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The Nizari (Arabic: النزاريونan-Nizāriyyūn) are Ismaili Muslims who form the second largest branch of Shia Islam (the largest being the Twelver).[1] There are an estimated 15 million Nizari residing in more than 25 countries and territories. Nizari teachings emphasize human reasoning (Ijtihad, the individual use of one's reason), pluralism (the acceptance of racial, ethnic, cultural and intra-religious differences) and social justice.


From quite early on in his reign, the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Mustansir Billah had publicly nominated his elder son Nizar as his heir to be the next Fatimid Caliph-Imam after him. This was common knowledge in Fatimid Egypt at the time. Dai Hassan-i Sabbah, who had studied and accepted Ismailism in Fatimid Egypt, had been made aware of this fact personally by al-Mustansir. After al-Mustansir died in 1094, Al-Afdal Shahanshah, the all-powerful Armenian Vizier and "Commander of the Armies", wanted to assert, like his father before him, his own dictatorial position over the Fatimid State. Al-Afdal engineered a palace coup on behalf of the much younger and dependent al-Musta'li who was his brother-in-law by placing him the very next day on the Fatimid throne. Al-Afdal claimed that Al-Mustansir had made a deathbed decree in favour of Mustaali and thus got the Ismaili leaders of the Fatimid Court and Fatimid Dawa in Cairo, the capital city of the Fatimides, to endorse Mustaali – which they did realizing that the army was dictating the palace coup.[2]:p:106-107

In early 1095, Nizar fled to Alexandria where he received the people's support and where he was accepted as the next Fatimid Caliph-Imam after al-Mustansir. There were even gold dinars minted in Alexandria in Nizar's name. (One such coin found in 1994 is now in the collection of the Aga Khan Museum.) In late 1095, al-Afdal defeated Nizar's Alexandrian army and took Nizar as a prisoner to Cairo where he had Nizar executed.[2]:p:107

After Nizar's execution, the Nizari Ismailis and the Mustaali Ismailis parted ways in a bitterly irreconcilable manner. The schism finally broke the remnants of the Fatimid Empire and the now divided Ismailis separated into the Mustaali following (in the regions of Egypt, Yemen, and western India) and those pledging allegiance to Nizar's son Al-Hādī ibn Nizār (in the regions of Iran and Syria). The later Ismaili following came to be known as Nizari Ismailism.[2]:p:106-107

Imam Hadi being very young at the time was smuggled out of Alexandria and taken to the Nizari stronghold of Alamut Fort in the Elburz Mountains of northern Iran south of the Caspian Sea and under the regency of Dai Hasan bin Sabbah.

Origin of the Fidai[edit]

The followers of the young Imam Hadi who joined the military were trained as the Fidai. The Fidai's bravery and self-sacrificing spirituality was due to their belief that the Nizari Imam-ul-waqt ("Imam of the time") had the Noor (light) of God within him. As such it became a religious duty for the Fidai to obey every dictate of their Imam-ul-waqt and to protect him and their community of believers without compromise even to the extent of dying for their cause.

Under Hassan-i Sabbah in Iran, and Rasdid al Sinan in Syria, the Nizari Fidai targeted the most powerful enemy leaders faced by these new Nizari Ismaili Communities arisen out of the Fatimid succession split in Egypt; and which communities lived in the Elburz Mountains of northern Iran and in the mountains of the Levantine coast, the Jabal Bahra, overlooking the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

The Fidai were feared as the Assassins, but in fact did not assassinate for payment. Although they were trained in the art of spying and combat, they also practiced their Islamic mysticism at the highest level. This religious ardor turned them into formidable foes which reached an incredible level as told in the anecdote of Count Henry of Champagne. Returning from Armenia, Henry spoke with Grand Master Rashid ad-Din Sinan (known to the West as "The Old Man of the Mountain") at one of his castles, al-Kahf, in Syria. Henry pointed out that since his army was bigger by far than Sinan's, Sinan should pay him an annual tribute.

Sinan refused asserting that his army was far stronger in spirit and unquestioning obedience if not in numbers. He invited Henry to witness this obedience and sacrificial spirit of his Fidai. Sinan signalled to a Fidai standing on the parapet of a high wall of his castle, to jump. The Fidai called out "God is Great" and unhesitatingly took a headlong death dive into the rocks far below.

The bewildered Henry asked Sinan the cause for the suicidal jump. Sinan pointed once again to the Fidai who had taken the place of the now dead Fidai. Again Sinan gave a signal to the Fidai to jump and the second Fidai also called out "God is Great" and jumped to his death. Henry was visibly shaken by the experience of witnessing the two Fidais' total disregard for their own lives. He accepted Sinan's terms of peace on a non-tribute paying basis. The Nizaris thus averted debilitating wars against them because of their Fidais' feats of self-sacrifice and assassinations of powerful enemy leaders to demonstrate the will and commitment of the community to live free from being a vassal to any Levantine power.[3]:p:25

The Fidai were trained to be some of the most feared assassins in the then known world.[4][2]:p:120-158 Sinan ordered assassinations ranging from politicians to generals such as the great Kurdish general and founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Saladin. A sleeping Saladin had a note delivered to him by a Fidai planted in his trusted entourage. The note from Sinan was pinned to his pillow by a dagger and informed Saladin that he had been spared this once; and therefore to give up his anti-Nizari militancy. A shaken Saladin quickly made a truce with Sinan.[2]:p:144

This paid off handsomely for the Muslim cause against the Christian Crusaders of the Third Crusade which included Richard the Lion Heart of England. Saladin having by now established an extremely friendly relationship with Sinan, the Nizari Fidai themselves joined Saladin's forces to defeat the Crusaders in the last great battle between the two forces. Later on in history when "the Nizaris faced renewed Frankish hostilities, they received timely assistance from the Ayyubids."[2]:p:146

