The Economy of Conviction or Toward a New American Syncretism: Ismailiyya and its Imam as the unity of ascetic and cosmopolitan (social justice through capitalist positivism) -- Philip Simon

Familiarity is the opiate of the human mind, and the philosophical underpinnings of the American mind are of course, self-consciously syncretic. The evolution of the national consciousness, though, if it is not to be rather termed decline, must be reinvigorated as its patrimony with the spirit of syncretism if this history which so un-self-consciously reaps the fruits of post-enlightenment technological revolution is to be re-seeded afresh. Hunting and gathering men discovered that crop rotation was the solution to their nomadic limits, and the political fruits of the media-cracies' cultural legacy begs history for past solutions to our current perceptual limits. The American syncretism which continues to unite variously threatened and enhanced indigenous, ethnically homogeneous cultures can be re-evaluated and harnessed and must be channeled into and adapted to this new challenge. The beginning of this adaptation may be seen in what is also a reconciliation, near the roots of the lately most conspicuous example of politicized tribalism, for Islam itself offers a unique and adaptive vision of cognitive coherence in the model of the gnostic Ismaili sect.

Benjamin Barber's aggressive study, Jihad versus McWorld, looks at the new commercial imperialism, the nation-state's legalistic and pluralistic abstractions vis-a-vis the struggle of local peoples to sustain solidarity and tradition (Barber, 232). "The yearning for a reconstructed and remystified community was both fostered and contradicted by modern society's cold rationalism, just as more recently Jihad has been both fostered and contradicted by McWorld's postmodernity" (161). Rationalism to Barber has resulted in a generalized historical discontinuity; the twists and cavorting of modern cognition within such an incoherent context seems vaguely like the activity of a loose fire hose. Our species' memory threads through the fabric of modernity in a pattern no longer recognized for all its sublimity, terrifyingly sublime as traditions may sometimes appear, but such a confused socio-cultural dilemma in the 21st century's media-cracies has responded with the tribalist-consumerist dialectic Barber neatly warns as the death-knell of democratic citizenry. The will to power; the power to consume; consumption of traditions as conveniently packaged as the finest new video release, and a world shaped by anaesthetizing cultural imperatives becomes a war of all against all.

Capitalists often claim that "economics is a value-less science." This is obviously not the historic moment for a worldwide hermetic, though, and no (major) spiritual science has yet claimed souls without some externalized four-dimensional practice or ritual. How, then, can a social science, by all reckoning purely secular in its goals, not represent the moral vision of the society perpetuating it? Can ascetic faith possibly combine with cosmopolitanism, schemes of social justice hand-in-glove with sophisticated economic exchange? Indeed the nature of both faith and material economy incline the contemporary observer and the popular mind to estimate and define the former by its fundamentals and the latter by its practical effects. All meaningful change takes place at the fundament of a system, though, and in such months as these since September 11th, 2001, when religious faith's fundamentals tend to be inductively associated with unilateral, isolated terror, and the politics of economy are called ever greater to account for discrepancies, for hypocrisy and mechanistic shortsightedness, an exploration of the material effects of spiritual belief, under-represented of late, will countermand the non sequitur polarity with which the notion of absolute truth charges competing religious claims, and the social Darwinism by which one notion tends to subsume the Other. McWorld would swallow Jihad would swallow McWorld like Counts Ugolino feeding on the heads of their neighbors for all eternity: the death of intellectual curiosity and spiritual courage signal the decay of enlightened citizenship. An era less stimulated by unifying theories than target markets cannot hope to see reason as a true unifying theory of humanity, nor can juvenile swords raised against a brainwashed juggernaut possibly find the chinks in his armour.

