Ismaili Beliefs | What are the core beliefs of Ismailism?

Ismaili beliefs

What are the Ismaili beliefs

Before talking about Ismaili Beliefs, we must know that Ismāʿīliyyah, a sect of Shiʿah Islam that was most active as a religiopolitical movement in the 9th–13th century through its constituent movements the Fāṭimids, the Qarāmiṭah (Qarmatians), and the Nīzarīs. In the early 21st century it was the second largest of the three Shiʿah communities in Islam, after the Twelver Shiʿah and before the Zaydi Shiʿah (Zaydis).

The History Of Ismailism:

The Ismāʿīliyyah came into being after the death in 765 CE of Jaʿfar ibn Muḥammad, the sixth imam in the line of the Prophet Muhammad via the latter’s grandson al-Ḥusayn (died 680). Some believed that Imam Jaʿfar’s eldest son, Ismāʿīl, who predeceased his father, was the final imam and that he was in occultation (Arabic: ghaybah) that is, he was alive, with a material body, but was not immediately recognizable and would one day reveal himself and thus return to the world.

Others believed that the imamate had passed to Ismāʿīl’s son Muḥammad. In 899 in North Africa ʿAbd Allāh (or ʿUbayd Allāh), a descendant of Muhammad linked to the Prophet’s daughter Fāṭimah proclaimed the Ismāʿīlī imamate in Syria. He later moved to North Africa, from which base the later Fāṭimids conquered Egypt in 969 and founded Cairo. The Fāṭimid dynasty ruled Egypt until 1171 and established a network of missionaries across the Muslim world, especially in Iraq and across the Iranian plateau. These missionaries were at their most active during the reign of the eighth Fāṭimid caliph, al-Mustanṣir (reigned 1036–94).

The biggest Ismaili community is in Gorno-Badakhshan, but Isma’ilis can be found in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Lebanon, Malaysia, Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Jordan, Iraq, East Africa, Angola, Bangladesh, and South Africa, and have in recent years emigrated to Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Trinidad and Tobago. In the early 21st century Ismāʿīlī communities existed in Pakistan and India, central Asia, the Middle East, eastern Africa, and Europe and North America. The community numbered between 5 and 15 million.

Ismaili Sects:

After the death of al-Mustanṣir, the Fāṭimid Ismāʿīlīs split into two groups, based on different understandings of the succession. The Mustaʿlīs, comprising most Egyptian, Yemeni, and Indian Ismāʿīlīs, accepted the claims of the caliph’s younger son of the same name and his successors. The Nizārīs, based in Syria, Iraq, and Iran, accepted as imam al-Mustanṣir’s elder brother, Nizār, the caliph’s official heir. Led by Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ, the Nizārīs later became famous in the West as the Assassins.

Their mountain fortress Alamut, in the Elburz Mountains about 37 miles (60 km) northeast of the modern Iranian city of Qazvīn, was destroyed by the invading Mongols in 1256. The Nizāris then scattered throughout the region. In 1838 Ḥasan ʿAlī Shāh, the first Aga Khan (a title bestowed by the Iranian Qājār dynasty) led a revolt against the shah of Iran but was defeated. Fleeing in India, he eventually (1844) settled in Bombay (now Mumbai).

Ismaili beliefs

Ismaili Beliefs

Isma’ilism rose at one point to become the largest branch of Shia Islam, climaxing as a political power with the Fatimid Caliphate in the 10th through 12th centuries. Ismailis believe in the oneness of God, as well as the closing of divine revelation with Muhammad, whom they see as “the final Prophet and Messenger of God to all humanity”. The Isma’ili and the Twelvers both accept the same six initial Imams; the Isma’ili accept Isma’il ibn Jafar as the seventh Imam.

After the death of Muhammad ibn Isma’il in the 8th century CE, the teachings of Ismailism further transformed into the belief system as it is known today, with an explicit concentration on the deeper, esoteric meaning (batin) of the Islamic religion. With the eventual development of Usulism and Akhbarism into the more literalistic (zahir) oriented, Shia Islam developed into two separate directions: the metaphorical Ismaili, Alevi, Bektashi, Alian, and Alawite groups focusing on the mystical path and nature of God, along with the “Imam of the Time” representing the manifestation of esoteric truth and intelligible divine reality, with the more literalistic Usuli and Akhbari groups focusing on divine law (sharia) and the deeds and sayings (sunnah) of Muhammad and the Twelve Imams who guided and light to God.

