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.
The Nizari Ismaili da’wa
The history of the Nizari branch of Ismailism is marked by their adherence to the goals set by the Fatimids as well as by the emergence of newer goals and policies in the context of a changing and increasingly hostile environment.4 Particularly in Iran, where Ismaili influence had already been established under the Fatimids, the Nizari da’wa had to function in markedly changed circumstances, which were due not only to the severance of ties with Cairo but also to the presence of the powerful, militantly Sunni Turkish dynasty of the Seljuqs. In addition to the hostility prevailing in the political and military spheres, the da’wa, like its predecessor under the Fatimids, became the object of theological and intellectual attacks that often sought to portray it in a deliberately negative and distorted fashion. This often led to quite fantastic and legendary notions about their history and thought. Pejorative terms like “assassins,” etc. still persist in popular writings, although serious scholarly work has led to considerable revision of this distorted view and greater understanding of their history and aspirations.
The focal point of the Nizari Ismaili movement was the fortress of Alamut in the Alborz Mountains of northern Iran. This fortress, captured by the da’i Hasan-i Sabbah in 483/1090, now became the centre for a growing number of strongholds that were established through military and diplomatic means. In time, these centres became networks of Ismaili settlements in Iran as well as in Syria, where a similar pattern of establishing strongholds in mountainous regions took place. Hasan-i Sabbah, according to Nizari tradition, acted as the representative of the Imam, organising the various settlements. This process of consolidation provided a basis for what was to become a Nizari Ismaili state that incorporated both Iranian and Syrian strongholds and was ruled from Alamut by Ismaili Imams, who assumed control after the initial period of establishment under representatives such as Hasan-i Sabbah. Although under constant pressure from the Seljuqs, the state had a thriving existence for over 150 years. However, confrontation with the expanding Mongol power led to the downfall of the state, the demolition of its principal strongholds, and a general and widespread massacre of Ismailis.
The history of the Nizari Ismailis following the destruction of their state and the dispersal of their leaders in Iran and elsewhere is little known. In Syria, as in Iran, they continued to survive despite persecution. Often in Iran their organisation resembled that of the Sufi tariqahs (orders), which by now had established themselves all over the Muslim world. The Nizari sources speak of an uninterrupted succession of Imams in different parts of Iran and, in the ninth/fifteenth century, of an emergence of new activity on the part of the da’wa which led to a further growth of Nizari Ismailism in parts of India and Central Asia, to which the Imam in Iran remained linked through the activities of the da’is. In general, however, the various communities of Nizari Ismailis in Iran, Syria, Central Asia, and India remained relatively isolated and self-protective for several centuries, mindful of the constant threat of persecution.
In the thirteenth/nineteenth century, the Imam of the time, Hasan ‘Ali Shah, called the Aga Khan, migrated to India from Iran. In the twentieth century, under the leadership of the last two Imams, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III (1294/1877-1377/1957), and Shah Karim al-Husaym, Aga Khan IV (b. 1936), both of whom have played a major leadership role in Muslim as well as international affairs, the Nizari Ismailis have effected a successful transition to the modern period in many parts of the world. This reorganisation has encompassed developments in various spheres of education, health, economic and cultural life and has been linked wherever possible to national goals and in recent times on a more global scale to creating a greater self-consciousness among Ismailis as well as other Muslims of the role their Islamic heritage can play in modern life.
The Heritage and Its Themes
Ismailis have been designated by several names in the past. By those who were hostile to them and regarded their vision of Islam as heretical, they have been accused of heresy and extremism, of being exclusively bataniyyah (esotericists), and of having several legends fabricated about them and their teachings. Those heresiographers who sought significance in the sequence of Imams with its attendant numerology used the designation sab’iyya, “seveners,” since the number seven was significant in the elaboration of Ismaili sacred history. Since early Western scholarship of Ismailism depended primarily on non-Ismaili sources, it inherited the biases already present in such accounts. Ismaili writers, for instance, used terms such as al-da’wat al-hadiyah (the rightly-guided da’wa) in referring to their movement, so that strictly speaking the term Ismailiyyah and its variants originated with, and were to be found primarily in the work of, polemicists and heresiologists. Recent scholarship, based on a more judicious analysis of such sources and on Ismaili materials as they become more readily available, provides a considerably revised and more balanced picture.
From the Institute of Ismaili Studies