Named after the sixth Imam, the Ismailis, during the course of history, have, under the guidance of their Imams, made significant contributions to Islamic civilisations, the cultural, intellectual, and religious life of Muslims. Ismailis had their own states twice during their history – the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171) centred in Cairo, and the state of Alamut (1090-1256) in Persia. Since the beginning of the twelfth century, the Ismailis have existed in two main branches – the Nizaris and the Tayyibi Musta’lians who have been respectively designated as Khojas and Bohras in South Asia.
Often during their complex history, the Ismailis have resorted to taqiyya (conciliatory measures) for extended periods of time in order to escape persecution, appearing outwardly as Sunnis, Twelver Shi’is, or Sufis.
For centuries after the collapse of Alamut (1090-1256) the Isma’ili tradition virtually disappeared from view, although its intellectual influence remained considerable, especially in Iran.
In Persia, the forty-fifth Ismaili Imam Shah Khalilullah enjoyed the protection of the ruler Fath Ali Shah, but was murdered in 1817 at the instigation of a jealous mullah. The Imam was succeeded by his son Hasan Ali Shah, who was thirteen years old. His mother went to the Qajar court to seek justice for her murdered husband. By way of compensation Fath Ali Shah presented to Imam Hasan Ali Shah, crown lands, and awarded him the title of Aga Khan (‘Great Chief’), which has remained among Imam’s successors (Ibid. p 376). Imam rose to political prominence and was appointed governor of the province of Kirman, a post previously held by his grandfather. At the time, there was much unrest in the province, and Imam quickly restored law and order.
Due to tensions between Imam and Fath Ali Shah’s successor Muhammad Shah, Imam migrated to Afghanistan in 1840, marking the end of the Persian period of Ismaili Imamat, which had lasted some seven centuries since Alamut times. Eventually Imam settled permanently in Bombay in 1848, beginning the modern period in Nizari Ismaili history, initiating the process of consolidating the community. Ruthven states that “the transformation of the Nizari Ismaili community into one of bourgeois industriousness and respectability was largely due to the efforts of the last four Imams who since the 1840s have been known to the outside world as the Aga Khans” (Ibid. p 374).
In the Indian subcontinent, there were Ismailis settled or converted during the Fatimid era (909-1171), but the majority were Khojas converted to Ismailism by pirs beginning in the eleventh century.
When Aga Khan I settled in the region, the sudden appearance of the Present Imam among a prosperous community of Bombay merchants was not universally welcomed. When the Imam was inaccessible in Persia, authority inevitably devolved on local community leaders. Furthermore, several Khojas challenged the authority of the Aga Khan claiming Sunni or Ithna’ashari heritage of the Khoja Ismailis owing to the the practice of taqiyya. In addition, colonial identification of communities based on differences rather than commonalities, fracturing the multivalent identity of Khojas into various sectarian groups.
Development of Satpanth tradition
The pirs who propagated Ismail doctrines in the region, referred to their teachings as Satpanth, ‘true path.’ Hence their followers identified themselves as Satpanthis rather than Ismailis. The Satpanth tradition employed terms and ideas from a variety of Indic religious and philosophical currents to articulate its core concepts. Consequently those who followed Satpanth understood it through multiple lenses and were not confined to rigid or conventionally defined doctrinal and theological boundaries” (Asani, “From Satpanthi to Ismaili Muslim: The Articulation of Ismaili Khoja Identity in South Asia published in Farhad Daftary, A Modern History of the Ismailis, I.B. Tauris, p 96).
The presence of these multiple strands became problematic … as new socio-political frameworks, associated with the establishment of British imperial rule and the emergence of religiously based nationalisms, became increasingly dominant in South Asia. Notions of religious identity and the categories ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ were contested and also rigidly and narrowly demarcated, hence, the Khojas, like many other Indian communities, were pressured to reshape their identity to better conform to externally defined norms” (Ibid. 101-102).
Legal affirmation of Aga Khans as head of the Nizari Ismailis
Aga Khan I experienced difficulty in establishing his authority as head of the Nizari Ismailis. Dissidents claimed Sunni or Ithna’ashari heritage of the Khoja Ismailis. Consequently, in 1861, Aga Khan I circulated a document in Bombay, and elsewhere, that specified the religious beliefs of the Nizari Ismailis, requesting every Khoja to sign it, pledging their loyalty to the Imam and their Shia Ismaili Muslim faith as interpreted by him. This document was a landmark in asserting Nizari Ismaili identity. The majority of the Khojas signed the document, however, a group refused to accept the Ismaili identity of their community and filed a legal suit in Bombay High Court in 1866, which came to be known as the Khoja case (Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis, Edinburg University Press, p 198) .
