Of the various sects of Islam, there is one which stands out as being somewhat different from all others: this is the Nizari Isma'ili community, also known as "Aga-Khanis" after the man they follow.

In what respects do they possess their own special character? To outsiders, they seem quite westernised. They have coeducational schools, and their womenfolk are not expected to wear purdah. In their congregation halls, females pray alongside males - on carpets which are separate but adjacent - denoting equal rank and status for the two sexes.

Many Nizari Isma'ilis never undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca (partly because they do not really feel welcome in Saudi Arabia). The majority of them, on the other hand, make every effort to visit and pay homage to the Aga Khan at least once during their lifetime.

Two factors have contributed to the distinctive lifestyle and beliefs of the Nizaris. First, their spiritual Imam, Aga Khan IV, is much more westernised than any other Muslim leader. Second, the majority of present-day Isma'ilis originate from the Indian subcontinent, and this heritage has manifested itself in subtle but noticeable ways. During the 16th and 17th centuries CE, for example, Indian Nizaris often deemed it necessary to consult Hindu texts as well as The Holy Qur'an (which is of course their primary Book); in fact even today a fair number of Aga-Khanis enjoy and derive some inspiration from the Bhagavad Gita. Unlike other Muslims, they sometimes sing hymns during their services, usually in an Indian language such as Gujerati. In addition, many Nizaris believe that reincarnation of souls is possible under certain circumstances.

Nizaris are Shi'ites insofar as they regard 'Ali as the successor to the Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon him). Furthermore, they trace an unbroken line of Imams descended from 'Ali right through to the present Aga Khan, Prince Karim, who is 49th in the sequence. However, they diverged from the Sh'ia mainstream when they adopted Isma'il as their seventh Imam instead of his younger brother; that Imam's name is of course the origin of the community name "Isma'ili". (Later, the Isma'ilis changed their numbering system, and now regard him as their sixth Imam).

Thirteen generations later, this secondary branch split again, also in a dispute as to who should become the next Imam, with one group following Nizar, whilst the other recognised his younger brother (and eventually developed into the Bohra community). Thus, even though the name "Isma'ili" is widely used when describing the followers of the Aga Khan, it is better to call them "Nizari Isma'ilis" to distinguish them from Bohras - and also from the Druzes, an Isma'ili offshoot which flourishes in the Levant.

Another significant difference between Nizaris and other Shi'ites lies in their choice of festivals and holy days. For Nizaris, the Aga Khan's birthday and the anniversary of his inauguration are far more important than the 10th of Muharram - on which the majority of Shi'ites commemorate the battle of Kerbala and death of Husein, their third Imam.

A brief look at history illustrates how the Isma'ilis began to diverge from other Muslims over a thousand years ago (even if some of their early customs and beliefs no longer prevail). In the 10th and 11th centuries CE, Isma'ilis ruled the Fatimid Caliphate (named after Muhammed's daughter, who also became 'Ali's wife). Based in Egypt, at times the Fatimids also controlled Mecca, Jerusalem, Yemen, Sicily, much of Syria and most of north and northeast Africa - thereby becoming a serious rival to the other caliphate (which was governed from Baghdad). Furthermore, there was an extensive network of Fatimid missionaries, agents and settlements in 'Iraq, Persia and what is now Pakistan. In fact, during 1059 CE a pro-Fatimid general even managed to seize and maintain control of Baghdad and Basra.

There were extensive trade links (and therefore social contacts) between the Fatimids and European society. Even at that early stage, it was customary for women to come to Isma'ili assembly halls - possibly encouraged by ancient Egyptian tradition; (under the Pharaohs, women made a substantial contribution to local government and administration).

The Isma'ili reinterpretation of The Holy Qur'an gathered momentum after the founding of the famous Al Azhar University in Cairo. In addition, their philosophy was influenced by Neoplatonic (Hellenistic) ideas - due to contact with Persian scholars.

