The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The Institute of Ismaili Studies

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Introduction to Glossary

Listings in the glossary are selected terms and names appearing frequently in the text. The meanings given often refer to the technical and religious senses of the words as adopted especially by the Ismailis. The abbreviated forms ‘pl.’ and ‘lit.’ mean ‘plural’ and ‘literally’, respectively.

Glossary: A - C

ahl al-bayt; ahl al-bait
Lit. ‘the people of the house’, meaning the Prophet Muhammad and members of his household including especially his cousin and son–in–law ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, his daughter Fatima and his grandsons al–Hasan and al–Husayn as well as their progeny.
ahl al-da‘wa; ahl al-dawa
Lit. ‘the people of the da‘wa, or summons’; a term used by the Ismailis to describe themselves.
Pl. of kawr (see dawr.)
amir al-juyush
‘Commander of the armies’, an honorific title borne by several Fatimid viziers.
amir al-mu’minin; amir al-muminin
‘Commander of the Faithful’. A title used for ‘Ali b. Abi Talib and adopted more widely by Sunni caliphs.
Lit. ‘foundation’. Early Ismaili authors, like Ibn Hawshab (d. 914) and his son Ja‘far (d. 2nd half of 10th century) divided history into seven eras, each inaugurated by a ‘speaking prophet’ (natiq), who is succeeded by a legatee, also called asas, the founder, a teaching based on the knowledge of the spiritual meaning of the message delivered by the Prophet. In this system of thought, ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661) is the foundation of the imamat in the cycle of Muhammad. The writing of later Ismaili authors such as al–Nasafi (d. 943), Abu Hatim al–Razi (d. 934), Abu Ya‘qub al–Sijistani (d. after 971), present variants of this system. al–Sijistani, for instance, defines both the prophet and his legatee as asas.
A verse of the Qur’an, (pl. ayat). It is the smallest semantically independent Qur’anic speech. The word aya occurs in Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac, and is often translated as a sign. The word also refers to miracles, as in the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary (Q19:21); and wonders of nature as signs of God’s power in the universe (see, e.g. Q 30:20-25). The number of ayat (verses) differs from one sura to another. An individual verse may be just a single word or long passages; the longest aya in the Qur’an is the verse known as al-Dayn ‘the Debt’, Q 2: 282.
‘ahd; ahd
Promise, oath of allegiance. (See mithaq.)
‘Alavi Bohras; ‘Alavi Ismailis

A subgroup of the Da’udi Tayybi Ismailis in South Asia.

The ‘Alavi Bohras, popularly known as Alya Bohra, follow a different line of succession to the Da’udi Bohras from the 29th da‘i onwards. The 29th da‘i al-mutlaq of the Da’udis, Abd al-Tayyib Zaki al-Din b. Da’ud b. Qutubshah (d.1041 AH/1631 CE), was challenged by Shams al-Din ‘Ali b. Ibrahim (d. 1046 AH / 1637 CE), a grandson of the 28th da‘i al-mutlaq, Shaykh Adam. Supported by a faction of the Da’udi community, he brought his case before the Mughal emperor Jahangir, who decided in favour of the incumbent da‘i. ‘Ali, with a group of his followers, spilt from the Da’udi Bohra community and, in 1034 AH / 1624-1625 CE, founded a new Tayyibi Bohra group called ‘Alavi, after his own name ‘Ali b. Ibrahim. He thus became the 29th da‘i al-mutlaq (distinct from the Da’udi and Sulaymani lines) to the present times. The ‘Alavi Bohras are a close-knit community mainly concentrated in Baroda (Vadodara), Gujarat, where their da‘is also reside.

