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Index / Religions / Gnosticism /
Arabic: ismā¢īlīya

1. Relations with Muslims
2. Origins
3. Theology
4. Isma'ilis in politics
5. Isma'ilism in the Middle East
6. History

Originall a Fatimid mosque, now a centre of Ismailism, the Mosque of Al-Hakim, Cairo, Egypt.
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Originall a Fatimid mosque, now a centre of Ismailism, the Mosque of Al-Hakim, Cairo, Egypt.

Aga Khan, imam of the Nizai Isma'ilis.
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Aga Khan, imam of the Nizai Isma'ilis.

Mausoleum of Aga Khan 3, who died in Aswan, Egypt in 1957.
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Mausoleum of Aga Khan 3, who died in Aswan, Egypt in 1957.

Isma'ilis by country
Last column: % Isma'ilis of the population

Saudi Arabia 600,000 2.5%
Syria 200,000 1%
Yemen 100,000 0.3%
900,000 0.2%

*) Calculated for the total population of North Africa and the Middle East, approx. 460,000,000.

Religious orientation, which is often, though erroneously, classified as a branch of Shi'i Islam.
This classification to Islam is linked with certain historical events, but considering their faith today Isma'ilism is better identified as an independent religion which officially has accepted the status of belonging ot Islam, by employing taqiyya.
Isma'ilism is often uniquely equated with the Sevener branch of Shi'ism. This is wrong, as the Isma'ilism is only one of several surviving groups originating with this movement. The origins are also traced back to Batiniya.
In its early centuries, Isma'ilism was clearly a part of Islam. A number of central changes may have occurred from either the Isma'ilis adopting other faith systems, or Isma'ilism itself being absorbed into existing religious movements. Though the effects appear clear today, the actual changes are hard to reconstruct from historical sources.
Modern Ismail'ism shares the situation of accepting to be called Muslims, as is the case with Alevism and Ahl e-Haqq. Muslims in general accept this, and most Western scholars do as well.
The official status of being Muslims, must be seen in context of the threat of persecution from Muslim rulers.
Still, it must be made clear that though Isma'ilism has taken, or preserved religious ideas, from other creeds, this is also the case with all other Muslims. Examples of this from mainstream Islam, is that Sharia is called a divine law while really containing a high number of post-Muhammad and non-Muslims regulations. Perhaps the most surprising element to Islam being non-Islamic are the minarets which have been added to the original mosque structure, largely as a response to the high church towers existing in towns the earliest Muslims conquered.

Relations with Muslims
As is the case with other Shi'i orientation (as well as modern Sunni Islamism), the Isma'ilis have made it legitimate to conceal ones faith or position if life or health could be in danger, known as taqiyya.
The Isma'ilis faith have at all times been the subject of heavy criticism from other Muslims, as well as from other Shi'is. They have been portrayed as extremists in their views. They have been accused of libertinism, of sodomy and nightly orgies. These accusations have found its way into European literature.
Isma'ilis, with the Assassin sect, have deservedly earned the reputation of fanatical violence, although this do not apply to Isma'ilis for the last 700 years or so.

The name of the group, Seveners, or the Arabic equivalent, Sab'iya, refers partially to the incidents of the schism over who should be the 7th imam.
The son of the 6th Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq, Isma'il died 3 years before his father. Followers of Isma'il claimed that the line of imams should follow Isma'il through his son Muhammad, while the other Shi'is chose to follow the line through Isma'il's brother Musa l-Kazim. Their differences were never mended.
At a later stage in their development, the Isma'ili tradition obtained elements of Persian religious systems, Gnosticism and Manichaeism.
Isma'ilism can be found in a great number of variants, which cast light over the confusion of classification and origins that scholars here have struggled with.

