Ask the Shi`a Nizari Ismaili Muslim Woman

After the locked and deleted GD thread – “Ask the Muslim Woman”, and pit thread here, I’ve decided (after some persuasion) to start this thread.
I am a Shi`a Nizari Ismaili Muslim. My background is sub-continental Indian, although I was born, and have been brought up in the UK.

Ismailism is a very small sect, even by the standards of Shi`aism, but it is a very liberal one – women and men have equal rights, a woman is considered as good as a man, in every way shape and form. The only segregation of the sexes that we have is in our mosque, men pray on one side of the room, whilst women pray on the other. However, there are no curtains, partitions or anything separating the men and women, merely a strip of carpet, which after the prayers are over, both sexes are free to cross. Men and women participate equally in all religious ceremonies, and on many occasions, the women will actually be the ones reciting the prayers. We also have no requirement for women to wear headscarves/abayas/burkhas etc. All we are required to do in everyday life, is to dress for the style of the country in which we live. For prayer, we are required to dress modestly, i.e. no plunging necklines, mini skirts that show your knickers, things like that, and for men and women, legs and hair should be covered whilst at prayer.

We follow all the basic tenants of Islam, but we do not, unlike other Muslims, regard the Hadith as authoritative. This is because we believe that after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death, there was a succession of spiritual guides, known as Imams, who were divinely appointed, in order to guide the faithful, and interpret the Koran according to the climate of the time – i.e. we believe that Allah would have known that the world today is not the same as the world 1400 years ago, and that the interpretation of Islam would need to adapt with the changing times. We believe that this guidance has continued unabated for 1400 years, through the line of Imam `Ali, through Imam Hussien.

Well, ask away.

Thanks for this thread, and peace be with you.

How do you decide which are the Imams you need to listen to?

Specifically, I have heard the Ayatollah Khomeini referred to as an Imam. Was he one, in your opinion, and how do you tell?


We believe that the Imamat (i.e. the ‘institution’ of Imams) is a hereditary line, passed on through the male line – the incumbent Imam will name his successor, nowadays, publically, although in the past only to a few trusted people – we believe that this is a divinely inspired choice, and that on the incumbent Imam’s (whom we term “Hazar Imam”, literally “Present Guide”) death, the ‘light’ of knowledge, of guidance is passed to the successor, who is traditionally a son or grandson.

In Ismaili tradition, he is a cleric, rather than an Imam. He is the leader of the Twelver Shias, but he is not an Imam in the divinely appointed, direct descendant of Hazrat Ali way, in the way that we believe an Imam is.

Nowadays, the identity of the new Hazar Imam is made public upon the death of the previous Imam, generally within hours of the death. This becomes a day of celebration, rather than mourning, as we commemorate the fact that Allah has not broken his covenant with us, and still guides us. In the past, when Ismailis faced extreme persecution, the Hazar Imam’s identity would have been a closely guarded secret, and Ismailis would have been sworn to secrecy. This is where a lot of rumours and legends about our beliefs and practices comes from.


Can you explain what the difference between Twelvers, Fivers, and Seveners is? I think I’ve got that right.

Thanks for your reply.

Is there a formally defined process by which you determine which of the utterances of the Imam are authoritative, similar to the Pope speaking ex cathedra, or is everything he says invested with the same authority? Does he have an official set of approved writings?


Do you oppose gay marriage?

I’ve got a question that could either be amazingly mundane or trivial…

It’s my understanding that the Islamic calender began its counting of years from the year that Muhammed fled Mecca for Medina, the hegira. My question is, why does the calender use this event as its starting point, rather than the year in which Muhammed began receiving his revelations that became the Qu’ran? It seems to me that the receiving of the Qu’ran would be a more significant event in Islamic history, rather than a relocation from one city to the next.

