By Ali Mohammad Rajput
Muhammad the prophet of Islam died in Medina on 13th Rabi al-Awwal, 11 AH (8th June 632 CE) after completing his mission successfully as an Apostle and a Law giver. The Muslim majority believed that the Prophet did not leave any clear instructions as to who was to succeed him as the spiritual and political leader of the Islamic community.  While his close relatives including Ali (his cousin and son-in-law) and Abbas (his uncle) were busy in his funeral, some of the Muslims had gather in the saqifa (hall) of the Banu Saida in order to select a successor to the Prophet. Abu-Bakr, an old and respected companion of the Prophet, was selected as the khalifa (successor) of the messenger of God, and in this way creating, almost instantaneously, the historic institution of caliphate. 
The selection of the first caliph was however, not unanimous. There was one group of Muslims who sincerely believed that the Prophet had hinted on several occasions during his life time as to who aught to succeed him and in this respect, he favoured Ali ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, who was brought up by him since his very young age. This group argued that Hazrat Ali’s claim for the caliphate out weighed those of any other living Muslim. It was due to Hazrat Ali’s close relationship with the Prophet as well as his personal merits which added to his credibility during his whole life which he spent under the close supervision of the messenger of God. They also believed that on the Prophet’s last journey from Mecca at a place called Ghadir-Khumm,  before a large audience, he announced the appointment of Hazrat Ali by divine decree (nass) as the Imam and the successor of his mission. The group of Muslims are known in history as Shiat-ul-Ali (supporters of Ali)  or simply as Shia. The majority party who supported the election is known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at or simply Sunnis.
Sunni Islam views the institution of caliphate as being primarily a temporal office. The caliph is chosen as the most competent and pious among the Muslim community, to create a central political authority in order to execute the sharia (Qur’anic Law). He possesses no particular spiritual powers that distinguish him from the rest of the believers. He can neither Judge nor resolve the issues of faith or dogma, which are determined by the recognized Jurists and legitimized by the consensus (ijma)  of the community. Therefore, the Caliph is primarily a political and legal executive whose foremost function is the defense of the faith and of the faithful.
The Shia, on the other hand, believe that Hazrat Ali was nominated by the Prophet by the express Command of Allah as the ‘Imam’ and the successor of the Prophet and His mission and it is a duty incumbent upon every Imam in turn to appoint his successor from his line by the divine consent (nass). Thus there always is a divinely appointed Imam in every age who is the sole interpreter of the words of God (Sahib-i-Tawil). He is truly the successor of the Prophet both as the defender of the faith and of the faithful and at no time can this earth exit without the person of the Imam. In this light the Shia consider Ali to be the wasi (the executor of his will) of the Prophet’s mission and they believe that the line of Imamat must continue from his progeny through his wife, Fatima, who was also the Prophet’s daughter. Thus after Ali, his son Hazrat Hasan  succeeded him as Imam who in turn passed the Imamat to his brother Hazrat Hussain. Afterwards the Imamat passed from father to son to Zainul Abidin, to his son Muhammad al-Baqir and to his son Ja’far al-Sadiq who was the sixth Imam of the Shia. The Shia belief rests upon the central figure of the Imam and as it is a hereditary institution, confusion was bound to arise at some stage on the point of succession. Thus the Shia are divided into several sections on the point of succession of the Imamate. 
Kaysaniya and Zaidis
The first division among the Shia appeared during the life of Imam Zainul Abidin who died in the year 94 AH/712-713 CE. He lived thirty-four years after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, a sufficiently long period to leave an impression of his personality on his followers. He was the only one of the sons of Imam Hussain whose life was spared during the massacre of Karbala, since he did not take part in the fighting due to illness. During the tragedy of Karbala, he was lying in his tent watching hopelessly his entire family butchered along with their most loyal followers. This left a permanent mark on his mind and he chose the rest of his life in seclusion and prayer in Medina, his ancestral home and avoided public appearance and had nothing to do with the political activities. When he was approached to lead the Shia’s avenge of the tragedy of Karbala, he categorically refused to take any part in it. Thus the Shia approached another son of Imam Ali, a half-brother of Imam Hussain, by the name Mohammad Hanifiya who reluctantly agreed to lead the Shia. This shifted the Imamat from the descendants of the Prophet through Fatima to a son of Ali from his second wife Hanifiya. The Shia who accepted the Imamat of Mohammad Hanifiya came to be known, Kaysaniya. This created the first deviation from the legitimist body of the Shia, where the Imamat remained strictly restricted in the line of Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Bibi Fatima through Imam Hussain and his progeny.
