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HISTORY OF THE ISMAILIS
 
 

HISTORY OF THE ISMAILIS
     The Ismaili sect
     The Fatimids
     Assassins
     The Aga Khan




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The Ismaili sect: from the 9th century

The Ismailis break away from the main body of The Shi'as on the question of the line of imams in succession to Muhammad (precisely the issue on which the Shi'as and Sunnis have broken away from each other ). Between Shi'as and Ismailis the dispute concerns the seventh imam, in the later years of the 8th century. The Shi'as give this position to Musa; the Ismailis support his elder brother, Ismail.

By the 9th century the Ismailis are an identifiable sect, based in Syria and strongly opposed to the rule of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. In the 10th century they establish their own rule over the entire coast of north Africa, technically part of the caliphate.
 








The Fatimid dynasty: 909-1171

An Ismaili leader, Ubaydulla, conquers in 909 a stretch of north Africa, displacing the Aghlabids in Kairouan. He founds there a dynasty known as Fatimid - for he claims to be a caliph in the Shi'a line of descent from Ali and Fatima his wife, the daughter of Muhammad (see The Shi'as).

Sixty years later, in 969, a Fatimid army conquers Egypt, which now becomes the centre of a kingdom stretching the length of the north African coast. A new capital city is founded, adjoining a Muslim garrison town on the Nile. It is called Al Kahira ('the victorious'), known in its western form as Cairo. In the following year, 970, the Fatimids establish in Cairo the university mosque of Al Azhar which has remained ever since a centre of Islamic learning.
 









At the height of Fatimid power, in the early 11th century, Cairo is the capital of an empire which includes Sicily, the western part of the Arabian peninsula (with the holy places of Mecca and Medina) and the Mediterranean coast up to Syria.

A century later the authority of the Ismaili caliphs has crumbled. There is little opposition in 1171 when Saladin, subsequently leader of the Islamic world against the intruding crusaders, deposes the last of the Fatimid line. And there is no protest when Saladin has the name of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad included in the Friday prayers in Cairo's mosques. After a Shi'a interlude, Egypt is back in the Sunni fold.
 







The collapse of the Fatimid caliphate does not mean the end of the political influence of the Ismailis. There has been a dispute in 1094 over who shall be caliph. The Fatimids in Egypt select one of two brothers. Ismailis in Persia and Syria prefer the other, by the name of Nizar.

The Nizari become a separate and extremely alarming sect. From the late 11th century they begin seizing territory in northern Persia. They make a religious virtue of terrorism and murder in pursuit of their ends. They are known to history as the Assassins.
 






Assassins: 11th - 13th century

It is not known why their contemporaries give the name Assassins to the Nizari Ismailis who become promiment in the 11th century. All that is certain is that the political activities of the Nizari amply justify the subsequent use of 'assassin' in its modern meaning. (The old theory that the word comes from hashish, which the Assassins supposedly use to get in the mood for murder, derives from Marco Polo and other western writers but seems to have little basis.)

The Assassins first show their hand when they begin to seize strongholds in Persia in the late 11th century, particularly the almost impregnable fortress of Alamut. In the 12th century they also acquire bases in Syria.
 









The Assassins train terrorists and employ a network of secret agents in the camps and cities of their enemies. These enemies are legion. Foremost among them are the Seljuk Turks and the caliphs in Baghdad (the Assassins murder two caliphs). But the terrorists also act against their fellow Ismailis, the Fatimids in Cairo. They assassinate at least one prominent crusader. Most eccentrically of all, they make two attempts on the life of Saladin.

No way is found to eliminate this troublesome sect until the Assassins are finally crushed between two great rival powers in the 12th century - the Mameluke sultans of Egypt and the Mongols, led by Hulagu.
 






The Aga Khan: from 1818

Deprived of their military power, the Assassins survive in Persia as the Nizari Ismaili, a minor heretical sect of Shi'ite Islam (see The Shi'as). Their leaders still claim descent, through Nizar, from Ali and Fatima. In 1818 one of them is granted the title Aga Khan by the shah of Persia.

In 1840, after an abortive uprising against the next shah, this first Aga Khan flees to India. There he and his descendants remain leaders of an Ismaili community numbered, in Syria, Iran, Pakistan, India and elsewhere, in several millions. The present Aga Khan, born in 1936, is only the fourth in the line.
 








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