Ismā’īlīs, also known as Ismā’īliyya, is an Islamic sect, comprised of many subsects, and commonly identified with shĪ’ite Islam. Ismā’īl, the son of Ja’far al-Ṣādiq, the sixth Shī’ite imĀm, died before his father in about 762. Upon the latter's death one group of Shī’ites refused allegiance to his son Mūsā and chose instead Ismā’īl's son Muḥammad as imām. After Muḥammad's death a further split divided the Ismā’īlīs. Some accepted the belief that this Muḥammad had been the last imām who would return to the earth at the end of the world; this group came to be known as the "Seveners" (sab'iyya, i.e., those accepting only seven imāms, in later distinction to the "Twelver" or ithnā 'ashariyya, i.e., those Shī’a Muslims whose line of imāms ended with the 12th in succession from Ali through Mūsā). It was this group that established the Qarmatian Empire of Arabia toward the end of the 9th century. The Sevener Qarmatians proper disappeared after about two centuries. The other group, which came to be known as the Fatimids (after Fāṭimah, Maḥammad's daughter and Ali's wife), chose a son of Muhammad ibn Ismā’īl as imām and accepted the imāmate of his successors. Parties of both of these groups, Qarmatians and Fatimids, were also called Baṭinites and Ta'limites.
The Fatimid Ismā’īli movement gained a considerable following throughout the Islamic world and orga-Muh nized itself according to a secret discipline. From 902 to 904 an unsuccessful attempt was made to conquer Syria. The imām ‘Ubaydullāh (known as al-mahdĪ) fled to North Africa to lead a far more rewarding campaign. Within 70 years the Fatimids ruled, from the newly founded capital city of Cairo, an empire that included most of Muslim Africa and Palestine. The body of the population was not converted to Ismailism, however, and rivalries within the ruling group led to schisms and the gradual diminishing of Fatimid power. The first important schism was that of the Ḥākimiyyah or druzes, who worshipped Caliph al-Ḥākim (d. 1021), who was responsible for the destruction of the Holy sepulcher.
Thereafter the Ismā’īlīs remained split between the so-called Musta’li and Nizari branches. The Musta’lis were for a long time centered in Yemen, but enjoyed such missionary successes in India that their headquarters were transferred there in the 17th century. There they subdivided into the Da'ūdis and the Sulaymānis, the latter a Yemenite party. The nizĀrĪs, who have had a more illustrious history, later split into two subsects, the Qāsim-shahis, who survive in large numbers under the leadership of the Aga Khan, and the Muḥammad-shahis, who became almost extinct in the 17th century. The majority of the Muḥammad-shahis, mostly Syrians, subsequently united with the Qāsim-shahis. Nizari Ismailism has prospered especially in Persia, India, and (owing to the migrations from India) East Africa. Missionaries from Persia had already opened centers in India in the 14th century. They presented an Ismaili doctrine, tinged with sufism, that showed itself willing to absorb Hindu elements. The vitality of the Khoja Ismā’īlīs in India is a noteworthy result of that initiative.
It is exceedingly difficult to form a complete and coherent picture of Ismaili doctrine. For the earlier period of Ismaili history the sources of information on doctrine are few; for the later periods they are ambiguous and polemical. Ismailism seems always to have insisted upon the transmission of an esoteric knowledge centered mainly but not exclusively upon a hidden or "inner" meaning (Arabic bâtin ) of the qur’Ān. The guidance of the imāms, for all the difference of opinion on their identity, was regarded as essential since, even in its less extreme manifestations, Ismailism generally accorded them semidivine reverence. The imāms were in fact at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of "emanations" of God, the structural theory for which, it is widely supposed, was derived principally from Neoplatonic works. The Ismaili Epistles (ed. K. Al-Zirikili, Cairo 1928) of the Ikhwān al-Ṣafā (Brethren of Purity) demonstrate how great was Ismailism's debt to Neoplatonism and remain one of the chief sources of modern knowledge of Ismaili doctrine.
Bibliography: s. m. stern, Studies in Early Isma’ilism (Leiden 1983). a. meherally, Understanding Ismailism: A unique Tariqah of Islam (Burnaby, B.C., Canada 1988). f. daftary, The Isma’ilis: Their History and Doctrines (Cambridge, Eng. 1990). f. daftary, Mediaeval Isma’ili History and Thought (Cambridge, Eng. 1996). f. daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community (Edinburgh 1998).