Islam in Depth: The Genesis of the Ismailis

There is no such a thing as one Islam.  There are hundreds of Islamic sects in the same way that there are hundreds of diseases.  In the same way that there are no good diseases, there are no good Islamic sects.  And in order to deal with an illness, correct diagnosis is essential to prescribe the right medication.  Hence, dealing with various sects of Islam effectively demands correct understanding of what they are, what they aim to do, and their methods of spreading.  Some Islamic sects are extremely virulent and deadly; others are less violent and work their agenda in more subtle ways.  Even the latter types are far from harmless.  Yet the various sects do have something in common: one and all keep to the Quran and pursue the same goal of dominating the world.

Take for example the Ismaili sect, an offshoot of Shi'ism.  To shed more light on this branch of Islam -- its beliefs and practices -- we need to learn about the genesis of Shi'a Islam itself.

What is Shi'a Islam?

Examination of the vast Islamic literature shows that the present sect of Shi'a Islam has evolved from a mix of cultural, political, economic, and religious influences.

The Twelver or Imami Shi'a Islam or Twelve-Imamates (ithna ashariyya) is the largest branch of Shi'a Islam.  Adherents of Twelver Shi'ism are commonly referred to as Twelvers, which is derived from their belief in twelve divinely ordained leaders and mediators between Allah and Man.  These are Christ-like figures on earth, also known as the Twelve Imams.  Twelvers' pivotal belief is that the Mahdi is expected to appear and save the world when it has reached the depth of degradation and despair.  Nearly 85% of Shi'ites are Twelvers, and the term Shi'a Muslim commonly refers to Twelver Shi'a Muslims only.  (Ismailis sometimes called "Seveners" instead.)

Below is a brief chronological account of Shi'ism and the belief in the Mahdi as its pivotal figure, with further elaboration of the Ismaili sect.

* Muhammad ruled with an iron fist while alive, and no one contested his authority.  He designated no heir; left no will, oral or written; and had no male issue from any of his wives and slave women to inherit the office.  Some believers, however, felt that the prophet wished for Ali, his cousin and son-in-law, to assume the Ummah's leadership, while a vast majority opted for the Arabs' traditional patriarchal seniority-based practice, thus choosing Abu-Bakr as the caliph.

* Abu Bakr, Muhammad's oldest high disciple and the father of Muhammad's nine-year-old child-bride, Ayesha, assumed the position of the first caliph and died shortly thereafter.  He was followed by Umar ibn al-Khattāb.  Uthman ibn Affan became the third Caliph, to be succeeded by Ali ibn Abu Talib.

Caliph Ali

* Ali was considered by his admirers the greatest Muslim warrior and by his detractors a vicious killer.  Two of Ali's sons, Hassan and Hussein, were viewed similarly.  Ali was murdered, according to one version, by one of his own followers who resented Ali's capitulation to the caliphate hierarchy.  That is, the assassin and his like-minded Muslims felt that Ali betrayed Muhammad by not fighting to be his immediate successor and by consenting to be the fourth Caliph.  Another version of Ali's death is that a Persian warrior by the name of Brahman Jazyyeh killed him, avenging the death of numberless Persians that Ali and his people had slaughtered.

* Ali reportedly killed untold numbers of Islam's enemies, including Persians, with his much-feared sword that had its own name: Zulfiqar.  He was addressed by his followers as Amir-ul-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful).

* The death of Ali transformed the feuding among the various Muslim factions into open warfare.  Some decided to follow Ali's son Hassan, who was soon killed by contenders, whereupon the faction adopted Hussein as their Imam.  To these people, Ali was the First Imam.  Ali was considered sinless and pure (taher) and immune from error.  Over time, eleven males from Ali's line were taken in succession as Pure Imams.

Thus, the 12-Imamate Shi'a originated with Ali as the First, Hassan as the Second, and his brother Hussein as the Third Imam.

Imam Hussein

* Hussein was killed in a fierce lopsided battle with Muslim opponents of the Imamate (those who opposed the system of Imamate leadership which is based on the hereditary succession of leaders from the line of Ali.)  The two major divisions in Islam diverged, with Sunnis opting for the elective caliphate and Shi'ites for the hereditary Imamate.

* After Hussein's death, some of his followers claimed that he had not died and that he would return.  Others took to his brother Muhammad, and then, later, many took to Hussein's son Zayn al-Abidin as their Imam.  When he died, many followed his son, Muhammad Al-Baqir.

Return of the Madhi, the Lord of the Age

* Starting with the death of Ali, a strong belief began to form among his grieving followers that he had not died and that he would return to assume his rule.  This belief in the return continued and eventually metamorphosed into the notion of Mahdi, or the Sahib-ul- Zaman (the Lord of the Age).

