The second-largest Shiʿa community in the world, the Ismailis are settled in over 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, North America and Australia.
Like the ummah (global Muslim community) as a whole, the Ismailis represent a rich diversity of cultures, languages and nationalities. Ismaili traditions fall within four broad geographic and ethnographic groups: Arab, Persian, Central Asian, and South Asian. Settlements in Africa comprise primarily Ismailis of South Asian origins, while recent settlements in the West come from all these traditions.
Espousing an esoteric, spiritual vision of Islam, the Ismailis are led by a hereditary Imam (spiritual leader), whose role and responsibility it is to interpret the faith for the community and to improve the quality and security of their daily lives.
His Highness the Aga Khan is the present and 49th Imam of the Ismailis.
Over the course of their history and under the guidance of their Imams, the Ismailis have constituted a formidable religious and intellectual force, making significant contributions to Islamic thought and cultures.
The pursuit and patronage of intellectual enquiry, particularly, has been a hallmark of Ismaili history, doctrine and practice. Ismaili daʿis (summoners) during the Fatimid period, for example, were expected to possess an encyclopaedic knowledge, not only of the Qur’an and the hadith but also history, theology, philosophy, languages, and the natural sciences.
Large, well-stocked, accessible libraries open to all and endowed by the Ismaili Imams were but one manifestation of this ethic, as were institutions of learning such as al-Azhar and the Academy of Science known as the Dar al-ʿIlm, in Cairo, Egypt.
This ethic remained equally important during the Alamut period that followed. In territories across Iran and Syria, resident and visiting scholars from far and wide consulted works in libraries in Ismaili centres, exchanged ideas, and wrote texts on a variety of subjects for lay and specialist audiences.
Among the renowned philosophers, jurists, physicians, mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists of the past who flourished under the patronage of Ismaili Imams mention may be made of Qadi al-Nuʿman, al-Kirmani, Nasir-i Khusraw and Nasir al-Din Tusi.Discover More on The Ismailis Their History and Doctrines
Continued spiritual allegiance to the Imam of the Time and adherence to the Shiʿi Imami Ismaili tariqah (persuasion) of Islam has engendered in the Ismaili community an ethos of self-reliance, a commitment to unity in diversity, and a dedication to learning and education.
Over the last 150 years, the Ismailis have witnessed the evolution of a well-defined institutional framework to direct and act on these principles. As such, under the umbrella of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) [link to IIS page] and other institutions of the Ismaili Imamat, they have established schools, universities, hospitals, health centres, housing societies, transport, tourism, communications, and infrastructure projects around the world, among many other long-term endeavours in the realm of social, cultural, educational, and economic development.
Together with other communities and organisations, these endeavours aim to improve the quality of life for all citizens regardless of race and religion in all of the countries where these programmes operate, and thereby contribute to the development of a strong and vibrant civil society.
The personal and community sharing of one’s time, knowledge, skills, experience, and expertise towards the individual and collective improvement of the safety, security, and quality of life is a deeply ingrained tradition and long-standing practice of the Ismaili community worldwide. It is also a reflection of the Ismaili interpretation of the fundamental Qur’anic ethic to uphold the dignity of humankind.Discover More on Ismaili Modern History