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Ismāʿīlism (Arabic: الإسماعيلية al-Ismāʿīliyya; Persian: اسماعیلیان; Sindhi: اسماعيلي; Kurdish: Ismaili; Esmāʿiliyān) is a branch of Shia Islam whose adherents are also known as Seveners and Agha Khanies. The Ismāʿīlī (//) get their name from their acceptance of Isma'il ibn Jafar as the appointed spiritual successor (Imām) to Ja'far al-Sadiq, wherein they differ from the Twelvers, who accept Musa al-Kadhim, younger brother of Isma'il, as the true Imām.
Tracing its earliest theology to the lifetime of Muhammad, Ismailism rose at one point to become the largest branch of Shī‘ism, climaxing as a political power with the Fatimid Caliphate in the tenth through twelfth centuries. Ismailis believe in the oneness of God, as well as the closing of divine revelation with Muhammad, whom they see as "the final Prophet and Messenger of God to all humanity". The Ismāʿīlī and the Twelvers both accept the same initial Imams from the descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and therefore share much of their early history. Both groups see the family of Muhammad (the Ahl al-Bayt) as divinely chosen, infallible (ismah), and guided by God to lead the Islamic community (Ummah), a belief that distinguishes them from the majority Sunni branch of Islam.
After the death of Muhammad ibn Ismail in the 8th century AD, the teachings of Ismailism further transformed into the belief system as it is known today, with an explicit concentration on the deeper, esoteric meaning (batin) of the Islamic religion. With the eventual development of Twelverism into the more literalistic (zahir) oriented Akhbari and later Usuli schools of thought, Shi'i Islam developed into two separate directions: the metaphorical Ismaili group focusing on the mystical path and nature of God, with the "Imām of the Time" representing the manifestation of truth and reality, with the more literalistic Twelver group focusing on divine law (sharia) and the deeds and sayings (sunnah) of Muhammad and the Twelve Imams who were guides and a light to God.
Though there are several paths (tariqat) within Ismailism, the term in today's vernacular generally refers to the Nizaris, who recognize the Aga Khan IV as the 49th hereditary Imam and is the largest Ismaili group. In recent centuries Ismāʿīlīs have largely been a Pakistani, Afghan, and Indian community, but Ismailis are also found in Bangladesh, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, Kurdistan, East Africa, Angola, Lebanon, and South Africa, and have in recent years emigrated to Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Trinidad and Tobago. There are also a significant number of Ismāʿīlīs in Central Asia.
- 1 History
- 1.1 Succession crisis
- 1.2 Karbala and afterward
- 1.3 Ascension of the Dais
- 1.4 The Qarmatians
- 1.5 The Fatimid Caliphate
- 1.6 Alamut
- 1.7 Aftermath
- 1.8 Ismaili Historiography
- 2 Beliefs
- 3 Branches
- 4 Extinct Branches
- 5 Inclusion in Amman Message and Islamic Ummah
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
- 9 External links
Ismailism shares its beginnings with other early Shi‘ah sects that emerged during the succession crisis that spread throughout the early Muslim community. From the beginning, the Shi‘ah asserted the right of ‘Ali, cousin of Muhammad, to have both political and spiritual control over the community. This also included his two sons, who were the grandsons of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima az-Zahra.
The conflict remained relatively peaceful between the partisans of ‘Ali and those who asserted a semi-democratic system of electing caliphs, until the third of the Rashidun caliphs, Usman was killed, and ‘Alī, with popular support, ascended to the caliphate.
Soon after his ascendancy, Aisha, the third of the Prophet's wives, claimed along with Usman's tribe, the Ummayads, that Ali should take Qisas (blood for blood) from the people responsible for Usman's death. ‘Ali voted against it as he believed that situation at that time demanded a peaceful resolution of the matter. Both parties could rightfully defend their claims, but due to escalated misunderstandings, the Battle of the Camel was fought and Aisha was defeated but was respectfully escorted to Medina by Ali.
Following this battle, Muawiya, the Umayyad governor of Syria, also staged a revolt under the same pretences. ‘Ali led his forces against Muawiya until the side of Muawiya held copies of the Quran against their spears and demanded that the issue be decided by Islam's holy book. ‘Ali accepted this, and an arbitration was done which ended in his favor.
A group among Ali's army believed that subjecting his legitimate authority to arbitration was tantamount to apostasy, and abandoned his forces. This group was known as the Kharijites, and ‘Ali wished to defeat their forces before they reached the cities where they would be able to blend in with the rest of the population. While he was unable to do this, he nonetheless defeated their forces in subsequent battles.
Regardless of these defeats, the Kharijites survived and became a violently problematic group in Islamic history. After plotting an assassination against ‘Ali, Muawiya, and the arbitrator of their conflict, only ‘Ali was successfully assassinated in AD 661, and the Imāmate passed on to his son Hasan and then later his son Husayn, or according to the Nizari Ismāʿīlī, the Imamate passed temporarily to Hasan, who was an Entrusted Imam (al-imam al-mustawda), and afterwards to Husayn who was the Permanent Imam (al-imam al-mustaqarr). The Entrusted Imam is an Imam in the full sense except that the lineage of Imamat must continue through the Permanent Imam. However, the political caliphate was soon taken over by Muawiya, the only leader in the empire at that time with an army large enough to seize control.
Karbala and afterward
The Battle of Karbala
After the death of Imam Hasan, Imam Husayn and his family were increasingly worried about the religious and political persecution that was becoming commonplace under the reign of Muawiya's son, Yazid. Amidst this turmoil in 680, Husayn along with the women and children of his family, upon receiving invitational letters and gestures of support by Kufis, wished to go to Kufa and confront Yazid as an intercessor on part of the citizens of the empire. However, he was stopped by Yazid's army in Karbala during the month of Muharram. His family was starved and deprived of water and supplies, until eventually the army came in on the tenth day and martyred Husayn and his companions, and enslaved the rest of the women and family, taking them to Kufa.
