Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The Ismaili branch of Islam is the second largest Shi'a community, after the Twelvers based in Iran. The Ismailis are now scattered in more than twenty countries of Asia, Africa, Europe and The Americas. It is also known as "sevener Shi'a". The Ismailis believe that there were seven Imams that led the community of Muslims after the death of Muhammed. These two branches of Shi'a Islam split from each other over a century into their founding, so much of their early history is the same and they share several shrines.

These Imams are sons descended from Muhammed's cousin Ali's marriage to his daughter, Fatima. Two of their sons in succession were the first Imams of all Shi'a Muslims. The first son, Hasan bin Ali was believed to have been poisoned by the Ummayad Caliph, the second son, Husayn, is buried in Karbala, Iraq. All later Imams descend from his son Husayn.

The major difference between these two types of Shi'a is that seveners believe the first son of Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, Ismail bin Jafar was the true Imam, even though he was supposed to have died (or was "hidden" from view) before Jafar. Twelver Shias believe the second son, Musa al Kazim "inherited" the right to be Imam from his father.

Sevener Shi'is or Ismailis as they are now known can be found in over 25 countries, but primarily live in Central Asia, Syria, Lebanon, India , Pakistan, and Canada. Unlike other Shia communities of Islam, this community has a living Imam, called the Aga Khan. He is similar in position for them as the Pope is for Catholics, or the Patriarch of Constantinople for Orthodox Christians, but his position is hereditary, not elective. The current Aga Khan is the 49th herediatry Imam and the Aga Khan's uncle Sadruddin Aga Khan was also a renowned humanitarian with a position in the United Nations.

Because of political developments in Iran in the late 1830s and early 1840s the 46th Imam, Aga Hasan Ali Shah, emigrated to the Indian subcontinent. He was the first Imam to bear the title of Aga Khan, which had been previously bestowed on him by the Persian Emperor, Fath Ali Shah. He settled in Bombay in 1848 where he established his headquarters, a development that had an uplifting effect on the community in India and on the religious and communal life of the whole Ismaili world. It helped the community in India gain a greater sense of confidence and identity as Shia Ismaili Muslims, and laid the foundations for its social progress. It also marked the beginning of an era of more regular contacts between the Imam and his widely dispersed followers. Deputations came to Bombay to receive the Imam's guidance from as far afield as Kashgar in China, Bokhara in Central Asia, all parts of Iran, and the Middle East.

In the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, Ismailis from the Indian sub-continent migrated to East Africa in significant numbers.

External links and references