The Central Asian Studies Unit held a seminar at the IIS, entitled ‘Russia and Ismaili Muslims: Over a Century of Learning’, on 5 November 2012. The seminar explored the contribution of Russian scholarship to Ismaili studies and commemorated the centenary of His Highness Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III’s visit to Russia.
The seminar brought together scholars from the IIS, the ISMC and Russian institutions, including Institute of Philosophy and the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), to discuss various research works and findings. In his introductory remarks, Dr. Daftary highlighted the contributions of Russian scholars, particularly the achievements of Wladimir Ivanow, to Ismaili studies.
Professor Andrey Smirnov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Philosophy at the RAS, who translated Al-Kirmani’s Rahat al-Aql into Russian, spoke about the originality of al-Kirmani’s thought and philosophical disposition, highlighting his contribution to Islamic thought.
Davlat Khudonazarov gave an overview of the visit of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III to Russia in 1912. In his presentation, he provided insight into the relevant background and the relations of His Highness Aga Khan III with the Russian elite. Dr Khudonazarov supplemented his presentation with rarely seen photographs of individuals whom Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah met during his trip to Europe.
Speakers at the seminar discussed the unique contributions Russian scholars have made to Ismaili studies. The pioneering work of Russian scholars, such as Aleksey Bobrinskoy (1861 – 1938), Ivan Zarubin (1887-1964), Alexandr Semyonov (1873 – 1958) and Wladimir Ivanow (1887 – 1934), at the dawn of the 20th century created much interest among subsequent Soviet scholars in the Ismailis, their history, doctrine and contemporary situation.
Russian scholars’ interest in the Ismailis, primarily the Ismailis of Central Asia, dates back to the second half of the 19th century when the Russian Empire was pursuing geopolitical interests against British India in the mountainous region of Central Asia, namely the Pamirs, where Ismailis have lived in significant numbers. The intelligence gathering and exploration of the region, which was initially conducted for military purposes, gradually led to the study of the cultures and traditions of Central Asian Ismaili Muslims.
Many Russian military officers had a background in Oriental Studies and eagerly filled pages of their diaries and reports with descriptions of the cultures and geographical landscape of the region. However, it was a Russian ethnographer and traveller Aleksey Bobrinskoy who provided the first original data in Russian scholarship ascertaining the adherence of the mountain dwellers to the Ismaili Muslim tradition. His work (and the work of others, such as Ivan Zarubin and Alexandr Semyonov) prompted much interest in subsequent years in the traditions of the communities in the region. The tradition of learning and research on Ismailis continues to the present day. From the early 20th century, Mikhail Andreev (1873—1948), Evgeniy Bertels (1890 - 1957), Lyudmila Stroeva (1910-1993) and, more recently, Khayolbek Dodikhudoev, Aleksandr Smirnov, Stanislav Prozorov, Rakhmat Rakhimov, Ramazon Nazariev and others have continued to translate original works of Ismaili intellectuals into Russian and to study the Shi'a heritage in both historical and contemporary contexts.
Participants at the seminar demonstrated the contributions of past Russian scholarship to Ismaili studies and the potential for Russian academia to engage scholars in the field of Ismaili studies, providing a better understanding of the Ismailis of Central Asia and the Russian Federation.
The seminar was accompanied by an exhibition of Russian books and photographs of relevant Russian scholars and military officers held at the Ismaili Centre, which was attended by Russian dignitaries and Ismaili leadership in London.
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