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ISMAILIYAH. The Shi movement called the Isma’iliyah, with a number of widely differing subsects, deeply influenced Islamic intellectual life in the tenth through thirteenth centuries. It is quite separate from the majority sect of Shi-I Muslims, the Twelvers or Imamis.

The origins and early history of the Isma’I1lyah are obscure. Following the death in 765 CE of the sixth Shl’! imam, Ja`far al-Sadiq, some of his followers insisted that his son Isma`Il, whom Ja’far had named his successor but who had already died, was nevertheless the seventh imam. Hence, Isma’ilis are often known as “Seveners.”

Central to Isma’Ili doctrine from the beginning has been the distinction between exoteric aspects of religion, which are said to change from prophet to prophet, and esoteric aspects that remain constant behind transient symbols. Early Isma’ih esotericism involved both cosmological myths (of a noticeably gnostic character) and a cyclical view of sacred history that recognized seven eras, each inaugurated by a prophet. In the tenth century, however, the original myth was displaced by Neoplatonic ideas of an incomprehensible and severely transcendent God who, having created “Intellect” ex nihilo, allowed the remainder of the universe–other intellects, soul, the celestial spheres, and the four elements of the ordinary world-to come into existence by emanation from that first created being.

Nothing is known about the Isma’iliyah from its origin until after the mid-ninth century, when the Isma`ilis emerged as a secret revolutionary movement operating in Iraq, Persia, Yemen, and the Indian subcontinent. The activities of the Isma’Ill missionary organization, the da’wah, seem to have been directed from a central headquarters, located first near the Persian Gulf and later in Syria. During this early phase, the leaders of the Isma’Iliyah apparently claimed to be acting on behalf of the absent imam Muhammad, son of Isma’il, whose imminent return as world ruler they proclaimed. Converts were required to take an oath of initiation, which included an obligation of secrecy.

In 899 `Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, a new leader in Syria, announced that he himself was the imam, the latest in a continuous line of imams since the days of Isma`il. This innovation split the movement. By and large, the Isma`ilis of Iraq, Bahrain, and western Persia refused to accept `Ubayd Allah’s claim. Among the eastern Isma`lliyah, the faction known as the Qarmatians (Qaramitah), still anticipating the return of a hidden imam, concentrated on eastern Arabia and Bahrain, where they had some success, and briefly even held Mecca.

To the west, `Ubayd Allah and his heirs succeeded in establishing an important state, first in North Africa (909) and afterward in Egypt (from 969), where they founded the city of Cairo. The complex history of this Fatimid dynasty extended over approximately two centuries. [See Fatimid Dynasty.]

Toward the end of the rule of al-Hakim (996-1021), certain members of the da`wah proclaimed his divinity. The official da`wah organization fought the new heresy vigorously, but the attitude of the caliph himself is difficult to determine. In the years following al-Hakim’s death, the Fatimid government eliminated his adherents from Egypt; however, they established themselves in the mountains of Syria-Palestine, where, moving theologically beyond the boundaries of Isma`Ilism and even of Islam, they became the Druze movement. [See Druze. ]

In 1094 Nizar, eldest son and designated successor of the caliph al-Mustansir, was deposed in a coup d’etat and put in prison, where he eventually died. He was replaced by al-Musta’h, the younger son. The Isma`ili organization in Egypt accepted al-Musta’li, but the eastern Isma’Ifis remained loyal to Nizar. One of these was a dd`f or missionary known as Hasan-i Sabbah, founder of a group that eventually came to be widely known as “the Assassins”-part of their program can be inferred from their name-who had established his base of command in the mountain fortress of Alamut. Hasan now came forward as the de facto leader of a new Isma`ili sect, the Nizaris, although he did not assume the title of imam.

Al-`Amir, the son of al-Musta`li, was assassinated in I130. After considerable turmoil he was succeeded by his cousin al-Hafiz. Another schism was born when many Isma`ilis continued to support the rights of al`Amir’s infant son al-Tayyib; the baby, however, had disappeared, and nothing further is known about him.

In 1171 the famous Saladin conquered Egypt and ended the Fatimid dynasty. With the fall of their state, Isma`ilis essentially disappeared from Egypt, where they had remained an elite and had never managed to win over the general population. Some took refuge in Yemen.

Meanwhile the Assassins underwent major upheavals in the east. For a time their leaders appear to have claimed the imamate on the basis of alleged descent from Nizar. At one point, the lords of Alamut even repudiated Islamic law (shari`ah). This all came to an end in 1256 when the Assassin stronghold fell to the Mongols and the last grand master was executed.

The Isma’iliyah survived in scattered communities of Persia, Central Asia, Yemen, and Syria. It was in India, however, that the movement found its greatest success in the post-Fatimid period. Nizari missionaries established a community there that has come to be known as the Khojas. Their imam is known as the Aga Khan. His departure from Persia and his permanent settlement in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century effectively mark the beginning of the modern period in the history of the Nizari Isma’iliyah. Adherents of the movement have prospered, by and large, and have developed a reputation for progressivism throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Successive modern Aga Khans have been active in international and Indian subcontinental politics and reforms, as well as in educational and humanitarian work. Musta’lis too came to the subcontinent and founded the sect of the Bohras, who are closer to Sunni Islam than are their Nizari counterparts.

Today, Isma`ilis of both schools are chiefly located in India, although notable communities also exist in Yemen, Syria, Central Asia, Iran, and through relatively recent migration in East Africa, where they have formed an important element in the commercial life of the region. Sizable populations of Isma’ili expatriates are to be found in Europe and North America, with the largest single concentration located in London. The total number of Isma’ilis is probably in the vicinity of two million.

[See also Aga Khan; Bohras; Khojas; and Slu’i Islam, historical overview article.]


Daftary, Farhad. The Ismacilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, 1990. Very useful one-volume survey of the subject, to modern times.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizdri Ismd’ilis against the Islamic World. The Hague, 1955. Ivanov, Vladimir A. The Alleged Founder of Ismailism. Bombay, 1946. Lewis, Bernard. The Origins of Ismalism: A Study of the Historical Background of the Fatimid Caliphate. Cambridge, 1940. Important but somewhat idiosyncratic approach.

Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. London, 1967.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, ed. Ismd’ili Contributions to Islamic Culture. Tehran, 1977. Interesting anthology of essays.

Poonawala, Ismail K. Biobibliography of Ismd’ih Literature. Malibu, Calif., 1977. Massive annotated catalogue of literature and writers from earliest times to the modem period.

Stern, S. M. Studies in Early Isma tlism. Jerusalem and Leiden, 1983. Collection of papers, some of them classics, on early Ismailism.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/ismailiyah/

  • writerPosted On: June 28, 2014
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