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The Shī‘a Imami Ismā‘īlī Tariqah also referred to as the Ismā‘īlī or Nizārī ( an-Nizāriyyūn), are a path (tariqah) of Shī‘a Islām, emphasizing social justice, pluralism, and human reason within the framework of the mystical tradition of Islam. The Nizari are the second largest branch of Shia Islam and form the majority of the Ismā‘īlī ( ). There are an estimated 12 to 15 million Nizari Ismā‘īlī residing in more than 25 countries and territories.

Nizari teachings affirm the Islamic tenet that there is "No god but the One God, and Muhammad is the final Prophet of God". Along with other Shī‘a, Nizari believe that following the Prophet's death his relative Ali Ibn Talib was selected by divine decree to succeed the Prophet as Imam in the institution of Imamate (Imama) which continues in an unbroken hereditary chain through Ali Ibn Talib, and Fatimah Az Zahra (the Prophet Muhammad's daughter) to the present day, under the aegis of His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV, their forty ninth Imam.

Human society is believed to be in a state of continuous flux, the role of the Imam is to find permanent solutions to issues, and challenges raised by increasingly rapid changes in the world; to care for the spiritual and material well being of their followers as well as humanity at large, and to safeguard the rights of the individual to spiritual, social, and scientific enquiry.

The Nizāriyyah are the spiritual descendants of the Fatimid Caliphate and the subsequent "Assassins" of Alamūtmarker under Dā‘ī Hassan aṣ-Ṣabbaḥ ((c. 1034-1124)).



Isma'ili Islam believes God is the One true and perfect reality from which all forms descend. The creator who is omniscient, omnipotent, and beyond the comprehension of human thought or sensory perception. God creates and sustains existence (time-space) through a series of radiations originating in the godhead. From God's own substance waves radiate out, yet God's own being never decreases, nor diminishes. Waves move further away from the source through the realities, but subsequently become less divine. This process is on going and never ceases. So in one sense God not merely created existence, but is constantly sustaining it, and by extension the ultimate revelation of existence is that God is the only true reality.

The Arabic term for God is Allāh, in Persian Khuda. Nizari use both; but their discourse often describes God as "that which cannot be reached by the boldness of thoughts", "Black Light", and "Luminous Night". Though this unknowable divinity can not be realized in this reality, God may be contemplated within it, meditation of the divine can reveal a glimpse (deedar) of what is yet to come. The idea of Kashf (unveiling), as opposed to Satr (hidden), to reach a hidden mystical knowledge or truth (haqq) concerning the human condition, and the discovery of a fuller life. Creation consists of two states: The intelligible (batin) which is pure, and thus permanent, fixed, and eternal which can be revealed through unveiling (kasf), and the sensible (zahir) which is mixed, and thus dissolves, and is impermanent, and finite which is itself veiled (satr). Isma'ili seek to be bestowed with the Tajallî, the transfiguration of the individuel through meditative contemplation. Tajallî is seen as a divinely ordained act of virtue, in which a human being can attain a direct perception of the divine gnosis (ma'rifat), which is beyond knowable forms involving the annihilation (fanâ') of the one to whom it is granted.


A water colour ink and gold page from a Persian Qur'an, 14th century

Nizari like all Muslims consider the Qur'an to be the word of God; it is the central religious text of Islam. Muslims believe that the verses of the Qur'an were revealed to Muhammad by God through the Arch-Angel Gabriel between 610 CE and his death on June 8, 632 CE.

The Qur'an is divided into 114 suras, or chapters, which combined, contain 6,236 āyāt, or verses. The chronologically earlier suras, revealed at Mecca, are primarily concerned with ethical and spiritual topics. The later Medinan suras mostly discuss social and moral issues relevant to the Muslim community.