After the collapse of the Fatimid Dynasty and the schisms in the Isma'ili sect, not many Nizaris were left in Africa or Arabia. However, the Persian branch of the Isma'ilis supported Nizar's claim to the imamate - so this country became the new centre of Nizari activity.

From Persia, a succession of Nizari missionaries was eventually sent to western India. One of the most important of them was Pir Sadr Al Din, whose writings actually presented 'Ali as the tenth reincarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu (although modern-day Isma'ilis no longer believe that!) From the 15th century CE onwards, Sadr Al Din and his successors managed to establish a thriving Nizari community in Gujerat and Sindh.

Thus, when the 46th Nizari Imam was obliged to leave Persia in 1840, it was natural for him to seek refuge in India, where he continued to use the title "Aga Khan" (which had been bestowed on him in Persia). His grandson, Aga Khan III, married an Italian sculptress; their eldest son (Prince Aly Khan) even grew up in Europe and eventually selected an English lady to be his wife. After the death of the third Aga Khan the title skipped a generation and passed to Aly Khan's son, Karim - who also received a British education and married an English girl.

Whenever a religious sect separates from its "parent" and develops along its own path, there is inevitably a reaction by the original authority, and occasionally even by some members of the new sect: such opposition can sometimes be powerful enough to destroy the breakaway faction. Helping to prevent that, however, was the very good relationship between the Nizari community and the British administration in India - which continues today with the present Indian and Pakistani governments.

Nevertheless, in 1866 and again in 1905 there was a reaction in Nizari ranks to the changes being initiated by the Aga Khans, and to the manner in which (as living Imams) they were reinterpreting The Holy Qur'an. In the Indian High Court in 1866, the dissenters challenged the Aga Khan's handling of Nizari finances, but the British judge ruled in the Aga Khan's favour. The 1905 dispute also resulted in victory for the third Aga Khan. As a result, many Nizaris left and joined the Shi'a mainstream; in a way, that could have helped to "purify" the original community.

"Khoja" is another name sometimes heard when referring to Nizari Isma'ilis of Indo-Pakistani origin, but this can cause confusion because the 1866 and other secessionists also continued to call themselves Khojas.

The Aga-Khanis like to regard themselves as proper Muslims. When in 1974 the Pakistani government declared the Qadianis (a rebellious Sunni group) to be "not true Muslims", the Aga Khan realised how important it was not to be too different from other sects. Hence, in recent decades His Highness Prince Karim has persuaded his followers to swing back towards the traditional Pillars of Islam - so more Nizaris are now undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca - particularly those who live in Asia or Africa.

Also, Nizari Isma'ilis no longer try and convert other people to their beliefs: in this way, they successfully avoid being labelled "troublemakers" - as the Qadianis tend to be regarded. At times in the past, however, Nizaris have certainly been victims of persecution - which explains why they are still reluctant to discuss their religion with outsiders.

With their acute business sense and extensive contacts in Europe and America, the Aga Khan and his community have amassed considerable wealth. Much of it has been used to establish hospitals, orphanages and educational institutions, and to stimulate economic and industrial development in southern Asia and East Africa. They also have a Cultural Trust which makes awards for outstanding achievements in Islamic architecture; they are involved too in the restoration and conservation of historic forts and cities.


THE ISMA'ILIS, THEIR HISTORY AND DOCTRINES. Farhad Daftary. Cambridge University Press, UK & New York, 1990.

THROUGH OPEN DOORS, A VIEW OF ASIAN CULTURES IN KENYA. Cynthia Salvadore. Kenway Publications, Nairobi, 1983 and 1989.

THE SHI'A OF INDIA. John Hollister. Luzac & Co., London, 1953 and 1979.

THE AGA KHANS. Mihir Bose. World's Work, Kingswood, Surrey, UK, 1984. (This book was attacked during a court battle won by Aga Khan IV).

In addition, there are many interesting commentaries in standard reference-books such as Encyclopaedia Britannica and Chambers's Encyclopaedia.

David McNaughton:


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