Encyclopaedia Articles


Download PDF version of article (136 KB)

The Use of the Term ‘Da‘iinfo-icon

(He who summons), a term used by several Muslim groups, especially the Ismailis, to designate their missionaries. It was adopted by the Seljukinfo-icon ‘Abbasid da‘wainfo-icon, or mission, in Khurasaninfo-icon and by the early Mu‘tazilainfo-icon, but it soon became particularly identified with certain Shi‘i groups, for example, the Zaydisinfo-icon and some Shi‘i extremists (ghulatinfo-icon), notably the Khattabiya. The term acquired its widest application in connection with the Ismailis, though early Ismaili authors in Persia sometimes substituted other designations, like janahinfo-icon (pl. ajniha: see the excerpt from Abu Hatim Razi, Kitab al-islah, in Hamdani, p. 109; Sijistani, pp. 91, 100, 128). The term da‘i (pl. du‘at) came to be applied to any authorised representative of the Ismaili al-da‘wa al-hadiyainfo-icon (rightly guiding mission), a missionary responsible for spreading the Ismaili doctrine and winning followers for the imaminfo-icon. Different ranks of da‘is emerged during the history of the Ismailis and among different branches. In fact, the da‘i was the unofficial agent of the Fatimid state (297-567/909-1171), operating secretly in many territories outside Egypt and Syria in efforts to promote recognition of the Ismaili Fatimid caliphinfo-icon as the Ismaili imam.

The Organisation of the Pre-Fatimid Ismaili Da‘wa

No information is available on the organisation of the pre-Fatimid Isma‘ili da‘wa, but it is known that the movement was reorganised in about 260/973-74 around a hereditary line of leaders, later recognised as imams, who were then residing at Salamiya, in central Syria. During the second half of the 9th century, these leaders initiated the Isma‘ili da‘wa through a network of propagandists in a number of regions of the Muslim world. In Jibalinfo-icon, Khurasan and Transoxaniainfo-icon, as elsewhere, a chief da‘i appointed subordinate da‘is to the various districts under his jurisdiction. The chief da‘is of Jibal resided at Ray, of Khurasan and Transoxania initially at Nishapur and later at Marv al-Rud. Some of the early Persian da‘is, notably Abu Hatim al-Razi and Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, were among the foremost early Ismaili theologians and provided important doctrinal links between the pre-Fatimid Ismailis and the Fatimidsinfo-icon.


The hierarchical Fatimid da‘wa organisation (hududinfo-icon al-dininfo-icon or maratib al-da‘wa) was fully developed by the time of Mu’ayyad fi’l-Dininfo-icon al-Shirazi, chief da‘i in Cairo for twenty years until his death in 470/1078. It mirrored the ideal situation when the Ismaili imam would have come to rule the world, and thus many of the ranks mentioned in Fatimid sources were not actually filled at all times. After the imam himself, the administrative head was the chief da‘i, designated babinfo-icon or bab al-abwab but da‘i al-du‘atinfo-icon in non-Ismaili sources, with his headquarters in Cairo. He was responsible for appointing the provincial da‘is within the Fatimid domain and also outside it and was assisted by a number of subordinate local da‘is.

According to Fatimid Ismaili authors, for purposes of the da‘wa the world outside direct Fatimid control was divided into twelve jaziras (lit., ‘islands’), one of which was Persia, designated as Daylaminfo-icon (see Qadiinfo-icon Nu‘man, 1967-72, II, p. 74, III, pp. 48-49; Sijistani, p. 172). Ibn Hawqal (p. 310; cf. Nasir Khusraw, 1341/1923, p. 397), however, mentioned Khurasan as a separate jazira of the Fatimid da‘wa, adding that the Ismaili Baluchis of eastern Persia belonged to it. Each jazira was in the charge of a chief da‘i, called hujjainfo-icon.