Naziri employ the science of Qu'ranic commentary and esoteric exegesis known as Ta'wil to reveal the batin (inner, esoteic), in addition to Tafsir to reveal the zahir (outer, exoteric), as tools of interpretation of scripture. Ta'wil stems from a Qur’anic word meaning "to return", "going back to" the original meaning of the Qur’an. While acknowledging the importance of both batin and zahir in religion, the batin (inner, esoteric) understandings of religion, informs how the Zahir (outer, exoteric) aspects of religion are practiced, but more importantly guides the believer on a spiritual journey that engages both the intellect ('aql) and the spirit (ruh) on a journey of discovery of the intangible truth (haq'iqq), with the ultimate destination being that of gnosis (ma'rifat).

The word Qur'an means "recitation". When Muslims speak in the abstract about "the Qur'an", they usually mean the scripture as recited rather than the printed work or any translation of it. For Isma'ili the Qu'ran is embodied most perfectly in the form of the Imam-i-Zaman, whose engagement of the Qu'ran through the use of Ta'wil and Tafsir is believed by Nizari to be "par excellence" due to divine inspiration.


A fundamental belief of the Imami Shi'a school is that the Prophet Muhammad, was imparted with a divine spark that dated back to the founding of the universe. This Nūr Dīn Muhammad (Light of Religion of Muhammad) had by divine decree been passed onto his son in law, Imam ‘Alī ibn Talib who had in turn passed it on to his descendants through the concept of nass; where divinely inspired, the Imām appoints his successor. Religious guidance can only come from the designate Imām, who remains a constant guide from God in the world. For Shia the Imāmate is a mercy, and a belief in humanity from God, who would never leave humanity without access to divine guidance and leadership. The term "Imām" takes on a different significance for the Shi‘a, whereas for Sunni an Imām is any member of a congregation who leads prayer.

For Isma'ili the chain of Imamate remains continuous until the end of the world, Imams may go in to satr (concealment, veiling) ushering in an age known as dawr-Al sartr (epoch of concealment) when the Imams remain hidden from the eyes of the bulk of their followers which may be generational; when safety is assured they re-emerge as kashf (manifest, unveiled), and usher in an age of dawr-al-Kashf (epoch of unveiling). For Isma'ili the Imams do not manifest supernatural abilities, but rather exemplary qualities in dealing with the spiritual and material well being of their followers, they guard individual intellectual inquiry, and foster community cohesion.


Pillars of Islam

Isma'ilism holds that there are seven pillars in Islam, each of which possess both an exoteric outer (Zahir) expression, and an esoteric inner (Batin) expression.

The Foundation:

The Shahādah or profession of faith is not considered a Pillar as it is in other schools of Islam. Rather as the foundation upon which the Seven Pillars rest. The recitation of the shahādatayn (La ilaha illa Allah wa Muhammadun rasulu l-Lah) “There is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God” confirms one as a Muslim. The Shia and Nizari add wa ‘Aliyun wali llah (علي ولي الله) "‘Alī is the guardian [appointed] of God" at the end of the shahādatayn, a confirmation one is a Mu'min "believer" under the guardianship (walayya) of the Imam and the esoteric inner path (tariqah).

The Seven Pillars consist of:

