In This Article Isma'ili Shiʿa

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Major Collections of Ismaili Manuscripts
  • Pre-Fatimid IsmaʿIlism
  • The Fatimids in North Africa, Egypt, and Southern Syria
  • The Qarmatians
  • The Sulayhids and the Mustaʾli-Tayyibi Daʿwa in Yemen
  • Nizari Ismaʿilis in Persia
  • Syrian Nizaris
  • The Bohras in the Indian Subcontinent
  • The Khojas in the Indian Subcontinent
  • Ismaʿili Thinkers, Authors, and Poets
  • Ismaʿili Works and Translations

Islamic Studies Isma'ili Shiʿa
Ismail Poonawala
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0121


The Isma’ilis, a major branch of the Shiʿa, take their name from their imam, Ismaʿil b. Jaʿfar al-Sadiq. They branched off from the main group, the Imāmiyya, following the death of Ja’far al-Sadiq in 148/765 in a dispute regarding the latter’s succession. Around the second half of the 3rd/9th century, the Isma’ilis launched a powerful messianic movement in various parts of the Abbasid Empire, promising the advent of the Mahdi. In 297/909, they succeeded in establishing the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa, and in 358/969 they conquered Egypt, ruling from there for another two centuries until they were overthrown by Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi in 567/1171. Besides establishing a powerful empire stretching across vast territories, the Ismaʿilis have profoundly influenced Islamic political and intellectual thought. Due to the constraints of space, this survey is selective and limited to recent books that have substantially contributed to Ismaʿili studies and that are useful to the researchers for further inquiries. Articles are cited where no other full book-length studies are available.

General Overviews

Until the first two decades of the 20th century, the study of Ismaʿili history and doctrine largely comprised polemical and distorted accounts written by opponents. The breakthrough in this prevailing situation occurred during the 1930s, when a large number of private collections of Ismaʿili manuscripts in India, Yemen, Syria, and the former Soviet Union were discovered. The pioneering work of sifting through the sources was done by W. Ivanow, H. F. Hamdani, Asaf Fyzee, Zahid ʿAli, Muhammad Kamil Husayn, and Henri Corbin. Since then, Ismaʿili studies have been further transformed by another generation of scholars, namely S. M. Stern and Wilferd Madelung. The list of contemporary scholars is too long to be enumerated here. Daftary 1990 gives a detailed account of the Ismaʿili history and the vicissitudes of their fortunes stretching over a thousand years, while Madelung 1990 presents a brief overview of their history and doctrine. Daftary 1998 is a shorter version of the author’s previous work, and Daftary and Hirji 2008 is an illustrated history of the Ismaʿilis.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismaʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrine. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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    This comprehensive work synthesizes the findings of modern scholarship about the complex history and doctrine of Ismaʿilism, from its earliest times to the present. It contains an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources and serves as an indispensable resource to Ismaʿili studies and future research.

  • Daftary, Farhad. A Short History of the Ismailis: Traditions of a Muslim Community. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    This shorter version of Daftary 1990 is addressed to a wider readership, and it is organized differently. The author has adopted a topical approach within a historical framework and has selected major themes in Ismaʿili history for his narration.

  • Daftary, Farhad, and Zulfikar Hirji. The Ismailis: An Illustrated History. London: Azimuth Editions, 2008.

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    An excellent artistic production, with four hundred images of manuscripts, artifacts, and monuments. The first chapter by Feras Hamza is on the advent of Islam and the early Shiʿa, while chapters 2 and 3, covering the early Ismailis, the Fatimids, and the Nizaris, are by Daftary. The last chapter on the modern Nizaris is by Zulfikar Hirji.

  • Madelung, Wilferd. “Ismaʿīliyya.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2d ed. Vol. 4. Edited by E. van Donzel, Bernard Lewis, and Charles Pellat, 198–206. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1990.

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    Provides a precise and insightful overview, with a list of important sources. Serves as a good introduction to any detailed Ismaʿili history.

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