By Jehangir A. Merchant
“A thousand years ago, my forefathers, the Fatimid imam-caliphs of Egypt, founded al-Azhar University and the Academy of Knowledge in Cairo. In the Islamic tradition, they viewed the discovery of knowledge as a way to understand, so as to serve better God’s creation, to apply knowledge and reason to build society and shape human aspirations” – Excerpt from a speech made by His Highness the Aga Khan in Mozambique on June 25, 2004
READING ABSTRACT: Just over eleven hundred years ago, the ancestors of the current 49th Ismaili Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan, brought forth a new Islamic Empire known as the Fatimid Empire. The Fatimid Shia Ismaili dynasty which ruled over a part of the Maghreb (909 – 969), namely Algeria, Morocco, Lybia and Tunisia, and then over Egypt (969 – 1171), left its mark on these regions in all spheres of human endeavour. The Fatimids paid considerable attention to intellectual pursuits and contributed immensely to arts, culture and commercial activities while safeguarding the civil, religious and human rights of everyone who lived under their realm. The contribution by the Fatimids to Islamic Civilization was so significant that the 4th/10th century was designated by Louis Massignon as the “Ismaili century of Islam.”
“The future of the Ismaili Faith rests in the hands of the youths of your age and mine. Are we to follow the example of those, who in Egypt, Iran and Sind raised the flag of Ismaili Imams high enough for the world to see its glory? I say, ‘Yes’. We should not fail where our ancestors achieved glorious success” – the late Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan
In the first in a series of articles on Great Moments in Ismaili History, which will include a comprehensive survey of the Fatimid Caliphate, Jehangir Merchant assesses the situation of the Shias and the Ismailis after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad (SAWS), the challenges the Shia faced as a result of succession disputes, and then takes us through from Imam al-Mahdi’s original settlement in the Salamiyyah district of Syria to his proclamation in North Africa as the first Fatimid Caliph. The activities of the Ismaili dawa during the period of concealment (dawr satr) are highlighted and, in particular, the role that the remarkable dai Abu-Abdullah as-Shii played in facilitating the conquest of North Africa is noted, as is his unfortunate subsequent plot against the Imam. Four Imams namely, al-Mahdi, al-Qaim, al-Mansur and Al-Muizz, ruled in Ifriqiya (an area comprising the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria) before the Fatimid conquest of Egypt by Jawhar al-Siqilli during the reign of Imam al-Muizz.
Future essays will deal specifically with the Fatimid rule and dawa in Egypt in more detail. Alwaez Merchant, however, as part of this essay briefly addresses the Abbasid manifesto against the Fatimids which was issued during the reign of Imam al-Hakim, and then provides his final thoughts on what Ismailis can learn from history. In this respect the essay also includes some remarks made by His Highness the Aga Khan and his late uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, on their hopes of the Ismaili Jamat and the Ismaili youth of the present generation based on past achievements.
FATIMID TIMELINE NORTH AFRICA
AC 893 –
- Ismaili dai, Abdullah as-Shii, reaches the Kutama tribe in North Africa.
- Approximate distance from Sana (Yemen) to Sijilmasa (Morocco), 5000 kilometres (3125 miles). Camel caravans normally travelled 30 kilometres/day. Journey, no major stop-overs, would have taken Abdullah around 170 days.
- Final phase of dawr satr (“period of concealment”) of Ismaili Imams
- Imam al-Mahdi and son al-Qaim leave Salamiyya, and proceed to Egypt. At this point, their final destination is unknown
- Once in Egypt, Imam al-Mahdi assesses the overall situation in Yemen and North Africa, and decides to go westward to Sijilmasa in Morocco
- Approximate distance from Salamiyya (Syria) to Sijilmasa (Morocco), 3500 kilometres (2187 miles). Camel caravans normally travelled 30 kilometres/day. Journey, no major stop-overs, would have taken Imam al-Mahdi around 120 days.
AC 909 – 934
Reign of Imam al-Mahdi in North Africa
(11th Ismaili Imam, 1st Fatimid Caliph)
To witness that moment of unveiling when Imam al-Mahdi rode out to meet his followers stands for me above all the other moments of glory, intrigue and devastation throughout Ismaili history. The image of a long-hidden Imam remaining atop his mount when all his awestruck followers dismounted is among the most powerful symbols of the authority of the Shi‘a Imams….For most, the Imam had long been an idea rather than a living person, but now he was real and right in front of them. He was present and living. And those followers at Sijilmasa fell at his feet in the most sincere devotion to their spiritual guide….Excerpt from Aleem Karmali’s piece in Simerg’s “I Wish I’d Been There”
- al-Mahdi reveals himself at Sijilmasa
- Imam accompanies dai Abdullah to Raqqada where he is proclaimed Caliph
- Dai Abdullah is executed for plotting against the Imam
- Imam Mahdi founds the town of Mahdiya, which becomes the capital of the Fatimids
- Fatimids found the town of Msila
- Fatimids fail on two attempts to conquer Egypt
AC 934 – 946
Reign of Imam al-Qaim
(12th Ismaili Imam, 2nd Fatimid Caliph)
- Fatimids make another failed attempt to conquer Egypt
- Imam decides to remain in Mahdiya
- Consolidation of Fatimid rule
- Strong revolt against the Fatimids by Kharijite Abu Yazid (known as ‘the Man of the Donkey’)
- Revolt remains unresolved at time of Imam’s demise
AC 946 – 953
Reign of Imam al-Mansur
(13th Ismaili Imam and 3rd Fatimid Caliph)
Imam ends the rebellion of Abu Yazid and assigns himself the title Al-Mansur
Imam founds the princely town of Sabra-al Mansuriya.