This battle would become extremely important to the Shī‘ah psyche. The Twelvers as well as Mustaali Ismāʿīlī still mourn this event during an occasion known as Ashura. The Nizari Ismāʿīlī, however, do not mourn this in the same way because of the belief that the light of the Imām never dies but rather passes on to the succeeding Imām, making mourning arbitrary. However, during commemoration they do not have any celebrations in Jamatkhana during Muharram and may have announcements or sessions regarding the tragic events of Karbala. Also individuals may obeserve Muharram in a wide variety of ways. This respect for Muharram does not include self-flagellation and beating because they feel that harming one's body is harming a gift from Allah.
The beginnings of Ismāʿīlī Daʿwah
After being set free by Yazid, Zainab, the daughter of Fatimah and Ali and the sister of Hasan and Husayn, started to spread the word of Karbala to the Muslim world, making speeches regarding the event. This was the first organized Daʿwah of the Shī‘ah community, which would later develop into an extremely spiritual institution for the Ismāʿīlīs.
After the poisoning of ‘Alī al-Sajjad by Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in 713, Shiism's first succession crisis arose with Zayd ibn ‘Alī's companions and the Zaydī Shī‘ah who claimed Zayd ibn ‘Alī as the Imām, whilst the rest of the Shī‘ah upheld Muhammad al-Baqir as the Imām. The Zaidis argued that any sayed, descendant of Muhammad through Hasan or Husayn, who rebelled against tyranny and the injustice of his age, can be the Imām. The Zaidis created the first Shī‘ah states in Iran, Iraq and Yemen.
In contrast to his predecessors, Muhammad al-Baqir focused on academic Islamic scholarship in Medina, where he promulgated his teachings to many Muslims, both Shī‘ah and non-Shī‘ah, in an extremely organized form of Daʿwah. In fact, the earliest text of the Ismaili school of thought is said to be the "Umm al-kitab" (The Archetypal Book), a conversation between Muhammad al-Baqir and three of his disciples.
This tradition would pass on to his son, Ja'far al-Sadiq, who inherited the Imāmate on his father's death in 743. Ja'far al-Sadiq excelled in the scholarship of the day and had many pupils, including three of the four founders of the Sunni madhabs.
However, following al-Sadiq's poisoning in 765, a fundamental split occurred in the community. Isma'il bin Jafar, who at one point seemed to be heir apparent, predeceased his father in 755. While Twelvers argue that either he was never heir apparent or he truly predeceased his father and hence Musa al-Kadhim was the true heir to the Imamate. The Ismāʿīlīs argue that either the death of Isma'il was staged in order to protect him from Abbasid persecution or that the Imamate passed to Muhammad ibn Isma'il in lineal descent.
Ascension of the Dais
For the Sevener Ismāʿīlī, the Imāmate ended with Isma'il ibn Ja'far, whose son Muhammad ibn Ismail was the expected Mahdi that Ja'far al-Sadiq had preached about. However, at this point the Ismāʿīlī Imāms according to the Nizari and Mustaali found areas where they would be able to be safe from the recently founded Abbasid Caliphate, which had defeated and seized control from the Umayyads in 750 AD.
At this point, much of the Ismaili community believed that Muhammad ibn Ismail had gone into the Occultation and that he would one day return. With the status and location of the Imāms not known to the community, Ismailism began to propagate the faith through Dāʿiyyūn from its base in Syria. This was the start of the spiritual beginnings of the Daʿwah that would later blossom in the Mustaali branch of the faith as well as play important parts in the other three branches.
The Da'i was not a missionary in the typical sense, and he was responsible for both the conversion of his student as well as the mental and spiritual well being. The Da'i was a guide and light to the Imām. The teacher-student relationship of the Da'i and his student was much like the one that would develop in Sufism. The student desired God, and the Da'i could bring him to God by making him recognize the stature and light of the Imām descended from the Imāms, who in turn descended from God. The Da'i was the path, and the Face of God, which was a Qur'anic term the Ismāʿīlī took to represent the Imām, was the destination.
Ja‘far bin Manṣūr al-Yaman's The Book of the Sage and Disciple is a classic of early Fāṭimid literature, documenting important aspects of the development of the Ismāʿīlī da‘wa in tenth-century Yemen. The Kitāb is also of considerable historical value for modern scholars of Arabic prose literature as well as those interested in the relationship of esoteric Shī‘ism with early Islamic mysticism. Likewise is the Kitāb an important source of information regarding the various movements within tenth-century Shī‘ism leading to the spread of the Fāṭimid-Isma‘īlī da‘wa throughout the medieval Islamicate world, and the religious and philosophical history of post-Fāṭimid Musta‘lī branch of Ismāʿīlism in Yemen and India.
Shams Tabrizi and Rumi is a famous example of the importance of the relationship between the guide and the guided, and Rumi dedicated much of his literature to Shams Tabrizi and his discovery of the truth.
While many of the Ismāʿīlī were content with the Dai teachings, a group that mingled Persian nationalism and Zoroastrianism surfaced known as the Qarmatians. With their headquarters in Bahrain, they accepted a young Persian former prisoner by the name of Abu'l-Fadl al-Isfahani, who claimed to be the descendant of the Persian kings as their Mahdi, and rampaged across the Middle-East in the tenth century, climaxing their violent campaign by stealing the Black Stone from the Kaaba in Mecca in 930 under Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi. Following the arrival of the Al-Isfahani, they changed their qiblah from the Ka'aba in Mecca to the Zoroastrian-influenced fire. After their return of the Black Stone in 951 and a defeat by the Abbasids in 976 the group slowly dwindled off and no longer has any adherents.