Because of the Fidais' total lack of fear of personal injury or even death could not be understood by the Crusaders, they created and propagated the fictional black legends of the so-called Assassins. According to Daftary, these were "fictions ... meant to provide satisfactory explanations for behavior that would otherwise seem strange to the medieval Western mind."[2]:p:14 These black legends were then further popularized in the Western world by Marco Polo, the Venetian storyteller who had, in fact, never investigated Sinan in direct contradiction to his claim. Polo asserted that Sinan fed hashish to his drugged followers, the so-called Hashishins (Assassins), so as to fortify them with the type of courage based in hashish to commit the assassinations of the most intrepid kind.[2]:p:14

This tale of the "Old Man of the Mountain" was assembled by Marco Polo and accepted by Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, a 19th-century Austrian orientalist responsible for much of the spread of this legend. Up until the 1930s, Hammer-Purgstall's retelling of Marco Polo's fiction served as the standard description of the Nizari Ismailis across Europe. "The Russian orientalist Wladimir Ivanov ... gained access also to Nizari literature preserved in Central Asia, Persia, Afghanistan and elsewhere ... compiled the first detailed catalogue of (Nizari and Fatimid) Ismaili works, citing some 700 separate titles attesting to the hitherto unknown richness and diversity of (Nizari and Fatimid) Ismaili literature and literary traditions.”[2]:p:17


Main article: God in Islam

Nizari Isma'ilism asserts God is the ultimate Truth and Reality, the Creator who is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal and infinitely merciful BUT beyond even the very imagination, let alone comprehension, of human beings. God creates as He wills, when He wills, however He wills and sustains existence even beyond the four time-space dimensions perceived by the human intellect.

The Arabic term for God is Allāh, in Persian/Urdu Khūdā, in other Hindustani languages, Ishwar, Bhagwan, Balam, etc., as many names as there are languages having Nizari Ismaili gnostic wisdom.

Though this unknowable, unfathomable God cannot be realized in the material reality of this world, God can be attained by the human mind through deep meditation preceded by a completely clean body and soul which has given up all the cloying vices of the world: lying, cheating, anger, temptation, lethargy, greed, selfishness, jealousy, pride, revenge, intolerance, and a host of other defects. After the cleansing of the mind from all worldly desires and the constant attention given to one's actions in the day to day existence in the material world, the Nizari adept seeks to be bestowed with Tajallî, the enlightenment of the individual through meditative contemplation, a direct perception gnosis (marifat) of the Divine involving the annihilation of the self into God's Being (Arabic: fanâ-fillah).[5]


A water colour ink and gold page from a Persian Quran, 14th century

Nizaris, like all Muslims, consider the Quran to be the word of God, it being the central religious text of Islam.[6] Nizaris employ tafsir, the science of Quranic commentary for its zahir (outer, exoteric) understanding and tawil (esoteric exegesis) for its batin (inner, esoteric) understanding.

Tawil stems from the Quranic root word "to return" i.e. "going back to" the original meaning of the Quran. While acknowledging the importance of both, the zahir and the batin in religion, the batin informs on how the zahir is to be practiced. More importantly, the batin guides the believer on a spiritual journey of discovery of the intangible truth (haqiqq) that engages both, the intellect (aql) and the spirit (ruh) with the ultimate destination being that of gnostic enlightenment (marifa or fana-fillah).

The word Quran means "recitation". When Muslims speak in the abstract about "the Quran", they usually mean the scripture as recited rather than the printed work or any translation of it. For the Nizari Ismaili, the Tawil and Tafsir of the Quran is embodied most perfectly in the being of the Imam-i-Zaman (the Imam of the Time) due to his divinity as "the Imam from God Himself" as expressed in the third part of their Shahada.


At al-Ghadir Khumm, by God’s direct and emphatic command, Mohammad designated his cousin and son-in-law Ali - husband of his daughter Fatimah - as his successor to his spiritual office as the first Imam in the continuing line of hereditary Imams and as his successor to his temporal office as the first Caliph of the entire ummah (the Islamic Nation). Ali was then accepted as the successor to Muhammad’s leadership at al-Ghadir Khumm by about 100,000 pilgrims on their return journey after participating in Muhammad’s Farewell Pilgrimage, his last one before his death that same year.[citation needed]

At al-Ghadir Khumm the most prominent and closest Companions of the Prophet (the Asaba) gave their allegiance (bayah) personally to Ali under the Prophet’s supervision. Among the Prophet’s Companions were the first three Caliphs (the so-called Rightly Guided Rashidun Caliphs) Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman who took Ali’s hand in their own hands and publicly spoke their unstinted allegiance to serve him as their Imam and Caliph in the very same manner that all Muslims used to give their allegiance to Muhammad.

Numerous reliable hadith sources - both Shi'i and Sunni - record the event at Ghadir Khumm. They agree that Muhammad on his return journey from the final pilgrimage stopped at an oasis between Mecca and Medina known as Ghadir Khumm and addressed the large gathering of Muslims assembled there at his explicit command even though it was excruciatingly hot that day in order to hear God’s special message to them that Muhammad had received at Ghadir Khumm directly from God via the Quranic Ayat 5:67 thus:

O Apostle: Deliver (to the people) what has been revealed to you from your Lord. And if you do not do so then you will not have delivered His Message (of Islam). And God will protect you from the people. _Quran 5:67.

The Prophet then asked the gathered Muslims whether he (the Prophet) had a greater claim upon them than they had even upon themselves. The Muslims responded that Prophet Mohammad had a greater claim upon them than they had even upon themselves. The Prophet then went on to say,

God is my Master and I am the master of all the believers. He whose master I am, Ali is his master. He whose master I am, Ali is his master. He whose master I am, Ali is his master (repeating it THREE times). O God, help whoever helps Ali, oppose whoever opposes Ali, support whoever supports Ali, forsake whoever forsakes Ali, and may the truth follow Ali wheresoever he turns. Ali, the son of Abu Talib, is my brother, my executor (Wasi), and my successor (Caliph), and the leader (Imam) after me.[7]

The Nizari Ismaili tradition is unique in that it is the only tradition that bears witness to the continuity of the hereditary divine authority vested in the Imamim-Mubeen. In all the Sunni traditions, the Imamim-Mubeen is interpreted as the Quran itself; and in all the Shia traditions except the Shia Nizari tradition it is interpreted as the last Imam of a dynasty who went into occultation. However, in Nizari Ismailism, it is interpreted as a living human Imam who is never in occultation and who will never ever be absent from this world but will always be perpetually present and physically alive, and who is designated as the inheritor of the Imamat from father to son. This tradition has continued for almost 1400 years from Ali to the present Imam-of-the-Time, Prince Karim al-Hussaini Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary Nizari Imam and direct descendant of Mohammad through Ali and Zahra.

