Ivanow: “They [Ismailis] … kept through ages burning that Light … which God always protects…”

Following the death of Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah in 1094, there was a dispute over his successor between his two sons Abu Mansur Nizar and Abu al-Qasim Ahmad, known as al-Musta’li bi’llah. The Ismailis split into two factions – the Nizaris and the Musta’lians. Shortly before the split, in 1090, Hasan-i Sabbah, Imam al-Mustansir’s most senior dignitary, had acquired the mountain fortress of Alamut, which became the headquarters of the Nizaris. Over the next 150 years, the community 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 invasions and persecutions. Despite having to fend against repeated attacks, the Nizaris of Alamut continued their intellectual pursuits.

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. “As even their inveterate detractors have noted, the library of Alamut was famous for its holdings” (Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages p 7).

li Castles in Iran and Syria. Image via IIS
Ismaili fortresses in Iran and Syria. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The Nizari state of Alamut lasted some 166 years until it collapsed under the onslaught of the Mongols, who massacred the Ismailis, destroyed their fortresses, and burned their renowned library collection. The Nizari Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah was forced to surrendered Alamut, and was eventually murdered. In the meantime, a group of dignitaries had taken the Imam’s son to Adharbayjan where he lived secretly.

“The complete and total annihilation of the Imam and his community, the extermination of the Ismailis in the face of the Mongol behemoth was accepted as fact in Western scholarship for centuries” (Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages p 9). This began to change when Jean Baptiste Rousseau (d. 1831), a French consul-general in Aleppo [Syria] from 1809 to 1816, came across the Nizaris in Syria and Iran, “He wrote a letter about his findings to the famous Persian scholar Sylvester de Sacy; the letter was dated June 1, 1808:

I have collected some fairly exact notions about the Batinis or Isma’ilis … a sect which still survives” (Ibid).
(In the early times, the Ismailis were known as Batiniyya due to their emphasis on the batin, or esoteric meaning of revelation, as taught by Hazrat Ali, the first Imam of the Shia Muslims).

The existence of the Ismailis was becoming apparent to the British government in the Indian subcontinent. The Baron C.A. De Bode, during his travels, had noted Aga Khan I’s appointment as governor of Kirman … In so doing, he remarks:

On my right hand, to the east, was the mountainous district of Mahalatm where a remnant of the Ismaili sect, the descendants of the followers of Hasan-Sabah [sic], or Sheikh-Jabal (the old man of the mountain), are said to still exist. It is currently believed that their Chief, Aga Khan, is likewise looked upon by the Ismaeli sectarians of India as their head.” (Ibid. p 201, n.36).

The British government sought the help of Aga Khan I to secure the lines of communication in Sindh. General Sir Charles Napier, in his diary entry of February 29, 1843 wrote:

I have sent the Persian Prince Aga Khan to Jarrack, on the right bank of the Indus, His influence is great, and he will with his own followers secure our communication with Karachi. He is the lineal chief of the Ismailians, who still exist as a sect and are spread over all the interior of Asia. They have great influence, though no longer dreaded as in the days of yore. He will protect our line along which many of our people have been murdered by the Baloochis” (Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages p 10).

By the early 1900s, there was a flurry of notices on the Ismailis of South Asia and greater Badakhshan, where the community was particularly prominent” (Ibid).

The pioneer of modern Nizari Ismaili Studies, Wladmir Ivanow, while conducting field research on Persian dialects and folk poetry in Persia for several years, heard about a community called Ismailis, but he disbelieved it. At the time, it was universally accepted that Ismailis of Persia had been wiped out by the brutality of the Mongols. Upon further investigation, Ivanow confirmed the existence of Ismailis in various localities in Persia, encountering many of them. He stated

I came in touch with the Ismailis for the first time in Persia, in February 1912. The world was quite different then. No one imagined that the Great War, with all its misery and suffering, was just around the corner… I was riding from Mashhad to Birjand, in Eastern Persia; travelling by day and taking shelter by night in the villages that were situated along the road….

Already in Mashhad I had heard about these localities being populated by a “strange sect.” My inquiries could not illicit any reliable information. Some people told me that the “strange sect” were the Ismailis, but I disbelieved it, having been brought up in the idea, universally accepted by Oriental scholars in Europe, that all traces of Ismailism in Persia were swept away by the brutal Mongols. And here, taking the opportunity of a conversation with the landlord on the spot, I tried to ascertain the truth. To my surprise, he confirmed what I had heard before, stating that the people really were Ismailis, and that the locality was not the only seat of the followers of the community but there were other places in Persia in which they were found

My learned friends in Europe plainly disbelieved me when I wrote about the community to them. It appeared to them quite unbelievable that the most brutal persecution, wholesale slaughter, age-long hostility and suppression were unable to annihilate the community which even at its highest formed but a small minority in the country

Only later on, however, when my contact with them grew more intimate, I was able to see the reasons for such surprising vitality. It was their quite extraordinary devotion and faithfulness to the tradition of their ancestors, the ungrudging patience with which they suffered all the calamities and misfortunes, cherishing no illusions whatsoever as to what they could expect in life and in the contact with their majority fellow countrymen. They with amazing care and devotion kept through ages burning that Light, mentioned in the Koran which God always protects against all attempts of His enemies to extinguish it. I rarely saw anything so extraordinary and impressive as this ancient tradition being devoutly preserved in the poor muddy huts of mountain hamlets or poor villages in the desert…” (The IIS).

Wladimir Ivanow. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III employed Ivanow at his research institution, the Ismaili Society, for the study of all matters connected with Ismailism. Virani states it was due to the pioneering efforts of Wladimir Ivanow “that the Ismailis made substantial strides in their emergence from academic obscurity” (The Ismailis in the Middle Ages p 10).

Wladimir Ivanow. Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Ilm, Vol. 3 No. 3, December 1977 p 16-17
Shafique N. Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, 2007
Wladmir Alekseevich Ivanow, My First Meeting with the Ismailis in Persia, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, Anjoman-e Esma‘ili (lsma‘ili Society), The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer although she has contributed several articles in the past (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 the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at nimirasblog@gmail.com.

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