The Fatimid Caliphate
Rise of the Fatimid Caliphate
The political asceticism practiced by the Imāms during the period after Muhammad ibn Ismail was to be short lived and finally concluded with the Imāmate of Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, who was born in 873. After decades of Ismāʿīlīs believing that Muhammad ibn Ismail was in the Occultation and would return to bring an age of justice, al-Mahdi taught that the Imāms had not been literally secluded, but rather had remained hidden to protect themselves and had been organizing the Da'i, and even acted as Da'i themselves. He taught that during the supposed Occultation of Muhammad ibn Ismail, many of Muhammad ibn Ismail's descendants lived as Imāms secluded from the community, guiding them through the Da'i and at times even taking the guise of Da'i.
After raising an army and successfully defeating the Aghlabids in North Africa and a number of other victories, al-Mahdi Billah successfully established a Shi'ah political state ruled by the Imāmate in 910 AD. This was the only time in history where the Shi'a Imamate and Caliphate were united after the first Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib.
In parallel with the dynasty's claim of descent from ‘Alī and Fāṭimah, the empire was named "Fatimid". However, this was not without controversy, and recognizing the extent that Ismāʿīlī doctrine had spread, the Abbasid caliphate assigned Sunni and Twelver scholars the task to disprove the lineage of the new dynasty. This became known as the Baghdad Manifesto, and it traces the lineage of the Fatimid dynasty to a Jewish blacksmith. Its authenticity has been both questioned and supported by various Islamic scholars.
The Middle East under Fatimid rule
The Fatimid Caliphate expanded quickly under the subsequent Imāms. Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of an empire that included at its peak North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen, Hejaz and the Tihamah. Under the Fatimids, Egypt flourished and developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages.
The Fatimids promoted ideas that were radical for that time. One was promotion by merit rather than genealogy.
Also during this period the three contemporary branches of Ismailism formed. The first branch (Druze) occurred with the Imām Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. Born in 985, he ascended as ruler at the age of eleven. A religious group that began forming in his lifetime broke off from mainstream Ismailism and refused to acknowledge his successor. Later to be known as the Druze, they believe Al-Hakim to be the manifestation of God and the prophesied Mahdi, who would one day return and bring justice to the world. The faith further split from Ismailism as it developed unique doctrines which often class it separately from both Ismailism and Islam.
The second split occurred following the death of Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah in 1094. His rule was the longest of any caliph in both the Fatimid and other Islamic empires. After he died, his sons Nizar, older, and Al-Musta'li, the younger, fought for political and spiritual control of the dynasty. Nizar was defeated and jailed, but according to Nizari tradition his son escaped to Alamut, where the Iranian Ismāʿīlī had accepted his claim.
The Mustaali line split again between the Taiyabi and the Hafizi, the former claiming that the 21st Imām and son of Al-Amir went into occultation and appointed a Dāʿī al-Muṭlaq to guide the community, in a similar manner as the Ismāʿīlī had lived after the death of Muhammad ibn Ismail. The latter claimed that the ruling Fatimid caliph was the Imām.
However, in the Mustaali branch, the Dai came to have a similar but more important task. The term Dāʻī al-Mutlaq (Arabic: الداعي المطلق) literally means "the absolute or unrestricted missionary". This dai was the only source of the Imām's knowledge after the occultation of al-Qasim in Mustaali thought.
According to Tayyabī Mustaʻlī Ismā'īlī tradition, after the death of Imām al-Amīr, his infant son, Taiyab abi al-Qasim, about 2 years old, was protected by the most important woman in Musta'li history after Prophet's daughter Fāṭimatu z-Zahrah. She was Malika al-Sayyida Hurra Al-Malika, a Queen in Yemen. She was promoted to the post of hujjah long before by Imām Mustansir at the death of her husband. She ran the dawat from Yemen in the name of Imaam Tayyib. She was instructed and prepared by Imām Mustansir and ran the dawat from Yemen in the name of Imaam Tayyib, following Imāms for the second period of Satr. It was going to be on her hands, that Imām Tayyib would go into seclusion, and she would institute the office of Dāʻī al-Mutlaq. Syedna Zueb-bin-Musa was first to be instituted to this office, and the line of Tayyib Dais that began in 1132 has passed from one Dai to another and is still continuing under the main sect known as Dawoodi Bohra (may pl. see Main article: List of Dai of Dawoodi Bohra).
The Mustaali split several times over disputes regarding who was the rightful Dāʿī al-Muṭlaq, the leader of the community within The Occultation.
After the 27th Dai, Syedna Dawood bin Qutub Shah, there was another split; the ones following Syedna Dawood came to be called Dawoodi Bohra, and followers of Suleman were then called Sulaimani. Dawoodi Bohra's present Dai al Mutlaq, the 52nd, is Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, and he and his devout followers tread the same path, following the same tradition of the Aimmat Fatimiyyeen. The Sulaimani Bohra are mostly concentrated in Yemen and Saudi Arabia with some communities in the South Asia. The Dawoodi Bohra and Alavi Bohra are mostly exclusive to South Asia, after the migration of the Da'wat from Yemen to India. Other groups include Atba-i-Malak and Hebtiahs Bohra. Mustaali beliefs and practices, unlike those of the Nizari and Druze, are completely compatible with mainstream Islam, representing a continuation of Fatimid tradition and fiqh'.
Decline of the Caliphate
In the 1040s, the Zirids (governors of North Africa under the Fatimids) declared their independence from the Fatimids and their conversion to Sunni Islam, which led to the devastating Banu Hilal invasions. After about 1070, the Fatimid hold on the Levant coast and parts of Syria was challenged by first Turkish invasions, then the Crusades, so that Fatimid territory shrunk until it consisted only of Egypt. Damascus fell to the Seljuks in 1076, leaving the Fatimids only in charge of Egypt and the Levantine coast up to Tyre and Sidon. Because of the vehement opposition to the Fatimids from the Seljuks, the Ismaili movement was only able to operate as a terrorist underground movement, much like the Assassins.
