The Nizari, or more properly the Nizari Isma˓ili Muslims, like other Shi˓i communities, acknowledge Ali as imam after the Prophet. The Nizari Isma˓ilis have continued to give allegiance to imams descended from ˓Ali, on the basis of the principle of designation (nass) by the imam of the time. As of 2002, His Highness the Aga Khan, Shah Karim al-Husayni, is the forty-ninth hereditary imam.
Following the decline of the Fatimid Isma˓ili dynasty and the death of Imam al-Mustansir Billah in 1094, one group of Isma˓ilis continued to give allegiance to the previously designated imam, al-Nizar (hence their name), and moved their headquarters to Iran and Syria, where they established independent principalities. Though under constant threat, their centers flourished under the imams as important places of learning, international trade, and diplomacy for almost two hundred years, before being destroyed during the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century.
Faced by new challenges of reorganization, often in the face of hostile opposition, the Nizaris gained control of several strategically located mountain centers in Iran and Syria led, respectively, by Hasan-e-Sabbah and Rashid al-din Sinan, two leading da˓is (representatives of the imam) of the time. These provided defensible centers from where to organize a decentralized and scattered community. They were continually attacked by successive Seljuk rulers but were able to offer a strong defense from their inaccessible castles. One legend that labeled them "assassins," which was developed by their enemies and embellished by Marco Polo, became current in popular writings. However, modern scholarship has shown these stories to be largely fabrications that owed more to religious bigotry, prejudice, and sheer invention than historical reality.
During the next five centuries after the destruction of the centers in Iran in 1258, the Nizaris, though scattered and often persecuted, sustained their religious, intellectual, and community traditions in Iran, Syria, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. They maintained contacts with the imam of the time living in Iran, and they further developed the Isma˓ili intellectual heritage in Arabic, Persian, and the vernacular Central Asian and Indian languages that has survived in written as well as oral forms.
In the nineteenth century, the Nizari Isma˓ili imamat moved from Iran to India and then to Europe. Many followers migrated in the later part of the twentieth century to Africa, Europe, America, and Canada, where they have also been joined by a small number of Nizari Isma˓ilis migrating from Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria. In the early twenty-first century, this community of diverse backgrounds is found in all five continents and some thirty countries.
The imamat (office of the imam) and the heritage of Islam, as expressed within Nizari Isma˓ili Shi˓ism, continues to be at the heart of the modern emergence of the community. It is guided in the respective national contexts by constitutions that bring a common pattern of practice and governance, and a strong ethos of voluntarism and development in social, educational, and economic spheres. Spiritual and devotional life is maintained in the Jamaatkhana, spaces of gathering, in each major place of Isma˓ili settlement, which in some cases are buildings of outstanding Muslim design and architecture.
Azim, Nanji. The Nizari Ismaili Tradition in the Indo-PakistanSubcontinent. New York: Caravan Books, 1978.
Jamal, Nadia Eboo. Surviving the Mongols: Nizari Quhistani and the Continuity of Ismaili Tradition in Persia. London: I. B. Tauris, 2002.