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The Isma'ili ( اسماعيلي, Persian Esmaa'ili) branch of Islam is the second largest Shi'a community, after the Twelvers who are dominant in Iran. The Ismailis are found primarily in the Indian subcontinent, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and East Africa but have in recent years emigrated to Europe and North America. The Ismailis and Twelvers both accept the same initial Imams from the descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and therefore share much of their early history. However, a dispute arose on the succession of the Sixth Imam, Ja'far as-Sadiq. The Ismailis became those who accepted Ja'far's eldest son Ismail as the next Imam, whereas the Twelvers accepted a younger son, Musa al-Kazim.

A branch of the Ismaili known as the Saaabiyin or Seveners held that Ismail's son, Muhammad, was the seventh and final Imam (a belief inaccurately but commonly ascribed to Ismailis as a whole). There is still a small Sevener Ismaili community in parts of Saudi Arabia to this date.

In the face of persecution, the bulk of the Ismailis continued to recognize imams who secretly propagated their faith through missionaries (da'is) from their bases in Syria. However by the 10th century, an Ismaili Imam, Abdullah am-Mahdi , had emigrated to North Africa and had successfully established the new Fatimid state in Tunisia. His successors subsequently succeeded in conquering much of North Africa (including the prized Egypt) and parts of Arabia. The capital for the Fatimid state hence shifted to the newly founded city of Cairo. from which the Fatimid Caliph-Imams ruled for several generations.

A group of followers of the 16th Imam, Hakim bi-Amr-Allah broke away from the mainstream Ismailis to form the Druze religion.

A more fundamental split amongst the Ismaili occurred on the dispute of which son should succeed the 18th Imam, Mustansir . Mustaali, his younger son, was installed as Imam in Cairo with the help of Vizier Badr al-Jamali . However, Mustansir 's elder son Nizar contested this claim and was imprisoned; he gained support from an Ismaili da'i based in Iran, Hasan as-Sabbah. Sabbah is noted by Western writers to be the leader of the legendary Assassins.

The Fatimid state eventually collapsed after Mustaali's successor Amir was assassinated, but Mustaali Ismaili held that Amir had left a son named Tayyib who had gone into seclusion and that the imamate continued in his progeny during this time. They also regarded a succeeding chain of Yemeni da'is as representatives of the imam. In time, the seat for one chain of dais was transferred to India as the community split several times, each recognizing a different da'i.

Today the Dawoodi Bohras, a majority of the Mustaali Ismailis accept as the 52nd da'i, Syedna Muhammad Burhanuddin, based in India. This group is also known as Dawoodi Bohras. While lesser known - smallest in number, Alavi Bohras accept as the 44th "da'i" : Da'i-e-Mutlaq, H.H. Saiyedna Abu Haatim Taiyeb Ziyauddin Saheb (TUS).

There has been, in recent years, a reapprochment between the Yemeni Mustaalis and the followers of the da'i based out of Mumbai. The Bohras are noted to be the more traditional of the two main groups of Ismaili, maintaining rituals such as prayer and fasting more consistently with other Muslim and Shi'a sects, although a reformist movement has emerged within the sect challenging the authoritarian Dawoodi Bohra clergy.

The largest part of the Nizari Ismaili community today accepts Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as their 49th Imam. The 46th Imam, Aga Hasan Ali Shah, fled Iran to the Indian subcontinent in the 1840s after a failed coup against the Shah of the Qajar dynasty. Aga Hasan Ali Shah settled in Bombay in 1848. The Aga Khan obtained his authority over Shia Ismaili Muslims in Bombay through a legal case at the Bombay high Court in 1866 when Sir Joseph Arnold ruled that the Khojah Muslim community must recognise the authority of the Aga Khan over all their affairs including transfer of their property to the Aga Khan.

The Aga Khans have been in contact with various Nizari Ismaili communities around the world and several have accepted them as their Hazar Imam or 'Present Imam'. Deputations came to Mumbai to receive the Imam's guidance from as far afield as Kashgar in China, Bokhara in Central Asia, and all parts of Iran and the Middle East.


Mustaali groups: Dawoodi Bohras, Alavi Bohras

See main articles at Dawoodi Bohras, Alavi Bohras.

One Academic View of Pre-20th Century History

[From the Preface of Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines (Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp.xv-xvi. See also A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community, (Edinburgh University Press, 1998) by the same author. A case can be made that this is the Nizari Ismaili ("Aga Khani") view of the history.]

