The University of Chicago holds a Shi'i Studies Symposium each year focused on a topic. The 2018 Symposium was about Sectarianism. I presented a paper titled Ismailism: The Sectarian Construction of a Scholarly Category in Islamic Studies. The Video of my conference talk is below. Part of the paper will be published as a book chapter in an edited volume later next year.
Paper Summary: The field of Ismaili studies, devoted to the history and thought of the Ismaili Muslims, the second largest Shi‘i Muslim community in the world, has expanded significantly in the last several decades. Modern scholarship often refers to “Ismaili” doctrines, traditions, and institutions collectively by the term “Ismailism”. However, the broader issue of how “Ismailism” as a scholarly category was constructed along sectarian lines and its various pitfalls are still to be addressed. This paper argues that the current concept of “Ismailism” as used in the field of Ismaili studies to mean allegiance to the Ismaili line of Shi‘i Imams is grossly inadequate and requires amendment. I demonstrate that Ismailism was first defined through sectarian frames and what Jonathan Z. Smith calls the “monothetic” taxonomy of religion in the 1866 Aga Khan Case Judgment and that this framing subsequently came to permeate Ismaili studies scholarship until now. I then demonstrate how Ismailism as defined is inadequate for academic purposes because: a) the definition is inconsistent with the Ismailis’ own historical self-definitions, which are much broader than allegiance to the Ismaili Imamat; b) the definition fails to account for various other “Ismaili” designated phenomena (cosmologies, hermeneutics, rituals) among non-Ismaili thinkers who did not recognize the Imamat. Finally, using Jonathan Z. Smith’s idea of polythetic taxonomy, I outline a different taxonomical framework from which to develop a more expansive and enriched conceptualization of “Ismailism”.