Ismaʿili historiography has been closely related to the very nature of the Ismaʿili mission, or daʿwa, and the changing fortunes of the Ismaʿilis during the various phases of their history. The Ismaʿilis were usually persecuted by their numerous enemies, necessitating the observance of taqiya by them. The Ismaʿili dāʿis, who were at the same time the scholars and authors of their community, often operated in hostile territories and were obliged to observe utter secrecy in their activities. These dāʿi-authors were, moreover, normally trained as theologians and as such, they were not interested in compiling annalistic or other types of historical accounts. The general lack of Ismaʿili interest in historiography is well attested by the fact that only a few works of historical nature have been found in the rich corpus of Ismaʿili literature recovered in modern times, which comprises mainly of theological works, with a substantial number of treatises related to the so-called esoteric, or ḥaqāʾeq, subjects, as well as numerous titles utilizing the methodology of esoteric interpretation (taʾwil), the hallmark of Ismaʿili thought (see Majduʿ; Ivanow, pp. 17-173; Poonawala, pp. 31-297). It should be added, however, that the religious works of the Ismaʿilis, written in Arabic, Persian and Indic languages, do occasionally shed light on aspects of Ismaʿili history, while at the same time they serve themselves as sources for understanding the nature and development of the intellectual and literary traditions of the Ismaʿilis.

Among the few historical works produced by Ismaʿili authors mention may be made of Qāżi Noʿmān’s Eftetāḥ al-daʿwa (Beirut, 1970; Tunis, 1975), completed in 346/957, which is the oldest known Ismaʿili history covering the background to the establishment of the Fatimid state in North Africa. In later medieval times, only one general history of Ismaʿilism, covering from the earliest period until the mid-6th/12th century, was written by an Ismaʿili author, namely, the seven-volume ʿOyun al-aḵbār (Beirut, 1973-84) of Edris ʿEmād-al-Din (d. 872/1468), the 19th dāʿi-e moṭlaq of the Mostaʿli-Ṭayyebi Ismaʿilis in Yemen. This dāʿi produced two more historical works, the Nozhat al-afkār and the Rawżat al-aḵbār (Sanaa, 1995), which continue the history of the Ṭayyebi daʿwa until 870/1465. There are also certain brief, but highly significant, accounts of particular events in Ismaʿili history, notably the Estetār al-emām (ed. W. Ivanow, 1936a), written by the dāʿi Nisāburi, relating the settlement of the early Ismaʿili imam ʿAbd-Allāh al-Akbar in Salamiya, and the subsequent prolonged journey of ʿAbd-Allāh al-Mahdi from Syria to North Africa where he was installed to the Fatimid caliphate in 297/909.

In spite of the general absence of an Ismaʿili historiographical tradition, there were two periods during which the Ismaʿilis concerned themselves with historical writings and produced or encouraged works which in a sense served as official chronicles. During the Fatimid and Alamut periods of their history, the Ismaʿilis possessed states of their own and ruling dynasties whose achievements needed to be recorded by reliable chroniclers. In Fatimid times (297-567/909-1171), especially after the transference of the seat of the Fatimid state to Cairo in 362/973, numerous histories of the Fatimid caliphate and dynasty were written by contemporary historians, both Ismaʿili and non-Ismaʿili, such as Ebn Zulāq (d. 386/996), Mosabbeḥi (d. 420/1029) and Qażāʾi (d. 454/1062). With the exception of a few fragments, however, none of these chronicles survived the demise of the Fatimid dynasty. The Sunnite Ayyubids who succeeded the Ismaʿili Shiʿite Fatimids, systematically destroyed the renowned Fatimid libraries, including the collections of the Dār al-ʿElm in Cairo, also persecuting the Ismaʿilis of Egypt (see Daftary, 1990, pp. 144-52; Walker, pp. 152-69).

In addition to historical writings, the Ismaʿilis of the Fatimid period who enjoyed the protection of their own state, also produced certain biographical works of the monāẓara and sira genres with great historical value. Among the extant examples of such works, special mention may be made of the Ketāb al-monāẓarāt (ed. and tr. W. Madelung and P. E. Walker, London, 2000) of the dāʿi Ebn Hayṯam, containing unique details on the first year of Fatimid rule in Efriqiya; the Sira of Jaʿfar b. ʿAli (ed. W. Ivanow, 1936b), chamberlain (ḥājeb) to the first Fatimid caliph-imam al-Mahdi; and the Sira (Cairo, 1954) of Ostaḏ Jawḏar (d. 363/973), who served the first four Fatimid caliph-imams. There is also the important autobiography of al-Moʾayyad fi’l-Din Širāzi (d. 470/1078), who held the office of the chief dāʿi in Cairo for almost twenty years (Walker, pp. 131-51).