  1. Walayah Guardianship ( ); cultivating a pure loving, affection, attachment and intimacy to God, manifested in the Prophets and the Imams by continually offering loyalty, allegiance, devotion and obedience to God, and those who manifest divine guardianship: the Prophets and Imams. For the Nizari, God is the true desire of every soul.
  2. Taharah Purity ( ); physical cleanliness, keeping a hygienic home, and personal presence, but also a purity of the heart and the soul.
  3. Salah Prayer ( ) Nizari Isma'ili as Imami Shia practice the Salaah according to the Ja‘farī madhhab, which is performed to mark important festivals. Nizari more generally perform a ritual du‘a three times a day. The Nizari, like the Sufi, practice dhikr "remembrance" of God, the Prophets and the Imams, which can take the form of a melodic communal chant or can be performed in silence.
  4. Zakah Charity ( ); Volunteering, and sharing of ones own knowledge or skills, as well as tithing. Nizari are encouraged to actively volunteer in the running of community spaces, and offering their specialized knowledge to the wider community, legal, medical, or more vocational expertise. Zakah also refers to tithing, Islamic tradition holds that the Muhammad was designated to collect zakāt from believers, it is now the duty to pay the Imām or his representative; to be redistributed in local, and international development.
  5. Sawm Fasting ( ); Fasting during the month of Ramadan and to mark the new moon is believed to be beneficial for those who are overwrought with the base ego; desire, rage, and the self. Isma'ili who are following the tariqah (path) seek to transcend the base ego so as to attain an inner being that is in harmony, they absorb food as nourishment for a healthy, peaceful, body and mind; as the more important fast is that of mind and heart, where one abstains from unworthy concerns and worldly thoughts, and can be broken by succumbing to the base ego, and its insatiable desires.
  6. Hajj Pilgrimage ( ); The pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in an individual's life. For the Nizari, there is also a fuller discovery to be made regarding life. The Imams spirit, both a spiritual and physical glimpse (Deedar) aid them in transforming themselves into spiritual beings they cease to be ordinary people existing within the exoteric reality, but journey to and discover an inner reality of life.
  7. Jihad Struggle ( ); is a struggle against deeply personal and social vices, such as wrath, intolerance, envy, and that which removes one from the ease of the divine presence. The struggle may also take the form of a physical war against those that harm the peace, either militarily or through subterfuge, with the aim of restoring or creating a just society. Isma'ili are instructed to avoid provocation, and use of force only as a final resort, and only in self-defense.


Various rival approaches to the challenge that Greek rationalism posed to revelation permeated early Islamic society; the Ashʿari considered Kalam (reason) contradictory to Islam and philosophy (falsafa) as inherently antagonistic to faith, asserting the absolute supremacy of revelation, and the abandonment of reason in the spiritual space, and secular space (both of which are interconnected within orthodox Islam). The Mutazili took a less absolutist approach asserting the supremacy traditionalism, yet allowing for a limited role of reason (Kalam). Isma'ili adopted an altogether more philosophical approach in which only through reasoned discourse one could attain understanding of revelation, social structure, individualism and as well as the functioning of the natural world. For this reason Isma'ili produced a relatively scant collection of theological discourse in comparison to other Shia, and the Sunni. Yet they commanded a leading place in the development of philosophical discourse within the Islamic world.

While Nizari belong to the Imami or Ja‘fāriyya Madhab (school of Jurisprudence), founded by Imam Ja‘far as-Sadiq they adhere to sumpremacy of reason "Kalam", in the interpretation of scripture, and believe in the temporal relativism of understanding, as opposed to fiqh (traditional legalism), which adheres to an absolutism approach to revelation.

For Nizari reasoning is arrived at through a dialectic between revelation and human reasoning, based on a synergy of Islamic scripture and classical Greek philosophy, in particular Aristotelean reasoning and Platonic metaphysics. It seeks to extend an understanding of religion and revelation to identify the outwardly apparent (zahir), and also to penetrate to the roots, to retrieve and disclose that which is the inner underlying (batin). This process of discovery engages both the intellect (‘aql) and the spirit (ruh), operating in an integral synergy to illuminate and disclose truths (haqa’iq) culminating in gnosis (ma'rifat).


Isma'ili history is often traced through the unbroken hereditary chain of Guardianship or (waliya), beginning with as Shia believe Ali Ibn Talib being declared his successor as Imam by the Prophet Muhammad during his final pilgrimage to Meccamarker, a journey referred to as The Farewell Pilgrimage, and continuing in an unbroken chain to the current Imam His Highness Shah Karim Al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV

Their history includes the establishment of two states governed by their Imams, including the first Shia Empire, the Fatimid Empire, a considerable feat considering they are small minority of the Shia, who are in turn a minority within Islam, and the Federation of the Assassins based at the fortress of Alamut. And a number of smaller states and provinces, particularly in Persia, South Asia and Central Asia.

