Dec 20, 2007

The Ismailis and their Role in the History of Medieval Syria and the Near East

The Ismailis and their Role in the History of Medieval Syria and the Near East

This is an edited version of an article which was originally published in Syria Medieval Citadels Between East and West, ed. Stefano Bianca (Geneva: The Aga Khan Trust for Culture, 2007), pp. 37-50


Whether overtly or covertly, the Ismailis have played an important role in the cultural history of Islam, particularly in Syria and Egypt, where they constituted the Fatimid caliphate, which was to last for around 200 years. After the fall of the Fatimids in 1171 AH and during the subsequent diaspora, they became famous for their strongholds in Iran and Syria, from where they intervened in the various conflicts between Christian powers and the Muslim kingdoms in the Holy Land.

In religious terms, the Ismaili community is part of the larger diversity of the worldwide Muslim umma. Over the passage of time, Muslims constituted a variety of groups, which exemplified diverse ways of understanding the primal message of Islam and different approaches to how that commonly held message could be reflected in the practical life and organisation of the community. The Ismailis are one such group. They are part of the Shi‘a branch of Islam, the Sunni being the other major branch, and have always constituted a minority, historically and in the contemporary world. At present, the Ismailis live in over twenty-five countries, in virtually every region of the world. In some of these regions, their history goes back over a thousand years. Syria is one such example where the Ismaili presence can be dated to the 9th century.

Among the Shi‘a, there were those who remained faithful to the line of Imams who descended from Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765 CE) through his son, Imam Ismail. Hence, they came to be known as Isma‘ilis. There were other Shi‘i groups who gave their allegiance to different lines of Imams. The largest group among such other Shi‘is are called Ithna‘ashari; they believe in a line of twelve Imams, ending in the Mahdi who remains in occultation (ghayba) and would reappear to grant salvation at the end of time.


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