The Aga Khan informed the world about his succession to the Nizari Ismaili Imamat when he delivered his address to the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament:

The Ismaili Imamat is a supra-national entity, representing the succession of Imams since the time of the Prophet. But let me clarify something more about the history of that role, in both the Sunni and Shia interpretations of the Muslim faith. The Sunni position is that the Prophet nominated no successor and that spiritual-moral authority belongs to those who are learned in matters of religious law. As a result, there are many Sunni imams in a given time and place. But others believed that the Prophet had designated his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his successor. From that early division, a host of further distinctions grew up — but the question of rightful leadership remains central. In time, the Shia were also sub-divided over this question, so that today the (Nizari) Ismailis are the only Shia community who, throughout history, have been led by a living, hereditary Imam in direct descent from the Prophet.

An extract from the Speech of the Aga Khan delivered to the House of Commons of the Canadian Parliament on 27 February 2014.


The Ismailis and the Twelvers split over the succession to Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq. Ismailis contend that Jafar had designated his son Isma'il ibn Jafar as his heir and the next Imam in the hereditary line and thus the Isma'ilis follow the Imamat of Isma'il and his progeny. Although Imam Ismail predeceased his father, he (Isma'il ibn Jafar) had in his own right designated his son Muhammad ibn Ismail as the next hereditary Imam who was to follow after him. In direct opposition to this belief, the Twelvers believe that Imam Ismail's younger brother Musa al Kadhim was from the beginning the rightful successor to Imam Jafar and that his brother Ismail was never a contender.

The Nizari Ismailis have always maintained that the Imamah (also known as 'Imamat') can only be inherited from the current Imam to a direct descendant in a father-to-son (or grandson) hereditary lineage starting with Imam Ali and then to Imam Hussain and so on until their present AND living 49th Imam, Prince Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV.

The Nizaris regard Hassan bin (son of) Ali as a Trustee Imam (imam al-mustawda) as opposed to a Hereditary Imam (imam al-mustaqarr). This fact is clearly demonstrated in the recitation of the Nizari Ismailis’ daily prayers three times a day in which although Hassan bin Ali is revered as part of the Prophet's personal family (Ahl al-Bayt), his name is not included in the hereditary lineage[8][9] from their first Imam, Imam Ali, to their 49th[10] Imam Prince Karim al Hussaini. If Hassan bin Ali's name were to be included as one of the Ismaili Imams in their prayer recitation then the present Imam Prince Karim of the Nizari Ismailis would have to be the 50th Imam and not the 49th Imam - the way he has identified himself and is known to the world.


Pillars of Islam[edit]

Isma'ilism holds that there are seven pillars in Islam, each of which possess both an exoteric outer (Zahir) expression, and an esoteric inner (Batin) expression.

The Foundation:

The Shahādah or profession of faith is not considered a Pillar as it is in other schools of Islam. Rather as the foundation upon which the Seven Pillars rest. The recitation of the shahādatayn (La ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammadun rasulu l-Lah) “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” confirms one as a Muslim. The Shia and Nizari add wa 'Aliyun wali llah (علي ولي الله) "'Alī is the guardian [appointed] of God" at the end of the shahādatayn, a confirmation one is a Mu'min "believer" under the guardianship (walayya) of the Imam and the esoteric inner path (tariqah).

The Seven Pillars consist of:

  1. Walayah Guardianship (Arabic: ولاية‎); cultivating a pure loving, affection, attachment and intimacy to God, manifested in the Prophets and the Imams by continually offering loyalty, allegiance, devotion and obedience to God, and those who manifest divine guardianship: the Prophets and Imams. For the Nizari, God is the true desire of every soul.
  2. Taharah Purity (Arabic: طهارة‎); physical cleanliness, keeping a hygienic home, and personal presence, but also a purity of the heart and the soul.
  3. Salat Prayer (Arabic: صلاة‎) Nizari Isma'ili as Imami Shia practice the Salaah according to the Ja'farī madhhab, which is performed to mark important festivals. Nizari more generally perform a ritual du'a three times a day. The Nizari, like the Sufi, practice dhikr "remembrance" of God, the Prophets and the Imams, which can take the form of a melodic communal chant or can be performed in silence.
  4. Zakah Charity (Arabic: زكاة‎); Volunteering, and sharing of ones own knowledge or skills, as well as tithing. Nizari are encouraged to actively volunteer in the running of community spaces, and offering their specialized knowledge to the wider community, legal, medical, or more vocational expertise. Zakah also refers to tithing, Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad was designated to collect zakāt from believers, it is now the duty to pay the Imām or his representative; to be redistributed in local, and international development.
  5. Sawm Fasting (Arabic: صوم‎); Fasting during the month of Ramadan and to mark the new moon is believed to be beneficial for those who are overwrought with the base ego; desire, rage, and the self. Isma'ili who are following the tariqah (path) seek to transcend the base ego so as to attain an inner being that is in harmony, they absorb food as nourishment for a healthy, peaceful, body and mind; as the more important fast is that of mind and heart, where one abstains from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, and can be broken by succumbing to the base ego, and its insatiable desires.
  6. Hajj Pilgrimage (Arabic: حج‎); The pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in an individual's life. For the Nizari, there is also a fuller discovery to be made regarding life. The Imams spirit, both a spiritual and physical glimpse (Deedar) aid them in transforming themselves into spiritual beings they cease to be ordinary people existing within the exoteric reality, but journey to and discover an inner reality of life.[11]
  7. Jihad Struggle (Arabic: جهاد‎); is a struggle against deeply personal and social vices, such as wrath, intolerance, envy, and that which removes one from the ease of the divine presence. The struggle may also take the form of a physical war against those that harm the peace, either militarily or through subterfuge, with the aim of restoring or creating a just society. Isma'ili are instructed to avoid provocation, and use of force only as a final resort, and only in self-defense.[citation needed]


