In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Nizari Ismailis of the Persianate World

  • Introduction
  • General Overview
  • Bibliographies and Literary Traditions
  • Nizari Ismailis of the Alamut Period

Islamic Studies The Nizari Ismailis of the Persianate World
Farhad Daftary
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0298


The Ismailis account for the second largest Shiʿi Muslim community, and the Nizaris represent the major branch of the Ismailis. The Nizari Ismailis are today scattered as religious minorities in some thirty countries of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and North America. The Nizari Ismailis take their name from Nizar (d. 488/1095), the heir-designate of the Ismaili Imam al-Mustansir who ruled as Fatimid caliph (427–487/1036–1094). Nizar was deprived of his succession rights in favor of his younger brother al-Mustaʿli, who was placed on the Fatimid throne by the all-powerful vizier al-Afdal. However, Hasan-i Sabbah (d. 518/1124), who was then leading the Persian Ismailis, championed the cause of Nizar and established the Nizari Ismaili daʿwa independently of the Fatimid regime. At the same time, he founded the Nizari state, centered at the fortress of Alamut in northern Persia. This state was eventually uprooted by the Mongols in 654/1256. However, the Nizari Ismailis survived the downfall of their state. After some initially obscure post-Alamut centuries, the Nizari Imams took charge of the affairs of the Nizari communities of various regions. The Nizari communities flourished especially in the Persianate world, notably Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, as well as South Asia. This article covers the Nizaris of the Persianate world, notably Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (especially the region of Badakhshan now divided between Afghanistan and Tajikistan). The Persian-speaking Nizaris of these regions have used Persian, rather than Arabic, in the literary traditions of their communities. Thus, their literary heritage is exclusively written in Persian. In addition, they have been greatly influenced, over the centuries, by aspects of Persian cultural heritage and literary traditions.

General Overview

Until the middle of the twentieth century, the Nizari Ismailis, like all Ismailis, were almost exclusively studied and evaluated on the basis of evidence collected, or often fabricated, by their detractors. Indeed, the Abbasid caliphs and their Sunni scholars launched a literary campaign to defame and refute the Ismailis as “heretics,” on the basis of their own fabricated and fictitious accounts of their teachings and practices. For instance, al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111), the foremost contemporary Sunni scholar, was commissioned by the Abbasid caliph al-Mustazhir to write a major treatise in refutation of the Persian Nizari Ismailis. Subsequently, the Crusaders and their European chroniclers produced their own fanciful accounts of the Nizari Ismailis, rooted in their “imaginative ignorance,” and making the Nizaris famous in Europe as the Assassins. These so-called Assassin legends circulated widely and were taken to represent accurate accounts of secret Nizari practices, reminiscent of the manner in which the earlier anti-Ismaili travesties of the Sunni polemicists had been treated as reliable explanations of Ismaili motives, beliefs, and practices. All in all, the Nizaris were persistently misrepresented in both Islamic and European sources with a variety of myths and legends circulating about them. The breakthrough in Ismaili studies had to await the recovery and study of genuine Ismaili texts on a large scale. This breakthrough resulted from the efforts of the Russian orientalist Wladimir Ivanow (b. 1886–d. 1970) and a handful of Ismaili scholars who had collections of Ismaili manuscripts. Ivanow was also instrumental in the foundation of the Ismaili Society in 1946 in Bombay, where he had settled down. Currently, The Institute of Ismaili Studies, founded in London in 1977 by Aga Khan IV, the 49th and present Imam of the Nizari Ismailis, is playing a leading role in modern scholarship in Ismaili studies not only through its own research and publications but also by making its vast collection of Ismaili manuscripts available to scholars worldwide. As a result of modern Ismaili studies, Daftary 1990 and Daftary 1998 represented the first comprehensive histories of the Ismailis, with large sections devoted to the Nizaris. At the same time, the Assassin legends, too, were finally deconstructed by Daftary 1994, and subsequently by other works, such as Bartlett 2001 and Pagès 2014, all leading to a better understanding of the Nizari Ismailis.

  • Bartlett, Wayne B. The Assassins: The Story of Medieval Islam’s Secret Sect. Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton, 2001.

    This is an account of the Nizari Ismailis of the Alamut period in Persia and Syria, separating facts from fiction and their history from the mythology surrounding them.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Ismaʿilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 1990.

    This is the first comprehensive survey of Ismaili history from its origins to current times, synthesizing the scattered results of modern scholarship as well as breaking new grounds. It contains major chapters on the Nizari Ismailis, especially those of the Persianate world. Originally published in 1990 and reprinted several times, its second edition (2007) contains much new material.

  • Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismaʿilis. London: I.B. Tauris, 1994.

    The Crusader circles of the twelfth century fantasized about the Nizari Ismailis without having reliable information about them. This book considers the origins of the medieval Assassin legends that culminated in Marco Polo’s version. Deconstructing and dispelling these myths, the book also explores the historical context in which they were fabricated and transmitted.

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

    DOI: 10.1515/9780748679225

    Addressed to a wider readership, this book is organized somewhat differently from Daftary 1990. The book represents a topical approach within a historical framework, and focuses on a selection of major themes and developments. This book has been translated into all major Muslim languages as well as a variety of European ones.

  • Pagès, Meriem. From Martyr to Murderer: Representations of the Assassins in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Europe. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014.

    Drawing on findings of modern Ismaili studies, this book sheds new light on changing representations of the Nizari Ismailis in European sources of medieval times. It also provides an excellent case study, showing how tales, if repeated long enough, become accepted as facts.

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