Fatimids Caliphate

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The Fatimids, Fatimid Caliphate or al-Fātimiyyūn is the Shia dynasty that ruled much of North Africa from January 5, 910 to 1171 C.E. The term Fatimite is sometimes used to refer to the citizens of this caliphate.

The Fatimids belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shi'a Islam. From their base in North Africa they challenged the power of the then reigning Abbasid Caliphate, and almost succeeded in supplanting it as the leadership of all Muslims. The Abbasids, Sunni Muslims, may originally have hoped to attract Shi'a support for their claim to the Caliphate based on their descent from an uncle of the Prophet. However, instead they were confronted with the reality of Fatimid power. Thus the Fatimid claim to the title of Caliph, which in theory is meant to be a single entity, helped to solidify the historical split between Sunni and Shi'a.

Fatimid rule was renowned for toleration, as Sunni Muslims, Christians and Jews occupied significant public offices, appointed purely on merit. They also appear to have valued women's contributions, which were almost non-existent at this time within the Sunni world. These enlightened policies were reversed by their successors. The Fatimids did much to promote Ismaili scholarship and sponsored missionary outreach, sending missionaries as far as India and Central Asia. They also transformed Egypt's economic status by developing an alternative trade route to the East. They very nearly succeeded in achieving their goal of ruling the whole Muslim world.

The Fatimid Rise

The Fatimids had their origins in what is now modern Tunisia ("Ifriqiya"), but after their success in commandeering rule over Egypt around 970 C.E., they relocated to a new capital, Cairo. By this time, the Abbasid caliphate, ruling from Baghdad, had lost effective control over what was becoming a decentralized Islamic empire. Already two Shi'a dynasties had effectively ruled in the North, the Buyids (945-1055) and the Seljuks (1055-1135), although they nominally recognized the Abbasids. Now another Shi'a dynasty ruled in the South but this one did not recognize and planned to replace the Sunni Abbasdis. Elsewhere, too, real power was in the hands of Sultans (which is derived from the word for delegate).

Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of an empire that included North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen and the Hejaz. Under the Fatimids, Egypt flourished and developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages.

The dynasty and its followers belonged to the Shi'a branch of Islam and in particular, to a sub-set of Shi'ism called the Ismailis or the Ismā'īliyya. The dynasty was founded in 909 C.E. by Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, who claimed legitimacy through asserting his descent from the Prophet through his the daughter Fātima as-Zahra and her husband Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shī'a Imam, hence the name al-Fātimiyyūn "Fatimid." Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah was the 11th Ismaili Imam. By adopting the title Caliph, he also laid claim to leadership of Sunni Muslims. The Fatimids and the Abbasids became bitter rivals. The latter claimed that the Fatimids claims to leadership was invalid because they traced themselves to Muhammad through a female. The Abbasids traced themselves to an uncle of the prophet. The Ismailis separated from the majority of Shi'a (known as Twelvers) in 765 C.E. over the succession to the widely respected 6th Imam, al-Jafar, who is also recognized as an important legal scholar by Sunnis. The majority of Shi'a followed Musa. The Ismailis followed Ismail. The Zaydis had split after the death of the 4th Imam. The Buyids were Zaydis.

Abdullāh al-Mahdi's control soon extended over all of central Maghreb, an area consisting of the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, which he ruled from Mahdia, his newly-built capital in Tunisia.

The Fatimids entered Egypt in 972C.E., conquering the short lived Ikhshidid dynasty (935- 969 C.E.) and founding a new capital at al-Qāhirat "The Subduer" (modern Cairo). They continued to extend their control over the surrounding areas until they ruled a span of territory from Tunisia to Syria and their influence even crossed over into Sicily and southern Italy. For a while, they came close to realizing their goal of replacing the Abbasids as recognized leaders of the Muslim world.

