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Monday, March 28, 2011

A Modern History of the Ismailis


A Modern History of the Ismailis: Continuity and Change in a Muslim Community

I. B. Tauris Publishers in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London 2010.


The second largest Shi‘i Muslim community after the Ithna‘ashari or Twelvers, the Ismailis have had a long and complex history dating back to the formative period of Islam. Subsequently, they became subdivided into a number of major branches and minor groups. However, since the beginning of the 12th century CE, the Ismailis have existed in terms of two main branches, the Nizaris and the Tayyibi Must‘alians, who have been respectively designated as Khojas and Bohras in South Asia. The Tayyibis themselves were in due course split into the dominant Da’udi and minority Sulaymani and ‘Alavi communities. Currently, the Ismailis of different communities are dispersed as religious minorities in more than 25 countries of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America.
Numbering several millions, the Ismailis represent a diversity of ethnicities and literary traditions, and speak a variety of languages and dialects. The majoritarian Nizari Ismaili community now recognises His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as their 49th hereditary Imam or spiritual leader. The Da’udi, Sulaymani and ‘Alavi Tayyibi Ismailis are led by different lines of da‘is with supreme authority while all the Tayyibi Imams have remained in concealment and are inaccessible to their followers.
Until the middle of the 20th century, the Ismailis were by and large misrepresented with a variety of myths and legends circulating about their teachings and practices. This was due to the fact that they were almost exclusively studied and evaluated, in both Western and Muslim countries, on the basis of evidence collected or fabricated by their detractors. These perceptions of the Ismailis have been drastically revised, however, by the results of modern scholarship in Ismaili studies, based on an increasing number of manuscript sources produced in different phases of Ismaili history. The rich and varied Ismaili literature recovered and studied in modern times, especially since the 1940s, has particularly enhanced our knowledge of the mediaeval history and traditions of the Ismailis.
But the modern period in Ismaili history, covering approximately the last two centuries, has not received its deserved share of benefit from the recent progress in Ismaili studies. A major reason for this stems from the fact that adequate textual sources on the modern history of the Ismailis in various regions have not always been available, while it remains extremely difficult for non-Ismaili scholars who do not have the relevant language skills to tap into the rich oral traditions existing in the regions where the Ismailis have lived for centuries.
In sum, it seems that a suitable modern history of the Ismailis still awaits much preparatory work. Only then may we begin to have a better understanding of the evolution of the Ismaili communities of various regions together with their heritage and literary traditions. A Modern History of the Ismailis represents a first attempt in that direction.
This book contains chapters on the modern history of the Nizari Ismailis of several regions where these communities have traditionally lived. These chapters are mostly written by Ismaili scholars, both young and well established, who have the necessary language skills as well as familiarity with these communities’ oral and literary traditions. There is a chapter devoted to the issue of Nizari settlement in the West, an important phenomenon since the mid-twentieth century. A few chapters also deal with the reforms and institutional initiatives of the last two Nizari Imams, Aga Khan III and Aga Khan IV, and their achievements.
A separate section is devoted to the modern history of the Tayyibi Must‘alian Ismailis, now dominated by the Da’udi Bohras of South Asia. The authors of the Tayyibi chapters too are well placed as young scholars belonging to a prominent family within the leadership hierarchy of the Da’udi Bohra community and, as such, have had access to the sources of information required for approaching their subjects.
These collected studies should not be taken to represent the final word on their subject matters. Several chapters, in fact, may reflect work in progress, as the state of our knowledge on modern Ismaili history is still continuously undergoing revision and enhancement. One main aim here, as with all research and publications at the Institute, has been to facilitate scholarship and to contribute to further progress in the field of Ismaili studies.

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