According to the Shia tradition, Zainul Abidin, before his death, nominated Muhammad al-Baqir, his elder son, as his wasi and successor who followed his father’s strict policy not to indulge in any political activity. His younger brother Zaid was however politically very active and had close associations with the Mutazilites. When the Shias of Kufa approached Imam al-Baqir for leadership to rise against the government of the day to avenge the blood of Imam Hussain, he rejected their demand totally. But a good majority of Shia preferred the leadership of Zaid, the half-brother of Imam al-Baqir for his activist policy and his bold attitude. When they approached Zaid for leadership and he agreed, a faction known as Zaidiya sect was born.
The Ismaili-Ithna’asheri Division
A major crisis arose among the Shia after the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, who had five sons. Abdullah and Ismail were the eldest sons by his first wife Fatima, a grand-daughter of Hazrat Hasan Ibn Ali. Imam al-Sadiq did not take a second wife as long as Fatima was alive. Thus, there was a considerable gap in the ages of Abdullah and Ismail on the one hand, and Musa al-Kazim, Ishaq and Muhammad, Imam Sadiq’s three other sons from Hamida of Sudanese origins, on the other. Ismail was probably the second son of Imam al-Sadiq. He was about 25 years older than Musa, his younger half-brother. The exact date and circumstances of Ismail’s death also remain obscure. Some Ismaili authors relate that he survived his father, but a large number of Shia sources report that he pre-deceased his father by five years.
According to the majority of the available sources, Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq had indeed designated Ismail by nass (divine decree) as his successor in Imamate. After the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq a great confusion arose amongst his sons as each of his surviving sons claimed the Imamat but could not produce sufficient credentials, and so their followers melted away in a short period expect for two candidates; Ismail and Musa. Ultimately the majority of the Shia favoured Musa al-Kazim, a younger son of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq and half-brother of Ismail. The Twelver Shia, however, believe that Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq revoked his first nass in favour of Ismail and made a second nass in favour of his son Musa al-Kazim.
Thus after the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (148AH/765 CE) a major split came about among the Shia community. One section of Shia recognised the Imamat of Musa al-Kazim (d. 182 AH/798 CE) as their Imam and followed the future Imams from his progeny. The line of Musa al-Kazim continued until the twelfth Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi who is said to have disappeared at a very young age in Samara (Iraq) in the year 260 AH/873 CE, and is still the awaited Imam by the great majority of Shias at the present time. This group of Shia, the followers of the twelve Imams, are known as Ithna’asheri or Twelvers. 
Imam Ismail and the Commencement of the Dawr-al-Satar (Ismaili Period of Concealment)
The second group of the Shia recognized Ismail as the legitimate Imam, who they believe had not pre-deceased his father Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq. With regard to the Shia Twelver claims that Imam Ismail had pre-deceased Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, the Ismailis believe that Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq observed taqiyya (dissimulation)  and gave a chance to his real successor to go underground so that their enemy, the Abbasids, did not pursue Ismail, and that his Imamat and his activities went un-noticed. Thus Musa al-Kazim who was believed to be poisoned by the Abbasid Caliph Harun was in fact a veil (hijab) for his elder brother Ismail. A section of the Ismailis was of the opinion that Musa al-Kazim gave his own life as a sacrifice for the sake of his brother Ismail, the true Imam. 
The Ismailis further argued that the Imam being masum (infallible) could not make an error of Judgement and therefore the first nass (designation) of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq was the correct one. Thus, this group accepted Hazrat Ismail as their Imam and are known as Ismailia or Ismailis.
