In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ismaʿili 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 Mustaʿli-Tayyibi Daʿwa in Yemen
  • Nizari Ismaʿilis in Persia
  • Syrian Nizaris
  • The First Ismaʿilis in Sind
  • The Bohras in the Indian Subcontinent
  • The Khojas in the Indian Subcontinent
  • Ismaʿili Thinkers and Authors in Translations
  • Monographic Studies of Ismaʿili Authors and Poets

Islamic Studies Ismaʿili Shiʿa
Ismail Poonawala
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0121


The Ismaʿilis, the second largest 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 Jaʿfar al-Sadiq in 148/765 in a dispute regarding the latter’s succession. However, it should be noted that modern scholars who have examined traditional views held by the Shiʿa and compared them with the historical picture have come to the conclusion that the crystallization of the Shiʿa occurred under the sixth imam Jaʿfar al-Sadiq, and that the doctrine of the imamate formulated only in his time and then applied retrospectively to the pre-Jaʿfar period. Around the second half of the 3rd/9th century, following the occultation of the twelfth Imāmi imam in 260/874, the Ismaʿilis launched a powerful messianic movement in various parts of the Abbasid Empire, promising the advent of the Mahdi, who will usher in an era of justice and equity prior to the end of time. In 297/909, they succeeded in establishing the Fatimid dynasty in North Africa, and in 358/969 they conquered Egypt and founded the new capital Cairo, 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 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 territories of Central and South Asia 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, Wilferd Madelung, and Abbas H. Hamdani. The list of contemporary scholars is too long to be enumerated here but their contributions will be cited under appropriate headings in this article. A critical account of Ismaʿili history and their doctrines, stretching over more than a millennium and scattered across several countries with splinter groups and subgroups, is yet to be written. Daftary 2007 gives a detailed account of the Ismaʿili history and their doctrines and the vicissitudes of their fortunes, while Madelung 1990 presents a brief overview of their history and doctrine. Daftary 1998 is a shorter version of the author’s previous work. Daftary and Hirji 2008 is an illustrated history of the Ismaʿilis, for promoting public relations. Essays about modern history of the Ismaʿilis in Daftary 2011 are a mixed bag of varied accounts.

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

    DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9780748609048.001.0001

    This shorter version of Daftary 2007 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. Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies. London: I. B. Tauris, 2005.

    This volume is a rehash of previous works into three sections: the Early and Fatimid Phases, the Nizari Phase, and Aspects of Ismaili Thought.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismaʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrine. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511497551

    Originally published in 1990. This comprehensive work synthesizes the findings of modern scholarship about the complex history and doctrine of Ismaʿilism, from its earliest times to the present. However, the syncretic approach adopted by the author without critical appraisal of the sources has its shortcomings. M. Brett criticized “the theory of extensive conspiracy,” elaborated by Stern and Madelung and adopted without scrutiny by Daftary about the origins of Ismaʿilism. Compared to Nile Green’s chapter “The Making of a Neo-Ismaʿilism” in his well-researched book Bombay Islam, Daftary’s last chapter, “The Post-Alamut Centuries and Modern Developments in Nizari Ismaʿili History,” should be taken with a grain of salt. Leaving aside those weaknesses, it contains an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources and serves as an indispensable resource to Ismaʿili studies and future research. Although the author obtained his PhD degree in economics, the work contians hardly any discussion of Fatimid fiscal policy and the causes of their financial prosperity. The second edition is more user friendly as the author has added subheadings to long chapters.

  • Daftary, Farhad. Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2012.

    Brief A–Z entries provide excellent access points for students, researchers, and anyone wanting to know more.

  • Daftary, Farhad. A History of Shiʿi Islam. London: I. B. Tauris, 2013.

    A book that provides a succinct account in forty pages of the Ismailis after they branched off from the main group. In this book the reader gets a broader perspective of the Ismailis within the larger world of Shiʿi Islam.

  • Daftary, Farhad, ed. A Modern History of the Ismailis: Continuity and Change in a Muslim Community. London: I. B. Tauris, 2011.

    The quality of essays in this volume varies widely. For example, the last three essays about Tayyibi Mustaʿlian Ismailis are written only to portray the religious establishment in a favorable light. In a way the entire volume is slanted.

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

    An excellent artistic production, with four hundred images of manuscripts, artifacts, monuments, and photo album of Aga Khans. 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. The lavish production is designed for public relations of Aga Khans and Ismaili institutions operating in several countries.

  • 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.

    Provides a precise and insightful overview, with a list of important sources. Serves as a good introduction to any detailed research on Ismaʿili history and doctrine. His version of the early Ismaʿili history and some doctrinal issues are debatable.

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