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: R - Z

Lit. ‘messenger.’ A term used in the Qur’an for the apostles of God, including the Prophet Muhammad who is called Rasul Allah, the Messenger of God.
As an adjective (ruhani), it means spiritual. As a noun (ruhaniyya, pl. ruhaniyyat or ruhaniyyun), it means spiritual beings. In texts such as the Epistles of the Ikhwan al-Safa’, it refers to the angels that rule the celestial spheres. According to Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240), the ruhaniyya is the spiritual essence of a prophet or a deceased wali whose murid receives supernatural assistance.
ruku’; ruku
A posture in the Muslim ritual prayer, involving an inclination of the head with the hands resting upon the knees.
Title of the 30th sura of the Qur’an; refers to the Byzantine Greeks.
A royal capital near Qayrawan in North Africa founded by the Aghlabids.
(pl. rubut) An Arabic word derived from the root ra-ba-ta meaning ‘to attach’ or ‘to link’; and for in certain Sufi traditions it means strengthening the heart. Ribat as a building could describe a small fort, a fortified place, or an urban establishment for mystics. The earliest foundations of this kind of building date back to the first half-century of the ‘Abbasid period (750-1258 CE). Soon the idea of the ribat moved to the coastal side of North Africa, Andalusia, and Sicily by means of Harthama ibn A‘yan, who was the first to find a ribat in North Africa in 795 CE. It usually served to offer refuge and protection to the troops and to the surrounding countryside in case of attack. It also refers to the mystical institution that developed around it, and therefore, the urban residences of Sufis were subsequently known as rubut. Early rubut differ in size and intricacy from isolated watchtowers to fortified places with small units for the residents, a mosque, storehouses, and towers. A verified example of the latter survives in Tunisia, e.g., the Ribat of Susa (found in 821 CE). Today, rubut exist mainly in North Africa as places for Sufi worship.
Rumi, Jalal al-Din (d. 1273 CE)

One of the greatest mystical poets of all time, known by the sobriquet Mawlana (1207-1273 CE). He was born in Balkh, Afghanistan, and died in Konya, Turkey, where he is buried. A significant influence on his spiritual development was a mysterious figure, Shams al-Din Tabrizi. The Mathnawi, Rumi’s most famous work, was written in Persian and has been translated into numerous languages. His disciples formed a Sufi order called the Mevleviyya, which is active in many parts of the world.

sabab (pl. asbab)
Lit. ‘rope.‘ It can also denote anything that binds or connects, ‘anything by means of which one gains an end or an object sought.’
A term derived from the same root as that in ‘Islam,’ which conveys several meanings such as peace, safety and salvation. It is a standard form of salutation between Muslims.
salat (pl. salawat)
A Qur’anic term referring to prayer in general, which later came to be used more specifically for the daily ritual prayer.
Lit. ‘king of kings,’ one of the royal titles in Persia and Mughal India. Also the name of a fortress near Nih, a town in Sistan, used by the Nizari Ismailis in the 13th century CE.
shari‘a; sharia
Lit. ‘the path to be followed’; the standard term used for Muslim law; the totality of the Islamic way of life.
shaykh; sheikh
Arabic term for old man, elder or tribal chief; also used as an honorific title for any religious dignitary; in particular a Sufi master or spiritual guide.
Lit. ‘chain.’ A line of spiritual descent linking masters of a Sufi group, going back to the founder of the order and eventually to Prophet Muhammad. For the Shi‘a, the line of imams starting with ‘Ali b. Abi Talib in spiritual as well as physical descent.
Lit. ‘veil’ or ‘curtain.’ The ceremonial curtain behind which the Fatimid caliph-imams were seated at the opening of an audience and which was then unveiled.
A ritual posture of prostration in Muslim prayers with the forehead touching the ground.
Persian for ‘Word of God’ or ‘divine command,’ equivalent to the Arabic amr.
Sulaymani Bohras; Sulaymanis

A branch of Da’udi Tayyibi Musta‘li Ismailis.

