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Ismaili Studies

In its modern and scientific form, dating to the 1930s, Ismaili studies represent one of the newest fields of Islamic studies. Before this time, the Ismailis were almost exclusively studied and evaluated on the basis of evidence collected, or often fabricated, by their detractors. As a result, they were persistently misrepresented with a variety of myths and legends circulating about their teachings and practices. The perceptions of outsiders of the Ismailis in the pre-modern period, in both Muslim and Christian milieus, contrast with modern developments in Ismaili studies to make the history of this field particularly fascinating.

As a Shi‘i community with a religio-political agenda that aimed to uproot the ‘Abbasidsinfo-icon and restore the caliphateinfo-icon to a line of ‘Alid imams, the Ismailis from early on became a target of the hostility of the Sunni establishment. With the foundation of the Fatimid state in 297 AH/909 CE, the potential challenge of the Ismailis to Sunni “orthodoxy” became actualised, and there upon the ‘Abbasids and the Sunni ulamainfo-icon launched what amounted to an official anti-Ismaili propaganda campaign. The overall purpose of this prolonged campaign was to discredit the entire Ismaili movement from its roots, so that they could be readily condemned by other Muslims as mulhids, heretics or deviators from the true religious path. In particular, several generations of Sunni polemicists, starting with Abu ‘Abd Allah Mohammad b. ‘Ali b. Ridam al-Ta’i al-Kufi, known as Ibn Ridam, who lived in Baghdad during the first half of the 4th AH/10th CE century, began to fabricate evidence that would provide justification for the condemnation of the Ismailis on specific doctrinal grounds. Ibn Ridam’s book on the refutation of the Ismailis has not survived, but it was used extensively by another polemicist and early ‘Alid genealogist Sharifinfo-icon Abu ‘l-Husayn Mohammad b. ‘Ali, better known as Akhu Muhsin, who wrote his own anti-Ismaili work to refute the doctrines of the Ismailis and the ‘Alid genealogy of their imams. Akhu Muhsin’s treatise, too, written around 372 AH/982 CE, has not survived directly. However, the Ibn Ridam-Akhu Muhsin accounts have been preserved fragmentarily in the writings of Nuwayri (pp. 187-317), Ibn al-Dawadari (pp. 6-21, 44-156), and al-Maqrizi (pp. 22-29, 151-202). These polemical writings were used as a major source of information by Sunni heresiographers, such as Abu Mansur ‘Abd al-Qahir b. Tahir al-Baghdadi (pp. 265-99), who produced another important category of source material against the Ismailis. The earliest Twelver Shi‘i heresiographers, Nawbakhti and Qumi, who were better informed than their Sunni counterparts about the internal divisions of Shi‘isminfo-icon, were less hostile toward the Ismailis while upholding the legitimacy of the rival Husaynid line of ‘Alid Imams recognised by the Twelver Shi‘i.

Polemicists also fabricated travesties in which they attributed a variety of shocking beliefs and practices to the Ismailis. These travesties circulated widely in the guise of genuine Ismaili works and were used as source materials by later polemicists and heresiographers. Akhu Muhsin claims to have read one of these forgeries, the anonymous Kitab al-siyasa, quoted also by al-Baghdadi (pp. 277-79), which expounded the procedures allegedly followed by Ismaili da'is (missionaries) to attract converts and instruct them through seven stages of initiation (balaghinfo-icon), leading ultimately to libertinism and atheism (see Stern, pp. 56-83). The same book, or another travesty entitled Kitab al-balagh, was claimed to have been seen by Ibn al-Nadim (pp. 238 , 240). In fact, the Ismaili tradition itself only knows these travesties from the polemics of its enemies. Nonetheless, the anti-Ismaili polemical and heresiographical traditions, in turn, influenced the historians, theologians and jurists who wished to comment on the Ismailis. By their misrepresentation of the Ismailis, the anti-Ismaili authors in fact produced a “black legend” in the course of the 4th AH/10th CE century. Thus, Ismailism was portrayed as the arch-heresy of Islam, carefully designed by some non-‘Alid impostors, or possibly even a Jewish magician disguised as a Muslim, with the aim of destroying Islam from within (see, for instance, Ivanow, 1946). By the 5th AH/11th CE century, this “black legend,” with its elaborate details and stages of initiation, had been accepted as an accurate and reliable description of Ismaili motives, beliefs and practices, leading to further accusations against the Ismailiyya, or Batiniyyahinfo-icon, another designation coined in reference to the Ismailis by their detractors.

