. Yes, medieval Islam produced brilliant philosophers and inventors and contributed to world civilization. But the question is what have modern Muslims contributed? Absolutely zero. Nothing.
“The Saudis,” he adds, “and other so-called Muslim leaders are self-centered. Muslims have been ill-served by their leaders and misled by traditional mullahs who keep them tied down to the past and to the literal text. There is no correlation between Muslim beliefs and the world in which they live. This is why we have to reinterpret Islam if it is to have any meaning.”
The fundamental message
The word reinterpretation in the same sentence as with Islam raises the hackles of conservative Muslims? What does it mean? “That is a good question,” Prof. Poonawala says, “and it was answered more than 150 years ago by Mohammed Abduh, the Egyptian Islamic reformer. He said one should differentiate between the usool, the fundamental principles of Islam and other secondary matters. The fundamental principles are the belief in tawheed, in the Prophet, in aakihra etc. The secondary matters are to do with law, social relations and day to day affairs. When we talk about reinterpretation we’re not referring to the usool but to the secondary matters.”
So sunna, the traditions of the Prophet, is a reliable guide on these secondary matters? “How do you define sunna,” Prof. Poonawala asks, “sunna is a common term in Arabic which means customary law, but the sunna as in traditions came into being almost 200 years after the Porphet’s death. The source of the sunna is hadith, and hadith is controversial. Most of them are concocted. Let me give an example of Sahi Bukhari which Sunni Muslims consider as the second most important authority after the Quran.
“Bukhari compiled hadith in the second half of the third Islamic century. Leaving aside the repetitions, there are around 3,000 traditions mentioned in Sahi Bukhari selected out of nearly half a million, half a million. No one can prove the authenticity of a single hadith with absolute certainty,” he adds. He advises Muslims to forget the hadith, just as Goldziher and other western scholars have advocated. Instead of discussing the nitty-gritty of hadith literature he exhorts us to go back to the original source, the Quran and concentrate on its fundamental teachings.
“The traditional ulema,” he says, “do not understand the original teachings. They just harp on rituals and sunna. The fundamental message of the Quran is socio-economic justice and equality of human beings. The great Fazlur Rahman and other scholars have written about it at length. The Meccan revelations are passionate about establishing justice and equality, declaring all men as equal. There’s no difference between white and black or rich and poor. This fundamental message is tied to the concept of monotheism, that there is One God. The Prophet called for One God, one humanity. This is the essential message.
“Unfortunately this was forgotten immediately after the Prophet’s death,” Prof. Poonawala adds. “As he closed his eyes Muslims started quarreling about leadership. They said the leader has to be a Quraish, and thus Abu Bakr and his followers came to violate the fundamental principle of Islam. I’m not trying to defend Ali’s rights, that is another issue. Let’s assume that the Prophet would have preferred Ali to succeed him, but I have my reservations about the concept of Imamat. What is the guarantee that three, four generations down the line the Imamat would have produced good, righteous leaders.
“Look at the Fatimid history of Imams. We Bohras recite the names of all the Imams after each prayer. In my recent article on the poet prince Tamim, the eldest son of Imam Moiz, I wrote that he lived a life of affluence and amusement and loved wine and song. He was passed over twice for succession because of these reasons. Among Fatimid Imams, the first four or five were good leaders. But Imam Hakim was a big problem.” Porf. Poonawala realises he’s treading a sensitive territory, but insists, “These are historical facts. As time went by the institution of Imamat degenerated, and the Imams became puppets in the hands of their military commanders. Look at your history.”
Reason and intellect
But aren’t Ismaili Imams supposed to be infallible, perfect human beings? “The infallibility,” adds Prof. Poonawala, “of the Imam is a concept, it is only a theoretical adjunct, and it grew out of the circumstances and needs of the times. You have to analyse those circumstances. Infallibility is not an article of faith. The Quran repeatedly emphaises that it has given humankind intellect and reason. They should use reason. The Quran lays more stress on reason than anything else. But do you see any use of reason and intellect among Bohras? Or even among Muslims, for that matter?