The Nezāri Ismaʿilis, too, maintained a historiographical tradition during the Alamut period of their history (483-654/1090-1256), when they had a territorial state in Persia centered at the mountainous fortress of Alamut (q.v.), with a subsidiary branch in Syria. During this turbulent period, they compiled chronicles in Persian recording the events of their state according to the reigns of the successive lords of Alamut (Daftary, 1990, pp. 324-33; idem, 1992, pp. 91-97). This historiographical tradition commenced with the Sargoḏašt-e Sayyednā, a work describing the life and the events of the reign of Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ (q.v., d. 518/1124) as the first lord of Alamut. The first part of this work, which has not survived directly, may have been autobiographical. The reign of Kiā Bozorg-Omid (518-532/1124-1138), Ḥasan’s successor as the leader of the Nezāri state and daʿwa, was covered in another chronicle entitled Ketāb-e Bozorg-Omid. The events of the Persian Nezāri state during the subsequent times until the reign of the eighth and final lord of Alamut, Rokn-al-Din Ḵoršāh and the Mongol destruction of that state in 654/1256, were narrated by other Nezāri chroniclers such as Dehḵodā ʿAbd-al-Malek b. ʿAli Fašandi and Raʾis Ḥasan Ṣalāḥ-al-Din Monši Birjandi. All these chronicles held at the libraries of Alamut and other Nezari castles in Daylamān and Qohestān perished in the Mongol invasions or soon afterwards, during the period of Ilkhanid rule over Persia. However, these chronicles as well as other Nezāri writings and documents were seen and used extensively by three Persian historians of the Ilkhanid period, namely, Joveyni (d. 681/1283), Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh (d. 718/1318) and Abu’l-Qāsem Kāšāni (d. ca. 736/1335), in their own histories of the Ismaʿilis. Indeed, these histories remain our most important primary sources on the Nezāri Ismaʿili state in Persia; and they provided the main sources of reference for later Persian historians, like Ḥamd-Allāh Mostawfi (d. after 740/1339) and Ḥāfeẓ-e Abru (d. 833/1430), writing on the subject. Unlike their Persian co-religionists, the Syrian Nezāris and the Nezāri Ḵojas of the Indian subcontinent did not elaborate historiographical traditions.

In the turbulent conditions of the post-Alamut period, when the Persian Nezāris often had to resort to practicing taqiya, and the Nezāri imams remained in hiding for several generations, their literary activities almost ceased to exist and the Nezāris of different regions, who now developed independently of each other, remained largely ignorant of their historical heritage. The situation ameliorated somewhat during the Anjedān (q.v.) revival in Nezāri daʿwa and literary activities, which coincided almost exactly with the Safavid period in Persian history. However, the Nezāri works of this period, such as those produced by Abu Esḥāq Qohestāni (d. after 904/1498) and Ḵayrḵvāh-e Harāti (d. after 960/1553), although doctrinal in nature, do contain some historical information. In Badaḵšān and other regions of Central Asia, the Nezāris of later medieval times elaborated a distinctive literary and doctrinal tradition, based especially on the teachings of Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow as well as certain Sufi traditions. However, the Central Asian Nezāris, too, did not develop any interest in historiography. Indeed, in the entire extant literature of the Nezāris of Persia and Central Asia, written in the Persian language and preserved mainly in private libraries of Badaḵšān now divided between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, there are no historical works worth mentioning, with the major exception of the Hedāyat al-moʾmenin of Fedāʾi Ḵorāsāni (q.v; d. 1342/1923).

On the other hand, the Mostaʿli-Ṭayyebi Ismaʿilis, especially those belonging to the majority Dāʾudi branch, have produced a number of works in Arabic on the history of their daʿwa and the dynasties of their dāʿis in Yaman and India. In order to make them more accessible to the Dāʾudi Bohra community, some of these histories produced in modern times have been written in Gujarati and transcribed in Arabic (Daftary, 1990, pp. 256-61). Amongst more reliable histories of this kind, mention may be made of the Montazaʿ al-aḵbār (Beirut, 1999) of Qoṭb-al-Din Solaymānji Borhānpuri (d. 1241/1826), and the Mawsem-e bahār (Bombay, 1301-1311/1884-93) of Moḥammad-ʿAli Rāmpuri (d. 1315/1897). In more recent times, a number of learned Dāʾudi Bohras such as Zāhed-ʿAli (1888-1958) and members of the scholarly Hamdāni family have produced historical works in Arabic, Urdu and English on the basis of their ancestral collections of Ismaʿili manuscripts. Since the 1960s, a growing number of Ismaʿilis, belonging mainly to the Nezāri community, have written doctoral dissertations on aspects of Ismaʿili history.



Qoṭb-al-Din Solaymānji Borhānpuri, Montazaʿ al-aḵbār, partial ed. S. F. Traboulsi, Beirut, 1999.

F. Daftary, The Ismāʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge, 1990 (with full references); Persian tr. F. Badraʾi, Tāriḵ va ʿaqāʾed-e Esmāʿiliya, Tehran, 1996.