From the 27th dai onwards, the Sulaymani Bohras follow a different line of succession to that of the Da’udi Bohras. They believe that the rightful 27th dai was a nephew of the 21st dai named Suleyman b. Hasan (d. 1005 AH / 1597 CE), after whom they are named Sulaymani.

Suleyman was Indian but had been the local representative, ‘amil, in Yemen for the 26th da‘i (who lived in India). He travelled to India to challenge Da’ud b. Qutbshah, but died there without garnering much support from the Indian Tayyibis. He was succeeded by his son, Ja‘far (d. 1050 AH / 1640 CE), who returned to Yemen. From then on, the seat of the Sulaymani da‘wa remained in Narjan, the mountainous north east district of Yemen. Currently, the seat of the Sulaymani da‘wa is in Narjan, a city in southern Saudi Arabia. The Arab Sulaymanis call themselves ‘Makarima’, from the family name of their da‘is, while the Indian Sulaymanis continue to use the name ‘Sulaymani Bohra’.
Custom or practice; particularly that associated with the exemplary life of the Prophet Muhammad, comprising his deeds and utterances as recorded in the hadith.
A chapter of the Qur’an, (pl. suwar). Etymologically it is difficult to trace the term sura, but is probably derived from the Arabic root sa-wa-ra, meaning to enclose or to wall in. The word occurs in Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac. The term is used for the 114 distinct literary units of the Qur’an. Each sura is marked by a specific title, and it is divided into a number of ayat (verses) which are varying in length. The suras fall under two categories, Meccan or Medinan, depending on which of the two cities the verses in the suras were revealed in. Apart from the ninth sura called al-Tawba ‘the Repentance’, all suras start with a basmalla, the phrase: bismi’Llah al-Rahman al-Rahim (In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Kind).
From the Arabic root sha-hi-da, lit. the act of bearing witness or the public declaration of belief. It is among the key principles of Islam. The shahada has two parts: the first attests that ‘there is no god but God’; the second attests that ‘Muhammad is Messenger of Allah’ It is the second part that distinguishes Muslims from the followers of other monotheistic religions. When pronouncing the shahada, Shi‘i Muslims often add the affirmation of Imam ‘Ali as the Imam of the faithful (amir al-mu’nin).
The mediaeval region of Syria, today comprising Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.
Al-Sirat al-Mustaqim
From Arabic; lit. ‘the straight path’; a Qur’anic phrase meaning ‘the straight path’. It appears thirty three times in the Holy Qur’an. Conventionally, the phrase has been taken to mean the ‘right path’, the path of those who follow Allah’s guidance as conveyed through Prophet Muhammad.
Sab‘iyya; Seveners
A term used in modern scholarship to designate proto-Ismaili groups, especially the so-called Qarmatis, who restricted the number of imams to seven (ending with Muhammad b. Isma‘il). The term ‘seveners’ was used in another sense in authors such as al-Qadi al-Nu‘man (d. 974), who counted the imams in cycles of seven or heptads. The term seveners is still wrongly used to designate all other Ismaili communities who continued the line of imams beyond the number seven.
A Muslim dynasty which ruled Sistan in eastern Persia (861–1003 CE).
Safawids; Safavids
A major Shi‘i dynasty which ruled Persia (1501–1732 CE), and was succeeded by the Afsharids. (See also Qizilbash, Safawiyya .)
Safawiyya; Safaviyya