In each jazira the hujja was assisted by varying ranks of da‘is, as many as thirty in some instances (Nasir Khusraw, 1356 S/1977, p. 178). Three different categories of such daiinfo-icon‘is were distinguished in the Fatimid sources: da‘i al-balaghinfo-icon (lit., da‘i of initiation), da‘i al-mutlaq (lit., da‘i with absolute authority), and da‘i al-mahdud (or mahsur; lit., da‘i with limited authority), apparently in that order. It is not clear what their specific functions were, through the da‘i al-balagh apparently acted as liaison with the da‘wa headquarters in Cairo. There were also two categories of assistant da‘is or ma’dhun, who might eventually rise to the rank of da‘i (for this hierarchy and the idealised functions associated with its ranks, see Kirmani, pp. 134-39, 224-25, reproduced with commentary in Corbin, pp. 90-95).

Attributes of an Ideal Da‘i

Despite the importance of the da‘is, almost nothing seems to have been written about them by Ismailis. Qadi Nu‘man (d. 363/974), the most prolific author of the Fatimid period, devoted only a short chapter in one of his books ([1948], pp. 136-40) to explaining the virtues of an ideal da‘i. A more detailed discussion of the qualifications required of a Fatimid da’i is contained in what is evidently the only independent Ismaili treatise on the subject, al-Risala al-mujaza al-karia fi adabinfo-icon al-du‘at, written toward the end of the 10th century by the da‘i Ahmad b. Ibrahim Nishaburi. No manuscript of this treatise has survived, but the work was quoted extensively in some later and still unpublished Ismaili works by Hatim b. Ibrahim Hamidi (d. 596/1199) and Hasan b. Nuh Bharuchi (d. 939/1533). He could be appointed only with the imam’s permission, or idhninfo-icon, and, once despatched to a locality, he was to operate fairly independently of the central headquarters, which would provide only general guidance. Both authors emphasised that the da‘i had to be personally acquainted with the individual initiates; the Ismailis never aimed at mass proselytisation and indeed sought to maintain utmost secrecy in their activities. Only those candidates possessing advanced educational qualifications and moral and intellectual attributes were to be designated as da‘is. Beside being familiar with the teachings of different religions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and other non-Islamic religions, as well as non-lsmaili branches of Islam), the da‘i was expected to know the language and customs of the region to which he was assigned. Many da‘is received extensive training in such specialised institutions as the Dar al-hikmainfo-icon and al-Azharinfo-icon in Cairo. As a result they often became outstanding scholars in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence and other fields of learning.

Methods and Pedagogy

Because of the self-imposed secrecy, almost nothing is known about the actual methods by which Fatimid Ismaili da‘is won new converts (mustajibs). Many Sunni authors, deriving their information mainly from anti-Ismaili polemical works by Ibn Rizam and Akhu Muhsin, mentioned a system of seven or nine distinctly named stages of detaching the initiate from his previous religion and initiating him into Ismailism (e.g., Nuwayri, pp. 195-225; Ghazali, pp. 2l-32). There is, however, no evidence of such stages in the extant Ismaili literature, though certainly the preparation of the new converts must have been gradual (see Daftary, pp. 188, 189, 192-93, 224-32).

The Emergence of Musta‘li and Nizari da‘wa Structures

In 487/1094 the Ismailis split into the Mustali and Nizari branches. The Tayyibi Musta‘lisinfo-icon inherited control of the Fatimid da‘wa hierarchy and after the collapse of the dynasty transferred their base to Yemen, where they remained for several centuries, also expanding into Gujarat (Daftary, pp. 298-99, 315-16, 321-22). The Nizarisinfo-icon, on the other hand, succeeded the Fatimid Ismailis in Persia and other eastern lands. For some time before the schism, Ismailis in the domain of the Great Saljuqs (429-552/1038-l157) had been led by a single chief da‘i at Isfahan. In the early 1070s and perhaps earlier ‘Abd-al-Malik b. ‘Attash filled this role. The da‘i at Isfahan may also have supervised the da‘is operating in Khurasan and Iraq, though he received his own general instructions from Cairo. After the schism the Persian Ismailis, the Nizariya, severed relations with the Fatimid da‘wa centered in Cairo and established a separate da‘wa led by the da‘i of Daylam, who resided in the mountain fortress of Alamutinfo-icon. Hasan Sabbah, founder of the Nizari state in Persia, and his two successors at Alamut were also regarded as the hujjas of the concealed Nizari imams.

