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Ismaili

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Ismaili

    The Shi'i movement known as the Ismaili influenced Islamic intellectual and religious life from the 900s through the 1200s. The movement takes its name from Ismail, son of Jafar al-Sadiq , the sixth imam. Jafar had named Ismail as his successor, but Ismail died before his father. After Jafar's death in 765 , many of his followers still considered Ismail to be the seventh imam. As a result, Ismailis are often referred to as Seveners.

    In the mid-800s, Ismaili movements formed in Iraq, Persia (present-day Iran), Yemen, and India. Directed from a central headquarters, they resisted the rule of Sunni caliphs. Ismailis believed that a “hidden” imam (one existing in spiritual form), the son of Ismail, would return to rule the world. In 899 Syrian leader Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi claimed to be this hidden imam. Most Ismailis in Iraq and Persia rejected al-Mahdi's claim, and over the centuries, the Ismailis experienced a number of splits within the movement over religious and political matters. One of these splits led Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi and his heirs to establish the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt and North Africa in the 900s.

    After the overthrow of Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir, the movement split again. Ismailis in Egypt followed al-Mustansir's son, al-Mustali. Those in eastern lands were loyal to al-Mustali's older brother, Nizar. The Nizaris violently resisted Sunni Abbasid caliphs. Due, in part, to their violent tactics, the Nizaris were known as Assassins. Several years after Muslim military leader Saladin conquered Egypt and ended the Fatimid dynasty, Mongol armies captured the last Nizari stronghold in 1256 . Ismailis from both groups scattered. One of the Nizari leaders fled to India where his followers became known as the Khojas and he took the title of Aga Khan, meaning chief commander. All Nizari Ismaili imams since then have held the title of Aga Khan.

    Modern Aga Khans have been active in politics, education, and humanitarian causes. Mustali Ismailis also maintain a large community in India. Although followers of both sects live mainly in India, Ismaili communities also exist in Syria, Central Asia, Iran, Africa, North America and Europe. The total worldwide Ismaili population is about two million. See also Assassins; Fatimid Dynasty; Shi'i Islam; Titles, Honorific.

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