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R E L I G I O N
Islam in Iran, Early Periods
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Encyclopedia Iranica
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Ismaʿilism. This variant of Shiʿism may be described less as a unified movement than as a constantly evolving amalgam of disparate groups having in common little more than the belief that after the death of Imam Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq the Imamate was vested not in Musā al-Kāẓem, as the Imamis maintained, but in Moḥammad b. Esmāʿil b. Jaʿfar, whose father had predeceased Imam Jaʿfar; in addition, they shared a tendency to relativize or abrogate the šariʿa and to accord absolute primacy to the authoritative teaching of an infallible Imam (hence the designation taʿlimiya sometimes applied to them). Ismaʿilism has been continuously although marginally present in Persia since its first emergence. It is unlikely, however, that, with a few exceptions, the Ismaʿilis ever formed a majority of the population in the areas that came under their control. Moḥammad b. Esmāʿil himself spent the latter part of his life in Khuzestan, and when he died, not long after 179/795, it was initially from this corner of southwest Persia that his son, ʿAbd-Allāh, launched a movement of Ismaʿili propagation (daʿwa) that gained converts on both sides of the Persian Gulf and in Fārs. The ostensible gist of his doctrine was that Moḥammad b. Esmāʿil was the Mahdi who, rather than dying, had gone into occultation. By the close of the 3rd/9th century, an Ismaʿili community had also appeared in the region of Rayy, which served in turn as a base for propagation in Qom, Kāšān, and Hamadan. Somewhat later, Ismaʿilism gained a footing in parts of Khorasan and Transoxania, in large part thanks to the conversion of a local amir in the service of the Samanids.

In 286/899, ʿAbd-Allāh al-Mahdi declared belief in the occultation of Moḥammad b. Esmāʿil to have been an exercise in dissimulation that it was now time to abandon; it transpired that he, and all the links that connected him back to ʿAbd-Allāh b. Moḥammad b. Esmāʿil, had themselves been Imams, not simply the successive representatives of an occulted ancestor (Daftary, p. 177). ʿAbd-Allāh al-Mahdi accordingly left his clandestine location in Syria to found the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. Although he dispatched a dāʿi (propagator)to Nishapur during the first decade of his rule, the Fatimid cause initially found little acceptance among the Ismaʿili communities of Persia; loyal to the belief that Moḥammad b. Esmāʿil was still lingering in occultation, they were henceforth designated as the Qarmaṭi sect, the name being derived from an early dāʿi of the Ismaʿili cause in southern Iraq. The Qarmaṭis had some success in the further propagation of their creed in Transoxania, thanks largely to their chief dāʿi in Khorasan, Moḥammad Nasafi, who transferred their headquarters from Marv first to Bukhara, then to Nasaf, and finally back to Bukhara, whence he dispatched one of his subordinates to propagate the cause in Kerman. Ismaʿili fortunes in Khorasan and Transoxania suffered a setback with the campaign launched against the sect in 332/943 by the Samanid ruler Nuḥ b. Naṣr (Daftary, p. 123). Under the auspices of Abu Ḥātem Rāzi, the dāʿi of Rayy, the Qarmaṭi cause had meanwhile advanced elsewhere in Persia, including some parts of Azerbaijan, and—more importantly and lastingly—Deylam and Ṭabarestān, where they either displaced or converted several local rulers who had previously adhered to Zaydi Shiʿism (Daftary, pp. 165­67). The fortress at Alamut (q.v.) in the Rudbār region of Deylam, built by the Jostanid dynasty in the mid 3rd/9th century but destined to remain a principal Ismaʿili stronghold until the Mongol invasion, passed into the hands of the sect in 307/919.

