Today in history: Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah succeeded to the Imamat

The twenty-seventh Nizari Ismaili Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah succeeded to the Imamat on December 1, 1255 at the age of 25 years. Shortly after his succession, Imam entered into negotiations with the Mongols who had invaded Persia (modern-day Iran), seizing and destroying the Nizari fortresses.

In 1090, Hasan Sabbah had acquired the fortress of Alamut in northern Iran, marking the founding of what was to become the seat of the Nizari Ismaili state. Over the next 150 years, the Ismailis acquired more than 200 fortresses in Iran and Syria, located in the inaccessible mountainous regions for refuge of the Nizari Ismailis who were fleeing persecution by the Saljuqs and others during the early Middle Ages. These settlements were also sanctuaries for other refugees, irrespective of their creed, fleeing persecution.

Ismaili castles of Iran and Syria. The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

In 1256, the Mongols seized the Syrian fortress of Maymundiz, where Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah was staying, asking him to surrender. Imam’s representatives negotiated for a truce from the advancing armies, which was drawn up by Hulegu’s (gransdon of Genghis Khan appointed to extend Mongol rule) secretary, Ata Malik Juwayni. In the meantime, messages were exchanged for a mutually acceptable solution. Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah “had been playing for time in the hope that the snows of winter would come to his aid and render the siege operations of the Mongols impracticable, but the weather remained unseasonably mild in that autumn” (Daftary).

Fortress of Masyaf. Image: Archnet

After the last round of negotiations failed, Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah was forced to surrender his residence, the castle of Maymundiz, in 1256. Shortly thereafter, the fortresses of Lamasar and Alamut, the administrative centre of the state, were captured and plundered. Although some Syrian fortresses were able to resist capture for several years (Kahf, Khawabi, and Qadmus surrendered in 1273), the capture of Alamut marked the end of the Nizari Ismaili state.

The first five centuries after the fall of Alamut comprise the most obscure phase in Nizari history. For at least two centuries, the community did not have direct access to the Imams, who were living discreetly in various parts of Persia. In order to avoid persecution, the Nizaris sought refuge under the mantle of Sufism which was spreading in Persia.

The back of the fortress of Alamut which provided the only entrance to the castle. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies.

It was during this period that a dispute over the successor to Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad split the community. Those who supported  Ala al-in Mu’min Shah’s came to be known as the Muhammad Shahis. A large  number of Muhammad Shahis immigrated to the Indian subcontinent during the early sixteenth century, but this line of Imams seems to have discontinued soon after 1786.1

The majority of the community gave allegiance to Qasim Shah, and came to be known as the Qasim Shahis. Imam Islam Shah, who succeeded to the Imamat in 1425-26 and reigned for almost 55 years, transferred his residence to localities around Qumm and Mahallat in Central Persia. It was during reign of Imam Mustansir bi’llah II, who succeeded in 1463-64, that the the Qasim Shahi Imams became firmly established at Anjundan, in central Persia, initiating the Anjundan revival phase of Nizari Ismaili history, a renaissance in Ismaili literature and da’wa activities.

Farhad Daftary, The Mediaeval Ismailis of the Iranian Lands, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis, Their history and doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1990
Peter Willey, Eagle’s Nest: Ismaili Castles of Iran and Syria, The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

One thought

  1. Excellent article from Mrs Nimira DEEJI on Rukn-ed-Din Khurshah’s accession to the Imamat in a context of “end of the world” with the immense courage of a faithful 25 years prince, who, if I am not wrong, dared travel to the Grand Khan of the Mongols in Karakorum, to try a last initiative to negotiate and was tragically murdered there


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