‘aql-i kull; aql-i kull (Ar. al-‘aql al-kulli)
Universal Intellect or Reason. It is the corresponding term to the concept of nous as used in the Greek Neoplatonism of Plotinus (d. 270). It is the first entity that emanates from the divinity, and from which the Universal soul emanates. Fatimid Ismaili thinkers such as Abu Ya‘qub al–Sijistani (d. after 971) built on this concept and wrote that God originates the first intellect through his command (amr). See also nafs–i kull.
‘aql; aql
Reason, intellect, mind. This word does not appear as such in the Qur’an, although the verb ‘aqala is used (as in Q 2:44, ‘Do you not understand?’). See also ‘aql–i kull.
‘aqli’; aqli
As a noun, it refers to a proponent of ‘aql , a rationalist, an intellectual. As an adjective it means related to ‘aql, i.e. mental, intellective, or more commonly ‘rational’, especially in the classical epistemological opposition between knowledge derived from reason and knowledge derived from tradition (naql).
‘arif; arif
Lit. ‘one who knows’. Used by Sufi authors like Abu ‘Abd al–Rahman al–Sulami (d. 1021), ‘arif is one of several technical terms meaning gnostic, mystic, seeker of spiritual knowledge (ma‘rifa), like salik, zahid, faqir and so on. In his work Waystations of the Gnostics (Maqamat al–‘arifin), Ibn Sina (d. 1037) defines several stages on a mystical path, where the ‘arif occupies an intermediate stage. Shabistari (d. 1339) remarks that the true ‘arif sees the inward light of the divine being everywhere. The Tayyibi author al–Khattab b. al–Hasan (d. 1138) delineating the difference between ordinary knowledge  (‘ilm) and ma‘rifa says that every ‘arif is a knower, but not every knower is an ‘arif. Some Shi‘i authors like Bursi (d. 1411), an Ithna‘ashari, defines an ‘arif as a believer whose love and knowledge (ma‘rifa) of the imams draw him nearer to spiritual perfection.
‘arsh; arsh
‘Throne’. The Qur’an describes God as the ‘Lord of the Throne’ (Q 17:42, etc.), on which ‘He sat himself’ (Q 10:3, etc.) and which is described as being ‘upon the waters’ (Q 11:7) or ‘born by angels’ (Q 69:17, etc.) The concept was an object of debate among theologians. While al–Ash‘ari (d. 935) maintained the literal interpretation, the Mu‘tazilah interpreted it allegorically to avoid an anthropomorphic reading. In Nasafi’s (d. 943) cosmology, the Qur’anic ‘throne’ is equated to the philosophical concept of Intellect.
‘awamm; awamm
A term used in classical philosophical literature for the ‘common folk’ or ‘masses,’ who in this usage were contrasted with the ‘elect’ or ‘elite’ (khawwas).
‘ayyar; ayyar
Lit. ‘rascal, tramp, vagabond’. A term used for the members of an organisation grouped under the concept of futuwwa (chivalry), especially the highway warriors active in the wilderness of Iraq and Persia from the 9th to the 12th centuries CE. The Sufi author Abu’l Hasan al–Hujwiri (d. 1072) differentiates between the futuwwa of these ‘ayyar (which he rejects as merely external) and the spiritual futuwwa of the Sufis and Gnostics.
’adab; adab
A word of many meanings usually connoting courtesy, etiquette, rules and manners, civilisation, culture and literature.
Pl. of dawr.


Abbasids; ‘Abbasids
Major Muslim dynasty of Sunni caliphs that ruled in Baghdad (750–1258).

Pl. of dawr.
Aga Khan
A title granted by the Shah of Persia to the then Ismaili Imam in 1818 and inherited by each of his successors to the Imamate.
Aga Khan; Agha Khan; Aqa Khan
A title granted by the Shah of Persia to the then Ismaili Imam in 1818 and inherited by each of his successors to the Imamate.
Muslim dynasty that ruled in North Africa (800–909), succeeded by the Fatimids.
Ahl al-bayt; ahl al-bait
Lit. ‘the people of the house’, meaning the Prophet Muhammad and members of his household including especially his cousin and son–in–law ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, his daughter Fatima and his grandsons al–Hasan and al–Husayn as well as their progeny.

Ahl al-da‘wa; ahl al-dawa
Lit. ‘the people of the da‘wa, or summons’; a term used by the Ismailis to describe themselves.
Ahl al-kitab
From Arabic, lit. ‘People of the Book’ also referred to as ahl al-dhimma (people under protection) a Qur’anic term used to designate Jews and Christians as believers in a revealed book. In the Qur’an, the term also refers to Sabians and whoever has believed in God and the last day. The people of the Book held special legal status under Muslim rule. Being granted protection, they enjoyed minority legal status that allowed them to have their own religious authorities and follow their own religious laws. The term ahl al-dhimma has been used since the early Muslim settlement in Medina between 622- 632 CE. Currently, the term is not used widely.
City in the province of Khuzistan, south–western region of present–day Iran.
Ajarida; Ajarrida
A branch of the Kharijites (Kharijiyya) founded by Ibn Ajarrad in the 8th century CE, whose adherents lived mainly in eastern Iran.
A major mosque and institution of learning founded in Cairo by the  Fatimid Imam-caliph al-Mu‘izz (d. 975).
Fortress of the Nizari Ismailis in northern Iran, which fell to the Mongols in AH 654/1256 CE.
Ali b. Abi Talib; ‘Ali b. Abi Talib

Cousin of the Prophet Muhammad and his son-in-law by marriage to his daughter Fatima; the first Shi‘i Imam and fourth caliph (d. 661).

