Ismailis in Syria

“Syria is an original homeland of the Ismailis. It is located at the eastern end of the Mediterranean sea. Iraq bound it on the east on the north by Turkey, on the west by Lebanon and the Mediterranean sea and on the south by Jordan and Israel. The Ismailis mostly flourished in Salamia, where Imam Ismail resided secretly till death in 158/775. Imam Muhammad bin Ismail also came to live in Salamia, where he died in 197/813. The Abbasids intensified operations in search of the Imam, thus Imam Wafi Ahmad went to Syria and lived in the castle of Masiyaf for some time. The Ismaili da’is in search of a new residence for their Imam came to Salamia and inspected the town and approached the owner, Muhammad bin Abdullah bin Saleh, who had transformed the town into a flourishing commercial centre. Soon afterwards, Salamia became the headquarters of Ismaili dawat. Imam Wafi Ahmad retired into solitude and died in Salamia in 212/828. Imam Taqi Muhammad is reported to have died in 225/840 in Salamia after bequeathing the office of Imamate to his son, Imam Radi Abdullah. Imam al-Mahdi lived in Salamia in a thick of insecure milieu in the cloak of a merchant and relinquished it in 286/899.

Jawhar conquered Syria, and then he invited his master, Imam al-Muizz in Egypt. Imam al-Aziz was able to annex Damascus after defeating its Turkish commander, Iftagin. Under Imam al-Hakim, Aleppo submitted to the rule of a Fatimid governor. The Fatimid power in Syria was seriously impugned at the time of Imam az-Zahir’s accession, but it was soon altered by the ability and enterprise of Anushtagin ad-Dizbiri. During the later part of Imam az-Zahir’s rule, the Fatimid influence had become supreme in Syria.

The Syrian Ismailis supported Imam al-Nizar during Alamut rule. Al-Hakim al-Munajjim Asad bin Kassim al-Ajami, the physician astrologer was the first Nizari da’i to have come from Alamut to Aleppo. He was able to generate his friendship with the Seljuq ruler Ridwan bin Tutus. Soon afterwards, Ridwan allowed the Nizari Ismaili da’is to use Aleppo as base for their operations, and also helped them to build a mission house (darul dawa).

The next da’i in succession was Abu Tahir al-Saigh, the goldsmith; who had been deputed from Alamut in the time of da’i al-Munajjim. He also cemented close ties with Ridwan, and helped him during the Crusades. He captured the fort of Afamiya in south of Aleppo on 24th Jamada I, 499/February 3, 1106. Afamiya was the first Nizari Ismaili stronghold in Syria, but was short-lived. In 500/1106, a certain Musbih bin Mulaib urged Tancred (d. 506/1112), the Frankish prince of Antioch, to seize the fort of Afamiya. Tancred marched thither, encamped before the town and blockaded it. He lifted his initial siege in return of a tribute from the Ismailis. Tancred returned and forced Afamiya to surrender on 13th Muharram, 500/September 14, 1106. Abu Tahir and a number of his associates managed to ransom themselves from captivity and returned to Aleppo. This was most probably the first encounter between the Ismailis of Syria and the Crusaders. In Aleppo, Abu Tahir was in search of suitable stronghold. In 505/1111, Mawdud, the Seljuq ruler of Mosul came with his army to fight the Crusaders, Ridwan closed the gates of Aleppo, and the armed groups of the Ismailis rallied to Ridwan’s side. Ridwan however, seems to have retracted from his pro-Ismaili position in his final years. In 505/1111, an unsuccessful attempt on the life of a certain Abu Harb Isa bin Zaid, a wealthy merchant and the enemy of the Ismailis from Transoxiana, led to a popular outburst against the Ismailis, which Ridwan was obliged to condone. Ridwan died in 507/1113, and was succeeded by his 16 years son, Alp Arslan. He was yet immature, and became a tool of the enemies of the Ismailis. The fortune of the Ismailis ran on reverse side. He massacred the Ismailis, in which da’i Abu Tahir and his son, da’i Ismail, brother of al-Munajjim and some 200 Ismailis were killed. Thus, the early period of the Ismaili activities in Syria badly suffered due to the failure to secure a firm foothold in the country. Very soon, they won large converts in Jabal as-Summaq, the Jazr and the territory of the Banu Ulaym, between Shayzar and Sarmin. They however retained their influence and procured friendly relations with Najamuddin Ilghazi, the Artuqid ruler of Mardin and Mayyafariqin, who also occupied Aleppo in 512/1118. In 514/1120, the Ismailis became capable in demanding a small castle, Qalat al-Sharif from Ilghazi. He, unwilling to cede it to him and afraid to refuse, resorted to the subterfuge of having it hastily demolished, and then pretending to have ordered this just previously. The Ismaili influence in Aleppo seems to have ceased in 517/1124, when Balak, the nephew of Ilghazi, arrested the local sub-ordinate da’is of the new chief da’i, Bahram. He also caused the expulsion of the Ismailis, and sold their properties.

