The word majalis is derived from the verb jalasa, meaning to sit down or to hold a session, and majalis therefore means meeting or assembly. (Koran: 68:11-12)
In pre-Islamic period, the majalis designated an assembly or council of the tribe’s notables. In various states of the Middle Ages, an elaborate governmental structure contained a series of majalis, such as majalis al-baladiyya (municipal council), majalis al-wuzura (council of ministers), etc.
Darimi quotes in his Sunan (Cairo, 1978, 1:87) the Prophet as saying: “The best assembly is the one in which wisdom is spread.” Abu Sa’id Khudri reports that the Prophet said: On the day of judgment, God will say: “This gathering (majalis) will shortly know who the charitable are?” So he was asked, “Who are the charitable?” The Prophet said, “Those who belong to the majalis of zikr” (Hayatus Sahaba, Karachi, 1999, 3:310). Ibn Abbas narrates that Abdullah bin Rawahah was exercising his companions the zikr of God in a majalis (Ibid. 3:311). Abdullah bin Umar once asked, “What is the booty of the majalis of zikr?” The Prophet said, “Paradise, Paradise” (Ibid. 3:313). The Prophet said, “Make your majalis lively with the remembrance of Ali bin Abu Talib” (Bihar al-Anwar, 38:199).
It is said that the Ismaili members of the Ikhwan as-Safa in the period of Imam Taqi Muhammad (d. 225/840) formed a sort of Maonic Lodge, who lived in the Lower Mesopotamian river port of Basra. Their philosophical majalis took place on three evenings each month at the start, middle and sometimes between 25th and the end of the month. They also celebrated three major majalis in the year in their secret lodge, i.e., Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Ghadir. They also held special majalis, each one on every twelve days.
In Ismaili tariqah, the majalis denotes symbolically the incomparable achievements, deeds or the services of the faithful rendered in the past. For instance, Anas bin Malik reports that Umm Sulaim used to roll out a leather floor mat for the Prophet during his visits, so that he could take his afternoon nap on it. Abdullah bin Masud enjoyed the confidence of the Prophet and it was he who looked to the arrangements for ablutions, the tooth-sticks and the nightly rest of the Prophet when he was on a journey. Whenever the Prophet retired from the meeting, Abdullah bin Masud would come to put on his shoes. He would walk ahead with a staff as the Prophet passed along the streets, and whenever the Prophet would join a company and take his seat, he would help him take off his shoes and keep them in his charge pressed under the arm till the Prophet rose again. (Tabaqat ,8:126). Bilal looked after the household arrangements of the Prophet. He did the Prophet’s shopping, negotiated loans and cleared them off. Bilal was also the purse-bearer of the Prophet. He was also assigned to look the entertainment of the guests (Abu Daud, 2:27). Anas bin Malik was a devoted attendant. He was very young when the Prophet came over to Medina. His mother, Umm Salim came to the Prophet and offered to leave the boy with him to serve him (al-Muslim,3:21). Anas bin Malik stayed with the Prophet’s service for ten to twelve years. His duties were to run the Prophet’s errands, fetch water for ablution and do other odd jobs (Abu Daud, 2:46). Some parents presented to the Prophet their children for his blessings. Some of them considered it a privilege if their sons were accepted by him as his attendants (Tabaqat, 8:234).
The selfless services of the Companions of the Prophet and the adherents of the Imams have been incorporated symbolically in different majalis in the Ismaili tariqah.