Contemporary Ismā'īlī

The current Imam, His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al-Husayni, The Agha Khan IV

Almost all Nizārī Ismā'īlī today accept His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al-Husayni, the Aga Khan IV as their Imām-I-Zaman (Imam of the Time), but for about 15,000 in western Syria. In Persian he is referred to religiously as Khudawand (Lord of the Time), in Arabic as Maulana (Master) or Hāzah Imām (Present Imam). Karim acceded his grandfather Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III to the Imāmate in 1957, aged just 20, and still an undergraduate at Harvard University. He was referred to as "the Imam of the Atomic age". The period following his accession can be characterized as one of rapid political and economic change. Planning of programs and institutions became increasingly difficult due to the rapid changes in newly-emerging post colonial nations where many of his followers resided. Upon becoming Imām, Karim's immediate concern was the preparation of his followers, wherever they lived, for the changes that lay ahead. This rapidly evolving situation called for bold initiatives and new programs to reflect developing national aspirations, in the newly independent nations.

In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, a major objective of the Community's social welfare and economic programs, until the mid-fifties, had been to create a broad base of businessmen, agriculturists, and professionals. The educational facilities of the community tended to emphasize secondary-level education. With the coming of independence, each nation's economic aspirations took on new dimensions, focusing on industrialization and modernization of agriculture. The community's educational priorities had to be reassessed in the context of new national goals, and new institutions had to be created to respond to the growing complexity of the development process.

In 1972, under the regime of the then President Idi Amin, Ismā'īlīs and other Asians were expelled despite being citizens of the country and having lived there for generations. Karim undertook urgent steps to facilitate the resettlement of Ismāʿīlīs displaced from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and also from Burma. Owing to his personal efforts most found homes, not only in Asia, but also in Europe and North America. Most of the basic resettlement problems were overcome remarkably rapidly. This was due to the adaptability of the Ismāʿīlīs themselves and in particular to their educational background and their linguistic abilities, as well as the efforts of the host countries and the moral and material support from Ismāʿīlī community programs.

In view of the importance that Islām places on maintaining a balance between the spiritual well-being of the individual and the quality of his life, the Imām's guidance deals with both aspects of the life of his followers. The Aga Khan has encouraged Ismā'īlī Muslims, settled in the industrialized world, to contribute towards the progress of communities in the developing world through various development programs. Indeed the Economist noted: that Isma'ili immigrant communities, integrated seamlessly as an immigrant community, and did better at attaining graduate and post graduate degrees, "far surpassing their native, Hindu, Sikh, fellow Muslims, and Chinese communities".

Silver Jubilee

From July 1982 to July 1983, to celebrate the present Aga Khan's Silver Jubilee, marking the 25th anniversary of his accession to the Imāmat, many new social and economic development projects were launched. These range from the establishment of the US$300 million international Aga Khan Universitymarker with its Faculty of Health Sciences and teaching hospital based in Karachi, the expansion of schools for girls and medical centers in the Hunza region, one of the remote parts of Northern Pakistan bordering on China and Afghanistan, to the establishment of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gujarat, India, and the extension of existing urban hospitals and primary health care centers in Tanzania and Kenya. These initiatives form part of an international network of institutions involved in fields that range from education, health and rural development, to architecture and the promotion of private sector enterprise and together make up the Aga Khan Development Network.

It is this commitment to man's dignity and relief of humanity that inspires the Ismā'īlī Imāmat's philanthropic institutions. Giving of one's competence, sharing one's time, material or intellectual ability with those among whom one lives, for the relief of hardship, pain or ignorance is a deeply ingrained tradition which shapes the social conscience of the Ismā'īlī Muslim community.

Golden Jubilee

During his Golden Jubilee from 2007-2008 marking 50 years of Imamate the Aga Khan commissioned a number of projects, renowned Pritzker Prize winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki was commissioned to design a new kind of community structure resembling an embassy in Canada, The "Delegation of the Ismaili Imamatmarker" opened in 8 December 2008, the building will be composed of two large interconnected spaces an atrium and a courtyard. The atrium is an interior space to be used all year round. It is protected by a unique glass dome made of multi-faceted, angular planes assembled to create the effect of rock crystal the Aga Khan asked Maki to consider the qualities of "rock crystal" in his design, which during the Fatimid Empire was valued by the Imams. Within the glass dome is an inner layer of woven glass-fibre fabric which will appear to float and hover over the atrium. The Delegation building sits along sussex drive near the Canadian parliament. Future Delegation buildings are planned for other capitals, beginning with Lisbon, Portugal.