Strong Abbasid persecution had put the entire Shia movement on guard and had indeed driven the general run of the Shias, particularly the Ismailis, underground. The Abbasid authorities considered the Ismaili Imams as their arch political rivals and enemies, but in spite of their organised intelligence service, could not catch up with the Ismaili Imams, and their whereabouts remained unknown to them for a very long time. The secrecy maintained by the Ismaili dawa, as well as the Imams’ location away from Baghdad, the Abbasid capital, helped the Ismaili underground movement considerably.
During this period, the Imams settled in Salamiyya, near Hamma in Syria, but their identity and whereabouts were known only to a few completely trusted disciples. The four Imams who had succeeded Imam Ismail – Muhammd ibn Ismail, Wafi Ahmad, Taqi Muhammad, and Radi Abdullah – while maintaining anonymity, were engaged in the creation of a remarkable network of mission centers equipped with a very well-developed and organized religious philosophy which came to be known as dawa.  The term dawa – although used by some non-Ismaili circles – was the skillful organization and a highly elaborate and sophisticated network of communication within the community and unique to the Ismailis.  The Ismaili faith retained its vitality in this period, during which the identities of the Imams remained protected, living as they were in hazardous circumstances. This period has been described as dawr- al-satar (period of concealment).
The Ismaili Imams carried out their mission from the secret hideouts from the year 148AH/765 CE until the time Imam al-Mahdi (the 5th generation of Imam Ismail) emerged as the rightful Imam in Sijilmasa, and established the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa in the year 297 AH/909 CE. [15b]
The Ismaili Caliphate, first in North Africa and then in Egypt, lasted for 285 years with their purpose-built capital al-Qahira (Cairo) with a majestic Mosque Jami’ al-Azhar and the very first University of the world, long before Oxford or Cambridge were planned. The Imam of the present age of the Ismaili community is Shah Karim al-Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan 4th, who is the 49th Imam in the direct unbroken chain from the progeny of Imam Hussain and Imam Ismail.
The Fatimid Caliphate
Imam al-Mahdi, the founder of the Fatimid Caliphate, claimed to be the true Imam from the line of Imam Ismail and was a very capable statesman indeed. He laid down the foundations of a durable Ismaili state in a predominant Sunni population. This required abilities of a very high order, which undoubtedly he richly possessed. He founded his new capital Mahdiyya (named after his own title al-Mahdi) in the year 304 AH/916 CE and founded his Caliphate on tolerance, and never displayed the fanaticism of a sectarian ruler. 
The emergence of the Fatimid Caliphate is a major event in Islamic history. For the first time a large part of the Islamic world had passed under the control of a Shia sect which not only rejected the spiritual claims of the Abbasids, but declared its resolve to replace them by a new Universalist Imamate. To the Fatimids, North Africa was only a base of operations from which to conquer all Islamic lands, as previously the Abbasids had started out from Khurasan in 747 CE. The Fatimids proceeded to put their plans in action with a great speed. Thus, during the reign of Imam al-Mahdi (died 934 CE), and the next two Imams, Imam al-Qaim and Imam al-Mansur, they ruled over considerable parts of North Africa and Sicily, and launched two unsuccessful expeditions against Egypt. 
Under Imam al-Muizz (953-975 CE), the Fatimids reached the height of their glory and universal triumph of Ismailis appeared not far distant. The fourth Fatimid Caliph possessed remarkable qualities: he was humane and generous, simple and just, a good administrator, and very tolerant and conciliatory. He was served by one of the greatest generals of the time, Jawhar al-Saqli who in the year 969 CE, at the head of an army claimed to be 100,000 strong conquered Egypt and laid the foundation of a new capital city to be called al-Qahira (the Victorious), which the West has corrupted to Cairo. The great and well-known University of al-Azhar (361 AH/972 CE) was erected in the middle of the city which was to play an important role in advancing the Ismaili dawa.
The Mediterranean Islands such as Crete, Corsica, Malta and Sicily were brought under Fatimid controls which were to play a crucial role in the naval power of the Fatimids. Their direct political power could now be seen far beyond Egypt and North Africa and in fact included important Islamic countries such as Palestine, Syria, Hijaz and Yemen and as far as Sind, thus influencing the entire Islamic world. 
