Ismāʿīlism (Persian: اسماعیلیان) is the second largest branch of Shia Islam after the Twelvers.
The Ismāʿīlī get their name from their acceptance of Ismāʿīl ibn Jaʿfar as the appointed spiritual successor (Imām) to Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq, wherein they differ from the Twelvers, who accept Mūsà al-Kāżim, younger brother of Ismāʿīl, as the true Imām.
Tracing its earliest theology to the lifetime of Muhammad, Ismāʿīlism rose at one point to become the largest branch of Shī‘ism, climaxing as a political power with the Fatimid Empire in the tenth through twelfth centuries.
Ismailis believe in the oneness of God, as well as the closing of divine revelation with Muhammad, whom they see as "the final Prophet and Messenger of God to all humanity".
The Ismāʿīlī and the Twelvers both accept the same initial A'immah from the descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima Zahra and therefore share much of their early history.
Both Shī‘ite groups see the family of Muḥammad (Ahl al-Bayt) as divinely chosen, infallible (ismah), and guided by God to lead the Islamic community (Ummah), a belief that distinguishes them from the majority Sunni branch of Islam.
After the death of Muhammad ibn Ismail in the 8th century AD, the teachings of Ismailism further transformed into the belief system as it is known today, with an explicit concentration on the deeper, esoteric meaning (batin) of the Islamic religion.
With the eventual development of Twelverism into the more literalistic (zahir) oriented Akhbari and later Usooli schools of thought, Shi'ism developed into two separate directions: the metaphorical Ismāʿīlī group focusing on the mystical path and nature of Allah, with the "Imām of the Time" representing the manifestation of truth and reality, with the more literalistic Twelver group focusing on divine law (sharia) and the deeds and sayings (sunnah) of Muhammad and the Twelve Imams who were guides and a light to God.
Though there are several paths (tariqah) within the Ismāʿīlīs, the term in today's vernacular generally refers to the Nizari path, which recognizes the Aga Khan IV as the 49th hereditary Imam and is the largest group among the Ismāʿīlīs.
While some of the branches have extremely differing exterior practices, Ismāʿīlīs will say that much of their spiritual theology has remained the same since the days of the faith's early Imāms.
In recent centuries Ismāʿīlīs have largely been a Pakistani and Indian community, but Ismāʿīlī minorities are also found in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Jordan, East Africa, Lebanon, and South Africa, and have in recent years emigrated to Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America and Trinidad and Tobago.
There are also a significant number of Ismāʿīlīs in Central Asia.
Ismailism shares its beginnings with other early Shī‘ah sects that emerged during the succession crisis that spread throughout the early Muslim community
From the beginning, the Shī‘ah asserted the right of ‘Alī, Muhammad's cousin, to have both political and spiritual control over the community.
This also included his two sons, who were the grandsons of Muhammad through his daughter Fāṭimatu z-Zahrah.
The conflict remained relatively peaceful between the partisans of ‘Alī and those who asserted a semi-democratic system of electing caliphs, until the third of the Rashidun caliphs, Uthman was martyred, and ‘Alī, with popular support, ascended to the caliphate.
Soon after his ascendancy, Aisha, the third of the Prophet's wives, claimed along with Uthman's tribe, the Ummayads, that Ali should take Qisas (blood for blood) from the people responsible for Uthman's martyrdom.
‘Alī voted against it as he believed that situation at that time demanded a peaceful resolution of the matter. Both parties could rightfully defend their claims, but due to escalated misunderstandings, the Battle of the Camel was fought and both parties bore losses but soon reached an agreement.
Following this battle, Muawiya, the Umayyad governor of Syria, also staged a revolt under the same pretences.
‘Alī led his forces against Muawiya until the side of Muawiya held copies of the Quran against their spears and demanded that the issue be decided by Islam's holy book.
‘Alī accepted this, and an arbitration was done which ended in his favor.
A group among Alī's army believed that subjecting his legitimate authority to arbitration was tantamount to apostasy, and abandoned his forces.
This group was known as the Kharijites, and ‘Alī wished to defeat their forces before they reached the cities where they would be able to blend in with the rest of the population.
