The Fatimid dynasty first established itself in Tunisia, North Africa, in December 303 A.H. / 909 A.D. In order to expand their realm and to make it more effective, the Fatimids needed a capital more central than Tunisia. Egypt – a convenient centre for Syria, Palestine, Arabia and the Mediterranean Islands – presented excellent possibilities. Thus, the Fatimids conquered Egypt and built the city of al-Qahirah (Cairo) to be their new capital. The conquest of Egypt was the first series of conquests which extended Fatimid rule from Sicily to Sind.
The Fatimids are the direct descendents of Prophet Muhammed (Peace be upon Him) through his daughter, Fatima, and his cousin, Ali. To understand the importance of this claim it is necessary to recall the early days of Islam and the controversy that rose over the Prophet’s succession. After the Prophet’s death (632 A.D.) the Muslims peoples split into two major parties: the Shia and the Sunni, because the Sunni believed that the Prophet did not have a successor. Hence they elected Abu Bakr to be the first Caliph of Islam. The Shia, however, did not accept this theory because they firmly held that the Prophet chose Ali to succeed him both as the religious leader (Imam) and the temporal head (Caliph). The Shia upheld the claim of Ali’s lineal descendents to the Caliphate and waited for the time when the Caliphate would be restored to the rightful holders. The establishment of the Fatimid State fulfilled this wish which had been zealously supported by Ismaili Shiites all over the Islamic lands.
The coming of the Fatimids marked a new era in the history of Islam because they posed serious intellectual and political challenges to the existing order.
(The Fatimids) …. were moved by more than personal or dynastic ambition. They were the heralders of a new intellectual and religious philosophy which aimed at nothing less than the transformation and renewal of all Islam and the establishment of the universal Ismaili Imamat. As Ismaili Shiites, they refused to offer even token submission to the Abassid caliphs, the usurpers; they and they alone were the true Imams, by descent and by God’s choice, the sole rightful heads of the Islamic community. The Caliphate was theirs by right, and they would take from the Abbasids as the Abbasids had taken it from the Ummayads. (1)
The Fatimid state sprung into existence and rapidly expanded into an empire as a result of the widespread Ismaili propaganda carried on by the Dawat (missionary movement). The Dawat, during the Fatimid period, was organized into a branch of government with its own functions, structure, and hierarchy, under the directions of the chief missionary and the ultimate authority of the Caliph in his capacity as Imam. The Dawat was responsible for formulating Ismaili theology and for carrying out missionary work amongst the public, and for gaining the adherence to the Fatimid cause of as many local rulers as possible.
“Thus the Fatimids gave their distinctive doctrines a central importance in their political system. Ismaili theology provided the basis to the caliphate and denied that of the Abbasids. As long as the Abbasids survived, the Fatimids were engaged in a religious and ideological conflict, in which doctrine was their most powerful weapon. Thus the Fatimids accorded prime importance to the formulation and elaboration of their creed. First in North Africa and then in Egypt, a series of distinguished theologians wrote what became the classical works of Ismaili literature. Most of the authors had served in the Mission and some like Hamid al-Din as-Kirmani and al-Muayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi had been its chiefs.” (2)
It was not enough merely to formulate an ideology, for there was also the more practical business of disseminating it. For this purpose, the Dawat sent highly educated and trained missionaries to other areas. In Cairo, the Fatimids founded great libraries and colleges where Da’is were trained to go out into the field, and to give further instruction to new converts. The best known of these colleges were the Darul Hikmah and the Al-Azhar. When Nasir Khusraw visited Al-Azhar in 1047 A.D., he found 317 professors and as many as 9758 students engaged in the study o logic, mathematics, law, physics, astronomy and theology. The Al-Azhar contained 200,000 manuscripts among which were such treasures as 2400 illuminated copies of the Holy Qu’ran; manuscripts in the handwriting of Ibn Muglah and other master calligraphers, and an autographed copy of the history written by the famous historian Al-Tabbari. Access to these library treasures was free to all. A large, fund, established by the Caliph al-Hakim was spent on books, scholarships and on the upkeep of the colleges. Al-Azhar retained the stature of one of the great educational institutions of the Islamic world and still exists as a flourishing university in Cairo (3)
Many eager converts came to Cairo from Sunni lands in the East to study at these colleges and then returned to their own countries as exponents of the Ismaili message and workers for the Fatimid cause. One such person was the Persian poet and philosopher, Nasir-i-Khusraw. A convert to Ismailism, he went to Egypt in 1047 A.D. and returned to preach the faith in Iran and Central Asia, where he won a considerable following. Hassan-bin-Sabbah, converted by a Fatimid agent in Iran, also went to Egypt in 1078 A.D. and stayed there for about three years.