"The Ismailis constitute the second largest Shia community after the Twelvers in the Muslim world and are now scattered in more than twenty countries of Asia, Africa, Europe and America..."

"The origins of Sunnism and Shiism, the two main divisions of Islam, may be traced to the crisis of succession faced by the nascent Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, though the doctrinal bases of these divisions developed gradually in the course of several centuries. In time, Shia Islam, the minoritarian view, became subdivided into different groups, many of which proved short-lived. But Imami Shiism, providing the common early heritage for several Shia sects, notably the Twelvers and the Ismailis, was a major exception."

"The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history. In mediaeval times, they twice established states of their own and played important parts for relatively long periods on the historical stage of the Muslim world. During the second century of their history, the Ismailis founded the first Shia caliphate under the Fatimid caliph-imams. They also made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture during the Fatimid period. Later, after a schism that split Ismailism into two major Nizari and Mustalian branches, the Nizari leaders succeeded in founding a cohesive state, with numerous mountain strongholds and scattered territories stretching from eastern Persia to Syria. The Nizari state collapsed only under the onslaught of all-conquering Mongols. Thereafter, the Ismailis never regained any political prominence and survived in many lands as a minor Shia Muslim sect. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the spiritual leaders or imams of the Nizari majority came out of their obscurity and actively participated in certain political events in Persia and, then, in British India; later they acquired international prominence under their hereditary title of Agha Khan (Aga Khan)."

Because of political developments in Iran in the late 1830s and early 1840s the 46th Imam, Aga Hasan Ali Shah, emigrated to the Indian subcontinent. He was the first of the Nizari Imams to bear the title of Aga Khan, which had been previously bestowed on him by the Persian Emperor, Fath Ali Shah. He settled in Bombay [now Mumbai] in 1848 where he established his headquarters, a development that had an uplifting effect on the community in India and on the religious and communal life of the whole Ismaili world. It helped the community in India gain a greater sense of confidence and identity as Shia Ismaili Muslims, and laid the foundations for its social progress. It also marked the beginning of an era of more regular contacts between the Imam and his widely dispersed followers. Deputations came to Bombay to receive the Imam's guidance from as far afield as Kashgar in China, Bokhara in Central Asia, all parts of Iran, and the Middle East.

History of the Nizari Ismaili ("Aga Khani") Ismaili community in the 20th century

Under the leadership of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, the first half of the twentieth century was a period of significant development for the Ismaili community. Numerous institutions for social and economic development were established on the Indian sub-continent and in East Africa. Ismailis have marked the Jubilees of their Imams with public celebrations, which are symbolic affirmations of the ties that link the Ismaili Imam and his followers. Although the Jubilees have no real religious significance, they serve to reaffirm the Imamat's world-wide commitment to the improvement of the quality of human life, especially in the developing countries.

The Jubilees of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III, are well remembered. During his 72 years of Imamat (1885-1957), the community celebrated his Golden (1937), Diamond (1946) and Platinum (1954) Jubilees. To show their appreciation and affection, the Ismailis weighed their Imam in gold, diamonds and, symbolically, in platinum, respectively, the proceeds of which were used to further develop major social welfare and development institutions in Asia and Africa.

On the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, social development institutions were established, in the words of the late Aga Khan, "for the relief of humanity". They included institutions such as the Diamond Jubilee Trust and the Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited which in turn assisted the growth of various types of cooperative societies. Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls were established throughout the remote Northern Areas of what is now Pakistan. In addition, scholarship programmes, established at the time of the Golden Jubilee to give assistance to needy students, were progressively expanded. In East Africa, major social welfare and economic development institutions were established. Those involved in social welfare included the accelerated development of schools and community centres, and a modern, fully-equipped hospital in Nairobi. Among the economic development institutions established in East Africa were companies such as the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (now Diamond Trust of Kenya) and the Jubilee Insurance Company, which are quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange and have become major players in national development.

Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah also introduced organisational forms that gave Ismaili communities the means to structure and regulate their own affairs. These were built on the Muslim tradition of a communitarian ethic on the one hand, and responsible individual conscience with freedom to negotiate one's own moral commitment and destiny on the other. In 1905 he ordained the first Ismaili Constitution for the social governance of the community in East Africa. The new administration for the Community's affairs was organised into a hierarchy of councils at the local, national, and regional levels. The constitution also set out rules in such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance, guidelines for mutual cooperation and support among Ismailis, and their interface with other communities. Similar constitutions were promulgated in the Indian subcontinent, and all were periodically revised to address emerging needs and circumstances in diverse settings.