Beginning with the reign of al-Moʿezz, the fourth Fatimid caliph (r. 341-65/953-75), most Persian Ismaʿilis rallied to the Fatimid cause, those of Deylam being the most important exception. Directed from Cairo, an intensified daʿwa was now undertaken in Fārs, Rayy, Isfahan, and Khorasan. Among the Persian adherents of the cause who traveled to the Fatimid capital for training was the celebrated poet and author, Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow (d. post 465/1072); on his return to Khorasan he established a secret headquarters at Balkh before being constrained to flee to Yomgān in Badakhshan, where he founded an Ismaʿili community that has survived down to the present. On the death of al-Mostanṣer in 487/1084, the Ismaʿili movement was split anew, with parties ranged behind his two sons, Nezār and al-Mostaʿli; it was the latter who won the struggle to succeed. Led by Ḥasan-e Ṣabbāḥ, the Persians aligned themselves with Nezār, severed their links with Cairo, and established a principality based on Alamut that survived until the Mongol invasion. The authority of Alamut was recognized by the Ismaʿilis of Qohestān, who brought under their control the towns of Tun, Ṭabas, Qāʾen, and Zuzan, and fortress outposts at Gerdkuh near Dāmˊgān and on the border between Fārs and Khuzestan. The continuous hostilities that now took place between the Nezāri Ismaʿilis and the Saljuqids were inconclusive. The relative stability of this archipelago of Ismaʿili centers was reinforced by the taqiya-motivated (dissimulating) profession of Sunnite Islam made by Jalāl-al-Din Ḥasan, who ruled Alamut from 607/1210 to 618/1221.

Both Alamut and the Ismaʿili communities of Qohestān were overrun and devastated by the Mongols in 654/1256, and the following year, Rokn-al-Din Ḵoršāh, the last ruler of Alamut, was put to death. The early centuries of post-Alamut Persian Ismaʿilism are obscure, and have only recently begun to attract scholarly attention. According to Nezāri tradition, Šams-al-Din Moḥammad, the minor son of Rokn-al-Din, was taken to Tabriz, where he lived incognito as an embroiderer; the continuity of the Imamate was thus allegedly preserved (Daftary, p. 159; for a questioning of the historicity of the post-Alamut tradition, see, however, Akbarally, pp. 117-30). On his death, however, yet another split occurred in the community, resulting in the emergence of the Moḥammad-šāhi and Qāsemšāhi branches. A leader of the former branch managed temporarily to establish himself at Alamut, and as before, a number of local rulers in Deylam aligned themselves with the Ismaʿilis; in this relatively remote area, they were able to remain active throughout the Il-khanid and Timurid periods. The Nezāri community of Qohestān also managed to survive, in villages around Birjand and Qāʾen, although it no longer enjoyed any political authority. The Birjand community did, however, produce a poet of some merit, Saʿd-al-Din Nezāri (d. 720/1320). It is in general difficult to be sure what became of the Nezāris after the fall of Alamut, for once again they engaged in prudential dissimulation of their beliefs. Their leaders in particular adopted the idiom and guise of the Sufis, thereby passing unnoticed in an age thoroughly dominated by adherents of the mystic path (Daftary, pp. 452­54).

As for the Kharejites, radical egalitarians who dissented from both Sunnite and Shiʿite lines of authority and who comprise the third major religio-political current in early Islam, their relatively brief presence in Persia resulted primarily from the refuge sought there by the survivors of failed uprisings in adjacent Iraq. Thus after the Kharejite defeat at Nahrawān in 38/658, survivors of the battle were able to establish themselves in Ahvāz and Fārs, and following the death of Ebn Azraq, leader of the most extreme wing of the movement, in the battle of Dulāb in 65/684, other Kharejite fighters ranged freely across much of southern and central Persia; they succeeded in holding Kerman and Isfahan for a time, and undertook raids on Rayy that were welcomed by some inhabitants of the city. Azraqi Kharejites also went to Ṭabarestān where they unsuccessfully sought to propagate their doctrine. Farther to the east, Kharejites were to be found in the areas of Herat and Zarang, where traces of their presence lasted until the 3rd/10th century. More significant were the Kharejite communities of Sistān, numerous and strong enough to pose a threat to the armies of the Abbasid caliphate for many years despite incessant fragmentation and dispute over details of doctrine and law. It was in the end the Saffarids who in the 3rd/10th century eliminated the Kharejites of Sistān, partly through battle and partly through enlisting them in their own struggle against the caliphate. Although some Persians were active in the Kharejite movement, attracted presumably by its declaration of absolute equality among all believers, irrespective of ethnic origin, it never took broad hold in Persia to any significant degree (Spuler, 1955, pp. 167-70; Madelung, pp. 54-76).

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