Isma'iliyyah, Ismaili

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The Ismailis are members of a sect of Muslim Shiites who recognize Ismail as the seventh and last Imam until the return of his son at the end of time. They are also called Sabiyah, or Seveners. The sect originated after the death (765) of the sixth Shiite imam, Jafar ibn Muhammad. Most Shiites accepted his younger son, Musa al-Kazim, as his successor; the Ismailis were those who supported his older, disinherited son, Ismail. The sect attained its greatest influence under the Fatimids, who claimed descent through Ismail's son from Fatima, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. This dynasty, established in Tunis in 908, ruled in Egypt from 969 to 1171.

Late in the 11th century a split occurred between the Mustalis, who recognized al-Mustali as the caliph-imam (concentrated in Egypt, Yemen, and India), and the Nizaris, named for Mustali's brother Nizar, with strongholds in Iran and Syria. The latter, who became known as the Assassins in Crusader stories, remained in power until the late 13th century. A subsection, under the Aga Khan, moved to India in 1840. In their interpretation of the Koran, the Ismailis distinguish between exoteric and esoteric knowledge, that is, between knowledge for the public and knowledge for the initiated. The same distinction finds organizational expression in the Ismaili hierarchy from the imam, who alone has perfect knowledge, by way of the dais (missionaries) to the believers at various levels of knowledge and insight.

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Willem A. Bijlefeld

Daftary, F., The Ismailis (1990); Lewis, Bernard, The Assassins (1967; repr. 1980) and The Origins of Ismailism (1940; repr. 1974); Ridley, A., The Assassins (1980).


General Information

Ismailis, sect of Shiite Muslims, most important from the 10th to the 12th century. The Ismailis emerged from a dispute in 765 over the succession of Jafar al-Sadiq, whom Shiites acknowledged as the sixth imam, or spiritual successor to Muhammad. The Ismailis recognized Ismail, the eldest son of Jafar, as his legitimate successor. On Ismail's death they acknowledged his son Muhammad as the seventh and last imam, whose return on Judgment Day they await. The Ismailis are also known as Seveners, because they accept only 7 imams, rather than the 12 who are recognized by other Shiites.

Although Ismailis subscribe to basic orthodox Islamic doctrines, they also maintain esoteric teachings and corresponding interpretations of the Qur'an (Koran). Developed in the 9th and 10th centuries under the influence of Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, these posit the creation of the universe by a process of emanation from God.

In the late 9th century an Ismaili state was organized on communistic principles in Iraq by Hamdan Qarmat; his followers became known as Qarmatians. His state soon disintegrated, but some of his followers combined with other Ismaili groups to form the Fatimid dynasty of North Africa in the 10th century. The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969 and developed a strong and culturally brilliant state that flourished until the 12th century. During the reign of the Fatimid dynasty the Ismailis gradually lost their original revolutionary fervor. A splinter group of Ismailis, known to Westerners as Assassins, established a stronghold in the mountains of northern Iran in the 12th century and carried out terrorist acts of assassination against important religious and political leaders of Sunni Islam.

The two main branches of Ismailis today are the Bohras, with headquarters in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, and the Khojas, concentrated in Gujarât State, India. Another subsect, headed by the Aga Khan, has followers in Pakistan, India, Iran, Yemen, and East Africa.

Fazlur Rahman


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Like other Shi'ite traditions, Isma'iliyyah accepts the spiritual authority of the Imam. However, unlike the mainstream Twelver Shi'as (also known as Imamiyyah), the Isma'ilis regard Muhammad's [sixth Imam] son Isma'il as the seventh Imam and continue the line of Imams through Isma'il and Muhammad's descendants. For this reason Isma'iliyyah are known as Sevener Shi'ites. (The Twelver Shi'ites regard Isma'il's younger brother, al Must'alias, as the seventh Imam and the line of Imams to continue from him.)

Isma'ili doctrine considers history to be divided into seven periods. Each period begins with a prophet who is then followed by six infallible Imams. The first six prophets were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Each Imam was accompanied by an interpreter who taught the secret meaning of the Imam's teaching to a small circle of initiates. The previous six interpreters were Seth, Shem, Isaac, Aaron, Simon Peter and Ali. The six Shi'a Imams (from al-Hasan to Isma'il) have followed Muhammad and his interpreter Ali. The seventh Imam, Muhammad, did not die but went into hiding, and will appear as the Mahdi, inaugurating an era in which the old traditions, including Islam, will become obsolete.

The Isma'ilis believe that Islamic law (the Shari'ah) should be repealed. They reject the Qur'an and all forms of prayers in the main Sunni Islamic tradition. They interpret Islamic teachings spiritually, which frees them from adhering to these laws and obligations such as prayer, fasting, and hajj.