Unlike other governments in the area, Fatimid advancement in state offices was based more on merit than on heredity. Members of other branches of Islām, like the Sunnis, were just as likely to be appointed to government posts as Shiites. In fact, the Fatimids ruled over a majority Sunni population in Cairo. Tolerance was extended further to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews, who occupied high levels in government based on expertise. An exception to this general attitude of tolerance includes one significant aberration, the eccentric Fatimid, the 6th Caliph, known as the "Mad Caliph" Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the 16th Imam in the Ismaili succession. Others, among them the Druze, believe that Hakim was actually an emanation of the divine. He is well known for desecrating the Holy Sepulcher, an act that was cited to justify the Crusades.

Decay and Fall

In the 1040s, the Zirids (governors of North Africa under the Fatimids) declared their independence from the Fatimids and their conversion to "orthodox" Sunnī Islām, which led to the devastating Banū Hilal invasions. After about 1070 C.E., Fatimid authority over the Levant coast and parts of Syria was challenged first by Turkic invasions, then by the Crusades, so that Fatimid territory shrunk until eventually, it consisted only of Egypt. They came close, though, to achieving their goal. In 1057 an Iraqi general based in Mosul declared allegiance to the Fatimids. He was defeated by the Seljuks in 1059. In 1073, a general, Badr-al-Jamali, assumed effective power in Cairo in an effort to restore centralized authority. From this period, the Caliph-Imams became less directly involved in governance, delegating responsibility to their viziers. They eventually took the title 'king'. Syria, Algeria, and Tunisia were lost between 1043 and 1048. Sicily was lost to the Normans in 1071, Palestine was lost to the Crusaders in 1099.

After the decay of the Fatimid political system in the 1160s, the Zengid ruler Nūr ad-Dīn dispatched his general, Saladin, seized Egypt in 1169, forming the Sunni Ayyubid Dynasty (which fell to the Mamluks in 1254). The Zengrids had replaced the Seljuks as Sultans in Syria and Iraq.

Fatimid Imāms

The word "Imām" as used in Shi'a Islām means a hereditary leader of the Muslim community in the direct line of Ali ibn Abi Talib who was also the fourth Sunni Caliph. While Sunni do not ascribe their Caliph with any extraordinary authority or abilities, the Shi'a believe that the Imam is inspired, infallible and sinless. All Shi'a pledge to obey the Imam. The majority of Shi'a (the twelvers) recognized a succession of 11 Imams until their 12th Imam, al-Mahdi, was taken into occultation (that is, assumed into heaven). Since 940 C.E., the twelvers continue to follow this Hidden Imam, whose will is revealed through the religious scholars. Most Ismailis (there have been several sub-schisms) continue to revere an Imam who stands in succession to the Fatimid Caliph-Imams. The Caliph-Imams were:

  1. Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah (910-934) founder of the Fatimid dynasty, was the 11th Imam for Ismails and the 1st Caliph-Imam
  2. Muhammad al-Qaim Bi-Amrillah (934-946) 12th Imam, 2nd Caliph-Imam
  3. Isma'il al-Mansur Bi-Nasrillah (946-953) 13th Imam, 3rd Caliph-Imam
  4. Ma'ad al-Muizz Li-Deenilla (953-975) Egypt is conquered during his reign as 14th Imam, 4th Caliph-Imam
  5. Abu Mansoor Nizar al-Aziz Billah (975-996) 15th Imam, 5th Caliph-Imam
  6. Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (996-1021) 16th Imam, 6th Caliph-Imam said to have been insane.
  7. Alī al-Zāhir (1021-1036) 17th Imam, 7th Caliph-Imam
  8. Ma'ad al-Mustansir (1036-1094) 18th Imam, 8th Caliph-Imam
  9. Ahmad al-Musta'li (1094-1101) 19th Imam, 9th Caliph-Imam
  10. Mansur al-Amir Bi-Ahkamillah (1101-1130) 10th Caliph-Imam but the majority of Ismaili did not regard him as Imam, recognizing instead Nizār ibn al-Mustansir billāh as their 19th Imam.
  11. al-Hafiz (1130-1149) 11th Caliph
  12. al-Zāfir (1149-1154) 12th Caliph
  13. al-Fā'iz (1154-1160) 13th Caliph
  14. al-'Ādid (1160-1171) 14th Caliph defeated by Saladin.

