Video: Ismaili Interpretations of the Shariah: Between Affirmation & Abrogation

The University of California Santa Barbara held a special academic conference titled "Shari'a and the Secular" on October 19-20, 2018. I was one of the presenters and delivered a paper titled Ismaili Interpretations of the Shari'a: Between Abrogation and Affirmation. You can view the video of my presentation here. Please note that this 20 minute presentation is a summary of a lengthy research paper of about 30,000 words, which I will submit for publication in the near future. Those interested in reading the paper can contact me through this website.


Paper Summary

The concept of sharī‘a, often mistranslated as “Islamic law”, stands as one of the most contested and misunderstood elements of Islam in the world today. Contemporary public discourse harbors a number of myths, misconceptions, and exaggerations concerning the meaning of sharī‘a and its applications, the historical development of sharī‘a, and the relationship between sharī‘a and Islam. There are at least three distinct discourses contributing to this situation. One is a political discourse motivated by xenophobia and racism, which inaccurately portrays sharī‘a as the antithesis of liberal, western, and democratic values in the form of severely harsh and inhumane laws that Muslims seek to impose upon Western nations. Another discourse consists of the interpretations of certain Muslim groups who define Islam as primarily as sharī‘a and seek to enact it in the form of a political system enshrined in a nation state, with countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan often seen as eminent examples of such implementations.[1] A third discourse is one that has emanated from the academic field of Islamic studies over the last few decades, which conceives Islam mainly in terms of sharī‘a qua legal prescriptions and proscriptions and labels other expressions of Islam in the form of philosophy, theology, art, poetry, music, devotional practices, etc. as lesser or marginal manifestations of Islam. Shahab Ahmed has called this a “legal-supremacist” definition of Islam and cited numerous examples of this tendency in scholarship before showcasing its various problems.[2] For example, Wael B. Hallaq wrote that “law was the defining characteristic of Muslim societies and civilizations throughout the centuries, and in every corner of the Islamic world.”[3] Jacques Waardenburg claimed that “in classical Muslim terms, normative Islam is the Sharī‘a.[4] The current state of both public and academic knowledge with its reified conceptions of sharī‘a would benefit immensely from studies that examine how historical Muslim communities actually conceived and interpreted the sharī‘a at the everyday level, especially cases where Muslims have constructed and practiced their form of Islam through beliefs and practices other than the sharī‘a.


This paper is a historical study of how the Nizari Ismailis (hereafter called “Ismailis”), the second largest branch of Shī‘ī Muslims after the Twelvers, conceived of and practiced sharī‘a through their storied history. The Ismailis present a unique case study on the topic given that the Ismaili Imams have abrogated parts of the sharī‘a for their community on at least two occasions in their history. The most famous of these instances is the oft-misunderstood event of 17 Ramadan 559/1164 when the Ismaili Imam Hasan ‘alā dhikrihi al-salām (d. 561/1166) declared qiyāma (resurrection) for the Nizari Ismaili community and abrogated the ritual sharī‘a. But this event was also an expression of a deeper and nuanced Ismaili theological orientation toward the sharī‘a that has manifested in different ways throughout Ismaili history and has yet to be analyzed by modern scholars. In this study, I argue that the historical Ismaili attitude towards the sharī‘a is one of systematic ambivalence: the Ismailis conceived the sharī‘a as a prophetic composition of rules and regulations, a symbolic discourse representing higher level truths, and a mode of religious practice subject to the interpretation of the Ismaili Imams based on hiero-historical conditions and the socio-political environment in which the Ismaili community finds itself. Thus, the Ismailis interpreted the sharī‘a as a means towards different ends at different times: sometimes the sharī‘a served as a common discourse by which Ismailis related to a Sunni majority, presented their claims within the framework of Sunni legal discourse, or forged common religious and political ground with the Sunni Caliphate; in other instances, the Ismaili abrogation and noncompliance with the sharī‘a served to demarcate Ismailis from other Muslims and strength Ismaili religious identity. This Ismaili orientation historically manifested both through the affirmation of the sharī‘a and the partial abrogation of the sharī‘a, depending upon the theological and socio-political contexts in which the community found itself. I will demonstrate this thesis through four arguments.