(pl. umara’) Arabic lit. a prince, a commander, or a leader. In early Muslim history, the word amir referred to an army commander. During the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, the umara’ had full powers over administrative and financial posts in their provinces. In the Abbasid period, the umara’ were given a free hand in their provinces, something which led them later to establish dynasties and to share with the Caliph the attributes of sovereignty by adding their own names to his in the khutbas (sermons). Examples of such umara’ were the Ikhshidids, the Mamluks, the Seljuks and the Ayyubids. Today, the title ‘Amir’ has come to mean ‘prince’ and refers to members of the ruling families of some Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Lit. ‘helpers,’ it refers to the Medinans who supported the Prophet Muhammad and his followers after the hijra (migration) from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE.
Ash‘arism; Ash‘ariyya
A theological school founded in the 10th century CE by the Sunni theologian and heresiographer ‘Ali b. Isma‘il al–Ash‘ari (d. 935–936 CE).
From Arabic, lit. Sign of God; a title used by the Imami Twelver Shi‘is. The rank of Ayatollah is believed to have been established in the Safawid period (1501-1722 CE). The Ayatollah usually heads the hierarchy amongst the Twelver Shi‘i mujtahids. The holder of the title in today’s Islamic Republic of Iran has two main roles: on the administrative level, the Ayatollah regulates religious dues (taxes) and heads various centres of learning; on the intellectual and spiritual levels, he is considered as a primary source for religious learning.
Muslim dynasty that ruled in Egypt (1169–1250), succeeded by the Mamluks.
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN)
The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is a contemporary endeavour of the Ismaili Imamat to realise the ethics and social conscience of Islam through institutional action. The Network brings together a number of agencies, institutions, and programmes that have been built up over the past forty years and are aimed at improving the living conditions and opportunities and assisting cultural and educational development in specific regions of the developing world. The Network’s institutions have individual mandates that range from fields of health and education to architecture, rural development and the promotion of private sector enterprise. For more information, consult the AKDN website.
‘adab; adab
A word of many meanings usually connoting courtesy, etiquette, rules and manners, civilisation, culture and literature.
(Arabic; derived from the root ‘a-da-la; ‘adl and ‘adala meaning justice, fairness). The word is current in the vocabulary of religion, theology, philosophy, and law. The qadi (judge) must give judgment with ‘adl. The seat of an administrative court is often called Dar al-‘Adl (House of Justice).
‘ahd; ahd
Promise, oath of allegiance. (See mithaq.)
‘Alids; Alids
Descendants of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib .
An event which is commemorated by many Shi‘a Muslims as a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Imam al-Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, which took place on the 10th of Muharram in 61 AH/ 680 AD. ‘Ashura had been observed as early as the time of the fourth Imam Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin. The ‘Ashura event historically developed to become a popular religious and artistic phenomenon which comprises several rituals including the ziyara (visit) to the shrine of Imam al-Husayn, and the recitation of the marathi (elegies) by someone known as al-na’ih (professional mourner), at places called Majalis al-Ta‘ziya (commemorative centres). Commemoration of ‘Ashura was greatly encouraged and became a major public event under the Abbasids. Under the Buydis, in 962 CE, ‘Ashura was declared a day of public mourning in Baghdad. Subsequently, special edifices called Husayniyya were built for the ‘Ashura celebrations. Under the dynasty of the Shi‘i Safawids in Iran (1501-1722), ‘Ashura commemorations underwent significant elaboration, and these new forms came to influence many other parts of the Shi‘i world, where the Husayniyya became more popular. At present, in Shi‘a majority countries such as Iraq and Iran, ‘Ashura has even become a national holiday.
‘Attar, Farid al-Din Muhammad b. Ibrahim (d. 1220 CE)
A Persian Sufi poet and author born in Nishapur (d. 1220 CE). He is well known for many of his works, including Mantiq al-tayr (The Conference of the Birds), a classic Sufi allegory, and Tadhkirat al-awliya (Biographies of the Saints), which is a biography of many Sufi figures, including Mansur al-Hallaj.
al-Balad al-amin
A term used in the Qur’an for Mecca, translated as the city of security, serenity or salvation.
Lit. ‘gate’ or ‘door’. In the vocabulary of Fatimid Ismailism, the term was used for the administrative head of the da‘wa and the highest rank after the Imam. Also a title adopted by various messianic figures in Islamic history.
A technical term for invitation into the Fatimid Ismaili da‘wa. (See da‘i al–balagh.)
Lit. ‘subsistence, survival’. Together with the concept of fana, the idea of baqa’ was developed by Sufis such as al–Sarraj (d. 988) and Abu’l Hasan al–Hujwiri (d. 1072) to explain and describe the stage in which the mystic, whose consciousness has withdrawn from the world (including the self) and merged with God, persists and lives on in the new divinely bestowed attributes. In the writings of these authors, ordinary mystics arrive only at fana, but great mystics, such as the prophets, subsist in the baqa’ stage, returning to a consciousness of the plurality of this world.
Basmala; Bismillah; Bismi’llahi al-Rahman al-Rahim
The standard Islamic invocation, Bismi’llahi al–Rahman al–Rahim derived from the Qur’an, meaning ‘In the Name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.’
The inner or esoteric meaning of a sacred text, ritual or religious prescription, often contrasted with zahir. See also batini ta’wil and Batiniyyah .
batini ta’wil; batini tawil
Symbolic exegesis of the Qur’an based on the claim that there is an inner (batini) meaning behind the external (zahiri) text. By extension, it can be applied to other scriptures, as well as to rituals and the whole of nature. The theory and practice of this hermeneutical method was elaborated by Ismaili thinkers such as Ja’far b. Mansur al-Yaman (d. 2nd half 10th century), al-Qadi al-Nu‘man (d. 974) and Nasir Khusraw (d. ca. 1088). As a result Ismailis were, sometimes pejoratively, termed batinis (esotericists). According to the authors mentioned above, while the revelation (tanzil) was delivered by the prophet to all people, the knowledge of its ta’wil rests with the imam, the sole authoritative source of interpretation, and they considered that this ta’wil should not be disclosed to the masses, lest it is misunderstood.
Batiniyyah; Batiniyya; batiniyya
Lit. ‘supporters of the batin’. A perjorative term used by Sunni authors such as al-Ghazali (d. 1111) to refer to those, especially the Ismailis, who recognise an inner level of meaning (batin) in the Qur’an and the universe at large. In this usage by Sunni Muslims, the batinis were accused of rejecting the external level of scripture (zahir), rituals and prescriptions, though Fatimid Ismaili authors such as as Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 1020) and Nasir Khusraw (d. ca 1088) insist to the contrary. Another Sunni author, Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), gathers under the term batiniyya some Shi‘i groups, Sufis and such falasifa as Ibn Rushd (d. 1198).
Banu Hamdan
The Arab tribe of Hamdan in Yemen
Banu Musa
Lit. the ‘the people of Moses’.
Bayt al-Hikma
From Arabic; lit. ‘house of wisdom’; best characterised as a research and teaching centre with a library and translation facilities. Located in Baghdad, it was a caliphal institution that reached its zenith under the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun (r. 813- 833 CE). The institution’s chief functions were creating independent works and translating numerous works, including those from ancient Greece, into Arabic. The Bayt al-Hikma also housed a famous library and, thus, is sometimes referred to as Khizanat al-Hikma or storehouse of wisdom.