“They can’t depend on amils and mullahs to understand relgion,” he adds, “truth will not be given to them on a platter. Our real history is never told in our waaz. The same kind of ignorance applies to other Muslims also. In juma khutba mullahs talk about Abu Bakr and Umar with exaggerated praise. Unless Muslims are willing to give up their misguided beliefs, unless they stop worshipping personalities nothing will change.”
Hero-worshipping is ingrained among Bohras. The near-divine reverence arrogated by the last two Dais has been historically reserved for the Imams, they being the lynchpin of Ismaili belief system. Prof. Poonawala knows that Islamili history is riven with hero-worshipping of the Imams, and he found ample evidence of it in his research. But what fascinated him most was the early intellectual history of Ismailis. They produced great scholars from the 9th to 11th centuries. They encouraged rational thought, just like the Mu’tazilas of earlier period who were influenced by Hellenic rationalism. Ismaili intellectuals employed Neoplatonic ideas of the Greeks to advance their understanding of Islam. Those ideas appealed to their spiritual mind.
“But all that philosophy,” Prof. Poonawala adds, “is quite irrelevant now. Ismailism promoted rationalism, but of course within limits, the Imams and the basic tenets were beyond criticism. For more than 200 years Ismailism flourished, as opposed to Sunni Islam, because with the help of rationalism Ismailis could explain religion in rational terms. This made a lot of sense to educated people and they were increasingly attracted to Islmailism.”
Among Ismaili scholars, he has great regard for Qadi Noman and Abu Yaqub Sijistani. “Qadi Noman,” he says “was a great figure. His contribution to the Ismaili cause is incalculable. The Ismaili doctrine of the pre-Faitimd era that he inherited was very dynamic and revolutionary, but once the Fatimid empire was established, that dynamism was diluted for it was not easy to put revolutionary ideas into practice. Qadi Noman ‘adjusted’ the doctrine for the purposes of empire. A brilliant jurist, he served for more than 50 years under four Fatimid Imams and became a close confidant of Imam Moiz. But let us keep in mind that he was a servant of the Imams after all, he achieved his high position because he served his masters well. His work must be understood within the context and requirements of the empire.
“Now we are facing a different situation,” he continues, “the Fatimid empire has disappeared, so we’ve to examine Qadi Noman’s work in a different light, and re-evaluate its relevance to our times. The same applies to other aspects of Islamic history. Apart from the core fundamental principles, the usool, everything has historical and cultural specificity – laws, social customs etc. We must understand this specificity and re-examine everything. This is what I mean by reinterpretation of religion.
Dumbing-down of Bohras
“Qadi Noman was a great mind,” Prof. Poonawala adds, “but I do not agree with everything he wrote. His work cannot be accepted in its entirety. This is why I admire the reconciliation between religion and philosophy in the works of Sijistani. He was not officially an Ismaili but converted to it later in life. He was a very learned man and he is the one who brought Neoplatonic ideas to Islamic and Quranic principles. This I pointed out in my book Kitab al-Maqalid al-Malakutiyya (The Book of the Keys to the Kingdom).”
Our Dais of earlier times were also very learned, but as time went by their learning and intellect also declined. The result of this is for all of us to see. The dumbing-down of Bohras has proceeded hand in hand with their increasing inability to use reason. The same can be said other Muslim sects, too. “For Muslims to make a mark,” says Prof. Poonawala, “they have to come to a common understanding of the fundamental teachings of the Quran. The minor differences – such as how you pray, and what you include or exclude in your azan etc. – should be cast aside. Even the Quran says it does not have a monopoly on sending believers to heaven. It says:
‘Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve.’ (Sura 2:62)
“It is clear from this that if you believe in one God and believe in the hereafter and do good deeds towards your fellow humans, irrespective of caste, colour, race then there is nothing you should fear. This is the basic message of the Quran – moral order and socio-economic justice. Now look at the Muslim world, where is social justice, economic justice? Justice disappeared soon after the Prophet’s death. The way war booty was distributed by the Caliphs was unfair so let’s not talk about the ideal Islamic government or the golden period of Islam.”
