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14 December 2007updated 27 Sep 2015 5:44am

A short history of the Ismailis

Fayaz Alibhai attempts to shed some light on the history of the Ismailis, the world's second-largest

By Fayaz Alibhai

History is a fascinating, if often misunderstood, discipline. Indeed, summary definitions of the term often make reference to it as a collection of facts about the past and leave it at that. Closer examination, however, reveals that it is rather difficult to talk about the past because such facts are often complex, nuanced and uncertain.

In turn, they require a certain degree of interpretation and selectivity on the part of historians, who cannot but also be influenced by the lens of the present and, perhaps, a vision for the future.

This is no more apparent than in a historical survey of the Ismailis. Representing the second-largest Shia Muslim community in the Muslim world, they are today settled in more than 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

Like all Muslims, Ismailis affirm the Shahada, that there is no god but God and that the Prophet Muhammad is His Messenger. They believe that Muhammad was God’s last and final Prophet and that the Holy Qur’an was revealed through him. This revelation is also believed to be the culmination of the same message that had been revealed through other Prophets of the Abrahamic tradition before Muhammad, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus, all of whom are revered by Muslims as God’s Prophets.

Like other Shia Muslims, the Ismailis hold that upon the Prophet’s death, Ali, his cousin and son-in-law became the first Imam (spiritual leader) of the Muslim community. This leadership, known as the Imamate, continues by hereditary succession through Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Each Imam-e Zaman (Imam of the Time), according to Shia doctrine and tradition is appointed by Nass (Designation) by the previous Imam.

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In medieval times, the Ismailis twice established their own states, first in North Africa and Egypt and later in Iran and Syria. Under the guidance of their Imams and in keeping with their strong intellectual and literary traditions, Ismailis have made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture.

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Indeed, for well over a thousand years, the pursuit of knowledge has been a defining element of the Ismaili interpretation of Islam. This love of learning goes back at least to the founding of al-Azhar, the oldest university in the world, and the Dar al-‘Ilm (House of Knowledge) in Cairo by the Imam-Caliphs of Fatimid Egypt.

Those seeds sown in the 10th and 11th centuries have matured into trees that bear fruit to this day. Al-Azhar, for example, retains enormous influence as a centre of learning in the contemporary Muslim world.

In his speech at the foundation-stone laying ceremony of The Aga Khan Academy, in Hyderabad, India, His Highness the Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims in direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad, recalled the efforts of his Fatimid forebears, asserting that “even while we renew a rich tradition inherited from the past, we are also looking deeply into the future. What we begin here may not have its full impact in any of our lifetimes. But the beginnings we undertake today may well be among the most important things we will ever do.”