While he was unable to do this, he nonetheless defeated their forces in subsequent battles.
Regardless of these defeats, the Kharijites survived and became a violently problematic group in Islamic history.
After plotting an assassination against ‘Alī, Muawiya, and the arbitrator of their conflict, only ‘Alī was successfully assassinated in 661 CE, and the Imāmate passed on to his son Hasan and then later his son Husayn, or according to the Nizari Ismāʿīlī, straight to Husayn. However, the political caliphate was soon taken over by Muawiya, the only leader in the empire at that time with an army large enough to seize control.
Karbala and After
After the passing away of Hasan, Husayn and his family were increasingly worried about the religious and political persecution that was becoming commonplace under the reign of Muawiya's son, Yazid.
Amidst this turmoil in 680 CE, Husayn along with the women and children of his family, upon receiving invitational letters and gestures of support by Kufis, wished to go to Kufa and confront Yazid as an intercessor on part of the citizens of the empire, however, he was stopped by Yazid's army in Karbala during the month of Muharram.
His family was starved and deprived of water and supplies, until eventually the army came in on the tenth day and killed Husayn and his companions, and enslaved the rest of the women and family, taking them to Kufa.
This battle would become extremely important to the Shī‘ah psyche.
The Twelvers as well as Mustaali Ismāʿīlī still mourn this event during a holiday known as Ashura.
The Nizari Ismāʿīlī, however, do not mourn this in the same way because of the belief that the light of the Imām never dies but rather passes on to the succeeding Imām, making mourning arbitrary.
However, during commemoration they do not have any celebrations in Jamatkhana during Muharram and may have announcements or sessions regarding the tragic events of Karbala.
Also individuals may obeserve Muharram in a wide variety of ways.
This respect for Muharram does not include self-flagellation and beating because they feel that harming one's body is harming a gift from Allah.
The Beginnings of Ismāʿīlī Daʿwah
After being set free by Yazid, Zainab, the daughter of Fatimah and ‘Alī and the sister of Hasan and Husayn, started to spread the word of Karbala to the Muslim world, making speeches regarding the event.
This was the first organized Daʿwah of the Shī‘ah community, which would later develop into an extremely spiritual institution for the Ismāʿīlīs.
After the poisoning of ‘Alī al-Sajjad by Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik in 713 CE, Shiism's first succession crisis arose with Zayd ibn ‘Alī's companions and the Zaydī Shī‘ah who claimed Zayd ibn ‘Alī as the Imām, whilst the rest of the Shī‘ah upheld Muhammad al-Baqir as the Imām.
The Zaidis argued that any sayed, descendant of Muhammad through Hasan or Husayn, who rebelled against tyranny and the injustice of his age, can be the Imām.
The Zaidis created the first Shī‘ah states in Iran, Iraq and Yemen.
In contrast to his predecessors, Muhammad al-Baqir focused on academic Islamic scholarship in Medina, where he promulgated his teachings to many Muslims, both Shī‘ah and non-Shī‘ah, in an extremely organized form of Daʿwah.
In fact, the earliest text of the Ismaili school of thought is said to be the "Umm al-kitab" (The Archetypal Book), a conversation between Muhammad al-Baqir and three of his disciples.
This tradition would pass on to his son, Ja'far al-Sadiq, who inherited the Imāmate on his father's death in 743.
Ja'far al-Sadiq excelled in the scholarship of the day and had many pupils, including three of the four founders of the Sunni madhabs.
However, following al-Sadiq's poisoning in 765, a fundamental split occurred in the community.
Isma'il bin Jafar, who at one point seemed to be heir apparent, predeceased his father in 755.
While Twelvers argue that either he was never heir apparent or he truly predeceased his father and hence Musa al-Kadhim was the true heir to the Imamate, Ismāʿīlīs argue that either the death was staged in order to draw harm away from al-Sadiq's successor or his early death does not mean he was not an Imām, and thus rightfully the Imāmate would pass to his son, Muhammad ibn Ismail, neither of these come with any reasoning from previous Imams or later Nizari imams.