AC 953 – 975
Reign of Imam al-Muizz
(14th Ismaili Imam, 4th Fatimid Caliph)
(al-Muizz) departed after spending three days in Alexandria, and on June 6, 973, he reached a place known as Mina. Jawhar was there to receive him. He went forth to meet his master. As he drew near the Imam, he dismounted from his horse and kissed the ground before the Imam in a show of loyalty, humility and submission to the Amirul Muminin…..adapted from Mansoor Ladha’s piece in Simerg’s “I Wish I’d Been There”
- Kafur al-Ikhshid, ruler in Egypt, dies and political and economic strife encourages the Fatimid conquest of Egypt
- The Fatimids, under Jawhar Al-Siqilli’s command, enter Fustat in 969 with little resistance
- Al-Siqilli lays the foundation of al-Qahira (Cairo) to the north of the old town of al-Fustat
- Al-Siqilli invites al-Muizz to Cairo
- Imam al-Muizz arrives in Cairo in 973 from North Africa to make it his seat of rule
- Imam passes away in 975 and is succeeded by Imam al-Aziz
Introduction: The Study of the Fatimids
We begin this essay with a passage from Hassan al-Amin’s Islamic Shi’ite Encyclopaedia:
“The history of the Fatimids is in fact the history of knowledge, literature and philosophy. It is the history of sacred freedom – freedom of expression. Can there be anything better than this freedom of expression which the Fatimid State allowed and defended? Can there be anything more glorious than the fact that the State itself becomes a general school, spreading knowledge, giving patronage to literature, caring for the scholars and respecting and honouring the philosophers, irrespective of caste and creed?” 
For several centuries and until recently, contributions by the Fatimids to the cause of Islam, Arab culture and civilisation had not received the attention it deserved by historians. Rather, historians relied on sources which were hostile to this dynasty, as explained by A. S. Picklay, in his work Rise and Fall of the Fatimid Empire:
“As the Fatimid Caliphate was not merely symbolical of the secular power of an illustrious dynasty, but represented at the same time the spiritual leadership of the vast community of Muslims, known more popularly by the sectarian name of Ismailis, it suffered contemporaneously as well as, in the times to follow, from those popular prejudices and obsessions which swayed the orthodox Muslim mind from the earliest period of Islamic history. Naturally, therefore, its existing records are found mixed up with legends, exaggeration and vile stories intended to paint it in the darkest colours possible. As the general tendency of history is to repeat whatever has been once put on record, many historic fallacies have continued to this day to the detriment of the reputation of a long line of rulers and spiritual masters who were reputed as scholars, scientists, administrators, theologians, jurists and educationist.” 
Pioneered by numerous Western and Muslim scholars, as well as the Institute of Ismaili Studies, study over the past few decades is unfolding a broader understanding of the dynasty and its noble ancestry, going back to Hazrat Ali (AS) and Hazrat Bibi Fatima (AS), the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (SAWS).
The Terms Fatimid and Alid
Let us consider the meaning and interpretation of the term Fatimid. Fatimid is the distinction applied to all descendants of Hazrat Ali and Hazrat Bibi Fatima. It is sometimes confused with the term, Alid, which means any descendant of Hazrat Ali. There is, however, subtle difference between the two terms, Fatimid and Alid. For example, Hazrat Ali had married Bibi Fatima, and among the wives he married after the death of Bibi Fatima, was one named Khaula, of the tribe of Hanafia. An offspring from this latter marriage was Mahomed bin Hanafia. While Hazrat Hassan and Hazrat Imam Hussein (AS) and his descendants can be called Fatimids, being Hazrat Bibi Fatima’s children, Mahomed bin Hanafia can be called an Alid from his father Hazrat Ali or a Hanafi from his mother.
Early History and Succession, the Ummayads and Abbasids
Shiism, and particularly Ismailism, has been grossly misinterpreted by many scholars as being a political movement, sometimes working in secrecy and sometimes living openly, as it did during the Fatimid Caliphate, when its arch rival was the Abbasid Caliphate.
Dr. Aziz Esmail and Dr. Azim Nanji reiterate in an essay Ismailis in History, saying:
“A similar caution needs to be exercised in regard to the interpretation of Western writers of not only Ismailism but Shiism in general as having a political origin. Such interpretation imposes on the early period of Islam categories which were not recognised in that milieu. Certainly, one of the keys to the understanding of Shiism lies in the way in which they approached the question of authority, a question which was firmly bound with the need to understand the inner core of the Islamic message and the values contained in that message. In this complex of attitudes, the distinction between ‘religious’ and ‘political’ was never to be found, and it is only by forcing modern Western categories onto the early milieu that this distinction can be made in that context, at the considerable expense of accuracy.” 
The question of authority in Islam is acknowledged with Prophet Muhammad’s role as both a temporal and a spiritual sovereign. He was also a legislator, revealing Divine laws by conveying the revelations, and he interpreted these laws of God. The Shias maintain that this religious and political authority passed on to Hazrat Ali who was best suited to preserve the purity of Islam, and to ensure its practical unfolding in the community of the faithful. Among a number of different traditions attributed to Muhammad, his proclamation ‘man kuntu mawlahu fa-Aliyyun mawlahu’ (He of whom I am the mawla, of him Ali is also the mawla), which he made at Ghadir Khumm on his return from the Farewell Pilgrimage, was the foundation upon which the continuation of Allah’s message was established.