Who can argue that modernism and industrialization have not bequeathed the 21st century a consumer deified by commodity fetishism? The individual thus empowered to receive develops a perception of existence driven to acquire new and more data, simpler because the discipline by which conclusions are earned loses its relevance with the necessity of managing so much information. Industrialized minds have compartmentalized, automated so many cognitive templates that the ability to comprehend systems at their core, the diverse nature of human relations, of human pursuits, of interactive communion with 'other' planes of existence are left at a paucity undreamt of by pre-television citizenries. Synthetic simplification may be a permissible trend if a populace is to remain subjugated by consumption, but if it can be balanced by substantive attempts to holisticize common interaction and pursuit--prevented from becoming oversimplification, and a hollow shell bound to implode under the mass of the fourth dimension--it must.

To date the social institution proven most effective and efficient at redistributing values and wealth has been religion, while in the post-industrial world great social deeds are attributed to little more than economic capital. This redistributive legacy reflects a strength anchored in mercantilism, however religious high-mindedness even when it was a pretext was still a justified approach to problem-solving: mechanism's legacy has bred a wanton utilitarianism since the Renaissance when men began to deconstruct institutions at whose fundament were ideals, 'forms,' yet whose functionality had grown corrupt; they learned how to deconstruct, but not how to reconstruct. Naturally, at the heart of process development is identifying the elements needing to be changed: the utopian experiments have failed, for all that they were meant to be implemented not in the developing world but in the industrialized, where class self-consciousness had matured into identity. A vision of improved humanity, then, must needs be attempted at the moment of change-cognizance by those to whom element-specific changes arrive naturally, not a nation in full socio-cultural transition: revolution has proven to be less enduring than reform.

Constructive reform, though, is a shift in orientation, which emerges first in the personal as a trend accompanying circumstances, less dramatically but with more conviction. And what has traditionally been the homo sapiens’Äô most effective source of conviction? Transcendental consciousness--for the complexity of existence defies organization--and experiential ascent above the organization required to manage economic surplus since the cradle of civilization first encountered it, is man's attempt to balance the synthetic taxonomies of organized society.

It is of course incumbent upon civilized people to explore the implication of their race, place, and context; only this awareness exposes innovative fertilizers to a cultural anthropology pursuing natural cures for the bruising inherent in transition from pluralistic diversity to a single world econo-cultural society. Islamic society in particular has lent itself to Barber's semiotic use of the spiritual struggle, jihad, as beacon to all who would pirate the west's pax anaesthesium industralia-begotten treasures on behalf of a conveniently revolutionary theocratic ideal. Classifying Islam's cultural norms is a slippery slope indeed, taking into account that two predominantly Muslim countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have voted women into power as prime ministers before most western nations. Rich in academic innovation and mercantile prosperity, "Islamic communities have nonetheless undergone drastic declines cultural decline as the West has approached monumental degrees of openness and luxury." And as Fareed Zakaria adds, ( "Until the 1950s, for example, Jews and Christians lived peaceably under Muslim rule. In fact, Bernard Lewis, the pre-eminent historian of Islam, has argued that for much of history religious minorities did better under Muslim rulers than they did under Christian ones. All that has changed in the past few decades. So surely the relevant question we must ask is, Why are we in a particularly difficult phase right now? What has gone wrong in the world of Islam that explains not the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 or the siege of Vienna of 1683 but Sept. 11, 2001?" While the Western world struggles to understand what has gone wrong in the Islamic world to have enabled it to foster violent ideological opposition to what the West perceives as a fundamental belief in pluralism, the class mobility of free enterprise, an inalienable right to vociferate and practice one's conscience, it seems loath to struggle with the possibility that today's geopolitical climate may not explain why Islam has attracted so many Western converts; how its theology can provide a model of consciousness to bridge the divide between wanton materialist consumption, myopic mechanism, and the implemented articles of faith which comprise sincere conviction.

Shia and Sunna, the two major branches of Islamic belief, provide a first striking example of this conceptual exchange: while Sunnism was based primarily on ordinary men, Shiism followed the interpretations of charismatic, hereditary Imams. The "war on terrorism" and its detractors, however, with very few exceptions, seem to make no such distinction--there is simply an Islamic world polarized into moderate or fanatical delegations--for to the extent that both branches revere the concept of struggle both spiritual and political, social and diplomatic savvy are also highly regarded. Islam is a religious, political, and social program, none of which without the others.