A Sufi order founded by Shaykh Saif al–Din in 1252–53 CE, which later became the Safawid dynasty. (See Safawid , Qizilbash.)
A local Muslim dynasty which ruled in Azerbaijan during the 10th century CE.
A city in central Syria, which was the residence of several early Ismaili imams in the pre– Fatimid period.
Saljuq; Seljuk
Major Muslim dynasty of Turkish origin in Persia and Iraq (1040–1194) and Syria (1078–1178).
Muslim dynasty in the Khurasan and Transoxania region of mediaeval Persia (900–1005).
A confederation of Berber tribes in North Africa who supported the Fatimids in the tenth century.
A local Muslim dynasty that ruled in western Khurasan (1337–1386).
Sasanians; Sasanids
A Persian dynasty (224 – 651 CE) which ruled over territories that included, at various times, present day Iran, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, eastern parts of Turkey and parts of Syria, Pakistan, Caucasia, Central Asia and Arabia. The empire was founded by Ardashir I and ended with Yazdegerd III, when his army was defeated by the Arab Muslims in the major battles of Qadisiyya (636 CE) and Nahavand (642 CE).The Sassanid era is considered to be one of the most important and influential periods in Persian history and its cultural and courtly traditions continued to influence later Muslim Empires, especially the Abbasids.
(pl. Sada- Asyad) Arabic term for ‘lord’ or ‘master’. It is a pre-Islamic term and refers to a person who possesses dignity or enjoys an exalted position among his people. Amongst Muslims, the term came to indicate descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, especially those who descend from his grandson, Imam Husayn ibn ‘Ali. It is also used as a title for Sufi masters, notable theologians and ‘ulama’.
Shafi‘i; Shafi‘ites
Followers of one of the legal schools of Islam founded by Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad al–Shafi‘i (d. 974 CE).
Shah Karim al-Husseini; Shah Karim al-Husayni
The name of a Nizari Ismaili fortress near Isfahan in the 13th century CE.
A castle in Tarum in Persia ruled by the Musafirids during the 10th and 11th centuries CE.
(pl. ashraaf, shurafa’) Arabic term meaning ‘noble’ or ‘honourable’. Sharif is a pre-Islamic title that was used to denote a free man who would maintain a notable rank because of his descent from recognised tribes or ancestors. Amongst Muslims, to be a sharif came to mean in most cases being a descendent of the Prophet’s clan, the Hashimids (Banu Hashim); it also meant being an ‘Alid, a descendant of Imam Ali.
The Name of the tenth month of the Islamic lunar year.
The eighth month of the Islamic lunar year.
Shi‘a; Shia; Shiite; Shi‘ite
Adherents of Shi‘ism, the second largest denomination of Islam, after Sunnism; those who, in addition to following the sunna of Prophet Muhammad, believe in the Imamat of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib and his descendants through Fatima. The three primary Shi‘i groups are the Ithna‘asharis , the Ismailis and the Zaydis.
See Shi‘a .
Sind; Sindh
A province in present–day Pakistan. In mediaeval times, part of the Indus Valley where in 958 a Fatimid Ismaili principality was established with its seat at Multan.
From Arabic, lit. way of life, way of acting, conduct; as a literary genre, sira means a biography and times of an individual. In the Muslim context, the sira typically refers to an account of the life of Prophet Muhammad, often referred to as “sirat rasul Allah”, or “al-Sira al-Nabawiyya”.
A province in eastern Iran.

