The Ismaili Muslims of Pakistan

Ismaili-majority Hunza is Pakistan at its most idyllic: scenic, highly literate, and progressive.

Ismaili community Hunza Pakistan
A vista view in Hunza, Pakistan. (Dur e Aziz Amna)

Dur e Aziz Amna


April 21, 2020

Last April, I was in northern Pakistan, taking bone-crushing wagon rides from one valley to another. The Toyota Hiace vans passed deserts bordered by snowy peaks, cherry blossoms on the verge of bloom, a shimmering lake created by a landslide. On many of the regal mountains in the area, I saw signs carved out of white stone. 

“Deedar Mubarak” (Happy Sighting)

“Jashan Mubarak” (Happy Celebration)

For many days, I wondered what the signs referred to until I saw one that said “Ya Ali Madad,” the standard greeting among Ismaili Muslims, who are part of a subsect of Shia Islam. Over the next few days, I stayed with a family in Hunza, a region of Gilgit-Baltistan that borders China. It is a land of mountains and meadows popular with tourists. The family had been in the tourism business for decades: the grandfather had assisted Western mountaineers on their way to K2, the world’s second-tallest mountain peak after Mount Everest. They told me the signs were dug into mountainsides in anticipation of the 2018 visit of His Highness the Aga Khan, imam of the Ismaili Muslims. 

“The Diamond Jubilee,” the grandfather told me. “It was a wonderful time.” He was referring to the celebrations that commemorated the Aga Khan’s 60th year as the spiritual leader of the community.

As part of the jubilee, between July 2017 and July 2018, the imam traveled around the world, from Karachi to Dar es Salaam, Toronto to Kampala, to visit his followers — a testament to how transnational the Ismaili community of 15 million is. The itinerary concluded with a global gathering in Lisbon, attended by thousands of followers from all over the world. My husband is Portuguese, and we were looking at flights around the same time — Kayak’s fare surge was a startling indicator of the community’s celebrations.

Ismailism gets its name from Ismail ibn Jafar, whom followers consider to be the seventh imam, unlike the Twelver Shias (the largest group of Shias) who give that title to Ismail’s brother Musa al-Kazim. During the Fatimid Caliphate of the 10th to 12th centuries, Ismailism climaxed as the largest and most politically powerful sect of Shia Islam, with the Ismaili ruling class overseeing large parts of North Africa and the Levant. Their influence waned with the decline of the Caliphate, with Nizari Ismailis gradually moving to Persia and the Indian subcontinent. Today, Ismailis constitute only 10% of the world’s Shia population, with the majority accepting Prince Karim Aga Khan IV as the 49th Imam, whom they believe has direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad.

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