After the decay of the Fatimid political system in the 1160s, the Zengid ruler Nūr ad-Dīn had his general, Saladin, seize Egypt in 1169, forming the Sunni Ayyubid Dynasty. This signaled the end of the Hafizi Mustaali branch of Ismailism as well as the Fatimid Caliphate.
Firdous-e-Bareen book is related to Hassan-Al-Sabbah. Very early in the empire's life, the Fatimids sought to spread the Ismāʿīlī faith, which in turn would spread loyalty to the Imāmate in Egypt. One of their earliest attempts was taken by a Dai by the name of Hassan-Al-Sabbah.
Hassan-Al-Sabbah was born into a Twelver family living in the scholarly Persian city of Qom in 1056 AD. His family later relocated to the city of Tehran, which was an area with an extremely active Ismāʿīlī Daʿwah. He immersed himself in Ismāʿīlī thought; however, he did not choose to convert until he was overcome with an almost fatal illness and feared dying without knowing the Imām of his time.
Afterwards, Hassan-Al-Sabbah became one of the most influential Dais in Ismāʿīlī history; he became important to the survival of the Nizari branch of Ismailism, which today is its largest branch.
Legend holds that he met with Imām Ma'ad al-Mustansir Bi'llah and asked him who his successor would be, to which he responded that it would be his eldest son Nizar.
Hassan-Al-Sabbah continued his Dai activities, which climaxed with his taking of the famous Alamut castle. Over the next two years, he converted most of the surrounding villages to Ismailism. Afterwards, he converted most of the staff to Ismailism, took over the fortress, and presented Alamut's king with payment for his fortress, which he had no choice but to accept. The king reluctantly abdicated his throne, and Hassan-Al-Sabbah turned Alamut into an outpost of Fatimid rule within Abbasid territory.
The Hashasheen / Assassiyoon
Surrounded by the Abbasids and other hostile powers and low in numbers, Hassan-Al Sabbah devised a way to attack the Ismāʿīlī's enemies with minimal losses. Using the method of assassination, he ordered the murders of Sunni scholars and politicians whom he felt threatened the Ismāʿīlīs. Knives and daggers were used to kill, and sometimes as a warning, a knife would be placed onto the pillow of a Sunni, who understood the message that he was marked for death. When an assassination was actually carried out, the Hashasheen would not be allowed to run away; instead, to strike further fear into the enemy, they would stand near the victim without showing any emotion and departed only when the body was discovered. This further increased the ruthless reputation of the Hashasheen throughout Sunni-controlled lands.
The English word, assassination, is said to have derived from the Arabic word Hashasheen. It means both "those who use hashish," and one of the Shiite Ismaili sects in the Syria of the eleventh century. However, Amin Maalouf, in his novel Samarkand, disputes the origin of the word assassin. According to him, it is not derived from the name of the drug hashish, which Western historians believed that members of the sect took. Instead, he proposed that this story was fabricated by Orientalists to explain how effectively the Ismāʿīlīs carried out these suicide-assassinations without fear. Maalouf suggests that the term is instead derived from the word Assass (foundation), and Assassiyoon, meaning "those faithful to the foundation."
Threshold of the Imāmate
After the imprisonment of Nizar by his younger brother Mustaal, it is claimed Nizar's son al-Hādī survived and fled to Alamut. He was offered a safe place in Alamut, where Hassan-Al-Sabbah welcomed him. However, it is believed this was not announced to the public and the lineage was hidden until a few Imāms later.
It was announced with the advent of Imām Hassan II. In a show of his Imāmate and to emphasize the interior meaning (the batin) over the exterior meaning (the zahir), he prayed with his back to Mecca, as did the rest of the congregation, who prayed behind him, and ordered the community to break their Ramadan fasting with a feast at noon. He made a speech saying he was in communication with the Imām, which many of the Ismāʿīlīs understood to mean he was the Imām himself.
Afterwards his descendants ruled as the Imāms at Alamut until its destruction by the Mongols.
Destruction by the Mongols
The stronghold at Alamut, though it had warded off the Sunni attempts to take it several times, including one by Saladin, soon met with destruction. By 1206, Genghis Khan had managed to unite many of the once antagonistic Mongol tribes into a ruthless, but nonetheless unified, force. Using many new and unique military techniques, Genghis Khan led his Mongol hordes across Central Asia into the Middle East, where they won a series of tactical military victories using a scorched-earth policy.
A grandson of Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan, led the devastating attack on Alamut in 1256, only a short time before sacking the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad in 1258. As he would later do to the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, he destroyed Ismāʿīlī as well as Islamic religious texts. The Imāmate that was located in Alamut along with its few followers were forced to flee and take refuge elsewhere.
After the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate and its bases in Iran and Syria, the three currently living branches of Ismāʿīlī generally developed geographically isolated from each other, with the exception of Syria (which has both Druze and Nizari) and Pakistan and rest of South Asia (which had both Mustaali and Nizari).
The Mustaali progressed mainly in Yemen and then shifted their dawat to India under Dai working on behalf of their last Imam, Taiyyab, and known as Bohra. From India, their various groups spread mainly in south Asia and eventually in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and America.
The Nizari have maintained large populations in Syria, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and have smaller populations in China and Iran. This community is the only one with a living Imām, whose title is the Aga Khan. Badakshan which spills over North-Eastern Afghanistan, Eastern Tajikistan and Northern Pakistan is the only part of the world where the Ismailis makes up the majority of the population.
The Druze mainly settled in Syria and Lebanon and developed a community based upon the principles of reincarnation through their own descendants. Their leadership is based on community scholars, who are the only individuals allowed to read their holy texts. There is controversy whether this group falls under the classification of Ismāʿīlīsm or Islam because of their unique beliefs.