Heads in the sand
Given the state of the Bohras yoked as they are with the stubborn and exploitative clergy, and with the Imam in hiding, does it mean this is the end of the road, end of the Fatimid Dawat as we know it?
“See this is the thing,” says Prof. Poonawala, “the Sayedna and his administration have their heads in the sand. They must understand that the times have changed. If they want to be relevant now and in the next generation, they will have to reinvent themselves. The brainwashing cannot go on forever. And people too must come out of their slumber. They have to educate themselves.”
“I was in Yemen last June,” he says, “they have a grand mausoleum for Sayedna Hatim, it’s like a mini Taj Mahal. Why did they build this? What for? This kind of extravagance draws unnecessary attention. Other Muslims view this as khurafat (legends), bid’a (innovation). Similarly, their dress and dhadi and topi make them stand out, and that’s why they became easy target in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat. And now when the whole world is condemning Modi our Sayedna is befriending him and showering him with cash.”
So what is the solution? What is the way out for Bohras? Prof. Poonawala shakes his head. He admits there is no easy solution. “People must educate themselves, they must think, and think objectively.” But he knows that Bohras have gone far too deep into the Kothar-induced hypnosis to wake up anytime soon. He despairs over the future of our community, but cannot emphasise enough that we must go back to the source. The Quran is the touchstone, what the Dais and Imams say and do have to be judged against the teachings of the Quran. There is so much enlightened research being done about Islam and so much is being written but Bohras are just not interested. Looking at Bohras and the Muslim world in general he wonders whether the Prophet’s mission, started 1400 years ago, will ever be realised.
“The Prophet was a genius”, says Prof. Poonawala, “in a number of ways. Muslims do not give him much credit for what he did, and unjustifiably attribute his qualities to God. For 23 years he lived a life of uncertainty and challenges. It was the Quranic imperative for him to succeed. His mission was to improve the quality of human life in this world, not in the hereafter. But people will not be convinced so he had to use the best means available. He used religion. It was the currency of the time, and God was feared by all, so he preached his mission through the agency of God. People do not accept anything unless they are made to fear something. This was as true then as it is now.
“In one lifetime no human being has achieved what the Prophet has achieved. The Arab society at that time was far worse than Bohras. They were backward and ignorant, immersed in tribal wars, and the rich were exploiting the poor. The Prophet wanted to change all that. This is what Muslims have forgotten, the Meccan chapters of the Quran which time and again exhort believers toward justice and compassion.
“Islam means,” he continues, “to submit oneself to the will of God. When misfortune comes you must accept it and not raise doubt whether there is God or not. This is the real meaning and understanding of Islam. It is not easy to live in this world, suffering and pain are part of the human condition. When young people die, and when children are killed it does not make sense. In such a situation you wonder what kind of God would bring about such devastation. But no matter what happens your trust in God must not waver. That is the real Islam, and not the belief in five pillars or seven pillars.
“Yes zakat and namaz are important and they are there for the benefit of society, they make you a better person. It has nothing to do with your faith in God which is easily shaken at the first sign of trouble. When your mind is not in prayers then there is no use for running five times a day to the mosque.”
Prof. Poonawala knows that for most people it’s just the outward show of piety that matters. He has read enough of history to know that humans will always be humans: imperfect. Yet we must do what we have to. “I’ve devoted my life to the study of Islam,” he says, “and as long as I live I’ll continue to do what I love doing. It’s been a good life, and personally rewarding, too. I’ve no regrets. Those who are interested in my work will be able to access it and benefit from it. That thought gives me satisfaction.”
He makes light of his achievements. Never seeking fame and publicity, he has quietly and wisely allowed his work to speak for him. And it does speak volumes, literally. Self-effacing he maybe but mealy-mouthed he is not. He speaks truth to power, and like other great Bohra scholars is an important daaim (pillar) of our intellectual tradition. In May this year UCLA is going to honour him for his contributions to Ismaili studies. Well-known and celebrated by the world but shunned by his own. As I leave him that afternoon I cannot help mulling over this sad irony.