Ascension of the Dais
For the Sevener Ismāʿīlī, the Imāmate ended with Isma'il ibn Ja'far, whose son Muhammad ibn Ismail was the expected Mahdi that Ja'far al-Sadiq had preached about, however, at this point the Ismāʿīlī Imāms according to the Nizari and Mustaali found areas where they would be able to be safe from the recently founded Abbasid Empire, which had defeated and seized control from the Umayyads in 750 AD.
At this point, much of the Ismaili community believed that Muhammad ibn Ismail had gone into the Occultation and that he would one day return.
With the status and location of the Imāms not known to the community, Ismailism began to propagate the faith through Dāʿiyyūn from its base in Syria.
This was the start of the spiritual beginnings of the Daʿwah that would later blossom in the Mustaali branch of the faith as well as play important parts in the other three branches.
The Da'i was not a missionary in the typical sense, and he was responsible for both the conversion of his student as well as the mental and spiritual well being.
The Da'i was a guide and light to the Imām.
The teacher-student relationship of the Da'i and his student was much like the one that would develop in Sufism.
The student desired God, and the Da'i could bring him to God by making him recognize the stature and light of the Imām descended from the Imāms, who in turn descended from God.
The Da'i was the path, and the Face of God, which was a Qur'anic term the Ismāʿīlī took to represent the Imām, was the destination.
Shams Tabrizi and Rumi is a famous example of the importance of the relationship between the guide and the guided, and Rumi dedicated much of his literature to Shams Tabrizi and his discovery of the truth.
While many of the Ismāʿīlī were content with the Dai teachings, a group that mingled Persian nationalism and Zoroastrianism with Ismāʿīlī teachings surfaced known as the Qarmatians.
With their headquarters in Bahrain, they accepted a young Persian former prisoner by the name of Abu'l-Fadl al-Isfahani, who claimed to be the descendant of the Persian kings as their Mahdi, and rampaged across the Middle-East in the tenth century, climaxing their violent campaign by stealing the Black Stone from the Kaaba in Mecca in 930 under Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi.
Following the arrival of the Al-Isfahani, they changed their qiblah from the Ka'aba in Mecca to the Zoroastrian-influenced fire.
After their return of the Black Stone in 951 and a defeat by the Abbasids in 976 the group slowly dwindled off and no longer has any adherents.
Rise of the Fatimid Empire
The political asceticism practiced by the Imāms during the period after Muhammad ibn Ismail was to be short lived and finally concluded with the Imāmate of Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, who was born in 873.
After decades of Ismāʿīlīs believing that Muhammad ibn Ismail was in the Occultation and would return to bring an age of justice, al-Mahdi taught that the Imāms had not been literally secluded, but rather had remained hidden to protect themselves and had been organizing the Da'i, and even acted as Da'i themselves. He taught that during the supposed Occultation of Muhammad ibn Ismail, many of Muhammad ibn Ismail's descendants lived as Imāms secluded from the community, guiding them through the Da'i and at times even taking the guise of Da'i.
After raising an army and successfully defeating the Aghlabids in North Africa and a number of other victories, al-Mahdi Billah successfully established a Shi'ah political state ruled by the Imāmate in 910 AD.
This was the only time in history where the Shi'a Imamate and Caliphate were united after the first Imam, Ali ibn Abi Talib.
In parallel with the dynasty's claim of descent from ‘Alī and Fāṭimah, the empire was named “Fatimid.”
The Middle-East Under Fatimid Rule
The Fatimid Empire expanded quickly under the subsequent Imāms.
Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of an empire that included at its peak North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen and the Hejaz. Under the Fatimids, Egypt flourished and developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages.
The Fatimids promoted two ideas that were radical for that time.
The first was promotion by merit rather than genealogy. The second was religious toleration, under which both Jews and Coptic Christians flourished.
Also during this period the three contemporary branches of Ismailism formed.
The first branch (Druze) occurred with the Imām Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah. Born in 985, he ascended as ruler at the age of eleven.
A religious group that began forming in his lifetime broke off from mainstream Ismailism and refused to acknowledge his successor.
Later to be known as the Druze, they believe Al-Hakim to be the manifestation of God and the prophesied Mahdi, who would one day return and bring justice to the world.
