Ismaili Dawa and Politics in Fatimid Egypt

By Hatim Mahamid


This paper will discuss the mutual influence between politics and the Isma‘ili da‘wa, particularly after the establishment of the Fatimid government in Egypt. Some questions arise at this point, such as:

(1) ‘what were the circumstances that influenced the developments in the role of the da‘wa?’


(2) ‘had the office of da‘i undergone a process of politicization as a result of the personal political interests promoted by the viziers?’

In examining these questions, I will attempt to emphasize the interrelations between the Isma‘ili da‘wa and the political circumstance during the Fatimid regime in Egypt.


Prior to [Imam] al-Mahdi’s appearance on the scene by the beginning of the tenth century, the da‘wa mechanism had a more theoretical aspect, whose purpose was to overthrow the Abbasid rule, which the Isma‘ilis and several other Shi‘i movements deemed illegitimate. On the other hand, the da‘wa served as a means to establish the universality of the Isma‘ili Imamate. However, with the constitution of the Fatimid rule in North Africa (Ifriqya) the Isma‘ilis had found it difficult to effect a doctrinarian union among the various factions of the Shi‘a. Furthermore, the Isma‘ili Fatimid government was faced with a demanding political trial, without the support of an applicative and established judicial system to assist it in addressing the challenges of the new situation.

Following the occupation of Egypt by the Fatimids in 969, the Isma‘iliyya managed to enforce its political authority for nearly 200 years, during which it did not succeed in converting the Sunnis, nor did it coerce the local residents to convert their religious belief, as had been claimed by several scholars. [1]

The propaganda and preaching institution (da‘wa) formed a central ingredient of the Fatimid establishment – both religious and political. [2] The Fatimid caliphate put a special emphasis on the strengthening, systematization and overt institutionalization of the da‘wa. Judge al-Nu‘man bin Hayyun [or Qadi al-Nu’man]  is considered the first Fatimid legislator to have created a considerable body of knowledge, for the use of the Isma‘ili judiciary and da‘wa systems, in addition to having written historical essays relating to the Isma‘iliyya.

Historical sources available today show that despite the linkage between the office of the Isma‘ili judge (Qadi) and that of the missionary (Da‘i), it was not before the days of Imam al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021) that the first official appointment, that of the judge Husayn bin ‘Ali bin al-Nu‘man (999-1004), [3] had been made for the office of “Judge of Judges” (Qadi al-Qudat) and “Preacher of Preachers” (Da‘i al-Du‘at). Later in the Fatimid period, the missionary functions were transferred to the viziers.

The hierarchy of the da‘wa establishment was organized with the utmost care and precision, beginning with the chief da‘i and ending with the Isma‘ili initiate, the main objective being the perpetuation of the Isma‘ili propagation and its success

The function of chief da‘i was of utmost importance in the Fatimid government and served as a central pillar in the propagation and reinforcement of the Isma‘ili mission both in areas under direct Fatimid domination, and those outside the state boundaries. The hierarchy of the da‘wa establishment was organized with the utmost care and precision, beginning with the chief da‘i and ending with the Isma‘ili initiate, the main objective being the perpetuation of the Isma‘ili propagation and its success.

The Fatimid palace was not only a center of political authority but also the seat of the chief da‘i, known as the Majlis al-Da‘i or Majlis al-Da‘wa. Meetings and assemblies of the senior Isma‘ili ‘ulama were held in the palace, both for decision making purposes or as sessions of Isma‘ili training and education. [4]

The enforcement of Fatimid authority over all aspects of administration – political, civilian and religious – was gradual so as not to provoke unrest within the local Sunni majority. [5] In 364/974 (A.H./C.E.) the Isma‘ili judge Qadi ‘Ali bin al-Nu‘man was appointed, after his father’s death, as the chief judge of the Fatimid state, [6] thus ending the predominance of the Sunni law system for the duration of the Fatimid period. In fact, the chief judge was often involved in da‘wa activities and bore the additional title of “Preacher of Preachers”. Such were the Banu al-Nu‘man (the house of Nu’man) during the first Fatimid period. [7]

The authority over the da‘wa remained generally in the hands of the presiding chief judge, up until 441/1049 when the last of the al-Nu‘man’s sons, al-Qasim, left office. Consequently, Abu Muhammad al-Hasan bin ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Yazuri (d.450/1058) was appointed vizier and responsible for the da‘wa authorities. Thus, for the first time, the vizier took hold of the Isma‘ili da‘wa.

The appointment of vizier Badr al-Din al-Jamali (1072-1094) marked the beginning of a new period, dominated by mighty and powerful viziers who were nicknamed “the viziers of the sword” (wuzara’ al-sayf). They took control of nearly all administrative authorities including the Isma‘ili mission. They appointed preachers, missionaries and judges as their delegates, and came to be known by the title of “Guiding missionaries of the Isma‘ili believers and guarantor of the judges of the Muslims” (Hadi Du‘at al-Mu’minin wa-Kafil Qudat al-Muslimin).


The Fatimids made use of the tradition that mosques have been centers of Islamic life, to propagate and reinforce the Isma‘ili doctrine among the populace, as exemplified by judge al-Nu‘man ibn Hayyun at al-Mansuriyya mosque during the rule of the Caliph al-Mansur and Caliph al-Mu‘izz in Ifriqya (North Africa). Due to the fact that the Isma‘ili religious interpretation and da‘wa relied on both esoteric (al-batin) and exoteric (al-zahir) meanings of the holy scriptures (and other religiously-related phenomenon), the educational system was also adapted to these principles. The Fatimids were therefore extremely cautious in conducting lessons and da‘wa sessions.

