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Ismaili are a Shia Muslim sect, sometimes called "Seveners" as opposed to Twelver Shia. The term is understood to have different meanings. They all believe that Ismail was the seventh Imam and the eldest son of Imam Jaffar. Twelver Shia, the main Shia branch, believe that Jafar (or Jaffar) had passed the Imamate to his second son. The Ismaili, unlike the the Twelver Shia, have a system of philosophy science and religion that provided a theological rationale for the Imamate and the rights of the Fatimids to it. The precise origins of the Ismaili are shrouded in mystery.  Ubaid Allah al Mahdi, the founder of the Fatimid Dynasty, came to North Africa from Yemen apparently in the early tenth century and actively promoted the Ismaili faith. The Fatimid rulers proclaimed themselves true caliphs and may have originated much of the doctrine to justify their rule.

Definitions of Ismaili

In current parlance, "Ismaili" may refer to several groupings: 

1) The common meaning often refers only to the Nizari followers of the Aga Khan, who claim exclusivity. (see http://www.theismaili.org/ ) They are in fact the largest part of the Ismaili community today with over 10 million members. The Nizari accept Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as their 49th Imam. He is is descended from Nizar. Nizar was a pre-eminent pir (teacher or dialogician) also accetped as Imam by some.  The 46th Imam, Aga Hassan Ali Shah, fled Iran to South Asia in the 1840s after a failed coup against the Shah of the Qajar dynasty. Aga Hassan Ali Shah settled in Mumbai in 1848.

Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on each Ismaili's spiritual allegiance to the Imam, distinguished from the secular allegiance that all Ismailis owe as citizens to their national entities. The Nizari rule of the Aga Khan is progressive and patriotic. The present Imam and his predecessor emphasized Ismailis' allegiance to their country as a fundamental obligation. These obligations are to be discharged not by passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful development.

The Nizari followers of the Aga Khan are found in India, Pakistan, Syria, China and other countries. In countries such as Pakistan, they are prominent in government.

The Aga Khan encourages Ismaili Muslims, especially those settled in the industrialized world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programs. In recent years, Nizari Ismaili Muslims, who have come to the US, Canada and Europe, many as refugees from Asia and Africa, have readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of urban and rural centers across the two continents. As in the developing world, the Nizari Ismaili Muslim community's settlement in the industrial world has involved the establishment of community institutions characterized by self-reliance, emphasis on education, and  philanthropy.

2) "Ismaili" as referring to all Nizari and Bohra (branches of Mustaali) Shi'a Muslims today. The Nizari were founded in the east, having split off from Egyptian Ismailis after the succession dispute at the accession of Caliph Musta'ali. The Mustaali originally split off after a succession dispute following the death of Caliph Musta'ali,  and then  split into the three Bohra branches over leadership disputes. The Mustaali have three branches: Dawoodi Bohr, Suleimani Bohr and Alavi Bohra of India (evidently not to be confused with the Alawi of Syria).  There are approximately one million Dawoodi Bohras. The majority of these reside in India and Pakistan, but there are also  significant communities of Dawoodi in the Middle East, East Africa, Europe, North America and the Far East.

3) "Ismaili" as an inclusive term, referring to all sects that derived from the original Ismaili doctrine. These include the Druze, who do not generally consider themselves Ismaili and who are often not classed as Muslims. They also include the "Seveners," who believed that Ismail or his son was the the last Imam, and not just the Seventh. They include the Hafizi, an "established religion" branch.  The Hafizi believed that whoever the political ruler of the Fatimid Empire was, was also the Imam of the faith. The "Seveners" and the Hafizi are no longer extant.   

Major practices and beliefs of the Ismaili

The Ismaili follow Dai - teachers and missionaries and Pir, dialogicians. Some Nizari Ismaili and Druze believe in reincarnation. All branches of Ismaili, unlike other Muslim sects, have ceased to take on converts for different theological reasons. The Ismaili were frequently persecuted and therefore practiced Taqiyah, dissimulation, to hide their faith.

Like Twelver Shia, the Ismaili believe that the true Imam went into occultation when persecuted and will return as the Mahdi or Messiah. However, whereas Twelver Shia identify the Mahdi as the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, the Ismaili, at least the original followers, believed it was Ismail bin Jaffar or Muhammad ibn Ismail. Several individuals were also identified by various Ismaili sects are the returned Mahdi.

