The Ismailis constitute the second largest Shi"a community after the Twelvers in the Muslim world and are now scattered in more than twenty countries of Asia, Africa, Europe and America.
"The origins of Sunnism and Shi‘ism, the two main divisions of Islam, may be traced to the crisis of succession faced by the nascent Muslim community following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, though the doctrinal bases of these divisions developed gradually in the course of several centuries. In time, Shi"a Islam, the minoritarian view, became subdivided into different groups, many of which proved short-lived. But Imami Shi"ism, providing the common early heritage for several Shi"a communities, notably the Twelvers and the Ismailis, was a major exception."
"The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history. In mediaeval times, they twice established states of their own and played important parts for relatively long periods on the historical stage of the Muslim world. During the second century of their history, the Ismailis founded the first Shi"a caliphate
under the Fatimid caliph-Imams. They also made important contributions to Islamic thought and culture during the Fatimid period. Later, after a schism that split Ismailism into two major Nizari and Mustalian branches, the Nizari leaders succeeded in founding a cohesive state, with numerous mountain strongholds and scattered territories stretching from eastern Persia to Syria. The Nizari state collapsed only under the onslaught of all-conquering Mongols. Thereafter, the Ismailis never regained any political prominence and survived in many lands as a minor Shi"a Muslim community. By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the spiritual leaders or Imams of the Nizari majority came out of their obscurity and actively participated in certain political events in Persia and, then, in British India; later they acquired international prominence under their hereditary title of Agha Khan."
Because of political developments in Iran in the late 1830s and early 1840s the 46th Imam
, Aga Hasan Ali Shah, emigrated to the Indian subcontinent. He was the first Imam to bear the title of Aga Khan, which had been previously bestowed on him by the Persian Emperor, Fath Ali Shah. He settled in Bombay in 1848 where he established his headquarters, a development that had an uplifting effect on the community in India and on the religious and communal life of the whole Ismaili world. It helped the community in India gain a greater sense of confidence and identity as Shia Ismaili Muslims, and laid the foundations for its social progress. It also marked the beginning of an era of more regular contacts between the Imam and his widely dispersed followers. Deputations came toBombay to receive the Imam"s guidance from as far afield as Kashgar in China, Bokhara in Central Asia, all parts of Iran, and the Middle East.
In the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ismailis from the Indian sub-continent migrated toEast Africa in significant numbers.
Under the leadership of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, the first half of the twentieth century was a period of significant development for the Ismaili community. Numerous institutions for social and economic development were established on the Indian sub-continent and in East Africa. Ismailis have marked the Jubilees of their Imams with public celebrations, which are symbolic affirmations of the ties that link the Ismaili Imam
and his followers. Although the Jubilees have no real religious significance, they serve to reaffirm the Imamat"s world-wide commitment to the improvement of the quality of human life, especially in the developing countries.
The Jubilees of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, are well remembered. During his 72 years of Imamat (1885-1957), the community celebrated his Golden (1937), Diamond (1946) and Platinum (1954) Jubilees. To show their appreciation and affection, the Ismailis weighed their Imam in gold, diamonds and, symbolically, in platinum, respectively, the proceeds of which were used to further develop major social welfare and development institutions in Asia and Africa.
On the subcontinent of India and Pakistan, social development institutions were established, in the words of the late Aga Khan, "for the relief of humanity". They included institutions such as the Diamond Jubilee Trust and the Platinum Jubilee Investments Limited which in turn assisted the growth of various types of cooperative societies. Diamond Jubilee Schools for girls were established throughout the remote Northern Areas of what is now Pakistan. In addition, scholarship programmes, established at the time of the Golden Jubilee to give assistance to needy students, were progressively expanded. In East Africa, major social welfare and economic development institutions were established. Those involved in social welfare included the accelerated development of schools and community centre, and a modern, fully-equipped hospital in Nairobi. Among the economic development institutions established in East Africa were companies such as the Diamond Jubilee Investment Trust (now Diamond Trust of Kenya) and the Jubilee Insurance Company, which are quoted on the Nairobi Stock Exchange and have become major players in national development.
Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah also introduced organizational forms that gave Ismaili communities the means to structure and regulate their own affairs. These were built on the Muslim tradition of a communitarian ethic on the one hand, and responsible individual conscience with freedom to negotiate one"s own moral commitment and destiny on the other. In 1905 he ordained the first Ismaili Constitution for the social governance of the community in East Africa. The new administration for the Community"s affairs was organized into a hierarchy of councils at the local, national, and regional levels. The constitution also set out rules in such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance, guidelines for mutual cooperation and support among Ismailis, and their interface with other communities. Similar constitutions were promulgated in the Indian subcontinent, and all were periodically revised to address emerging needs and circumstances in diverse settings.