The Tajiks of China, being Ismaili, were not subjected to being enslaved in China by Sunni Muslim Turkic peoples as the two peoples did not share a common geographical region. . The Hunza people of Pakistan are also Ismaili. However, due to its isolation from rest of the world, Islam reached Hunza about 350 years ago. Ismailism took its root in the last 300 years. Hunza was ruled by same family of kings for over 900 years. They were called Kanjuts. Sunni Islam never took roots in this part of central Asia even now there are less than few dozen sunnis in Hunza.
One of the most important texts in Ismaili historiography is the 'Uyun al-akhbar, which is a reference source on the history of Ismailism that was composed in 7 books by the Tayyibi Musta‘lian Ismaili da‘i-scholar, Idris ‘Imad al-Din (born ca. 1392). This text presents the most comprehensive history of the Ismaili imams and da‘wa, from the earliest period of Muslim history until the late Fatimid era. The author, Idris ‘Imad al-Din, descended from the prominent al-Walid family of the Quraysh in Yemen, who led the Tayyibi Musta‘lian Ismaili da‘wa for more than three centuries. This gave him access to the literary heritage of the Ismailis, including the majority of the extant Fatimid manuscripts transferred to Yemen. The ‘Uyun al-akhbar is being published in 7 volumes of annotated Arabic critical editions as part of an institutional collaboration between the Institut Français du Proche Orient (IFPO) in Damascus and The Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS) in London. This voluminous text has been critically edited based on several old manuscripts from The Institute of Ismaili Studies' vast collection. These academic editions have been prepared by a team of Syrian and Egyptian scholars, including Dr Ayman F Sayyid, and this major publication project has been coordinated by Dr Nader El-Bizri (IIS) and Dr Sarab Atassi-Khattab (IFPO).
| Part of a series on Islam
|1 Including Ahmadis
2 Including Alevis, Druze & Alawites
3 Including Ibadis
View on the Qur'an
The Ismāʿīlīs believe the Qur'an was sent to Muhammad through the angel Gabriel over the course of 20 years. They believe that their Hazar Imam has the authority to interpret the Qur'an in relation to the present time.
The Ginans and Qasidas
The Ginans are Nizari Ismā‘īlī religious texts. They are written in the form of poetry by Pirs to interpret the meanings of Qur'anic ayat into the languages of South Asia, especially Gujarati and Urdu. In comparison to Ginans, Ismāʿīlīs of other origins, such as Persians, Arabs, and Central Asians, have Qasidas (Arabic: قصيدة) written by missionaries. See Works of Pir Sadardin
Belief in reincarnation exists in the Druze faith, an offshoot of Ismailism. The Druze believe that members of their community can only be reincarnated within the community. It is also known that Druze believe in five cosmic principles, represented by the five-colored Druze star: intelligence/reason (green), soul (red), word (yellow), precedent (blue), and immanence (white). These virtues take the shape of five different spirits which, until recently, have been continuously reincarnated on Earth as prophets and philosophers including Adam, the ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer Pythagoras, the ancient Pharaoh of Egypt Akhenaten, and many others. The Druze believe that, in every time period, these five principles were personified in five different people who came down together to Earth to teach humans the true path to God and enlightenment, but that with them came five other individuals who would lead people away from the right path into "darkness."
Ismāʿīlīs believe numbers have religious meanings. The number seven plays a general role in the theology of the Ismā'īliyya, including mystical speculations that there are seven heavens, seven continents, seven orifices in the skull, seven days in a week, and so forth.
For this sect, the Imām is truth and reality itself, and hence he is their path of salvation to God.
Sevener Ismāʿīlī doctrine holds that divine revelation had been given in six periods (daur) entrusted to six prophets, who they also call Natiq (Speaker), who were commissioned to preach a religion of law to their respective communities.
Whereas the Natiq was concerned with the rites and outward shape of religion, the inner meaning is entrusted to a Wasi (Representative). The Wasi would know the secret meaning of all rites and rules and would reveal them to a small circles of initiates.
The Natiq and the Wasi are in turn succeeded by a line of seven Imāms, who guard what they received. The seventh and last Imām in any period becomes the Natiq of the next period. The last Imām of the sixth period, however, would not bring about a new religion of law but rather supersede all previous religions, abrogate the law and introduce din Adama al-awwal ("the original religion of Adam") practised by Adam and the Angels in paradise before the fall, which would be without ritual or law but consist merely in all creatures praising the creator and recognizing his unity. This final stage was called Qiyamah.
Pir and Dawah
Just as the Imām is seen by Ismailis as the Face of God, during the period between the Imāmates of Muhammad ibn Ismail and al-Madhi Billah, the relationship between the teacher and the student became a sacred one, and the Dai became a position much beyond a normal missionary. The Dai passed on the sacred and hidden knowledge of the Imām to the student, who could then use that information to ascend to higher levels. First the student loved the Dai, and from the Dai he learned to love the Imām, who was but an interceder on behalf of God. In Nizari Ismailism, the head Dai is called the Pir.
In Ismailism, things have an exterior meaning, what is apparent. This is called zahir.
In Ismailism, things have an interior meaning that is reserved for a special few who are in tune with the Imām, or are the Imām himself. This is called batin.
As with other Shī‘ah, Ismāʿīlīs believe that the understanding of God is derived from the first light in the universe, the light of Aql, which in Arabic roughly translates as 'Intellect' or to 'bind' (Latin: Intellectus). It is through this Universal Intellect ('aql al-kull) that all living and non-living entities know God, and all of humanity is dependent and united in this light. Contrastingly, in Twelver thought this includes the Prophets as well, especially Muhammad, who is the greatest of all the manifestations of Aql.
God, in Isma'ili metaphysics, is seen as above and beyond all conceptions, names, and descriptions. He transcends all positive and negative qualities, and knowledge of God as such is above all human comprehension.
For Shi'a Muslims, the Light (nur) of the Imamate is the Universal Intellect, and consequently, the Imam on earth is the focus of manifestation (mazhar) of the Intellect.