In a addition to primary and secondary schools the Aga Khan Academies, were set up to equip future leaders in the developing world, with a leading standard education. The Aga Khan Museum, which will open in Toronto, Canada, will be the first museum dedicated to islamic civilization in the west, due for completion in 2011 it will be dedicated to the "acquisition, preservation and display of artefacts - from various periods and geographies - relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islamic communities". A series of new Isma'ili centre are underway, including Toronto, Ontario; Paris, France; Houston, Texas; Dushabi and the Pamir; Tajikistan.


World Constitution

The present Aga Khan continued the practice of his predecessor and extended constitutions to Ismā'īlī communities in the US, Canada, several European countries, the Gulf, Syria and Iran following a process of consultation within each constituency. In 1986, he promulgated a World Constitution that, for the first time, brought the social governance of the worldwide Ismā'īlī community into a single structure with built-in flexibility to account for diverse circumstances of different regions. Served by volunteers appointed by and accountable to the Imām, the Constitution functions as an enabler to harness the best in individual creativity in an ethos of group responsibility to promote the common well-being.

Like its predecessors, the present constitution is founded on adherence to the basic principles of Islam, belief in One God, and Muhammad as the seal of the prophets. And to each Ismā'īlī's spiritual allegiance to the Imām of the Time, which is separate from the secular allegiance that all Ismā'īlīs owe as citizens to their national entities. The present Imām and his predecessor emphasized every Ismāʿīlī's allegiance to his or her country as a fundamental obligation. These obligations are discharged not by passive affirmation but through responsible engagement and active commitment to uphold national integrity and contribute to peaceful development.

Places of Worship

Jama'at Khana (Arabic, Persian: جماعتِ خانة ), from the Arabic "Jamaat" (congregation), and the Persian "Khaneh" (house).

Jama'at Khana are Isma'ili houses of prayer, study, and community. They usually contain separate spaces for prayer, and a social hall for community gatherings.There are no principle architectural guidelines for Jama'at Khana although inspiration is drawn from Islamic architectural philosophy, and local architectural traditions to seamlessly, and discretely place them into the local architectural environment. Architectural forms and interior designs of Jamaat Khana vary from east to west, but are focussed on a minimalist design aesthetic.Jama'at Khana do not contain minarets, or announce the call to prayer, and while they may contain a central dome, seldom do.

Larger Jama'at Khana are referred to as "Dharkhanas", or "Isma'ili Centers" in the west, and have been referred to as "Isma'ili Cathedrals" by observers. While containing prayer, and social infrastructure albeit on a larger scale, they may also contain auditoriums and lecture spaces, libraries, offices, and council chambers, as they act as the regional, or national governing centers for community administration.

Jama'at Khana, particularly the larger centers offer their spaces to the community at large, and arrange guided tours. However, during prayer only Isma'ili are allowed to enter the prayer hall.


The Isma'ili flag known as "My Flag"
The Fatimids adopted Green (akhdar) as the colour of their standard, which symbolized their allegiance to Hasdret Ali, who in order to thwart an assassination attempt once wrapped himself in a green coverlet in place of the Prophet Muhammad. When Hassan I Sabbah captured Alamut it is said he hoisted the green standard over the fortress, it was later reported that Hassan I sabbah prophesied that when the Hidden Imam made himself known he would hoist a red flag, which Hasan II did during his appearance. Following the destruction of Alamut Ismaili hoisted both green and red flags above the tombs of their Imams. Green and Red were unified in the 19th century into the Isma'ili flag known as "My Flag".

The Fatimids also used a white standard with gold inlays, and the Caliph Imams often wore white with gold, as they do today. Isma'ili use a gold crest on white standard to symbolize the authority of Imamate, and often wear white in the presence of their Imam.

The heptagram (septegram) a seven pointed star is often used by Isma'ili as a symbol.



