A branch of Islam with about 12 to 15 million followers worldwide, many in India. Their spiritual leader is the Aga Khan. The present one, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV (acceded 1957), is the forty-ninth Ismaili imam.

The Shiites trace the succession of their imams from Fatima, daughter of Muhammad, and are a minority among Muslims. The Ismailis are a minority among Shiites, tracing their imams from Ismail, eldest son of Jafar al-Sadiq, the sixth Shi'i Imam. Ismail died before his father, who died in 765, the majority of Shiites accepting the younger son Musa. Because they were such a minority, the Ismailis authorized taqiyya or tactical denial of faith in order to survive among the larger sects.

In 910 an Ismaili named Ubaydallah al-Mahdi founded a dynasty, known to history as the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. This survived in opposition to the older Sunni caliphate in Baghdad until Egypt was conquered by Saladin in 1171, founding the Ayyubid Sultanate.

Hassan i Sabbah, the founder of the sect of the Assassins, converted to Ismailism in 1072 and entered the impregnable fortress of Alamut in northern Persia in 1090. A disputed succession in the Fatimid caliphate in 1094 led to the Assassins taking on rival Fatimid leaders as their victims. The Assassins of Alamut were finally subjugated by the Mongol ilkhan (deputy khan) Hulagu Khan in about 1256, and the survivors were scattered.

They did not figure much until 1843 when the newly-created Aga Khan, the 46th Ismaili imam, rebelled against the Shah and was obliged to flee Persia for India. Arriving in Bombay in 1848 he accepted the allegiance of an Ismaili branch called the Khojas. To quell the disputes and dissensions this caused, the British authorities investigated the Aga Khan's genealogy and validated his claim. Since then the Aga Khans and their Ismailis have been Western-oriented. The Aga Khan III was an international diplomat, head of the League of Nations, and both he and the Aga Khan IV have been noted philanthropists. In the twentieth century Ismailis formed much of the Muslim immigrant community in East Africa.

Mainly www.silent-arrows.com/smithsonian01.html

Ismailis have become the world’s most prosperous Islamic community outside the oil regions;
it is a community, moreover, whose prosperity has been achieved as a result of its own efforts
under a succession of astute and capable living Imams.
-Malise Ruthven


It is difficult to find reliable sources on early Ismaili history, due to the bias of many writers (The Book of the Highest Initiation: anti-Ismaili authors pretending to record the 9 stages of belief, with the highest degree of initiation being absolute atheism). Also, their history is a bit obscure, as many of their authentic texts were destroyed. Basically, they are a sect within Shi’ah Muslims. They split from the Twelver Shiites back in the mid-ninth century, and then they internally split several times. Their current leader, the IV Aga Kahn, traces his lineage back to the Fatimid dynasty through to Nizariyah, through to Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him).


Ali was the first Imam, and the Imamate continues today (Aga Kahn Karim= Aga Kahn IV). The Imam represents the Divine Light (the concept of NUR is very important- NUR= light, an important quality of Allah). He embodies holiness:

Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth; His light is as a niche in which is a lamp, and the lamp is in a glass, the glass is as though it were a glittering star; it is lit from a blessed tree, an Olive neither of east nor of west, the oil of which would well-nigh give light though no fire touched it, - light upon light; - Allah guides to His light whom He pleases; and Allah strikes our parables for men; and Allah all things doth know.
–Qur’an, chapter XXIV-Light-35 (page 172 of The Memoirs of Aga Kahn III)
One's faith is very personal, and things like the Qur’an are open to interpretation by the current Imam. Ta’lim refers to the necessity of authoritative teaching by the Imam, independently of his predecessors. Ta’wil is the esoteric (bâtin) method of interpreting the Qu’ran. The fundamental distinction between exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) aspects of sacred scriptures and religious commandments is that every literal meaning implies an inner, hidden reality (haqiqa=external, unchanging truth).

First, let me remind you, that for all murids of the Imam,
whether they are from Central Asia, from India, from Pakistan,
from the Western World, the fundamental principle is
the recognition of the Imam of the Time.
It is he who interprets the faith.
It is he who guides the jamat in the interpretation
of its faith at any time during its lifetime.
It is he who supports the jamats in various parts of the world,
to seek, with the jamat and others,
to improve the quality of life of the murids wherever they may be.

-(said by the current Aga Khan during his first visit to Moscow, January 29, 1995)


The Nizaris (Imami Ismailis) are the only Ismailis who claim an Imam for this time in a line that is traced to Ali: Prince Karim Shah, Aga Kahn IV, is followed as the forty-ninth Imam with the designation traced back to Muhammad.
-Raymond Brandy Williams
  • Du'a (prayer) is performed 3 times a day at the most, and Namaz/Salat (prayer with prescribed movements) is performed only 2 times a year for special festivals (festival of Id). Du’â is said in an upright sitting position (to show attentiveness), and it consists of praise, asking for forgiveness, giving thanks to the current Imam, recognizing Ali as the first Imam, and reciting the names of all imams.

  • Kushiali: ("happy Ali")
    There are 2 celebrations a year; one celebrates the birthday of the current Imam, and one celebrates the day of his succession. It is relatively equivalent to Christian Christmas in terms of size of celebration.

  • Marriage and divorce:
    "The Islamic view of the institution of marriage-and of all that relates to it, divorce, plurality of wives and so on- is that it is a question solely of contract, of consent, and of definite and mutually accepted responsibilities" –III Aga Kahn’s Memoirs, p. 186 (Sir Sultan Muhammad Sha Aga Kahn, 1877-1957).

Important Terms
One uses these beads (which are somewhat comparable to the rosary) to recite a name of God (the wise, the healer, etc), and it is not obligatory.
sermons/messages made by Imam
Jamat Khan
Isma`ili mosques (Persian: ‘where we congregate/congregation of believers’)

Order of evening service (combines last 2 prayers of the day):
  1. Ghinans/Qawali (songs of praise) sung for one hour (optional to attend)
  2. One special Ghinan sung as a call to prayer
  3. First Du’a recited
  4. Tasbih: formal congregational petition to God for blessings
  5. Firman: member of Jamat (congregation) recites a firman (sermon by current Imam)
  6. Ghinan sung
  7. Second Du’a recited

Different Ismâ’ili traditions prevalent in the world

those who believe that Hassan was the 2nd Imam, and that Muhammad, son of Ismail (son of Jafar al-Sadiq) was the last Imam, whom they expect to come back on Judgment Day. Until his return, women must wear burkas as a sign of mourning.
believe that the 12th Imam was the last Imam, and that he will return.
Imami (Nizari) Ismailis-
Don’t recognize Hassan as an Imam, and follow Aga Kahn IV. They are made up of the following sub-categories:
  -Bohras concentrated in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India.
  -Syrians follow the Fatimid tradition.
  -Central Asia: Nasir Khusaro tradition.
  -Khoja Ismailis concentrated in Gujarât State, India.
  -Iranian Ismâilis follow the Alamut tradition.

Works Cited

Ed. Daftary, Farhad. Mediaeval Isma’ili History and Thought.

Williams, Raymond Brandy. Religions of Immigrants from India and Pakistan.

Ed.-in-chief Eliade, Mircea. The Encyclopedia of Religion.

Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2000. 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation.



Special thanks to Isma’ili friends who let me interview them

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