Following the Second World War, far-reaching social, economic and political changes profoundly affected a number of areas where Ismailis resided.

In 1947, British rule in the Indian subcontinent was replaced by the two sovereign, independent nations, of India and Pakistan, resulting in the migration of at least a million people and significant loss of life and property. In the Middle East, the Suez crisis of 1956 as well as the preceding crisis in Iran, demonstrated the sharp upsurge of nationalism, which was as assertive of the region's social and economic aspirations as of its political independence. Africa was also set on its course to decolonisation, swept by what Mr. Harold MacMillan, the then British Prime Minister, aptly termed the "wind of change". By the early 1960s, most of East and Central Africa, where the majority of the Ismaili population on the continent resided (including Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, Malagasy, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire), had attained their political independence.

This was the world in which the present Aga Khan acceded to the Imamat in 1957. The period following his accession can be characterised as one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programmes and institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in newly-emerging nations. Upon becoming Imam, the present Aga Khan'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 programmes to reflect developing national aspirations.

In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the Community's social welfare and economic programmes, until the mid-fifties, had been to create a broad base of businessmen, agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the Community tended to emphasise secondary-level education. With the coming of independence, each nation's economic aspirations took on new dimensions, focusing on industrialisation and modernisation 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, Ismailis and other Asians were expelled, despite being citizens of the country and having lived there for generations. The Aga Khan had to take urgent steps to facilitate the resettlement of Ismailis 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 Ismailis 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 Ismaili community programmes.

Spiritual allegiance to the Imam and adherence to the Shia Imami Ismaili tariqah (persuasion) of Islam according to the guidance of the Imam of the time, have engendered in the Ismaili community an ethos of self-reliance, unity, and a common identity. The present Aga Khan continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions to Ismaili communities in the US, Canada, several European countries, the Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a Constitution that, for the first time, brought the social governance of the world-wide Ismaili 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 Imam, 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.

The Nizari Ismaili ("Aga Khani") community today

Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on each Ismaili's spiritual allegiance to the Imam of the time, which is separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismailis owe as citizens to their national entities. The guidance of the present Imam and his predecessor emphasised the Ismaili's allegiance to his or her country as a fundamental obligation. These obligations discharged not by passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful development.

In view of the importance that Islam places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of his life, the Imam's guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismaili Muslims, settled in the industrialised world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programmes. In recent years, Ismaili Muslims, who have come to the US, Canada and Europe, mostly as refugees from Asia and Africa, have readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of urban and rural centres across the two continents. As in the developing world, the Ismaili Muslim Community's settlement in the industrial world has involved the establishment of community institutions characterised by an ethos of self-reliance, an emphasis on education, and a pervasive spirit of philanthropy.

From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan's Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the Imamat, many new social and economic development projects were launched, although there were no weighing ceremonies. These range from the establishment of the US$ 300 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 centres 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 Programme in Gujarat, India, and the extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centres 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 Ismaili Imamat's philanthropic institutions. Giving of one's competence, sharing one's time, material or intellectual wherewithal 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 Ismaili Muslim community.

The "Hashishin" issue

The Ismaili sect (specifically, the Nizari sub-sect) also gave rise to the Hashishin (the original "Assassins"; the sect whose nickname gave rise to the word) under the leadership of Hasan Ibn Al Sabbah. The Ismaili Assassins were reputedly created to revive the Shi'a Ismaili caliphate in Egypt, which had been destroyed by the Sunni Seljuks. Their primary tactic was to kill the Sunni leaders in as public a place as possible - usually at Friday prayers. Their lack of concern for their own escape—they would welcome death—and the belief that that they carried out their "operations" high on hashish, led to the term their opponents used for them, "Hashishin" (or hashish addicts, or, in today's parlance, pot-heads), becoming the root of the word used in several languages for professional killers: "assassin". (The Arabic term for one pledged to fight to the death, and thus often used for suicide killers, is fida'ee , plural fidayeen .)

External links


  • The Ismailis: Their history and doctrines; Farhad Daftary; Cambridge University Press, 1990 (From the point of view of the followers of the Aga Khan)
  • A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community; Farhad Daftary; Edinburgh University Press, 1998 (A history of Ismailism from the point of view of the followwers of the Aga Khan)

Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12