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Daniel C. Peterson
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


The Shīʿī movement called the Ismāʿīlīyah, with a number of widely differing subsects, deeply influenced Islamic intellectual life in the tenth through thirteenth centuries. It is quite separate from the majority sect of Shīʿī Muslims, the Twelvers or Imāmīs.

The origins and early history of the Ismāʿīlīyah are obscure. Following the death in 765 CE of the sixth Shīʿī imam, Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq, some of his followers insisted that his son Ismāʿīl, whom Jaʿfar had named his successor but who had already died, was nevertheless the seventh imam. Hence, Ismāʿīlīs are often known as “Seveners.”

Central to Ismāʿīlī doctrine from the beginning has been the distinction between exoteric aspects of religion, which are said to change from prophet to prophet, and esoteric aspects that remain constant behind transient symbols. Early Ismāʿīlī esotericism involved both cosmological myths (of a noticeably gnostic character) and a cyclical view of sacred history that recognized seven eras, each inaugurated by a prophet. In the tenth century, however, the original myth was displaced by Neoplatonic ideas of an incomprehensible and severely transcendent God who, having created “Intellect” ex nihilo, allowed the remainder of the universe—other intellects, soul, the celestial spheres, and the four elements of the ordinary world—to come into existence by emanation from that first created being.

Nothing is known about the Ismāʿīlīyah from its origin until after the mid-ninth century, when the Ismāʿīlīs emerged as a secret revolutionary movement operating in Iraq, Persia, Yemen, and the Indian subcontinent. The activities of the Ismāʿīlī missionary organization, the daʿwah, seem to have been directed from a central headquarters, located first near the Persian Gulf and later in Syria. During this early phase, the leaders of the Ismāʿīlīyah apparently claimed to be acting on behalf of the absent imam Muḥammad, son of Ismāʿīl, whose imminent return as world ruler they proclaimed. Converts were required to take an oath of initiation, which included an obligation of secrecy.

In 899 ʿUbayd Allāh al-Mahdī, a new leader in Syria, announced that he himself was the imam, the latest in a continuous line of imams since the days of Ismāʿīl. This innovation split the movement. By and large, the Ismāʿīlīs of Iraq, Bahrain, and western Persia refused to accept ʿUbayd Allāh's claim. Among the eastern Ismāʿīlīyah, the faction known as the Qarmatians (Qarāmiṭah), still anticipating the return of a hidden imam, concentrated on eastern Arabia and Bahrain, where they had some success, and briefly even held Mecca.

To the west, ʿUbayd Allāh and his heirs succeeded in establishing an important state, first in North Africa (909) and afterward in Egypt (from 969), where they founded the city of Cairo. The complex history of this Fāṭimid dynasty extended over approximately two centuries.

Toward the end of the rule of al-Ḥākim (996–1021), certain members of the daʿwah proclaimed his divinity. The official daʿwah organization fought the new heresy vigorously, but the attitude of the caliph himself is difficult to determine. In the years following al-Ḥākim's death, the Fāṭimid government eliminated his adherents from Egypt; however, they established themselves in the mountains of Syria–Palestine, where, moving theologically beyond the boundaries of Ismāʿīlism and even of Islam, they became the Druze movement.

In 1094 Nizār, eldest son and designated successor of the caliph al-Mustanṣir, was deposed in a coup d’état and put in prison, where he eventually died. He was replaced by al-Mustaʿlī, the younger son. The Ismāʿīlī organization in Egypt accepted al-Mustaʿlī, but the eastern Ismāʿīlīs remained loyal to Nizār. One of these was a dāʿī or missionary known as Ḥasan-i Ṣabbāḥ, founder of a group that eventually came to be widely known as “the Assassins”—part of their program can be inferred from their name—who had established his base of command in the mountain fortress of Alamut. Ḥasan then came forward as the de facto leader of a new Ismāʿīlī sect, the Nizārīs, although he did not assume the title of imam.

