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Reviews of A Short History of the Ismailis

“Daftary, well known for his research on Ismaili Islam, provides a concise and detailed overview of the Ismailis. The first chapter provides a broad and useful overview of the historiographical problems associated with the Ismailis. Particular attention is paid to the Assassin legends, about which Daftary has written more extensively elsewhere. Each of the remaining four chapters covers a different aspect of Ismaili history. Chapter two on origins and early history covers many topics in just thirty-seven pages, but Daftary provides copious references to primary sources with some annotation. Chapter three is a succinct account of the Fatimids. Chapters four and five deal with the Nizari Ismailis at Alamut and post-Alamut Ismailism (Anjudan, Khojas, Bohras, Tayyibis).

“Although this book is aimed at a wider audience than Daftary’s earlier work on the Ismailis, the chronological organization and seamless historical narrative might not be accessible to nonspecialists. The index makes this book a useful reference, especially for the materials not covered elsewhere in synthetic fashion.”
Religious Studies Review

“The image of the Ismailis (particularly the Khojas and Bohras) as small, well-knit, affluent, mainly merchant communities belies their early revolutionary origins. The early Ismaili were a revolutionary missionary movement. They allegedly attacked and assassinated Sunni political and religious leaders, seized power, and at their peak in Fatimid Egypt, ruled a vast kingdom. For the Ismaili, as for Shi’a in general, the Qur’an had two meanings — an exoteric, literal meaning and an esoteric, inner teaching. This secret knowledge was given to the Imam and through a process of initiation to his representatives and missionaries. The followers of the Imam as distinguished from the majority of Muslims constituted a religious elite who possessed the true guidance necessary for salvation and a mission to spread or propagate, by force if necessary, the message and rule of the Imam.

“The Ismaili history can be divided into four major milestones in their history: origins, Fatimid period, the Alamut era, and the developments since the ninteenth century. Farhad Daftary of the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London has attempted to write a succinct account of his group in a span of less than 300 pages covering a period of over a thousand years! One can only sympathize with anyone attempting a gigantic task such as this. Clearly the book is for the non-specialist.

“The book begins with a critical assessment of the Ismaili history and historiography dealing with phases, sources, and studies. In a book meant for non-specialists, it is odd to begin with sources, rather than sketching the specific beliefs, practices, and developments and changes. Rather than explaining Ismaili beliefs in their own terms, this chapter critiques what others have written about the subject. This chapter should have been relegated to the last.

“The second chapter deals with origins and early history. Within this chapter, two subheadings attracted my close attention. One is on ‘Diversity in Early Islam,’ pp. 21-23. On these pages the author has described his own views on the topic, but without marshalling support from original Islamic sources by directly citing them. In the absence of direct evidence to support the views so expressed, one is left with no more than the personal views of the writer. The same is more or less true of the subheading ‘Early Ismaili Doctrines,’ pp. 50-58.

“The book improves when it moves to the chapters pertaining to the lived history of the Ismailis as opposed to mere beliefs and practices. The chapters on Fatimid, Alamut and post-Alamut periods of the history are lucid, as is the chapter on later developments. However, one wishes that the author had paid a little more attention to the Tayyibi Bohra Ismailism than has been done. To an outsider, there are great disjunctions in Ismaili history from the earliest period to the Fatimid era in Egypt to the Alamut period in Iran to the arrival of the Aga Khan in India, and finally the move of the imamat to Europe. The various transitions in the Ismaili history are not always well explained.

“This slim volume is eminently readable. A clearer exposition of the Ismaili beliefs unconcerned with outsiders’ views — past or present — will greatly improve the study.”
Digest of Middle East Studies