Various rival approaches to the challenge that Greek rationalism posed to revelation permeated early Islamic society; the Ashʿari considered Kalam contradictory to Islam and philosophy (falsafa) as inherently antagonistic to faith, asserting the absolute supremacy of revelation, and the abandonment of reason in the spiritual space, and secular space (both of which are interconnected within orthodox Islam). The Mu'tazili took a less absolutist approach asserting the supremacy traditionalism, yet allowing for a limited role of reason (Kalam). Isma'ili adopted an altogether more philosophical approach in which only through reasoned discourse one could attain understanding of revelation, social structure, individualism and as well as the functioning of the natural world. For this reason Isma'ili produced a relatively scant collection of theological discourse in comparison to other Shia, and the Sunni. Yet they commanded a leading place in the development of philosophical discourse within the Islamic world.

While Nizari belong to the "Imami jurisprudence" or Ja'fāriyya Madhab (school of Jurisprudence), believed by Shias to be founded by Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq they adhere to sumpremacy of "Kalam", in the interpretation of scripture, and believe in the temporal relativism of understanding, as opposed to fiqh (traditional legalism), which adheres to an absolutism approach to revelation.

For Nizari reasoning is arrived at through a dialectic between revelation and human reasoning, based on a synergy of Islamic scripture and classical Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotelean reasoning and Platonic metaphysics. It seeks to extend an understanding of religion and revelation to identify the outwardly apparent (zahir), and also to penetrate to the roots, to retrieve and disclose that which is the inner underlying (batin). This process of discovery engages both the intellect ('aql) and the spirit (ruh), operating in an integral synergy to illuminate and disclose truths (haqi'qat) culminating in gnosis (ma'rifat).


The Nizariyah. With the seizure of Alamut, Hasan-i Sabbah initiated a policy of armed revolt against the seljuk sultanate. The Nizariyah captured and fortified numerous mountain castles in the Elburz range, towns in Quhistan in northwestern Iran, and later also mountain strongholds such as Qadmus and Masyaf in northern Syria. In the face of the overwhelming military superiority of their opponents they relied on intimidation through the spectacular assassination of prominent leaders by fida'is, self-sacrificing devotees. Because of their apparently irrational conduct they were commonly called hashishiyin, hashish addicts. Stories that the fida'is were in fact conditioned for their task by the use of hashish are legendary. Their designation as hashishiyin was taken over by the Crusaders in Syria and entered European languages as “assassins.”

Hasan-i Sabbah also elaborated an apologetic missionary doctrine that became known as the “new preaching” (da'wah jadidah) of the Ismailiyyah. At its core was the thesis of humanity’s permanent need for ta'lim, divinely inspired and authoritative teaching, which was basic in much of Shii thought. Hasan-i Sabbah developed it in a series of arguments establishing the inadequacy of human reason in gaining knowledge of God and then went on to demonstrate that only the Ismaili imam was such a divinely guided teacher. The Nizariyah came to be commonly called the Ta'limiyah after this doctrine, and Sunni opponents such as Al-Ghazali concentrated their efforts on refuting it. Hasan-i Sabbah further stressed the autonomous teaching authority of each imam in his time, independent of his predecessors, thus paving the way for the Nizari radicalization of the doctrine of the imamate as compared with Fatimid doctrine.

Among the Sunnis apparently attracted by the “new preaching” was the heresiographer and Ash'ari theologian Al-Shahrastani (d. 1143). Although he kept his relations with the Nizariyah secret, they were revealed by his student Al-Sam'ani. Among his extant writings are some crypto-Ismaili works including an incomplete Qur'an commentary in which he used Ismaili terminology and hinted at his conversion by a “pious servant of God” who had taught him the esoteric principles of Qur'anic exegesis. Most notable, however, is his refutation of the theological doctrine of the philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna) from a concealed Ismaili point of view, entitled Kitab Al-musara'ah (Book of the wrestling match). Here he defended the Ismaili thesis that God, as the giver of being, is beyond being and nonbeing, rejected Avicenna’s description of God as the involuntary necessitating cause of the world, and suggested that the Active Intellect which brings the human intellect from potentiality to actuality is the prophetic intellect rather than the intellect of the lunar sphere as held by the followers of Avicenna.

Qiyamah doctrine. After his death in 1124, Hasan-i Sabbah was succeeded as lord of Alamut and chief of the Nizari community by his assistant Buzurgummid. On Ramadan 17, 599 (August 8, 1164) the latter’s grandson, known as Hasan 'ala Dhikrihi Al-Salam, solemnly proclaimed the resurrection (qiyamah) in the name of the absent imam and declared the law of Islam abrogated. He interpreted the spiritual meaning of the resurrection as a manifestation of the unveiled truth in the imam, which actualized paradise for the faithful capable of grasping it while condemning the opponents to the hell of spiritual nonexistence. Two years later Hasan was murdered by a brother-in-law who objected to the abolition of the Islamic law. His son Muhammad (1166–1210) further elaborated the qiyamah doctrine. While Hasan seems to have indicated that as the hujjah of the imam he was spiritually identical with him, Muhammad maintained that his father had been the imam by physical descent; apparently he claimed that Hasan was the son of a descendant of Nizar who had secretly found refuge in Alamut.