The prophet Mohammed passed his nomadic followers a legacy of unity and stability, grounded in the socio-political expression of cosmogonic coherence. Quranic verse 6:1 says, "He has established Darkness and Light:" whereas in Christian mystical soteriology darkness "comprehended not" the creation of Light Islam introduced a holistic paradigm in which both emanate from the same source, present themselves as the discursive/dialectic forces of a harmonious creative destiny. The Shia rejected the authority of the first three Imams as usurpers, only recognizing Ali, and separated themselves from the majority of the Islamic community around the 10th century, the period during which their self-awareness was first emergent. "They were seemingly content to be a kind of permanent opposition. Since what marked them off from Sunnites was also to a great extent their theological views, perhaps they might be regarded as coming near to the modern view of religion as essentially a private and not a communal matter." (Watt, 278) "So the Imamites presumably acted in accordance with their principle of taqiyya or concealing one's true opinions, accepted the caliphs and sultans as de facto rulers in so far as they had power and then exerted whatever pressure they could on them. Belief in a hidden imam, even if this belief was expressed, was not a serious immediate threat to the regime, but in that it was the assertion of a social and political ideal it implied a criticism of actual circumstances." (Watt, 277). A similar socio-political habitude is prescribed by Morris Berman in The Twilight of American Culture , what he describes as the 'monastic option' (132), a guidebook, in his own words, for disaffected Americans who feel increasingly unable to fit into this society, and who also feel that the culture has to change if it is to survive. The mindset he outlines requires endless vigilance, quiet inquiry, what he calls the 'good' Enlightenment tradition--ìalways moving against the grain, always asking us to look deeper into life (138). His "New Monastic Individual" challenges the existing order without a popular movement, reversing the emptiness of a moronized corporate/commercial life (139) in pursuit of the social transformation which begins with the individual's virtuous, optimistic integrity. This is the unity of theory and practice to those who would theorize on social optimism.

In a spirit of uniting theory and practice, and prior to the formal theological distinction between shiism and sunnism, one doctrinal investigation (9th century) of primacy which took place during the maturation period of sunni theology was regarding the nature of the quran itself, and its state as the uncreated word of God vis-a-vis its earthly communication. One prominent group of 9th century theologians, called by Watt (281) the Lafziyya (from lafz, or 'utterance'), began to consider whether or not man's utterance of the Quran is created, himself a created being, since the words God addressed were His eternal speech. So many variances on the solution to this problem arose that it may be one of the first polarizing juridical issues in early Islam, but centrally the purely uncreated and eternal energy of the word of God remained hidden behind man's experience of it. Shia Ismaili Islam has theological grounding in a model of understanding humanity as the corporeal expression, definition, manifestation of a metaphysical contest among supernatural powers, but also as the unity of zahir (revelation/observance) and batin (interpretation/esotericism), the investigation and polemicization of which dichotomous aspects marked a distinctly formative era in the development of Shia doctrines, and led to a doctrinalization of their unity both in intellectual tradition and custom peculiar to the Ismaili--personified by their Imams.

