Doctrine of Imamat During the Fatimid Period

By Abbas Hamdani

In all the work of the dais, the final interpreter and arbiter of law and doctrine remains the Imam. He ensures the continuity and progress in our thought, life, law and history. It is his greatest role for mankind, that is to keep the Sharia abreast of social change. The Imam is the symbol of change and development.

Introduction: The Fluidity of the Ismaili Faith and the Evolving Concept of Imamat

Dr. Kurwa [President of the Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom], thank you for your gracious introduction.  It is a great pleasure to be in the midst of those who are so interested and enthusiastic about the doctrines, history and social life of the community.

Ya Ali Madad.

The topic that has been given to me is “Ismaili Doctrines During the Fatimid Period.”

I would like to view the [Ismaili] doctrines in terms of a certain evolution. I am reminded of a very important statement made by Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah in his Memoirs of Aga Khan. It states (p. 65):

“Ismailism has survived because it has always been fluid. Rigidity is contrary to our whole way of life and outlook.”

This means that there is a certain dynamism about our lives and our ideas. We have always perceived them as developing in a historical process. Our doctrines are also not static. On the contrary we have been constantly developing them.

During the Fatimid period, the leaders of the Ismaili Dawa were engaged in forming a full-fledged outlook on life or philosophy. The climax of Ismaili thought was reached in the works of the dai Hamid al-din al-Kirmani of the time of Mawlana al-Hakim bi amr Allah. But Kirmani’s ideas were synthesised from those of the earlier Ismaili dais al-Nasafi, Abu Hatim al-Razi, Abu Yaqub al-Sijistani, the Brethren of Purity, lbn Hawshab, Jafar bi Mansur al-Yaman and the Qadi al-Numan. More than a hundred years before the time of these dais (or missionaries), there were earlier dais such as Abul-Khattab, Mubarak Maymun al-Qaddah and Abd Allah b. Maymun.

An illustration on cosmology and numerology from Rahat al-Aql by the Fatimid dai and philosopher Hamid al-Din Kirmani. The manuscript is in the library of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and is dated 1859 A.C. Photo Credit: The Institute of Ismaili Studies,

It was at the changeover from the Umayyad to Abbasid Caliphate that the Ismaili movement was born. It was the time of the great Imams, Jafar-al-Sadiq, Ismail b. Jafar and Muhammad b. Ismail. Therefore the ideology formulated by al-Kirmani and continued by many great dais of later period such as al-Muayyad fid-din al-Shirazi, Nasir-i-Khusraw and Hasan b. Sabbah has many earlier sources from which it developed.

That ideology was not just a matter of beliefs such as those of the One God and of Heaven and Hell, of the Day of  Judgment, of reward and punishment, but also of the chain of the Prophets, the line of the Imams, of spiritual guidance, of resurrection and return to our Creator. Besides these purely spiritual doctrines, there were others that related to the religious law and through that law of social reform and of political action that would lead to the creation of a Fatimid state — a place where our ideology could flourish and develop. The dais therefore played many roles, not only those of religious and intellectual leaders but also those of social reformers, political workers and administrative officers.

The central doctrine of the Ismaili community has always been the doctrine of Imamat because around it are built all the goals of the community and the roles of the dais, but this doctrine is also not rigid, it has been evolving, particularly in the writings and preachings of the dais. When we admit change in the concept of Imamat it does not mean that our central institution is changeable; it only means that our way of looking at it changes from time to time. If we think about the Universe, it does not mean that before our thought the Universe did not exist and then began to exist only as we thought about it. The objects of concepts are constant, but the concepts themselves change. The Imamat for us is constant, but our way of looking at it has been subject to a historical evolution.

Having made these introductory remarks, I would like to describe the evolution of our concept of Imamat. At the time when our Dawa (propagation) really began, that is the time of the Imam Muhammad al-Baqir, we had already inherited certain concepts from Shiite history.

Concept of Imam Mansus

The first of these was the concept of Imam Mansus, that is the Imam on whom nass (designation) has been made. He is a leader by virtue of the fact that a designation has been made on him by a previous Imam, going back to the first Imam, Mawlana Ali ibn Talib (peace be upon him), who in turn received his designation from the Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him) himself at Ghadir al-Khumm. The nass can only be made in the family of the Prophet and Hazrat Ali, that is in the progeny of Fatima, daughter of the Prophet and wife of Ali. This also involves our concept of the Ahl al-bayt (the household of the Prophet). Ahl al-bayt is the holy family, and Imamat through nass becomes sacred.

Imam as Redeemer and the Mahdi

Next, after the Battle of Karbala, a new concept was introduced, that of the Imam Redeemer. Imam Husayn, to us, accepted martyrdom because he believed that through his struggle, his community would be redeemed from tyranny and oppression.

