The Idea of Ismailism by Faisal Devji

Named after the founder of a lineage claiming to inherit Muhammad’s religious authority, the Ismailis comprise three important groups, each with its own structure of leadership. The Nizaris, who are the largest of these, constitute the subject of my essay. Comprising some three million people, they have traditionally been concentrated in India and Pakistan, in Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Western China, and in Iran and Syria. Those from South and Central Asia comprise a number of distinct ethnic groups, with many of the former now also spread across East and Central Africa, as well as much of Western Europe and North America, in immigrant diasporas. In theological terms part of the Shi’a division of Islam, all the Ismaili groups take their various identities from the separate lines of leaders or imams they have historically followed, though of course their divisions are as much philosophical as genealogical. And while Ismailism can be defined broadly by an esoteric approach to revelation, it is the Nizaris who, since the twelfth century, have taken this characteristic furthest in rejecting the religious law altogether, or at least treating it as a matter of convention alone.

Studies of Ismailism have been dominated by the kind of sociological, historical and theological lines of inquiry of which the paragraph above provides a brief and summary example. And while these methods of analysis no doubt represent useful ways of thinking about the sect, they tend to result in a scholarship that is about an increasingly narrow classification of differences, in the style favoured by colonial surveys and the kind of positivist knowledge embodied in encyclopaedias. Apart from the exegesis of medieval texts and a few very recent philosophical and anthropological studies, there is almost no work on Ismailism as a form of thought. I stress this fact because, as a small minority in the world of Islam, it is precisely as a form of thought that Ismailism has historically been important, and that its modern history can be seen as self-destructive insofar as the Ismaili leadership has actively sought to destroy such thinking within the group. Yet the irony is that this danger emerges from the very success of the Ismailis as, in their own estimation, the most ‘modern’ and ‘progressive’ of Muslim communities.

Let us not dwell upon the intellectual glories of some forgotten Nizari past. Instead, let me begin this essay with a twentieth-century restatement of Ismailism as a form of thought. Perhaps the most important Muslim thinker of the twentieth century, the Indian poet and philosopher Mohammad Iqbal also wrote one of the earliest books to reconsider the intellectual tradition of Islam in an original way. First published in 1908, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia not only focussed on Persian, rather than Arabic, thought, it also placed Islam within a philosophical trajectory beginning with Zoroastrianism and ending with Bahaism. And while Iqbal’s later interpreters have sought to minimise the importance of this book by describing it as an early work whose argument he eventually rejected, it broached many of the themes that the poet-philosopher would go on to explore to the end of his life. One of these has to do with extricating Muslim philosophy from its alleged dependence on a Greek predecessor, but not to make it independent so much as part of another overlapping tradition of thought that Iqbal identified with Persia – which he was surely right in considering the more influential one for Islam.

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