Marriage ("ʿurs" عرس), is a legal contract ("Nikkah" النكاح) between a consenting adult man and a woman, it is not considered a sacrament in Islam as it is in Christianity. As a contract it allows both parties to add certain conditions.

Nizari ideals of marriage envision a long term union and thus Nizari also reject short Nikah Mut'ah and Misyar temporary marriage contracts.

Nizari of either gender may marry from spouses from the Abrahamic faiths Jews, Christians, Samaritans, as well as Zoroastrians. However an emphasis is placed on marrying within the community, or converting partners who are outside the fold, raising children of mixed unions as Isma'ili Muslim.

Since marriage is not considered a sacrament in Islam, Nizari Isma'ili consider secular court marriages in the west as valid legal contracts. However many Isma'ili couples in the west opt into both a court marriage to secure legal recognition, in addition to a Nikkah ceremony performed at a Jama'at Khana.


Nāndi is a ceremony in which food is symbolically offered to the Imām-e Zamān, and is subsequently auctioned to the congregation. Monies obtained are forwarded to the Imām by officials. The Ceremony is conducted by volunteers from the community. The food is prepared at home and is brought to the Jamāa't khāne, the Mukhi (congregation head) includes the food known as "Mehmāni" during a blessing at the end of prayers, informing the congregation that it has been offered to the Imām and the benefits of it are for the whole Jamāt. If no physical Mehmāni has been brought to the Jamātkhāne then a symbolic plate called the "Mehmāni plate" can be touched during the Du'a Karavi ceremony, this serves as a substitute for physical food.

The origins of Nāndi are said to be in the Prophet Muhammad's time when a similar practice occurred, a more likely origin is that it developed from the south Asian Isma'ili who offered food within temples before their conversion to Islam, the ceremony then became Islamized, which explains its popularity amongst South Asians.


Nizari use an arithmetic based Lunar calendar to calculate the year, unlike most Muslim communities who rely on visual sightings. The Isma'ili calendar was developed in the Middle Ages during the Faitmid Caliphate of Imam Al-Hakim.

A lunar year contains about 354 11/30 days, Nizari Isma'ili employ a cycle of 11 leap years (kasibah) with 355 days in a 30 year cycle.The odd numbered months contain 30 days and the even numbered months 29 days, the 12th and final month in a leap year contains 30 days.

Nizari use 2, 5, 7, 10, 13, 16, 18, 21, 24, 26, 29 respectively in their calculations.


The Shia Ismaili Muslim diaspora is both ethnically and culturally diverse and consists of groups of South Asian extraction including Khoja, Mumani, Shahi, Punjabi, and Kasmiri. Iranians of Persian extraction, Syrian Arabs, Central Asians including Wakhis, Broshos and Chitralis from the Northern Mountainous Areas of Pakistan, Afghans of both the Hazara and Pamiri ethnic groups, and Tajiks. There are also smaller communities of ethnic east Africans, English, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Russians, Spaniards, Thai and others, who entered the community largely through conversion, marriage, or adoption. A substantial Chinese population remains disconnected from the community because of Chinese government policy regarding religion.

Nizari Isma'ili have established communities in 25 countries, with an estimated population of between twelve to fifteen million (China and other relating countries not included).

The largest group of Ismailis reside in Central Asia (Tajikistan, Afghanistan) mainly in rural areas. Ismailis in the Middle east are mainly in Syria, with the largest group being based in Salamia. South Asian Ismailis compose the largest ethnic group, particularly in Pakistan, followed by India and Bangladesh. East African Ismailis who originated from the South Asian Ismailis have developed themselves in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, and Madagascar. Ismailis who live in Europe are predominantly found in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Portugal. North American Ismailis have mainly settled in Canada, but there is also a large population in the United States.

International Development

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) was set up by the Imamate and the Isma'ili community as a group of private, non-denominational development agencies that seek to empower communities and individuals regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation, to seek to improve living conditions and opportunities within the developing world. It has active working relationships with NGO's like the UN, the EU, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and government bodies including the United States Agency for International Development, Canadian International Development Agency, the United Kingdom'smarker Department for International Development, and Germany'smarker Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development .

Agencies of the AKDN

See also


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