The Ismaili message had considerable appeal to many different elements in the population. It was a time of great social, economic, political and intellectual upheaval in the Islamic world. As in late Ummayad times there were many who felt that the Islamic community had gone astray and that a new leader, with new messages, was needed to restore the community to the right path. There was withdrawal of consent form the existing order, a loss of confidence in hitherto accepted answers. The Abbasid Caliphate, and with it the Sunni order, began to weaken; some new principle of unity and authority was required to save Islam and the Muslims from destruction. To many, the Ismaili principles offered a design for a new and just world order, under the Imam. To the devout, the doubtful and the discontented alike, the Ismaili missionaries brought messages of comfort and hope, appropriate to the needs of each. For the pious, they brought a deep spiritual faith, sustained by the example of the suffering of the Imams and the self-sacrifice of their followers. For the intellectual, they brought a comprehensive explanation of the universe, synthesizing the data of revelation and philosophy, science and mysticism. For the rebellious, there was a well organized and wide-spread movement, supported by a rich and powerful ruler far away, and offering a seductive prospect of radical change. (4)
Through the Dawat system, Sind was made a principality of the Fatimid Empire (5). They enjoyed similar success in Yemen. Because the Fatimids were one of the most formidable naval powers of their time, they controlled both the Red Sea and the eastern Mediterranean seaways (6). They profitably used their navy to expand their empire; thus Fatimid power was respected from Sicily, which owned Fatimid overlordship, to Sind where an Ismaili Dai was established. The navy also served to protect this vast coastline and the major sea routes. The protection afforded by the navy greatly encouraged sea commerce and Cairo quickly became a major transhipment point between the Mediterranean and the southern seas. The Egyptians reaped a great wealth from the sea commerce so that the capital of the Fatimids continued to prosper. Fatimid commercial activities were often accompanied by vigorous religious propaganda. This was the case on the Gujerati coast where propaganda gave rise to what in time became the great Ismaili community of India.
Fatimid supremacy on the seas was possible due to their knowledge of astronomy and geography. The Fatimid Caliphs were great patrons of science and learning, thus encouraging research in astronomy and geography. There were big observatories in Cairo where scholars could follow the movement of the stars. Ibn Yunus, who worked in these observatories, is considered one of the greatest astronomers of the Islamic World. An astrolabe (instrument for measuring altitude of the sun and stars at sea) developed in the time of Imam Moiz is still kept in the British Museum in London. Geography formed an important part of the curriculum at the Al-Azhar. The Caliph Moiz was greatly interested in geography and commended a piece of silk to be made at Tustar in Persia, representing, in gold and colours, a map of the world, which cost him 22,000 Dinars (7).
The peak of the Fatimid expansion came in the years 1057-9 when the Turkish general al-Basasiri went over to the Fatimid side and proclaimed the Fatimid Caliphate in Baghdad, the home of the orthodox caliphate.
“. . . . for forty Fridays the mosques of Baghdad resounded with the name and style of the Egyptian Caliph and the robe and filigree throne of the Abbasid Caliph were actually carried off and deposited in the palace of Cairo.” (8)
Despite the efforts of the Chief Da’i, however, the Fatimid government was unable to provide effective support and the strong Sunni Seljuks drove al-Basasiri out of Baghdad. From this point on the Fatimid Empire began to decline at a rapid pace.
A number of reasons can be given to account for the decline of the Fatimid Empire. With the revival of Christian power, the Fatimids had to face Byzantine offensives whereby they lost much of Sicily and Spain and had to cope with the wave of Crusades from the east. This did much to weaken the Empire.
But the Christians were not the only power threatening Fatimid sovereignty. A far greater power, that of the Seljuk Turkamans, was emerging from the east.
