What is Ismailism?
Ismailis are a sect of Shiite Muslims, who are in turn divided into a number of sub-sects. The name originates from a controversy in 765 A.D. about the legitimate successor to Jaafar al-Sadiq, who was sixth in the list of Shiite imams, or spiritual guides. A majority party accepted the claims of Jaafar's son Musa al-Qazini, but another preferred Jaafar's older son Ismail and upon Ismail's death accepted his son Muhammad as their imam. It is the latter group who are called Ismailis.
The history of the Ismailis is one of constant division and dissension among subgroups. After the death of Muhammad Ibn Ismail, one group came to believe that he was the seventh and last imam, who would return on the Judgment Day. This group is often called Sevener Shia. The Carmathians (Qarniatians), an offshoot of the Seveners, engaged in widespread subversive activity and were feared throughout the Muslim world. Another group accepted the continuation of the imamate through the sons and successors of Muhammad. Their imams were the predecessors of the Fatimid imams, who ruled a brilliant Ismaili state in Egypt from the 10th to the 12th century.
Other divisions during Fatimid times produced the sect known as the Druzes and also the division between Nizari and Mustaali Ismailis. Ismailis have virtually disappeared from their former strongholds in Egypt and North Africa. The imam of the Nizari Ismailis is the Aga Khan.
In their basic religious views, Ismailis resemble other Muslims. They believe in the unity of God, the prophethood of Mohammed, and the revelation given in the Koran. With other Shiites, they accept the doctrine of the imams as the locus of divine light and wisdom in the world, without whom there would be no guidance and the world could not exist.
The Ismailis believe that religion has esoteric (hidden) as well as exoteric (literal) aspects. While they adhere strictly to the prescriptions of the holy law of Islam (the Sharia), they believe that every external feature of religion has an inner and hidden truth (haqiqa) that can be known through the revelations of the imams. The Ismailis make extensive use of Neoplatonic concepts, especially of the emanation theory. They conceive the universe as having proceeded by emanation from God through a series of spiritual realities. The Ismailis also have their own collections of Hadith (reports of the sayings and acts of the Prophet) and their own fiqh (Islamic law), which are slightly different from those of the Sunnite Muslims.