The Fatimids and Religious Patronage

The Fatimids patronized Ismailis scholarship. This developed many of its central ideas during this period. Especially interested in metaphysics and in numerology, it influenced other mystical traditions, including the Kabbalah. Ismailis had much in common with Gnosticism, which had also found a home for itself in Egypt. According to Ismaili thought, God is equivalent to the void or to the abyss and cannot be known. God is ineffable. However, Allah is a manifestation of God, God's first emanation or hypostasis, who can be known. Allah is represented as light (nur). The material world may or may not be the creation of Allah but however it was created it is now associated with darkness. The world is evil and opposed to the good, which is yet hidden inside the world. History can be understood as a cosmic battle between light and dark. The 'good' that is hidden in the world, which can connect the human soul with Allah, can only be recognized by the Imam. The Imam sends dai (summoners) into the world to engage in da'wa (mission). Since they stand in a master-servant relationship with the Imam, they can unlock the esoteric, secret door to the 'good'. The Fatimid rulers dispatched missionaries as far as China. Ismaili thought stresses the inner, secret meaning of texts, not the external, exoteric interpretaion. Ismailis are less interested in outer conformity to religious practices. The Imam, it can be said, unlocks the key to the inner truth, in contrast to the Prophet, whose authority was exercised in the external world. Dai were sent into the Sunni world to convert key individuals. The plan was that they would then repudiate the Abbasids and embrace the Ismaili faith and recognize the Caliph-Imam.

Legacy and Successors

The Druze

During the rule of the 6th Caliph-Imam, the 'mad Caliph', a group known as the Druze split off. The Druze believed that al-Hakim was the manifestation of the Divine. After his death or disappearance in 1021 (the Druze say he went into occultation) his devotees went underground until they emerged in (present day) Lebanon where they became a distinct community. Much of their teachings are 'secret'. Most Druze now live in the Lebanon and in Israel. They regard themselves as Muslims but are not generally recognized as such by other Muslims.

The Assassins

In 1094, when al-Mustansir, the 7th Caliph-Imam and the 17th Imam died, controversy broke out concerning his legitimate successor. When the candidate whom many considered to be the real heir was by-passed, Hassan e-Sabbah, who was in charge of Ismaili missionaries in the Middle East, broke away to form the fidayun (those prepared to sacrifice themselves), known in the non-Muslim world as "the Assassins". From 1090 until 1256 the Grand Master of the Assassins operated a mountain at Allahut. Winning several tribes through their missionary preaching, the Assassins represented a serious challenge to both the Seljuks in the North and the Ayyubids in the South. Victims include the Fatimid vizier, al-Afdal (1122), Raymond II of Tripoli (1152), Conrad of Montferrat (1192), and Genghis Khan's second son Jagatai (1242). The Grand Master believed that by assassinating those who did not recognize the true Imam, Ismaili power might eventually be restored. Both Muslims and Crusaders were targets, although at one point the Grand Master entered an alliance with the Knights Templar, to whom they also paid tribute for a period, according to historian Bernard Lewis. The last Grand Master was executed by the Mongols in 1265.

Following the demise of the Assassins, Ismailis never again exercised political power. However, under their Imam, they continued to exist as a highly organized community. Today, they are found in Pakistan, India, Africa and in the West. They own their own Colleges, Universities, hospitals, schools and clinics.


Some point out that the Fatimids is the only Muslim dynasty named after a woman. Research by Delia Cortese and Simonetta Calderini suggests that women in the Fatimid period were involved in missions, in contributing to religious discourse (Ismaili thought uses feminine language), in discussion of state and in many other aspects of social, religious and political life.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cortese, Delia and Simonetta Calderini. Women and the Fatimids in the World of Islam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. ISBN 0748617337
  • Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins. NY: Basic Books, 2003 (original 1967). ISBN 0465004989
  • Madelung, Wilferd and Paul Walker. The Advent of the Fatimids: A Contemporary Shi'i Witness. (Ismaili Texts and Translations). London: I B Tauris/Institute for Ismail Studies, 2000. ISBN 1860645518


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