Abu Tahir was succeeded by another Iranian da’i, Bahram for Syria, who made Damascus as an Ismaili centre in place of Aleppo in 520/1126. He kept his mission activities secret from beginning, and created friendship with the chief of Damascus, Zahiruddin Atabeg Tughtigin and his vizir Abu Ali Tahir bin Sa’d al-Mazdaqani. He also started the dawa in Aleppo, and made close contact with the new governor, Ilghazi. Damascus was threatened by the Franks in 520/1126 and was in need of reinforcements. There were no better fighters than the Ismailis; hence Tughtigin engaged them during the Crusades. Thus, after restoration of peace, Bahram entered Damascus along with the credentials of Najamuddin Ilghazi. He was received with honour and given protection, and soon acquired a position of power in the city. He also sought to obtain a castle, which he could fortify as a stronghold, and Tughtigin ceded him the frontier fortress of Baniyas. Even in the city itself the Ismailis received a building to use as a “house of propaganda” (dar al-dawa). When he had established himself in Baniyas, he rebuilt and fortified the castle, and embarked on a course of his mission in the surrounding region. In 522/1128, he set out from Baniyas with Ismaili forces to take possession of Wadi al-Taym. He however had to face the challenge of Dahhak bin Jandal, the head of Wadi al-Taym; who engaged him in a fierce battle and caused the death of Bahram in 522/1128.

The next who followed Bahram was da’i Ismail al-Ajami, who pursued the same course and retained the possession of the fort of Baniyas. He also maintained close relation with Tughtigin, who died at the end of 522/1128. Abu Sa’id Buri, the son and successor of Tughtigin, known as Taj al-Mulk and Majd ad-din was however the bitterest foe of the Ismailis, and ordered for their massacre on 17th Ramzan, 523/September 4, 1129. The number of the Ismailis executed in this outbreak is put at 6,000 by Ibn Athir (d. 630/1234), 10,000 by Ibn Jawzi (d. 597/1200) and 20,000 by the author of Bustan al-Jami. Ismail surrendered the fortress of Baniyas to the Franks, who were advancing on Damascus, and fled with his associates to the Frankish regions. Buri became the victim of the two Ismaili fidais, who came from Alamut and secretly joined the team of his guards and struck him with a sword on 5th Jamada II, 525/May 7, 1131 at the gate of his palace in the citadel of Damascus. Wounded in neck and hip, Buri lingered on and died a year later in 526/1132. Ismail al-Ajami also died in 524/1130 in exile among the Franks. The next da’is were Abul Fath, Abu Muhammad, Khwaja Ali bin Masud and Abu Mansur bin Muhammad.

The above details suggest that the Nizari Ismailis used to be the victims of their enemies from time to time in Syria. Despite the repressions and debacles, the Ismailis’ fortune continued to rise in Syria during the turbulent years. After the last massacre of Buri, they however did not loose courage, but failed to recover their position in Damascus. In 527/1132-3, the fort of Kadmus in Jabal Bahra was purchased from Saiful Mulk bin Amrun. Soon afterwards, Musa bin Saiful Mulk sold Kahf to the Ismailis. In 531/1136, the local Ismailis drove out the Frankish occupants of the fortress of Khariba. In 535/1140 the most important stronghold of Masiyaf came to their hands.

Imam al-Mohtadi is said to have reorganized the Ismaili mission from his base in Lamasar. In 530/1136, he deputed Zayn bin Abi Faraj in Syria with a sealed letter, in which the Imam addressed to his Syrian followers that: “Verily, I am your Mawla Muhammad bin Ali bin Nizar. May God curse one who denies to believe the truth and covers it. We have charged Zayn ibn Abi Faraj ibn Abi’l Hasan ibn Ali with this pledge to make the truth cleared for you for the manifestation of the truth….”

Rashiduddin Sinan became the chief of the mission in Syria after the death of Abu Mansur bin Muhammad in 558/1163. Sinan was not only an outstanding personality but also an efficient administrator. Once well established, his first task was to consolidate his realm. He made Masiyaf as his headquarters and rapidly swept off the internal dissensions of the community. It was within the Ismaili territory that Sinan did his great work. In order to meet the dangers from outside, Sinan began reorganizing his men and choosing the most eligible, and devoted to form the corps of the fidais. He had his fidais trained in various languages and in the art of collecting secret information from the courts of kings and princes. He organized an elaborate communication system, making use of carrier pigeons, or the pigeon post, and coded messages by which the commanders of the various Ismaili strongholds were kept informed about the news of brewing trouble, his plans or the possible threats to any of the widely scattered Ismaili fortresses. These messenger birds proved beneficial, which could fly unscathed back to their lofts from distant lands.

