ISMAʿILISM, a major Shiʿite Muslim community. The Ismaʿilis have had a long and eventful history dating back to the middle of the 2nd/8th century when the Emāmi Shiʿis split into several groups on the death of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq. The earliest Ismaʿilis from amongst the Emāmi Shiʿis traced the imamate in the progeny of Esmāʿil b. Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq, the eponym of the Esmāʿiliya. Subsequently, the Ismaʿilis themselves became subdivided into a number of major branches and minor groupings. Currently, the Ismaʿilis are comprised of the Nezāri and Ṭayyebi Mostaʿlian branches, and they are scattered as religious minorities in over twenty-five countries of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America. Numbering several millions, the Ismaʿilis represent a diversity of ethnic groups and literary traditions, and speak a variety of languages and dialects, including especially Arabic, Persian as well as a number of Indic and European languages.

Until the middle of the 20th century, the Ismaʿilis were studied and judged almost exclusively on the basis of evidence collected or fabricated by their enemies. Consequently, a variety of myths and legends circulated widely, both in Muslim societies and in the West, regarding their teachings and practices. The breakthrough in Ismaʿilis studies occurred with the recovery and study of genuine Ismaʿili texts on a large scale—Arabic and Persian manuscript sources which had been preserved in numerous private collections in the Yemen, Syria, Persia, Central Asia, and South Asia. As a result of the findings of modern scholarship in Ismaʿili studies, we now have a much better understanding of Ismaʿili history and thought. The Ismaʿilis elaborated a diversity of intellectual and literary traditions in different languages and made important contributions to Islamic civilization, especially during the Fatimid period of their history when they possessed an important state, the Fatimid caliphate, and the classical Ismaʿili texts on a range of exoteric and esoteric subjects were produced. At the same time, a distinctively Ismaʿili school of jurisprudence was founded under the early Fatimid caliph-imams. Later, the Nezāri Ismaʿilis, under the initial leadership of Ḥasan Ṣabbāḥ (q.v.), founded their own state in Persia and Syria, also elaborating their teachings in response to changing circumstances.

A number of specialized articles on the Ismaʿilis and their heritage have already appeared in the Encyclopaedia Iranica. The articles of this main multi-authored section on Ismaʿilism cover central aspects of Ismaʿili history and thought in addition to surveys of Ismaʿili historiography and literature as well as the Ismaʿilis communities of modern times.

This entry will be divided into the following sections:

i. Ismaʿili Studies.

ii. Ismaʿili historiography.

iii. Ismaʿili history.

iv. Qarāmeta. See CARMATIANS.

v. Ismaʿili daʿwa and the Fatimid dynasty. See FATIMIDS.

vi. Ismaʿili ideas of time. See DAWR (2).

vii. Ismaʿili ideas of cosmogony and cosmology. See COSMOGONY AND COSMOLOGY vi.

viii. Free will in Ismaʿilism. See FREE WILL ii.

ix. Ismaʿili missionaries. See DĀʿI.

x. Ismaʿili myths and legends. See FEDĀʾI.

xi. Ismaʿili jurisprudence.

xii. Ismaʿili Hadith. See HADITH iii.

xiii. Ismaʿilism in Arabic and Persian literature.

xiv. Ismaʿilism in Ginān literature.

xv. Nezāri Ismaʿili monuments.

xvi. Modern Ismaʿili communities.

xvii. The Imamate in Ismaʿilism.

(Multiple Authors)

Originally Published: December 15, 2007

Last Updated: April 5, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 2, pp. 172-195