Qualities of a da’i: knowledge of zahir and batin, piety, humility, generosity, forgiveness, ability to protect the weak
The Arabic term ‘da’i’ literally meaning ‘one who summons,’ or ‘calls for a particular cause,’ was applied by several Muslim groups to designate their missionaries, but in the Ismaili tradition, the term referred to an authorised person appointed by the Imam’s permission, to teach Ismaili doctrines. Only candidates who possessed advanced educational qualifications and intellectual attributes could be designated as da’is.
Fatimid da’i Ahmad al-Naysaburi’s (d. ca. 1014) manual on the ideal da’i, titled A Brief Epistle on the Requisites of the Rightly-guiding Mission (al-Risala al-mujaza fi shurut al-da’wa al-hadiya), gives a detailed description of the characteristics and duties of a da‘i.
A da’i must have an equally perfect knowledge of the zahir and batin. Apart from knowledge of strictly religious matters – the Qur’an, the commentary on the Qur’an (tafsir), the Traditions of the Prophet (hadith), stories of the prophets (qisas al-anbiya), and the Ismaili interpretations of these writings (ta’wil) – the ideal da’i is expected to have an almost encyclopaedic culture: logic and philosophy, history and geography belong equally to his accomplishments so that he may be equipped for any discussion among scholars.
The da’i also had to be in a position to travel so that he could regularly inspect his region, and had to have knowledge of the local languages in order to teach the message to the people.
Thirst for knowledge is a virtue: the ignorant man should not be ashamed to ask questions, and even the knowledgeable, when there is something he has ignored, should admit it.
A polite, friendly and modest behaviour towards everyone was an important characteristic of the perfect da’i.
If a da’i was incapable of conducting the da’wa in the manner described, then the faith of the followers would be destroyed. They would turn away from the truth and become antinomians or materialists. They would start having doubts about religion, and this would lead to disputes and conflicts…It was up to the da’is to prevent such dire consequences.
A da’i must possess the good qualities of an expert lawyer (faqih), because he often has to act as a judge; he must possess patience (sabr), good theoretical education (ilm), intelligence, psychological insight, honesty, high moral character, sound judgement, etc. He must possess virtues of leaders, such as a strong will, generosity, administrative talent, tact and tolerance. He must be in possession of the high qualities of the priest, because he has to lead the esoteric prayer of his followers. He must be irreproachably honest and reliable, because the most precious thing, the salvation of the souls of many people, is entrusted to him…
He must have the virtue of the physician, who delicately and patiently treats the sick, because he himself has to heal sick souls. Similarly, he has to possess the virtues of an agriculturist, of a shepherd, of the captain of a ship, of a merchant and the like, developing in himself the good qualities required in different professions.
The da’i has to know the ranks and grades of scholars (ahl al-ilm) and appreciate and honour them. He must not notice whether they are poorly and shabbily dressed…When people notice that scholars are highly esteemed, they themselves yearn for knowledge and start studying.”
Adapted from “The Organization of the Da’wa,” The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning by Heinz Halm, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 1997
Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq said:
“Study in order to acquire learning, and to adorn yourself with it; cultivate dignity and goodwill; treat with respect those who teach you, and those you teach. Do not make your learning oppressive to anyone, and do not permit your vanity to destroy the effects of what is really good in you.’
‘Be silent da’is for us,’ meaning: behave in such a way that your example alone be sufficient proof of the superiority of your religion.”
The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, p 61
Further reading: Imams’ da’is and the Ismaili da’wah at Ismaili Gnosis