The Ismaili Muslims of Pakistan

A vista view in Hunza, Pakistan. (Dur e Aziz Amna)

Last April, I was in northern Pakistan, taking bone-crushing wagon rides from one valley to another. The Toyota Hiace vans passed deserts bordered by snowy peaks, cherry blossoms on the verge of bloom, a shimmering lake created by a landslide. On many of the regal mountains in the area, I saw signs carved out of white stone. 

“Deedar Mubarak” (Happy Sighting)

“Jashan Mubarak” (Happy Celebration)

For many days, I wondered what the signs referred to until I saw one that said “Ya Ali Madad,” the standard greeting among Ismaili Muslims, who are part of a subsect of Shia Islam. Over the next few days, I stayed with a family in Hunza, a region of Gilgit-Baltistan that borders China. It is a land of mountains and meadows popular with tourists. The family had been in the tourism business for decades: the grandfather had assisted Western mountaineers on their way to K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain peak after Mount Everest. They told me the signs were dug into mountainsides in anticipation of the 2018 visit of His Highness the Aga Khan, imam of the Ismaili Muslims. 

“The Diamond Jubilee,” the grandfather told me. “It was a wonderful time.” He was referring to the celebrations that commemorated the Aga Khan’s 60th year as the spiritual leader of the community.

As part of the jubilee, between July 2017 and July 2018, the imam traveled around the world, from Karachi to Dar es Salaam, Toronto to Kampala, to visit his followers — a testament to how transnational the Ismaili community of 15 million is. The itinerary concluded with a global gathering in Lisbon, attended by thousands of followers from all over the world. My husband is Portuguese, and we were looking at flights around the same time — Kayak’s fare surge was a startling indicator of the community’s celebrations.

Ismailism gets its name from Ismail ibn Jafar, whom followers consider to be the seventh imam, unlike the Twelver Shias (the largest group of Shias) who give that title to Ismail’s brother Musa al-Kazim. During the Fatimid Caliphate of the 10th to 12th centuries, Ismailism climaxed as the largest and most politically powerful sect of Shia Islam, with the Ismaili ruling class overseeing large parts of North Africa and the Levant. Their influence waned with the decline of the Caliphate, with Nizari Ismailis gradually moving to Persia and the Indian subcontinent. Today, Ismailis constitute only 10% of the world’s Shia population, with the majority accepting Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as the 49th Imam, whom they believe has direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad.

Aga Khan (Anya Campbell/Aga Khan Development Network)

Ismailis have had an impact on education, health, and business across the globe. The Aga Khan Development Network is one of the world’s largest private development agencies, with a $1 billion annual budget. The agency works on poverty elimination and the promotion of pluralism and female education in East Africa and South and Central Asia. The Ismailis were among the first South Asians to move to East Africa in the early 20th century, from where many further migrated to North America and Europe, particularly after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s expulsion of Indians in 1972.

Shirin Karsan, an Ismaili Muslim in Philadelphia, was among those who left Uganda as a refugee, and shared that “an ethic of service” was an integral part of her upbringing. She has served as an Ismaili volunteer for various Aga Khan institutions over the years, including its health board. “We [the community] have benefitted much from this value of service, and in turn continue to uphold the tradition by contributing our services to the communities and societies we live in.”

Growing up as a Sunni Muslim in urban Pakistan, I was always aware of the Ismaili community, especially their humanitarian and business ventures. My brothers and I would peer out the car window each time we passed by the Serena, Islamabad’s most glamorous hotel, inaugurated by the Aga Khan in 2002. But traveling to northern Pakistan turned this tacit awareness into an overpowering curiosity.

The one-hour bus ride between Gilgit, a conservative market city and commercial hub, and Karimabad, the busiest city in Hunza, was an experience. About half an hour into the journey, the social landscape out the window began to shift dramatically. Suddenly, there were women and girls on the streets, on their way to and from school and work. They moved with an ease that seemed almost unnatural in Pakistan — so much so that I wanted to get out and ask them, “Do you know where you are?” Of course they did. It was I who did not, who was suddenly blindsided by a Pakistan I didn’t know existed.

Chap shoro at Hunza Pavilion. (Dur e Aziz Amna)

In Karimabad, my first stop was Hunza Food Pavilion, where an aunty churned out chap shoros — fried bread stuffed with seasoned meat and vegetables — as fast as she could for the crowd forming outside her little shop. I waited around instead of grabbing one of the four seats inside, so that I could ask her questions while she cooked. She was nice and cordial, but not very eager to be interviewed.

“You can look me up online,” she said, slapping the dough. “People have written about me.”

I was disappointed, but it made sense: if you’re a woman running a restaurant in Pakistan, some pesky journalist or the other is going to eventually show up.

That night, I had to make an emergency run for sanitary pads. My husband accompanied me to the nearest convenience store a few hours after dinner. Wrapping the Always pads inside a brown paper bag, the store owner gave me a gentle smile.

“You didn’t have to bring him,” he said. “Here, you can walk alone at any time of the night.”

Hunza (Dur e Aziz Amna)

Not only are women visible in public spaces throughout Hunza, but the educational system also caters to women more comprehensively than in the rest of the country. More than 90% of people in Hunza are Ismaili, and almost everyone I met repeated the directive of their imam, famous for saying that if you have money to educate only one child, make sure it’s the girl. While helping my host’s 10-year-old daughter with homework, I was taken aback by the confidence with which she comported herself. A World Bank study from 2014 put the female literacy rate in some parts of Hunza at 90% — nationally, the rate is below 50%.