(Arabic; derived from the root sa-ta-ra, meaning ‘to veil’, ‘conceal’ or ‘hide’). In Shi‘i, particularly Ismaili history, the word is used in the phrase dawr al-sitr (also dawr al-satr), meaning a period when the Imams remained hidden from the public eye due to the prevailing political climate. The Imam remained physically present but not readily identifiable by or accessible to his followers or his detractors. During such periods, communication with the followers was maintained through a small number of religious officials (du‘at).

From ‘sufi,’; an exponent of sufism (in Arabic tasawwuf); the most common term used for the mystical approach to Islam.
An Ismaili dynasty in Yemen (1038–1138).
Sultan Mohamed Shah; Sultan Muhammad Shah
Aga Khan III (d. 1957) , the 48th Imam of the Nizari Ismailis.
(pl. saltanat) An Arabic word derived from the root sa-li-ta; it is a political office created by the Seljuk dynasty (1038-1194 CE), somewhat parallel to a kingdom in Western contexts; since then the Islamic world has witnessed the rise of numerous sultanates in Africa, Turkey, and India. Currently, there are only two sultanates, namely, Brunei and Oman.
An Ismaili dynasty in Sind based in the city of Thatta that ruled from 1051 for about three centuries.
Adherents of the majority branch of Islam, Sunnism; from the term sunni which means a follower of the sunna of the Prophet Muhammad.
Freewill, opposite of al–jabr.
A memoir; a genre of Arabic and Persian literature pertaining to the lives of poets, saints and learned people.
Praise or glorification of God (as in Q 74:3, etc.). The declaration of the formula Allahu Akbar (God is Most Great).
Arabic word which may be translated as ‘complete’ or ‘perfect.’
tanasukh al-arwah
The doctrine of metempsychosis, reincarnation or transmigration of the soul.
Lit. ‘sending down.’ A Qur’anic term (Q 3:22, etc.). It refers to the revelation of ‘the Book’ as transmitted by the Prophets.
Precautionary dissimulation of one’s religious beliefs, especially in time of persecution or danger, a practice especially adopted by the Shi‘i Muslims.
Piety, the quality of being God–fearing.
tariqah; tariqa
Way or path; the path followed by mystical schools of interpretation in Islam.
Lit. ‘testimony.’ The recitation of the shahada, a formal declaration of the Muslim faith, normally recited during the ritual prayers.
Lit. ‘comparison,’ hence, anthropomorphism. A term used by classical theologians to accuse those who described God by analogy with man’s physical existence, and who understood in a literal way Qur’anic expressions such as ‘the hand of God’ (Q 57:29, etc.), God’s sitting on the throne (Q 10:3, etc.) and so on.
Arabic term for Sufism.
The Oneness of God or belief in Divine Unity, one of the fundamental tenets of Islam.
Tayyibiyya; Tayyibis

A branch of the Shi‘a Musta‘li Ismailis with several subdivisions.

Upon the death of the twentieth Imam of the Musta‘li Ismailis, Fatimid Caliph al-‘Amir bi-Ahkam Allah (d. 1130), the Musta‘li community split into rival Hafizi and Tayyibi groups. The official Musta‘li da‘wa in Cairo recognised al ‘Amir’s cousin, al-Hafiz as the next Imam-Caliph (hence, Hafiziyya). In Yemen, the majority of Must‘ali Ismailis along with some groups in Egypt and Syria upheld the rights of al-‘Amir’s infant son, al-Tayyib, as the rightful imam (hence, Tayyibiyya).

The Tayyibis believe that the infant imam al-Tayyib went into concealment (satr) and, since then, the Musta‘li Imamat in his line has continued in concealment. The concealed Imams are represented by the Da‘i al Mutlaq, who has supreme authority to provide leadership to the various Tayyibi communities. For centuries, Yemen was the chief stronghold of the Tayyibi da‘wa. Due to the close relations between Sulayhid Yemen and Gujarat, the Tayyibi cause also spread to India, eventually accounting for the bulk of the Musta‘li Tayyibi Ismailis (mostly of the Daudi branch) there. The Musta‘alis from the Indian Subcontinent are known as Bohras. Over the course of time, the Tayyibis themselves split into Da’udi, Sulaymani and ‘Alavi branches.

