Mawlana Hazar Imam visited Salamiyya, Syria for the first time as Imam, on July 27, 1959. Salamiyya was the residence of the Nizari Ismaili Imams and the headquarters of the da’wa in the ninth century.
The disputes over the successors of Imams Jafar al-Sadiq, Isma’il, and Muhammad b. Isma’il occurred during difficult and divisive political climates in the eighth and ninth centuries. In order to avoid Abbasid (Sunni caliphs who ruled in Baghdad 750–1258) persecution, Imam Muhammad b. Ismaili left Medina for the east, taking on code names such as al-Maktum (the Hidden One) and al-Maymun (the Blessed One), thus initiating the dawr al-satr period in early Ismaili history. His whereabouts and those of his successors were known to only a few trusted disciples.
Very little is known with certainty about the Imams and the community during this time. For almost a century after Imam Muhammad b. Isma’il, a group of central leaders, assuming code names, worked secretly for the development of a unified Ismaili community and da’wa.
Imam Abd Allah al-Akhbar (Wafi Ahmed) had settled in southwestern Persia, disguised as a merchant, sending da’is to various areas in Persia to spread the message of the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. At an unknown date, he found refuge in Salamiyya, then a bustling commercial centre, where he had established contact with da’is residing there. Imam al-Abd Allah al-Akhbar settled in Salamiyya, continuing to pose as a merchant. Henceforth, Salamiyya served as the secret headquarters of the pre-Fatimid Ismaili Imams and the da’wa for several years.
In 899 the eleventh Imam, Abd Allah al-Mahdi (who was born in Salamiyya in 873-4) felt secure enough to claim the Imamat openly. However, his life was in danger and he was forced to migrate in 902; he travelled to various regions, eventually to North Africa where he established the Fatimid caliphate in 909, ending the dawr al-satr period.
During the Alamut period (1090-1256), the Nizari Ismailis had their state in Persia with a subsidiary in Syria, where they succeeded in establishing a network of mountain fortresses, and were led by the most prominent leader, Rashid al-Din Sinan (d. 1193). After the collapse of the state of Alamut, the Syrian Nizari Ismailis lived in scattered communities under various dynastic rulers. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, Salamiyya was deserted and in ruins.
Subsequently, Syria came under Ottoman rule. In 1849, the amir of Qadmus (an Ismaili settlement in Syria), Amir Isma’il b. Amir Muhammad, obtained permission from the Ottomans to restore Salamiyya for the permanent settlement of the Ismailis. The Ottomans allowed him to gather the Syrian Nizaris from different localities and settle them in Salamiyya and nearby villages.
Over time, Salamiyya became an important agricultural centre in Syria. Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah established an agriculture institution as well as several schools when he visited Salamiyya in 1951. Mawlana Hazar Imam’s father, Prince ‘Aly Khan, was buried in Salamiyya in a permanent mausoleum adjacent to the Jamatkhana in 1972.
Farhad Daftary and Azim Nanji, The Ismailis and their Role in the History of Medieval Syria and the Near East, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accesses July 2016)
Nasseh Ahmad Mirza, Syrian Ismailism: The Ever Living Line of Imamate. Cornwall. Curzon Press. 1997
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis, Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1998
Compiled by Nimira Dewji