The Ismaili Shia are also known as Seveners because in the eighth centurytheir leaders rejected the heir designated by the sixth Imam, Jafar al Sadiq(d.765), whom the Imami accepted. The new group instead chose to recognizeJafar's eldest son, Ismail, as the seventh Imam and the Shia community splitinto two branches.
Ismaili communities in Afghanistan are less populous than the Imami whoconsider the Ismailis heretical. They are found primarily in and near theeastern Hazarajat, in the Baghlan area north of the Hindu Kush, among themountain Tajik of Badakhshan, and amongst the Wakhi in the Wakhan Corridor.
Many Ismaili believe the line of Imam ceased when Ismail died before hisfather in AD 760; others believe he did not die but remains in seclusion andwill return at the end of the world. Ismaili beliefs are complex and syncretic,combining elements from the philosophies of Plotinus, Pythagoras, Aristotle,gnosticism, and the Manichaeans, as well as components of Judaism, Christianity,and Eastern religions. Ismaili conceptions of the Imamat differ greatly fromthose of other Muslims and their tenets are unique. Their beliefs about thecreation of the world are idiosyncratic, as is their historical ecumenism,tolerance of religious differences, and religious hierarchy. There is a divisionof theology into exoteric (including the conservative Shariah) andesoteric (including the mystical exegesis of the Quran which leads to haqiqa,the ultimate realty). These beliefs and practices are veiled in secrecy andIsmaili place particular emphasis on taqiya meaning to shield or guard,the practice that permits the believer to deny publicly his Shia membership forself-protection, as long as he continues to believe and worship in private. Taqiyais permissible in most Shia, and some Sunni, sects.
Ismailis in Afghanistan are generally regarded with suspicion by other ethnicgroups and for the most part their economic status is very poor. AlthoughIsmaili in other areas such as the northern areas of Pakistan operatewell-organized social welfare programs including schools, hospitals andcooperatives, little has been done among Afghan Ismaili communities.
Considered less zealous than other Afghan Muslims, Ismaili are seen to followtheir leaders uncritically. The pir or leader of Afghan Ismailis comesfrom the Sayyid family of Kayan, located near Doshi, a small town at thenorthern foot of the Salang Pass, in western Baghlan Province. During theSoviet-Afghan War this family acquired considerable political power.
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