ta’til; tatil
Lit. ‘stripping’ or ‘denudation.’ A term used mainly by Ash‘ari theologians from the 9th c. onwards in criticism, especially, of the Mu‘tazila and also the falasifa whom they accused of emptying the idea of God of any meaning by divesting Him of all attributes, especially those of power, knowledge and speech.
ta’wil-i batin
The esoteric interpretation of a religious text, ritual or prescription. See batini ta’wil .
ta’wil; tawil
The elucidation of the inner or esoteric meaning, batin , from the literal wording or apparent meaning of a text, ritual or religious prescription.
A Muslim dynasty which ruled Yemen (1454–1517); the same name is also applied to unrelated minor dynasties of rulers in Spain, Khurasan and Iraq.
A region of Persia along the middle course of the river Safidrud before its confluence with the river Shahrud.
A city in Sind which was the capital of the of Sumra Ismaili dynasty.
One of the sub–sects of the Ajarida branch of the Kharijites .
A Muslim dynasty founded by Timur Lang (Tamerlane) which ruled Persia and Transoxiana (1370–1507 CE).
The region between the Oxus and the Jaxartes Rivers situated in the present–day Republic of Uzbekistan.
umma; ummah
Community; people who are followers of a particular religion or prophet. It refers in particular to the Muslims as a religious community.
‘ulama’; ulama; ulema
Pl. of ‘alim, meaning a religious scholar or learned man.
‘uyun; uyun
Pl. of ‘ain, meaning ‘eye’; ‘source’ or ‘fountainhead.’
First major ruling Muslim dynasty that was based in Damascus (661–750).
‘Uqaylids; Uqaylids
Muslim dynasty that ruled in Iraq and Syria (992–1096).
‘Uyunids; Uyunids
Muslim dynasty that ruled in eastern Arabia in the late 11th and early 12th centuries.
Vizier; wazier
A high officer of state, equivalent of a chief minister.
Friendship or assistance. In Sufism the term is used for qualities that can be translated roughly as ‘sainthood’; in Shi‘i Islam, it is used specifically for devotion to the imam (see wilaya).
Saint, friend of God, or patron. In a political context the terms can also mean administrator or ruler (pl. awliya’).
Authority. In Shi‘i Islam, this refers to the authority that the imam has over his believers.
A metaphysical term meaning ‘existence’, employed by philosophically–inclined thinkers such as al–Farabi (d. ca. 950), Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), al–Suhrawardi and Mulla Sadra (d. 1050/1640). According to Ibn Sina (d. 1037), God is the wajib al–wujud (‘the necessary existent’ or ‘the one whose essence is to exist’). Sufis use the term wujud in different ways. Ibn al–‘Arabi (d. 638/1240) is regarded as the father of the concept of wahdat al–wujud (the unity of being).
See naqib.
Yu‘firids; Yufirids
A Muslim dynasty that ruled Yemen (847–997 CE) and were succeeded by the Fatimids.
ummat al-Muslimin
See umma.
The outward, apparent or exoteric meaning of a sacred text, ritual or religious prescriptions, from which the batin is educed.
Manifestation. In Shi‘i Islam, the term can refer to the manifestation of the Imam after a period of concealment.
Obligatory alms for Muslims.
A confederation of Berber tribes in North Africa who were, in general, opposed to the Fatimids.
A local Iranian dynasty (1751-1794 CE), founded by Karim Khan Zand who ruled over Isfahan in 1751 CE, and briefly had Shiraz (in present day Iran) as his capital. By 1763 CE, Karim Khan conquered all of what is present day Iran, except for the state of Khurasan. Karim Khan advocated a Shi‘i tradition in the area, and he had taken the title Wakil (viceroy) of the people. The dynasty ended with the death of Lutf Ali Khan, a grandnephew of Karim Khan, who was captured and killed by the founder of the Qajar dynasty, Agha Muhammad Khan. Despite the short reign of this dynasty, the art of this era is noteworthy and many Qajar artistic features can be traced back to Zand art.
African slaves who carried out a series of revolts against the ‘ Abbasids in Iraq in the second half of the 9th century CE.
(pl. Zawaya) from Arabic lit. ‘a corner’. It is a Sufi place of worship which might also coincide with a mausoleum of a saint or the founder of a specific tariqah. The term zawiya can also refer to a corner of a mosque where an aspirant would isolate himself reciting dhikr.
Zaydis; Zaydiyya
Third major branch of Shi‘i Islam, after the Ithna‘ashari and the Ismailis. The Zaydis are named after Zayd, a grandson of Imam Husayn b. ‘Ali and brother of Imam Muhammad Baqir, whom they followed as Imam.
Muslim dynasty that ruled in North Africa (972–1148).
A Muslim dynasty which ruled northern Persia (927–1090 CE).
Zuray’ids; Zurayids
An Ismaili dynasty that ruled in Yemen (1083–1173).