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The Ismailis

Ugandan president Milton Obote sits with His Highness Karim Aga Khan in Kampala in 1966.

Ugandan president Milton Obote sits with Karim Aga Khan in Kampala in 1966.

The central characters in Where the Air Is Sweet are Ismaili Muslims. Here is a bit of background on Ismailis.

Who are Ismailis?
Ismaili Muslims are a community of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples united in their allegiance to Karim Aga Khan (known to Ismailis as Mawlana Hazar Imam) as the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) and direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed.

Ismaili Islam is an offshoot of the Shia branch of Islam (the smaller of the two branches of Islam). Never in their history, in any country on earth, have Ismailis been in the majority. Even within Islam itself, they’ve had to struggle to survive as a distinct group.

Why have Ismailis faced persecution?
For centuries, Ismailis have been persecuted within the Islamic world mainly because they competed for the leadership of the Muslim community. Ismailis hold that their imam, the Aga Khan, who is a direct descendant of Mohammed, should be leader of the Muslim ummah, or community.

The Muslim ummah split at the time of the Prophet’s death over the issue of his successor. When the Prophet Mohammed died, a crisis ensued over who would succeed him as leader and ensure the Muslim community remained united. A minority group held that only a member of Mohammed’s family could possess the divine wisdom required to interpret the hidden meaning of the Quran and proposed that Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law succeed the Prophet. This group came to be known as Shia’t Ali, the party of Ali, and eventually Shia. The Sunni, the largest branch of Islam in the world today, maintained that elected leaders should lead the community.

Ismailis emerged as a distinct group within Shia Islam in the eighth century after another succession crisis.

How many Ismailis are there in the world? Where do they live?
There are about 15 million Ismailis in the world, scattered over more than 25 countries (with the majority in South Asia and Central Asia).

How many Ismailis were expelled from Uganda?
About 80,000 South Asians were expelled from Uganda in 1972. Of these, approximately 24,000 were Ismailis.

Where did they go?
After the expulsion, Ismailis settled primarily in Canada, the UK, the US and continental Europe.

Why are so many Ismailis of South Asian origin?
As Ismailis continued to struggle to install their imam as leader of the growing Muslim world, they gradually moved eastward from Arabia. By the early 19th century, the 46th Imam, who had been given the honorary title of Aga Khan – which translates as “master ruler” from the Shah of Persia – moved his seat to India, where Indian missionaries had been active for hundreds of years.

How did they end up in East Africa?
Late in the 19th century the British Empire began recruiting labour from the Indian subcontinent to construct a railway connecting the Indian Ocean with the East African interior. Large numbers of Ismailis, along with other South Asians, travelled to East Africa. Once the railway was completed, many stayed on, and many of these opened shops. They quickly distinguished themselves as a sizable merchant class in much of Africa.

Who is the Aga Khan?
Aga Khan IV is the 49th hereditary Imam (spiritual leader) of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of non-denominational development agencies with mandates that include the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, microfinance, rural development, disaster reduction, the promotion of private-sector enterprise and the revitalization of historic cities.

Watch a recent interview with Peter Mansbridge and the Aga Khan on the CBC dated Feb. 27, 2014. This is the unedited version.

More information:

Aga Khan Development Network

Official Website of the Ismaili Muslim Community

Institute of Ismaili Studies

Comments ( 4 )
  • Al Dharsee says:

    I was under the impression that some Ismailis moved to Zanzibar from the Kuch area of Gujarat well before the British started to recruit for the railways. The move was because of a prolonged drought in Kuch, and Sultan Mohammed Shahs’ recommendation that his followers may want to move to Zanzibar.

    • tasneem says:

      South Asians moved to East Africa well before the railway was built. But the most significant numbers came during (and after) the railway construction.

  • Mandeq says:

    I can’t help but chuckle a bit to my ignorance when I read this. I’m Muslim, and for a long time of my life I thought that all Muslims followed Islam the same way. It was not that long ago when I realized that there are different branches of Islam, and that my family (much like the overwhelming majority) are Sunnis. Is there any other difference between Sunnis, Shias, and Ismailis other than the whole successor situation?

    • tasneem says:

      Hi Mandeq,
      Apologies for being slow to respond. I am not the best person to answer your question. I have a very basic knowledge of Ismailism. The links at the bottom of the blog might be useful for you. Cheers, T.

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