It is very similar to the popular general Muslim practice of zakat as mentioned in the holy Qur'an. Dasond is a proportion of personal income that Nizari Ismailis pay to their Imam. Many followers of the Aga Khan donate 12.5% of their personal income, and of this 12.5% of income that is donated, 2.5% is said to be for the poor, which can be considered as Muslim zakat, and the remaining 10% belongs directly to the Aga Khan. The entire 12.5% is presented to the Imam, usually in cash and without receipts, through the many Ismaili Jamatkhanas—places of worship.
There is a discrepancy in the two references above with regards to how the 12.5% dasond is divided up. A. Meherally writes that 10% goes to the poor and 2.5% goes to the Imam, after which he comments that zakat is traditionally [at most] 2.5%, and he labels dasond as inflated zakat. In the Encyclopaedia of Ismailism, (retrieved from Ismaili.net) Mumtaz Ali Tajddin states that in the times of the Indian Ismaili Pirs, 10% went to the Imam and 2.5% to the poor.
The tenth part of the income is separated along with 2½ zakat, making the deduction of 12½ from the income. The tenth part solely belongs to the Imam, while 2½ part being zakat for the welfare purpose. Both parts (10 & 2½) are presented to the Imam.
Walayah is translated from Arabic as “guardianship” and denotes “Love and devotion for God, the Prophets, the Aimmat and Imām uz Zaman, and the Dai.” It also denotes Ta'at (following every order without protest, but with one's soul's happiness, knowing that nothing is more important than a command from God and that the command of His vicegerents is His Word). In Ismāʿīlī doctrine, God is the true desire of every soul, and He manifests himself in the forms of Prophets and Imāms; to be guided to his path, one requires a messenger or a guide: a Dai. For the true mawali of the Imam and Dai, heaven is made obligatory. And only with this crucial walayat, they believe, will all the other pillars and acts ordained by Islam be judged or even looked at by God.
Taharah or Shahada
A pillar which translates from Arabic as “purity.” As well as a pure soul, it includes bodily purity and cleanliness- without Taharat of the body, clothes and ma'salla, Salaat will not be accepted.
In place of Taharah, the Druze have the Shahada, or affirmation of faith.
A pillar which translates as “charity.” With the exception of the Druze sect, the Ismāʿīlīs' form of zakat resembles the Zakat of the Muslims. The Twelvers pay khums, which is 1/5 of one's unspent money at the end of the year. Ismāʿīlīs pay a tithe of 12.5%, which is used for development projects in the eastern world, primarily to benefit Ismāʿīlīs and, by extension, other communities living in that area.
A pillar which is translated as “fasting.” Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims fast by abstaining from food, drink from dawn to sunset as well purifying the soul by avoiding sinful acts and doing good deeds, e.g., not lying, being honest in daily life, not backbiting, etc., for 30 days during the holy month of Ramadan (9th month of the Islamic calendar). In contrast, the Nizari and Musta'ali sects believe in a metaphorical as well as a literal meaning of fasting. The literal meaning is that one must fast as an obligation, such as during Ramadan, and the metaphorical meaning is seeking to attain the Divine Truth and striving to avoid worldly activities which may detract from this goal. In particular, Ismāʿīlīs believe that the esoteric meaning of fasting involves a "fasting of the soul," whereby they attempt to purify the soul simply by avoiding sinful acts and doing good deeds. Still, many Nizari Ismailis around the world fast during the month of Ramadan every year. In addition, the Nizari also fast on "Shukravari Beej" which falls on a Friday that coincides with the New Moon.
A pillar which translates from Arabic as “pilgrimage," meaning the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is currently the largest annual pilgrimage in the world and is the fifth pillar of Islam, a religious duty that must be carried out at least once in one's lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so. Many Ismaili sects do not ascribe to mainstream Islamic beliefs regarding the Hajj, considering it instead to metaphorically mean visiting the Imam himself, that being the greatest and most spiritual of all pilgrimages. However, since the Druze do not follow shariah, they do not believe in a literal pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca as other Muslims do, while the Mustaali (Bohras) as well as the Nizaris still hold on to the literal meaning as well, performing hajj to the Ka'aba and also visiting the Imam (or in a secluded time like today, the Dai, who is the representative or vicegerent of the Imam) to be Hajj-e Haqiqi.
An Islamic term, Jihad is a religious duty of Muslims. In Arabic, the word jihād is a noun meaning "struggle." Jihad appears frequently in the Qur'an and is sometimes used in the nonmilitary sense. A person engaged in jihad is called a mujahid; the plural is mujahideen. When a violent act is intended, the Qur'an used the term "Qattal" meaning to engage in killing/violence.
A minority among the Sunni scholars sometimes refer to this duty as the sixth pillar of Islam, though it occupies no such official status. In Twelver Shi'a Islam, however, Jihad is one of the 10 Practices of the Religion.
For the Isma'ilis, Jihad is the last of the Seven Islamic Pillars, and for them it means a struggle against one's own soul; striving toward rightness, and sometimes as struggle in warfare. However, Isma'ilis will stress that none but their Imam uz Zaman [Imam of the Time] can declare war and call his followers to fight.
The largest part of the Ismāʿīlī community Nizari today accepts Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as their 49th Imām, who they claim is descended from Muḥammad through his daughter Fāṭimah az-Zahra and 'Ali, Muḥammad's cousin and son-in-law. The 46th Ismāʿīlī Imām, Aga Hassan ‘Alī Shah, fled Iran in the 1840s after being blamed for a failed coup against the Shah of the Qajar dynasty. Aga Hassan ‘Alī Shah settled in Mumbai in 1848.