With his appointment as chief judge of the Fatimid state on behalf of Imam al-Mansur in Northern Africa, Qadi al-Nu‘man undertook a complex and multi-faceted duty: administering the Isma‘ili law; training judges and notaries (‘udul) for future dispatching to remote lands; preaching and holding sermons in al-Mansuriyya mosque; and teaching the Isma‘ili doctrine to initiates and other occasional listeners. The sermons held by al-Nu‘man became a regular educational venue at the al-Mansuriyya mosque – an Isma‘ili educational institution in its own accord. However, what distinguished the Isma‘ili teaching was the fact that the lectures given by al-Nu’man required the prior approval of the Imam, who also determined the guidelines concerning the method of teaching and performing da‘wa with respect to its exoteric and esoteric components, and to the aimed audience. This was due to the fact that the Imam was considered the highest source of interpretation (ta’wil) and knowledge (‘ilm/hikma).

We find al-Nu‘man’s method being implemented under the Fatimid rule in Egypt in the form of “sessions of wisdom” (majalis al-hikma). Majalis were arranged according to the mastery level of the participants and their affinity to the ruling class: al-awliyā’, al-hassa, hurum (the caliph’s wives), sessions dedicated to the simple folk, to foreigners and sessions for women held in al-Azhar mosque. The books and teaching materials used by the da‘i in these sessions also required the caliph’s prior approval. [8]

Among other responsibilities, the chief da‘i was also the supervisor of the state’s Isma‘ili educational system, his main task being to direct the scholars and ‘ulama in propagating the principles of the Isma‘iliyya and strengthening its foundations. Thus, it is difficult to separate between religious preaching conducted for missionary purposes and for the reinforcement of the Isma‘ili doctrine, and religious education whose objectives were to prepare ‘ulama, missionaries and functionaries’ who worked in the Fatimids’ service.

The founding and functioning of the Fatimid educational and religious institutions was inspired and directly supported by the Fatimid caliphs (central government). Consequently, they acted as missionary centers in the service of the Isma‘iliyya, both directly and indirectly. The gatherings, lectures, sermons, and lessons (majalis al-da‘wa/majalis al-hikma) conducted in these institutions attracted students and inspired individuals not only from among the Isma‘ili adherents but also from other religious streams in the population. According to al-Maqrizi, one of the lessons held by the Isma‘ili judge Muhammad bin al-Nu‘man in 385/995 was so overcrowded that the result was the death of eleven people. [9]

…what distinguished the Isma‘ili teaching was the fact that the lectures given required the prior approval of the Imam, who also determined the guidelines concerning the method of teaching and performing da‘wa

The Cairo mosque al-Azhar acted as a multipurpose institution in the service of the Isma‘iliyya. It was built by the Fatimid commandant Jawhar al-Siqilli as a symbol for the Fatimid Isma‘ili rule and a place to be used by the Fatimids and their adherents for conducting the Isma‘ili religious rituals, so as to prevent friction with Egyptian Sunni devotees. Heinz objects to the above contention and argues that since it was built, al-Azhar functioned exclusively as an educational institution. [10]

Heinz’s claim raises a number of important questions: Can we isolate purely educational goals from missionary objectives in the context of a religious Isma‘ili establishment? And in a broader context, is such a division of purposes possible in Islamic educational institutions of the medieval age? ‘Ali bin al-Nu‘man who was chief da‘i and judge until his death in 374/984, held his first lessons at al-Azhar mosque in the month of Safar 365/October 975.

Vizier Ya‘qub ibn Killis (d. 380/990) was the first to formalize the Isma‘ili educational activity at al-Azhar with the assistance and funding of the Fatimid government under Caliph/Imam al-‘Aziz. [11] In 378/988 Ibn Killis received the official authorization of Caliph al-‘Aziz’s to undertake the tutoring of 37 students of the Isma‘ili law. Imam Al-‘Aziz also allocated stipends and salaries for the students and their supervisors as well as accommodations in the mosque’s vicinity. [12]

Despite the great controversy surrounding al-Hakim’s capricious policy and his mysterious lifestyle, he was considered one of the mightiest Fatimid caliphs who strived for the formalization of the Isma‘ili mission and education. The Cairo Dar al-‘Ilm was also an institution devoted to Isma‘ili da‘wa through the teaching of rational and philosophical sciences, as well as a place for acquiring religious and general education. [13] One additional indication to the missionary function of Dar al-‘Ilm was the appointment of the chief da‘i as the supervisor of this institution, thus reinforcing the connection between education and da‘wa, both of which served one major goal – the buttressing of the Isma‘iliyya.

