The Fatimids: 1.The Rise of a Muslim Empire

Shainool Jiwa, I.B. Tauris Publishers, London, 2018


This book invites the reader to engage with an aspect of Muslim history which has not received the level of attention it deserves. Thus, there are scholarly works on the history of Islam which fail even to discuss the Fatimid Empire (909-1171 CE) which played an important part in the early history of Islam during a key period of its development. This Empire, at its apogee, extended from Morocco to Egypt, to parts of the Levant and Yemen, and at its height also included Mecca and Medina as well as Sicily and Crete. Thus, we should note that the Fatimids added to the new dispensation of power and influence which was shifting from the Arab heartland to the Mediterranean basin and beyond, which included North Africa but also expanded through the Indian Ocean Littoral down to East Africa.

We should also note that the Fatimid Caliphate flourished and co-existed with two other major Islamic dynasties, namely the Umayyads in Spain and the Abbasids in Baghdad. All these dynasties claimed affinity of one sort or another with the Prophet Muhammad. However, the Fatimids were the first Shi’i dynasty to lay claim to political power in the name of the Prophet’s progeny through his cousin and son-in-law Ali, and his daughter Fatima. Exceptionally, the Empire they ruled was named after the daughter of the Prophet as she is part of the ahl al-bayt (the immediate family of the Prophet).
The Fatimids is an excellent and accessible introduction to this Empire and its development over the initial period of its 260-year life span during which time the Fatimid rulers not only established law and order, but a surprising level of orderly governance characterised by tolerance, and what we may call today pluralism, underpinned by a cosmopolitan ethos. The Imam-Caliphs, as the Fatimid rulers were known, wisely called upon all the inhabitants of their Empire to contribute to the common good. This book relates a strong narrative, drawn largely from hitherto under-studied Ismaili sources, thus granting it an element of authenticity and comparative intellectual probity — when we take into consideration that Ismaili history has until recently been disseminated by polemical sources who were working for rival dynasties. Also, many historical narratives on the Ismailis were written at a time when Ismaili Imams, the designated leaders of the community, lived in ‘satr’, or concealment and hid their identity in order to protect their lives.

The Fatimids describes the rise and development of this dynasty through the religio-political work of the da’wa (Ismaili mission) conducted by missionaries who were often polymaths active in propagating the Ismaili message and supporting their Imams to bring about a just society. The da’wa was active in places such as North Africa (Ifriqiyya), Yemen on the Arab Peninsula and Sind in South Asia and later in Central Asia, particularly in modern-day Tajikistan, Afghanistan and North West China. The da’wa found resonance in many of these areas where there were already pro-Shi’i sentiments and an affinity to descendants of the family of the Prophet. This was also coupled with a millenarian expectation that cut across both branches of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’i, giving rise to the belief that a Saviour or Mahdi would emerge to bring back justice to the world.

The book shows that in the first 60 years of the Empire, the Ismaili da’wa, under a leading political strategist called Abu Abdullah al-Shi’i and his brother al-Abbas, mobilised the Kutama Berber tribes in North Africa many of whom were disgruntled with the Abbasid rule that was being implemented by their vassals, the Aghlabids who ruled in their name right up to southern Italy. Through a number of battles whereby different clans such as the Idrisids joined in the struggle to overthrow the Aghlabids, Abu Abdullah al-Shi’i was able to establish Fatimid rule near Qayrawan in present-day Tunisia, following which the first capital of the Empire, Mahdiyya, was established with the Imam-Caliph al-Mahdi proclaimed as the leader of the newly-established Empire.

It should be noted that this initial period was not free from tension because the polity was largely Sunni of the Maliki school of jurisprudence and the Imam-Caliph was not only the custodian of the law but also its expounder through the ta’lim (teachings) that he provided and the ta’wil (esoteric interpretation) to which his knowledge gave rise. This was the principle of the concept of Imamate as adumbrated by the earlier Shi’i Imams, Imam Mohammad al-Baqir and Ja’far al-Sadiq. The new dynasty provided social governance and effective administration based on the ‘ahd (covenant) of Caliph- Imam ‘Ali which is a guide to just governance outlined in his famous letter to his Governor in Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar. The Fatimids also created educational institutions and founded two capital cities in North Africa, namely Mahdiyya and Mansuriyya, before going on to found the city of Cairo in Egypt.