The Nizar-Mustali Division
The reign of the 8th Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir billah (1035-1094 CE) is noted for the longest Caliphate in Muslim history and it is full of very significant events. During this period the Fatimid Empire touched its highest peak and then fell into a sharp decline. When Imam al-Mustansir died in 1094 CE, the Ismaili mission saw its greatest rift and division in its entire history. 
Ordinarily the Fatimid Caliphs kept a personal control on three most important offices of their government namely the Civil Administration, the dawa and the Armed Forces. In 1074 CE, however, Imam al-Mustansir invited Badr al-Jamali, his military governor of Palestine, to come over to Cairo and bestowed upon him all the three key offices of the State mentioned above. Thus Badr al-Jamali became the most powerful person and de facto ruler of Egypt where as the Caliph himself remained merely a figurehead. The real power was wielded by the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (Amir-al-Joshen) and this office came to be associated with the family of Badr who was succeeded by his son al-Afdal.
Al-Mustansir had already designated (nass) to his eldest son Nizar as his successor and it was wholeheartedly accepted by most Ismaili circles. On the death of al-Mustansir (1094 CE), however, his prime minister and commander of the army, al-Afdal, proclaimed his brother-in-law, al-Mustali, a teenaged son of al-Mustansir as the successor to his father as the Fatimid Caliph. It is easily seen that al-Afdal had a vested interest in the appointment of al-Mustali, who had no public followings and who would consequently be dependent on his powerful patron. It seems that he had already figured it out before the death of al-Mustansir, as he gave his sister in marriage to this young prince and made the ties with him absolutely firm. Afdal explained to the public that the deceased Imam and Caliph, al-Mustansir billah, on his deathbed changed his nomination in favour of his younger son al-Mustali and cancelled his earlier nomination of his eldest son Nizar. He produced a few witnesses to certify the new nomination, and thus put al-Mustali on the throne of the Fatimid Caliphate. 
This decision, however, had far-reaching effects on the future aspiration of the Ismailis, who were totally split on this point of succession.
Ismailis loyal to Nizar, argued that the first nomination had never been cancelled and that it contradicted the basic principle of the Ismailis, and for the same principle they had not accepted the second nomination of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Musa al-Kazim, and had remained faithful to his first nomination in favour of Ismail. Most Ismailis living within the countries under direct rule of the Fatimids accepted the Imamate of al-Mustali but those who supported Nizar as their Imam were forced to accept the Imamat of al-Mustali, who was duly installed as the 9th Fatimid Caliph in Cairo.
Imam Nizar fled to Alexandria where he had a substantial following, but after an armed struggle was defeated by the armies of his brother al-Mustali. Imam Nizar was arrested, brought to Cairo and imprisoned till his death. There were four more Fatimid Caliphs from the line of al-Mustali ruling in Cairo but could not be considered more than a local Egyptian dynasty without power or influence. The Ismaili dream of a Universal Caliphate was thus lost. 
The supporters of Nizar managed to develop an Ismaili state in Iran and Syria whose founder and main architect was Hasan-i-Sabbah, the subject of my forthcoming book. He laid the foundations of a small but strong Ismaili state.
Date article posted: October 25, 2011.
Date updated: November 20, 2011 (corrections/typos)
Copyright: Ali M. Rajput
About the author: Since retiring from University teaching in Birmingham as Professor of Mathematical Statistics, Dr. Ali Rajput has devoted his life to a better understanding of his faith and serving the Ismaili community. In 1985, he completed a Master’s Degree at Birmingham University. In 1991, the current Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, asked him to visit his headquarters in Aiglemont, where Dr. Rajput was assigned to go on a mission to Tajikistan in March, 1991. Ever since that time he has been in the service of the people of Badakhshan, where he spends his summer working as Professor Emeritus at the University of Khorog. He spends the remainder of his time in Birmingham, England.