The faith further split from Ismailism as it developed unique doctrines which often class it separately from both Ismailism and Islam.
The second split occurred following the death of Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah in 1094.
His rule was the longest of any caliph in both the Fatimid and other Islamic empires.
After he passed away, his sons Nizar, older, and Al-Musta'li, the younger, fought for political and spiritual control of the dynasty.
Nizar was defeated and jailed, but according to Nizari tradition his son escaped to Alamut, where the Iranian Ismāʿīlī had accepted his claim.
The Mustaali line split again between the Taiyabi and the Hafizi, the former claiming that the 21st Imām and son of Al-Amir went into occultation and appointed a Dāʿī al-Muṭlaq to guide the community, in a similar manner as the Ismāʿīlī had lived after the death of Muhammad ibn Ismail.
The latter claimed that the ruling Fatimid caliph was the Imām.
However, in the Mustaali branch, the Dai came to have a similar but more important task.
The term Dāʻī al-Mutlaq (Arabic: الداعي المطلق) literally means "the absolute or unrestricted missionary".
This dai was the only source of the Imām's knowledge after the occultation of al-Qasim in Mustaali thought.
According to Tayyabī Mustaʻlī Ismā'īlī tradition, after the death of Imām al-Amīr, his infant son, Taiyab abi al-Qasim, about 2 years old, was protected by the most important woman in Musta'li history after Prophet's daughter Fāṭimatu z-Zahrah.
She was Malika al-Sayyida Hurra Al-Malika, a Queen in Yemen.
She was promoted to the post of hujjah long before by Imām Mustansir at the death of her husband. She ran the dawat from Yemen in the name of Imaam Tayyib.
She was instructed and prepared by Imām Mustansir and ran the dawat from Yemen in the name of Imaam Tayyib, following Imāms for the second period of Satr.
It was going to be on her hands, that Imām Tayyib would go into seclusion, and she would institute the office of Dāʻī al-Mutlaq.
Syedna Zueb-bin-Musa was first to be instituted to this office, and the line of Tayyib Dais that began in 1132 has passed from one Dai to another and is still continuing under the main sect known as Dawoodi Bohra.
The Mustaali split several times over disputes regarding who was the rightful Dāʿī al-Muṭlaq, the leader of the community within The Occultation.
After the 27th Dai, Syedna Dawood bin Qutub Shah, there was another split; the ones following Syedna Dawood came to be called Dawoodi Bohra, and followers of Suleman were then called Sulaimani.
Dawoodi Bohra's present Dai al Mutlaq, the 52nd, is Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin, and he and his devout followers tread the same path, following the same tradition of the Aimmat Fatimiyyeen.
The Sulaimani Bohra are mostly concentrated in Yemen and Saudi Arabia with some communities in the South Asia.
The Dawoodi Bohra and Alavi Bohra are mostly exclusive to South Asia, after the migration of the Da'wat from Yemen to India. Other groups include Atba-i-Malak and Hebtiahs Bohra.
Mustaali beliefs and practices, unlike those of the Nizari and Druze, are completely compatible with mainstream Islam, representing a continuation of Fatimid tradition and fiqh'.
Decline of the Empire
In the 1040s, the Zirids (governors of North Africa under the Fatimids) declared their independence from the Fatimids and their conversion to Sunni Islam, which led to the devastating Banu Hilal invasions.
After about 1070, the Fatimid hold on the Levant coast and parts of Syria was challenged by first Turkish invasions, then the Crusades, so that Fatimid territory shrunk until it consisted only of Egypt.
Damascus fell to the Seljuks in 1076, leaving the Fatimids only in charge of Egypt and the Levantine coast up to Tyre and Sidon.
Because of the vehement opposition to the Fatimids from the Seljuks, the Ismaili movement was only able to operate as a terrorist underground movement, much like the Assassins.
After the decay of the Fatimid political system in the 1160s, the Zengid ruler Nūr ad-Dīn had his general, Saladin, seize Egypt in 1169, forming the Sunni Ayyubid Dynasty.
This signaled the end of the Hafizi Mustaali branch of Ismailism as well as the Fatimid Empire.
