Today in history: The Ismaili Society was established

The Anjoman-e Esma‘ili (Ismaili Society), a research institution, was established on February 16, 1946 in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, under the patronage of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III. The aim of the Society was to promote independent and critical studies of Ismailism.

Vladimir Ivanow (Photo: Encyclopaedia Iranica)
Vladimir Ivanow (Photo: Encyclopaedia Iranica)

Vladimir Ivanow (1886-1970) was instrumental in the establishment of the Ismaili Society, publishing a series of his works and collecting manuscripts. Over time, the Society came to possess a notable library of Ismaili manuscripts that are now in the library of The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Ivanow studied Arabic and Persian history as well as Islamic and Central Asian history at the Faculty of Oriental Languages, University of St. Petersburg, from where he graduated in 1911. He subsequently conducted field research on Persian dialects and folk poetry in Iran for many years.

In 1915, he joined the Asiatic Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg as an assistant keeper of the manuscript, where he catalogued a small number of Ismaili manuscripts acquired by Ivan Ivanovich Zarubin (1887-1964), the renowned Russian scholar of Tajik dialects. These manuscripts dated from the Alamut and post-Alamut periods of Nizari Ismaili history that had been preserved in Central Asia. This was Ivanow’s first contact with Ismaili literature.

A guide to Ismaili literature by Ivanow (Photo: University of Toronto, Library Catalogue)
A guide to Ismaili literature by Ivanow (Photo: University of Toronto, Library Catalogue)

Ivanow settled in Calcutta, India, in 1920 where the president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal commissioned him to catalogue their extensive collection of Persian manuscripts. Subsequently Ivanow moved to Bombay, where he had established relations with Nizari Khojas who introduced him to Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah.

In January 1931, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah employed Ivanow to conduct research into the literature and history of Ismailis. Ivanow found access to Ismaili manuscripts held in private collections in India, Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and elsewhere. He also established relations with several scholars in this field who gave him access to their family collections of manuscripts dating to the Fatimid phases of Ismaili history. Ivanow described these manuscripts in his catalogue published in 1933, A Guide to Ismaili Literature, the first catalogue of the Ismaili sources published in modern times. This catalogue demonstrated the richness and diversity of Ismaili literature and was an invaluable tool, for several decades, in the advancement of Ismaili scholarship.

In a subsequent publication in 1963, Ivanow identified several hundred additional manuscripts. By this time, according to Daftary, “Ismaili studies as a whole had undergone a revolution, thanks to the concerted efforts of Ivanow and a few other notable scholars including A.A.A Fyzee (1899-1981), Husayn F. al-Hamdani (1901-1962), Zahed Ali (1888-1958) and Henry Corbin.”1

The Society’s latest publication and Ivanow’s final work, Ismaili Literature (Tehran, 1963), was a bibliographical survey of the extant Ismaili manuscript literature providing detailed information on some 900 titles. Ivanow  identified, recovered, edited, translated and studied a large portion of the surviving literature of the Nizari Ismailis and stands as “the unrivalled founder of modern Nizari Ismaili studies.”2

1Dr Farhad Daftary, Anjoman-e Esma‘ili (lsma‘ili Society), The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Accessed February 2016)
2 Paul E. Walker, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (Accessed February 2016)
Farhad Daftary, Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis, Scarecrow Press Inc. Lanham, 2012

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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