In 1975, the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan (uncle of Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV) urged the Ismaili Muslims of Canada to be “Ambassadors” of the Ismaili Muslim community (read a primer on Who are the Shia Ismaili Muslims). Being an ambassador, in the Prince’s words, means explaining Ismaili traditions, history, and religion to every person that one interacts with.
I would like to see every Ismaili and particularly every young Ismaili become an Ambassador, a real ambassador of the community. And I mean active ambassadors, Ambassadors who really work hard. I want you to be active ambassadors. I want you to explain to your Canadian friends, to your neighbors, to the people that you work with, that you live with, the people that entertain you, or that you will be entertaining, what you are, where you come from, about your traditions, about your culture, about your religion, about the way in which the community functions… Explain the role of the Imam, not only his religious functions but also the economic and social advice that you receive from the Imam and what has happened to the community as a result of its unity in other parts of the world.
Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan,
(Vancouver, Canada, January 22, 1975)
Being a true and active “ambassador” of the Ismaili Muslim Community requires one to be intimately familiar with the 1,400 year history of the Ismaili Imamat and the Ismaili Community. The Imam of the time, Mawlana Shah Karim al-Husayni, recently shared how important it is to him that the Community learn about its own history and have a “sense of pride” and “understanding of our past”:
I wanted to just share with my Jamat leaders in Canada something which has been very important to me since many years back. And that is that the Jamat should learn about its remarkable history, should learn about the pluralism of its history, should learn about the great names, so that there is a sense of pride and an understanding of our past – of the greatness of the past of the Shia Ismaili Muslim Tariqah.
– Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV,
(Speech in Vancouver, November 2009)
The 1,400 year history of the Ismaili Imams and Community has not always been comfortable. The Ismaili Imams are today very much respected on the world stage and live in security. Likewise, most of the Ismaili Muslims enjoy security and the freedom to practice their faith. Thanks to the Imam’s guidance and blessings, the Ismailis have become culturally diverse, intellectually vibrant, practically progressive and ethically pluralistic Community today, However, until quite recently, the Ismaili Imamat and Community had to regularly endure oppression, violent persecution, massacres and genocides at the hands of oppressive Muslim dynasties and rules.
This article tells the inspiring story of some of the most tragic moments in 1,400 year Ismaili history, with a focus on the grave persecutions endured by the Imams and the Ismaili Community from the death of the Prophet to the cessation of most of the persecution in time of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah. Most striking is how the recent Ismaili Imams, out of their sheer mercy and love for the unity and welfare of Islam, selflessly served the needs and interests of all Muslims – despite the historical fact that the Ismaili Imams were severely persecuted by the Umayyad, ‘Abbasid, Saljuq, Ayyubid, Mongol, Timurid, Safawid and Ottoman dynasties. It is indeed miraculous that the Ismaili Imams and Community even survived these persecutions, massacres and genocides in the first place. Indeed, the very existence and endurance of the Imamat through such dangerous conditions over several centuries constitutes a proof of the Imamat’s legitimacy and divine inspiration. The scholar of Ismaili studies, Wladimir Ivanow, once wrote that:
My learned friends in Europe plainly disbelieved me when I wrote about the [Ismaili] community to them. It appeared to them quite unbelievable that the most brutal persecution, wholesale slaughter, age-long hostility and suppression were unable to annihilate the community.
– Wladimir Ivanow,
(“My First Meeting with the Ismailis in Persia,” Ilm 3, no. 3 (December 1977): 16–17)
This article, although lengthy, hopes to provide the reader with a very moving experience of Ismaili Muslim history. It conveys the struggles and the hardships that the Ismaili Imams had to constantly face; the dangers and threats endured by the Ismaili Muslims who followed them; the persecutions and genocides that threatened to wipe the Ismailis out; the miraculous survival of the Ismaili Imamat and the emergence of the Community in recent times; and finally, the manner in which the contemporary Ismaili Imams, having practically forgiven the past atrocities, now tirelessly work for the well-being of all Muslims and humanity at large.
This article, therefore, is dedicated to the memory of all the Ismaili Imams and murids, past and present, who risked or lost their lives enduring persecution, oppression, attacks and hardship for the sake of their faith. An Ismaili Muslim living in the 21st century must connect to the depths of his or her religious identity through remembering and understanding this past. Reading through the stories, accounts, and experiences documented in this history will hopefully allow the reader to “feel” this past, to transcend the present fleeting moment and bring the departed ones back to life in one’s remembrance of them. Most importantly, reading through this article’s recollection of Ismaili history can facilitate a deeper understanding of the Imam of the time whose spiritual essence encompasses the history and memory of all his predecessor-Imams and their murids.
History fosters a partnership with the dead, and the dead come to life through history. It also serves as a therapy for undue obsession with the present, and this may help to liberate one from being bound excessively by time. In Ismailsm, the fact that the Imam embodies a tradition extending considerably backwards in time creates the setting for such an experience. By encapsulating the past within himself, the Imam serves as history incarnate, so to speak. In this sense, history is not only ‘learned’; it is also ‘experienced’, with a heightening sense of one’s intellectual and moral imagination.
– Dr. Aziz Esmail, (“Why History”, Africa Ismaili (1970): 20-27)
The Present Imam embodies the history and memory of the previous Imams and the murids of their times.
Links to Periods of Isma‘ili History
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