Dr. Rajput’s contributions to this Web site:
Exchange of Letters Between Sultan Malik Shah and Hasan-i-Sabbah
My Climb to ‘Sacred’ Alamut, Where Every Stone Tells a Story
An Audience with the 48th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan III
A Unique Moment in the Life of the Punjab Jamat (as part of I Wish I’d Been There series; it includes Dr. Rajput’s detailed profile).
Editor’s note: This article is an extract from Dr. Ali Mohammad Rajput’s forthcoming book, Hasan-i-Sabbah, his life and thought. The work is based on research work that he carried out as part of his Master’s Degree awarded to him by the University of Birmingham.
For related articles please click Great Moments in Ismaili History: The Establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate and Imam al-Mahdi’s Unveiling at Sijilmasa.
 Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat-Rasul Allah.
 Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat-Rasul Allah.
[3) L. Veccia Vaglieri, Ghadir Khumm in E.I.; Jafri, S.H.M. The Origin and Early Development of Shia Islam.
 Ivanow, Early Shia Movements, JBBRAS 17, 1941.
 In early Islam ‘ijma’ were the companions of the Prophet. Later they were the companions of the companions; some times they were the people of Medina. E.I.
 Nizari Ismailis consider Hasan as Imam-mastawada (temporary) as compared to Hussain who is Imam-i-mustaqar (permanent). See Nasir-ud-Din Tusi Tasawarat. In the names of the Imams that are recited in the Ismaili Dua, Hazrat Hasan is not included among the forty-nine Ismaili Imams from Hazrat Ali to the present Imam, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Hussaini, His Highness the Aga Khan. However, Hazrat Hasan is among the panj-tan-pak, or the five holy or pure ones.
 Zaydia sect accepted the Imamat of Zayd the son of Zynnal-Abidin Jafri (ref no 4).
 Levy, R. The account of the Ismaili doctrines JRAS III, 1930. Juvaini vol 3, Tarikh-i-Jehan-Gusha.
 Levy, R. The account of the Ismaili doctrines JRAS III, 1930. Juvaini vol 3, Tarikh-i-Jehan-Gusha.
 Ivanow (Ref no 4)
 Taqiyya is a Shia doctrine which allows dissimilution under compulsion or threat.
 Juvaini vol 3, Tarikh-i-Jehan-Gusha
 Not in article.
 Dawa has very broad meaning in the context of Ismaili movement. Primarily it means the organization with its complicated structure which preaches the Ismaili doctrines and invited the people to join their cause but it also begin to be known as the Ismaili philosophy itself along with its propagation organization.
 Cambridge History of Islam, vol 2., History of the Ismaili Dawa, JRAS 1932.
[15b] Ivanow Rise of the Fatimids. Brown, E G. Literary history of Persia, vol 2. Also, see The Unveiling at Sijilmasa on this Website
 Cambridge History of Persia, vol 2.
 Zahid Ali, Tarikh –i-Fatimiyya-i-Misr Urdu 1948.
 Hamadani, The Fatimids 1964. Vatikiotis, PJ. The Fatimid theory of state, 1957.
 Hamadani, The Fatimids 1964. Vatikiotis, PJ. The Fatimid theory of state 1957.
 Stern,SM. The Epistle of the Fatimid Caliph al-Amir (al-hidaya al-Amiriya) its date and its purpose JRAS 1950.
 Juvaini vol 2 , 3.
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Superb narration! Mash’Allah.
Thank you for sharing the wealth of your knowledge – it is the best gift one gives in humanity.
A short but an interesting narration of Nizari-Ismaili history!
” … the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (Amir-al-Joshen)… .” needs to be corrected as ‘amir al-jaish’ ????
Congratulations to Dr. Rajput for this interesting and worthreading piece covering early Ismaili history.
Ya ‘Ali Madad.
You may want check with Dr. Rajput again with regards to the statement, “It is easily seen that al-Afdal had a vested interest in the appointment of al-Afdal, who had …..” The second al-Afdal should have read “al-Mustali”. The second check you may want to confirm is again the same oversight in the second last paragraph “Imam Nizar fled to Alexandria where he had a substantial following, but after an armed struggle was defeated by the armies of his brother al-Afdal.” Here again al-Afdal should read al-Mustali or ‘his brother’ be omitted.