Accepted as Imam by his supporters, the temporal leadership of the Muslim Ummah however went to Hazrat Abu Bakr who became the first caliph. Hazrat Ali did not assume the Caliphate until Abu Bakr, Omar and Osman had, in turn, been chosen to lead the Muslim community as Caliphs.
When Hazrat Ali was finally established as the Caliph, his accession was regarded by the Shia as a long overdue fulfilment of the Prophet’s own arrangement. But, Ali was beset with the hostility right from the start of his rule. Immediately on his accession, Hazrat Ali gave orders for dismissal of corrupt governors appointed by the 3rd Caliph, Osman. These orders offended those who had established themselves in power and had amassed immense wealth under the prior administration. While some of Caliph Osman’s nominees gave up their posts without resistance, there were others who revolted. Among the latter was Mu’awiya, the son of Abu Suffyan of the family of Banu Umayya, who had been the principal opponents of Islam and the Prophet for many years.
With wealth at his disposal, Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria, gathered a large force of mercenaries to rebel against the established Caliphate of Hazrat Ali. With his usual humanity, Hazrat Ali endeavoured to bring about a peaceful settlement, but Mu’awiya, inflated with pride, imposed unreasonable conditions. Left with no alternative, Hazrat Ali proceeded towards Syria and met Mu’awiya’s army at Siffin. To avoid unnecessary bloodshed, Hazrat Ali also offered to end the quarrel by personal combat, but Mu’awiya declined the challenge. In three successive battles at Siffin, the rebels were defeated and Mu’awiya was ready to flee from the field. Amr bin Aas, commander of Mu’awiya’s army, contrived a strategy to raise their swords with leaves of Qur’anic verses, and calling for arbitration. Hazrat Ali aware of this ruse by the rebels consented to arbitration under encouragement of his army men. This settlement paved the way for Mu’awiya to return to Syria, placing himself in a stronger position than before.
After the assassination of Hazrat Ali, Hazrat Hassan assumed the Caliphate, but gave up the position after seven months, for he no longer trusted his fickle-minded and disloyal people. Upon the abdication of Hazrat Hassan, Mu’awiya proclaimed himself as the undisputed Caliph of the Muslims and thus the Umayyad Caliphate was established, the epithet Umayyad based on Mu’awiya’s ancestry from the family of Banu Umayya.
While Hazrat Hassan came to be regarded as the second Imam by Shias, the subsequent history and tradition of the Nizari Ismailis maintains that while the Caliphate had passed to Hazrat Hassan, the Imamat, by nass, had been entrusted to Hazrat Ali’s second son, Imam Hussein. So Nizari Ismailis consider Hussein as the second Imam while other Ismaili groups such as the Mustealian Ismailis and Twelver Shias consider him as the 3rd Imam, following Hassan.
Mu’awiya moved the capital of Islam from Medina to Damascus and named his son, Yazid, to be his heir. Yazid demanded that Imam Hussein give him the oath of allegiance, but the Imam refused and this led to the massacre of Hussein and his relatives at Karbala which created widespread shock generating waves of opposition against Yazid.
There were different responses by the Muslims in regards to the tragic murder of the Prophet’s favourite grandson, including opposition to the Ummayad rule, which by now had been firmly established.
The supporters of the Alid cause maintained that the purity and value of Islam could only be realised under the leadership and guidance of the Ahl-e-Bait (People of the Prophet’s House) However, the three Shia Imams who followed Imam Hussein – Hazrat Mawlana Zayn al-Abidin (AS), Mawlana Muhammad al-Baqir (AS) and Mawlana Jafar al-Sadiq (AS) did not take active part in the politics of the day and chose not to support any armed struggle. Instead, they devoted their time to scholarship and articulating the ethical principles of Islam. Imam Muhammad al-Baqir and Imam Jafar al-Sadiq are also credited with elaborating the basic tenets of the doctrine of Imamat, as well as the principles of Shii jurisprudence or law.
There were also calls from the family who traced their descent from Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet Muhammad, to return the Muslim leadership to the rightful successor from the ahl al-bayt. The Abbasids with the help of the Alid supporters brought the despicable Ummayad rule to an end. But the expectations by the Alid supporters that Imam Jafar al-Sadiq himself, as a direct lineal descendant of the Prophet, would assume the leadership of the Muslims did not happen when the Abbasids, who were descended from the Prophet’s uncle, put themselves into power. Once secure on the throne of Caliphate, the Abbasids revolted against Shiites fearing they would now unseat them. The Shiites decided to remain in the opposition camp.
Ismaili Dawa and the Period of Concealment
The period between the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate in 750 AC and the death of Imam Jafar al-Sadiq in 765 AC was a challenging time for the Shias. The Abbasids began the systematic persecution and assimilation of various Shii groups into their ideology. Although the Imam chose to keep out of politics, the Abbasids saw him as their chief opponents and began to persecute him and his followers. The Imamat had to respond appropriately in light of the opposition to him. Imam Jafar al-Sadiq developed a disciplined organisation called the dawa in which officers called dais went out, not only to invite people to allegiance to the rightful Imam, but also to promote the social, moral and spiritual welfare of the Imam’s followers. The dais were well-trained and intellectually and politically wise people. They were devoted to the cause and dedicated to protect the name and the life of the Imam, even at the cost of their own lives. Dr. Esmail and Dr. Nanji describe these engagements as follows:
‘The dai, the individual agent of the dawa, was carefully selected and expected to subject himself to a rigorous training and discipline. This training was remarkably broad and exclusive. The terms ‘missionary’ or ‘propagandist’ which are sometimes used in English translation are grossly inadequate and misleading renderings. According to the model of the ideal dai; which came to be accepted in Ismaili circles, he was expected not only to lead an ethically exemplary life, but also to be in possession of a keen knowledge of the highest intellectual sciences of the day. Logic, rhetoric jurisprudence were all numbered amongst his intellectual accomplishments, which combined with a knowledge of diplomacy and public relations constituted the personality of the ideal dai”. 
