Moment in Time | February 16, 1946: Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III Established a Research Institution

Mawlana Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III (r.1885-1957) established a research institution, the Ismaili Society (Anjoman-e Esma‘ili), on February 16, 1946 in Bombay (now Mumbai), India. According to the Charter, its primary objective was “the promotion of independent and critical study of all matters connected with Ismailism with the stated policy of refraining from all religio-political missionary activities” (Daftary, Anjoman-e Esma‘ili, IIS).

The Ismaili Society evolved from the Islamic Research Association, which was also established by Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah in Bombay in 1933. The origin of modern Ismaili Studies owes much to Russian-language scholars of the early decades of the twentieth century. Leading among them were I. Zarubin (1887-1964) and the Uzbek scholar, A. A. Semenov (1873-1958). and the leading pioneer, Wladimir Ivanow, who played a prominent role in the creation of both institutions established by Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah.

In his autobiography, Fifty Years in the East, Ivanow describes his experience:
“In December, I was informed that His Highness the Aga Khan [III] had consented to my engagement in regular research on the history, literature, and philosophy of Ismailism. Aga Khan III, a man of creative mind and excellent education…realised the harmful effects of retaining traditional secrecy in modern times and therefore abolished it (Fifty Years in the East p 165).

My ‘breakthrough’ in the entanglement of traditional Ismaili secrecy and direct access to their genuine literature undoubtedly constituted an important step in the development of Islamic studies and the study of Ismailism…. During my only conversation with the late Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan, concerning the programme of my research he emphasised that I should concentrate on the history of his ancestors.” (Ibid. p 83-88).


Wladimir Ivanow. Image: Daftary, Fifty Years in the East

Born in St. Petersburg, Russia,in 1886, he studied Arabic and Persian history as well as Islamic and Central Asian history at the Faculty of Oriental Languages, University of St. Petersburg, from where he graduated in 1911. He subsequently conducted field research on Persian dialects and folk poetry in Iran for many years, when he came into contact with Ismailis for the first time. At the time, it was universally accepted that Ismailis of Alamut (1090-1256) in Persia had been wiped out by the brutality of the Mongols.
(see Ivanow, came into contact with Ismailis for the first time)

In 1915, he joined the Asiatic Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg as an assistant keeper of the manuscript, where he catalogued a small number of manuscripts acquired by Ivan Ivanovich Zarubin (1887-1964), the renowned Russian scholar of Tajik dialects. These manuscripts dated from the Alamut and post-Alamut periods of Nizari Ismaili history that had been preserved in Central Asia. It was at the Museum that Ivanow had his first contact with Ismaili literature.

In 1920, Ivanow settled in Calcutta, India, where the president of the Asiatic Society of Bengal commissioned him to catalogue their extensive collection of Persian manuscripts. Subsequently Ivanow  moved to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he established relations with Nizar Khojas who introduced him to Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III.

In 1931, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah employed Ivanow to conduct research into the literature and history of Ismailis. Ivanow found access to Ismaili manuscripts held in private collections in India, Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, and elsewhere. He also established relations with several scholars in this field who gave him access to their family collections of manuscripts dating to the Fatimid phases of Ismaili history.

The revised title page dated Bombay, 1927; the “rough notes” title page is dated Calcutta, India, 1928 and has Wood’s manuscript notations re publication possibilities dated 1934. Image: Annotated catalogue of the Casey A. Wood Collection of Persian, Arabic, and Hindustani manuscripts; Sarah Severson/The Dark Room, McGill Digitized Library

Ivanow described these manuscripts in his catalogue published in 1933, A Guide to Ismaili Literature, the first catalogue of the Ismaili sources published in modern times.

Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

This catalogue demonstrated the richness and diversity of Ismaili literature and was an invaluable tool, for several decades, in the advancement of Ismaili scholarship. In a subsequent publication in 1963, Ivanow identified several hundred additional manuscripts. By this time, according to Daftary, “Ismaili studies as a whole had undergone a revolution, thanks to the concerted efforts of Ivanow and a few other scholars, notable A.A.A Fyzee, Husayn F. al-Hamdani (1901-1962), Zahed Ali (1888-1958), and Henry Corbin.”

As editor of the Ismaili Society, Ivanow published a series of his works while editing and translating several works. Over time, the Society came to possess a notable library of Ismaili manuscripts.

Ivanow moved to Tehran, Iran, in 1959 where he died in 1970 and was buried. Ivanow is considered the “unrivaled founder of modern Nizari Ismaili Studies” (Daftary, A Historical Dictionary of Ismailis)

Major publications
Between 1946 and 1963 the Society published twenty-eight major items, twenty-two of which were contributed by Ivanow himself. The most important Ismaili texts, edited and translated for the first time by Ivanow include:

Nasir Khusraw’s Shish Fasl (Bombay, 1949);
Nasir al-Din Tusi’s Rawdat al-taslim (Bombay, 1950);
Pandiyat-i jawanmardi, containing the sayings of the late 9th/15th century imam Mustansir bi’llah (Bombay, 1953);
Haft bab of Abu Ishaq Quhistani, a Nizari author of the early 10th/16th century (Tehran, 1336 S/1957);
Fasl dar bayan-i shenakht-i imam;
the Tasnifat, attributed to Khayrkhah Herati, a Nizari missionary of the mid-10th/16th century (Tehran, 1961);
and some works by Shihab al-Din Shah (d. 1302/1884), the eldest son of Mawlana Aqa Ali Shah Aga Khan II.

By 1964 the Society’s publication series was discontinued and the institution was absorbed by the Ismaili Association of Pakistan in Karachi. The Library at The Institute of Ismaili Studies is now the steward of the Ismaili Society’s collection of manuscripts (Anjoman-e Esma’ili).

Nasir Khusraw and Ismailism, by Ivanow, page 1.
Ismaili Society
Preface, Nasir Khusraw and Ismailism
Edited by Ivanow, Ismaili Society

Further Reading:
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah employed Ivanow to research the history, philosophy, and literature of Ismailis

Farhad Daftary, Anjoman-e-Esma’ili (Isma’ili Society, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis, The Scarecrow Press, Plymouth, 2012
Video, Wladimir Ivanow and modern Ismaili Studies, Aga Khan Centre

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