The Ismailis in the Colonial Era

Modernity, Empire and Islam, 1839-1969


From the early nineteenth century onwards the Nizari Ismailis were transformed from a minor and obscure sect surrounded by ill-informed historical legend, into a small but highly organised temporal and religious movement with global political and economic influence. Much of this remarkable change in fortune can be traced to the hitherto little known diplomatic interaction between the British Empire, and later the British Commonwealth, and the Nizari Ismailis, from 1839 to 1969. Marc van Grondelle’s book, based on painstaking archival research, examines the processes and interactions which led to the modernisation and successful co-optation by the British government of this comparatively small branch of Shi’a Islam. The author poses several key questions regarding the wider developing relationship between movements in contemporary Islam and ‘The West’. In these increasingly polarised times, his discussion of the effective co-optation of a Muslim group to the mutual benefit of both the former and British foreign and colonial policy is timely and suggestive. He investigates the processes and actions that shaped the Ismailis’ relationship with London, and the social and political conditions that shaped this realignment.


‘In the course of an earlier research project Marc van Grondelle stumbled upon a variety of archival sources concerning the relationship between the British Government and the Agha Khans, the leaders of the Ismaili movement. Perhaps these archives are not complete; perhaps parts of them are still secret. Nevertheless they are of great importance to Islamic scholarship—if only because it is not to be excluded that similar archives with similar material about other Islamic movements exist, in London, Washington and elsewhere. If so, such material has to be exploited as soon as possible. … Readers of this book will get a surprisingly frank view of the inner workings of the former British imperial bureaucracy, and, even more important, they will be rewarded with a number of unexpected insights into how to conduct diplomacy when relations with potentially disruptive religious movements are at stake. Van Grondelle has made an important contribution to Islamography.’ — Johannes J.G. Jansen, Houtsma Professor of Islamic Thought, University of Utrecht


Marc Van Grondelle holds a PhD from the University of Utrecht. He now works for a major international oil company.

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