The origins of the Isma'ilis can be traced to the second half of the 8th century when a dispute occurred over who should succeed the sixth Imam Jaf'ar al-Sadiq (d.765). The Imamate was originally intended to go to al-Sadiq's eldest son, Isma'il . However, Isma'il died five years before his father and it was therefore decided that the Imamate should go to Isma'il's younger brother, al-Must'alis. Various factions opposed the decision to give the Imamate to al-Must'alis. Some claimed that Isma'i l did not die but was in hiding and would return; others said that the Imamate should go to Isma'il's son, Muhammad. Those factions that claimed that Muhammad was still alive soon died out, but the supporters of Muhammad continued and formed the moveme nt that later came to be known as Isma'iliyyah.

Effective missionary activity spread Isma'iliyyah beyond Iraq into North Africa. In 909 the sect set up the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, where it flourished until 1171 when the Fatimid caliphate was overthrown and the sect lost its official support.

Shortly before its defeat in Egypt, Isma'iliyyah split into two groups called Nizaris and Musta'lis. The schism occurred as a result of a second dispute over who should inherit the Imamate. Following the death of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir in 1094, the first of these sects emerged in support of the claims of al-Mustansir's elder son, Nizar, to succeed his father as the future Imam. The assassination of Nizar and his family led his supporters to flee Egypt and to organize themselves in various regions of Iran and Syria. Their stronghold was the fortress of Alamut in the Ehurz mountains of northern Iran. From here the sect spread out until it was strong enough to establish an Isma'ili-Nizari state which survived for 150 years. Its downfall occurred in 1256 as a result of the expansion of the Mongol empire into Iran and Syria.

After the fall of Alamut the history of the Nizaris in Syria is largely one of subjugation and persecution at the hands of the Baybars, the Ottomans and the Nusayris. The Nizaris in Iran also suffered persecution, and from the 14th century onwards many emigrated to India. These came to be known as Khoja (from the Persian word khwaja, meaning master). These have made considerable concessions to their Indian context and attach little importance to traditional Islamic ritual and practice. They follow the leadership of the Agha Khan. In the 19th century some Khojas emigrated to East Africa, where Khoja communities remain today.

The second branch, the Musta'lis, distinguished themselves from the Nizaris through their support of al-Mustansir's younger son, al-Musta'li. Al-Must'ali and his descendants continued in Egypt until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Following the end of the Fatimid dynasty the leadership of the movement was transferred to Yemen. In Yemen the movement split again, with some remaining in Yemen and others emigrating to India. Those who went to India are known as Bohras. Today Musta'lian Isma'ilis are mainly to be found in the Indian province of Gujarat. There are also communities in Arabia, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Burma.


The Isma'ilis do not have a distinctive symbol system.


There are several hundred thousand Musta'lian Isma'ilis in the world today (Momen 1985, 56). There are some 20 million Khojas, of whom 2 million live in Pakistan (Halm 1991, 191).

Headquarters / Main Centre

Historically the headquarters of the Nizaris has been the fortress of Alamut in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran. Today there are Nizari communities in Pakistan, North-west India and the Chinese province of Sin-Kiang. The Khojas are mainly to be found in Gujarat and the Punjab. There are also Khoja communities in East and South Africa, Ceylon and Burma.

Bülent Țenay
Overview of World Religions Project

Editor's Note:

In this article above, the author made an obvious mis-statement (specifically in the second paragraph) regarding the name of the seventh Imam. He mis-stated Muhammad, where the correct name should obviously be Ismail, his elder son. Other than that, the article appears accurate and informative.


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Unfortunately, we are not aware of any more scholarly texts on this subject which have yet been translated into English. We know that a number of Arabic scholars have written wonderful texts in Arabic, and look for the day when we will be able to add higher quality texts to this presentation.

Also, see:
Islam, Muhammad
Koran, Qur'an
Pillars of Faith
Testament of Abraham
Revelation - Hadiths from Book 1 of al-Bukhari
Belief - Hadiths from Book 2 of al-Bukhari
Knowledge - Hadiths from Book 3 of al-Bukhari
Times of the Prayers - Hadiths from Book 10 of al-Bukhari
Shortening the Prayers (At-Taqseer) - Hadiths from Book 20 of al-Bukhari
Pilgrimmage (Hajj) - Hadiths from Book 26 of al-Bukhari
Fighting for the Cause of Allah (Jihad) - Hadiths of Book 52 of al-Bukhari
ONENESS, UNIQUENESS OF ALLAH (TAWHEED) - Hadiths of Book 93 of al-Bukhari
Hanafiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Malikiyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Shafi'iyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Hanbaliyyah School Theology (Sunni)
Maturidiyyah Theology (Sunni)
Ash'ariyyah Theology (Sunni)
Mutazilah Theology
Ja'fari Theology (Shia)
Nusayriyyah Theology (Shia)
Zaydiyyah Theology (Shia)
Imams (Shia)
Qarmatiyyah (Shia)
Ishmael, Ismail
Early Islamic History Outline
Kaaba, Black Stone
Sunnites, Sunni
Shiites, Shia
Sahih, al-Bukhari
Abu Bakr
Fatimids (Shia)
Ismailis (Shia)
Islamic Calendar
Interactive Muslim Calendar

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in December 1997.

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