The Nizari Da‘wa

When the Nizari imam emerged at Alamut in 559/1164 he supplanted the hujjas as supreme leader of the Nizari da‘wa and state. The supreme Nizari leader, whether da‘i or imam, selected the local chief da‘is to serve in the main Nizari territories: Kuhistan (Quhistan) in southern Khurasan and Syria. The chief da‘i (often called muhtashim) of the Kuhistan Nizaris usually lived in Tun, Qa’in, or the fortress of Mu’minabad, near Birjandinfo-icon. His counterpart in Syria normally lived in the castle of Masyaf or Kahf in central Syria. The da‘is of Daylam and the chief da‘is of the Nizari territories, who often functioned as military commanders, were supported by subordinate da‘is and assistants, though no details are available. It is clear, however, that the scattered Nizari communities of the Alamut period, which were often engaged in battles with Saljuqs and other enemies, had no use for the elaborate da‘wa structure developed by the Fatimid Ismailis; there were apparently only a few ranks between the imam and his ordinary followers; in Persia the latter addressed one another as rafiq (Daftary, pp. 335-36, 350-51, 381, 394-95).

After the fall of the Nizari state in 654/1256 the imams again went into hiding in different parts of Persia, and for two centuries the various local Nizari communities developed independently of one another. During this period, the Nizaris observed the strictest form of taqiya (dissimulation), in Persia often disguising themselves under the mantle of Sufisminfo-icon. Da‘wa activities seem to have been suspended almost completely and only local chief da‘is, often called pirs, continued to operate. In most communities the position of pirinfo-icon gradually became hereditary.

The Revival of Nizari Da‘wa Activity

When the imam of the Qasimshahi branch of Nizari Ismailism emerged at Anjudan, in central Persia, during the second half of the 15th century, there was a significant revival in da‘wa activity. During the two centuries of the Anjudan revival the imams, who developed close relations with the Ni‘matallahi order of Sufis, successfully extended their control over the Nizari communities of Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, India, and Syria. They despatched trusted da‘is to all those regions, in order to reassert central authority. For the purpose of taqiya, the Nizaris had readily adopted the master-disciple (murshidinfo-icon-muridinfo-icon) relationship of the Sufis, along with the associated terminology. To outsiders the Nizari imams thus appeared as Sufi murshids, or qutbs, and their followers as murids. The imams were further encouraged by more favourable conditions after the Safavidsinfo-icon’ adoption of Twelver Shi‘isminfo-icon as the state religion of Persia at the beginning of the 16th century. They adopted the guise of Twelver Shi‘is. as well as that of Sufis.

The Nizari Da‘wa Organisation and Structure

Under these circumstances the Nizari da‘wa organisation remained rather simple throughout the Anjudan period; there appear to have been only five ranks below the imam. The highest was the supreme da‘i, or hujja, selected from among the close relatives of the imam. Next were the da‘is, chosen from the better-educated Nizaris. They were no longer restricted to particular regions but were responsible for periodic inspections of the different communities, with reports to da‘wa headquarters in the imam’s residence and for conveying directives from the imam to local leaders. Furthermore, they were expected to propagate the da‘wa in areas beyond the jurisdiction of particular Nizari communities. The next lower rank was that of mu‘allim, or religious teacher, who was normally attached to a particular community or region, corresponding to the da‘is of the jaziras in the Fatimid period. The mu‘allims were appointed by the hujja in consultation with the imam, and every mu‘allim was assisted by two categories of ma’dhun. By the middle of the 16th century, however, the term pir had replaced all these titles in the Nizari organisation. It fell into disuse in Persia after the Anjudan period, though it has remained in use until modem times among the Nizaris of Badakhshan and adjacent regions (Mustansir bi’llah, text pp. 41 ff., 62 ff.; Quhistani, text pp. 49-50, 59: Khayrkhah Herati, 1935, text pp. 44, 76-77, 93-94, 101, 110; idem. 1961, pp. 3, 23, 58, 113 ff.; Daftary, pp. 467-68, 475-76).