[sub]hopes he didn’t misspell anything[/sub]

OK, the main difference is in the number of hereditary Imams the sects believe followed Ali. The Twelvers believe that there were 11 Imams after Ali – his son Hasan, then Hasan’s brother Hussein, through to Ja`ffar al-Sadiq, the sixth Imam. Ismailis believe that al-Sadiq’s elder son, Ismail was the rightful Imam, and follow his line. The Twelvers believe that al-Sadiq’s younger son, Musa, was the rightful Imam, and followed him and his desendants for 5 generations. The last Twelver Imam, al-Madhi, is believed to have never died, but gone into some form of spiritual hiding, and will return again to save the Earth on Judgement day. I’m not entirely sure about the Fivers and Seveners, so someone like Tamerlane would be better off answering that one for you.

It is a similar situation to when the Pope is speaking ex cathedra, when he is giving a Mulaqat, or Durbar, i.e. an audience with Ismailis only, then his utterances are authoritative, and called farmans. Similarly, if he sends an official letter, or Talikah, as we call it, to be read in the mosque, then it is authoritative. His speeches as a public secular persona in academia, social work etc., are meant for the general public, and whilst we’re expected to pick up on what he’s said there, it doesn’t neccesarily mean that its authoritative. That said, I cannot recall a single instance where the public secular speeches have clashed with the farmans.

Yes – the Farmans, they tend to be published by Ismaili publishers, and are very difficult to get hold of outside the Ismaili community.

Personally, I don’t. The Ismaili stance on this is “live and let live” – we are not in a position to judge anyone. Whilst I can’t see a gay marriage contract being signed in an Ismaili mosque (mainly because of prejudices of the Indian community in general, rather than the Ismaili community specifically), I can’t imagine there being a huge outcry if a gay Ismaili went and enacted a civil union partnership. The outcry would probably be more because he/she had married an ‘outsider’, but again, this is more of a general Indian thing, rather than an Ismaili specific thing.

You know, I’m not entirely certain. However, the Hegira was the foundation of the first real Muslim settlement, so it makes sense, to an extent, to start a new calendar at the start of a new life, in a new city, relatively free from persecution. In a sense, the Hegira was probably as significant as the first revelation of the Koran, since whilst the Koran established Islam, the Hegira established a new Muslim community.

Can you tell me just what the difference between a Nizari Ismaili and an Ismaili is? Or is there one?

The term “Ismaili” in general, refers to those sects who carried on following the line of Ismail. This includes at least two major sects – Nizari Ismailis and Bohra Ismailis. Nizari Ismaili refers to a specific branch of Ismailism, which traces the lineage of Hazir Imam through the Fatimid caliphs, and al-Nizar at Alamut, which is now in present day Iran.
After the death of Jafar al-Sadiq, and the subsequent split into Ismailis and what became the Twelvers, Ismail feared for his life, as at the time, caliph and Imam were one and the same – rather like the Pope in 19th century Italy, the spiritual and secular ruler was the same person – and his younger brother, Musa, and his followers had seized the caliphate. Ismail was forced to flee and go into hiding, a period known as dawr al-satr, when, whilst the Ismaili faith was preached, the person of the Imam was unknown.

However, around 899, the Imam Abd-Allah, succeeded in establishing the Fatimid Empire in Eqypt, North Africa, and eventually, parts of Southern Europe, and the Middle East. Eventually, in the reign of Imam al-Mustansir the Empire collapsed, and the Imam was forced to flee for his life once again. This caused another split in who believed who was the rightful Imam, in the early 11th century. Those who believed that it was al-Nizar, followed him to the Alamut fort (in what is now Iran, I believe) and established a presence there. They became known as the Nizari Ismailis, and stayed at Alamut until the Mongols destroyed the fort and its surroundings.

Others followed the younger son of Mustansir, Abul Qasim, and became known as the Mustalians. This sect eventually split into the Hafisi, and the Tayyibi, or Bohras.

I know this is not entirely related to Ismailis, but Shias, are they more willing to have a seperation of Mosque and state than we’re lead to believe? I always got the inclination that Shias Imams let people do as they desire, but show them how it conflicts with Islam, and then stays out of the picture, leaving the individual with a moral choice to whether stop what they’re doing, or to carry on. Is this true?

I don’t have any specific questions for you, Angua. I just wanted to thank you for starting this thread. I was reading what you and the other Muslim posters said with great interest in the now-hidden thread.

