What is Awwal Sufro? Are Ismailis Showing Off Their Wealth in This Ritual?
- Awwal means first
- Sufro comes from Persian Sufra/Sofreh meaning “table spread” (upon which a variety of dishes are presented)
Awwal Sufro is an opportunity for a murid to symbolically present or offer the entire first table spread (sufra) of the Jamati’s mehmani offerings to the Imam of the Time, evoking love, devotion, and honoring the high station of the Imam.
Mehmani is the ritual offering where the Ismaili murid symbolically hosts the Imam at his home and offers the Imam hospitality and a meal (mehman means ‘guest’). The practice of mehmani offered to the Prophet Muhammad is found in various Sunni Muslim hadith:
- A tailor invites the Prophet to a meal of bread and soup that the Prophet enjoyed (Bukhari, Book 34, Hadith 45; Book 70, Hadith 7, 64 & 67; Muslim, Book 36, 199)
- Abu Talha prepared a meal for the Prophet and the Prophet invoked blessings upon it – and then many people ate from the food (Muslim, Book 36, 191)
- Anas b. Malik’s mother prepared a gift of a sweet dish for the Prophet as a gift (Bukhari, Book 67, Hadith 98)
- A fat man who cannot pray invited the Prophet to his house and fed him a meal; the Prophet accepted it and prayed the Duha prayer in his home (Bukhari, Book 10, Hadith 64; Book 19, 57)
- Abu Shu'aib invites the Prophet for a meal prepared by his slave, who was a butcher (Bukhari, Book 70, Hadith 62; Book 46, Hadith 17, Book 70, Hadith 90; Book 34, Hadith 34)
Breakdown of the Awwal Sufro ritual:
- The Mukhi, who represents the Imam during jamatkhana ceremonies, gives a volunteer murid standing at the front of the congregation the permission to start the Awwal Sufro ritual
- The volunteer murid commences the bidding after announcing that “Awwal Sufro is being offered in the Huzur (presence) of Mawlana Hazar Imam”.
- Murids in the congregation bid so they can offer the Awwal Sufro on behalf of the entire jamaat
- After a murid has “won” the opportunity to symbolically present the Awwal Sufro to the Imam, he goes to the Mukhi to receive blessings.
- In a selfless move, the murid asks that the benefit of his offering be granted to “Kull Jamaat wa Kull Ruhani”, meaning the entire jamaat and all departed souls.
- After the Awwal Sufro is done, the announcement: "Man Murad Sufro Khato Khanavadan" is made to give the opportunity and benefit of Awwal Sufro to the rest of the jamaat.
While many non-Ismailis and even some Ismailis think that there is something wrong with this ritual, that it is not Islamic, or that it is just a way for Ismaili murids to show off their wealth, we can look to the Qur’an to see that revelations were made in the time of the Prophet to guide believers to compete with one another in doing good works. One has to understand what is implicit here in making these monetary offerings to the Imam. There is no one who could know better how to put to good use these offerings than the Divinely Inspired and Divinely Ordained Imam of the Time.
“To each of you We have ordained a code of law and a way of life. If Allah had willed, He would have made you one community, but His Will is to test you with what He has given (each of) you. So compete with one another in good works. To Allah you will all return, then He will inform you (of the truth) regarding your differences.”
— Quran 5:48
“And (rather than competing for the things of this world) race with one another to forgiveness from your Lord, and to a Garden the vastness of which is as the vastness of heaven and earth, prepared for those who truly believe in God and His Messengers. That is God's bounty, which He grants to whom He wills. God is of tremendous bounty.”
— Quran 57:21
“Be quick in the race for forgiveness from your Lord, and for a Garden whose width is that (of the whole) of the heavens and of the earth, prepared for the righteous.”
— Quran 3:133
Everyone turns to their own direction (of prayer). So compete with one another in doing good. Wherever you are, Allah will bring you all together (for judgment). Surely Allah is Most Capable of everything.
— Quran 2:148
Those who do whatever good they do with their hearts fearful, knowing that they will return to their Lord it is they who race to do good deeds, always taking the lead.
— Quran 23:61
From the above verses, it is clear that competing with one another in good works is a patently Qur’anic ideal, and Awwal Sufro is putting that Qur'anic ideal into ritualized form.
It is also important to note that the Qur’an here is reshaping the idea of competition, especially formally organized ritual competitive games as they existed in that time period, into one where believers compete with one another to perform good works that will be rewarded in the afterlife instead of competing with one another to gain worldly recognition and reward in this life.
This is made clear in the commentary of verse 5:48 by Qur’anic studies scholar, Thomas Hoffmann:
“The qur’anic concept of an ethical contest of good works (al-khayrat), to be performed by members of the monotheist communities, functioned as an adaptation of the Greco-Roman tradition of the agon, i.e., the ritual-festive competitive games that attracted contestants from the different city-states (e.g., the famous pan-Hellenic periodos, the Olympic, Pythian, Isthmian, and Nemean games)....the notion and phenomenon of the agon could resonate well with pre-Islamic Arabia’s egalitarian and competitive ethos with its fairs and poetic competitions (e.g., the famous fair of Ukaz), as well as its assertive and polemical poetic genres (e.g., fakhr and hija’). However, in the qur’anic preaching the pagan agon was re-imagined and re-written as a monotheist ethical contest or race between the Muslim Believers, Jews, and Christians (and possibly also the Zoroastrians)....The outcome of this ethical race is deferred until after death, until the advent of resurrection and judgment brought about by the one who “knows best” (cf. allahu ‘alam)....the verse Q 5:48 negotiates and proposes an equilibrium between the pagan agonistic ideals and practices of the Greco-Roman/pre-Islamic world and Late Antiquity’s promulgation of monotheist truth commitments. In doing this, the verse evokes a new ethico-Islamic agon to be internalized by the Muslim Believers.”
‘So Race with One Another to Do Good: You Will All Return to God and He Will Make Clear to You the Matters You Differed About” (Q 5:48): Fashioning a New Ethico-Islamic Agon in the Qur’an’
Thomas Hoffmann, University of Copenhagen
Aside from the Qur’anic context, we can find examples from the Prophet’s life which showcase how believers competed with one another to offer food, shelter, and other resources to him. Here is one more example featuring Umar ibn al-Khattab attempting to compete with Abu Bakr in offering more wealth to the Prophet:
Umar ibn al-Khattab reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, ordered us to give charity and at the time I had some wealth. I said to myself, “Today I will outdo Abu Bakr, if ever there were a day to outdo him.” I went with half of my wealth to the Prophet and he said, “What have you left for your family?” I said, “The same amount.” Then, Abu Bakr came with everything he had. The Prophet said, “O Abu Bakr, what have you left for your family?” Abu Bakr said, “Allah and his messenger.” I said, “By Allah, I will never do better than Abu Bakr.”
As we can see, prominent followers of Prophet Muhammad competed to perform good works. Prophet Muhammad was also frequently invited to the homes of his followers for meals. Many narrations mention the Prophet accepting such invitations and participating in meals at his followers' houses. This was not understood as followers of the Prophet showing off their wealth, but an effort to put into practice the Qur'anic ideal of competing with one another in good works. While it is not possible today for the Imam of the Time to personally attend invitations of meals, considering he has 15-20 million followers in over 35 countries, Awwal Sufro and Mehmani are a symbolic way for his followers to obtain the same benefit.