The plaintiffs claimed that taqiyya, in effect, was not simply a survival tactic – or even a strategy – but was orthopraxy per se. In resisting the Aga Khan’s claims to leadership and ownership over communal property, they sought to prove in court that Pir Sadruddin had been a Sunni all along…” (Ruthven, New Trends and Developments in the World of Islam, p 380).
The judgement, in favour of the Aga Khan, legally established in British India the status of Aga Khan’s Khoja followers as a community of “Shia Imami Ismailis,” also recognizing Aga Khan “as the spiritual head of the community and heir in lineal descent to the Imams of the Alamut period” (Ibid. p 198). Aga Khan I exerted control over the community, organizing them through a network of appointed officers (mukhi and kamadia) for communities of a certain size, and encouraged a revival of literary activities among the Ismailis.
Imam Aqa Ali Shah Aga Khan II, during his brief reign, initiated the collection of ginans, charging a group of Khojas to collect the manuscripts in circulation, eventually resulting in the creation of a ‘standardised’ corpus of ginans, effectively amounting to the closure of a centuries-old tradition of ginan compositions (Asani).
The Khojas underwent profound changes during the Imamat of Aga Khan III, who also faced a legal suit in 1905 filed by his cousin Hajji Bibi, which came to be known as the Hajji Bibi case. As with the 1866 Khoja case, the Hajji Bibi case revealed the extent to which taqiya was still practiced by the Khojas, enabling dissenters to challenge the authority and legitimacy of the Imam. A British judge presiding over the case gave further legal validation to the Aga Khan’s authority and reaffirmed the Ismaili identity of the Khojas.
As a result of these schisms and legal decisions, the identity of the Khojas was clearly defined as ‘a religious community,’ and differentiated from that of the Sunnis and the Ithnaʿasharis alike, the cornerstone of which was allegiance to a living Ismaili Imam.
Following the court cases, changes were introduced – the batin, previously concealed within or behind the zahir, now came to the fore. Aga Khan III also removed some of the Hinduistic elements from Isma’ili ritual. In this area he appears to have moved cautiously, perhaps in deference to the conservatism of the wealthy Khojas on whom he depended for his organization… firmans issued between 1934 and 1939 direct Ismailis to project an Islamic identity for the sake of Muslim unity by attending mosques on Fridays and mingling with other Muslims (p 383 note 39).
Foremost among the goals ordained by Aga Khan III are social welfare, health, and education. He organised the community through a Constitution, a hierarchy of councils for self-governance, and founded a network of schools and medical centres, emphasizing the education and participation of women.
As the leader of a recognised community whose distinctive identity he helped to forge Aga Khan III “carefully nurtured distinctive aspects of the Satpanth or Khoja Isma’ilism of India and East Africa … only Arabizing key aspects of ritual when the retreat of British power made it prudent to bring Isma’ilism closer to the Islamic mainstream” (p 392).
Aga Khan IV strengthened institutions found by his grandfather and established new ones to meet the changing needs of the Ismails, now residing all over the world.
Daftary states the present Imam Aga Khan IV, “as a major Muslim leader fully congnisant of the challenges and issues facing contemporary Muslims, has devoted a good share of his time and resources to promoting a better understanding of Islam, not only as a religion with a set of theological doctrines but as a major world civilization – or even a conglomerate of civilisations with their multiplicity of expressions and interpretations (The Ismaili Imams, I.B. Tauris, London, 2020 p 226-239).
Asani notes “while an institution in British colonial India played a facilitating role in defining in legal terms Khoja identity as being Ismailis, it was the hereditary Islamic institution, the Ismaili Imamate, that navigated the Ismaili Khojas through the whirlpools of cultural and political changes…” (From Satpanthi to Ismaili Muslim).
Adapted from Aga Khan III and the Ismaili Renaissance by Malise Ruthven published in New Trends and Developments in the World of Islam by Peter B. Clark, Luzac Oriental, London, 1998
Contributed 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 email@example.com