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Tracing the Ismaili Faith

Miza Muhammad Said’s ‘Religion and Esoteric Teaching’ sheds much-needed light on the sect

by Khaled Ahmed

Asma Rashid has translated Mirza Muhammad Said’s monumental study, Religion and Esoteric Teaching (Ferozsons 2015), from Urdu to English, bringing to a new audience knowledge so far hidden because of conservative stasis and prohibition of path-breaking information. Among its findings is a positive assessment of an Islamic sect rarely discussed due to intolerance of variety in details of faith.

The Ismaili sect believes in the oneness of God, as well as the closing of divine revelation with Islam’s Prophet, whom it sees as “the final Prophet and Messenger of God to all humanity.” Ismailis and Twelvers both accept the six Imams of Islam, but the Ismailis also include Ismail ibn Jafar al-Sadiq as the seventh Imam. Al-Sadiq enjoys special importance in Islamic history, and after Hazrat Ali and Imam Husain, his influence on Islamic thought seems to be greater than that of other imams; the Twelvers consider him the compiler of their religious creed, while the Sufis accord him the highest rank among the venerable sheikhs of the mystic way of life. The list of his students includes the two imams of the Ahl al-Sunna, Abu Hanifa and Malik ibn Anas, the chief of the Mutazila, Wasil ibn Ata, and renowned alchemist and Sufi, Bin Hayyan.

Most religious leaders become the axis and center of exaggerated traditions and extremist beliefs after their death. But Imam Jafar al-Sadiq was invested with divinity even during his lifetime. Many controversial issues, for example that of nur al-risalat (light of Messenger-Prophet) are related on his authority. The Imamiya Shias refer to him as an authority on their religious code; and the Batiniya also ascribe their marvels to him. From a political angle, too, his life can be regarded as very prestigious, because during the 64-65 years of his life, he had to deal with the government of four Umayyad caliphs and two Abbasid caliphs.

Arrival of the Imam

The great revolution of the Islamic empire that eradicated the Umayyad government and replaced it with the Abbasid caliphate had nothing to do with al-Sadiq, who kept himself aloof from their conspiracies. According to the Shia tradition, he was poisoned to death in 148 hijra, but certain historians deny its validity. His death, much like that of his predecessors, created division over determining his successor. One sect denied his death entirely, regarding him as living and immortal, and began to await his return. This sect could not gain any historical prestige, but there was another division that left a very widespread and long-lasting effect on Islamic history.

While a majority accepted Musa Kazim as imam after Imam Jafar, certain people did not agree, saying that imamate was the right of his brother Ismail. According to reliable tradition, the latter had died a few years before the death of his respected father. His mother, Fatima, was a granddaughter of Imam Hasan, and her eminent lineage was likely one of the reasons for the preference accorded to her son’s claim to imamate. It was also said that Jafar had initially nominated Ismail as his legatee (wasi), but had later become displeased with him and nominated Musa al-Kazim as his successor.

The inspiration of Ismail

The Shias who had recognized the imamate of Musa answered this difficult question by saying that God is omnipotent and can change His will when He likes. But certain partisans of Ismail were not satisfied with its extremist faction’s traditions and maintained Ismail never died, but was hidden from the eyes of men by his venerable father who wanted to protect him from the machinations of his enemies. They said: “Ismail is alive and shall remain alive till such time when conditions are favorable to his appearance. He will then appear to bring the entire world under his sway, and command obedience and submission of the entire people. The word of Imam Jaafer cannot be refuted. Since he had appointed Ismail his successor, and had directed us to obey the latter’s commands, when we heard the news of Ismail’s death, we understood that he had not died but that he was the qaim (riser) and the muntazir (expected) imam, can be considered the original and pure Ismailiya belief.”

There is also a summary of the detailed account of the beliefs of the Qaramita—an Ismaili Shia movement that rejected the claim of the Faṭimid caliph Ubayd Allah to the imamate. The Qaramita asserted that after Islam’s Prophet, there were only seven imams. That is to say, similar to the common Shia belief, there were six imams from Imam Jafar. The seventh is Muhammad ibn Ismail who is Qaim and also holds the rank of messenger-prophet. They claimed that the risalat of the Prophet (peace be upon him) ended the day he appointed Hazrat Ali to his own office at Ghadir Khumm. This edict, they said, meant that the office of messenger-prophet was separated from his person and entrusted to Ali. After Hazrat Ali, the imamate, step by step, reached imam Jafar al-Sadiq. But even during his lifetime, the imamate was taken away from him and transferred to his son, Ismail. However, afterwards God changed His decision and, depriving both Jafar and Ismail of the imamate, entrusted this high office to Muhammad bin Ismail.

