Shi?a: Isma?Ili

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Isma˓ili Shi˓a represent the second most important Shi˓ite community after the Twelver (Ithna ˓ashari) Shi˓a and are scattered in more than twenty-five countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America. The Isma˓ilis have subdivided into a number of factions and groups in the course of their complex history.

The Isma˓ilis recognized a line of imams in the progeny of Isma˓il, son of Imam Ja˓far al-Sadiq (d. 765), hence their designation as Isma˓ili. By the 870s, the Isma˓ilis had organized a revolutionary movement against the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. The aim of this religio-political movement, designated as al-da˓wa al-hadiya or the "rightly guiding mission," was to install the Isma˓ili imam belonging to the prophet Muhammad's family to a new caliphate ruling over the entire Muslim community. The message of the movement was disseminated by a network of da˓is or missionaries in many parts of the Muslim world.

The early success of the Isma˓ili movement culminated in the foundation of the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa in 909. Abdallah al-Mahdi (d. 934) and his successors in the Isma˓ili imamate ruled as Fatimid caliphs over an important state that soon grew into an empire stretching from North Africa to Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. The Fatimid period was the "golden age" of Isma˓ilism when Isma˓ili thought and literature attained their summit and Isma˓ilis made important contributions to Islamic civilization, especially after the seat of the Fatimid caliphate was transferred to Cairo, itself founded in 969 by the Fatimids. The early Isma˓ilis developed a distinctive esoteric, gnostic system of religious thought based on a distinction between the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) aspects of the sacred scriptures as well as religious commandments and prohibitions. They also developed a cyclical view of religious history and a cosmological doctrine. The early doctrines were more fully elaborated in Fatimid times by Isma˓ili da˓is who were also the scholars and authors of their community. Isma˓ili law was codified through the efforts of al-Qadi al-Nu˓man (d. 974), the foremost jurist of the Fatimid period, and the Fatimid Isma˓ilis developed distinctive institutions of learning.

The early Isma˓ili movement had been rent by a schism in 899 when a faction of the community, designated as Qarmati, refused to acknowledge continuity in the Isma˓ili imamate and retained an earlier belief in the Mahdiship of the seventh Isma˓ili imam, Muhammad ibn Isma˓il, who was expected to reappear. The Qarmatis, who did not recognize the Fatimid caliphs as their imams, founded a powerful state in Bahrayn, eastern Arabia. The Qarmati state collapsed in 1077.

The Fatimid Isma˓ilis themselves experienced a major schism in 1094, on the death of al-Mustansir (1036–1094), the eighth Fatimid caliph and the eighteenth Isma˓ili imam. Al-Mustansir's succession was disputed by his sons Nizar (d. 1095), the original heir-designate, and al-Musta˓li (1094–1101), who was installed to the Fatimid throne through the machinations of the Fatimid wazir al-Afdal (d. 1121). As a result, the unified Isma˓ili da˓wa and community were split into rival Nizari and Musta˓li factions. The da˓wa organization in Cairo as well as the Isma˓ili communities of Yaman and Gujarat, in western India, supported the claims of al-Musta˓li. The Isma˓ilis of Iran and adjacent lands, who were then under the leadership of Hasan Sabbah (d. 1124), upheld Nizar's right to the Isma˓ili imamate.

On the death of the Fatimid caliph-imam al-Amir (1101–1130), the Musta˓li Isma˓ilis themselves subdivided into Hafizi and Tayyibi branches. The Hafizi Isma˓ilis who recognized al-Hafiz (1130–1149) and the later Fatimid caliphs as their imams disappeared completely after the Fatimid dynasty was uprooted in 1171 by Saladin, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty who championed the cause of Sunnism. Tayyibi Isma˓ilis established their permanent stronghold in the Yemen. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Tayyibi Isma˓ilis split into separate Da˒udi and Sulaymani branches over the question of the rightful succession to the twenty-sixth da˓i mutlaq, Da˒ud b. ˓Ajabshah (1567–1589). By that time, the Tayyibis of India, known locally as Bohras, had greatly outnumbered their Yemeni co-religionists. Da˒udi and Sulaymani Tayyibis have followed different lines of da˓is. Da˒udi Bohras, accounting for the great majority of the Tayyibis, have split into a number of groupings, the largest numbering around 800,000.

Hasan Sabbah's seizure of the mountain fortress of Alamut, in northern Iran, in 1090, marked the effective foundation of what became the Nizari Isma˓ili state of Iran and Syria. Thus, Nizaris acquired political prominence under Hasan and his seven successors at Alamut. In 1094, Hasan also founded the independent Nizari da˓wa and severed his ties with Fatimid Egypt. The Nizari state was comprised of a network of strongholds and towns in several regions of Iran and Syria, in the midst of the Seljuk sultanate. Hasan's armed revolt against the Seljuk Turks, whose alien rule was detested by the Iranians, did not succeed, nor did the Seljuks succeed in destroying the Nizari fortress communities despite their superior military power. A stalemate, in effect, developed between the Nizaris and their various enemies until their state in Iran was destroyed by the all-conquering Mongols in 1256. The Nizaris of Syria, who had numerous military encounters with the Crusaders, and Saladin, among others, were later subdued by the Mamluks. The Iranian Nizaris elaborated their own teachings and adopted Persian, in preference to Arabic, as their religious language. They also established libraries at Alamut, the headquarters of the Nizari state and da˓wa, and other mountain fortresses, also extending their patronage of learning to outside scholars.

The Nizari Isma˓ilis survived the destruction of their state. Initially, for about two centuries, they remained disorganized and developed independently in scattered communities, also adopting Sufi guises to safeguard themselves against persecution. During the Anjudan revival in the post-Alamut period of their history, which lasted some two centuries from the middle of the fifteenth century, the Nizari imams emerged at Anjudan, in central Iran, and increasingly established their control over various communities of their followers, also reviving Nizari missionary and literary activities. At the same time, the Nizaris of Iran and adjacent lands retained different taqiyya or precautionary dissimulation practices of disguising themselves under the cloaks of Sufism and Twelver Shi˓ism, the official religion of Safavid Iran. The Anjudan revival achieved particular success in Central Asia and South Asia, where large numbers of Hindus were converted in Sind, Gujarat, and elsewhere. The Indian Nizaris became locally known as Khojas and they developed an indigenous tradition, designated as the "Satpanth" or true path. The Nizaris of Badakhshan, now divided between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, have preserved numerous collections of Persian Isma˓ili manuscripts. The Nizari Khojas, together with the Tayyibi Bohras, were among the earliest Asian communities to have settled in the nineteenth century in East Africa. In the 1970s and later, many East African Isma˓ilis immigrated to the West. Under the leadership of their last two imams, Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III (1885–1957), and Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, who in 1957 succeeded his grandfather as their forty-ninth imam, the Nizari Isma˓ilis, who number several million, have entered the modern age as a progressive community with high standards of education and well-being.

See alsoDa˓wa ; Khojas ; Nizari .


Daftary, Farhad, ed. Mediaeval Isma˓ili History and Thought. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Farhad Daftary