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Reflections on Keepers of the Faith

Sumaiya Hamdani, an Associate Professor of History at George Mason University, comes from a long line of Islamic scholars and academics from the Hamdani family. From their origins in Yemen they have over the generations made important contributions to Ismaili thought and literature. Sumaiya’s father, the late Abbas Hamdani, was a scholar of Ismaili history and in particular of a volume of the philosophical work the Rasa'il-e-Ikhwan al-Safa (Epistles of Brethren of Purity). The Hamdani family had been in possession of rare and unique books and manuscripts, amassed and copied over multiple generations, which Prof Abbas Hamdani generously donated to the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London.

When I sent the manuscript of my novel Keepers of the Faith to Sumaiya, I was a little apprehensive how she would react to it. I had similar apprehension when I had sent it to Prof. Ismail K. Poonawala but much to my delight he had returned with uncharacteristic fulsome praise. Prof. Poonawala is not easy to please, so his endorsement gave me great satisfaction. Still I was also eager for Prof. Sumaiya Hamdani’s reaction, since I have known through our sporadic correspondences that while she also looks at things with an academic eye, she is also engaged in debates about identity within the Ismaili community. I am delighted to reproduce here (with her permission) her favorable reaction.

Dear Shaukat,

I have just finished reading your novel. I'm sorry it has taken me so long to do so, in part because all throughout I was making mental notes about what to say to you about it. Many things, actually, among them that you have done for the Bohras what MG Vassanji has done for the Khojas. And there he was, being thanked in your acknowledgments at the end of the novel.

I truly enjoyed reading this novel (as much as I did Vassanji's novels, which all the while I did interpolating into his works, what would/could similarly be said about Bohras). Your novel is beautifully written, evocative in its presentation of Bohra culture (especially for those of us who are Bohra of whatever stripe) and India, poignant, relatable and honest (rather than melodramatic) in its portrayal of the novel's main characters' love story. I would be happy to recommend it, and am glad Prof Ismail Poonawala has also provided his imprimatur.

I should add that I am envious of what you have done. You have written about Bohras, and the reform movement among them without resorting to the usual polemics. In presenting a human story and situating that story in the larger context of what was happening in India (and the US) at a certain time, you have not only made Bohras accessible but multidimensional in ways that historians, scholars and spokespeople (like the late Asghar Ali Engineer for example) have not, mired in the doctrines and sectarian politics of the Bohras as their writings have been. You have shown Bohras to be complex, interesting, and engaged! Bravo, and thank you!

But if I may, just a few thoughts provoked by your novel. I wonder if people might wonder, why? Is this a novel about Akbar and Rukhsana, or a novel about the Bohra reform movement? In his works, Vassanji was able to celebrate the inherently syncretistic culture and history of the Khojas. As in, Muslims can be really funky! What is it about Bohras that's worthy of note? Their meticulously preserved medieval doctrines? Their victimization by other Muslims? Their internal divisions? Their role in Indian society, economy, politics?

Obviously, all of those things in some measure. But for me, the why is really about the distortions created by colonialism. By that I mean, that the Raj birthed "native princes" like the Agha Khan and the forebears of the present “mowlana”, and the Indian Republic has ironically given them added privilege in the guise of religious tolerance. Caught between an Islam narrowly defined by Sunni puritans like the Saudis without, and the Hindutva always lurking and now manifest in India within, Bohras have taken refuge in an identity increasingly tied to loyalty to the "mowlana", as a means of preservation.

In other words, it's not just that Bohras are gullible, and the “mowlana” corrupt (which he is), as your novel points out, but rather that the template established by others provides little wiggle room. This is obviously tragic, obviously makes imperative that an alternative narrative be provided, and your novel is certainly evidence of that. It bears repeating, Bohras are both distinctly and distinctively Indian and Muslim at the same time. A necessary rejoinder to both puritanical Sunni Islam, and Hindutva.

As for our "medieval doctrines", what I find fascinating about them and the scholarly families that preserved them, was that they preserved the way in which philosophy compensated for the limits of reason. This is the singular distinction of the Ismaili tradition to which Bohras adhere, and what makes Ismaili Shiism a remarkable branch of Islam.

The role of previous da`is or “mowlanas” was to not only preserve but also to transmit those "haqa'iq" or philosophical and interpretive truths to the community through a process of education and indoctrination for both men and women. We know this to be the case from historical as well as biographical sources from before the 20th century. Unfortunately today, under the recent “mowlanas”, while both men and women continue to be educated in Bohra seminaries and devotional circles, their education is less about that vaunted intellectual tradition than about the lives of their “mowlanas”. Their intellectual heritage has been reduced to soothsaying pronouncements that the characters Qamar and Shabbir in your novel, base their lives and livelihood around. Even among those Bohras who have pursued academic studies of their tradition, the concentration is on very early Shiism, before it became differentiated into Ismaili and other forms of Shiism.

Lastly, on the issue of female circumcision, Bohras practice it as identity marker. I'm sure you know this already, but it became customary from the Fatimid period on, when the Ismailis in Egypt were introduced to it as a universal practice among all communities there (and where it is still practiced). It was defended as a corollary to male circumcision (i.e. only the foreskin of clitoris, not complete excision of clitoris and labia like it is further south along the Nile valley in Sudan, Ethiopia, or in West Africa), and as such it has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with cleanliness, hence appearing in our law books under the heading of "tahara" or ritual purity.

I will leave it there, for fear of bothering you with thoughts not terribly necessary or relevant at this point. Thanks again for writing this novel, and giving me an opportunity to reflect!

— Sumaiya