Ismaili faith is both universalist and at the same time particularist. They see the Imam as a manifestation Allah in this reality. 

Ismailis  hold that divine revelation took place in six periods (daur) entrusted to six prophets, who they also call Natiq (Speaker), commissioned to preach a religion of law to their respective communities.

While the Natiq was concerned with the rites and outward shape of religion, the inner meaning was 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 were in turn succeeded by a line of seven Imams, who would guard what they received. The seventh and last Imam in any period would in turn be the Natiq of the next period. The last Imam of the sixth period however would not bring about a new religion of law but supersede all previous religions, abrogate the law and introduce din Adama al-awwal ("the original religion of Adam") practiced by Adam and the Angels before the fall, which would be without cult or law but consist in all creatures praising the creator and recognizing his unity. This final stage us the  Qiyama.[

Exception for the Mustaali Ismailis, Ismaili believe in panentheism, holding that God is both reality and transcends it. While the Godhead is outside this universe, the Godhead has created reality, which is God itself. All living beings exist in this reality; however, reality in its entirety is invested in the manifestation of Allah, the Imam of the time.

Numerology is an important feature of Ismaili belief and may have been responsible for the spread of the Kabbalah among Jews as well. The number seven in particular, understandably, has great significance

Historical Highlights of the Ismaili

According to one version, the Fatimids sought to spread the Ismaili faith in order to spread loyalty to the Imamate in Egypt and undermine the Abbasid empire. According to another, after the Nizari Ismaili lost a factional battle, they fled Egypt. All agree that Hassan-i-Sabbah of Persia was a most successful missionary teacher or Dai serving the Ismaili cause, and was responsible for the eventual prominence of the Nizari.

Hassan-i-Sabbah was born in  Qom in 1056 AD to Twelver Shi'a parents. His family later moved to Tehran  which was an Ismaili center. Hassan-i-Sabbah studied Ismaili thought, When he was nearly killed by an illness, he decided to convert.

Hassan-i-Sabbah then became one of the most influential Dais, essentialy founding the  Nizari branch of Ismailism, named after his son Nizar. Hassan-i-Sabbah took over the fortress of Alamut, which became a Fatimid outpost in the Abbasid empire. Alamut remained a center of Ismailism until it was destroyed by the Mongol Hulagu two centuries later.

Hassan-I-Sabbah used the Hashasheen, who can be described either as faithful disciples or terrorists depending on one's point of view, to "convince" people of his faith. The word "Assassin" is derived from Hashasheen. The Hashasheen are said by opponents to have been Hashish (Cannabis) eaters, who owed their ferocious behavior to use of the drug. Their characteristic trademark of the assassination was that they would not leave the scene of the crime. Ismaili claim that the Hashasheen derive their name from Hassan-i-Sabbah. They called themselves al dawa al Jadida and were also called fedayeen. According to the stories of enemies, they were first indoctrinated in a paradisaical garden under the influence of Hashish, and then told that their only means of salvation, return to the garden, was following the orders of Hassan-i-Sabbah. 

In the tenth century, the Qarmatians  accepted a young Persian prisoner, Abu'l-Fadl al- Isfahani, from Isfahan as the Mahdi - the returned hidden Imam, Muhammad ibn Ismail. He claimed to be the descendant of the Persian kings. The Qarmatians changed their qiblah (direction of prayer) from the Kaaba to the Zoroastrian-influenced fire.  The Qarmatians violently rampaged throughout Middle-East, and stole the Black Stone from the Kaaba in Mecca about 930.  After their return of the Black Stone in 951 and defeat by the Abbasids in 976 they faded out of history.

In 1171 the Fatimid Ismaili dynasty was ended by Salah al Din (Saladin). By that time North Africa had largely reverted to Sunni Islam, but the Ismaili survived principally in the east.

The Mongol invasion shattered the Abbasid and Fatimid empires. Hulagu destroyed Alamut in 1256. The last of the Hashashin were supposedly destroyed in 1272. The branches of Ismaili were now geographically isolated, though in some places they coexists, as the  Druze and Nizari,  and in South Asia which has both Mustaali and Nizari.

The Druze, who were supposedly founded by Ismaili Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim, who declared himself to be the incarnation of Allah, mainly settled in Syria, Palestine (modern Israel) and Lebanon.

Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ismaili http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/intro/islam-ismaili.htm http://www.utm.edu/research/iep/i/ismaili.htm


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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

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The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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