The Asian Chapter Group of the Institute of Ismaili Studies organised their Annual General Meeting in Istanbul, Turkey from the 4th-7th of July 2013. The conference was attended by alumni from several Asian and African countries, esteemed speakers from Turkish academic institutions, senior advisers to the Turkish Government and academic and non-academic professionals from IIS. The theme for this year’s conference was “Secularisation and its Impact on Faith Communities”. The processes and outcomes of secularisation were discussed through a series of lectures.
Turkey has a rich history and a unique geographic position that straddles Asia and Europe and which has influenced and been influenced through its interaction with both. It provided an ideal intellectual and cultural arena for the alumni to indulge in a healthy discussion and dialogue while exploring the city’s historic and contemporary landmarks.
The seminar started with a welcome address by Minaz Master, President of the Asian Chapter Group. This was followed by a presentation by Steve Lewitt, the Head of Human Resources at the IIS. Steve encouraged IIS alumni to apply for positions at IIS and provided them with the knowledge and guidelines on how to do so. More importantly, he conveyed to the alumni their continuing importance as a resource for the IIS.
This practical session was followed by a stimulating lecture by Professor Recep Senturk, from the Alliance of Civilizations Institute at Fatih Sultan Mehmet University, entitled “Secularisation and its Impact on Religious Literacy”. He provided multiple definitions of the term ‘secularisation’ and outlined the complex and often fluid roles ‘religion’ and ‘science’ play in the development of human civilisation in addressing questions raised by the human intellect.
Professor Recep’s session was followed by a visit to two ancient, revered buildings in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Hagia Sophia has been a church, mosque and museum in its long history. Topkapi Palace has been a center of military administration, a royal residence and home to religious relics as well as the crown jewels of the Ottoman Empire; both buildings symbolise a curious intermingling of the religious and the secular. The visits complemented the earlier presentation and provided room for reflection.
On the second day of the seminar, the theme of secularisation was continued by Dr Hadi Adanali (Senior Advisor to the Prime Minister of Turkey), who spoke on the topic “Faith and Reason in the Public Sphere,” and Professor Mehmet Pacaci (Ankara University Divinity School and Director-General for External Relations at the Presidency of Religious Affairs), who talked on “Secularisation and Its Impact on Gender, State and Human Rights: Prospects and Predicaments”. Both speakers described Turkey’s unique journey from the days of the Ottoman Empire to the modern Turkish Republic. They outlined the challenges faced by Mustafa Kemal and subsequent leaders of Turkey and the ideology or ‘mode of operation’ adopted, as they navigated between influences from the East and the West to help Turkey find its own cultural identity and economic base.
Each of the presentations was followed by a question and answer session, which allowed participants to seek further information and to apply the ideas shared by the presenters to other Muslim and non-Muslim contexts. One of the conclusions of the Q&A sessions was that Turkey’s geographic location and historic links with Europe make its religious-secular path one that may not necessarily be applicable to all Muslim countries; yet Turkey itself is an inspiration for many Muslim nations.
The last session of the day was conducted by Dr Daryoush Mohammad Poor, a Research Associate in the Department of Academic Research and Publications at the IIS, who delved into Ismaili philosophy and mysticism, drawing on classical Ismaili sources as well as writings of contemporary philosophers from the East and the West. This session was followed by ‘zouq’ – a taste of a real mystical sama. The alumni attended a performance by the whirling derwishes of the Mevlavi order. The Mevlavi order was named after Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi, a Sufi whose poetry and dance in celebration of divine love, is globally renowned. Although Rumi lived in Konya, many followers of the order can be found performing this legendary dance in Istanbul.
On the last day, the alumni journeyed down the Bosphorus Sea, during which they had time to talk, relax and bond over the magnificent waters. In the afternoon, Shiraz Kabani, Head of Community Relations at IIS, delivered a presentation during which he spoke of ways in which alumni can contribute to spreading knowledge from IIS. In particular, he spoke of the various publications by the IIS and why it is important that alumni contribute to the dissemination of the knowledge in these books to others in the Ismaili community and beyond.
After the closing remarks, it was time to say farewell. The ties that alumni have formed at the IIS are consolidated at these alumni conferences each year and continue to enrich their lives both personally and professionally.
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