It is related that Imam Alauddin Muhammad had sent his son and successor, Imam Ruknuddin Khurshah in Syria with sealed letter in 653/1255.

The Mamluk Baybars destroyed the power of the Syrian Ismailis in 671/1273, and after that the Ismailis played no prominent role in Syrian history. In fact, the Ismailis not only survived but also revived. They deserted some of their smaller villages and built new in Kadmus and Masiyaf and in the fertile district inland from Khawabi; and also rebuilt the historical Salamia. The new settlement originated in 1848 when the Ottoman authorities pardoned an Ismaili amir on condition that he and the other Ismailis would leave the mountain and settle on hitherto uncultivated land east of the Orontes river. They were allowed to choose their own site at the ruined area of Salamia, and were also exempted from conscription and taxation. Other Syrian Ismailis also came and thus Salamia became the most populous Ismaili Center in Syria.

Until 1880, no Ottoman officials or troops had been stationed at Salamia, and the Ismaili amirs had been virtual rulers of the town and district. In 1884, however, Salamia was made the headquarters of a new administrative district (kaza) within the Sanjak of Hamma. Officials, tax demands, gendarmes and troops followed. In 1880, however, a Mominshahi Shaikh Himadi Umar became locally prominent. He won people over by bestowing them bountifully all kinds of false promises. He also cultivated the acquaintance of Ottoman officials in Salamia and Hamma, and at the end of 1880, he was appointed a member of the official administrative council of the district Salamia. Quarrels arose between his supporters and the amir of the Ismailis.

The Nizari Ismailis of Syria had little contact with the outside world and knew nothing about their Imam. Thus, an amir of Mominshahis visited India in 1881, and three others in 1883. The latter group learnt that an Imam was living at Bombay. In 1887 or 1888, another delegation came in India and actually met Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah in Bombay. On the return to Syria, a grand meeting was held of all leading Shaikhs of the Ismailis, and at which those who had been to Bombay announced that their quest had been successful and that the Imam of the age had been found, and amid upsurge of enthusiasm, these Ismailis declared their loyalty to the Imam.

In 1890, in what was his first letter to his Syrian followers, the Imam appointed Shaikh Suleman al-Hajj as the Mukhi (the Syrian Ismailis pronounced it as Mukki). He also designated Amir Ismail bin Muhammad as his estate agent for the collection and transmission of the tithe in Salamia. Amir Ismail was a grandson of the founder of Salamia, the leading figure in the town and the Ottoman-appointed director of the Municipality. In his letter, the Imam called him Ismail Said ad-Dawla, a title evocative of the remote and glorious past of the Ismailis.

Shaikh Suleman died in 1895 in India, his companion there, Shaikh Ahmad al-Muhammad al-Hajj, was designated the new Mukhi. He had learnt much about the Ismailism as well as the rituals and was instructed to introduce them in Syria.

The Present Imam visited Beirut on July 25, 1959 and went to Damascus on the following day. The Syrian government accorded him a warm welcome. Salamia is the main Ismailis Center in Syria, which was 152 or 153 miles from Damascus. The Imam arrived in Salamia on July 29, where he stayed for three days and gave didar to the followers. There were seven jamatkhanas in Salamia in 1959. Khawabi is 160 miles from Salamia, which was visited by the Imam on August 1, 1959 and returned to Beirut on August 2, 1959. During his visit, Imam formed an Ismaili Council of eleven members, Educational Board of seven members and a Welfare Society of 40 members in Salamia.

The passage of 15 miles between Salamia and Khawabi was bad in condition, therefore, the Imam declared a grant of 16 lacs shillings for its repairs. He also granted 2 lacs shillings for Damascus University, 1 lac and ten thousand shillings for Salamia Municipality, 20,000 shillings for Damascus Museum, 54,000 shillings for Police Department of Syria, 17,000 shillings for Police Department of Beirut and 12,500 shillings for T.B. Hospital in Beirut. During his last visit to Syria on November 3, 2001, the Imam presided over the ceremony to mark the presentation of the 8th Aga Khan Award for Architecture. The Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad warmly greeted Imam in Damascus. The Imam also held a meeting with the Grand Mufti Ahmad Kuftaro in Damascus. The Imam also graced didar to the Syrian Ismailis in Salamia and Khwabi.