What are the differences & similarities between Ismaili Muslims and other schools of Islam?
This information is from our website article: Who are the Shia Ismaili Muslims: A Primer with Visual Charts
The Ismailis are a branch of Shia Muslims.
Shia Muslims thus believe that the spiritual and charismatic authority of the Prophet Muhammad and all of his spiritual rights and duties (with the exception of revelation) continue through the institution of hereditary spiritual leadership called the Imamat, with Imam ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the first Imam.
Sunni Muslims believe that the Prophet appointed no direct successor and recognize the religious scholars (‘ulama) as the holders of religious authority. Subsequently, all Sufi Tariqahs came to recognize ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib as the Prophet’s spiritual successor.
In the belief of Shia Muslims, the Imam is the inheritor of the Prophet Muhammad’s authority and the legitimate authority for the interpretation of Islam. This Imamat or Religious Leadership is subsequently handed down by each Imam to a successor whom he designates and appoints from among his male descendants. [Read more at What is Shia Islam]
As history unfolded, Shia Muslims came to differ over the rightful succession of Imams and traced the Imamat through different lines of descent from a particular Imam. The Ismailis are Shia Muslims who affirm that Isma‘il ibn Ja‘far was the rightful Imam after the 5th Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, and that subsequently, the lineage of Imams continues through the descendants of Isma‘il ibn Ja‘far up to the present day. Like Sufis, Mu’tazilites and other Muslim philosophers, the Ismailis emphasize a distinction between the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) interpretations of the Qur’an. [Read more at The Succession to Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq]
The Ismailis made major political, cultural and intellectual contributions to Muslim civilization. The Fatimid Caliphate was founded and ruled by several Ismaili Imams; great philosophers like Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani, the Ikhwan al-Safa, Nasir-i Khusraw, Hasan-i Sabbah, and Nasir al-Din Tusi were Ismailis. For most of their history, the Ismailis were persecuted by the Sunni political establishment and endured several massacres and genocides at the hands of their enemies. [Read more at The Ismailis through History: From Persecuted Minority to Pluralist Community].
The 48th Ismaili Imam, the predecessor of the current Aga Khan, was Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III (Imamat from 1885-1957); he was the founder and first president of the All-India Muslim League, founder of Aligarh University, President of the League of Nations (1937-1939), and one of the founders of the state of Pakistan. [Read more at “The Imamat and Service of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III]
Today, His Highness Prince Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV (b. 1936) is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims (succeeding as Imam in 1957); born in Geneva and educated at Harvard, the present Aga Khan is the direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad through ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib in the lineage of Isma‘il b. Ja‘far al-Sadiq. Today, Imam Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV is the only living claimant to the Shia Imamat. [Read more about present Imam’s life and services at The Secret Life of the Aga Khan]
The Ismaili Muslims today are a community of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, numbering around 15 million people spread through 25 countries, all united in their spiritual allegiance to Shah Karim al-Husayni Aga Khan IV as their present Imam; the Ismailis are the only Shia Muslim community throughout their history to have present and living Imam. [Read more at The Shia Imamat Timeline]
The role of the Aga Khan as the Ismaili Imam is to provide spiritual guidance, religious interpretation and ensure the security and quality of life for the Ismaili Muslim communities. The Aga Khan has emphasised an interpretation of Islam as an intellectual, spiritual and humanistic faith that emphasises human dignity and upholds human diversity through pluralism. The Aga Khan and the Ismaili Muslims affirm the right of all Muslim communities interpret Islam in their distinct ways and recognize the different schools and interpretations of Islam as an equally earnest endeavor to practice and express the faith of Islam. With respect to Sunni and Shia reconciliation, the Ismailis affirm that the spiritual authority of the Prophet Muhammad continues in the Imamat while accepting the worldly authority of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and other Caliphs who have helped the cause of Islam, politically, socially and from a worldly point of view. [Read about the Aga Khan’s proposal for Sunni-Shia unity].