I don’t believe that the statement by Dr. Rajput, “Ismailis believe that Musa al-Kazim gave his own life as a sacrifice for the sake of his brother Ismail, the true Imam.” and is giving the reference of Juvaini vol 3, Tarikh-i-Jehan-Gusha. Now Juvaini was Ismaili polemic. Prior to this statement Dr. Rajput states, “After the death of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq a great confusion arose amongst his sons as each of his surviving sons claimed the Imamat but could not produce sufficient credentials, and so their followers melted away in a short period expect for two candidates; Ismail and Musa. Ultimately the majority of the Shia favored Musa al-Kazim, a younger son of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq and half-brother of Ismail.” It doesn’t make sense on one hand Musa was fighting for Imamat and on the other hand he was only doing it to create a veil (hijab) for Ismaili as Juvaini claims. Well in that case one could probably say the same for al-Mustali. I am cognizant of who Dr. Rajput is as he was my mentor when I delivered a talk on Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s centenary celebrations in Coventry in 1977. But I think there is a miss here. The problem with most scholars is that they validate their statements by referring to other sources. Ismailis never would believe that Musa created a veil for Ismaili which resulted in a major split in Shi’a Islam to this day. This just does not make sense. My apologies to Dr. Rajput but I am sure he will respect others’ opinion.
I am amused by the title of the article; “The Ismailis: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of the Fatimid Empire” The Fatimid Empire is alive and vibrant since the time of creation and Dr. Rajput is part of it in his service to Imam!
The mistakes you have noted in the first paragraph have been corrected – they were oversights. Thank you.
I thank you for your comments on my article and for pointing some obvious errors which, according to the editor, have been corrected.
As far as I have mentioned Musa being a veil for Ismail, it is only an opinion of certain section of people and not an absolute historical fact. Ismaili history of that period is extremely confusing and Juvaini, in particular, is clearly prejudiced against the Ismailia.
The fact that all the surviving children of Imam al-Jaffar contested for the Imamat indicates that Jaffar did not made a second ‘nass’ in his life time. Musa had the support of the majority.
As far as the title of the article, there is no argument that the Fatimid Empire vanished and then the Alamut State also perished, and Ismailis passed through very hard times during 1256 until 18th century. It is comparatively recently, during the reign of the last four Imams (or the Aga Khan Dynasty) that the Ismailis have come to light again, specially during the 48th and the current 49th Imams. I would like to say that the new “golden era” has aleady begun for the Ismailis, and we hope to touch the glorious heights which we once had during the Fatimid days.
Dr. Ali Mohammad Rajput
Dr Rajput even at the age (88) when most people just relax, he is actively engaged in what goes on in the world and relates it to what went on in this world we live in. He does this by reading and he can do so without getting exhausted at all. He can stimulate anyone’s mind if one cares to spend an hour or even a conversation via a mere telephone call! There are very few people I know who have such inexhaustible energy and presence of mind.
I wonder if Dr Rajput remembers the Canadian twins he met in Tehran in 1976? I am one of them…
Dear Pervis Rawji
Ya Ali Madad
Yes , I remember vividly that we met in the house of Mukhi Eesa Mirshahi in Tehran in 1976, 35 years ago. Since then , Mukhi Eesa came to UK and we saw each other very often. My own chidren have settled down well in life . Four sons and two daughters and 13 grand children. I am sure you have also settled well. I wish you a very happy life and God bless you all. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
With, regards, love and affection
Dr Ali Mohammad Rajput
Thanks to Dr. Rajput. It’s interesting to read more about the Ismailis (Fatimids) from different points of view. But it’s more fruitful if Dr. Rajput depends on different resources (modern and old). We’re looking forward to seeing the forthcoming book.
I thank Dr. Rajput for posting this informative historical piece about Ismaili history on Simerg.
A fascinating part of Ismaili history, well told. I am anxiously looking forward to Dr. Rajput’s forthcoming book.