* When al-Baqir died, there were once again elements from among the Shi'a who denied his death and claimed that he would return one day, while others settled on his son Ja'far al-Sadiq as their Imam.

* When Ja'far al-Sadiq died, there was mass splintering among the Shi'a.  Each of his sons -- Isma'il, Abdullah, Muhammad, Zakariyya, Ishaq, and Musa Al Kazemi -- was claimed by various groups to be their Imam.  Also a faction believed that Jaa'far did not die, but instead had simply disappeared from view, and that he would return one day.  It is here that the Ismailis' division takes place, and they get their name from their acceptance of Isma'il inb Ja'far as the appointed spiritual successor (Imam) to Jaʿfar aṣ-Ṣādiq.  Here they differ from the Twelvers, who accept Musa Al Kazemi, younger brother of Isma'il, as the true Imam.

* The same splintering and confusion happened after the death of Musa.  Some denied his death, believing that he will return, and some followed his son Ahmad as their Imam, while others chose his other son Ali al-Rida.

* After al-Rida, many took his son Muhammad al-Jawwad, also known as al-Taqi, and after him his son Ali al-Hadi, or an-Naqi.  At the death of Ali al-Hadi, they adopted his son Hassan al-Askari as the Eleventh Imam.

The Coming (Twelfth) Imam

The above is a very brief synopsis of the tumultuous Shi'a adoption of the Imamate belief which climaxed in the year 254 AH: the time when a major section of the Shi'a accepted as their Imam the 22-year-old Hassan, son of Ali al-Hadi, and 10th lineal descendant of Ali and his wife Fatima (Muhammad's daughter).  Six years later, Hassan al-Askari is lying on his deathbed, but unlike any of his forefathers, he leaves no offspring -- no one to whom the Shi'a might turn to as their new Imam.

The Shi'ites, who had been regarding Hassan al-Askari as their Imam, were thrown into mass disarray.  Does this mean the end of the Imamate -- the end of Shi'ism?  They were not prepared for that.

The confusion that reigned among the Shi'a after the death of Hassan al-Askari is recorded by his contemporary Shi'a writer, Hassan ibn Moosa an-Nawbakhti, who reports the emergence of at least fourteen sects among the followers of Hassan al-Askari, each with a different view of the future of the Imamate and the identity of the next Imam.  Another contemporary Shi'a writer, Sa'd ibn Abdullah al-Qummi, records fifteen sects, and a century later, the historian al-Mas'udi lists twenty separate sects.

At least four major divisions of belief emerged to deal with the crisis of not having a legitimate male from the line of Muhammad to turn to as Imam.  One group accepted the death of Hassan al-Askari and the fact that he left no offspring.  To them, the Imamate had ended.  Yet some in even this group retained hope for the advent of a new Imam.

Another group refused to accept the death of Hassan al-Askari, and claimed that he would return in the future to establish justice upon earth.  The refusal to accept the death of an Imam and retain the belief in his future return goes back to the very early days of the Imamate line.

Yet another group bestowed the mantle of Imamate to Hassan's brother Jaa'far.

The Hidden Imam

The final major group, headed by Uthman ibn Sa'id al-'Amri, claimed that Hassan al-Askari did in fact have a son, Muhammad, who had gone into hiding at the age of four for reasons of safety, and no one but al-'Amri himself could have any contact with him.  Uthman ibn Sa'id al-'Amri further claimed that as Wakeel (representative) of the Imam, he was the one to collect money in the name of the Imams of the Ahl al-Bayt (descendents of Muhammad).

Hassan al-Askari's own family denied the existence of any child of his, and divided his estate between his brother Jaa'far and his mother.  Yet Uthman ibn Sa'id and his gang won the allegiance of the masses of the believers by denouncing Jaa'far as al-Kadhdhab (the Liar).

This school of thought ultimately became the dominant view in Shi'ism with a new Wakeel following the death of a previous one.

With the passage of time, infighting among the various claimants for being the Wakeel exposed the scheme for nothing more than a way of extracting money from the gullible faithful.  Yet the Hidden Imam and his return remain fundamental in Shi'ite belief.

To this day, the ever-supplicated cry of the Shi'a faithful is "Ya Saheb-ul-Zaman (Lord of the Age Mahdi), hasten your return."  Who is the much-prayed-for Mahdi?  The four-year-old who went into hiding in a well, as some Shi'ites believe to this day -- the well in Iran's Jamkaran, where president Ahmadinejad frequently visits, submits his written requests, and receives his marching orders from the Hidden Imam to whom he claims he is accountable?

Debunking the belief in the Hidden Imam and his return is pivotal to the dismantling of Shi'ism and helping the long-deluded Muslims in abandoning a fiction that has ruled and ruined their lives for far too long.

