A sect within Shia Islam with some 20 million adherents, mostly in the Middle East, East Africa, Pakistan, and India. The Ismaili sect formed in the eighth century among believers who wanted to maintain a direct line of succession among imams, or successors to the Prophet. They held that the sixth imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, should have been succeeded by his son Ismail even though Ismail’s death predated his father’s. Most Shia Muslims accept that the succession fell to the eldest surviving son, Musa al-Kazim. Ismailis, however, maintained that the line of succession, and the honorary status of imam, should remain pure by devolving to Ismail. They are also known as Seveners because of their belief that Ismail should properly be considered the seventh imam.
The Ismailis reached a high level of political power when they founded the Fatimid dynasty, which by the eleventh century ruled Egypt, Syria, much of the Arabian Peninsula, and parts of India. The Fatimids, whose leaders claimed to be the descendants of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad, were great patrons of the arts and of scholarship, founding Islamic universities in their capital of Cairo in Egypt. Subsequent Ismaili sects included the Druzes of modern-day Lebanon, the socalled Assassins who played an important role in Iranian and Syrian politics in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and the Khoja of India, whose leader holds the title of Aga Khan.
Ismaili religious thinking involves a focus on an esoteric interpretation of the inner teachings of the Qur’an. Believers hold that there are seven true pillars of the Islamic faith adding two to the five maintained by most Muslims: profession of the creed, prayer, purification, charity, fasting, pilgrimage, and struggle.
SEE ALSO: Druzes, Shia (Shiite) Islam; Twelvers
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