(Arabic; derived from ba-ya-‘a, meaning ‘to sell’ or ‘clasp hands’). A practice rooted in Arab tradition and the practice of Prophet Muhammad. It is also mentioned in the Holy Qur’an (see 48:10, 48:18, and 60:12) and defined as an oath of allegiance, an act by which a certain number of people, individually or collectively, recognise the authority of an individual. Thus, the bay‘a of a Caliph was the act by which an individual was proclaimed and recognised as the head of the Muslim State. In many Muslim traditions, the meaning of bay‘a is to offer oneself to a spiritual master, pir, murshid, or shaykh in exchange for spiritual knowledge and guidance. In Shi‘i contexts, the word is used for the oath of allegiance to the Imam by his followers. In the Shi‘i Ismaili tradition, it is the acceptance of the permanent spiritual bond between the Imam and the murid, uniting all Ismaili Muslims worldwide in their loyalty, devotion and obedience to the Imam within the Islamic concept of universal brotherhood.

Nomadic desert Arabs.
Berber; Amazigh
A member of the indigenous inhabitants of North Africa. The term ‘Berber’ today is often seen as derogatory and the term the group refers to itself as, “Amazigh”, is often used.
A word of East Turkish origin which means old mother or a grandmother. It is also used in Persian and Urdu in the sense of “woman of the house”, as well as a lady of standing in the community. Hence, Bibi Khadija and Bibi Fatima.
A city in Quhistan, in southern Khurasan in Iran.
Indian community of Musta‘li Ismailis, now found primarily in the Indo–Pakistan subcontinent, Yemen, Egypt and other parts of the world.
A city in modern–day Uzbekistan, Central Asia, known for its Islamic artistic and architectural heritage.
Buyids; Buwayhids
Muslim dynasty of Shi‘i persuasion that ruled in Baghdad (945–1062), and was succeeded by the Saljuqs.
The late medieval Roman Empire which ruled large parts of Southern Europe and the Middle East from its capital Constantinople (present–day Istanbul), conquered by the Turks in 1453 CE.
In Arabic khalifa, the head of the Muslim community. See caliphate.
Caliphate; khilafa; khilafat
The Muslim political institution or state centred around the caliph, which came to an end, historically, in 1924 with the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire.
A term applied to Christian invaders who carried out numerous campaigns to capture Jerusalem and Palestine from the Muslims in the 11th and 14th centuries CE.