The number of students and adherents who attended the study sessions (majalis) at the Fatimid palace grew substantially during the reign of Caliph al Hakim bi-Amr Allāh (d. 411/1021). Separate sessions for men and women were held almost daily. [14]

Several reasons may have influenced the establishment of Dar al-‘Ilm by al-Hakim: overcrowded lessons and majalis al hikma; the need to separate lessons and majalis according to the topic being studied; and possibly the Imam’s own ambitions. Despite its distinct Isma‘ili character, the institution had drawn numerous students from various origins and religious schools, some of which belonged to the Islamic orthodoxy, particularly to the Sāfi‘iyya, Mālikiyya and Hanafiyya. [15] Al-Maqrizi indicates that Dar al-‘Ilm type institutions spread all over Egypt during the Fatimid period, reaching a total of nearly 800. [16] Not only the Dar al-‘Ilm benefited from the increased support of al-Hakim but also institutions such as al-Azhar, al-Muqs and Rashida mosques. To fund the various maintenance and regular functioning expenses of these institutions al-Hakim endowed ample waqf. [17]

The libraries at the Fatimid palace and the Dar al-‘Ilm in Cairo were placed under the direct supervision of the chief da‘i. [18] These libraries were badly damaged and looted in times of crisis, particularly during the “great crisis” of al-Mustansir’s period and at the end of the Fatimid era following the abolishment of the caliphate by Salah al-Din.

Uprisings that broke up in Cairo during the “great crisis” disturbed the regular activity of Dar al-‘Ilm and interfered with its educational and missionary goals. The second half of the Fatimid period was characterized by a decrease in the Fatimid Isma‘ili educational and missionary activity, which was overshadowed by the political struggles among viziers, army commandants and governors, in addition to the schisms within the Fatimid dynasty.


The Fatimid educational system also spread outside Egypt into various cities of Fatimid Syria, although in a more limited form. Despite the little facts we have regarding these institutions, we may assume that apart from da‘wa, the Fatimids attempted to propagate the Isma‘ili doctrine in various regions outside Egypt through their educational and religious institutions.

The Shi‘i mission was serviced in Aleppo by an institution named Dar al-Da‘wa [19]. Additionally, the library of Sayf al-Dawla al-Hamadani had a secondary destination as a Dar al-‘Ilm. [20] According to Ibn al-Furat’s version, the Isma‘ilis strengthened their position in Aleppo during the second half of the 5th/11th century, mainly as a result of the support received from the Seljuq city commander, Emir Radwan bin Tutus. The best indication of the status attained by the Isma‘iliyya in Aleppo was the erection of a special mosque in the service of its adherents, in addition to the establishment of a Dar al-Da‘wa, and the unhindered functioning of these two institutions. As a result, numerous Isma‘ili adherents were drawn to the city from Persia as well as from various other Syrian regions. The historian Ibn al-Sahna mentions that the majority of Aleppines at the beginning of the 6th/12th century were under the influence of the Shi‘a. [21] The traveler Ibn Jubayr claims that during his journey through Syria in 580/1184 (the reign of Sultan Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi) the Shi‘i adherents in Damascus outnumbered the Sunni adherents. [22]

The new vacancies in the Fatimid administration proved to be a factor that served the Isma‘iliyya well, particularly during the first Fatimid period. Scholars and clergymen from various regions moved to Egypt to offer their candidacy to the available administrative and religious judiciary positions. Several of these religious appointments were carried out despite the fact that the chosen candidate belonged to one of the orthodox schools of Islam. These scholars came from various origins: some were from the East while others came from various regions in Syria itself. This phenomenon highlights the decisive, albeit mostly unintentional, role played by these high-ranking appointments in “converting” the religious perceptions of the office bearers to the Isma‘iliyya. Ya‘qub ibn Killis for instance, came from Baghdad and was of Jewish origin. Later, he converted to Islam and served under the Fatimids as a vizier, legislator and Isma‘ili teacher.

The previously mentioned vizier al-Yazuri (d. 450/1058), served under the Fatimids and contributed to the growth of the Isma‘iliyya, belonged to the Hanafi school and served as a judge in the city of Ramleh. Later, during the reign of Caliph al-Mustansir he moved to the Fatimid palace in Cairo and subsequently was appointed vizier and then chief judge and chief da‘i of the Isma‘iliyya. [23]

Various historians claim that it was al-Yazuri who launched the missionary campaign against the Abbasids and chose the renowned Isma‘ili da‘i al-Muayyad fi al-Din al-Shirazi. Thanks to the financial and moral support supplied by Al-Yazuri, al-Muayyad succeeded in gathering numerous new initiates in Iraq, among them the Turkish commander of the Abbasid army in Baghdad, al-Basasiri.


The Fatimid da‘wa highlighted the saintly attributes of the Imam, which were said to be transferred unto him by way of inheritance in the form of a divine spark. Endowing the Imam with divine qualities is also apparent in the writings of Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi, a poet from the North African period of Fatimid rule, who dedicated his work to the Isma‘ili da‘wa. [24]

This custom of endowing the Imam with eminent religious qualities was strongest during the first Fatimid period, especially during the reign of al-Hakim to whom many of his followers ascribed divinity. This  seemed to decrease significantly after al-Hakim’s reign. Thus, revealing the Imams themselves as political leaders resulted in a disruption between their perceived religious qualities and their political status.

The number of those who affirmed al-Hakim’s divine authority grew during his reign, reaching 16,000 people according to the historian Ibn al-Furat. As previously mentioned, al-Hakim’s period is considered a time of lively activity in both education and Isma‘ili da‘wa. [25]

Interesting is the fact that the missionaries who promoted the divine image of Imam al-Hakim were of foreign origin, particularly from Persia, such as Hamza bin ‘Ali al-Zawzani, Muhammad bin Isma‘il al-Darazi, Hasan bin Haydara al-Firgani and others.