After the fall of the Fatimid Empire and its bases in Iran and Syria, the three currently living branches of Ismāʿīlī generally developed geographically isolated from each other, with the exception of Syria (which has both Druze and Nizari) and Pakistan and rest of South Asia (which had both Mustaali and Nizari).
The Mustaali progressed mainly in Yemen and then shifted their dawat to India under Dai working on behalf of their last Imam, Taiyyab, and known as Bohra. From India, their various groups spread mainly in south Asia and eventually in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and America.
The Nizari have maintained large populations in Syria, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and have smaller populations in China and Iran.
This community is the only one with a living Imām, whose title is the Aga Khan.
Badakshan which spills over North-Eastern Afghanistan, Eastern Tajikistan and Northern Pakistan is the only part of the world where the Ismailis makes up the majority of the population.
The Druze mainly settled in Syria and Lebanon and developed a community based upon the principles of reincarnation through their own descendants.
Their leadership is based on community scholars, who are the only individuals allowed to read their holy texts. There is controversy whether this group falls under the classification of Ismāʿīlīsm or Islam because of their unique beliefs.
The Tajiks of China, being Ismaili, were subjected to being enslaved in China by Sunni Muslim Turkic peoples.
The Hunza people are also Ismaili.
They were also subject to being enslaved by Sunni Muslim Turkis.
The Sunnis called them Rafidites and did not consider them Muslim.
Views on the Qur'an
Ismāʿīlīs believe the Qur'an has two layers of meaning, the zahir meaning apparent, and the batin, meaning hidden.
The Ismāʿīlīs believe the Qur'an has several layers of meaning, but they generally divide those types of meanings into two: the apparent (zahir) meaning and the hidden (batin) meaning.
While a believer can understand the batin meaning to some extent, the ultimate interpretation lies in the office of the Imāmate.
The Imām's farmans (teachings) are binding upon the community.
In this way, the Ismāʿīlī community can adapt to new times and new places.
Oftentimes, the Imam of the Time is known as the "Qur'an e Naatiq" (the "speaking Qur'an"), meaning that he reinterprets the literary text in a way that can be understood for today's times.
In Nizari Ismailism, the Imām is seen believed to be the “Face of God.” For this sect, the Imām is truth and reality itself, and hence he is their path of salvation to God.
Sevener Ismāʿīlī doctrine holds that divine revelation had been given in six periods (daur) entrusted to six prophets, who they also call Natiq (Speaker), who were commissioned to preach a religion of law to their respective communities.
Whereas the Natiq was concerned with the rites and outward shape of religion, the inner meaning is 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 are in turn succeeded by a line of seven Imāms, who guard what they received. The seventh and last Imām in any period becomes the Natiq of the next period.
The last Imām of the sixth period, however, would not bring about a new religion of law but rather supersede all previous religions, abrogate the law and introduce din Adama al-awwal ("the original religion of Adam") practised by Adam and the Angels in paradise before the fall, which would be without ritual or law but consist merely in all creatures praising the creator and recognizing his unity.
This final stage was called Qiyamah.
A pillar which translates from Arabic as “prayer.” Unlike Sunni and Twelver Muslims, Nizari Ismai'lis do not follow the mainstream Islamic practice with regards to the number of daily prayers.
Nizari Ismai'lis believe that it is up to the Imām of the time to designate the style and form of prayer.
The Nizari prayer is called the Holy Du'a (supplication) and is recited three times a day, as opposed to the five prayers observed by most mainstream Muslims.
In this regard, Ismaili's believe, the Imām of the time has the right to amend the prayers according to the needs of the time. The justification given for this is the verse from the Qur'an which states "And keep up prayer in the two parts of the day and in the first hours of the night; surely good deeds take away evil deeds this is a reminder to the mindful." (Qur'an 11:114).
The two ends of the day are interpreted as sunrise (Fajr) and sunset (Maghrib), and the first hours of the night as sundown (Isha'a).
The Druze, who choose not to follow Islamic shari'ah (legal code), attribute a solely metaphorical meaning to salah. In contrast, the Mustaali (Bohra) branch of Ismailism has kept five prayers and their style is generally closely related to Twelver groups.