"Almost all the Shia accept that the imams are those described in the Quran as al-Rasikhun'l-Ä-ilm ("Those firmly versed in knowledge"). The problem is whether the true meaning of the sacred word is contained in and derived from the literal text only. Or does it depend on some less obvious or hidden, inner powers that operate independently and at a level above or behind the outwardly manifested scriptural symbols?" ( Walker, 62) Operating at such a level of meditative refinement, the Imam's place as interpreter of the Quranic text necessitates his corporeal expression of zahir, without which there is no batin; though some followers believe that the Imam's revelation or esoteric penetration is his primary raison d'etre, the example of zahir and batin's mystical symbiosis is both the means and end to his pursuit of an experience of consciousness which may be called sacramental realism, sacramental because it sees creation and human endeavor as merely the Platonic shadows of a more perfect, mystical reality, and realist because these shadows exist in a state of un-self-conscious cosmic struggle, an unending battle between angels and daemons’Äìboth of whose influences must be accepted, processed, and respected as discursive weights in the scales atop which creation sits. Within this context Quranic admonishments dictate the fundamental principles and bases according to which works must be done: faiths, the revelations of mystical experience, are thus the guiding force enabling works' form to adapt, as the hidden perfect cosmic struggle advances, to the requirements of changing circumstances. The interpretive element to fundamental Quranic practices has facilitated a community of believers who, since they ruled the Islamic world (the Fatimids, so-called beause they followed only the line of Fatima through her grandson, Ismail) have prospered in spiritual and material unity. At no time since their empire has this been more evident than in the twentieth century in the persons of the family Aga Khan, the current hereditary line in the Imamate, whose immense economic prowess has been parlayed into the Aga Khan University, a major development fund (supported by the United Nations), natural conservations programs, and public, international discouse on nuclear non-proliferation.

"A defining exploration of the Ismaili intellectual tradition involves the imam's interpretation (ta'wil) of the revelation (tanzil), and whether or not the esoteric teaching he conveys adds to what is available in the Quarn's literal meaning. A trend identified by Islamic heresiographers, though, is the surprising preponderance of doctrines upholding the exclusivity of the ta'wil alone and condoning neglect of the tanzil. What this suggests is that those privy to the disclosed, inner meaning of the holy scripture would be provided with a means to avoid the outward obligations of ordinary Islamic duties, such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and alms-tax. Thus, if the literal wording of the law, its zahir, is replaced by its true spiritual meaning, its batin, then only the latter applies, so that the ritual prescriptions of Islamic law cease to be required and the person who has acquired access to the batin, may, accordingly, stop observing them" (Walker, 63). Though rebellious factions and civil unrest marked this tendency's having tainted early Ismailyya, antinomianism was countermanded by the influence of al-Kirmani. Al-Kirmani (Walker calls him the foremost Ismaili scholar and theorist of his generation) insisted that the zahir be maintained: the arabic term ibada means observance, veneration, adoration, service, or divine worship; Ibad are servants, i.e., God's servants; thus Ibada is the service and veneration due God by His servants. He refers to his own doctrine as Ahl al-ibadatayn, which is to say "those of double observance," or "the partisans of double veneration" (Walker, 66). Whereas, says Walker, in the standard discussion of Ismaili doctrines the issue of greatest concern is the relationship between the exoteric and esoteric understandings of scripture and the law, al-Kirmani, who was a fully competent theologian, saw the larger problem which involves matters of faith and works and whether or not being muslim (a believer) is the same as being mu'min (a faithful and obedient servant). (67).

The soul commences its existence empty of knowledge, tabula rasa. If, however, it finds the appropriate teacher it begins to live a life independent of its body and its physical needs; the road to its salvation opens. The teacher (God, Muhammed, the Imams, or their appointed/authorized agents) begins with the things most obvious and easily grasped, such as models and pictures, and traces them back to their theoretical and abstract origin. But this process requires both procedures. To explain the abstract the teacher must employ pictures and thus also move from what is theoretical and intellectually known down into a physical reality. Conversely, the student proceeds from the picture to the abstraction it represents. One is zahir and the other batin (Walker, 78, 79).

The Ismaili tradition is thus a metaphysical doctrine incorporating the spirit of modernity, which in fact spends and collects its contemplative currency in the market of political and economic realities in an approach which abstracts these into a vision of humanity's transcendence, but it is a vision which remains simply abstraction without its infusion into and basis upon cognitive adaptation to social change. Were al-Kirmani's guidance not to have advanced it beyond antinomianism, Ismailiyya risked what Mohammed Khatami indicts in a later movement, Sufism: "Instead of challenging the bitterness of extant political reality and looking for a way of changing that reality through offering alternative realities and visions, Sufism, at least its extreme versions, resisted the dominant political order by negating the relevance of politics and the political altogether--putting forth the proposition that real understanding and salvation could only come from negating all that pertains to this world, including civil society" (9). Khatami identifies in Muslim history a stulted ability for rational thought: "People could not think beyond authoritarianism in the sphere of politics’Ķeither submitting to this fate, or even if they thought of combating the extant authoritarianism, they could not find a mode of resistance other than force and the sword" (10). That resistance to the corporate media hegemon can be reasonable, non-violent, must be grasped before western literacy's last breath, and before playground politics succeeds in colonizing all remaining practitioners of any lifestyle remotely opposed to gratuitous consumption ('enemies of our way of life').