Classic Ismāʿīlī theology, developed in the 8th century, understood that there was both an external (ẓāhir) exoteric dimension and a further hidden (bāṭin) esoteric dimension to scripture. The Prophet Muhammad revealed the former. The imam’s missionaries were the network by which the imam, through graded levels or stages of understanding, instructed the ordinary believer in the hidden truth.

Classic Ismāʿīlī theology, developed in the 8th century, understood that there was both an external (ẓāhir) exoteric dimension and a further hidden (bāṭin) esoteric dimension to scripture. The Prophet Muhammad revealed the former. The imam’s missionaries were the network by which the imam, through graded levels or stages of understanding, instructed the ordinary believer in the hidden truth.

Isma’ili thought is heavily influenced by Neoplatonism.

The Imamat in Ismaili Beliefs

Its institutional guide and leadership are the Ismaili Imamat, and its multiple agencies are having an increasingly significant world impact.

The Ismailis are the only Shia Muslims to have a living, hereditary Imam; it is the presence of the living Imam that makes the community unique. Spiritual allegiance to the Imam and adherence to the Shia Imami Ismaili interpretation of Islam according to the guidance of the Imam of the Time, have engendered in the Ismaili community an ethos of self-reliance, unity, and a common identity.

In a number of the countries where they live, the Ismailis have evolved a well-defined institutional framework through which they have, under the leadership and guidance of the Imam, established schools, hospitals, health centers, housing societies, and a variety of social and economic development institutions for the common good of all citizens regardless of their race or religion.

Since assuming office in 1957, the present Aga Khan has adapted the complex system of administering the various Ismaili communities, pioneered by his grandfather, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, during the colonial era, to a world of nation-states. In the course of that process, Aga Khan III, who was twice President of the League of Nations, had already provided a contemporary articulation of the public international role of the Imamat. The Imamat today, under the present Aga Khan, continues this tradition of strict political neutrality.

In view of the importance that Islam places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual wellbeing of the individual and the quality of his or her life, the Imamʹs guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers.

Interpretation Of Scripture in Ismaili beliefs

Among the tools of interpretation of scripture that are associated particularly with Shi‘i and Ismaili philosophy is that of ta’wil. The application of this Qur’anic term, which connotes “going back to the first/the beginning,” marks the effort in Ismaili thought of creating a philosophical and hermeneutical discourse that establishes the intellectual discipline for approaching revelation and creates a bridge between philosophy and religion.

Philosophy as conceived in Ismaili thought thus seeks to extend the meaning of religion and revelation to identify the visible and the apparent (zahir) and also to penetrate to the roots, to retrieve and disclose that which is interior or hidden (batin). Ultimately, this discovery engages both the intellect (‘aql) and the spirit (ruh), functioning integrally to illuminate and disclose truths (haqa’iq).

The appropriate mode of language which serves us best in this task is, according to Ismaili philosophers, symbolic language. Such language, which employs analogy, metaphor, and symbols, allows one to make distinctions and establish differences in ways that a literal reading of language does not permit. Such language employs a special system of signs, the ultimate meaning of which can be ‘unveiled’ by the proper application of hermeneutics (ta’wil).

Ismaili thought

Recent scholarship, based on a more judicious analysis of primary sources, has shown how Ismaili thought was in constant interaction with and to a certain extent influenced well-known currents of Islamic philosophy, theology, and mysticism.

Shi‘i and Ismaili philosophies use ta’wil as a tool for the interpretation of scripture. This Qur’anic term connotes going back to the original meaning of the Qur’an. The objective of Ismaili thought is to create a bridge between Hellenic philosophy and religion. The human intellect is engaged to retrieve and disclose that which is interior or hidden (batin).