Satpanth is a subgroup of Nizari Ismailism and Ismaili Sufism formed by conversions from Hinduism 700 years ago by Pir Sadardin (1290-1367) and 600 years ago in the 15th century by his grandson Pir Imam Shah (1430-1520), they differ slightly from the Nizari Khojas in that they reject the Aga Khan as their leader and are known more commonly as Imam-Shahi. There are villages in Gujarat which are totally 'Satpanthi' such as Pirana near Ahmedabad where Imam Shah is buried. It is also the older form of Nizari Ismaili practice originating from the Kutch community of Gujarat. Pir Sadardin gave the first converts to Ismailism the name 'Satpanth' because they were the followers of the 'True Path.' They were then given the title of Khoja to replace their title of Thakkar.
In time, the seat for one chain of the Dai was split between India and Yemen as the community split several times, each recognizing a different Dai. Today, the Dawoodi Bohras, which constitute the majority of the Mustaali Ismāʿīlī accept Mohammed Burhanuddin as the 52nd Dāʿī al-Muṭlaq. The Dawoodi Bohras are based in India, along with the Alavi Bohra and Qutbi Bohra. Minority groups of the Sulaimani Bohra, however, exist in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. In recent years, there has been a rapprochement between the Sulaimani Mustaali and the Dawoodi Mustaali.
The Bohra sects are the most traditional of the three main groups of Ismāʿīlī, maintaining rituals such as prayer and fasting more consistently with the practices of other Shīʻa sects. It is often said that they resemble Sunni Islam even more than Twelvers do, though this would hold true for matters of the exterior rituals (zahir) only, with little bearing on doctrinal or theological differences.
The Dawoodi Bohras are a very close-knit community who seek advice from the Dai on spiritual and temporal matters.
Dawoodi Bohras is essentially and traditionally Fatimid and is headed by the Dāʻī al-Mutlaq, who is appointed by his predecessor in office. The Dāʻī al-Mutlaq appoints two others to the subsidiary ranks of māzūn (Arabic Maʾḏūn مأذون) "licentiate" and Mukāsir (Arabic مكاسر). These positions are followed by the rank of ra'sul hudood, bhaisaheb, miya-saheb, shaikh-saheb and mulla-saheb, which are held by several of Bohras. The 'Aamil or Saheb-e Raza who is granted the permission to perform the religious ceremonies of the believers by the Dāʻī al-Mutlaq and also leads the local congregation in religious, social and community affairs, is sent to each town where a sizable population of believers exists. Such towns normally have a masjid (commonly known as mosque) and an adjoining jamaa'at-khaana (assembly hall) where socio-religious functions are held. The local organizations which manage these properties and administer the social and religious activities of the local Bohras report directly to the central administration of the Dāʻī al-Mutlaq.
While the majority of Dawoodi Bohras have traditionally been traders, it is becoming increasingly common for them to become professionals. Some choose to become Doctors, consultants or analysts as well as a large contingent of medical professionals. Dawoodi Bohras are encouraged to educate themselves in both religious and secular knowledge, and as a result, the number of professionals in the community is rapidly increasing. Dawoodi Bohras believe that the education of women is equally important as that of men, and many Dawoodi Bohra women choose to enter the workforce. Al Jamea tus Saifiyah (The Arabic Academy) in Surat, Nairobi and Karachi is a sign to the educational importance in the Dawoodi community. The Academy has an advanced curriculum which encompasses religious and secular education for both men and women.
Today there are approximately one million Dawoodi Bohra. The majority of these reside in India and Pakistan, but there is also a significant diaspora residing in the Middle East, East Africa, Europe, North America and the Far East.
The ordinary Bohra is highly conscious of his identity, and this is especially demonstrated at religious and traditional occasions by the appearance and attire of the participants. Dawoodi Bohra men wear a traditional white three-piece outfit, plus a white and gold cap (called a topi), and women wear the rida, a distinctive form of the commonly known burqa which is distinguished from other forms of the veil due to it often being in color and decorated with patterns and lace. The rida's difference from the burqa, however, is significant beyond just the colour, pattern and lace. The rida does not call for covering of women's faces like the traditional veil. It has a flap called the 'pardi' that usually hangs on the back like the hood of a jacket but it is not used to conceal the face. This is representative of the Dawoodi Bohra community's values of equality and justice for women, which they believe, is a tenet of the Fatimid Imamate's evolved understanding of Islam and the true meaning of women's chastity in Islam. The Dawoodi Bohra community also do not prevent their women from coming to mosques, attending religious gatherings or going to places of pilgrimage. It is often regarded as the most peaceful sect of Islam and an example of true Sufism; it has been critically acclaimed on several occasions even by Western governments such as those of the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden and particularly the United States for its progressive outlook towards gender roles, adoption of technology, promotion of literature, crafts, business and secular values. However, the Dawoodi Bohras are highly single-minded about inter-caste or inter-faith marriage. They do not oppose it but do not encourage it either. If a Dawoodi Bohra member does marry into another caste or religion, he or she is usually advised to ask his or her spouse to convert to Islam and, specifically, into the community.
They believe that straying away from the community implies straying away from Ma'ad – the ultimate objective of this life and the meaning of the teachings of Islam, which is to return to where all souls comes from and re-unite with Allah. Besides, converting someone to Islam has high spiritual and religious significance as doctrines espouse that making someone a Muslim or Mu'min confers the Sawab (reward of good deeds) equivalent to that of 40 Hajjs and 40 Umrahs (visiting Mecca and the Kaaba during days other than that of Hajj).
The current Da'i al-Mutlaq is Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin the 53rd Da'i al-Mutlaq after the sad demise of the 52nd Da'i al-Mutlaq of the Dawoodi Bohra community, Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin. Dr. Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin was a highly revered religious and spiritual figure in the world. He was 102 years old but traveled actively across continents to meet his faithful followers and also other religious and political figures of the region. He was the Chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University in India and has been received and welcomed on several occasions by dignitaries such as Prince Charles, Angela Merkel, George Bush, Jr., Bill Clinton, Hosni Mubarak and Dr Manmohan Singh. A great patron of architecture, he was single-handedly responsible for restoration of the Jamea al Azhar, Jamea al Anwar and several other Islamic universities in the Arab world. He was also responsible for building several mosques, institutions of learning in India and abroad, parks and gardens, and forming charitable trusts that work for the community as well as society at large. The Dawoodi Bohra community celebrated his 100th birthday in 2011 with full gusto in the city of Mumbai. It was also celebrated worldwide by his followers.