Idem, “Persian Historiography of the Early Nizārī Ismāʿīlīs,” Iran 30, 1992, pp. 91-97.

Idem, “Intellectual Life among the Ismailis: An Overview,” in F. Daftary, ed., Intellectual Traditions in Islam, London, 2000, pp. 87-111.

Ebn Hayṯam, Ketāb al-monāẓarāt, ed. and tr. W. Madelung and P. E. Walker as The Advent of the Fatimids: A Contemporary Shiʿi Witness, London, 2000.

Edris ʿEmād-al-Din b. Ḥasan, ʿOyun al-aḵbār wa fonun al-āṯār IV-VI, ed. M. Ḡāleb, Beirut, 1973-84; VII, ed. and summary English by A. F. Sayyid in collaboration with P. E. Walker and M. A. Pomerantz as The Fatimids and their Successors in Yaman, London, 2002.

Idem, Rawżat al-aḵbār, ed. M. al-ʿAkwa, Sanaa, 1995.

Mo-ḥammad b. Zayn-al-ʿĀbedin Fedāʾi Ḵorāsāni, Ketāb-e hedāyat al-moʾmenin al-ṭālebin, ed. A. A. Semenov, Moscow, 1959.

Ḥāfeẓ-e Abru, Majmaʿ al-tawāriḵ al-solṭāniya, qesmat-e ḵolafāʾ-e ʿAlawiya-e Maʾreb wa Meṣr wa Nezāriān wa rafiqān, ed. M. Modarresi-e Zanjāni, 1985.

A. Hamdani, “Fatimid History and Historians,” in M. J. L. Young et al., ed. Religion, Learning and Science in the ʿAbbasid Period, Cambridge, 1990, pp. 234-47.

W. Ivanow, Ismaili Literature: A Bibliographical Survey, Tehran, 1963.

Abu ʿAli Manṣur al-ʿAzizi al-Jawḏari, Sirat al-ostaḏ Jawḏar, ed. M. Kāmel Ḥosayn and M. ʿAbd-al-Hādi Šaʿira, Cairo, 1954; French tr. M. Canard as Vie de l’Ustadh Jaudhar, Algiers, 1958.

Jovayni, ed. Qazvini, III, pp. 106-278.

Idem, tr. Boyle, II, pp. 618-725.

Abu’l-Qāsem ʿAbd-Allāh Kāšāni, Zobdat al-tawārīḵ, baḵš-e Fāṭemiān wa Nezāriān, ed. M. T. Dānešpažuh, 2nd ed., Tehran, 1987.

B. Lewis, “Sources for the History of the Syrian Assassins,” Speculum 27, 1952, pp. 475-89.

Esmāʿil b. ʿAbd-al-Rasul Majduʿ, Fehrest al-kotob wa’l-rasāʾel, ed. ʿAli-Naqi Monzavi, Tehran, 1966.

Al-Moʾayyad fi’l-Din Širāzi, Sirat al-Moʾayyad fi’l-Din dāʿi al-doʿāt, ed. M. Kāmel Ḥosayn, Cairo, 1949.

Aḥmad b. Ebrāhim Nisāburi, Estetār al-emām, ed. W. Ivanow, in Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts, University of Egypt, IV/2, 1936a, pp. 93-107; English tr. in W. Ivanow, Ismaili Tradition Concerning the Rise of the Fatimids, London, etc., 1942, pp. 157-83.

Qāżi Noʿmān b. Moḥammad, Eftetāḥ al-daʿwa, ed. W. al-Qāżi, Beirut, 1970; also ed. F. Daš-rāwi, Tunis, 1975.

I. K. Poonawala, Biobibliography of Ismāʿīlī Literature, Malibu, Calif., 1977.

Moḥammad ʿAli b. Mollā Jiwābhāʾi Rāmpuri, Mawsem-e bahār fi aḵbār al-ṭāherin al-aḵyār, 3 vols., Bombay, 1301-11/1884-93.

Rašid-al-Din Fażl-Allāh, Jāmeʿ al-tawārik, qesmat-e Esmāʿiliān, ed. M. T. Dānešpažuh and M. Modarresi-e Zanjāni, Tehran, 1959.

P. E. Walker, Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fatimid History and Its Sources, London, 2002.

A. F. Sayyid, “Lumières nouvelles sur quelques sources de l’histoire Fatimide en Egypte,” Annales Islamologiques 13, 1977, pp. 1-41.

Moḥammad b. Moḥammad Yamāni, Sirat al-Ḥājeb Jaʿfar b. ʿAli, ed. W. Ivanow, in Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts, University of Egypt, IV/2, 1936b, pp. 107-33; English tr. in W. Ivanow, Ismaili Tradition, pp. 184-223.

Zāhed-ʿAli, Tāriḵ-e Fāṭemiyin-e Meṣr, 2nd ed., Karachi, 1963.

(Farhad Daftary)

Originally Published: December 15, 2007

Last Updated: April 5, 2012

This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 2, pp .176-178