Book Review: Explaining the Ismaili Sect and the politics of Islamic history

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 31 Mar 2024

Al-Dawah Al-Ismailia fi Masr (The Ismaili Sect in Egypt) offers a comprehensive understanding of one of the most controversial orders in Shia Islam that gained attention this month with the screening of the soap opera Al-Hashashin (The Assassins).



Al-Dawah Al-Ismailia fi Masr (The Ismaili Sect in Egypt), Hassan HafezGEBO. 2022. pp. 268.

The debate on the historical accuracy, or the lack thereof, in the account offered by the Ramadan soap opera, prompted interest in the history of the Shia, in general, and in that of the Ismaili sect (Ismailism) in particular.

Al-Dawah Al-Ismailia fi Masr is an impressive reference that goes way beyond just an introduction to the deep political layers that have been inseparable from the evolution and divisions of the many Islamic sects, especially within the Shia camp.

The narrative offered by Hafez, which is a summary of his PhD thesis, puts the story of Ismailism – and for that matter that of Hassan Sabah the leader of Al-Hashashin, featured in the Ramadan soap opera as an utter villain – into the wider and much more thorough historical context of political battles of successive Muslim dynasties after the death of Prophet Muhammad.

The book offers two narratives: one that is religious and another that is political.

It is the association and conflicts of the religious and the political, according to this volume, that tested religious idealism against the inevitable realism of politics. In so doing, Hafez offers his reader insight into how many Muslim rulers prioritized political interests, how religion was often used to serve these interests, and how the dominance of these narrow interests prompted socio-economic injustice that eventually led to the fall of successive dynasties – Shia and Sunni alike.

On the very specific issue of the Ismaili Sect, Hafez explains how the core Shia beliefs stemming from the semi-divine nature of Ali, the young and close paternal cousin of Prophet Muhammad and the spouse of his daughter Fatema, lead to the assumption that only the descendants of Al-Hussein, the son of Ali, were entitled to rule.

He also explains the specific nature of the imam/caliph in the Ismaili sect and the guiding rules of secrecy and utter loyalty that dominated the spread of the sect across many parts of the Muslim world was seen as a call for “justice against dominating injustice.”

Hafez also offers a detailed but concise history of the splits between Muslim sects based on their preferred choice of successors (caliphs) to the prophet after his death in the seventh century and the merger of the two leading Shia sects (Ismailis and Twelvers) in the eighth century. Hafez then follows the trail of the Ismailis from their nascent presence in Iraq through Al-Mashrek and then Al-Maghreb prior to their strong presence in Egypt under the Fatimid Caliphate in the 10th century until its fall two centuries later.

In all these junctures, Hafez tells the story of the Ismailis – and for that matter of their foes, first the Sunni Abbasids and then the Sunni Seljuks – from the point of view of the rulers. The ruled also came across as being oppressed and hoping for fairness that the Ismailis promised would come with the return of the Hidden Imam (Al-Imam Al-Ghaeib).

In the case of Egypt, the stories of the Ismaili rulers are always explained within the political context of their rule. They were either strong caliphs who managed to control the religious and army leaders or weak caliphs who fell under the thumb of the conflicting religious and army leaders. Eventually, the army took over near the end of Fatimid rule in Egypt and the power of the Ismaili sect declined across countries where it was the largest Shia order including Iraq and Yemen.

It is at this point that Hassan Sabah, the lead character of the soap opera, appears as a prominent Ismaili figure who came to Egypt at a moment when the Ismaili call was coming under the influence of many political fights, including some battles of succession.

While the impact of politics on religion is a key point to this volume, the impact of culture on religion, in terms of practice and creed, is also very interesting, particularly with details Hafez offers on the impact of Babylonians and the old civilizations of Persia.

In short, as Hafez says in his introduction, the book offers a read in the long history of political-based Islamic divides – or rather on how the divine was twisted by the human and when they were proclaimed to be merged.

The book is published as part of the GEBO series Tarikh Al-Masriene (History of Egyptians) which is sold at affordable prices.

Short link: