York prof co-authors illustrated book about the Ismaili Muslims

The social, religious, artistic and culturally rich history of the Ismailis, a major branch of Shi’a Islam, is detailed in a new book The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, co-authored and co-edited by York Professor Zulfikar Hirji. Told as much through images as words, it is a sweeping history of a highly diverse Shi’a Muslim community that stretches back more than 14 centuries to the formative period of Islam.

“The Ismaili Muslims are incredibly diverse and yet share so much in common,” says Hirji, an anthropology professor at York and social historian of Muslim societies and cultures. Today, the Ismailis live in over 25 countries of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, North America and Australia. Hirji, a former research associate at The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, England, and junior research fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford, says “the history of the Ismailis is not unlike many other Muslim communities.” 

“One of the reasons for the book is to illustrate that Muslims are diverse; they live in different places, speak many languages, vary in terms of their social institutions and express their faith in many different ways," says Hirji. 

"The general public today increasingly hears about the Shi’a and the Sunnis as if these were monolithic entities. Muslims should not simply be defined as Sunni or Shi’a. This type of essentialism does not do justice to communities whose identities are far more complex – but in our sound-bite culture there is often little time to explain the complex social and cultural fabric and history of living communities.”  

Right: Zulfikar Hirji

Even among the Ismailis there are two main branches: the Nizari and the Tayyibi. The Nizaris follow a living guide or Imam – currently the 49th Imam, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, who descends directly from the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and his son-in-law and cousin ‘Ali. The Tayyibis, on the other hand, believe their Imams remain in concealment and are guided by leaders known as da’is.

Replete with photographs and illustrations of art, architecture, maps, manuscripts and artifacts found in private and public collections, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History (Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies distributed by Thames & Hudson, 2008), draws on recent academic research in Ismaili and Islamic Studies. The book traces Ismaili history from the formative period of Islam in the 7th century, when the Prophet Muhammad is said to have received God’s message, up to the present-day. It weaves its way through to the founding of Cairo by the Ismailis of the 10th century, and the subsequent movement and migration of the Ismailis to many different regions of the world; it explores their history as part of Islamic and world history.

Left: A manuscript of the Mi’a Kalima, comprising 100 sayings attributed to ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 661), the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, the fourth Caliph and first Imam of the Shi’a Muslims. Courtesy of the Institute of Ismaili Studies.

“The book talks about the formation of the Ismailis within the context of Islamic and world history and relates how the community has developed in different parts of the world. It also looks at the interface between religion and culture; the Ismailis speak different languages, live in different parts of the world and have multiple histories, yet they share beliefs in common with other Muslims, while retaining a unique tradition of their own,” says Hirji.

“The book is meant to be accessible to the public and academically sound at the same time. Pedagogically, we tried to produce the book so that the reader could open any two pages and learn something new.”

The book also draws upon modern scholarship to highlight some of the misperceptions and myths that have been generated about the Ismailis. Some of these myths and legends were created by European travellers such as Marco Polo and opponents of the Ismailis. Many remained in circulation until modern times. "Recent scholarship has made it clear that these stories were based on insufficient knowledge and hearsay,” says Hirji.

Right: Al-Azhar Park, a 30-hectare urban green space in historic Cairo, a city founded by 10th-century Ismaili Imams. The park was developed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and inaugurated in 2005. Photo by Gary Otte

“The irony is that while academia is increasingly systematic in studying the histories of various Muslim communities, the general public is often not aware of this diversity,” he says. “That is why books like this are needed. But the Ismailis are just one group whose history needs to be better understood. We’ve just scratched the surface on the systematic study of Muslim societies and cultures. There’s so much work to be done and a great deal to be written about the diversity amongst Muslims and the many different ways in which Muslims have sought to express their beliefs and live their lives.”

The Ismailis: An Illustrated History is divided into four main chapters – The Advent of Islam and the Early Shi’a, The Early Ismailis and the Fatimid State, The Nizari Ismailis until the 13th/19th Century and The Modern Nizari Ismailis. Each contains a chronology of key events, maps and images as well as information about the figures and themes important to Muslims at the time.

“We really wanted to tell the story through pictures as well. The juxtaposition of images of objects with manuscripts with photographs tells their own story,” says Hirji. “We wanted to evoke the landscapes and environment in which the Ismailis lived as well as the literature, art and architecture they produced and used, and the social and civic institutions they founded and developed.”

Left: An illuminated Qur’an made in India for I’tibar al-Saltana (d. 1928), the first cousin of Aqa ‘Ali Shah, Aga Khan II, the 47th Ismaili Imam. Courtesy of a private collector

Hirji says he is surprised at the amount of photographic material that still waits to be discovered. “It was through careful digging in archives and private collections that we were able to find many of these images, some of which came from members of the Ismaili community who had kept pictures taken by their ancestors.”

Hirji has published several articles in edited volumes, journals and reference works and is editor of Plurality and Pluralism in Muslim Contexts (The Institute of Ismaili Studies, forthcoming) and co-editor of Places of Worship and Devotion in Muslim Societies (Berghahn, forthcoming). He is also co-editor of the Routledge series on the Indian Ocean.

The Ismailis: An Illustrated History was co-written and edited by Farhad Daftary, acting director and head of the Department of Academic Research & Publications at The Institute of Ismaili Studies in the UK, consulting editor of Encyclopaedia Iranica and editor of the Ismaili Heritage Series.

For more information, visit The Institute of Ismaili Studies Web site.