The Isma’ilis are a sect within Islamic Shi’ism. Also known as Seveners, the Isma’ilis split from the Twelver Shi’i in 765 when they chose to follow Isma’il, the second son of the sixth imam.
Early Isma’ilis were avid proselytizers and revolutionaries who attacked and sometimes even killed Sunni leaders. To protect themselves from prosecution from the ruling Sunni government they practiced taqiyya or dissimulation to conceal their true beliefs and affiliation Some other Shi’i sects also used taqiyya to protect themselves and their communities.
In 909 the Isma’ilis established the Fatimid dynasty, which ruled large areas of the Muslim world from their new capital Cairo in Egypt In the 16th century, Shah Ismail of the Safavid dynasty in Persia also claimed to be a Sevener imam.
The Assassins were a much dreaded offshoot of the Isma’ilis. Based in a fortress stronghold on Mt. Alamut in northern present-day Iran, the Assassins were led by the socalled Old Man of the Mountain or Grand Master. They assassinated Abbasid leaders and the fear they aroused in both Muslims and Christians gave rise to numerous legends regarding their prowess and secret society.
In the 1800s the Isma’ili imam acquired the honorary title of Aga Khan through a marriage alliance and moved to India. The present-day Aga Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, is the 49th imam in the chain of Isma’ili leaders. Believed to be continuation of the living imam, he continues to interpret Islam to fit present-day needs. Although there are scattered communities in Africa and elsewhere around the world, most present-day Isma’ilis live in India, where they form a rich merchant class.