Indeed, during his Imamat, Imam Jafar al-Sadiq had sent two of his dais, Halwani and Abu Suffyan, to preach to the Berber population in North Africa. Although their careers as dais were short lived before their demise, they made a positive impression on the local inhabitants of the territory north-west of the town of Constantine, now covered by north-east Algeria.
After Imam Jafar’s death, in 765 AC, the Shia became divided into two groups. One led by Imam Ismail, the eldest son and successor to Imam Jafar, called the Ismailis, and the other led by his youngest son Musa al-Kazim whose followers came, to much later be known as Ithna’asharis or Twelvers.
With hostile circumstances and continuous harassment and persecution by the Abbasids, the Ismaili Imams decided to live in secrecy. This period from the time of the sixth Imam, Ismail, through to the partial reign in Salamiyya of 11th Imam, Imam Muhammad al-Mahdi, is known in Ismaili history as dawr al-satr, the “period of concealment.” The identity and whereabouts of the Imams remained unknown, except to a few trusted disciples.
While the Imams remained anonymous, they strengthened the dawa movement by sending dais to organize opposition to the Abbasids in areas such as Yaman, Al-Kufa, Khurasan and Transoxiania, Sind as well as to North Africa in an area known in medieval history as Ifriqiya, which comprised of the coastal regions of what are today western Libya, Tunisia, and eastern Algeria.
Dai Abu Abdullah as-Shii and the Kutama Pilgrims
The dawa movement became particularly well pronounced from the reign of Imam Razi din-Abdullah onwards, under the supervision of Yemeni dai Abu Abdullah as-Shii, who was an Ismaili convert.
The Imam had recognized Abdullah’s potential and first sent him for training under dai Ibn Hawshab in Yemen. Abu Abdullah worked closely with Ibn Hawshab, and participated in dawa movement as well as in administrative and military activities. Abdullah’s intelligence and understanding of Ismaili teachings were recognized and he was assigned the responsibility of taking up the Ismaili cause in North Africa or Ifriqiya. This area was a haven for Muslim rulers who had opposed the Abbasids.
Abu Abdullah did not set out directly for his destination in Ifriqiya. His first step was to go to Mecca during the pilgrimage season where he befriended a powerful and influential tribe from North Africa called Kutama. They were pious and simple Muslim Berbers living in small village communities. They were impressed with Abu Abdullah’s knowledge, piety and regular observance of religious rites.
Al-Qadi al Nu‘man, the famous Fatimid jurist narrates that upon meeting him, this particular group of Kutama pilgrims became convinced of the Ismaili faith and brought Abu Abdullah along with them back to their native land. Along the way, Abu Abdullah asked the pilgrims about a region called the Valley of the Pious. The Kutama were astounded that he knew of this place and asked how he had come to hear of it. Citing a prophetic tradition (hadith) of Muhammad, Abu Abdullah replied that in fact this place was named after the very Kutama themselves: “The Mahdi shall emigrate far from his home at a time full of trials and tribulations. The pious (al-akhyaar) of that age shall support him, a people whose name is derived from kitmaan (secrecy).”  He explained that it was to the Kutama that the tradition referred and on account of them that the region was named the Valley of the Pious.
Abdullah had indicated to the Kutama that he intended to stay in their dominion as a teacher, and they made him a proposition that happily fell in with his plans. Abu Abdullah chose Ikdjan, a mountain stronghold that dominated the pilgrimage route, as his residence.
Abu Abdullah‘s righteous character along with his profound knowledge and experience that he had gained in Yemen enabled him to gradually establish his authority among the resilient and proud Kutama tribesmen. Among the local inhabitants, however, there were some who did not favour his preaching, but Abu Abdullah found the support of Hasan bin Harun, the chieftain of the Kutama tribe, with whose help he captured the town of Tazrut. Once Abu Abdullah established control in the Kutama regions, he began to lay the foundations of administration for the Imam. He commenced widespread preachings of Ismaili doctrines to the people and also set about to organise his followers whom he called Ikhwan, i.e. ‘brothers’. Through patient preaching, Abu Abdullah moulded the Kutama into a highly motivated and disciplined movement.
After consolidating his position in the Kutama realm, Abu Abdullah embarked on his second phase of work. He seized Melilla but the ruler of North Africa, Abu’l Abbas b. Ibrahim, who was an Aghlabid Amir , sent his son Abul Hawwal with a strong army against Abu Abdullah, who lost both Tazrut and Melilla. Abu Abdullah returned to his mountain stronghold, Ikdjan, and once again organised raids against his enemies and finally was victorious over Abu Hawwal. After this victory, he conquered the rest of the Aghlabid territory in Algeria between 904 and 907 and then conquered Tunisia itself.
Abu Abdullah then entered the Aghlabid capital, Raqaada, which was just south of Qayrawan, He established power and received approval of the people. A new currency was minted, its inscription reading, “I have borne my witness to God” on one side and “May the enemies of God be scattered” on the other. The names of Hazrat Ali, Bibi Fatima, Hazrat Hassan and Hazrat Imam Hussein were recited in the Khutba.