The revolt of the Persian Ismailis led by Hasan-i Sabbah against the Saljuqinfo-icon Turks provoked another round of Sunni reaction against the Ismailis in general and the Nizari Ismailis in particular. The new literary campaign was initiated by the all-powerful Saljuq vizierinfo-icon Nizam al-Mulk, who devoted a long chapter in his Siasat nama (pp. 282-311; trans., pp. 208-31) to the condemnation of the Ismailis. At the same time, Ghazali was commissioned by the ‘Abbasid caliphinfo-icon al-Mustazhir to write a major polemical tract against the Batinis and their doctrine of ta‘lim (authoritative instruction from the Imaminfo-icon; see al-Ghazali, Fada’ih al-Batiniyyah). It was under such circumstances that the Nizari Ismailis of Syria were referred to by the term of abuse, hashishiyya (Abu Shama, I, pp. 240, 258; Ibn Muyassar, p. 102). The Persian Nizarisinfo-icon, too, were designated as hashishi in some contemporary Zaydi sources written in northern Persia (Madelung, pp. 146, 239). However, it should be pointed out that all Muslim sources which refer to the Nizaris as hashishis use this term in its pejorative sense of “low-class rabble,” without accusing the Nizaris of actually using the narcotic hashish.

It was in the time of Rashid al-Dininfo-icon Sinan, who led the Syrian Nizaris for three decades until his death in 589 AH/1193 CE, that occidental chroniclers of the Crusades and a number of European travellers began to write about the Nizari Ismailis, better known in medieval Europe as “the Assassins.” The very term “Assassin” was evidently based on local variants of the Arabic word hashishi (plural, hashishiyya) picked up in the Levant by the Crusadersinfo-icon and their European observers. The Crusader circles, who remained completely ignorant of Islam and the Ismailis, now began to produce reports about the alleged secret practices of the Nizari Ismailis, with whom they had come into contact in Syria. Eventually, medieval Europeans themselves began to fabricate and put into circulation both in the Latin Orient and in Europe a number of tales, rooted in their “imaginative ignorance,” about the secret practices of the Assassins and their leader, the so-called “Old Man of the Mountain”- another term coined by the Crusader circles and originally applied to Sinan (see, e.g., Arnold of Lubeck, pp. 178-79, 240; Daftary, 1994, p. 116). These imaginative tales revolved around the recruitment and training of the Nizari fida’is. The so-called Assassin legends consisted of a number of interconnected tales which developed in stages and finally culminated in a synthesis popularised by Marco Polo (I, pp. 139-46). Different Assassin legends were “imagined” independently and at times concurrently by different authors, such as Arnold of Lubeck (d. 1212) and James of Vitry (d. 1240); and by the 8th AH/14th CE century, these legends had acquired wide currency and were accepted as reliable descriptions of secret Nizari practices (Daftary, 1994, pp. 88-127). Henceforth, the Nizaris were portrayed in medieval European sources as a sinister order of hashish-crazed “assassins” bent on senseless murder and mischief.

The orientalists of the 19th century, led by A. I. Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), correctly identified the Ismailis as a Shi‘i Muslim community, but they were still obliged to study them exclusively on the basis of the hostile Sunni sources and the fanciful tales of the Crusader circles. Consequently, the orientalists, too, lent their seal of approval to the medieval myths about the Ismailis, including the anti-Ismaili “black legend” of the Sunni polemicists and the Assassin legends of the Crusaders. It was under such circumstances that von Hammer Purgstall (1774-1856) wrote the first Western book on the Persian Nizaris of the Alamutinfo-icon period. This book, permeated with misconceptions and misrepresentations, received much acclaim in Europe and continued to be treated as the standard history of the Nizaris until the 1930s. With rare exceptions, notably the studies of Charles F. Defremery (1822-83) on the Nizaris of Syria and Persia and those of Michael J. de Goeje (1836-1909) on the Carmatians, the Ismailis continued to be misrepresented to varying degrees by later orientalists. Even a distinguished scholar like Edward Browne could not resist reiterating the orientalistic tales of his predecessors about the Ismailis (I, 391-415; II, 190-211, 453-60). Meanwhile, Westerners retained the habit of referring to the Nizari Ismailis of the Alamut period as the Assassins, a misnomer rooted in a medieval pejorative appellation.