The Druze

The da‘wa disseminated in Egypt by these missionaries raised unrest among the Sunna adherents. The missionaries fled to  Syria, where  their work gave birth to a new faction within the Isma‘iliyya, known as Ahl al-Tawhid or al-Daraziyya (the Druze), named after the missionary Muhammad al-Darazi. This community later became a separate sect with its own independent beliefs and religious principles. [26] After his mysterious disappearance (or murder), Imam al-Hakim’s image of a divine incarnation grew even stronger among his Druze followers, to such an extent that his death was denied and his disappearance considered a miracle.

During the second part of the Fatimid period in Egypt, and particularly in the aftermath of the ‘great crisis’ there was a decline in the status of the Fatimid caliphs vis-à-vis the authority of the mighty “viziers of the sword.”

The branching out of the Ahl al-Tawhid (the Druze) can be considered as the first schism within the Isma‘iliyya during the Fatimid period in Egypt. It was a product of the radical propaganda against the Sunna and the intense belief in the divine qualities of Imam al-Hakim. It is noteworthy that apart from al-Hakim’s missionaries, the majority of the other prominent Isma‘ili da‘is (propagandists), who were in Egypt and gained renown during the Fatimid period, were also of Persian origins. Let us list several of these missionaries: Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. after 410/1020); Al-Muayyad fi al-Din al-Shirazi (d. 470/1078); Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 481/1088); Hasan ibn al-Sabbah (d. 518/1124) arrived in Egypt during al-Mustansir’s reign in 471/1078. Hasan al-Sabbāh became a protagonist of the Isma‘ili da‘wa in the East and established a center for the da‘wa activities in the Alamut fortress. He was also the leader of the al-Nizariyya faction after the death of Imam al-Mustansir in 487/1094.

During the second part of the Fatimid period in Egypt, and particularly in the aftermath of the ‘great crisis’ there was a decline in the status of the Fatimid caliphs vis-à-vis the authority of the mighty “viziers of the sword.” This weakening of the caliphs, the restrictions imposed on their authorities and the accession disputes and conflicts within the Fatimid dynasty had a negative impact on the Isma‘ili da‘wa. Four major schisms have marred the image of the Fatimid government in this period:

1. Al-Nizariyya and al-Musta‘liyya

This was schism between two sons of the Caliph al-Mustansir – Nizar and Ahmad (al-Musta‘li). The split within the Isma‘ili da‘wa gave birth to a severe schism within the Ismā‘iliyya, with each side trying to justify its rights and claims to authority. In a political attempt to prove his father’s legitimate right to the scepter, Imam al-Amir bin al-Musta‘li (d.524/1130) went on a missionary journey. He summonsed a general assembly with the participation of Isma‘ili ‘ulama and clergymen, administration officials and other dignitaries, and made Nizar’s sister publicly acknowledge al-Musta‘li’s right of ascendancy. This public acknowledgment is known among historians by the name of al-Hidaya al-Amiriyya (the Amiri guidance). [27]

2. Al-Hafiziyya and al-Tayyibiyya

Following al-Amir’s assassination in 524/1130, a dispute over the caliphate broke out between al-Hafiz, the cousin of the late Caliph al-Amir and the supporters of al-Amir’s infant son, al-Tayyib. [28] This led to another schism within the political circles of the Fatimid dynasty as well as within the da‘wa establishment. This new schism, nicknamed al-Tayyibiyya, was once again focused outside the Egyptian borders, particularly in Yaman and India, by way of the Sulayhid dynasty. In Egypt, the moderate faction of the Ismā‘iliyya continued its activities, struggling for existence in the shadow of the political conflicts.

3. The dispute over the succession of Imam al-Hafiz (Hasan and Haydara)

The dispute over the title of crown prince (wilayat al-‘ahd), which broke out in 527/1133 between the two sons of Caliph al-Hafiz, Hasan and Haydara, gave birth to another schism.

4. The involvement of the mighty viziers (“viziers of the sword”)

In the period of who were originally army commanders and were known as the “viziers of the sword,” the Isma‘ili da‘wa depended heavily on the attitude of the vizier toward the Ismā‘iliyya.


Let us review several cases in which the viziers of the sword attempted to undermine the Ismā‘iliyya in the Fatimid state. Vizier Badr al-Din al-Jamali set up a campaign to strengthen the Armenian elements in the army and within the general population by initiating the renovation of Christian religious establishments in Egypt. The most acute and outstanding change took place during the tenure of vizier al-Afdal bin Badr al-Din al-Jamali (487-515/1094-1121). Besides playing an active role in determining the successor of Imam al-Mustansir, he also abolished some of the Ismā‘iliyya customs that prevailed in Egypt since the establishment of the Fatimid regime, and particularly such Isma‘ili rituals as the birth ceremonies of the Prophet, ‘Ali, Fatima and the ruling Imam.

In 524/1130, following the assassination of Caliph al-Amir, vizier Kutayfat (Ahmad) the son of al-Afdal, attempted to remodel the governing policies of the Fatimid state according to the Imamiyya, a rival Shi‘i faction whose conceptions were opposed to those of the Ismā‘iliyya. In addition, he appointed Sunni judges for the Shafi‘iyya and the Malikiyya beside the Imami and Isma‘ili ones. This was considered a revolutionary step that contradicted the governing principles to which the state had been adhering since the beginning of the Fatimid regime in Egypt, the days of Imam al-Mu‘izz [29]. Although short-lived, this move was certainly viewed as a novelty and precedent in the Fatimid government of this period. It was also as a sign of the growing weakness of the Isma‘ili da‘wa and its potential inability to withstand similar future maneuvers, and of the extent of political involvement in the religious and da‘wa affairs.

