Introduction to Ismailism – Historical Background


Professor Azim Nanji

Chaper in Islamic Spirituality: Foundations, Ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, London: Routledge & Keegan Paul Ltd, 1987, pp. 179-198.

This overview article on Ismailism focuses on some of the key concepts, underlying the Ismaili interpretation of Islam governing Ismaili beliefs. The article starts off with a brief historical background. It touches upon the da’wa activities and some of the challenging circumstances under which it operated.

The early literature of the Ismailis is preserved in Arabic and then Persian languages. Some of the major works of the more prominent dai’s such as Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani, al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-din Shirazi and Nasir Khusraw are discussed in the article.

Ismailism is a part of the Shi’ite branch of Islam whose adherents constitute at present a small minority within the wider Muslim ummah. They live in over twenty-five different countries, including Afghanistan, East Africa, India, Iran, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, the United Kingdom, North America, and also parts of China and the Soviet Union.

Historical Background


In common with Shi’ite Islam, Ismailism affirms that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad his cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali, became Imam, based on a specific designation made by the Prophet before his death. Such a leadership, it was believed, was to continue thereafter by heredity through ‘Ali and his wife Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter. Succession to the Imamate, according to Shi’ite doctrine and tradition, was to be based on nass (designation) by the Imam of the time.

The Shia

In the course of Shi’ite history, differences arose over the issue of succession to the position of Imam. The most significant in terms of the subsequent emergence of Shi’ite Ismailism followed the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in 148/765. The body of Shi’ites who continued to give allegiance to the line of Imam Ja’far’s descendants through his son Isma’il came to be known as Ismailiyyah; others who accepted a younger son Musa Kazim are known as Ithna’ashariyyah.1

The Dawa

According to Ismaili sources, the next four Imams, while maintaining anonymity to avoid persecution, were engaged in organising the Ismaili movement, so that when it finally emerged into the public limelight in the third/ninth century, there existed a sophisticated political and doctrinal structure by which Ismailism was able to gain widespread support and political success. The organisation created by the Imams to undertake this work is known as the da’wa – a term based on the Quran (LXI, 7), signifying a call or an invitation to Islam. Although not unique to the Ismailis, the skilful organisation and the highly effective network of communications, and the intellectual and diplomatic accomplishments of its representatives – each of whom was called a da’i in the organisation – gave it a very special character within Ismailism.

Fatimid rule

During the period in which Ismailism was developing and spreading, the da’wa was often beset with problems of organisation and unity, which led to occasional defections over matters of policy and even doctrine. In spite of such setbacks and the adverse conditions under which the da’wa often operated, great success was achieved in parts of Iran, Yemen, and North Africa, which led in 297/910 to the proclamation of the Imam of the time as the amir al-Mu’minin (commander of the faithful) with the title of al-Mahdi (the guide). This marked the opening phase of the Ismaili attempt to give concrete shape to their vision of an Islamic society. The dynasty of the Imams, which ruled from North Africa and then Egypt for over two centuries, adopted the title al-Fatimiyyun (Fatimids) after Fatimah, the Prophet’s daughter who was married to ‘Ali.2

During the period of Fatimid rule, the influence and extent of Ismailism grew considerably. The Fatimid Empire at its height exerted its influence far beyond Egypt to Palestine, Syria, the Hijaz, Yemen, Iran, Sind, and the Mediterranean. In 450/1058, the Fatimids also occupied Baghdad, the capital of their rivals the Abbasid dynasty, for a short period.

The Ismaili da’wa played a very important role in maintaining ideological loyalty and support within this far-flung empire. It served also to create a unified doctrine and organisation to offset the differences that had beset the movement during its earlier stages. Its efforts at preaching Islam extended its influence into India and to the remoter regions of Central Asia.

From the Institute of Ismaili Studies

Part II

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, its achievements and humanitarian works.

6 thoughts

  1. Dear Prof Nanji,

    Your Introduction in the Spirit & Life Exhibition a paper-bound Volume I purchased immediately on the second day is currently shown at The Ismaili Centre. It is a brilliantly written short Summary! It is what Shia Ismailism is all about in a nutshell, at showing of the selection of Masterpieces of Islamic Art. It has Global Value for anyone who cares to find out more about the Shia Ismailis and the Aga Khan Museum Collection.

    Only a few weeks are left now, till the end of this month if any one has still not seen it in London. It is about the fundamental Unity of ‘Din and Dunya’, the balance in life we are always told to uphold by the age-old Institution of Imamate, by the Hazar Imam, the Imam of The Age.
    – Zarina Bhatia, M Litt (Oxon), in Social Anthropology obtained in 1975, now living in Birmingham, UK.


  2. Very insightful! In a nut shell, Shi’ite Ismailism/Ismailiyyah was given birth followed the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in 148/765 through succession of his son Isma’il whereas others Shi’ite who accepted a younger son, Musa Kazim are known as Ithna’ashariyyah.


  3. Wonderful introduction to Ismailism.

    I would like to ask that where I could find books translated to English like Theosophy, Neoplatonism, Ikhwan us safa, Safarnama, Zad Ul Musafireen, Waj-i din and like books written by our Ismaili Dai’s and Theosophers ?


  4. A Wonderful Introduction indeed! Me have translated that into Urdu (MSS). Have a very humble suggestion that instead of using the metaphor of ‘branch’ ,for Muslim -Faith-Interpretations, would love to articulate it into ‘school-of-thought’ metaphor.


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