Chapter published in Deconstructing Islamic Studies edited by Majid Daneshgar and Aaron W. Hughes (Harvard University Press, ILEX Foundation, 2020):
This chapter assesses the state of academic scholarship on the Ismāʿīlī (Ismaili) Muslims in terms of the methodological categories of theology, polemic, and academic scholarship and presents two critical arguments on the state of the field.
The earliest Western scholarship on the Ismāʿīlīs began in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, largely based on hostile polemical accounts written by their adversaries, resulting in the proliferation of anti-Ismāʿīlī polemic under the guise of academic scholarship. This gave rise to rather sensationalist accounts of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs as a secret society of tricksters who consumed hashish and carried out systematic assassinations.
A more holistic academic approach to Ismāʿīlī studies began in the early twentieth century and has proven quite successful in advancing the field, as Ismāʿīlī studies progresses at a staggering pace. At the same time, however, a tendency best described as “academic-polemic” continues to hamper academic treatments of select Ismāʿīlī topics, particularly the historical origins of the Fatimid Caliphate and the career of Aga Khan I in colonial India. This is evident in how certain authors simply mirror or privilege anti-Ismāʿīlī polemical narratives in an uncritical manner while marginalizing or omitting important historical evidence that contravenes their arguments. Second, Ismāʿīlī studies as a field takes for granted the existence of an intelligible entity called “Ismāʿīlism” as its ostensible object of study but there is yet to be a critical interrogation of the origins, construction, and problems with “Ismāʿīlism” as a category of analysis.
I show that Ismāʿīlism is either explicitly or implicitly being defined as a sectarian religious ideology consisting of one or more essentialist doctrines, centered on allegiance to and recognition of the religious authority of the Ismāʿīlī Imams. As employed by many scholars, Ismāʿīlism is a reified sui generis entity, somehow transcending history and manifesting through various instances or “species” of historical Ismāʿīlī movements, communities, and theologies. I show that Ismāʿīlism presently conceived as an analytical and taxonomical category fails to cohere with many examples of historical Ismāʿīlī phenomena and needs to be reconceptualized.
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