I think it’s very important that all Muslims get their voices out there, that we non-Muslims don’t hear just the Intolerant Would-be Rulers (the same goes for all the other religions/philosopies/groups, of course).

From my viewpoint as a “secular neo-pagan”, I tended to see all of the Religions of the Book–Judaism, Christianity, Islam–as more alike than different. They seemed authoritarian, intolerant of dissent or thought, and prone to becoming worldly and oppressive political structures. I thought of them only as the unthinking opposition to a culture of tolerance, fair play, and “live and let live”.

Various posters on the SDMB showed me the heart that lives in these religions, and and reminded me of the charity and the duty to help that lies at their core. I have learned a lot about Christianity and Judaism here, and I now have a much more positive attitude towards them.

I look forward to learning more about Islam.

Funny, isn’t it, how, by actually listening to other people, you will get a much more positive reception to your message, than you get by just performing a drive-by witnessing and quoting some lines from a Book. Makes me wonder whether some of these witnessers are actually weakening their religions by pushing people away?

Just don’t ask me to debate any of it. I’m not that organised. Yet. :slight_smile:

We’ve have some enjoyable flirting online. If I ( or any other man ) were to do so irl, would you or your friends and family find that distasteful?

Are there zealously enforced rules about other activities, such as drinking or premarital relations in your religious community?

You are quite well received academically in your chosen feild of scientific study (I gather), how does that sit with others of your faith? Especially since you are a woman?
Not being difficult or harsh to Angua, in case anyone’s wondering. I have a huge amount of respect for her, and i think she is so beautiful my eyes are likely to explode. But, since she opened the thread… well, just curious.

You mentioned that this is a small sect, and mentioned specific features that are unique to your sect’s mosques. Would adherents to your faith be significantly limited in where they could live and still be faithful followers? Is this a challenge to young people growing up in your sect? Are you aware if your sect’s population is stable, increasing, or decreasing?

Thanks for the thread!

The term Sevener is usually applied to the Isma’ilis as a whole, since the dispute over succession was over who was properly designated as the seventh Imam. More specifically though it refers to those Isma’ilis that regarded Muhammad b. Isma’il as the final ( Seventh ) Imam, who was occultated and would return as the Mahdi. The medieval Qaramita fell into this category ( largely, anyway - they were initially defined as such, but gradually morphed ).

Fivers is synonmous with the Zaydi branch of Shi’ism. This group split over the succession of the fifth Imam, as a minority rejected the fourth Imam’s designated successor in favor of a non-designated son, Zayd, who rose in rebellion against the Umayyads. Among other differences the Zaydis reject taqiyya, the formal designation of successors, and the concept of the Mahdi. Today most Zaydis can be found in northern Yemen, where an Imamate persisted until 1962.

Just to be clear, this is the Isma’ili take. But less most readers be confused, when history books refer to Caliphs in this period they are referring to the the Sunni Abbasid Caliphs in Baghdad up until 909, when the Fatimid Isma’ili Ubayd Allah formally claimed the title in opposition to the Abbasids. Then there was two Caliphs, joined shortly by a third in 929 when the Umayyad ruler in Cordoba claimed the title as well ( almost certainly in reaction to the Fatimids who were a real threat to them in North Africa ). There were then three Caliphs in existence ( and compeititioon ) until 1031, then two again ( Fatimids and Abbasids ) until 1171, then down to one ( the Abbasids, persisting ) again. The Abbasid Caliphate itself essentially terminated in 1258 ( Mongol conquest ), though the Mamluks of Egypt resurrected a shadow Caliphate that lasted until the Ottoman conquest in 1517, when the title was appropriated by Selim I, whose descendants held it until 1924.

Further a small correction - the dawr al-satr I believe usually begins with the wanderings not od Isma’il, but of Isma’il’s son, Muhammad al-Maktum ( the Hidden One ) b. Isma’il and ends with 'Abd Allah al-Mahdi creating the Fatimid state.

  • Tamerlane

By the way just in case I confused anyone, Ubayd Allah = 'Abd Allah :).