First, I analyze how the Ismailis theorized the sharī‘a as an ethical, legal, and ritual regime that the Prophet Muhammad and prior Prophets constructed and composed through divine inspiration in response to the circumstances of their own time as opposed to something that God directly ordained and dictated eternally. In other words, the Lawgiver is the Prophet. This sharī‘a constitutes the outward or exoteric (ẓāhir) and symbolic dimension of religion, whose ultimate content and symbolic referent is the inner or esoteric (bāṭin) dimension of religion. The esoteric holds greater truth value than the exoteric and grounds the spiritual value and efficacy of the latter. Following the Prophet, the Imams remain as divinely-inspired guardians of the sharī‘a; they interpret and evolve it based on the needs of the time and disclose its inner symbolic meaning to the community. In this theorization, medieval Ismaili thinkers also divided the sharī‘a into two parts – the “rational” (‘aqlī) sharī‘a whose contents serve the wellbeing of human society and the “imposed” (waḍ‘ī) sharī‘a whose value lies its symbolic and esoteric meaning. Most importantly, they all believed that the “imposed” (waḍ‘ī) sharī‘a would be abrogated by the Imam at the commencement of the eschatological age of qiyāma (resurrection), which refers to a highly anticipated future period of spiritual unveiling (kashf) in human history. In all of these respects, the Ismaili positions entail the contingency of the sharī‘a.


Second, I show how the Ismaili theorization of the sharī‘a has played out over Ismaili history in at least three different ways, often driven by theological developments and the socio-political context of the community: in the pre-Fatimid period (148/765-297/909) and early Fatimid era (297/909-354/965), the Ismailis affirmed the sharī‘a and enacted it through establishing a number token Shi‘ī legal practices in Fatimid domains without actually having a formal Ismaili fiqh; in the later Fatimid era (354/965-487/1094) and early Alamut period (487/1094-559/1164), the Ismailis affirmed the necessity of the sharī‘a and practiced it through a formal and pragmatic Ismaili fiqh (jurisprudence) formulated by al-Qāḍī al-Nu‘mān (d. 363/974) under the direction of the Fatimid Ismaili Imam-Caliphs; in this period, the Ismaili fiqh served as a vehicle of advancing Ismaili truth-claims against Sunni theories of law. From 559/1164 to 607/1211 in the Alamut period, Nizari Ismailis at the communal level ceased practicing parts of the sharī‘a when the Nizari Ismaili Imam Ḥasan ‘alā dhikrihi al-salām declared qiyāma in 559/1164 and guided the Ismailis to practice Islam in a more spiritual manner. In the latter phase of the Alamut period (607/1211-654/1256) and the post-Alamut period (645/1256 onward), the Ismailis dissimulated as Sunnis and observed the sharī‘a communally as a form of taqiyya to protect themselves from persecution within predominantly Sunni and Twelver societies; however, at the individual level, an Ismaili could dispense with certain sharī‘a ritual practices if one had reached the higher spiritual stations of ṭarīqa and ḥaqīqa and it was safe to do so; this orientation seems to share certain ideas with Sufi thought.


Finally, in the modern period, I demonstrate that the Ismailis communally do not observe most of the ritual sharī‘a and instead define their interpretation and practice of Islam in Sufi terms as the “Ismaili ṭarīqa of Islam”. This is due to the religious reforms of the forty-eighth Ismaili Imam Aga Khan III (d. 1957), who discontinued the community’s practice of many sharī‘a rituals in the early twentieth century. This modern Ismaili orientation embodies recent Ismaili Imams’ efforts to consolidate their authority over a globalized community and construct a unified Ismaili identity amidst its cultural and geographical diversity. At the same time, the modern Ismaili community participates in structures and priorities established by Aga Khan IV which, it may be argued, amount to a contemporary Ismaili interpretation of sharī‘a: these include the Ismaili Constitution, which contains rules and regulations for the social governance of the Ismaili community; verbal guidance given by the Aga Khans, called farmāns, which stress the ethical principles of Islam and the regularity of religious practice; and the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of international development agencies, whose activities are rooted in the ethics of Islam oriented around the principle of “quality of life”. I argue that these modern Ismaili initiatives express principles that coincide with what some Sunni jurists call the maqāṣid al-sharī‘a rooted in the principle of maṣlaḥa and what medieval Ismaili thinkers termed the “rational sharī‘a”.


[1] See the discussion in Mohammad Omar Farooq and Nedal El-Ghattis, “In Search of the Sharī‘ah,” in Arab Law Quarterly (2018):


[2] See Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 117-129.


[3] Quoted in Ahmed, What is Islam, 118.


[4] Quoted in Ahmed What is Islam, 120.