Imam and the Mahdi

According to Qaramita, Muhammad bin Ismail resides in Asia Minor, and he is Qaim and Mahdi. By this, they mean that he holds the rank of messenger-prophet and after abrogating the sharia of Islam’s Prophet, would establish a new sharia.

They also call Muhammad bin Ismail a “man of resolution.” They said the earth and the sky are seven in number; the human being is divided into seven parts—two hands, two feet, one back, one belly and one heart—while the head also has seven organs—two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and one mouth—and this authenticates the presence of seven imams.

Muhammad bin Ismail was older in age than his uncle, Imam Musa al-Kazim, and he grew under the kind protection of his grandfather, Hazrat Jaafar Sadiq. According Ismaili sources, after the death of his father, one of his sons Abd Allah kept riding from one place to another for fear of the enmity of the Abbasids and finally settled in the Syrian town of Salamiya. Ata-Malik al-Juwayni confirms Muhammad’s residence in Rayy. He says that he had many sons who led a clandestine life in Khurasan, and their descendants are spread as far as Qandhar and Sindh. And Muhammad b. Ismail’s second son went towards Syria and Maghrib. Since he was not a claimant to imamate he did not hide his heredity and his descendants were present in those countries. Certain Western historians relate that fearing the persecution and tyranny of Harun al-Rashid, Muhammad b. Ismail had migrated to India, and that he had six sons, Jaafar, Ismail, Ahmad, Husayn and Abdul Rahman.

The descent in India

The migration of Muhammad b. Ismail and his descendants to India and Sindh is significant. There exists strong historical and circumstantial evidence to prove that Sindh under Arab control had become a center of Ismaili and Qaramati missionary activities. For a while, at least, they seem to have established their control over Sindh and adjoining regions. Hence, the objective of one of the many expeditions of Mahmud Ghaznavi was to expel the Qaramita from Multan which had come under their control. Unfortunately this page of Indian history has been almost lost, and the events of the period of time between Muhammad b. Qasim, the first conqueror of Sindh and Mahmud Ghaznavi, have not still been investigated.

The reason is the same obscurity that conceals the early stages of the Ismailia movement from our eyes. Though some, if not all the revolts and conspiracies against the Abbasid government in the first half of the third century mentioned in history were certainly the result of intrigues. There were two main reasons for this remaining secret. Firstly, till this time the sun of the empire of the Abbasid dynasty was at its meridian, and no party had the temerity to declare an open war against it. It must be admitted that at the time of the death of 12th Imam Imam al-Hasan al-Askari, the moderate elements of the Shia group did not agree on any final opinion on his succession and most of them did not repose confidence in stories told about the birth and occupation, etc., of imam al-Hasan al-Askari’s son. Gradually these traditions gained strength and according to human habit many original notes and details were added to them. When centuries later, the compilation of the Ithna Ashariya (Twelver) religion took place, these traditions were lost.

Rise of the great Fatimids

The conclusion drawn from the above events is that about 260 hijra, the two main parties of the Shia  group had been deprived of the guidance and direction of any manifest imam and waited for the time when the hidden (mastur) imam would appear and gather the dispersed power of Shias at one center. The only difference was that one party, that is, the Ismailia considered Muhammad b. Ismail or any person from his descendants as the center of their devotion in absentia, and the other party, that is the Imamiya regarded Hazrat al-Hasan al-Askari’s son, Muhammad or some other unknown son as the “hidden imam” and awaited his coming.

Some 20 years after the start of the Qaramita revolt, the Ismailia Fatimid state was founded in Maghrib or North-West Africa, and in 358 hijra their authority was established all over North Africa and Egypt. The mutual relations of the Fatimids and Qaramita remain vague. Most Muslim historians and Western scholars think that Ubayd-Allah (or Abd Allah) al-Mahdi, the founder of tithe Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, was a member or even the chief of the Qaramita and considered Ubayd-Allah al-Mahdi and his descendants as rightful imams. Certain historians also believe the story that when the Qaramita took away the Black Stone from its place, Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi wrote them a letter by way of admonition and reprimand, and its text makes it obvious that the Qaramita and al-Mahdi were a totally united party.

Ismaili utopia of Egypt

But some of the historians consider this letter fake, and it is a fact that al-Mahdi’s admonition proved quite ineffective. The Black Stone remained in the custody of the Qaramita many years after the death of al-Mahdi, and the former returned it to Mecca in 339 hijra of their own accord. This story that the Qaramita exacted a huge sum from the Muslims in compensation or that they damaged the Stone seems unreliable. When the famous Fatimid commander Jawhar invaded Egypt, the Qaramita caused havoc in Syria with the apparent aim of dispersing the Abbasid forces.

