Tragedy descends on Ismailis

By K.N. Pandita

On Wednesday, a bus carrying about 60 people was on its way from Safoora Chowk in Karachi to Ayesha Manzil Ismaili centre. Six gunmen, dressed in police uniform and riding motor bicycles stopped the bus. They climbed on the bus and one of them yelled “kill them all”. Hell was let loose on innocent people of Ismaili faith. Forty-five were left dead and 13 injured in the attack. The driver was also shot dead, and an injured and bleeding passenger drove the ill-fated bus to the nearest hospital were the injured were admitted for treatment.  

In the history of terrorism and communal/sectarian violence in Pakistan, this is the first time that gunmen have made the Ismailis target of their bullets. The dastardly act stands in diametrical opposition to the peaceful and non-violent community that the Ismailis are. The tragic incident brings to my mind six massacres perpetrated by Kashmir terrorists on innocent Kashmiri Pandits during the early phases of terrorism.

Two Pakistan-based terrorist groups, the Pakistan splinter group called Jundullah, and Islamic State (IS), both said they had carried out the attack. However, a little later, Tehreek-i-Taliban-i-Pakistan, that is fighting Pakistan army in Waziristan also claimed responsibility of the attack. This shows that in liquidating Shia community in Pakistan, the main terrorist groups are in complete unison.

Jundullah (literally meaning the “Legions of Allah”) is a splinter group of Pakistani Taliban specifically assigned the duty of carrying Sunni Jihadi fire and brimstone across the western border of Pakistani province of Baluchistan into Iranian part of Baluchistan in the Iranian border town of Zahedan.

On 14 February 2007, Jundullah terrorists had sneaked into Iranian border town of Zahedan and gunned down 18 Shia Iranian Revolutionary Guards almost in identical manner in which they killed 41 Ismaili Shias. Five days later, Iranian authorities announced the execution of one Nasrollah Shanbezehi. He was hanged in public at the site of the bombing. He was said to have been tried and sentenced by a branch of the Revolutionary Committee.

A day later, on 15 February, Jundullah claimed responsibility for the attack. The Iranian government then arrested five suspects, two of whom were carrying camcorders and grenades when they were arrested, while the police killed the main “agent” of the attack. Among the arrestees was Said Qanbarzehi, a Balochi, who was hanged in Zahedan prison three months later. He had been sentenced to death at the age of 17 along with six other Balochi men. In all 68 persons were indicted and given capital punishment by the Iranian government. Ever since, Jundullah has not had the guts to embark on another killing spree inside Iranian territory.

Who are the Ismailis? Students of Islamic studies have to know the history of Ismailis because it is one of the most important Shia sects that initiated the great intellectual movement of reason and rationality in Islamic society in the 10-11th century A.D.

Ismaili Shias, in common with other Shia Muslims, revere Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, but they also revere the Imam Ismail who died in 765 AD. They consider the house of Aga Khan descending from Imam Ismaili after whom they are called Ismailis. They interpret the Koran symbolically and allegorically. They live in more than 25 different countries

Spiritual leader Prince Karim Aga Khan is a philanthropist and business magnate. He gives his name to bodies including a university, a foundation, and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has encouraged Ismailis settled in the industrialized world to contribute to those communities

Ismailis consider the Aga Khan their hereditary spiritual guide. They mostly inhabit the Himalayan region of northern Pakistan, but also have a significant presence in Karachi where they run businesses and charities, and tend to use community-built accommodation and transport.

A decade ago, I had the opportunity of visiting Badakhshan Mountain ranges in Southern Tajikistan in connection with a seminar organized by the Aga Khan Foundation in the southern town of Khorog with a sizeable population of Ismailis holding steadfast to their traditional culture. It was during this seminar that I had the opportunity of meeting and talking to Prince Aga Khan for a while.

Contribution of Ismailis to rational sciences in Islamic civilization has not been surpassed so far despite the fact that this contribution began as early as the 10th-11th century A.D. Central Asian and Iranian thinkers of those times had drunk deep from the fountain of Greek philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, Plotinus and others whose renowned works in Greek were translated by the polyglots of the day into Arabic. These Arabic texts of Greek masters generated the urge for logic and reason among the Muslim scholars of Central Asia and Iran. Thus began the age of reason in Islamic history, and a host of Ismaili scholars led by great philosophers like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Al-Farabi, al-Kindi, Abul Haitham and others laid great stress after Greek philosophers, on logic as the key to all knowledge. They went to the extent of saying that delicate and sensitive theosophical matters like prophet-hood, scriptures, mythological lore, miracles etc. all could be debated through the instrument of logic.

Obviously, when Ismailis dragged logic to that extent, the orthodoxy retaliated and it was with the emergence of Al-Ghazali in 12th century A.D that opposition to logic and the process of reason began and blind faith attained dominance with the Muslims. Supported by the muscle of feudal structure of Muslim society of Iran, Khurasan and Central Asia of those days, the era of reason receded but the struggle for supremacy of reason was carried surreptitiously by the Ismailis for a long time.

In fact the turmoil and conflict that we find within the Islamic fold today is the spill-over of the conflict that began in 12th century. Modern times being the age of advanced science and technology, have exacerbated the conflict and the orthodoxy feels that it can survive through the unleashing of violence only.

This is why the Jundullah and TTP bear a grudge against the Ismailis. They targeted a large number of Ismailis in Karachi. But given the international influence and reach of Prince Aga Khan and the great humanitarian works that his Foundation is doing in many parts of the world including Karachi, the massacre is bound to cause ripples in Pakistan politics. This is the reason why the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the Army chief both lost no time in flying into Karachi to take stock of things.

Interesting to note is that it was the Aga Khan Foundation unit in the University of Karachi that had deputed a team of surveyors to examine the possibility of establishing overland connection between Pakistan and Tajikistan. Even behind the contemplated project of supply of Rogan electricity in Tajikistan to Pakistan is the hand of Aga Khan.

It is a travesty that a people and their organizations committed to rendering support for the development of Pakistan and other societies are made the target of bullets by the terrorists.

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