Introduction to Ismailism – Fatimid Achievements in Learning


Professor Azim Nanji

Chaper in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, Ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd, 1987, pp. 179-198.

This overview article on Ismailism focuses on some of the key concepts, underlying the Ismaili interpretation of Islam governing Ismaili beliefs. The article starts off with a brief historical background. It touches upon the da’wa activities and some of the challenging circumstances under which it operated.

The early literature of the Ismailis is preserved in Arabic and then Persian languages. Some of the major works of the more prominent dai’s such as Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani, al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-din Shirazi and Nasir Khusraw are discussed in the article.

Ismailism is a part of the Shi’ite branch of Islam whose adherents constitute at present a small minority within the wider Muslim ummah. They live in over twenty-five different countries, including Afghanistan, East Africa, India, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, the United Kingdom, North America, and also parts of China and the Soviet Union.

Historical Background

(continues from Part I)

Fatimid Achievements in Learning

It was in the sphere of intellectual and cultural life that Fatimid Ismaili achievement seems most brilliant and outstanding. The Fatimid patronage of learning and its encouragement of scientific research and cultural activity made Cairo a renowned centre, attracting mathematicians, physicians, astronomers, thinkers, and administrators of note from all over the Muslim world, particularly to its two great universities, al-Azhar and dar al-hikmah. These seats of learning also gave impetus to the development of legal, philosophical, and theological thinking among Ismaili scholars, which provided the basis for a comprehensive articulation of Ismaili thought and doctrine. The cultural and economic impact of Fatimid rule extended also into Europe, bridging the way for further development in the West of Muslim scientific achievements in fields such as optics, medicine, and astronomy.

The Druze Movement

The expansion of Fatimid influence and the efforts of the da’wa brought the Fatimids into conflict with existing rulers such as the Abbasids and later the Saljuqs. In addition, during this later phase, the empire was adversely affected by famines and internal disputes among various sections of the army. After the death of Imam al-Hakim in 411/1021, a group of Ismailis broke away from the da’wa, preferring to remain faithful to the memory of al-Hakim. Thus, they gave birth to what later came to be known as the Druze movement.

The Musta’li Branch

A much more serious rift occurred following the death of Imam al-Mustansir in 487/1094. In Iran and parts of Syria, the Ismailis supported his elder son and designated heir, Nizar, whereas in Egypt, Yemen, and Sind, Nizar’s younger brother, al-Musta’li, was believed to have been designated as the new Imam by al-Mustansir on his deathbed. These two Ismaili groups are called Nizari and Musta’li Ismailis respectively. Both groups shared a common Fatimid heritage, but their histories and development evolved in different directions. The division led to the subs equent dissolution of Fatimid rule in Egypt, but the continuing activity of the two groups was a vital factor in the survival and re-emergence of Ismaili influence outside Egypt.

The Musta’li-Tayyibi da’wa

Yemen had been one of the strongholds of the Fatimid Empire and a vigorous centre of the Ismaili da’wa.3 After al-Mustansir’s death, the da’wa in Yemen supported al-Musta’li and, after him, his son and successor, al-amir. With his death in 524/1130, there was a further division within the Musta’li branch of Ismailism. In Yemen, the da’wa supported the right of al-amir’s infant son, al-Tayyib, to be Imam, rejecting the claims of the uncle-regent ‘Abd al-Majid, who subsequently had himself proclaimed Imam. The latter’s line did not last long, passing out of significance with the capture of Egypt by the Ayyubids. The supporters of al-Tayyib, meanwhile, came to believe that he was in a state of concealment (sitr) and that the Imams who succeeded al-Tayyib would henceforth live in such a state until the time of manifestation. In their absence the da’wa’s affairs were entrusted to a chief da’i, called da’i mutlaq.

The centre of this group remained in Yemen for several centuries, establishing a vigorous state for a while, but, faced with hostility, it moved eventually to India, where the new headquarters came to be established in 947/1567. The community in Yemen dwindled in time, although followers of this branch of Ismailism – particularly of a subsequent offshoot of the Tayyibi da’wa known as the Sulaymanis, who give allegiance to a chief da’i residing in Yemen – are still to be found in certain regions of that land.

In India, the Tayyibi Ismailis continued to develop under a chief da’i and succeeded, sometimes under adverse conditions, in sustaining successfully their religious life and organisation. The majority there are called Da’udi, to distinguish them from the Sulaymani line and both groups are referred to also as Bohora, which denotes their occupation as traders and merchants. The chief da’i of the Da’udi group resides in Bombay; the community is concentrated in the provinces of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, in most major cities of India and Pakistan, in East Africa, and lately in smaller numbers in Europe and North America.

From the Institute of Ismaili Studies

Part III

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.