As part of the succession dispute between the two heirs of Imam al-Hafiz, his son Hasan adopted a hostile policy toward the Isma‘ili judges, clergymen and his father’s followers [30]. After doing away with Hasan as a contender to the throne, Imam al-Hafiz took an opposite direction, leaning more and more on the Isma‘ili clergy (arbāb al-‘amā’im) for staffing key functions in the state administration. Additionally, he appointed Christian functionaries such as the priest Abu Najah and the Armenian vizier Bahram to high-ranking offices. Despite his attempts, al-Hafiz did not succeed in improving the status of the Ismā‘iliyya and in restoring it to its past splendor.

Towards the end of the Fatimid period, the Isma‘ili da‘wa experienced a gradual decline vis-à-vis the Sunni propaganda, which started to gain strength in Syria under the auspices of the Seljuqs/Zangids, whose influence managed to infiltrate the rows of the Egyptian orthodoxy as well. This tendency gained even more impetus when Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi moved to Egypt after being requested by the last Fatimid caliph al-‘Adid to restore peace and order. In 564/1168 Salah al-Din was appointed vizier of the Fatimids and at the same time continued to be the commander of the Zangid army in Egypt, and a loyal soldier of Sultan Nur al-Din Zangi in Syria. This duality of authorities gave Salah al-Din formidable power and status, which he promptly used to persecute the Ismā‘iliyya in Egypt. His policy was twofold: on the one hand he continued to weaken the Ismā‘iliyya by replacing its judges with Sunnis, particularly from among the Shāfi‘iyya (Sadr al-Din ibn Dirbas); on the other hand he took assertive steps to strengthen the Sunna by erecting educational establishments (madrasas) to service the orthodoxy, in the same manner as the Zangids had done in Syria. [31] Salah al-Din’s actions gradually led to the complete abolishment of the Fatimid caliphate in 567/1171. Egyptian loyalty and political association was officially transferred to the Sunni Abbasid caliphate. [32]


Isma‘ili da‘wa had existed in the eastern Islamic lands even before the rise of the Fatimids in Egypt, posing a challenge to the Abbasid rule in the region. Vis-à-vis the Isma‘ili da‘wa, the Abbasid counter-Fatimid propaganda also gained strength. Its missionaries conducted fierce campaigns against the customs and tenets of the Shi‘a, in order to discredit any arguments supporting its legitimacy to rule over the Islamic community. Sensing the imminent danger of the Isma‘ili da‘wa, the Abbasid caliph al-Qadir (r. 991-1031) decided to launch a counter campaign. In 402/1011 he summoned a meeting in Baghdad to which were invited several senior ‘ulama, judges and clergymen. The outcome of this meeting was a protocol which strongly negated the Fatimid claims to the ancestry of ‘Ali bin Abi Talib and his spouse Fatima, daughter of the prophet Muhammad. According to the ‘ulama of Baghdad, the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim was a descendant to the missionaries of al-Khawarij sect. The Abbasids also claimed that the Fatimids were heretics who, with their customs and philosophy repudiated the Islam. Several nicknames – kuffar, fussaq, fujjar, mulhidin, zanadiqa [33] – used by the Abbasids denoted this alleged heresy.

The Abbasid propaganda against the Fatimids continued to receive official authorization from of the Abbasid caliphs, who kept close council with the ‘ulama of the Sunna in Baghdad. In 444/1052, following a series of bitter clashes between the Shi‘a and the Sunna in Iraq and in the eastern Islamic lands, the Abbasid caliph al-Qa’im summoned in Baghdad a meeting with ‘ulama, judges and clergymen, in order to think up ways to contradict the Fatimid claims. Once again, the ‘ulama issued a decree that denied the legitimacy of the Fatimid rule, and negated their ancestry to the descendants of ‘Ali and Fatima. They went on to attribute the Fatimids to one of the Amgushid groups (al-Majus – fire worshippers). Copies of the protocols of the Baghdadi ‘ulama’s decision was made public and circulated in various regions with the intention of strengthening the counter Fatimid propaganda. [34]

Following the demise of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir (d. 487/1094), and attempting to capitalize on the schism between the Nizariyya and the Musta‘liyya, the Abbasid caliphate (Caliph al-Mustazhir, r. 1094-1118) issued another protocol, which again denounced the Fatimids. This protocol was also made public and read aloud in the presence of senior officials. The protocol declared that the Fatimids were heretics and denied the legitimacy of their political and doctrinarian claims. [35]


Sunni propaganda often took the form of educational-religious and intellectual activities, characterized by a strong Sunni revivalist current. Sunni historians and clergymen invested great efforts in writing historical and religious works, in which they spoke against the Shi‘a, denying its reasoning on the one hand, and highlighting the blessings of the Sunna on the other. The Sunni Abbasid judge Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-Baqlani (d. 403/1012) who was in office during the reign of the Abbasid Caliph al-Qadir wrote an essay named Kashf al-Asrar wa-hatk al-Astar. In it he responds to the challenges posed by the Ismā‘iliyya, discloses the secrets of its philosophy and portrays it in a negative light. [36]

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/ 1111) was an illustrious sheikh. Some of his works deal with the revival of the Sunna and the defamation of the various Shi‘i factions. Among his major works in this context we find Ihyā’ ‘Ulum al-Din, Al-Munqiz min al-Dalal, Al-Qistas al-Mustaqim, and Hujjat al-Haqq. Another essay, which dealt directly with the Ismā‘iliyya and the denial of its claims was Fadā’ih al-Bātiniyya wa-Fada’il al-Mustazhiriyya. In this work, al-Ghazali draws a comparison between the Fatimid Shi‘a, which he depicts in grim outlines, and the blessings of the Sunni regime of the Abbasid Caliph al-Mustazhir. [37]

