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Potentially an “Art Object”: Tajik Ismaʿilis’ Bāteni and Zāheri Engagement with Their Imam’s Image

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Abstract This essay explores the way Ismaʿili Muslims living in the Tajik district of Ishkashim engage with images of their religious leader, the Imam (Aga Khan IV). I use Gell’s theory of art and agency to think through instances in which Ishkashimis imbue photographs of their Imam with the capacity to act. They do not treat these images as idols but abduct qualities of the Imam himself, such as his benevolent presence, from his icon. Ishkashimis do not imbue all images of their Imam with agency. Other images, such as newspaper photographs and films, provide information about the Imam as a politically engaged individual. They do not have the agency to act directly on Ishkashimis until and unless Ishkashimis reclaim their own agenda for the Imam’s image by abstracting it from contextualized information, and once more imbue it with agency. The article frames this discussion of images in the Ismaʿili concepts of zāher (visible, apparent, temporal, transient, exoteric) and bāten (interior, hidden, spiritual, eternal, esoteric), questioning the effect of the Imam’s post-Soviet zāheri presence on Ishkashimis’ engagement with his images.

Affiliations: 1: University of Manchester


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