Imam al-Mahdi in Salamiyya
Imam al-Mahdi was only eight years old when he succeeded as the eleventh Ismaili Imam upon the demise of his father, Imam Razi-id-din Abdulla (AS). Being young, the tenth Imam left him under the guardianship of his own brother, Saidul-Khayr. But the latter fell prey to temptations, and conspired to have one of his own sons succeed to the Imamat. But the son died, as did other sons who were appointed by Khayr as Imam. Saidul-Khayr repented for his mistake and realised that the Imamat belonged to his nephew, Imam al-Mahdi, and that he was merely his guardian.
Imam al-Mahdi lived as a merchant in Salamiyya with his son, Imam al-Qaim. As noted above, al-Mahdi’s father, Imam Razi-id-din Abdulla had sent Abu Abdullah first to Yemen, from where the dai then proceeded to Ifriqiya, attaining success after success. Al-Mahdi was closely monitoring the activities and successes of the dai that his father had dispatched from Salamiyya.
The time appeared right for the Imam to establish his Caliphate, but a dispute arose among the dais about the place where Caliphate should be located. One suggestion was Iraq, which would mean overthrowing the Abbasid Caliphate; another suggestion was Yemen which was an Arab country; the third suggestion was for the remote land of North Africa, where Abu Abdullah had already achieved immense success. Imam al-Mahdi pending a final decision, decided to leave Salamiyya.
Imam al-Mahdi Leaves Salamiyya
Imam al-Mahdi departed Salamiyya which had been the centre of Ismaili activities during the dawr-satr period, and first reached a place called Hims in Syria. From there he proceeded southwards to Egypt. Both Yemen and North Africa were about the same distance from Egypt. In Yemen, dais Ibn Hawshab and Ibn Fadl had established a state in the mountain lands, north of Sanaa, but because of the Qarmatian hostilities in that area, Imam al-Mahdi rescinded the idea of going to Yemen. Imam travelled from Egypt to Tripoli and forming a caravan, headed westward for Sijilmasa, in present day Morocco, halting for a few days at Tuzar.
But not long after his arrival in Sijilmasa, the governor, al-Yasa bin Midrar, at the instructions of the Abbasids, had the Imam and his servants arrested.
Dai Abu Abdullah besieged Sijilmasa and sent an ultimatum to the al-Yasa bin Midrar, demanding the release of Imam al-Mahdi, promising to spare the town if his demand was fulfilled. The governor relented and released the Imam.
Imam al-Mahdi Reveals himself at Sijilmasa and Establishes Capital in Qayrawan
It might be noted that Abu Abdullah had never seen Imam al-Mahdi. The Imam had however previously sent one Abul Qasim al-Muttalibi to meet dai Abu Abdulla. When the Imam emerged from the gate of the town after his release, the first to recognise him was Abul Qasim al-Muttalibi, who said to Abu Abdulla, “Here is the Lord, mine and yours, and the Lord of all people.” In a dramatic and a highly emotional setting, Abu Abdullah and his troops bowed before the Imam once the Imam’s identity had become absolutely certain through a pre-arranged plan.  The Imam then entered the town.
The Imam left Sijilmasa with his entourage and his great and devoted dai reached Raqqada, the capital city of the region. Here he was greeted with great ceremony by the residents of the city and the leaders of other cities who had come to welcome him. Imam al-Mahdi was publicly proclaimed Caliph on Friday 7th January 910 AC. The Proclamation was also read in the mosques of other major cities and dispatched to other provinces. In one of the gatherings the Imam was presented with a beautiful qasida to mark this occasion. The following is a verse from the Qasida, describing the Imam in the following way:
“This is the Commander of the Faithful with whose coming
The support of every commander was demolished
This is the Fatimid Imam
Through whom we feel secure from threat.”
This event marked the beginning of the glorious rule of the Fatimid Imam-Caliphs in Ifriqiya and eventually Egypt.
Soon afterwards the traditional Muslim capital of Qayrawan, just a few kilometres North East of Raqaada, was conquered and it temporarily became the first capital of the Fatimid Caliphate. A new state had been founded and it was intended to be completely Shiite in character. It became known as the Fatimid (Al-Dawlah al-Faatimiyyah) for the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, and it was viewed as a stepping-stone to assert themselves as the rulers of the Islamic world.
Treason by the Dai Abu Abdullah as-Shii
Before the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi, Abu Abdullah had been the supreme dai and leader in North Africa. With the arrival of Imam al-Mahdi, it was clear that he would assume the supreme command of the state, and that all adminstrative matters would come under the Imam’s authority. Abul Abbas, dai Abu Abdullah’s brother, was the first to notice this change and reproached his brother for renouncing his authority in favour of al-Mahdi who was not even personally known to the people. He argued that al-Mahdi, before coming to Qayrawan, was a mere nobody, and that Abu Abdullah who had been the sole administrator of the country, had now lost all his power while al-Mahdi was receiving the respect and allegiance of everyone.
Abu Abdullah, influenced thus by his brother, began to plot against the Imam. When the plot was discovered, both he and his brother were executed. This was indeed a sad end to the career of the great dai. Imam al-Mahdi attended a public funeral for them in which he praised their past services, but condemned their subsequent betrayal.