The da‘wa competition also motivated the construction of religious educational institutions, which serviced the orthodox schools of Islam. The Seljuq vizier Nizam al-Mulk is considered the first to establish a system of religious institutions, which was known by his name, al-Nizamiyya, and was supported by waqf endowments made by senior officials. Nizam al-Mulk himself also wrote a book, named Siyasat-Nameh, in which he expounds on the Sunni religious sciences and refutes the innovations and the Shi‘i movements, the theologians (al-Mutakallimun), the philosophers, the Sufis and the Isma‘ilis (al-Batiniyya). Nizam al Mulk’s negative attitude towards the Ismā‘iliyya, is probably what induced its adherents to plot his assassination in 485/1092.

It is clear that historians, Sunni ‘ulama and Abbasid officials had constantly attempted, in various ways, to harm the Fatimids, to create a negative image of their dynasty and to delegitimize their claim to the caliphate….Several historians intentionally diminished the importance or caliber of the Fatimid rulers in Egypt, assigning them titles that were irrelevant to their status such

The Seljuq domination of Syria enabled their masters (the Zangids) to initiate revivalist operations in the region both by concentrating actions against the Ismā‘iliyya and by erecting educational institutions to service the Sunna, emulating the al-Nizamiyya madrasa in Iraq. By the end of the Zangid period (569/1173) there were 27 institutions in Damascus and 19 in Aleppo, among them centers for religious higher education including madrasas, ribāts and zawiyas. The beginning of the 6th/12th century saw an escalation in the struggles between the Sunnis and the Isma‘ilis within Syria, especially after the death of the ruler of Aleppo, Radwan bin Taj al-Dawla Tutu¡ (d. 507/1113). The ensuing uprisings took the lives of many Isma‘ilis. The rest fled to the Lebanon and Nasiriyya mountains. The most crucial period for the victory of the Sunna in Syria was that of Sultan Nur al-Din Mahmud ibn Zangi, who worked persistently in all possible ways for its revival.

It is clear that historians, Sunni ‘ulama and Abbasid officials had constantly attempted, in various ways, to harm the Fatimids, to create a negative image of their dynasty and to delegitimize their claim to the caliphate. Several historians intentionally diminished the importance or caliber of the Fatimid rulers in Egypt, assigning them titles that were irrelevant to their status such as: the emirs of Egypt (Umara’ Misr); the rulers of Egypt (Ashab Misr); the caliphs of Egypt (al-Khulafa’ al-Misriyyun). [38] Others used the title of al-Khulafa’ al-‘Ubaydiyyun instead of al-Fatimiyyun. [39]

We find even more negative images being used by historians and Sunni ‘ulama who were under the influence of the Abbasid propaganda or that of the rulers in Syria and Egypt after the abolition of the Fatimid regime. For example, the Syrian historian of the Ayyubids Ibn Wasil al-Hamawi, in his essay Mufarij al-Kurub fi Ahkbdr Bani Ayyub (a work dedicated to the history of the Ayyubids and their qualities), emphasizes the negative image of the Fatimids. He denies their alleged ancestry to ‘Ali and Fatima and even ascribes them Jewish origins. As previously mentioned, there were historians who even referred to the Fatimids as heretics, and made use of such titles as al-Malahida, al-Majjus , Hizb al-Shayatin, al-Bātiniyya, al-Rafida and so on. These historians accused the Isma‘ili da‘wa of being fallacious and untruthful, of calling to heresy and of giving birth to superstitions (da‘wat al-ilhad, al-kufr wal-bid‘a). [40]

In a propagandist act, following the abolition of the Fatimid caliphate in 567/1171, Sultan Nur al-Din ibn Zangi sent his judge, Shihab al-Din ibn Abi ‘Asrun to the court of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad with messages from the sultan, to spread the news of the Fatimid downfall throughout Iraq. The Abbasid caliph showed his satisfaction and appreciation by sending presents, grants and blessings to the rulers of Syria and Egypt, Nur al-Din Zangi and Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi. He also sent black pennants and other Abbasid symbols to be distributed among the ‘ulama and mosque preachers in Syria and Egypt, as an indication of the enforcement of the Abbasid rule and of the Fatimid defeat. [41]


In the same manner as the Isma‘ili da‘wa fulfilled a central role in the rising of the Fatimids to political power and their proliferation during the first Fatimid period, so were the Fatimid politics the main reason behind their downfall. Contradictions with the basic principles of the Isma‘ili doctrine regarding the inheritance of the Imamate and the differences in educational background and opinions among the missionaries gave  birth to bitter schisms within the Fatimid dynasty, schisms which were also reflected in the Isma‘ili da‘wa and doctrine. These rendered the Fatimid Isma‘ili regime vulnerable to enemies from within and without. And since the Fatimid authority in Egypt remained the weakest and most moderate stream of Isma‘iliyya, particularly during the second Fatimid period, it lost many of its political powers together with its religious and doctrinarian characteristics.