Yet as evidenced by the Ismaili Imamate in the twentieth century, modernity is not a force in which historical discontinuity is necessarily implicit (or prerequisite). To Mohammed Khatami (17), development as the upshot of modernization would seem to to make the latter possible only through tradition's dismantlement; "but these arbitrary assumptions can only satisfy the feeble-minded who feel no responsibility for human destiny. The problem is much too complex to be solved with simplistic solutions. Tradition cannot be transformed through mere prescriptions, nor does modernization come about easily, for until people themselves change, no fateful transformation will happen in their lives, and the transformation of people is a highly complex affair for which individuals often lack the tools." Religion as spiritual regime, though, is primarily a self-transformative endeavour, and it is toward this end that the example of the Imams' unifying force represents exactly the cosmopolitan yet integral, ascetic sublimity essential to the individual's cognitive adaptibility in a complex world of increasingly sophisticating societies.

Democratic systems of governance typify the advancement of political philosophy to its mainstream installation of previously unknown freedoms and social progress. Such highly organized societies require either government or NGOs to proliferate, the latter case being an approach similar to that of the Ismaili Imamate--open, challenging discourse and personal engagement in the social justices fostered by economic progress--which has proven highly effective at actualizing the goals of the Aga Khans and the Ismaili batin through innovative zahir. Western needs differ little from the eastern (or 'Arabic' or Islamic) in this sense, in fact. For in as much as the cultural decline addressed by reformers such as Khatami and development-minded social consciences like the Aga Khans requires of their respective compatriots the courage to reject a determinist approach to media-driven consumption culture, the American mind cannot also remain shackled to this determinism (however less cynical): it is precisely the casual complacence of anaesthetic consumerism/entertainment addiction that makes the discourse among nations with historical continuity and more socially progressive ones seem so farcical and kitsch.

But the Aga Khans are not fanatics: how then have they been able to cover their goals in the fabric of their beliefs? Perhaps as Ralph Waldo Emerson said in Brahma: Far of forgot to me is near, shadow and sunlight are the same, the vanished gods to me appear, and one to me are shame and fame; according to their followers the Ismaili Imams see history through a type of mystical filter, which convinces their strenuously united observance of both ritual regime and its realistic practical extension.

To a muslim observer this may be seen as taqiyya: the Imams realize that no society lasts forever; yet they also clearly realize that it would be a grave waste of consciousness to lose engagement with the world as it is.

What can this mean to a western follower of the example?

Firstly, the privilege of engagement in civilized democracy will be relinquished by those whose consciences and minds are closed to its prerequisites. The syncretic ideal is one that requires passionate openness, unrelenting curiosity, and a perception of 'all things as one.' When President Bush defends the American people's generosity and self-sacrifice he neglects to apprise their corollary intellectual and spiritual passivity; their generosity of spirit is in large part the result of plenty (as could be argued about the Aga Khans); but more importantly, though, it is the inherited moral spirit of participatory democracy.