Imam al-Mahdi Founds the New Capital of al-Mahdiyya
After the Fatimid rise to power, the caliph al-Mahdi founded the capital, al-Mahdiyya, in 308/914, adopting an innovative town plan that reflected the centrality of the Shi‘ite caliph according to the Fatimid world view, a view that thenceforth affected the appearance of all Fatimid cities. The mosque, once at the very heart of urban living, gave way to the splendidly decorated, multi-storey palace of the caliph who was both political leader and spiritual figurehead of the Fatimid dynasty; it was he who now occupied the very heart of the city, his palace placed at the centre of the kasbah (citadel) and overlooking the main mosque near the city walls – Excerpt from http://www.discoverislamicart.org
Imam al-Mahdi was intent on consolidating his rule first in the Maghreb itself. He built a fortified city, Al-Mahdiyya, on the Tunisian coast, about nineteen miles South East of Qayrawan, which along with other new towns like Muhammadiya became naval bases. Al-Mahdiyya’s strategic location on the and its founding in 914 revealed the Fatimids’ ambitious gaze eastward. The Fatimid fleet imposed itself in Mahdiyya and other coastal towns as the most powerful of the Mediterranean, and it denoted the start of Tunisia’s maritime age.
The Imam’s arrival and establishment of his capital in Al-Mahdiyya was commemmorated in a poem as follows: 
“My congratulations, O generous prince,
for your arrival upon which our epoch smiles
You have established your camp in a noble land, prepared for
you by glorious angels
The sanctuary and its environs,
its lofty shrines are exalted
And in the West is an exalted residence
where prayer and fasting are accepted
It is Al-Mahdiyya, sacred and protected,
as the sacred city is in Tihama
Your footsteps make the ground
wherever you tread like the Maqam Ibrahim
Just as the pilgrims kissed the sacred corner,
so do we kiss the walls of your palace.
Through the course of time, an empire grows old,
its foundations crumble under the test of time
But your empire, O Mahdi, will always be young,
Time itself will serve it
The world belongs to you and
your descendants wherever you may be;
It will always find an Imam in you!”
Two invasions of Egypt were undertaken during Imam al-Mahdi’s time, both led by his son and future successor, al-Qaim. First, a fleet sailed from Mahdiyya towards the Northern coast of Egypt and occupied Alexandria. Putting aside their past differences, al-Qaim and the Qarmatians of Iraq, negotiated to march together to divert the Abbasid troops from gaining Baghdad. The Qarmatians rescinded this arrangement and Fatimid success in Egypt was thwarted by the Abbasids. The second invasion of Egypt also failed; however, the Fatimids were able to advance to the Egyptian capital. A third unsuccessful invasion also took place during Imam Qaim’s own period of Imamat.
At the time of Imam al-Mahdi’s demise, the Fatimid realm had extended to parts of Morocco as well as Egypt.
The reigns of Imams al-Qaim and al-Mansur
Imam Al-Qaim, who succeeded al-Mahdi, was born in Salamiyya in Syria in 895 with the name Abd ar-Rahman and had travelled with Imam al-Mahdi to Sijilmasa.
He had been named to the throne sometime around 912 when Imam al-Mahdi had acquired power in Ifriqiya. Al-Qaim had helped put down several revolts, but his campaigns into Egypt faltered against the resistance of the Abbasids (914-915 and 919-921), incurring heavy casualties.
Thus Imam al-Qaim decided to maintain his royal residence at his father’s capital, Mahdiyya. However, he continued the expansionist policy of his father especially in the Mediterranean. The Fatimids soon ended Idrisid rule in Fez, but after 40 years of campaigning in western Algeria and Morocco they were unable to impose their authority on the powerful Berber tribes living there.
The reign of Fatimid Caliphate in Ifriqiya was set with immense challenges. While the primary enemies were the Abbasids, there was also serious danger posed by the Qarmatians, while certain groups amongst the Berbers were also unwilling to accept the authority of the Fatimids. In Ifriqiya itself the Arab aristocratic families, previously affiliated with the Hanafi school of law, had all converted to Shiism and, consequently, preserved under Fatimid rule some of their former privileges. The Maliki scholars of Qayrawan, however, opposed the Fatimids, and they supported a rebellion by one of their Kharijite rivals, Abu Yazid, against the Fatimids.
AbuYazid united the Kharijite Berber tribes of the Aurès Mountains of eastern Algeria and was able to overrun much of Ifriqiya. However, Imam Al-Qaim was able to hold out in the capital Mahdiyya with the help of the navy for over a year, but he died on 17 May 946 before the revolt could be put down.
He was succeeded as the 3rd Fatimid Caliph and thirteenth Ismaili Imam by his son Ismail al-Mansur (946-953). When al-Mansur began his reign, the Abu Yazid revolt continued. However, the unity of the rebels began to crack, and al-Mansur was able to put down the revolt with the help of the Berber Zirids. The Imam assumed the epithet al-Mansur (The Victorious) after this victory, and built a new residence at al-Mansuriyya near Qayrawan. The Imam’s primary concern for much of his reign was the reorganisation of the Fatimid state. Al-Mansur died after a severe illness on 19 March 953, and was succeded as the fourth Fatimid Caliph and 14th Ismaili Imam by his son al-Muizz.
Imam al-Muizz and the Expansion of Fatimid Rule into Egypt
Imam al-Muizz reigned from 953 to 975.
After the Fatimids had defeated the Kharijite rebellion of Abu Yazid under Imam al-Mansur, they began to turn their attention back to Egypt and to their ambition of establishing their caliphate throughout the Islamic world. For the start, they were primarily concerned with Egypt and the Near East. There were nevertheless campaigns fought by the Fatimid General, Jawhar as-Siqilli, in the West against the Berbers of Morocco and the Umayyads of Spain. At the same time, Fatimid raids on Italy enabled naval superiority in the Western Mediterranean to be affirmed, at the expense of Byzantium, even capturing Sicily for a period of time.
