Imam Ala al-Din Muhammad’s reign was a period of intense intellectual activity

Born around 1212, the twenty-sixth Ismaili Imam Mawlana Ala al-Din Muhammad succeeded his father to the Imamat in November 1221 at the age of nine years. The vizier appointed by his father Imam Jalal al-Din Hasan continued to run the affairs of the Ismaili state in Persia, maintaining the policy of cordial relations with the Abbasids and the Sunni Muslims in general.

In 1090, Hasan-i Sabbah acquired Alamut, a remote mountain-fortress in the Rudbur region of Daylam in northern Persia (modern-day Iran), marking the founding of the Nizari Ismaili state. Over the course of the next 150 years, the Ismailis acquired more than 200 fortresses in Iran and Syria, located in the inaccessible mountainous regions for refuge of Ismailis who were fleeing persecution. Their settlements were also a sanctuary for other refugees, irrespective of their creed, fleeing persecution and invasions.

A learned theologian, scholar, and poet, Hasan-i Sabbah also established a major library at Alamut to continue the tradition of intellectual activities despite having to defend against military attacks. Alamut and several of the Nizari strongholds became flourishing centres of intellectual activities with major libraries containing not only a significant collection of books and documents but also scientific tracts and equipment.
(More on Alamut at Nimirasblog). 

Imam Ala al-Din Muhammad’s reign was “an extremely turbulent period not only for the Ismaili state, but for Persia and the entire Muslim East, which had now begun to experience a foretaste of the Mongol menace. However, initially the Ismaili leadership at Alamut seems to have reached an understanding with the Mongols, who did not target any of the Ismaili towns and fortresses of Persia for some time. Indeed, it has been reported how in the 1220s the Ismaili leaders in Quhistan … shared the stability and prosperity of their community with an increasing number of refugees, who had fled before the invading Mongols and found asylum in the Ismaili fortress community of Persia” (Daftary, The Ismaili Imams p137).

In the wake of the Mongol invasions, “relations between Alamut and the Khwarazmians, who had replaced the Saljuqs as the foremost enemy of the Ismailis, were characterised by warfare and diplomacy until the Mongols finally defeated the Khwarazmians in 1231. Ismaili fortunes were rapidly reversed after the collapse of the Khwarazmian empire. The Ismailis now directly confronted the Mongols, who were then making renewed efforts to conquer all of Persia. After some unsuccessful initial Ismaili peace overtures to the Mongol Great Khan Guyuk (r.1246-1248), Ismaili-Mongol relations deteriorated beyond repair. By 1253, under Guyuk’s successor Mongke (r.1251-1259), the Mongols had destroyed numerous Ismaili towns and fortresses in Quhistan and elsewhere in Persia” (Ibid. p 139).

A silver dirham of Imam Ala al-Din Muhammad (r.1221-1255) minted at Baldat al-Iqbal, or ‘city of good fortune,’ viz. Alamut, in 1222, obverse and reverse. Image: Daftary, The Ismaili Imams

Mawlana Ala al-Din Muhammad’s reign was also “a period of intense intellectual activity in the Ismaili community of Persia. In particular, the Ismaili leadership now made a systematic effort to explain the various religious policies of the [leaders] of Alamut, since Hasan-i Sabbah’s (d. 1124) time, with a coherent theological framework. At the same time, the intellectual life of the community was invigorated by the influx of outside scholars, who availed themselves of the Ismaili libraries at Alamut and other fortresses, and their patronage of learning.

Alamut
The back of the fortress of Alamut which provided the only entrance to the castle. Hasan-i Sabbah constructed huge underground storage chambers to keep the garrison in food water during times of siege. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Foremost among such scholars of this period was Khwaja Nasir al-Din Muhammad al-Tusi (d.1274), who, in 1227, entered the service of Nasir al-Din b. Abi Mansur (d.1257). the Ismaili muhtasham [governor] in Quhistan and himself a learned man. It was to this [leader] that al-Tusi dedicated both his great works on ethics, Akhlaq-i Nasiri and Akhlaq-i muhtashami… Tusi spent some three decades in the Ismaili castles of Persia until 1256, converted willingly to Ismailism, and made important contribution to the Ismaili thought of his time… it is mainly through al-Tusi’s Ismaili writings that modern scholars have come to have a better understanding of the Ismaili teachings of the Alamut period” (Daftary, The Ismaili Imams p 141).

Rawdat al-taslim by al-Tusi, dated 1935. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Folio on learning, from the manuscript of Akhlaq-i Nasir, Lahore, Pakistan, 1590–95. Image: Spirit & Life Catalogue

It was probably during the reign of Imam Ala al-Din Muhammad that Nizari Ismaili da’wa was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by Persian da’is dispatched originally to Sind.

On 1 December 1255, Mawlana Ala al-Din Muhammad was found murdered in the castle of Shirkuh, near Alamut, under obscure circumstances. He was succeeded by his son Rukn al-Din Khurshah.

Sources:
Farhad Daftary, The Ismaili Imams, I.B. Tauris, London, 2009
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis Their history and doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1990

Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer at Ismailimail, although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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