According to the qiyamah doctrine, the resurrection consisted in recognizing the divine truth in the present imam, who was the manifestation of the order to create (amr) or word (kalimah) and, in his revelatory aspect the Qaim. The imam thus was raised in rank above the prophets. There had been imam-Qaims also in the earlier prophetic cycles: Mechizedek (Malik Al-Salam), Dhu Al-Qarnayn, Khidr, Ma'add, and, in the era of Muhammad, Ali. They were recognized by the prophets of their time as the manifestation of the divine. In the qiyamah, the spiritual reality of the imam-Qaim manifests itself openly and directly to the faithful. The teaching hierarchy intervening between them and the imam thus had faded away as unnecessary in accordance with the earlier predictions about the advent of the Qaim. There remained only three categories of humanity: the opponents of the imam adhering to the law of Islam, his ordinary followers known as the “people of graduation” (ahl altarattub), who had advanced beyond the law to the esoteric (batin) and thus had attained partial truth, and “the people of union” (ahl Al-wah dah), who see the imam plainly in his spirtual rAlity discarding outward appearances and have therefore reached the realm of pure truth.

Muhammad’s son Jalal Al-Din Hasan (1210–1221) repudiated the qiyamah doctrine and proclaimed his adherence to Sunni Islam. He publicly cursed his predecessors as infidels, recognized the suzerainty of the Abbasid caliph, ordered his subjects to follow the law in its Sunni form, and invited Sunni scholars for their instruction. Thus he became commonly known as the New Muslim (naw-musalman). His followers mostly obeyed his orders as those of the infallible imam. Under his son Ala Al-Din Muhammad (1221–1255) the application of the law was again relaxed, though it was not abolished.

During, 'Ala' Al-Din’s reign the philospher and astronomer Nasir Al-Din tusi (d. 1274), originally a Twelver Shii, joined the Ismailiyyah and actively supported the Nizari cause, though he later turned away from them and wrote some theological works backing Twelver Shii belief. In a spiritual autobiography written for his Ismaili patrons he described his upbringing as a strict adherent of the law and his subsequent study of scholastic theology and philosophy. While he found philosophy intellectually most satisfying, he discovered that its principles were shaky when the discourse reached its ultimate goal, the knowledge of God and the origins and destiny of humanity, and recognized the need for an infallible teacher to guide reason to its perfection. He then chanced upon a copy of the sacred articles (fusul-i muqaddas) of Imam Hasan 'ala Dhikrihi Al-Salam and decided to join the Ismailiyyah. While some of tusi’s works written in this period, such as his widely read Nasirean Ethics (akhlaq-i Nasiri), show traces of Nizari thought, he also composed some religious treatises specifically addressed to the Nizariyah. The contemporary Nizari teaching is primarily known through them, particularly his Rawd: at Al-taslim (Meadow of submission) or Tasawwurat (Representations).

Return to concealment. The restoration of the law by Jalal Al-Din Hasan was now interpreted as a return to a period of precautionary dissimulation (taqiyah) and concealment (satr) in which the truth is hidden in the batin. The resurrection proclaimed by Hasan 'ala Dhikrihi Al-Salam had come at about the middle of the millennium of the era of the prophet Muhammad and had set the pattern for the final resurrection at the end of it. In the era of Muhammad, the times of concealment and of resurrection might alternate according to the decision of each imam, since every imam was potentially a Qaim. The contradictions in the conduct of the imams were merely in appearance, since in their spiritual reality they were identical and all acted in accordance with the requirements of their time. In the time of concealment the state of union with the imam was confined to his hujjah, who was consubstantial with him. His other followers, the “people of gradation,” were divided into the strong (aqwiya) and the weak (du'afa') according to their closeness to the truth.

Post-Alamut developments. In 1256 'Ala' Al-Din Muhammad’s son and successor Khurshah surrendered Alamut to the Mongol conquerors and was killed soon afterward. The Nizari state was thus destroyed, and the Persian Ismaili communities were decimated by massacres. Thereafter the imams lived mostly in concealment, and there is considerable uncertainty about their names, number, and sequence. Following a disputed succession their line soon divided into two branches, one continuing with Muhammad-shah, the other with Qasim-shah. Of the Muhammad-shahi imams, Shah tahir Dakani (d. 1549?) achieved fame as a religious scholar and leader. The popularity of his teaching aroused the suspicion of the Safavid shah Ismail, who exiled him to Kashan. Later he was forced to leave Iran and eventually found refuge in Ahmadnagar in the Deccan, where he became an adviser of the ruler Burhan Nizam Shah, whom he encouraged to proclaim Shiism as the official religion. His writings consisted mainly of commentaries on Twelver Shii and philosophical treatises, although he also maintained relations with his Ismaili followers. The last known imam of the Muhammad-shahi line was Amir Muhammad Baqir, with whom his Syrian Ismaili followers lost all contact after 1796. After a vain search for a descendant of his, a section of the Syrian community changed allegiance in 1887 to the Qasim-shahi line represented by the Aga Khans. A smaller section, known as the Jafariyah, is at present the only community that continues to adhere to the Muhammad-shahi line.

Imams of the Qasim-shahi branch are known to have lived in the later fifteenth and again in the seventeenth century in the village of Anjudan near Mahallat in Iran, where their tombs have been found. They were in this period, and until the ninteenth century, commonly associated with the Ni'matullahi Sufi order. With the appointment of Imam Abu Al-Hasan Shah as governor of Kerman in 1756 they rose to political prominence. His grandson Hasan Ali Shah Mahallati married a daughter of the Qajar king of Persia, Fath 'Ali Shah, who gave him the title of Aga Khan, which has since been borne hereditarily by his successors. Hasan Ali Shah moved to India in 1843 and after 1848 resided in Bombay. Opposition to his authority in the Ismaili Khoja community led to court litigation ending in 1886 in the judgment of Sir Joseph Arnould in his favor. It recognized the Khojas as part of the wider Nizari Ismaili community. The fourth Aga Khan, Karim Khan, succeeded his grandfather in 1957.