Al-ʿĀmir, the son of al-Mustaʿlī, was assassinated in 1130. After considerable turmoil he was succeeded by his cousin l-Ḥāfiẓ. Another schism was born when many Ismāʿīlīs continued to support the rights of al-ʿĀmir's infant son al-Ṭayyib; the baby, however, had disappeared, and nothing further is known about him.

In 1171 the famous Saladin conquered Egypt and ended the Fāṭimid dynasty. With the fall of their state, Ismāʿīlīs essentially disappeared from Egypt, where they had remained an elite and had never managed to win over the general population. Some took refuge in Yemen.

Meanwhile the Assassins underwent major upheavals in the east. For a time their leaders appear to have claimed the imamate on the basis of alleged descent from Nizār. At one point, the lords of Alamut even repudiated Islamic law (sharīʿah). This all came to an end in 1256 when the Assassin stronghold fell to the Mongols and the last grand master was executed.

The Ismāʿīlīyah survived in scattered communities of Persia, Central Asia, Yemen, and Syria. It was in India, however, that the movement found its greatest success in the post-Fāṭimid period. Nizārī missionaries established a community there that has come to be known as the Khojas. Their imam is known as the Aga Khan. His departure from Persia and his permanent settlement in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century effectively mark the beginning of the modern period in the history of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlīyah. Adherents of the movement have prospered, by and large, and have developed a reputation for progressivism throughout the Islamic world and beyond. Successive modern Aga Khans have been active in international and Indian subcontinental politics and reforms, as well as in educational and humanitarian work. Mustaʿlīs too came to the subcontinent and founded the sect of the Bohrās, who are closer to Sunnī Islam than are their Nizārī counterparts.

Today, Ismāʿīlīs of both schools are chiefly located in India, although notable communities also exist in Yemen, Syria, Central Asia, Iran, and through relatively recent migration in East Africa, where they have formed an important element in the commercial life of the region. Sizable populations of Ismāʿīlī expatriates are to be found in Europe and North America, with the largest single concentration located in London. The total number of Ismāʿīlīs is probably in the vicinity of two million.



  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismāʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, 1990. Very useful one-volume survey of the subject, to modern times.
  • Daftary, Farhad. A Modern History of the Ismailis: Modernity and Continuity in a Muslim Community. London: Institute for Ismaili Studies, 2008.
  • Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.
  • Hamdani, Sumaiya A.Between Revolution and State: The Path to Fatimid Statehood: Qadi al-Nuʿman and the Construction of Fatimid Legitimacy. London: Institute for Ismaili Studies, 2007.
  • Hodgson, Marshall G. S.The Secret Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs against the Islamic World, new ed.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismailia: An Illustrated History. Azimuth Editions, 2008.
  • Ivanov, Vladimir A.The Alleged Founder of Ismailism. Bombay, 1946.
  • Klemm, Verena. Memoirs of a Mission: The Ismaili Scholar, Statesman and Poet, al-Muʿyyad fiʿl-Dīn al-Shīrāzī.London: Institute for Ismaili Studies, 2004.
  • Lalani, Arzina A., ed. and trans. Degrees of Excellence: A Fatimid Treatise on Leadership in Islam.London: Institute for Ismaili Studies, 2008.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Origins of Ismāʿīlism: A Study of the Historical Background of the Fāṭimid Caliphate. Cambridge, 1940. Important but somewhat idiosyncratic approach.
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam. London, 1967.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, ed.Ismāʿīlī Contributions to Islamic Culture. Tehran, 1977. Interesting anthology of essays.
  • Poonawala, Ismail K.Biobibliography of Ismāʿīlī Literature. Malibu, Calif., 1977. Massive annotated catalogue of literature and writers from earliest times to the modern period.
  • Ruthven, Malise and Gerald Wilkinson. The Children of Time: The Aga Khan and the Ismailis. London: I.B. Tauris, 2008.
  • Stern, S. M.Studies in Early Ismāʿīlism. Jerusalem and Leiden, 1983. Collection of papers, some of them classics, on early Ismāʿīlism.
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