The breakthrough in Ismaili studies occurred with the recovery and study of genuine Ismaili texts on a relatively large scale – manuscript sources which had been preserved secretly in scattered private collections. A few Ismaili manuscripts of Syrian provenance had already surfaced in Paris during the nineteenth century, and some fragments of these Arabic texts were published by S. Guyard among others. At the same time, Paul Casanova (1861-1926), who produced important studies on the Fatimidsinfo-icon, was the first European orientalist to recognise the Ismaili connection of the Rasa’il Ikhwan al-Safa’. More Ismaili manuscripts preserved in the Yemen and Central Asia were recovered in the opening decades of the twentieth century (see Griffini, pp. 80-88; Ivanow, 1917, pp. 359-86). However, by 1922, when the first Western bibliography of Ismaili works was compiled by Louis Massignon, who erroneously used the terms Carmatian and Ismaili interchangeably, scholars clearly still possessed only a very limited knowledge of Ismaili literature.

Modern scholarship in Ismaili studies was initiated in the 1930s in India, where significant collections of Ismaili manuscripts are preserved within the Tayyibi Ismaili Bohrainfo-icon community. The breakthrough resulted mainly from the pioneering efforts of Wladimir Ivanow (1886-1970) and a few Ismaili Bohra scholars, notably Asaf A. A. Fyzee (1899-1981), Husayn F. Hamdani (1901-62) and Zahid ‘Ali (1888-1958), all of whom possessed family collections of important manuscripts. It was indeed Fyzee who through his studies of Qadiinfo-icon al-Nu‘man’s legal treatises made modern scholars aware of the existence of an independent Ismaili school of jurisprudence (see Daftary, 1984 , pp. 49-63). Ivanow found access not only to the Arabic manuscripts preserved by Tayyibi Ismaili Bohras but also to the Persian Ismaili literature of the Nizaris of Persia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. As a result, he compiled the first detailed cata­logue of Ismaili works, attesting to the hitherto unknown richness and diversity of Ismaili literature and intellectual traditions. This catalogue (Ivanow, 1933) provided a scientific framework for modern Ismaili studies. Ismaili scholarship received another major impetus through the establishment in 1946, in Bombay, of the Ismaili Society, or Anjuman-i Isma‘ili.

By 1963, when Ivanow published a revised edition of his catalogue, many more Ismaili sources had been discovered and progress in Ismaili studies had been astonishing. Numerous Ismaili texts had now begun to be critically edited and studied, laying a solid foundation for further progress in the field. In this connection, other than the Persian Nizari texts edited and translated by Ivanow and published by the Ismaili Society, mention should be made of the editions and translations of the texts of the Fatimid and later times by Henry Corbin, published in his Bibliotheque Iranienne series, and the Arabic Ismaili texts edited by the Egyptian scholar Mohammad Kamil Husayn (1901-61) in his Silsilat Makhtutat al-Fatimiyin series. At the same time, ‘Arifinfo-icon Tamir (1921-98) published numerous Ismaili texts of Syrian provenance, though often in flawed editions. Meanwhile, a group of Egyptian scholars, notably Hasan Ibrahim Hasan (1892-1968), Jamal al-Din al-Shayyal (1911-67) and ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Majid (1920-99) made important contributions to Fatimid studies, while in the West, Bernard Lewis, Samuel M. Stern (1920-69), Wilferd Madelung and ‘Abbas Hamdani produced important studies on the early history of the Ismailis and their relations with the Carmatians; and Marshall Hodgson (1922-68) produced the first scholarly study of the Nizaris of the Alamut period.

The rapid progress in the recovery and study of Ismaili literature in the course of the 20th century is reflected well in I. K. Poonawala’s Biobibliography (1977), which identifies some 1300 titles written by more than 200 authors. Progress in Ismaili studies promises to continue at an even greater pace as many Ismailis themselves are now becoming interested in the study of their own history and literary heritage, and as The Institute of Ismaili Studies, with its unique collection of manuscripts (see Gacek; Cortese), continues to serve as a central forum for furthering progress in this field of Islamic studies.


Abu Shama, Kitab al-rawdatayn fi akhbar al-dawlatayn, 2 vols., Cairo, 1287-88/1870-71.

Abu Mansur ‘Abd al-Qaher b. Taher al-Baghdadi, al-Farq bayna al-firaq, ed. Mohammad Badr, Cairo, 1328/1910.

Arnold of Lubeck, Chronica Slavorum, in G. H. Pertz et al., eds., Monumenta Germaniae Historica: Scriptores, Hanover, 1826-1913, XXI, pp. 100-250. E. G.

Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia. D. Cortese, Ismaili and other Arabic Manuscripts: A Descriptive Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Library of The Institute of Ismaili Studies,

London, 2000.

F. Daftary, “The Bibliography of Asaf A. A. Fyzee,” Indo-Iranica 37, 1984, pp. 49-63.

— —, The Assassin Legends, London, 1994.