After this came a third concept of Imam as the  Mahdi. When a Shiite leader Mukhtar was fighting against the Umayyad Caliph Abd al-Malik, he declared that his Imam, Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya (a son of Hazrat Ali but not of Fatima) who had died, would return and when he returned he would be Mahdi who will “fill the world with equity and justice as it is filled today with tyranny and oppression.”

Although we do not believe in the Imamat of Muhammad b. al-Hanafiyya, we accepted the concept of the Mahdi and applied it to our Imams. Particularly later in the Dawr al-satr (the period of concealed Imams) it was a doctrine that kept the Ismaili  hopes alive for the final establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate beginning with Mawlana Imam Mahdi in 297 H./909 AC.

Cyclical Stages of Divine Creation and Divine Guidance, and the Divine Light

During the times of  Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Jafar al-Sadiq, the Ismaili dais, having inherited the Perso-Indian philosophic concept of Divine Light and the Greek neo-platonic world view of the evolution of the world through several stages of divine creation, built an ideology in which Imamat has a special place.

Let me describe very briefly this ideology.

We begin with God, who is called the Mubda that is the Creator, the Initiator of the Universe. He sets into motion the First Intelligence and then the Universal Soul. From them develop the nine other Intelligences identified with heavenly bodies and planets. The Tenth Intelligence is followed by the creation of the Earth, which itself evolves from its mineral existence to the plant, then the animal and finally to the human existence. With the appearance of the first human being who is Adam begins a chain of Prophets and their ages (cycles).

A human being becomes a Prophet in several stages. The first stage is called the Khayal (vision) which connotes an extraordinary sense perception. Higher than that is Fath (Opening) which is knowledge in communication with a higher being. Above that is Jadd, a prophetic knowledge beyond senses. This leads to Wahy (revelation) or marifa (gnosis) making its possessor a Natiq (Prophet – the Lawgiver).

Ismailism then identified the six messengers of the Qur’an, namely Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad as the six Natiqs, each having a revealed law (Kitab). The seventh Natiq would come on the Day of Judgement; so Muhammad is the last Prophet of our age.

Ismaili ideology then followed this process into Imamat. Every cycle of Prophet had a Wasi (inheritor). Moses had Aaron; so Muhammad had Ali. Here is also  involved the concept of nass (designation). The Wasi Ali of Prophet Muhammad initiates a line of Imams, for every age must have an Imam, the Sahib az-zaman. He is Samit, not Natiq, that is he does not give a new Sharia (revealed law) but interprets it. He is the supreme interpreter in his time, and the community can only understand the Sharia (law) through his guidance (firmans).

Here came in the doctrine of zahir and batin. The Prophetic law is exoteric (zahir). But it is necessary to get to its meaning and motivation (batin) by a process of tawil (esoteric interpretation). On behalf of the Imam, the Ismaili dais did tawil and through it developed our ideology (Haqaiq – Truths – Philosophy).

But in all the work of the dais, the final interpreter and arbiter of law and doctrine remains the Imam. He ensures the continuity and progress in our thought, life, law and history. It is his greatest role for mankind, that is to keep the Sharia abreast of social change. The Imam is the symbol of change and development.

Going back to the theory of Divine Light (nur llahi) the Ismailis believed that it passed from God (Mubdi) through the Intelligences and Universal evolution to the human beings who became Prophets and Imams, coming right down to the Imam of the time (Imam al-Zaman) who by virtue of this Divine Light becomes Imam Masum, the Infallible Imam.

Finally starts the journey of a human being back to his Creator by the spiritual guidance (tayid) of the Imam. As our life has a beginning (Mabda) in God, it also has its end in God (Maad). This is the substance of the Ismaili theory of Mabda wal-Maad. Reward and punishment to us are in proportion to spiritual guidance we have received.

This ideology which began to be formulated during the time of Imams Muhammad al-Baqir and Jafar al-Sadiq and through the period of satr (concealed Imams) and zuhur (Fatimid Caliphate) reached its climax in the time of the Fatimid Caliph Mawlana Imam al-Hakim bi Amr Allah and was embodied in the works of our dai Kirmani at the beginning of the fifth century Hijra. The most beautiful feature of this ideology is the dynamic, changing, evolutionary, progressive view of life and history and of the existence of Universe, Imam, human being and our destiny.


Reading adapted from the text of a lecture delivered by Professor Abbas Hamdani at a special seminar on the Fatimids  held under the auspices of the Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom. The complete lecture was published in Ilm Volume 8, Numbers 2 & 3, December 1982 – February 1983.

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3 thoughts on “Doctrine of Imamat During the Fatimid Period

  1. The article provides answers to many of the questions about Ismailism. Thank you for building such a site and sharing this information. Very good work.

  2. This is very useful knowledge and some of the facts I didn’t know about Ismailism, although I am an Ismaili. Thank you so much for sharing the information, keep it up!!

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