The Da‘i in Modern History

By the end of the 19th century the proselytising activities of the Nizaris had begun to lose their importance, The title mu‘allim thus came to replace the generic title da‘i, as the function of teaching Nizari doctrines to members of the community displaced that of spreading the da‘wa and winning new converts. At present mu‘allims and wa‘izin, or preachers, are active in Nizari communities in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America; selected groups receive regular training at The Institute of Ismaili Studies.


H. Corbin, Cyclical Time and Ismaili Gnosis, London, 1983.

F. Daftary, The Isma‘ilis: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge, 1990.

Abu Hamid Muhammad Ghazali, Fadha’ih al-Batiniya, ed. ‘A. Badawi, Cairo, 1964.

A. Hamdani, ‘Evolution of the Organisational Structure of the Fatimi Da‘wah,’ Arabian Studies 3, 1976, pp. 85-114.

H.-E. Hasan, Tarikh al-dawlainfo-icon al-fatimiya, 3rd ed., Cairo, 1964. W. Ivanow, ‘The Organization of the Fatimid Propoganda,’ Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, N. S. 15, 1939, pp. 1-35.

Idem, Studies in Early Persian Ismailism, 2nd ed., Bombay, 1955.

Muhammad-Reza b. Sultan-Husayn Khayrkhah Herati, Kalaminfo-icon-i pir, ed. And tr. W. Ivanow, Bombay, 1935.

Idem, Tasnifat, ed. W. Ivanow, Tehran, 1961.

Hamid al-Din Ahmad Kirmani, Rahat al-‘aql, ed. M. Kamil Husayn and M.-M Hilmi, Cairo, 1953.

Ahmad b. ‘Ali Maqrizi, Kitab al-mawa‘iz wa’l-i‘tibar bi-dhikrinfo-icon al-khitat, Bulaq, 1270/1853.

Mustansir bi’llah II, Pandiyat-i javanmardi, ed. And tr. W. Ivanow, Leiden, 1953.

Nasir Khusraw, Zad al-musafirin, ed. M. Badhl al-Rahman, Berlin, 1341/1923.

Idem. Wajh-i din, ed. G.-R. A’wani, Tehran, 1356 S/1977.

Qadi Abu Hanifa Nu‘man b. Muhammad, Kitab al-himma fi adab atba‘ al-a’imam, ed. M. Kamil Husayn, Cairo, [1948].

Idem, Ta’wilinfo-icon al-da‘a’im, 3 vols., ed. M.-H. A‘zami, Cairo, 1967-72.

Ahmad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab Nuwayri, Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab XXV, ed. M.-J. ‘Abd al-‘Al Hini et al., Cairo, 1984.

Ahmad b. ‘Ali Qalqashandi, Subh al-a‘sha fi sina‘at al-insha’, 14 vols., Cairo, 1331-38/1913-20.

Abu Ishaq Quhistani, Haft bab, ed. And tr. W. Ivanow, Bombay, 1959.

Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani, Ithbat al-nabuwat, ed. ‘A. Tamer, Beirut, 1966.

S. M. Stern, ‘Cairo as the Centre of the Isma‘ili Movement,’ in Colloque international sur l’histoire du Caire, Cairo, 1972, pp. 437-50; repr. In S. M. Stern, Studies in Early Isma‘ilism, Jerusalem and Leiden, 1983, pp. 234-53.

This article was originally published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Vol. VI, p. 590-93, ed. Ehsan Yarshater, New York, 1993.