During the reign of Imam al-Muizz, Egypt was ruled by Kafur, an African slave of the Ikhshidids and a very able administrator. After Kafur, Egypt faced considerable misrule, resulting in famine and plague, and the entire administration fell into corruption. The earlier three failed invasions by the Fatimids had also left the country in disorder, creating conditions favourable for another invasion. The way to Egypt was thus clear for the Fatimids, the more so given the state of crisis that the incumbent Ikhshidid dynasty found itself in and the inability of the Abbasids to counterattack.
Imam al-Muiz gave the command of his army to the Sicilian, Jawhar al-Siqqili. Egypt fell to Jawhar in 969 without strong resistance. Jawhar brought about financial reforms in the country and this brought peace and prosperity to the country. Jawhar also ordered the building of a new capital city outside Fustat, which was known as al-Qahira al-Mahrusa (the Guarded City of Mars), now known as Cairo. The time was right to invite Imam al-Muizz to Egypt to take over the reign of the new capital.
Imam al-Muizz first installed the Zirids as his regents in Ifriqiya. He appointed the Berber chief Bulkin, son of the Fatimids’ chief ally in Algeria, Ziri ibn Manaad, as his new viceroy. When the Imam’s own journey to Cairo was hindered by a rebellion by the Kharijite, it was General Bulkin who was able to suppress it and facilitate the Imam’s departure for Egypt. First the Imam visited the islands of Sardinia and Sicily in the Mediterranean, which was under Fatimid rule. He then proceeded from Tripoli to Alexandria in Egypt, and thence to the new capital al-Qahira where he was magnificently received by Jawhar and the people. 
The reign of al-Muiz indeed marks the ‘Golden Age’ of Fatimid Islam. The dynasty of the Imams which established itself initially in North Africa and then in Egypt and whose power lasted for over two centuries, had adopted the title of al-Fatimiyyun, (commonly rendered as ‘Fatimid’) after Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, married to Hazrat Ali from whom the Imams were descended.
With regard to the Zirid dynasty (Banuu Ziri) that ruled Ifriqiya in the name of the Fatimids, they fell progressively under the influence of the Arab Islamic culture of the region in the next seventy years. The Maliki Sunni school of Islamic law reasserted itself in Ifriqiya, and several Maliki riots broke out between October 1016 and March 1017, in which a large number of Shiites – estimated at some 20,000 – were killed and their property looted. These developments resulted in the renunciation of Fatimid authority by the Zirids in 1044.
In Egypt and the Near-East, however, an ever-expanding empire began to take hold. A brilliant civilisation evolved, rivalling that of the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Umayyads in Spain. Urbanism, the sciences, art and literature reached new heights.
The achievements of the Fatimids from the time they conquered Egypt to their expansion Eastwards will be covered in detail in a special future article.
Fatimid-Abbasid Rivalry and the Abbasid Manifesto on Fatimid Ancestry
Having discussed the establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate, here are brief comments on Fatimid ancestry which became a subject of much controversy and discussion later, during the reign of Imam al-Hakim.
Once Jawhar conquered Egypt and Syria from the Abbasids, there was an incessant struggle between the two Caliphates as to the legitimacy of their respective titles. The activities of the Fatimid dawa led to many towns coming under Fatimid control, especially under the reign of Imam al-Hakim. Alarmed by Fatimid successes and the threat of a rebellion within his empire, the Abbasid caliph Qadir adopted retaliatory measures to check the spread of Ismailism within the very seat of his realm. In particular, in 402/1011 he assembled a number of esteemed Sunni and Twelver Shii scholars and jurists at his court and commanded them to issue an edict that al-Hakim and his predecessors lacked genuine Fatimid Alid ancestry. This so-called ‘Baghdad manifesto’ was read out in Friday mosques throughout the Abbasid domains. At the same time, Qadir also commissioned several refutations of Ismaili doctrines. With this, he intended to de-legitimize the Ismaili allegiance to the rival Fatimid domain on the basis of their claimed descent.
The Abbasid manifesto was countered by the Fatimids. A proclamation was signed by the leading doctors of Cairo, many among of them belonging to the non-Ismaili Muslim persuasions such as the Maliki and Shafi’i branches. In spite of raised doubts about the genealogy of the Fatimids by the Abbasids, Muslim historians like Makrizi, lbn Khaldun and Abulfed have accepted the authenticity of the claims of the Fatimids. 
Makrizi is particularly outspoken on the subject, and plainly charges the partisans of the Bani-Abbas with misrepresentation and forgery. Dealing with the Abbasid statement that the Fatimids were not the descendants of Hazrat Ali, he says:
“…a little examination of facts will show that this is a fabrication. The descendants of Ali, the son of Abu Talib, at that time were numerous, and the Shiite regarded them with great veneration. What was it then that could have induced their partisans to forsake them, the descendants of Mohammed, and to recognise in their stead as Imam an offspring of the Magi, a man of Jewish origin? No man, unless absolutely devoid of commonsense, would act thus. The report that Obaidullah al-Mahdi was by descent a Jew or a Magian owes its origin to the artifices of the feeble Abbasid princes, who did not know how to rid themselves of the Fatimids, for their power lasted without interruption for 270 years, and they despoiled the Abbasids of the countries of Africa, Egypt, Syria, the Diar-bakr, the two sacred cities (Mecca and Medina), and of Yemen. The Khutba was even read in their names at Baghdad during forty weeks. The Abbasid armies could not make head against them; and, therefore, to inspire the people with aversion against the Fatimids, they spread calumnies about their origin.