The chief jurist of this era was a young man named Abu Hanifa al-Nu’man who became the preeminent North African scholar and jurist of the Fatamid Caliphate. He wrote books on a wide range of subjects including Islamic law and especially its Ismaili formulation. He also wrote on scholarly themes such as history and theology as well as esoteric teaching. Much of the information in this book is drawn from al-Nu’man’s historical work named Iftitah al da’wa wa-ibtida’ al-dawla (Commencement of the Mission and Beginnings of the State).

As pointed out earlier, this Empire was based in the Mediterranean at a time when political, social and economic power was beginning to shift from the Arab heartlands to the Mediterranean basin which was enriched by a mix of cultures and traditions both Muslim and non-Muslim. The Empire’s North African period lasted for 64 years, during which time the Fatimids developed the art of statecraft — something which held them in good stead when their rule moved from Tunisia to Egypt in 969 CE. The Egyptian period lasted until 1171 CE during which time the new city of Cairo was established, followed immediately by the founding of al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities in the world. From the onset, al-Azhar became an important centre of learning and various subjects ranging from science to philosophy and literature in addition to religious studies and esoteric sciences were taught which commanded respect across the Islamic world. The Imam-Caliph who established this tradition of learning was al-Mu’izz li-din Allah who, through his da’i (missionary), Abu Ja‘far Ahmad b. Nasr, promulgated the aman, or guarantee of safety, which outlined the principles of governance for the new polity that would arise on the Nile.

The aman expounded the duties incumbent on rulers. It reiterated the universal authority of the Fatimids as the sole, legitimate rulers of the Muslim world to bring about just rule for all those who lived under their sovereignty. The principles set out in the aman were extraordinary in that they championed the rights of different religious traditions or madhhabs to exist side-by-side. This pluralistic vision was unique at the time and remains a challenge not only amongst Muslims but in the world at large today. We should be aware of the inherent paradox of Fatimid rule in that it was based on an exclusive juridical claim to religious legitimacy by stating that it was only a special strand of the lineage of the Prophet’s progeny who had this authority to rule, while at the same time, it embraced an open ecumenical vision of thinking which was based upon a common human heritage. This open, enlightened approach encouraged scholarship, culture, art, poetry, philosophy and so on, both in, and beyond, the Arab and Mediterranean worlds and into Africa and the far reaches of Asia. Part of the Fatimid administration was concerned with the proper layout of cities and an architectural idiom which is noticeable today in Sicily and Crete as well as in many parts of the Muslim world.

Fatimid rule throughout its Empire was not heavy-handed, not only culturally but in terms of political space and theological and intellectual expression. The Fatimids ran their Empire with a surprising degree of courteous hospitality and, for example, the new capital which they founded — Cairo — was actually laid out on land which was not already occupied by Egyptians at the time. The Fatimids exercised power with an unusual lightness of touch, yet with potent authority which gained the loyalty of those aligned to the Alid cause.

There is much in the book which deserves careful study for it shows in a small space just how rich, complex and differentiated the Fatimid Empire was. I look forward to the second volume which I hope will capture the rich humanistic heritage of the latter period of Fatimid rule. What is clear from this volume is how the outer world of the Empire was joined to, and complemented, the inner understanding of spiritual authority, just as body is joined to spirit. Learning more about this dynasty with its colourful cast of characters opened my eyes to a dimension of Islamic history of which I was unaware. I would heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Islam, Ismaili history, Egyptian history or simply to improve their knowledge of world history and thought.

Raficq S Abdulla, lawyer and author: “Reflecting Mercury – Dreaming Shakespeare’s Sonnets”, “Words of Paradise - the poems of Rumi” and “Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din Attar “