— —, “Introduction: Ismailis and Ismaili Studies,” in F. Daftary, ed., Mediaeval Ismaili History and Thought, Cambridge, 1996, pp. 1-12.

— —, “Mutala‘at-i Esma‘ili,” Iran Nameh 18, 2000, pp. 257-71.

Ibn al-Dawadari, Kanz al-durar VI, ed. I. Munajjed, Cairo, 1961.

Charles F. Defremery, “Nouvelles recherches sur les Ismaeliens ou Bathiniens de Syrie,” JA 5, S 3, 1854, pp. 373-421; 5, 1855, pp. 5-76.

— —, “Essai sur l’histoire des Ismaeliens ou Batiniens de la Perse,” JA 8, S 5, 1856, pp. 353-87; 15, 1860, pp. 130-210.

Ibn al-Nadim, ed. Tajaddud, 2nd ed.

Ibn Muyassar, Akhbar Misr, ed. A. Fu’ad Sayyed, Cairo, 1981.

A. Gacek, Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the Library of The Institute of Ismaili Studies I, London, 1984.

Abu Hamed Mohammad al-Ghazali, Fada’eh al-Batiniyyah, ed. ‘A. Badawi, Cairo, 1964.

M. J. de Goeje, Memoire sur les Carmathes du Bahrain et les Fatimides, 2nd ed., Leiden, 1886.

E. Griffini, “Die jungste ambrosianische Sammlung arabischer Handschriften,” ZDMG 69, 1915, pp. 63-88.

J. von Hammer-Purgstall, Die Geschichte der Assassinen, Stuttgart and Tubingen, 1818; tr. J. Hellert and P. A. de la Nourais, Histoire de l’ordre des Assassins, Paris, 1833; tr. O. C. Wood, The History of the Assassins, London, 1835; reprinted, New York, 1968.

M. G. S. Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, The Hague, 1955.

V. A. Ivanov [Ivanow], “Ismailitskiya rukopisi Aziatskago Muzeya. Sobranie I. Zarubin, 1916g.,” (Ismaili Manuscripts, Asiatic Museum: Collection of I. Zarubin) Bulletin de l’Academie des Sciences de Russie 11, S 6, 1917, pp. 359-86.

— — , A Guide to Ismaili Literature, London, 1933.

— —, The Alleged Founder of Ismailism, Bombay, 1946.

— —, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliographical Survey, Tehran, 1963.

W. Madelung, ed., Arabic Texts Concerning the History of the Zaydi Imams of Tabaristan, Daylaman and Gilan, Beirut, 1987.

Marco Polo, The Book of Sir Marco Polo, the Venetian, ed. and tr. H. Yule, 3rd rev. ed. by H. Cordier, 2 vols., London, 1929.

Taqi al-Din Ahmad b. ‘Ali al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az al-hunafa’ I, ed. J. al-Shayyal, Cairo, 1967.

L. Massignon, “Esquissed’une bibliographie Qarmate,” in T. W. Arnold and R. A. Nicholson, ed., A Volume of Oriental Studies Presented to Edward G. Browne, Cambridge, 1922, pp. 329-38; reprinted in L. Massignon, Opera Minora, ed. Y. Moubarac, Paris, 1969, I, pp. 627-39.

Nizam al-Mulk, Siar al-muluk (Siasat-nama), ed. H. Darke, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1347 S./1968; tr. H. Darke, The Book of Government or Rules for Kings, 2nd ed., London, 1978.

Ahmad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Nowayri, Nihayat al-Arab XXV, ed. M. J. ‘Abd al-Al al-Hini et al., Cairo, 1984.

I. K. Poonawala, Biobibliography of Ismaili Literature, Malibu, Calif., 1977.

A. I. Silvestre de Sacy, “Memoire sur la dynastie des Assassins, et sur l’etymologie de leur Nom,” in Memoires de l’Institut Royal de France 4, 1818, pp. 1-84; tr. A. Azodi, “Memoir on the Dynasty of the Assassins, and on the Etymology of their Name” in

F. Daftary, The Assassin Legends, London, 1994, pp. 129-88.

S. M. Stern, Studies in Early Ismailism, Jerusalem and Leiden, 1983.

Paul E. Walker, Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fatimid History and Its Sources, London, 2002.

This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in The Encyclopaedia Iranica, Columbia University, New York, Vol. XIV, pp. 173-212.

In its modern and scientific form, dating to the 1930s, Ismaili studies represent one of the newest fields of Islamic studies. Before this time, the Ismailis were almost exclusively studied and evaluated on the basis of evidence collected, or often fabricated, by their detractors. As a result,...