Ismaili Divisions

As stated earlier, the ideology that Muhammad started was immediately fractured after his death and kept on fracturing.  A major problem with Islam is that there are as many different versions of it as there are Islamic pundits -- and there are legions of pundits.  Another reason why Islam is fractured is that it is all things to all people.

The fact that Islam is a splintered house complicates matters greatly.  The faith itself is divided into Sunni and Shi'ite sects, with numerous sub-sects.  The divisions and contentiousness are so profound that members of one sect consider the other Muslims apostates worthy of death.

With regard to the Ismaili sect, they somewhat share a line of belief with the Twelve-Imamates Shi'a, at least up to the Sixth Imam.  A major split happened after that.  The Ismailis believe that the institution of the Imamate continued by one Imam after another.  (Aga Khan, these Imams are called.)  These beliefs, that may or may not be totally true, are vastly different from other Sunni and Shi'a sects.  Yet in a sense, they are just as Muslim as any other sect.

The Ismailis have had a long and eventful history, stretching over more than twelve centuries, during which they became subdivided into a number of major branches and minor groupings.  They came into existence, as a separate Shi'a community, around the middle of the eighth century; and, in medieval times, they twice founded states of their own, the Fatimid caliphate and the Nizari state.

According to Dr. Farhad Daftary, an Iranian author and foremost Islamic scholar who is currently the head of the Department of Academic Research and Publications at the Institute of Ismaili Studies:

In Syria, now beyond Fatimid control, Nizar had followers who soon were organized by emissaries dispatched from Alamut, the headquarters of Hassan-i_Sabbah. The Ismailis of Central Asia seem to have remained uninvolved in the Nizari-Mustaʿli schism for quite some time. It was much later that the Ismailis of Badakhshan and adjacent regions accorded their allegiance to the Nizari line of Imams. The two factions of the Ismaili daʿwa henceforth became known as Nizari or Mustaʿlian, depending on whether they recognized Nizar or al-Mustaʿli as their rightful Imam after al-Mustansir. The Mustaʿlian Ismailis themselves split into the Hafizi and Taiyabi factions soon after the death of al-Mustaʿli's son and successor on the Fatimid throne, al-Amir, in 1130.  (For details, see F. Daftary, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliography of Sources and Studies [London, 2004], pp. 84-103, and his The Ismailis, pp. 1-33.)

Dr. Farhad Daftari concludes:

The modern progress in Ismaili studies, initiated in the 1940s, has shed valuable light on many aspects of Ismaili history and traditions in the medieval era. As a result, we now possess a much better understanding of the formative and early periods in Ismailism. It is within such a context that many of the policies of Aga Khan I and his grandson Aga Khan I'II can be fully understood. A second theme that emerges from the policies of Aga Khan I'II and his grandson and successor, the present and 49th Nizari Ismaili Imam H.H. Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, revolves around reform and modernization. The last two Imams responded to the challenges of their times and, as progressive Muslim leaders, introduced a coherent set of policies and institutional structures that ensured high standards of education, health and welfare for their followers. They have also been foremost amongst the modern Muslim leaders of the world in working for the emancipation of women and their participation in communal affairs. As a result of the concerted and progressive leadership of their last two Imams, the Nizari Ismailis have emerged in modern times as an exemplary Shi'a Muslim community with a distinct religious identity, while still enjoying a diversity of cultural and social traditions.

Are the Ismailis "Militant"?

How militant are the Ismailis, as compared to other sects of Islam?  On balance, the Nizari sect seems to be a fairly non-jihadist and into making money rather than war.  Keep in mind that Ismailis are persecuted and castigated by major Islamic sects such as the Sunnis, who rule Saudi Arabia, and the Twelve Imamates Shi'a, who run Iran.

While the mosque is the religious building most often associated with Muslim piety, a range of spaces for worship and practice can be found throughout the breadth of the Muslim world.  For Nizari Ismailis, the primary space of religious and social gathering is the Jamatkhana.  Here are a few images of "Jamatkhana" around the world.

The current Nizari Ismailis, numbering twelve to fifteen million in the world and accounting for the bulk of the Ismailis population, are now scattered over more than 25 countries.  Their followers consider Prince Karim Aga Khan as their 49th Imam, or spiritual leader.  So who is Karim Aga Khan?  We can hear it from the man himself.


None of the numerous contending sects is indeed the Islam Muhammad launched.  That original Islam died with Muhammad, and the belief immediately started splintering, with each splinter claiming to be the true Islam and renouncing and fighting every other splinter.  Yet they still have the Quran, that allows and even prescribes violence to please Allah, in common.  Disease is disease, irrespective of strain.  Islam is Islam, irrespective of sect.

"Know thy enemy" is a perennial gem of wisdom.  Knowing Islam's numerous sects enables us to deal with them more effectively.

Amil Imani is the author of a new book: Operation Persian Gulf.

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