• The Ismailis are a community of Shi‘ainfo-icon Muslims who have settled around the world. Throughout their history, the Ismailis have been guided by hereditary leaders, Imams, who trace their genealogy back to Prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatimainfo-icon, and his son-in-law and cousin, Imaminfo-iconAli b. Abi Talibinfo-icon. At various times in their long, complex history, the Ismailis founded states, cities and institutions, contributed to the traditions of scholarship in Islam, and were patrons of learning and the arts. But the story of the Ismailis is also that of a religious minority who survived successive threats to their existence. Today, the Ismailis are a pluralistic community led by their present Imam, Shah Karim al-Hussaini, Aga Khaninfo-icon IV. The Ismailis: An Illustrated History contains some 400 images of manuscripts, artefacts and monuments, community documents as well as important historical and contemporary photographs. Based on the results of modern scholarship in the field, this book offers a comprehensive and accessible account of Ismaili history and intellectual achievements, and sets them in the wider contexts of Islamic and world history.

    Chapter 1 discusses the advent of Islam and the formation of the early Shi‘a. The life of Prophet Muhammad is recounted, concentrating on those aspects that formed the Muslim tradition, his roles as a family man and social reformer, and the issues around the succession that arose in the Muslim community after his death. Special double-page spreads are dedicated to the Holy Qur’aninfo-icon and the mi‘rajinfo-icon of the Prophet. The chapter also discusses the critical role of Imam ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, in the nascent Muslim community during the Prophet’s life and, afterwards, his legacy as the spiritual leader of the Muslims. The struggles faced by his sons, al-Hasan and Imam al-Husayn in their attempts to secure their right to succeed their father, culminating in the tragic events at Karbala on 10 Muharraminfo-icon 61/10 October 680 are also recounted. The chapter concludes with historical events as well as theological and cultural concerns of the Shi‘a community up to the time of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 148/765).

    Chapter 2 describes the fragmentation of the early Shi‘a after the death of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq and the emergence of a distinctive Ismaili community whose leaders were descended from Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq’s second son Imam Isma‘il al-Mubarak. It examines the manner in which the Shi‘a responded to their persecution by the ‘Abbasid caliphs and how they managed to endure this state of affairs through operating in a clandestine fashion, supported by a network of da‘iinfo-icons (missionaries). This da‘wainfo-icon (mission), which operated in Persia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and North Africa, eventually paved the way for the public emergence of a dynasty of Ismaili Imams who established a Shi‘i Ismaili dawlainfo-icon (state), initially centred on the cities of Mahdiyya and Raqqadainfo-icon in modern-day Tunisia. This dynasty came to be known as the Fatimidsinfo-icon, after the Prophet’s daughter Fatima. The Fatimids later moved eastwards to Egypt and founded a new capital, Madinat al-Qahirainfo-icon (Cairo). From here, they ruled over large areas of the Muslim heartlands, from North Africa to Nubia, and Syria to the Hijazinfo-icon and Yemen, for more than two hundred years.

    The influence of this empire spread far and wide, into Persia, Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. An important era of commercial, intellectual and artistic development in Muslim history was ushered in through the creation of the new city and the centres of learning established in it. Special sections in this chapter are devoted to the building of Cairo and the Fatimid palaces, as well as to the Ikhwan al-Safa’ (Brethren of Purity), a group of anonymous scholars and thinkers who wrote collectively under this pseudonym, producing one of the earliest forms of an encyclopaedia. They seem to have been closely associated with the Ismailis and have been identified as the intellectual voice of the early Shi‘i movement. The life of the great Central Asian da‘i, Nasir Khusraw, is also described, along with translated quotations from his writings. In the final section, the splits within the Fatimid state that gave rise to the various Ismaili communities are related.

