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Shi'a Islam


Doctrines Like other Shi'ite traditions, Isma'iliyyah accepts the spiritual authority of the Imam. However, unlike the mainstream Twelver Shi'as (also known as Imamiyyah), the Isma'ilis regard Muhammad son of Isma'il as the seventh Imam and continue the line of Imams through Isma'il and Muhammad's descendants. For this reason Isma'iliyyah are known as Sevener Shi'ites. (The Twelver Shi'ites regard Isma'il's younger brother, al Must'alias, as the seventh Imam and the line of Imams to continue from him.)
Isma'ili doctrine considers history to be divided into seven periods. Each period begins with a prophet who is then followed by six infallible Imams. The first six prophets were Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. Each Imam was accompanied by an interpreter who taught the secret meaning of the Imam's teaching to a small circle of initiates. The previous six interpreters were Seth, Shem, Isaac, Aaron, Simon Peter and Ali. The six Shi'a Imams (from al-Hasan to Isma'il) have followed Muhammad and his interpreter Ali. The seventh Imam, Muhammad, did not die but went into hiding, and will appear as the Mahdi, inaugurating an era in which the old traditions, including Islam, will become obsolete.
The Isma'ilis believe that Islamic law (the Shari'ah) should be repealed. They reject the Qur'an and all forms of prayers in the main Sunni Islamic tradition. They interpret Islamic teachings spiritually, which frees them from adhering to these laws and obligations such as prayer, fasting, and hajj.

History The origins of the Isma'ilis can be traced to the second half of the 8th century when a dispute occurred over who should succeed the sixth Imam Jaf'ar al-Sadiq (d.765). The Imamate was originally intended to go to al-Sadiq's eldest son, Isma'il . However, Isma'il died five years before his father and it was therefore decided that the Imamate should go to Isma'il's younger brother, al-Must'alis. Various factions opposed the decision to give the Imamate to al-Must'alis. Some claimed that Isma'i l did not die but was in hiding and would return; others said that the Imamate should go to Isma'il's son, Muhammad. Those factions that claimed that Muhammad was still alive soon died out, but the supporters of Muhammad continued and formed the moveme nt that later came to be known as Isma'iliyyah.
Effective missionary activity spread Isma'iliyyah beyond Iraq into North Africa. In 909 the sect set up the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, where it flourished until 1171 when the Fatimid caliphate was overthrown and the sect lost its official support.
Shortly before its defeat in Egypt, Isma'iliyyah split into two groups called Nizaris and Musta'lis. The schism occurred as a result of a second dispute over who should inherit the Imamate. Following the death of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir in 1094, the first of these sects emerged in support of the claims of al-Mustansir's elder son, Nizar, to succeed his father as the future Imam. The assassination of Nizar and his family led his supporters to flee Egypt and to organize themselves in various regions of Iran and Syria. Their stronghold was the fortress of Alamut in the Ehurz mountains of northern Iran. From here the sect spread out until it was strong enough to establish an Isma'ili-Nizari state which survived for 150 years. Its downfall occurred in 1256 as a result of the expansion of the Mongol empire into Iran and Syria.
After the fall of Alamut the history of the Nizaris in Syria is largely one of subjugation and persecution at the hands of the Baybars, the Ottomans and the Nusayris. The Nizaris in Iran also suffered persecution, and from the 14th century onwards many emigrated to India. These came to be known as Khoja (from the Persian word khwaja, meaning master). These have made considerable concessions to their Indian context and attach little importance to traditional Islamic ritual and practice. They follow the leadership of the Agha Khan. In the 19th century some Khojas emigrated to East Africa, where Khoja communities remain today. The second branch, the Musta'lis, distinguished themselves from the Nizaris through their support of al-Mustansir's younger son, al-Musta'li. Al-Must'ali and his descendants continued in Egypt until the fall of the Fatimid dynasty in 1171. Following the end of the Fatimid dynasty the leadership of the movement was transferred to Yemen. In Yemen the movement split again, with some remaining in Yemen and others emigrating to India. Those who went to India are known as Bohras. Today Musta'lian Isma'ilis are mainly to be found in the Indian province of Gujarat. There are also communities in Arabia, the Persian Gulf, East Africa, and Burma.

Symbols The Isma'ilis do not have a distinctive symbol system.

Adherents There are several hundred thousand Musta'lian Isma'ilis in the world today (Momen 1985, 56). There are some 20 million Khojas, of whom 2 million live in Pakistan (Halm 1991, 191).

Main Centre
 Historically the headquarters of the Nizaris has been the fortress of Alamut in the Elburz mountains of northern Iran. Today there are Nizari communities in Pakistan, North-west India and the Chinese province of Sin-Kiang. The Khojas are mainly to be found in Gujarat and the Punjab. There are also Khoja communities in East and South Africa, Ceylon and Burma.