“The Seljuks had subdued Persia, and in 1055 their leader, Tughril-Beg, was recognized in Baghdad in the Friday prayers as the Caliph, lieutenant, or in other words, master” (9). The Turks, who were the new great power in Islam, became the protectors of orthodoxy and Sunnism, and the Sunni revival, fostered by them, became the new moral force in Islam. The orthodox Turks, zealous for the faith, considered it their sacred duty to extirpate the Egyptian rulers. Conquest of Syria as a first step was a very difficult task as it was already a divided and rebellious state. The Turkish general Astiz conquered it in 1076 A.D., and further reduced the dwindling Fatimid Empire.
The containment of the Fatimid danger was not achieved by military and political means alone, though these were essential and in a large measure successful.
In the madrasa (religious college) Sunni Islam created a new and crucial weapon in the struggle for religious unity. In these great colleges, spreading all over the East, the scholars and theologians of the Sunna devised and taught the orthodox answer to the Ismaili intellectual challenge. (10)
But the worst problems of all were at home in Egypt. Factional strife between the Sudani and Turkish battalions of the army caused chaos in the country. The Turkish troops, taking advantage of the situation, despoiled the palace, emptied the treasury and destroyed the library. Economic upheavals culminated in a series of disastrous famines, which, according to the chroniclers, reduced the people to a minimum standard of living. Finally in 1073, according to the summons of Imam Mustansirbillah, an able soldier, Badr al-Jamali, established a regime which restored order and some measure of prosperity in Egypt. Jamali was succeeded by his son, al-Afdal.
The Caliph Mustansirbillah died in 1094 after naming his eldest son Nizar, as His successor. But the wazir al-Afdal hastily set the youngest of the late caliph's seven sons on the throne with the title of al-Mustali. He thought a youth of eighteen more amenable to management than a mature man. Most of the non-Egyptian Ismailis, especially those in Iran, did not accept this substitute and rejected the leadership of the remaining Fatimid Caliphs and became the Nizari Ismailis. On the death of the last strong Fatimid Caliph, Al-Amir (1101-1130), the Ismailis of Arabia and the Indian Ocean coasts rejected them, also becoming the Tayibis, now represented chiefly by the Indian merchant community of the Bohraas. The divergence between the Ismaili religion and state was now complete. The Fatimid Empire had been established to fulfill a religious ideal and had been sustained by the religious zeal of its supporters. Thus, without the support of its religious following, the empire collapsed. Al-Afdal had, in effect, renounced the claims of the Fatimid Caliphate to the universal leadership of Islam. The petty remnants of the Fatimid state were brought to a final end by the Sunni Saladin in 1171 A.D.
1. Bernard Lewis, “An interpretation of Fatimid History”
Hamdani, Husain F. “The letters of Al-Mustansirbi’illah”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 7, pp.307-324.
Hodgson, Marshall G.S., “The Venture of Islam”, Vol.2, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Ivanow, W., “The organization of the Fatimid propaganda”, Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 15 (1939), pp.1-35.
Lewis, Bernard, “An interpretation of Fatimid History”, unprinted article.
Noorally, Zawahir, “The Fatimid Ismaili Imams and the founding of Cairo”, Ismaili Mirror, Feb. 1975, pp.3-5.
Picklay, A.S., “History of the Ismailis”, Bombay: Popular Printing Press, 1940.
Poole, Stanley Lane, “A History of Egypt in the Middle Ages”, London: Gilbert and Rivington Ltd., 1901.
Stern, S.M., “The epistle of the Fatimid Caliph al-Amir – its date and its purpose”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, (1950), pp.20.
Stern, S.M., “Heterodox Ismailism at the time of al-Muizz”, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 17, (1955), pp. 10-33.
Stern, S.M., “Ismaili propaganda and Fatimid rule in Sind”, Islamic Culture 23, (1949), pp. 298-307.
Vatikiostis, P.J., "Al-Hakim bi Amrillah, the God-King idea realized”, Islamic Culture 29, (1955), pp. 1-8.
Vatikiostis, P.J., "Fatimids", Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., pp850-864.
Vatikiostis, P.J. "Aziz", Encyclopedia of Islam 2nd ed., pp823-864.
Vatikiostis, P.J "Dai", Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., pp97-98.