Ismailism presents a cosmology within an adapted Neoplatonic framework but tries to create an alternative synthesis. The starting point of such a synthesis is the doctrine of ibda‘ (derived from Qur’an 2:117). In its verbal form, it is taken to mean ‘eternal existentiation’ to explain the notion in the Qur’an of God’s timeless command (Kun: ‘Be!’). The process of creation can be said to take place at several levels. Ibda‘ represents the initial level. The human intellect eventually relates to creation and tries to penetrate the mystery of the unknowable God.

Human history operates cyclically. The function of the Prophet is to reveal the religious law (shari‘a) while the Imam gradually unveils to his disciples the inner meaning (batin) of the revelation through the ta’wil.

By those who were hostile to it or opposed its philosophical and intellectual stance, the Ismailis were regarded as heretical; legends were fabricated about them and their teachings. Early Western scholarship on Islamic philosophy inherited some of the biases of some medieval Muslim anti-philosophical stances, which tended to project a negative image of Ismailism, perceiving its philosophical contribution as having been derived from sources and tendencies ‘alien’ to Islam. Recent scholarship, based on a more judicious analysis of primary sources, provides a balanced perspective and has shown how Ismaili thought was in constant interaction with and to a certain extent influenced well-known currents of Islamic philosophy and theology. Their views represent a consensus that it is inappropriate to treat Ismailism as a marginal school of Islamic thought; rather it constitutes a significant philosophical branch, among others, in Islamic philosophy.

Early Ismaili philosophy works dating back to the Fatimid period (fourth/tenth to sixth/twelfth century) are in Arabic; Nasir Khusraw (d. 471/1078) was the only Ismaili writer of the period to write in Persian. The Arabic tradition was continued in Yemen and India by the Musta‘li branch and in Syria by the Nizaris. In Persia and Central Asia, the tradition was preserved and elaborated in Persian. Elsewhere among the Ismailis, local oral languages and kinds of literature played an important part, though no strictly philosophical writings were developed in these languages.

Ismailia Today

By Ismaili history, tradition, and the needs of the time, the Imams have given rules of conduct and constitutions in conformity with the Islamic concepts of unity, brotherhood, justice, tolerance, and goodwill. In the modern period, the first Ismaili Constitution was ordained by the 48th Imam, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III, in 1905 for the Ismailis of East Africa. This gave the community a form of administration comprising a hierarchy of governance structures at local, national, and regional levels, setting out rules of personal law to govern such matters as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, as well as guidelines for cooperation and support within the community and its interface with other communities. Similar constitutions were promulgated in South Asia under instructions from the Imam. All of them were periodically revised to address emerging needs.

In continuation of this tradition, the 49th Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, has extended this constitutional governance to other regions around the world. In 1986, he ordained an Ismaili Constitution which, for the first time, brought under a joint aegis, the social governance of the global Ismaili community in order better to secure their peace and unity, spiritual and social welfare, as well as to foster fruitful collaboration among different peoples, to optimize the use of resources, and to enable the Ismaili Muslims, wherever they live, to make a valid and meaningful contribution to the improvement of the quality of life of the societies in which they live and to be responsible citizens of the countries where they reside.

To achieve these ends, the Imam has established, within the framework of the Constitution, National, Regional and Local Councils responsible for overall social governance; and Central Institutions for the provision of services to the community in education, health, social welfare, housing, economic welfare, cultural and women’s activities, youth and sports development.

The Constitution also incorporates Religious Education Boards for the provision of religious education at all levels of the community, for the requisite human resource development, and research and publication. National and International Conciliation and Arbitration Boards have been established to encourage amicable resolution of conflicts through impartial conciliation and arbitration, a service which is being increasingly used, in some countries, even by non-Ismailis.


World Religions

Sources: 1, 23

Read also:

Sunni vs Shia | What’s the Difference Between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

Ahmadiyah adalah | Founder, Beliefs, Thoughts and The Spread

Rosicrucianism | Meaning, History, Symbols, Books And More

Church Of Universal And Triumphant | History, Beliefs, Controversy About it

Was this article helpful?
Mercy Cuthbert
Mom, Wife, Author, Bachelor of Arts Comparative Religion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back To Top