Religious literature. The wide dispersal of the Nizari communities, language barriers among them, and their often tenuous relations with the concealed imams led to largely independent organization and literary traditions. In Persia conditions after the fall of Alamut encouraged the imams and their followers to adopt Sufi forms of religious life. Sufi ideas and terminology had already influenced the qiyamah and late Alamut doctrine; now Ismaili ideas were often camouflaged in apparently Sufi poetry, the imam being revered as the Sufi saint. Doctrinal works, written again from the sixteenth century on, essentially reflect the teaching of the late Alamut age with its emphasis on the role of the hujjah of the imam as the only gate to his spiritual essence and truth. Interest in the traditional Ismaili cosmology and cyclical prophetic history waned as the religious literature of the Fatimid age was no longer available.

The community of Badakhshan, which accepted the Nizari imamate probably before the fall of Alamut, remained attached to the writings, both genuine and spurious, of Nasir-i Khusraw, although many Persian Nizari works of the Alamut and post-Alamut age also found their way there. It also transmitted and revered the Umm Al-Kitab, the anonymous Persian work sometimes erroneously described as proto-Ismaili. It reflects some of the gnostic thought of the Kufan Shii ghulat of the eighth century, but its final redaction may be as late as the twelfth century.

The literature of the Nizari community in Syria, written in Arabic, developed independently of the Persian literature even in the Alamut period. There is no evidence that Persian works were translated into Arabic. Although the resurrection was proclaimed in Syria, apparently with some delay, the qiyamah and post-qiyamah doctrine of the Persian Nizariyah with its exaltation of the imam as the manifestation of the divine word made practically no impact there. The Syrian community preserved a substantial portion of Fatimid and Qarmati literature, and scholarly tradition continued to concentrate on the traditional cosmolgy and cyclical prophetic history. In some religious texts of a more popular character, Rashid Al-Din Sinan (d. 1193?) the leader of the Syrian Ismailiyyah, known to the crusaders as the “Old Man of the Mountain,” is celebrated as a popular hero and assigned a cosmic rank usually reserved for the imam.

The Indian subcontinent. The origins and early history of the Nizari community on the Indian subcontinent are largely obscure. The Nizariyah there are often collectively referred to as Khojas, although there are other, smaller Nizari groups such as the Shamsiyah and Momnas, while some Sunni and Twelver Shii Khoja groups have split from the main body of the Nizariyah. According to their legendary history, the Nizari faith was first spread by pir Shams Al-Din, whose father is said to have been sent as a daee from Alamut. The community was ruled thereafter by pirs descended from Shams Al-Din. Pir Sadr Al-Din, who can be dated with some likelihood in the later fourteenth century, is credited with the conversion of the Khojas from the Hindu caste of the Lohanas and to have laid the foundation of their communal organization, building their first jama'at-khanahs (assembly and prayer halls) and appointing their mukhis (community leaders). The center of his activity was in Ucch in Sind. A substantial section of the community seceded in the sixteenth century under the pir Nar (Nur) Muhammad Shah, who broke with the imams in Iran claiming that his father, Imam Shah, had been the imam and that he had succeeded him. This community, known as Imam-Shahis or Satpanthis, has further split on the issue of leadership and lives chiefly in Gujarat and Khandesh. It has tended to revert to Hinduism but shares much of its traditional religious literature with the Nizari Khojas.

This literature, which is known as Sat Panth (True Path), consists of ginans or gnans, religious poems composed in, or translated into, several Indian languages and meant to be sung to specific melodies in worship. Most of them are attributed to the early pirs but cannot be dated accurately and may have undergone substantial changes in the transmission. They include hymns, religious and moral exhortation, and legendary history of the pirs and their miracles, but contain no creed or theology. Islamic and Hindu beliefs, especially popular Tantric ones, are freely mixed. While idol worship is rejected, Hindu mythology is accepted. Ali is considered the tenth avatar (incarnation of the deity), and the imams are identical with him. The Qur'an is described as the last of the Vedas, which are recognized as sacred scriptures whose true interpretation is known to the pirs. Faith in the true religion will free believers from further rebirths and open paradise, which is described in Islamic terms, to them, while those failing to recognize the imams must go through another cycle of rebirths. The Arabic and Persian Ismaili literature has been virtually unknown among the Khojas except for the Persian Pandiyat-i jawanmardi, a collection of religious and moral exhortations of the late fifteenth-century Nizari imam Al-Mustansir which was adopted as a sacred book. Khojas live chiefly in lower Sind, Cutch, Gujarat, Bombay, and in wide diaspora, particularly in East and South Africa, Arabia, Ceylon, and Burma.

Further Nizari communities are found in the mountains of Chitral, Gilgit, and Hunza in Pakistan, in parts of Afghanistan, and in the region of Yarkand and Kashgar in Chinese Turkistan. Organization, religious practices, and observance of shari'ah rules vary among the scattered communities. The recent Aga Khans have stressed the rootedness of the Nizari Ismailiyyah in Shii Islam and its continued bonds with the world of Islam.

Nizari Isma'ili history is often traced through the unbroken hereditary chain of Guardianship or (wilayah), beginning with as Shia believe Ali Ibn Talib being declared his successor as Imam by Muhammad during his final pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey referred to as The Farewell Pilgrimage, and continuing in an unbroken chain to the current Imam His Highness Shah Karim Al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV

The Contemporary Nizari Ismā'īlī[edit]

Main article: Aga Khan IV

All Nizārī Ismā'īlīs today accept His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV as their Imām-i-Zaman (Imam of the Time). In Persian he is referred to religiously as Khudawand (Lord of the Time), in Arabic as Maulana (Master) or Hāzar Imām (Present Imam). Karim succeeded his grandfather Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III as Imām in 1957, aged just 20, and still an undergraduate at Harvard University. He was referred to as "the Imam of the Atomic Age". The period following his accession can be characterized as one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programs and institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in newly emerging post colonial nations where many of his followers resided. Upon becoming Imām, Karim's immediate concern was the preparation of his followers, wherever they lived, for the changes that lay ahead. This rapidly evolving situation called for bold initiatives and new programs to reflect developing national aspirations, in the newly independent nations.[2]:p:206–209

In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the Community's social welfare and economic programs, until the mid-fifties, had been to create a broad base of businessmen, agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the community tended to emphasize secondary-level education. With the coming of independence, each nation's economic aspirations took on new dimensions, focusing on industrialization and modernization of agriculture. The community's educational priorities had to be reassessed in the context of new national goals, and new institutions had to be created to respond to the growing complexity of the development process.