“The Abbasid officers and Ameers who could not contend successfully with the Fatimids gladly adopted these slanders as a means of revenge. The Kazis, who attested the act of convocation under Kadir b’illah, acted under the orders of the Caliph, and only upon hearsay: and since then historians have heedlessly and without reflection given currency to a calumny which was invented by the Abbasids.” 
The Abbasid manifesto is part of the general assertion of orthodox Sunni Muslims that the Ismailis are heretics. Indeed, this Abbasid credo, has become a source for defaming the Fatimids, even as recently as 2007 when there was strong opposition to a call by the Libyan leader, Muhammar Qaddafi, to revive the ideals of the Fatimid State. 
Learning from Fatimid History: Mawlana Hazar Imam’s “Hope” and Prince Sadruddin’s “Message to Ismaili Youth.”
We have looked into the events of our past history which led to the establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate, but it is more important that we go beyond the events and capture the spirit which initiated and sustained specific activities.
History serves as a guide to our actions now and in the future, and it is from history that we can obtain useful clues to solutions to our present problems and to guide us in realising ideals, laying adaptable groundwork for our future. Addressing the students’ gathering in London in 1979, Mawlana Hazar Imam said:
“Dr. Kurwa earlier, presented to me some coins from the Fatimid Caliphate. This was a period of great glory and great pride, and I would like to express to all my students my very deep gratitude for the gift that you have offered. It is a link to the past, but it is also an ideal to be achieved, an ideal of strength, an ideal of performance, an ideal of happiness.”
From the study of our history we should be able to acquire motivation to activate ourselves in the direction which our Imam and our Faith requires of us.
History records the severe persecutions which the Jamat suffered at the hands of their enemies and yet survived. They survived not passively, but actively, and under the direction of the Imams they created a remarkable and effective dawa system which not only spread the teachings and doctrines of the Ismaili Faith, but also succeeded in establishing the great Fatimid empire. This period in Ismaili History, in fact, the whole of Ismaili history, shows that the glorious periods of Ismailism were always founded under a strong and active dawa.
It is only with the right understanding of what Imamat is and what Imam’s Authority stands for, that our loyalty and devotion to the Imam will become absolute and unflinching, and we will be able to achieve the ideal of strength, ideal of performance, ideal of happiness which Imam-e-Zaman desires of us.
At this point, I consider it most appropriate to share the text of an inspiring message sent to the Ismaili youth by Mawlana Hazar Imam’s late uncle, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan. He said:
“The future of the Ismaili Faith rests in the hands of the youths of your age and mine. Are we to follow the example of those, who in Egypt, Iran and Sind raised the flag of Ismaili Imams high enough for the world to see its glory? I say, ‘Yes’. We should not fail where our ancestors achieved glorious success.”
History is not a silent record of bygone events, it speaks as it unveils the past. Through history the dead communicate with the living. They tell us how and why they succeeded, and they also tell us why they failed. Warning us against the dangers of self-glory, self-aggrandizement, internal dissent, bickering, jealousy and, above all, against the grave error of failing to stand by Imam’s commands and wishes, they motivate us to achieve great things and inspire us to follow the path of success.
Date article posted on Simerg: January 29, 2011
Date updated: February 10, 2013
Note: This article will be enhanced, within limits, as new historical facts and data emerge. As such we welcome input that will enhance this piece further. We welcome images of historical importance.
See related (posted January 31, 2011): Photos of the Ruins of the Fatimid Capital, al-Mahdiya
. Shi’ite Encylopaedia, p. 30
. Rise and Fall of the Fatimid Empire, p. i
. Ismaili Contribution to Islamic Culture, p. 230
. “By the star when it goes down, your companion (Muhammad) is neither astray nor is misled; nor does he speak of (his own) desire. It is naught save an inspiration sent down to him. He was taught by one, Mighty in Power.” Holy Qur’an, 53:1-5
. Ismaili Contribution to Islamic Culture, pp. 232-233
. Virani, Shafique N. The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 47.
. The Aghlabids were established as hereditary rulers at Kairawan by the Abbasid Caliphs to whom they owed allegiance and paid tribute.
. For a vivid enactment of this incident please click The Unveiling at Sijilmasa
. Adapted from Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo, by Paula Sanders, State University of New York (SUNY), 1994. Pages 40-41.
Note: Tihama refers to the Arabian Peninsula and the sacred city is Mecca. In the next line, Maqam Ibtrahim denotes the Kaba.
. For a highly absorbing and inspirational account of Jawhar’s conquest of Cairo please click His Name is Jawhar
. The Spirit of lslam by Syed Ameer Ali, Ch. 8, p. 325.
. Aafaq.com, April 24, 2007
. Ilm, Volume 4, Number 3.
About the author: (Rai) Jehangir A. Merchant has served Ismaili institutions as an Alwaez, teacher and writer for five decades, both in an honorary and professional capacity. He currently resides in Vancouver, Canada. This article appeared under an earlier revision in Ilm, the magazine Alwaez edited when he served with the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB) for the United Kingdom.
Other articles by the same author on this Web Site:
Ghadir-Khumm and the Two Weighty Matters (includes author’s detailed profile)
The Parable of Moses and Khidr in the Holy Qur’an: An Ismaili Interpretation
Text and Explanation of “Eji Shah Islamshah Amne Maliya”
A Translation and Brief Commentary of Pir Sadardin’s Ginan “Jem Jem Jugatsu Preet Kareva”
The Frontispiece of the Ismaili Jamatkhana in Mashhad, Iran
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