Date article posted on Simerg: February 9, 2011

Copyright: Dr. Hatim Mahamid


Dr. Hatim Mahamid

About the author: Dr. Hatim Mahamid received his Ph.D from Tel Aviv University in 2001, where he specialized in the history of medieval Islam, from Fatimid to Late Mamluk Egypt and Syria.  He has published numerous articles in journals such The Journal of Islamic Studies, Islamic Quarterly and Annales islamologiques, and contributed to three critical anthologies as well as presented papers at numerous conferences. His book Al-Tatawwurat fi Nizam al-Hukm wal-Idara fi Misr al-Fatimiyya was published in Jerusalem in 2001, and his book Dirasat fi Tarikh al-Quds al-Thaqafi fi al-‘Asr al-Wasit was Published in Amman in 2009. He currently lectures in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Ben Gurion University and The Open University.

Editor’s Notes: This article has been adapted from Nebula, September 2006 (3-2-3), with the kind permission of Professor Samar Habib, the editor of the on-line journal, as well as the author, Dr. Hatim Mahamid, who holds the copyright of the article.

Readers are advised to note that certain diacritical marks for the English transliterated Arabic words and names have been omitted in this adaptation. As well, we have left out some transliterated names and words. However, we invite readers to avail themselves of this essay in its original PDF format by clicking Nebula3.2-3.3, September 2006

Nebula is an intriguing and a highly sophisticated on-line journal of multidisciplinary scholarship. When visiting the Web site, please also review the Nebula archives, which date back to the first issue published in June 2004.



[1] See, Heinz Halm, The Fatimid and their Traditions of Learning, (London, 1997), pp. 30-40.

[2] On the Isma‘ili doctrine and the organization of the da‘wa see, Farhad Daftary, The Isma`ilis: Their History and Doctrines, (Cambridge, 1990); Bernard Lewis, The Origins of Isma’ilism, (Cambridge, 1940); Wladimir Ivanow, “The Organization of the Fatimid Propaganda”, Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. 15, (1939). pp. 1-35; Mustafa Ghalib, Tarih al-da‘wa al-Isma‘iliyya, (Beirut, 1965).

[3] The appointment sijill was issued on Safar 389/February 999; Abu al-‘Abbas Ahmad al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A’sha fi Sina‘at al-Insha, (10), (Muhammad Qandil al-Baqli ed.), (Cairo, 1972), 384-388.

[4] The secrecy of the Isma‘ili da‘wa makes it difficult to trace its exact phases of organization. Regarding the Da‘i al-Du‘at and the arrangement of its office and activities within the Fatimid palace see, Taqiy al-Din al-Maqrizi, Al-Hitat, (2), (Cairo, Bullaq Pub., 1970), p. 227; Ibn al-Furat, Tarih Ibn al-Furat, (4), (Hasan Muhammad al-Shamma‘ ed.), (Basra, 1967), pp. 139-140. See also, Mustafa Ghalib, Tarikh al-da‘wa…; ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Majid, Nuzum al-Fatimiyyin wa-Rusumuhum fi Misr, (1), (Cairo, 1985), p. 185; Marshal G. S. Hodgson, The Order of Assassins, (New York, 1955); A. Hamadani, “The Da’i Hātim ibn Ibrāhim al-Hamidi (d. 596 H. / 1199 A.D.) and his Book Tuhfat al- Qulub”, in Oriens, vol. 23-24. (1974), pp. 258 – 300; Bernard Lewis, The Origins…; Ivanow, “The Organization of the Fatimid Propaganda”.

[5] See the promissory letter (aman) distributed by the Fatimid commander Jawhar al-Siqilli during the conquering of Egypt, Taqiy al-Din al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az al-Hunafa bi-Ahbar al-A’imma al-Fatimiyyin al-Hulafā, (1), (Jamal al-Din al-Shayyal ed.), (Cairo, 1967), 103-106. Also regarding the Fatimid government and administration in Egypt see, Yaacov Lev, State and Society in Fatimid Egypt, (Leiden, 1991). Yaacov Lev, “The Fatimid Vizier Ya‘qub ibn Killis and the Beginning of the Fatimid Administration in Egypt”, in Der Islam (58), (1981), pp. 237-249. Jacob Mann, The Jews in Egypt and in Palestine under the Fatimid Caliphs, (1-2), (New York, 1970). See also, Hatim Mahamid, al-Tatawwurat fi Nizam al-Hukm wal-Idara fi Misr al-Fatimiyya, (Al-Quds, 2001).

[6] See Ibn Hagar al-‘Asqalani, Raf‘ al-Asar ‘an Qudat Misr (part of an essay by al-Kindi abu ‘Umar Muhammad ibn Yusuf, Kitab al-Wulat wa Kitab al-Qudat) (R. Guest ed.) (Leiden, 1912), pp. 585-589; Abu Bakr bin ‘Abdallāh ibn al-Dawadari, Kanz al-Durar wa-Jami‘ al-Gurar, (6), (Salah al-Din al-Munaggid ed.), (Cairo, 1961), p. 174; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (1), p. 223.

The Banu al-Nu‘man [the house of Nu’man] continued to hold judiciary positions after their father’s death. The patriarch al-Nu‘man ibn Hayyun served under the Fatimids in North Africa and is considered the founder of the Isma‘ili law and one of the most prominent Isma‘ili doctrinarians of the Fatimid dynasty. He died in Egypt in 363/973 after arriving there with the Caliph al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allāh. The last of the judges from among the Banu al-Nu‘mans was al-Qasim bin al-Nu‘man. He was dismissed in 441/1049 and replaced by Abu Muhammad al-Yazuri, who also served as vizier under Caliph al-Mustansir. See also, Shams al-Din ibn Hallikan, Wafayat al-A‘yan, (5), (Ihsan ‘Abbas ed.), (Beirut, 1968), p. 415.