In 1972, under the regime of the then President Idi Amin, Ismā'īlīs and other Asians were expelled from Uganda despite being citizens of the country and having lived there for generations. The Imam undertook urgent steps to facilitate the resettlement of Ismāʿīlīs displaced from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and also from Burma. Owing to his personal efforts most found homes, not only in Asia, but also in Europe and North America. Most of the basic resettlement problems were overcome remarkably rapidly. This was due to the adaptability of the Ismāʿīlīs themselves and in particular to their educational background and their linguistic abilities, as well as the efforts of the host countries and the moral and material support from Ismāʿīlī community programs.

In view of the importance that Islām places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of his life, the Imām's guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismā'īlī Muslims, settled in the industrialized world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programs. Indeed, the Economist noted: that Isma'ili immigrant communities, integrated seamlessly as an immigrant community, and did better at attaining graduate and post graduate degrees, "far surpassing their native, Hindu, Sikh, fellow Muslims, and Chinese communities".[12]

Silver Jubilee[edit]

From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan's Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the Imāmat, many new social and economic development projects were launched. These range from the establishment of the US$450 million international Aga Khan University with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical centers in the Hunza region, one of the remote parts of Northern Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan, to the establishment of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gujarat, India, and the extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centers in Tanzania and Kenya. These initiatives form part of an international network of institutions involved in fields that range from education, health and rural development, to architecture and the promotion of private sector enterprise and together make up the Aga Khan Development Network.

It is this commitment to man's dignity and relief of humanity that inspires the Ismā'īlī Imāmat's philanthropic institutions. Giving of one's competence, sharing one's time, material or intellectual ability with those among whom one lives, for the relief of hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply ingrained tradition which shapes the social conscience of the Ismā'īlī Muslim community.

Golden Jubilee[edit]

During his Golden Jubilee from 2007-2008 marking 50 years of Imamate the Aga Khan commissioned a number of projects, renowned Pritzker Prize winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki was commissioned to design a new kind of community structure resembling an embassy in Canada, The "Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat" opened in 8 December 2008, the building will be composed of two large interconnected spaces an atrium and a courtyard. The atrium is an interior space to be used all year round. It is protected by a unique glass dome made of multi-faceted, angular planes assembled to create the effect of rock crystal the Aga Khan asked Maki to consider the qualities of "rock crystal" in his design, which during the Fatimid Empire was valued by the Imams. Within the glass dome is an inner layer of woven glass-fibre fabric which will appear to float and hover over the atrium. The Delegation building sits along sussex drive near the Canadian parliament. Future Delegation buildings are planned for other capitals, beginning with Lisbon, Portugal.

In addition to primary and secondary schools the Aga Khan Academies, were set up to equip future leaders in the developing world, with a leading standard education. The Aga Khan Museum, which will open in Toronto, Canada, will be the first museum dedicated to Islamic civilization in the west, due for completion in 2013 it will be dedicated to the "acquisition, preservation and display of artefacts - from various periods and geographies - relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islamic communities". A series of new Isma'ili centre are underway, including Toronto, Ontario; Paris, France; Houston, Texas; Dushanbe and the Pamir; Tajikistan.


World Constitution[edit]

The present Aga Khan continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions to Ismā'īlī communities in the US, Canada, several European countries, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a World Constitution that, for the first time, brought the social governance of the worldwide Ismā'īlī community into a single structure with built-in flexibility to account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by volunteers appointed by and accountable to the Imām, the Constitution functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity in an ethos of group responsibility to promote the common well-being.

Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on adherence to the basic principles of Islam, belief in One God, and Muhammad as the seal of the prophets. And to each Ismā'īlī's spiritual allegiance to the Imām of the Time, which is separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismā'īlīs owe as citizens to their national entities. The present Imām and his predecessor emphasized every Ismāʿīlī's allegiance to his or her country as a fundamental obligation. These obligations are discharged not by passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful development.

Places of Worship[edit]

Main article: Jama'at Khana

Jama'at Khana (Persian: جماعت‌خانه‎), from the Arabic "Jamaat" (congregation), and the Persian "Khaneh" (house).

Jama'at Khana are Isma'ili houses of prayer, study, and community. They usually contain separate spaces for prayer, and a social hall for community gatherings. There are no principle architectural guidelines for Jama'at Khana although inspiration is drawn from Islamic architectural philosophy, and local architectural traditions to seamlessly, and discretely place them into the local architectural environment. Architectural forms and interior designs of Jamaat Khana vary from east to west, but are focussed on a minimalist design aesthetic.

Larger Jama'at Khana are referred to as "Darkhanas", or "Isma'ili Centers" in the west, and have been referred to as "Isma'ili Cathedrals" by observers. While containing prayer, and social infrastructure albeit on a larger scale, they may also contain auditoriums and lecture spaces, libraries, offices, and council chambers, as they act as the regional, or national governing centers for community administration.

Jama'at Khana, particularly the larger centers offer their spaces to the community at large, and arrange guided tours. However, during the obligatory prayer (Holy Du'a) only Isma'ili are allowed to enter the prayer hall (masjid).

