An important Shi’ite Muslim community, the Ismailis as an entity emerged in 765.  Ismailis are Shi’ite Muslims who claim that Ismail, the eldest son of Imam Jaffar, was the rightful ruler of all Muslims. They are also known as the "Seveners", because Imam Jaffar was the seventh and, according to them, the last Imam.

Little is known of the early history of the sect, but it was firmly established by the end of the ninth century. From 969 to 1171, an Ismaili dynasty, the Fatimids, ruled as caliphs in Egypt. The Fatimids, unlike the Tulinids and the Ikhshidids, wanted independence, not autonomy, from Baghdad. In addition, as heads of a great religious movement, the Ismaili Shi’ite Islam, they also challenged the Sunni Abbasids for the caliphate itself. The name of the dynasty is derived from Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and the wife of Ali, the fourth caliph and the founder of Shi’ite Islam. The leader of the movement, who first established the dynasty in Tunisia in 906, claimed descent from Fatima.

Ismailis accept many Shi’ite doctrines, such as the esoteric nature of truth and the inspiration of the Imams. Although holding their Imams to be of divine origin, as the Shi’ite do, Ismailis have a dual Imamate. They believe the succession of visible Imams has continued to the present. There are, however, two imams, the visible and the hidden, the speaker and the silent. The identity of the hidden imam is not known to the community but it is believed he will return to lead the faithful. Ismailis generally follow the religious practice of the Shi’ite Twelvers in prayers, fasts, and Quranic prescriptions, but in their conservatism they resemble Sunnis on some points. For example, they do not observe the tenth of Muharram in the impassioned way of the Shi’ite.

Ismaili beliefs are complex and syncretic, combining elements from the philosophies of Plotinus, Pythagoras, Aristotle, gnosticism, and the Manichaeans, as well as components of Judaism, Christianity, and Eastern religions. Ismaili conceptions of the Imamate differ greatly from those of other Muslims and their tenets are unique. Their beliefs about the creation of the world are idiosyncratic, as is their historical ecumenism, tolerance of religious differences, and religious hierarchy. There is a division of theology into exoteric (including the conservative Shariah) and esoteric (including the mystical exegesis of the Quran which leads to haqiqa, the ultimate realty). These beliefs and practices are veiled in secrecy and Ismailis place particular emphasis on taqiya meaning to shield or guard, the practice that permits the believer to deny publicly his Shi’ite membership for self-protection, as long as he continues to believe and worship in private. Taqiya is permissible in most Shia, and some Sunni, sects.

The Ismailis who number 15 million, are divided into several main branches. One, who call themselves Bohras, have their headquarters in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. Another branch known as Khojas are headed by the Agha Khan and concentrated in Gujarât State, India.

Ismaili groups today can be found in India, Pakistan, Yemen, East Africa, with smaller communities spread throughout the West. The best-known group is probably the Nizari Ismailis, who originated in Persia before relocating to Bombay, and who are led today by the Harvard-educated Aga Khan. Aga Khan, who lives near Paris, oversees a global economic development and charitable program much respected in progressive Western circles. For Nizari Ismailis, however, his prime importance is as their 49th imam in a line of succession that traces back to the Prophet Muhammad.

 

 


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