In Egypt the Ismailia Fatimids established the Jamia Al-Azhar as the center of knowledge. This great mosque and university is antecedent of the universities of Europe and is considered a model for them. Who were the founders of this magnificent movement? Ismailis consider Imam Jaafar Sadiq, his son and their descendants as the founders of their teaching and organization. Certain persons mentioned by historians, in this connection, deserve to be introduced together. Among them, it is difficult distinguish between Ismailis and the Qarmatis because the tradition of the mutual alliance of these sects has now become so firmly established that it is not possible to reject it totally. Moreover, through research and investigation reach the conclusion that the Qaramita could not be described as a correct sample of the Ismailia belief and practice, but there seems no rational basis for excluding them from the Ismailia.

The esoteric faith

From what has been said so far about the early history of the Ismailia movement, one can draw the conclusion that it was, in fact a sect that differed from the majority about the succession of Imam Jaafar Sadiq. In the beginning this sect recognized only seven imams, hence, in contrast to the Shia majority who are known as Ithna Ashariya (Twelver) and believe in twelve imams, Ismailis were known as Sabiya (Seveners). Gradually however, certain doctrines penetrated this sect, creating an extreme division and distinction between the apparent (Zahir) and hidden (batin) forms of the religion. It was on this basis that it was given the appellation of Batiniya. However, it is doubtful when and in what period, this appellation was given to this sect and whether the entire Ismailia deserved this appellation or only those offshoots that totally relinquished the outer forms of religion and decisively deviated from the Sharia.

As for the Qaramita, it would be a fair verdict to consider them a member of the Ismaili group. To call this entire group Qarmati is in fact a slander. Since the Ismailia creed achieved its most authentic and permanent form with the support of the Fatimid caliphs, it is often mentioned also by the name of Fatimiya or Fatimiyyun. From the beginning, there seems to be an admixture of three different elements in this teaching. One of them is the Greek philosophy that manifested itself before the Islamic community with its neo-Platonic interpretation and Eastern apparel, and whose list of devotees, included, besides the Ismailis, the Sufis, the Mutakallimun and the philosophers. The Ismailis related this philosophy to the imams of the Ahl al-Bayt, but at the same time believed in restricting it to the elite, and considered it harmful for the common people. Certain “ghali” (extreme) beliefs provided to them by other Shiite sects, especially the Kaysaniya, constituted the second element.

Confronting the Abbasids

The objective of Ismailia politics was the subversion and destruction of the Abbasid caliphate. But it is incorrect to think that Ismailia missionary activity was merely a revolutionary conspiracy as if it had no connection whatever with religion and philosophy. The only reason for this extreme distrust of the Ismaili teaching is that the very first demonstration of this movement was the revolt of the Qaramita. The acts committed by the latter in the course of their exploits were sufficient proof of the fact that this party had very little regard and respect for Islam at heart.

Probably one reason for this irreligiousness was that philosophical teaching which was trying to corrode the foundations of traditional religion for some time. But the main reason was that the ranks of the Qaramita were composed of ignorant Nabatean farmers and Beduin plunderers who held no religious sentiment in their hearts other than an aversion for the general body of Muslims. The Fatimid Empire of Africa and Egypt was not prepared to force their subjects to accept the Ismaili or Shiite beliefs and considered religious violence inadmissible. It is possible that the Ismailia party was the moving spirit behind its political policies; but the position of this party was no more than that of a secret association and it dared not bring its activities into daylight, though the clandestine method of missionary propaganda and activity continued for a long period of time and its influence reached India and further. The establishment of the Fatimid caliphate led to moderation in Ismaili religion. In the khutba and certain other rites, the Shiite way was in force, but extremist beliefs like hulul (incarnation) and tajwid (delegation of authority) failed to take root in the hot and dry climate of North Africa. Owed to this religious tolerance, the philosophical taste found a good climate for its development, and the Jamia al-Azhar and Dar al-Hikma of Cairo proved very useful in the popularization of Islamic sciences.

In any case, the charges of atheism and immorality levelled against the Ismailis by their opponents are totally inadmissible and misplaced. The fatwa of Ibn Taymiya that the last stage of Ismailia teaching was a denial of the existence of the Creator is far from the reality. The Ismaili belief as expressed should be considered very pure, very exalted, and absolutely sincere. Its goal is a sort of unity of existence that is a complete negation of skepticism and atheism. It is based on a harmony of the ingredients of the universe and this harmony is the result of the Divine Will.

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