“Historically Ismailis are united by a common allegiance to the living hereditary Imam of the time in the progeny of Islam’s last and final Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) through his daughter Fatima and her husband, Hazrat Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and the first Shia Imam. In the Muslim ethical tradition, which links spirit and matter, the Imam not only leads in the interpretation of the faith, but also in the effort to improve the quality of life of his community, and of the wider societies within which it lives; for a guiding principle of the Imamat’s institutions is to replace walls which divide with bridges that unite.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam
Foundation Ceremony, Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat, Ottawa, Canada
June 6, 2005
Speech at AKDN
On July 11, 2017, Mawlana Hazar Imam will commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of his Imamat. Other Nizari Imams who are known to have reigned for 60 years or more include:
Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III (48th Imam) – r. 1885 to 1957
Born in 1877, Imam Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III succeeded to the Imamat at the age of 8 years. He grew up in Bombay and Poona under the close supervision of his mother Shams al-Muluk, also known as Lady Ali Shah. Until the age of 18 years, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah received a rigorous education, learning Arabic, Persian literature, Ismaili doctrine, and calligraphy.
In 1907, Imam travelled to Europe frequently, eventually establishing residences in Switzerland and the French Riviera.
During his Imamat, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah devoted much of his time and financial resources to consolidating and organising the community especially in South Asia and East Africa, introducing socio-economic reforms that would transform the community into a modern self-sufficient one with high standards of education and welfare. He founded schools, hospitals, dispensaries, insurance and investment companies offering low interest loans to entrepreneurs. Imam also assisted to build mosques for indigenous Muslim communities.
Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah was also involved on the world stage in various capacities. From 1932, he served as the Indian delegate to the Disarmament Conference at the Assembly of the League of Nations. In 1937, he was elected President of the League for the 18th session of the Assembly. The organisation was eventually replaced by the United Nations.
Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah’s Diamond Jubilee commemoration left a lasting legacy through the establishment of financial and educational institutions.
Imam Hasan Ali Shah Aga Khan I (46th Imam) – r. 1817 to 1881
Imam Hasan Ali Shah succeeded to the Imamat at the age of 13, in Qumm, Persia. He rose to political prominence and was appointed to the governship of the province of Qumm by the Persian ruler Fath ‘Ali Shah, who also bestowed him the hereditary title of Agha Khan (Aga Khan).
Imam Hasan Ali Shah emigrated from Persia to India in the early 1840s, establishing his headquarters in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1848, officially transferring the seat of the Imamat, after 7 centuries, from Persia. Imam established his durkhana, or chief residence, in Bombay, where he attended jama’at-khana on special religious occasions and held a durbar every Saturday when in Bombay. Imam Hasan Ali Shah organised the community through a network of functionaries, mukhi and kamdia, in every Khoja jama’at, who possessed a jama’at-khana.
Imam Hasan Ali Shah died in 1881 and was buried in a specially erected shrine in Hasanabad in Bombay.
Abu’l Hasan Ali Shah (44th Imam) – r. 1730 to 1792
Abu’l Hasan Ali Shah was appointed the governor of the Persian province of Kirman in 1756 during the Zand period (1750-1794). He played an active role in the province’s political life.
Qasim Shah (29th Imam) – r. 1310 to 1370
After the death of Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad, there was a dispute over the successor to the Imamat, splitting the community into the Muhammad Shahis and Qasim Shahis. The Muhammad Shahi Imams emigrated to India from Persia during the early 16th century, but by the beginning of the 19th century, this line of Imams became discontinued. The Qasim-Shahi Imams have endured to the present day and are the sole Nizari Imams, who have carried the honorific title of Aga Khan since the early 19th century.
Little reliable information is available about the early Ismailis because few genuine Ismaili sources have survived from this period. The early Ismailis produced only a few treatises that were circulated amongst the most trusted members of the community and the identities of the authors were concealed. Furthermore, the Ismailis resorted to taqiyya (concealment) to avoid persecution.
Large-scale production of Ismaili literature occurred during the Fatimid period (909-1171), largely focused on religious and philosophical doctrines.
After the Alamut period (1090-1256), particularly after the death of Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad (28th Imam) around 1310-11 to the mid-15th century, very little is known about Imams who succeeded one another. The Imams and the community had to resort once again to taqiyya to avoid persecution; only the names of the Imams have been preserved by later Nizari Ismailis.
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis Their History and Doctrines, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2007
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Compiled by Nimira Dewji