Why Does Joining a Majlis Require a Monetary Offering? Majlises Explained

The Question

Why do certain majlises cost certain amounts in “entrance fees”? How does this relate to the notion of “equality” and “equal opportunity” in our faith? Isn’t this practice discriminatory against those Isma’ilies who cannot afford to join majlises?

The Answer

This question is best answered by going back to the origin and concept of the majlis. The word majlis itself just means gathering or session. In the Ismaili tradition, there are at least  two types of majlis. 

Firstly, in pre-Fatimid and Fatimid times, a majlis was a teaching session actually referred to as a majlis al-hikma. In these, whose level varied according to the knowledge of the murids, the Imam’s da’is instructed the murids on the esoteric interpretation of the Qur’an and ritual practice.

Lessons in the batin, known as the “sessions of wisdom” {majalis al-hikma), on the other hand, were only accessible to initiates. They were held not in the mosque, but within the palace, where admission of the participants was easier to control and where privacy was guaranteed. A special room was reserved for the purpose.  Al-Nu’man [see his life story here] held these sessions in person, as he repeatedly points out. They took place on Fridays, but after the afternoon prayer (‘asr), when the crowds had dispersed and only the “friends of God” (awliya’ Allah), as the Ismaili initiates called themselves, had stayed behind.

– Heinz Halm, (The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris, 1997, p 28)

The teaching sessions for the initiates did not merely serve to instruct them. Our text reports that on these occasions the believers also had to pay certain dues, the najwa and the fitra. The term najwa means “confidential discussion” and probably refers to the Quran (58:12)… So, according to Ismaili doctrine, the The najwa is a charitable gift which the believer makes to show his gratitude for the favour of the instruction.

– Heinz Halm, (The Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Tauris, 1997, p 28)

For being part of the majlis, its members made a monetary offering (sadaqah) — called najwa — to the Imam. During the Prophet’s lifetime, believers held private consultations, called najwa, with him and were encouraged in the Qur’an to make offerings for these. These offerings were said to be a means of purification for the believer.

O ye who have faith! When you privately consult the Messenger, then present an offering (sadaqah) before your private consultation (najwakum). That will be best for you, and purer for you. But if you find not (the means), God is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

– Holy Qur’an 58:12

The second form of majlis is one in which Khoja Ismailis partake in today. This form originates after Imam Hasan ‘Ali Shah (Aga Khan I) migrated from Persia to India and, after his arrival, some Khoja Ismaili murids wished to offer the Imam services akin to what murids had offered in the past, during the Fatimid and Alamut periods. Services such as being the Imam’s maid, servant, chamberlain, cook, army general, entourage, and so forth. Imam Hasan ‘Ali Shah explained that he no longer had physical need for such service due to changed circumstances — he was, by these times, accompanied by a large group of servants. However, the Khoja murids insisted and offered to give an amount equal to the salary of a servant as a  substitute of doing actual service (which the Imam could not accommodate). The Imam appreciated this devotion and graciously accepted their loving offer.

When our Mawlana Imam Aga Shah Hasanali Shah had settled in India, an ardent mureed offered his voluntary service. The Holy Imam explained to him that there were more than enough servants in his service. The mureedoffered to pay an amount equivalent to the salary of a servant for a year as a substitute of his service. Appreciating his sentiment the Imam gladly accepted his loving offer.

– Al-Wa’z Abualy A. Aziz, (Ismaili Tariqah, Volume II, 1985, p 106)

In time, Khoja murids made various offerings symbolising 5, 12, and 50 year’s of service, which the Imam graciously accepted. Since the average life in those days was about 50 years, 5, 12, and 50 year’s of service amounted to roughly 10%, 25% and 100% of a life, the offerings were assigned that percentage of a servant’s lifetime’s earnings. During the time of Mawlna Sultan Muhammad Shah, murids who had symbolically offered these amounts of service were organized into corresponding formal majlis groups — today known as Panch Bar Saal (5 to 12 year’s service), Life Dedication (50 year’s service), and so forth — which met monthly. He also issued specific farmans to each. Note, the Qur’an praises those believers who offer their wealth and lives in service to the Prophet and the Imam: 

Lo! those who believed and left their homes and strove with their wealth and their lives for the cause of Allah, and those who took them in and helped them: these are protecting friends one of another. 

– Holy Qur’an 8:72

In thinking about these majlises today, we should remember that, firstly, offering service to the Imam, in any form — actual physical service or symbolically through a majalis — is always a voluntary offering of devotion to the Imam murids choose to make themselves. It is not ordered by the Imam, and volunteering service symbolically, monetarily, was requested by the murids and accepted by the Imam. This is different from the Chandraat majlis, which the Imam himself established for his murids and whose attendance is obligatory. Secondly, the actual amount offered is not an entrance fee, but a symbol of service, with a different amount symbolically representing a different amount of service — such as 5, 12 or 50 years service — that the murid wishes to offer the Imam. For some 100 years — since the period of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah — the amount of money representing years of service has not increased with inflation; so the amount for the various majlises remains quite nominal even today.

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