A further unity of the two, reform of this passivity, is the categorical challenge and social crisis for Americans of the 21st century. And I suggest that, apropos to this time of war, all charismatic leaders of the revealed religions would have had their followers internalize the moral imperative from which war results: that (and this is an optimistic reckoning) human conflict in the name of faith is the result of spiritual cowardice. Mystical revelations are not meant for everyone, or occulted knowledge would not be so-named. Superior (effective) variations of knowledge fused with action, faith with works, inspire an observer to follow the example to its core. Albert Einstein said in "The Goal of Human Existence" that "our Jewish forebears, the prophets, and the old Chinese sages understood and proclaimed that the most important factor in giving shape to our human existence is the setting up and establishment of a goal; the goal being a community of free and happy human beings who by constant inward endeavor strive to liberate themselves from the inheritance of anti-social and destructive instincts. In this effort the intellect can be the most powerful aid." And in the Renaissance tradition--galvanized at mercantile Europe's exposure to Islam's long-preserved spirit of classical innovation--may our intellects more often break molds than synthesize them.


Aga Khan III. Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Mohammad Shah, edited by K. K. Aziz. London: Kegan Paul International, 1998. 2 vols.

Aga Khan, Prince Sadruddin, ed. Nuclear War, Nuclear Proliferation, and Their Consequences. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Ahmad, Farid, and Ba-Yunus, Ilyas. Islamic Sociology: An Introduction. Cambridge: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985.

Barber, Benjamin. Jihad vs. McWorld. New York: Random House, 1995.

Berman, Morris. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2000.

Blum, Fred. Ethics of Industrial Man: An empirical study of religious awareness and the experience of society. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.

Bose, Mihir. The Aga Khans. Kingswood, Surrey: World’Äôs Work, Ltd., 1984.

Brockman, Norbert. Contemporary Religion and Social Responsibility. New York: Alba House, 1973.

Buihdiba, A., ed. The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture: The Individual and Society in Islam. Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 1998.

Corbin, Henry. Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, translated by Ralph Manheim and James W. Morris. Boston: Kegan Paul International, 1983.

Corbin, Henry. Temple and Contemplation, tranlated by Philip Sherrard. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1986.

Daftary, Farhad, ed. Intellectual Traditions in Islam. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2000.

Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.

Elazar, Daniel, ed. Morality and Power: Contemporary Jewish views. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1990.

El-Awaisi, Abd Al-Fattah Muhammad. The Muslim Brothers and the Palestine Question: 1928-1947. New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1998.

Esmail, Aziz. The Poetics of Religious Experience: The Islamic Context. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Occasional Papers), 1998.

Frankenberry, Nancy. Religion and Radical Empiricism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

Golb, Norman, ed. Judaeo-Arabic Studies: Proceedings of the Founding Conference of the Society for Judaeo-Arabic Studies. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1997.

Guerriere, Daniel, ed. Phenomenology of the Truth Proper to Religion. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1990.

Ivanow, W. A Guide to Ismaili Literature. London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1933.

Keshavjee, Rafique, Mysticism and the Plurality of Meaning: The Case of Ismailis of Rural Iran. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Occasional Papers), 1998.

Khatami, Mohammad. Islam, Liberty, and Development. Binghamton, NY: Institute of Global Cultural Studies, 1998.

Khusraw, Nasir, Knowledge and Liberation: A treatise on philosohpical theology, translated by F. M. Hunzai. London: I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1998.

Lachs, Samuel Tobias. Humanism in Talmud and Midrash. Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1993

Mason, Herbert, ed. Reflections on the Middle East. Paris: Mouton and Co., 1970.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.

Reynolds, Vernon, and Tanner, Ralph. The Social Ecology of Religion. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Robinson, Neal. Christ in Islam and Christianity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991.

Tusi, Nasir al-Din, Contemplation and Action: The Spiritual Autobiography of a Muslim Schola, edited and translated by S. J. Badakhshani. London: I.B. Tauris in assocation with the Institute of Ismaili Studies 1998.

Walker, Paul E. Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani: Ismaili Thought in the Age of Al-Hakim. New York: I.B. Tauris, 1999.

Watt, W. Montgomery. The Formative Period of Islamic Thought. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1973.

Weinstein, Sara Epstein. Piety and Fanaticism: Rabbinic Criticism of Religious Stringency. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, Inc., 1997.

FIELD: First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database. 4 October 2001.

The Institute of Ismaili Studies Website. 4 October 2001.