Ismaili Studies: Historical Precedents and Modern Developments

Beginning with a review of the history of he Ismailis, as a major Shi’i Muslim community, the author elaborates on the basic tenets of the Ismaili theology. The Ismaili system of religious thought, the author suggests, was based on a fundamental distinction between the exoteric [zahir] and the esoteric [batin] aspects of the sacred scriptures and religious commandments and prohibitions, holding that every literal meaning implied an inner, hidden and immutable reality. He also surveys the seminal contributions of the Ismaili Da’is [religio-political missionaries] and authors to Islamic theology and philosophy in general and to Shi’i thought in particular.

In the course of their history, the author believes, the Ismailis have been accused of a variety of heretical practices and, at the same time, a multitude of myths and misconceptions circulated about the Ismailis and their teachings. This is mainly because the Ismailis were, until recently, studied and evaluated almost exclusively on the basis of the evidence collected or often fabricated by their enemies. As the most revolutionary wing of Shi’ism with a religio-political agenda aimed at uprooting the Abbassids and restoring the caliphate to the Ismaili imam, the Ismailis from early on aroused the hostility of the Sunni establishment. With the founding of the Fatimid State, the Ismaili challenge to the established order had become actualized and thereupon the Sunni Establishment launched what amounted to a more systematic anti-Ismaili propaganda campaign. In fact, by spreading defamatory claims and forged accounts, the anti-Ismaili authors produced a “black legend” in the course of 4th/10th century. Indeed, these distorted views and forged accounts became the main sources of European and orientalist studies of the Ismaili beliefs and practices.

According to the author, the breakthrough in Ismaili studies had to await the recovery and study of genuine Ismaili texts on a large scale—manuscript sources which had been preserved secretly in numerous private collections. However, modern scholarship in Ismaili studies was actually initiated in the 1930’s in India, where significant collections of Ismaili manuscripts had been preserved in the Ismaili Bohra community. This breakthrough resulted mainly from the pioneering efforts of W. Ivanow (1886-1970) and a few Ismaili Bohra scholars based in India. Ismaili scholarship received a further impetus through the establishment in 1946 of the Ismaili Society of Bombay.

Farhad Daftari
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