Gnostic and dualistic elements
Despite being officially in accordance with mainstream Islam, there are many elements which appear to be taken from other philosophies and religions. Among the strongest influences was neo-Platonic philosophy which gave Isma'ilism its scientific basis. Isma'ilism was also influenced by Christianity, and contrary to many other contemporary Muslim theologians, in this field they used good and correct sources.
In Isma'ilism, salvation is defined as linked with the "spark of light". In some Isma'ili theories, a soul is delivered to salvation by the dead being asked whether he recognizes the true imam. A wrong answer here, will bring the soul back to earth for a reincarnation.
Some of the most central elements to the Isma'ili theology is tawhid, the Unity of God; the divine mission of Muhammad; and the divine revelation of the Koran.
The Isma'ilis reduce the strength of God's divinity by claiming that the name 'Allah' came from the Arabic word for 'to lament'; 'walaha', suggesting the negative qualities of the creation of the world, as this seen from a Gnostic point of view. For the Isma'ilis, God is an unknowable and nameless god, involving that he is absent from influence on the ways of life, and out of reach for human veneration.
Ever since the 8th century, Isma'ilism has identified the outward expressions of mainstream Islam within their own context, making the taqiyya only outward. The believing Isma'ili could perform central Islamic rituals, not as a disguise, but as an expression of the inner realities of the faith. The shahada was a recognition or knowledge of the imam, prayer was directed at the imam, zakat was given for the imam, fasting in Ramadan was an expression of knowing the secret truth, hajj was the same as visiting the imam.

The role of the Imam
Isma'ilism is sometimes defined as being a religious system in which the imam does not play the same central role as he with the Twelvers, or even Zaydis. But as a matter of fact, the Isma'ili faith has placed the imam in a position where he represent the will and power of God. Worship to God may better be done as worship of the imam, as he represents the face of God.
Among the differences between Twelver Shi'ism and Ismailism, is the belief in a dual imamate. Isma'ilis believe in two imams at a time, one visible and one hidden. The hidden imam is not known to the laymen of the faith.
While the visible imam is only another human being, in him there is a substance which is the hypostatis of the primal volition and the acts which were the first acts of the world. This substance is transferred from the existing imam to his son.
When the believer associate himself with the imam, the soul of man can ascend and return to the original source in order to achieve the ultimate salvation.

Zahir and batin
Isma'ili theology is divided into 2 layers: Acts called zahir and theory called batin. Zahir is obligatory for all, even the leaders.
Batin may also be understood as secret learning, reflecting Isma'ilism esoteric values. Learning the true batin is a matter of position in the religious community.
Standard, simple theological principles are for all believers, and efforts have been put into adapting the presentation of the religous truths to fit the educational level of believer. A higher level of batin involves philosophical and scientific efforts, in which the learned men aim at understanding and proving the divine origins of the institution of the imamate.

Symbolic value of the number '7'
For the Isma'ilis, the number 7 has becomes a number of sacred proportions, as is also the case with the original Seveners. The quality of '7' is explained with it being the sum of the 4 directions (north, east, south, west), up, down and the centre. Many theories are formed around incidents and stages in 7 steps. There are f.x. 7 steps of emanation:

1. God
2. Universal intelligence, called ¢aql
3. Universal soul, nafs
4. Primeval matter
5. Space
6. Time
7. The world of earth and man

The universe is seen as a cyclic process, where there is one prophet for every 7 cycle, called natiq: Adam; Noah; Ibrahim; Moses; Jesus (Isa); Muhammad; Muhammad at-Tamm. Note here that the prophet Muhammad is not the last.
The 7 initial imams, ending with the follower of Jafar as-Sadiq, also fits the '7'-focus.
Initiation into the inner, esoteric truths of the religion goes through 7, or 9, stages. The innermost stage is the one where the person can totally refrain from all earlier dogmatic restraints and all external legislation outside the Isma'ili creed.

Isma'ilis in politics
The different Sevener groups (and now we include more than just the Isma'ilis) acted in very different ways towards other Muslims. The Assassins and Qarmatians were very intolerant, while the Fatimid rulers of Egypt generally exercised tolerance.
All through its history the Isma'ilis have formed just as much political powers as well as religious ones. The most important of these was the Fatimid empire, lasting from 909 until 1171, and controlling Egypt. But outside this empire, the Isma'ilis often experienced persecution from other Muslim leaders.

