Book Review: The Origins of Is’mailism by Bernard Lewis

June 4, 2007 at 1:29 am (Book Reviews)

Book Review: The Origins of Is’mailism, by Bernard Lewis
reviewed by Jesse Walker

Because of the secrecy with which the Is’mailis shrouded their literature, most contemporary discussions we have of early Is’maili practice and doctrine comes from hostile Sunni outsiders. The confusion surrounding Is’mailism has produced heated debates on a number of issues, from the origin of the idea that Is’mail was the proper seventh Imam to the nature of the relationship between the Is’maili Fatamid caliphs and the Carmathian Muslims in Bahrain. In The Origins of Is’mailism, Bernard Lewis argues that Is’mail himself, along with his son and a number of companions, founded the Is’maili school of thought; that the Fatimid movement and, subsequently, the Fatimid caliphate were a direct continuation of the movement founded by Is’mail; that the Carmathians’ origins are uncertain, but may have been founded by the Is’maili, Abdallah ben Maimun; and that the Carmathian-Fatamid split was a division between radicals and moderates following the founding of the Fatamid State. Lewis argues convincingly that Is’maili thought was (and is) radically different from that of orthodox Islam — both Sunni and Twelver Shi’a. Based on a “quasi-masonic” (Lewis’ phrase) hierarchy of initiation and an elitist attitude towards the uninitiated, Is’mailism opposed the Sunnis’ relatively egalitarian ideas about access to knowledge. But Is’mailism was, paradoxically, more egalitarian in many social matters than Sunnism. It was more liberal in its treatment of women. It appealed to the artisan classes, and may have organized the first guilds of the Islamic world. In its Carmathian variety, it practiced an economic order that the orthodox confused with communism. There may be a connection between Is’maili elitism and Is’maili liberalism. After all, if the truth was properly the property of an initiate few, who cared what the unenlightened masses did? Both tendencies provoked the horrified reactions among the orthodox, who viewed the first — with some justification — as a front for a “secret doctrine” of materialism, libertinism, even atheism, and who saw the second as a threat to their established order.

Lewis’ book is not just an attempt to sketch a history of the early Is’mailis. It is a history of the perceptions the non-Is’maili had of those early Is’mailis, a historiography combined with a history. In many ways, this story of the general perception of a potentially subversive heresy is more interesting than the story of the heresy itself, if only because our knowledge of the former is more substantial. The popular paranoia towards Sevener Shi’ism should remind the reader of similar attitudes throughout Western history: At various times, the orthodox attempted to tar the Is’mailis with patently untrue reports of
non-Islamic origins (Judaic, Zoroastrian, Manichean) and with non-Islamic secret teachings. (Lewis does not draw such comparisons — though he does mention the influence of the gnostics on Is’maili thought. His monograph is narrowly focused and concise.)

This book was originally written as a doctoral dissertation and, as such, is not the best introduction to the subject — it was not written for a popular audience, and it assumes a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader. It is also in many ways out of date: First issued in 1940, the preface to the edition I read — published in 1975 — makes it clear that much has been made obsolete by later discoveries (and that some errors were made in the hasty original preparation of the book). Still, it’s a fascinating study.



  1. RA said,

    I stumbled upon the book while browsing a used book store in London about 6 or 7 years go. It opened my eyes to a lot of issues about Ismailism, and prompted me to look into it further. Although it was academic, I thought it was one of the most engaging books i’ve read.
    I’m not happy that someone had borrowed my copy and never given it back.

    • meowmeowkittyfuck said,

      All of the premises presented by Bernard Lewis is that Arabs are stupid, Islam is a bastard copy of Judaism, Persians were great because of Jews, Turks were superior because they were originally jews and Israel is the fucking end all and be all of everything and the rest of the people should die to serve it well. Fuck him Fuck his books and Fuck his life.

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  6. Hassan alnasser said,

    Bernard, Zakaria and Ajami put blame on cultural idiosyncracies rather than highlighting the effect on the Middle East from the hegemony of the U.S along with their counterpart ruiling elites.
    Many of those intolerant contemporary idiosyncracies are a result of governmental strategies who forwards the message of “we the absolutist rulers are better than the backwards people”.
    Bernard and Ajami can go f**k themselves. There are many scholars who are able to spotify the underlying causes of failures of the Arab identity. Read Stephen Sheehi and Edward Said to uncover the truth.

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