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin:

In the Ismaili tariqah, the guardian of each Jamatkhana is called mukhi (in the South-Asian tradition) or Sheikh (in the Arab tradition) there are also other names that are applied based on the cultural context of the Jamat, mukhi is a word derived from mukhiya means foremost. Since the Imam physically is not present all the times in the Jamatkhana, the Mukhi acts tangible symbol of the Imam's authority. In the big jamat, the Mukhi was assisted by a caretaker called tha'nak. Later, the office of kamadia (from kamdar means accountant) was created. The Mukhi and Kamadia are the traditional titles going back to the pre-Aga Khan period when they enjoyed considerable local power. Their responsibilities include officiating over the daily rituals in the Jamatkhana, but they are primarily lay officials. Since the wholesale reorganizations undertaken by the Imams, the local committees are now tied into an elaborately hierarchical administrative structure of boards and councils.


The Isma'ili flag known as "My Flag"

The Fatimids adopted Green (akhdar) as the colour of their standard, which symbolized their allegiance to Hazrat Ali, who in order to thwart an assassination attempt once wrapped himself in a green coverlet in place of Muhammad. When Hassan I Sabbah captured Alamut it is said he hoisted the green standard over the fortress, it was later reported that Hassan I Sabbah prophesied that when the Hidden Imam made himself known he would hoist a red flag, which Hasan II did during his appearance. Following the destruction of Alamut Isma'ili hoisted both green and red flags above the tombs of their Imams. Green and Red were unified in the 19th century into the Isma'ili flag known as "My Flag".

The Fatimids also used a white standard with gold inlays, and the Caliph Imams often wore white with gold, as they do today. Isma'ili use a gold crest on white standard to symbolize the authority of Imamate, and often wear white in the presence of their Imam.

The heptagram (septegram) a seven pointed star is often used by Isma'ili as a symbol.



Marriage ("ʿurs" عرس), is a legal contract ("Nikah" النكاح) between a consenting adult man and a woman, it is not considered a sacrament in Islam as it is in Christianity. As a contract it allows both parties to add certain conditions.

Nizari ideals of marriage envision a long term union and thus Nizari also reject short Nikah Mut'ah and Misyar temporary marriage contracts.

Nizari of either gender may marry with spouses from the Abrahamic faiths, Jews, Christians, Samaritans, as well as Zoroastrians. However an emphasis is placed on marrying within the community, or converting partners who are outside the fold, raising children of mixed unions as Isma'ili Muslims.

Since marriage is not considered a sacrament in Islam, Nizari Isma'ili consider secular court marriages in the west as valid legal contracts so long as they do not contradict Islamic principles (marriage with polytheists, homosexuality etc.) . However many Isma'ili couples in the west opt into both a court marriage to secure legal recognition, in addition to a Nikah ceremony performed at a Jama'at Khana.


Main article: Nāndi

Nāndi is a ceremony in which food is symbolically offered to the Imām-e Zamān, and is subsequently auctioned to the congregation. Money obtained is forwarded to the Imām by officials. The Ceremony is conducted by volunteers from the community. The food is prepared at home and is brought to the Jamāa't khāne, the Mukhi (congregation head) includes the food known as "Mehmāni" during a blessing at the end of prayers, informing the congregation that it has been offered to the Imām and the benefits of it are for the whole Jamāt. If no physical Mehmāni has been brought to the Jamātkhāne then a symbolic plate called the "Mehmāni plate" can be touched during the Du'a Karavi ceremony, this serves as a substitute for physical food.

The origins of Nāndi are said to be in the Prophet Muhammad's time when a similar practice occurred.[citation needed]


Nizari use an arithmetic based Lunar calendar to calculate the year, unlike most Muslim communities who rely on visual sightings. The Isma'ili calendar was developed in the Middle Ages during the Faitmid Caliphate of Imam Al-Hakim.

A lunar year contains about 354 11/30 days, Nizari Isma'ili employ a cycle of 11 leap years (kasibah) with 355 days in a 30-year cycle. The odd numbered months contain 30 days and the even numbered months 29 days, the 12th and final month in a leap year contains 30 days.

Nizari use 2, 5, 7, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 24, 26, 29 respectively in their calculations.[clarification needed]

International Development[edit]

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) was set up by the Imamate and the Isma'ili community as a group of private, non-denominational development agencies that seek to empower communities and individuals regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation, to seek to improve living conditions and opportunities within the developing world. It has active working relationships with international organizations like the UN, the EU and private organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Government bodies the AKDN works with include the United States Agency for International Development, Canadian International Development Agency, the United Kingdom's Department for International Development, and Germany's Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (Germany).

Agencies of the AKDN[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Islamic Sects: Major Schools, Notable Branches". Information is Beautiful. David McCandless. Retrieved 9 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Daftary, Farhad (1998). A Short History Of The Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 0748609040. 
  3. ^ Lewis, Bernard (1967). The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. ISBN 9780465004980. 
  4. ^ Nowell, Charles E. (1947). "The Old Man of the Mountain". Speculum 22 (4). 
  5. ^ Istilâhât al-Sûfiyya (Rasâ'il), no.60. (Cairo, 1981, pp.153-4) and by Jurjani in his Ta'rifât, Cairo, 1357 H, p.114. (Treatise) 
  6. ^ "Qur'an". Encyclopaedia Britannica Online. 
  7. ^ References to the sermon: 1. A’alam al-Wara, pp 132-133; 2. Tadhkirat al-Khawas al-Ummah; 3. Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi al-Hanafi, pp 28-33; 4. al-Sirah al-Halabiyyah by Noor al-Din al-Halabi, v3, p273
  8. ^ List of Ismaili imams
  9. ^ Daftary, Farhad (1990). The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 551–553.
  10. ^
  11. ^ "Isma'ilism". Retrieved 2007-04-24. 
  12. ^ The Economist: Islam, America and Europe. London, UK: The Economist Newspaper Limited. June 22, 2006. 

Main Reference: For a list of Ismaili Imams: Daftary, Farhad (1990). The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. pp. 551–553. ISBN 0-521-42974-9.

The Shia Ismaili Nizari Qasim-Shahi Imamat: A Timeline of Major Divisions and Developments

External links[edit]