Angua, About homosexuality. You say you follow all basic tennants of islam. How can you agree with homo-sexual marriage if homo-sexuality is a sin, according to the quran?

Homosexuality and Lesbianism have no place in Islam. This issue is clear from the primary source of Islam, The Holy Quran. No Muslim scholar, Imam or a leader of a Muslim community can alter this injunction. A person committing such an act is in violation of God’s Law and should seek repentence before God gives up on him or her. As the following verses tell us, it was the people of prophet Lot (peace be on him) who started this evil act and were severly punished by God.

We also (sent) Lut: he said to his people: "Do ye commit lewdness such as no people in creation (ever) committed before you? “For ye practice your lusts on men in preference to women: ye are indeed a people transgressing beyond bounds.” And his people gave no answer but this: they said, “drive them out of your city: these are indeed men who want to be clean and pure!” But We saved him and his family, except his wife: she was of those who lagged behind. And We rained down on them a shower (of brimstone): then see what was the end of those who indulged in sin and crime! (The Holy Quran, 7:80-84)

The answer to this is complicated. I’m not a scholar and this will obviously be a bit oversimplified for brevity:

The nature of rulership in Islam has been a central theme since the beginning. When Mohammad died, they used the word Caliph (lit. “successor”) deliberately, as it was only vaguely defined. The debate centred on the nature of rule: should it be temporal (political) or spiritual? Did the ruler have “divine right”? How would succession be determined? Should the ruler always come from the Prophet’s family?

Anyway, the followers of 'Ali (the son of Muhammad’s uncle and husband of his daughter Fatima) were generally dissatisfied over early choices for the Caliph, which were made by tribal consensus. They instead believed that 'Ali and his descendents were spiritual successors to the Prophet and eventually developed the concept of Imams, who succeeded by way of nass, or designation by the previous Imam (usually father, but sometimes brother of the successor). Another characteristic of Imams was ilm, which referred to divinely inspired knowledge of the Qur’an (esoteric and exoteric meanings), passed on via nass. Shia is short for a phrase that means “Partisans of 'Ali”.

There were a lot of disputes over the early Caliphate, but the Shia were usually the ones getting shafted every time. More than that, they were persecuted by the Sunni Caliphs, who at various points saw them as political threats. Shia viewed political authority as being somewhat less important when considered against the divinely inspired Imamat, one did not require temporal rule with such a powerful spiritual mandate. According to Shia tradition, only the Imams held the necessary knowledge to guide believers and help them live a pious life that followed Islamic principles. The emphasis on spiritual guidance, along with the usual position of the Shia as revolutionaries against the established Sunni Caliphate, probably led to the idea that they were more comfortable with “separation of church and state”.

Of course, one only needs to look at Iran for an alternate take on the above ideas. Iran has an elected government, but the direction of domestic and foreign policy is set by the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Khamenei) and legislation is subject to approval by a council of Islamic clerics.

Various nationalist/socialist movements in MENA over the early part of this century involved severe repression of Islam as a voice in state affairs. Failure of secular states to address public concerns (due to corruption, colonialism and other factors) has made people extremely wary of purely secular government. This is why insurgencies have often taken up Islam as a rallying cry, it is widely seen as a force against corruption and unjust rule.

It is my impression that failure to effective secular governance in many MENA countries has made a lot of people in the region very mistrustful of governments that do not have religious sanction. Not necessarily anything particular to the Shia.

Being against homosexuality is not a central tenet. That Angua, or any other Muslim, supports homosexual marriage does not push her beyond the boundaries of normative Islam.

Again, adhering blindly and literally to Qur’anic scripture is very literalist, fundie thinking. Muslims do realize that many suras have a specific temporal reference and may not be immediately relevant a thousand years later. One does not have to adhere strictly to every rule laid out in the Qur’an in order to be a Muslim (unless you’re neo-Salafist, in which case any Muslim who doesn’t adhere strictly is a heretic). That many disagree with homosexuality probably has as much to do with cultural mores as it does religion. This shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the backlash against gay marriage in the US.