Besides speaking the local languages, the Dawoodis have their own language called Lisānu l-Dāʻwat "Tongue of the Dāʻwat". This is written in Arabic script but is derived from Urdu, Gujarati and Arabic and Persian.
Founded in 1592, they are mostly concentrated in Yemen but are today also found in Pakistan and India. The denomination is named after its 27th Daʻī, (Sulayman ibn Hassan). They are referred and prefer to be referred as Ahle Haq Ismailis and Sulaimanis and not with the Bohras suffix.
The total number of Sulaimanis currently are around 300,000, mainly living in the eastern district of Haraz in the North west of Yemen and in Najran, Saudi Arabia. Beside the Banu Yam of Najran, the Sulaimanis are in Haraz, among the inhabitants of the Jabal Maghariba and in Hawzan, Lahab and Attara, as well as in the district of Hamadan and in the vicinity of Yarim.
In India there are between 3,000 and 5,000 Sulaimanis living mainly in Baroda, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Surat. In Pakistan, there is a well-established Sulaimani community in Sind. Some ten thousand Sulaimanis live in rural areas of Punjab province of Pakistan known in Dawat e Sulaimani terms as Jazeera e Sind; these Ismāʿīlī Sulaimani communities have been in Jazeera e Sind from the time of Fatimid Ismāʿīlī Maulana Imam AlMuizz li din-illah when he sent his Dais to Jazeeara e Sind.
The Alavi Bohra community has its headquarters at Vadodara/Baroda City, Gujarat, India. The 44th Dāʻī al-Mutlaq, Hatim Zakiyuddin Saheb, is the head of the community. The religious hierarchy of the Alavi Bohras is essentially and traditionally Fatimid and is headed by the Dāʻī al-Mutlaq, who is appointed by his predecessor in office and similar as of Dawoodi Bohra.
The Hebtiahs Bohra are a branch of Mustaali Ismaili Shi'a Islam that broke off from the mainstream Dawoodi Bohra after the death of the 39th Da'i al-Mutlaq in 1754.
The Abta-i Malak jamaat (community) are a branch of Mustaali Ismaili Shi'a Islam that broke off from the mainstream Dawoodi Bohra after the death of the 46th Da'i al-Mutlaq, under the leadership of Abdul Hussain Jivaji. They have further split into two more branches, the Atba-i-Malak Badra and Atba-i-Malak Vakil.
While on one view there is a historical nexus between the Druze and Ismāʿīlīs, any such links are purely historical and do not entail any modern similarities, given that one of the Druze's central tenets is trans-migration of the soul (reincarnation) as well as other contrasting beliefs with Ismāʿīlīsm and Islam. Druze is an offshoot of Ismailism. Many historical links do trace back to Syria and particularly Masyaf.
According to the historian Yaqut al-Hamawi, the Böszörmény (Izmaelita or Ismaili / Nizari) denomination of the Muslims who lived in the Kingdom of Hungary in the 10–13th centuries, were employed as mercenaries by the kings of Hungary. However following the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Hungary their community was Christianized by the end of the 13th century.
This branch held that whoever the political ruler of the Fatimid Caliphate was, was also the Imam of the faith. This branch died with the Fatimid Caliphate.
A branch of the Ismāʿīlī known as the Sabaʿiyyīn "Seveners" hold that Ismāʿīl's son, Muhammad, was the seventh and final Ismāʿīlī, who is said to be in the Occultation. However, most scholars believe this group is either extremely small or non-existent today.
Inclusion in Amman Message and Islamic Ummah
The Amman Message, which was issued on 9 November 2004 (27th of Ramadan 1425 AH) by King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, called for tolerance and unity in the Muslim world. Subsequently, the "Amman Message" Conference took place in Amman, Jordan on 4–6 July 2005 and a three-point declaration was issued by 200 Muslim academics from over 50 countries focusing on the three issues of:
- Defining who is a Muslim;
- Excommunication from Islam (takfir); and
- Principles related to delivering religious edicts (fatāwa).
The three-point declaration (later known as The Three Points of the Amman Message) included both the Ja'fari Shia and Zaydi Shia schools of jurisprudence (madhāhib) among the eight schools of jurisprudence that were listed as being in the Muslim fold and whose adherents were therefore to be considered as Muslim by definition and therefore cannot be excluded from the world community of Muslims.
The Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of the Ismailis, was invited to issue a religious edict for and on behalf of the Ismailis, which he did by a letter explicitly stating that the Ismailis adhered to the Ja'fari school as well as other schools of close affinity including the Sufi principles concerned with personal search for God.
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- The Uyun al-akhbar is the most complete text written by an Ismaili/Tayyibi/Dawoodi 19th Dai Sayyedna Idris bin Hasan on the history of the Ismaili community from its origins up to the 12th century period of the Fatimid caliphs al-Mustansir (d. 487/1094), the time of Musta‘lian rulers including al-Musta‘li (d. 495/1101) and al-Amir (d. 524/1130), and then the Tayyibi Ismaili community in Yemen.
- Daftary, Farhad (2012) Historical dictionary of the Ismailis. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2012.
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- Official website
- Encyclopaedia Iranica, ISMAʿILISM
- Ismaili Philosophy entry in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Ismaili Web Amaana
- Institute of Ismaili Studies
- Aga Khan Development Network
- Alavi Bohras
- Introductory lecture on Ismailism, on YouTube