- The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, a Search for Salvation
The pre-modern history of the Isma'ili Shi'i sect of Islam has typically been shrouded in mystery or distorted through fantasy. This is as true [End Page 268] of its origins in dispute over the rightful successor to Ja'far al-Sadiq, the sixth in a genealogical line from the Prophet's family of imams or divinely guided religious and political leaders of the early Shi'ah community, as it is of medieval Isma'ili history after the fall of the Fatimid dynasty's rule in Egypt and the Levant. At that time the Nizari Isma'ili branch maintained their resistant challenge to Sunni Muslim political powers and crusaders alike through the covert network of faithful agents and missionaries, the 'assassins' of medieval legend, deployed from a dispersed group of mountain fortresses ruled by the imams from Alamut, the Eagle's Nest. But no period has been as obscure as that between the destruction of Alamut in 1256 by Hulegu Khan, grandson of Chinggis and lord of the Mongol Il-Khanate in Persia, and the re-emergence of the imams in Anjadan two and a half centuries later, after the Safavid dynasty consolidated its conquest of Persia and conversion of it to Shi'ism (albeit a different branch, known as the Imami or Twelver sect). For some scholars, following medieval Sunni historical sources, the absence of Isma'ili's as a political force meant their erasure from history. Others have speculated that Isma'ilis disappeared into the Sufi mystical brotherhoods, including Shi'i ones, that flourished in the post-Mongol social, religious, and political turmoil before the formation of stable, territorially bounded early modern states, the Ottoman, Safavid, Uzbek, and Moghul empires.
Into this historiographical black hole shines Virani's illuminating study. In the best of circumstances, sources for pre-modern Isma'ili history and religious culture have been elliptical, fragmentary, or hostile. Virani meditates on the problems of 'recovering a lost history' from hostile and fragmentary sources (chapter 1), many of which celebrate the massacre of Isma'ili communities. His painstaking research leads him through an array of published material and a trove of newly discovered manuscript texts of varying genres like poetry, chronicles, mystical treatises, devotional texts, geographical works, biographical dictionaries, and other compendia in languages ranging from Arabic, Persian, and Latin, to seven South Asian languages including Urdu and Punjabi. He begins his narrative in chapter 2 by re-reading and correcting the dominant Sunni historical source, that of the Il-Khanid vizier and Persian bureaucrat al-Juwayni, to demonstrate that the Isma'ilis survived the massacres and destruction wrought by the Mongols and even returned to their previous locales, including Alamut, within decades after 1256.
In the following six chapters, Virani establishes a chronology of the imams, their biographies and activities, and the eventual transfer of the imamate to Anjudan. Over the course of reconstructing this history, he explores the interaction between religious concepts and the Isma'ili response to post-Alamut historical conditions. In fact, these concerns are central to the book's ambition 'to identify and understand how the [End Page 269] Ismailis managed to survive such circumstances and how their religious doctrines and worldview helped them do this' (9). He focuses on three themes: taqiyya, 'precautionary dissimulation of one's true religious beliefs, especially in times of danger' (194), as a cultivated, spiritual virtue that helped preserve Isma'ili identity within other religious movements like Sufism, cultural formations, and dynastic polities; da'wa, the summons to God's guidance and the structure of Isma'ili mission as it turned inward to maintain communal integrity administratively and organize it along a spiritual gradient hierarchically; and the imamate, the central concept of spiritual authority re-crafted in the absence of political expression. Fundamentally, Virani argues that Ismailis adapted to preserve their religious identity by drawing upon these doctrines within their tradition. He explores how they not only survived but...