Following the Second World War, far-reaching social, economic and political changes profoundly affected a number of areas where Ismailis resided.
In 1947, British rule in the Indian subcontinent was replaced by the two sovereign, independent nations, of India and Pakistan, resulting in the migration of at least a million people and significant loss of life and property. In theMiddle East, the Suez crisis of 1956 as well as the preceding crisis in Iran, demonstrated the sharp upsurge of nationalism, which was as assertive of the region"s social and economic aspirations as of its political independence. Africa was also set on its course to decolonization, swept by what Mr. Harold MacMillan, the then British Prime Minister, aptly termed the "wind of change". By the early 1960s, most of East andCentral Africa, where the majority of the Ismaili population on the continent resided (includingTanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, Malagasy, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire), had attained their political independence.
This was the world in which the present Aga Khan
acceded to the Imamat in 1957. The period following his accession can be characterized as one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programmes and institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in newly-emerging nations. Upon becoming Imam, the present Aga Khan"s immediate concern was the preparation of his followers, wherever they lived, for the changes that lay ahead. This rapidly evolving situation called for bold initiatives and new programmes to reflect developing national aspirations.
In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the Community"s social welfare and economic programmes, until the mid-fifties, had been to create a broad base of businessmen, agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the Community tended to emphasize secondary-level education. With the coming of independence, each nation"s economic aspirations took on new dimensions, focusing on industrialization and modernization of agriculture. The Community"s educational priorities had to be reassessed in the context of new national goals, and new institutions had to be created to respond to the growing complexity of thedevelopment process.
In 1972, under the regime of the then President Idi Amin, Ismailis and other Asians were expelled, despite being citizens of the country and having lived there for generations. The Aga Khan had to take urgent steps to facilitate the resettlement of Ismailis displaced from Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya and also from Burma. Owing to his personal efforts most found homes, not only in Asia, but also in Europe and North America. Most of the basic resettlement problems were overcome remarkably rapidly. This was due to the adaptability of the Ismailis themselves and in particular to their educational background and their linguistic abilities, as well as the efforts of the host countries and the moral and material support from Ismaili community programmes.
Spiritual allegiance to the Imam and adherence to the Shi"a Imami Ismaili tariqah (persuasion) of Islam according to the guidance of the Imam of the time, have engendered in the Ismaili community an ethos of self-reliance, unity, and a common identity. The present Aga Khan continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions to Ismaili communities in the US, Canada, and several European countries, the Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a Constitution that, for the first time, brought the social governance of the world-wide Ismaili community into a single structure with built-in flexibility to account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by volunteers appointed by and accountable to the Imam, the Constitution functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity in an ethos of group responsibility to promote the common well-being.
Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on each Ismaili"s spiritual allegiance to the Imam of the time, which is separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismailis owe as citizens to their national entities. The guidance of the present Imam and his predecessor emphasized the Ismaili"s allegiance to his or her country as a fundamental obligation. These obligations discharged not by passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful development.
In view of the importance that Islam places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of his life, the Imam"s guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismaili Muslims, settled in the industrialized world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programmes. In recent years, Ismaili Muslims, who have come to the US, Canada and Europe, mostly as refugees from Asia and Africa, have readily settled into the social, educational and economic fabric of urban and rural centers across the two continents. As in the developing world, the Ismaili Muslim Community"s settlement in the industrial world has involved the establishment of community institutions characterized by an ethos of self-reliance, an emphasis on education, and a pervasive spirit of philanthropy.
From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan"s Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the Imamat, many new social and economic development projects were launched, although there were no weighing ceremonies. These range from the establishment of the US$ 300 million international Aga Khan University with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical centers in the Hunza region, one of the remote parts of Northern Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan, to the establishment of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Gujarat, India, and the extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centers in Tanzania and Kenya.
These initiatives form part of an international network of institutions involved in fields that range from education, health and rural development, to architecture and the promotion of private sectorenterprise and together make up the Aga Khan Development Network.
It is this commitment to man"s dignity and relief of humanity that inspires the Ismaili Imamat"s philanthropic institutions. Giving of one"s competence, sharing one"s time, material or intellectual wherewithal with those among whom one lives, for the relief of hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply ingrained tradition which shapes the social conscience of the Ismaili Muslim community.
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 son of 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, 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 Isma"ilis do not have a distinctive symbol system.
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 inGujarat and thePunjab. There are also Khoja communities in East and South Africa, Ceylon and Burma.
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