Isma'ilism in the Middle East
Possibly the largest Isma'ili community in the Middle East is in Saudi Arabia, though the figures here differ very much, and are most likely subject to the interests of the informants. Their numbers vary from 200,000 to 1,000,000. Hence our estimate is set in the middle between the extremes, but this may be much wrong.
In Syria the majority of the Isma'ilis are of the branch known as Nizaris, and they consider Aga Khan to be their head. In Syria, their community is ruled by the Mirzah family. Their groups are linked with the famous Assassins, but they have lived in peace, but seclusion, from their neighbours since the late 13th century.
They originally lived in the region around Latakia, but since the late 1800's, they resettled in the region of Salamiyyeh in the centre of Syria. A few thousands live in villages to the west of Hama (about 50 km northwest of Salamiyyeh, and some 5,000 have remained in the Latakia region.
For Contents, little information is available on their situation and geography in Yemen. Their origins in that country, as well as in southeastern Saudi Arabia, is from times of hardship, when they sought a safe haven in the Zaydi Shi'i controlled Yemen.

765: A split with other Imam-believing Shi'is occur upon the death of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, over who should be his follower, whether it be Isma'il and his son, Muhammad, or Musa l-Kazim. From the latter the Twelver branch would develop, from the first the Isma'ilis.
Late 8th century: From its early beginnings, the Isma'ilis themselves were split. The first split came over whether Muhammad was the last imam, or if the line should continue with his son. The group supporting an end with Muhammad, came to be known as Qarmatians. The other line, which came to be the successful, and from which the Isma'ilis come, supported the line continuing through Muhammad's descendants. At this time in history, this orientation was known as Fatimids at this time.
9th century: The imams under the Fatimids lived in strict disguise and were often unknown to most members of their society. Hence there was little actual difference between the Fatimids and the Qarmatians, and in southwestern Iran and southern Iraq they lived side by side as they were one community.
— The Fatimids grows strong in many regions, like southwestern Iran, southern Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Yemen as well as in Maghreb.
893: The Fatimids and the Qarmatians break after the Fatimid imam tries to bring the latter group under his control, causing them to protest and break relations with the Fatimids. The Qarmatians would last as a group for about 100 years more.
969: The Fatimids take control over Egypt, making Isma'ili Shi'ism the state religion.
1021: A group of Fatimids does not believe that caliph Hakim really dies, and breaks out to form the group that today are known as Druze.
1094: With the death of Caliph Mustansir, a new break occurs. He is succeeded by his brother Musta'il, who had deposed Mustansir's son, Nizar. Supporters of Nizar broke with Musta'il, and formed what came to be known as Nizar Isma'ilis, of which the Assassins is one of the most known groups. The group following Musta'il would be known as Musta'ilis.
Around 1100: The Musta'lians would soon move into Yemen, where their community was ruled by popes. From Yemen later on, their propaganda would be transferred to India.
1171: End of the Fatimid Dynasty and their rule over Egypt.
12th century: After Nizar and his son al-Hadi have been imprisoned, both are murdered. But al-Hadi had an infant son, al-Mutadi, who was saved by his followers and brought to Persia. In the Isma'ili fortress of Alamut, he was raised by Hassan e-Sabbah.
1162: Al-Mutadi dies, and the the imamate is passed on to al-Kahir.
1164: Al-Kahir ascends the throne in 1164 and declares that the Resurrection had started.
13th century: The Nizaris split up into two groups. The Qasim-Shahis, today known with the Aga Khan, has about 20 million adherents. The other group was the Muhammad-Shahis, who would grow much slower in numbers.
Early 20th century: Most Muhammad-Shahis join the Qasim-Shahis, and Muhammad-Shahis would survive only with small communities in the Syrian mountains.

By Tore Kjeilen