    Chapter 3 traces the history of the Nizari Ismailis who recognised Imam Nizar (d. 488/1095), the eldest son of the Fatimid imam-caliphinfo-icon al-Mustansir bi’llah, and his descendants, as the legitimate holders of the Ismaili Imamateinfo-icon. The story of the Nizari Ismailis is set in various parts of the Muslim world, including the remote mountain valleys of Persia and Syria, the climes of Central Asia and amongst the agrarian communities of the Indian subcontinent. The chapter examines how, despite their fragmented state, the Ismailis survived persecution at the hands of other powers and the disaster of the Mongol invasion. Sections in this chapter examine the legends that the Crusadersinfo-icon spread through Europe about the Ismailis, as well as the work of the great scholar Nasir al-Dininfo-icon al-Tusi (d. 672/1274), who studied in the libraries of the Ismaili castles in Persia, Ismaili–Sufi relations, Ismailism in South Asia, and the continued efflorescence of Ismaili religious literature in Persia and elsewhere.

    Chapter 4 focuses on the emergence of the Ismailis and their Imams in early modern times and their activities up to the present-day. The chapter begins with the life and career of the 46th Imam, Hasan ‘Ali Shah, Aga Khan I (d. 1298/1881), who publicly proclaimed his leadership of the Ismailis and became a prominent figure in the politics of 19th-century Persia, subsequently moving to Afghanistan and then to Bombay, where he established his permanent seat. The chapter also considers the Ismaili story in the light of the rising power of European imperialism and the attempts to take control of land and resources in Asia and Africa. Aspects of this history are also reflected in the life and work of Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah, Aga Khan III (d. 1957), who inherited the Imamate as a child after the death of his father in 1885, and became prominent on the world stage as a champion of Muslim rights to education, social welfare and advancement. During the troubled years of the 1930s, his public role was further broadened since he was also a prominent advocate for world peace, notably as President of the League of Nations.

    The Ismaili Imams of early modern times were instrumental in consolidating the Ismaili communities in Syria, Iran, Central Asia, South Asia and East Africa. It was during the time of Aga Khan III that the first Ismaili constitutions were issued. This helped to ensure the security of Ismaili communities in the various regions where they were living. Historic photographs and documents are used to illustrate the life of the community in this period. The legacy of Aga Khan III was further developed when the 49th Imam, Shah Karim Al-Hussaini, Aga Khan IV succeeded to the Imamate in 1957. During the fifty years of his Imamate, Aga Khan IV has overseen the successful emergence and establishment of a global community of Ismailis through the founding of a range of institutions and programmes, as well as places for community and contemplation, and by advocating the ethics of pluralism and tolerance and encouraging social action. In the final section of the book, various aspects of the present Imam’s work are discussed and depicted.

  • Foreword
    Azim Nanji
    Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji


    Chapter 1, pages 14-57
    The Advent of Islam and the Early Shi‘ainfo-icon
    Feraz Hamza

    Chapter 2, pages 58-119

    The Early Ismailis and the Fatimid State
    Farhad Daftary

    Chapter 3, pages 120-175

    The Nizari Ismailis until the 13th/19th Century
    Farhad Daftary
    Chapter 4, pages 176-245
    Zulfikar Hirji


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  • Dr. Farhad Daftary

    Farhad Daftary completed his early and secondary education in Tehran, Rome, and London, before going to Washington, D.C., in 1958. He received his B.A. and M.A. degrees from the American University there, and then continued his graduate studies at the University of California, Berkeley, leading to a Ph.D. degree in 1971. Subsequently, Dr. Daftary held different teaching posts, and, since 1988, he has been affiliated with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, where he is currently Co-Director and Head (since 1992) of the Department of Academic Research and Publications. An authority in Shi...Read more

    Professor Zulfikar Hirji

    Dr Zulfikar Hirji
    Zulfikar Hirji is an Anthropologist and Social Historian of Muslim Societies and Cultures. He is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University, Toronto. He was formerly a Research Associate at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, and Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford. Professor Hirji received his DPhil from the University of Oxford, MPhil from University of Cambridge, and B.A. (Joint Honours) from McGill University. He also studied at The Institute of Ismaili Studies in the Graduate Programme of Islamic Studies and Humanities. Professor Hirji...Read more