Nizari Ismailism and Persian Sufism developed a close association during the post-Alamut period

The Nizari Ismaili state of Alamut, founded by Hasan-i Sabbah in 1090, fell to the Mongols in 1256. The first five centuries after the fall of Alamut represent the longest period of obscurity in Nizari Ismaili history. In order to avoid persecution, the Imams remained in hiding and inaccessible to the community for about two centuries. The Ismailis, who scattered all over Persia, Syria, Central and South Asia, developed independently and generally in isolation from one another.

Illustrated manuscript dated 16th century shows a textile merchant in a busy bazaar (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)
Illustrated manuscript dated 16th century shows a textile merchant in a busy bazaar (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)

The community practiced taqiyya (concealment) under the cloak of Sufism without establishing formal affiliations with any particular Sufi orders, or tariqahs, that were spreading at the time. This practice was widely adopted by Ismailis in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The Nizari-Sufi relationship was facilitated by the similar esoteric doctrines of these tariqahs coupled with the use of the Persian language by the community; Hasan-i Sabbah had adopted Persian as the religious language of the community.

Due to the close association between Sufism and the Ismaili interpretation of Islam, the Nizari Ismaili Imams appeared as Sufi masters or pirs, adopting the term murshid, while the followers were referred to as murids, or disciples. Hence, the Persian-speaking Nizaris regarded several of the great mystic poets of Persia such as Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1230) and Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273) as co-religionists.

As a result of this coalescence, it is often difficult to determine whether a post-Alamut Persian work was written by a Nizari Ismaili influenced by Sufism, or whether it was produced in Sufi environments exposed to Ismaili teachings. The Nizaris of Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia have preserved the works of these mystics and continue to use their poetry in their religious ceremonies.*

Mausoleum of Imam Mustansir bi'llah at Anjundan (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)
Mausoleum of Imam Mustansir bi’llah at Anjundan (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)

In 1480, Imam Islam Shah emerged in the village of Anjundan, in central Persia, and initiated what is commonly referred to as the Anjundan revival. Anjundan remained the seat of the Nizari Ismaili Imam for the next two centuries. The da’wa activities intensified during the time of his grandson, Imam Mustansir bi’llah II (d. 1480), who took the Sufi name of Shah Qalandar; his mausoleum is still preserved in Anjundan, where several Imams were later buried.

Nizari Quhistani's Diwan (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)
Nizari Quhistani’s Diwan (Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History)

Among the earliest authors of this period are Nizari Quhistani (d. 1320) and Khayrkhwah-i Harati (d. 1553). In his Safarnama (Travelogue), Quhistani mentions that Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad was concealed under the nickname Zarduz (embroiderer). Quhistani’s Diwan contains some ten thousand verses of poetry in which he draws on Sufi expressions to convey his praises for the Imam of the time.

References:
*Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Dr. Aziz Esmail, Professor Azim Nanji, The Ismailis in History, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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