What sets Hunza apart? I obsessed over this question throughout my days in the region, perhaps to the silent frustration of my hosts. They told me that for decades, Hunza was a very hard place to live in, and in many ways continues to be — throughout my time there, the town had electricity only every other day. The area is as fertile as you can expect a scraggly Himalayan region with long winters to be. For many people in Hunza, educating their children is the only way out of a cycle of poverty and deprivation. Tourism and proximity to the Chinese border also help the region’s social and economic progress. Yet, there wasn’t a single person I spoke with who didn’t mention the spiritual guidance and material help of the imam, whose word and decree are considered final by most members of the community.

Haider Fancy is a member of the Ismaili community and a Ph.D. candidate at New York University’s Steinhardt School. Fancy has worked for several aid organizations in Pakistan, including the Aga Khan Development Network. He told me about his experience growing up in a split household, with an Ismaili father and a Twelver Shia mother. He grew up in Karachi, the city with the largest Ismaili population in Pakistan. Fancy was raised as an “amorphous Muslim,” and said the Ismaili community’s “heavy sense of liberalism,” in particular, keeps him socially and spiritually connected to it.

Hunza River flowing through Karimabad in Pakistan. (Dur e Aziz Amna)

“They don’t leave anyone behind,” he said.

This was a sentiment I heard among countless other Ismailis. Seema* and Rahim* are Pakistani professionals in their early 30s who now reside in Toronto. Rahim, who grew up in Karachi, talked about community programs in the city that supplement schooling for Ismaili children. These optional volunteer-run programs provide lessons on Ismaili history, culture, and practices, as well as activities such as sports and music. They are free for Ismailis to attend, ensuring that each generation grows up with both a strong sense of identity and the tools they need to succeed in the practical world.

But Pakistan’s track record with religious minorities is horrific. There are no two ways about it. I keep circling around the question: in a country where rigid Sunni Islam constantly treats differences as a threat, how have the Ismailis been spared? Fancy told me that until a few years ago, when traveling by road up north meant passing through dangerous territory, Twelver Shias would sometimes carry fake Sunni IDs and Sunnis would bring along fake Shia IDs. For Ismailis, things remained mostly safe. How?

Fancy says that the Ismaili community and its partner organizations focus on creating “tons and tons of goodwill” wherever they go. The Aga Khan University in Karachi is widely considered the best medical school in the country. The Serena Hotels are located in many urban centers, as well as throughout the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region. The Aga Khan Rural Support Program has built micro-hydropower units in areas unserved by the national grid. These initiatives are funded by the Aga Khan and the tithe contributed by the global, often well-settled Ismaili community. While the programs are frequently in areas with a large Ismaili presence, like Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, they are open to everyone living there.

The community also maintains a low profile — yet Ismailis are quite successful. Worldwide, followers of the imam choose to work in fields such as development, economics, and business instead of dabbling in more visible roles, such as in politics. Conversion into the sect is extremely selective and requires community sponsors, but non-Ismaili spouses are highly encouraged to join to increase bonds within the community. Jamatkhanas, Ismaili places of worship, are often open only to Ismailis.

A meal in Hunza (Dur e Aziz Amna)

I asked Seema and Rahim about differences in customs between Ismailis who live in various parts of the country. Each winter, there is large-scale migration from Gilgit-Baltistan to warmer Islamabad and temperate Karachi. Seema pointed to a difference in language: the people of Hunza speak Burushaski and their prayer announcements and songs are in Farsi, whereas the Ismailis of Karachi and Islamabad might use Urdu or Gujarati instead. People from the south are often more affluent, with greater access to educational and economic opportunities both inside Pakistan and abroad. However, Fancy said the religion emphasizes pluralism and differences in customs and geography are celebrated. Practice is meant to shape itself around the material conditions of people. Karsan, part of the diaspora in Pennsylvania, says no matter what part of the world she is in, she feels connected to other Ismailis: “I can feel a sense of community with another Ismaili, no matter their location, language, or ethnicity.”

In many ways, traveling to Hunza felt like stepping into a mirage, pivoting to the Pakistan I wish Pakistan was. Yet, Hunza’s model of social progressivism works largely because of its homogeneity. About 90% of Hunza’s population is Ismaili, meaning that almost everyone agrees on the fundamentals: social progressivism; the details of how, when, and where to pray; the all-encompassing decrees of a benevolent leader. For a long time, Hunza had a tradition of small-scale winemaking, until the imam announced that alcohol was forbidden. Overnight, the myth goes, many followers dug out the vines that grew in their orchards. My host, a man in his 70s whose stamina put me to shame every time we climbed up a steep hill, recalled this with a good-natured shrug.

“We follow what our imam says. But now, I am without my wine.”

 It might depend on who you ask. Some claim the alcohol still flows.

*Two names have been changed to protect anonymity, as Ismailis are discouraged from giving information to outsiders without using official communication channels.

Dur e Aziz Amna is a Pakistani writer based between Rawalpindi, Pakistan, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her work has won an award from the Financial Times and has appeared in Longreads, Roads & Kingdoms, Dawn, The News, and London Magazine, among others. She is an MFA candidate at the University of Michigan, where her debut novel-in-progress has won the Hopwood and Busch Prizes.

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