[7] The Abbasids too had a similar official in the service of their religious propaganda (da‘wa). His title was known in the Shi‘a as Hujja or Hajib. During the Fatimid period this function was known as Da‘i al-Du‘at, see: Al-Maqrizi, Hitat, (2), p. 226.

[8] See, Ibid, (1), p. 391.

[9] Ibid, (2), p. 326. Part of the lessons and sermons held in the Fatimid palace during the reign of Caliph al-Mustansir were known and published under the name of al-Majalis al-Mustansiriyya. See, Tiqat al-Imam ‘Alam al-Din (al-Da‘i), al-Majalis al-Mustansiriyya, (Kamāl Husayn ed.), (Cairo, 1947). The chief da‘i under al-Mustansir, Al-Muayyad fi al-Din al-Shirazi, also held numerous preaching and da‘wa sessions for the Ismā‘iliyya, known as al-Majalis al-Muayyadiyya. See also, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Mājid, “al-Ta‘lim ‘ind al-Fātimiyyin”, in Al-Tarbiya al-‘Arabiyya al-Islamiyya, (1), (Amman, 1989), pp. 265-266.

[10] See, H. Halm, p. 41.

[11] Al-Azhar was established in Cairo as a mosque and educational institution for the Fatimids. On the educational procedures in al-Azhar see, al-Maqrizi, Hitat…, (2), p. 226; ibid, (4), pp. 49-55, 192. See also, Muhammad ‘Abdallāh ‘Anan, Tārih al-Jāmi‘ al-Azhar, (Cairo, 1942).

[12] On the biography of Ya‘qub ibn Killis see, Ibn Hallikan, (7), pp. 27-35; Ibn al-Sayrafi, al-Ishara ila man Nal al-Wizarah, (Abdallāh Muhlis ed.), (Cairo 2000), p. 21; Yaakov Lev, “The Fatimid Vizier…”, pp. 237-249. On the role played by ibn Killis in the educational organization and implementation at al-Azhar mosque see, ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Mājid, “al-Ta‘lim ‘ind al-Fatimiyyin”, pp. 268-270.

[13] See, al-Maqrizi, Hitat…, (2), p. 334-335, 356. On the organization and activity of the Dar al-‘Ilm in Cairo see, ibid (2), p. 254; ibid, (4), p. 49; Yusuf al-‘Ish, Dur al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyya al-‘Amma wa-Shibh al-‘Amma li-Bilad al-‘Iraq wal-Sham wa-Misr fi al-‘Asr al-Wasit, (Beirut, 1991), pp. 104-127; ‘Anan, Tārih al-Jāmi‘ al-Azhar, 49-59; H. Halm, pp. 71- 78.

[14] On the lessons (Majalis al-Da‘wa) at the Fatimid palace see, Hitat…, (2), pp. 222; 324-326; ibid, (4), p. 158.

[15] Ibid, (2), p. 334-335; Yusuf al-‘Ish, pp. 110-113, 127.

[16] ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Mājid, Tārih al-Hadara al-Islamiyya fi al-‘Usur al-Wusta, (Cairo, 1985), p. 164. Although this number is uncertain, it indicates the vast prevalence of this type of institution during the Fatimid period.

[17] On al-Hakim’s waqfiyya for these institutions see, Muhammad ‘Abdallāh ‘Anan, Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allāh wa-Asrar al-Da‘wa al-Fatimiyya, (Cairo, 1959), 390-393; ‘Anan, Tārih al-Jāmi‘ al-Azhar, 160-164.

[18] On the Fatimid libraries see, Al-Maqrizi, Hitat…, (2), pp. 253-254.

[19] Abu al-Fadl Muhammad ibn al-Shahna, Al-Durr al-Muntahab fi Tārih Mamlakat Halab, (Damascus, 1984), p. 35; Yusuf al-‘Ish, p. 163.

[20] On the educational and da‘wa functions of the library of Sayf al-Dawla al Hamdani see, Yusuf al-‘Ish, pp. 159-160.

[21] Ibn al-Shahna, pp. 109-110.

[22] Muhammad bin Ahmad ibn Jubayr, Rihlat ibn Jubayr, (Beirut, 1984), p. 252.

Nasir Khusraw, too, claimed before him in his travel accounts in the area in 1047-1050, that the Shi‘a was majority in some of the Syrian cities. See, N. Khusraw, Safar-Nāmah, (Yahya al-Ha¡¡ab ed.), (Cairo, 1970), pp. 48, 50, 53.

[23] See the biography of vizier al-Yazuri, Ibn al-Sayrafi, pp. 42-47; Taqiy al-Din al-Maqrizi, Al-Muqaffā al-Kabir, (3), (Muhammad al-Ya‘lawi ed.), (Beirut, 1991), pp. 366-408; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (2), pp. 236-247; Muhammad bin ‘Ali ibn Muyassar, Ahbar Misr, (Ayman Fu’ad Sayyid ed.), (Cairo, 1981), pp. 16-17; Hatim Mahamid, pp. 43-48, and see pp. 212-214 the excerpt from the manuscript by Ibn al-Jawzi, Mir’at al-Zaman, Paris manuscript, No. 1506, ff). 29-30, Arabe.

Biographies of administration functionaries in the Fatimid palace show that many among them originated in eastern lands and thus did not adhere initially to the Ismā‘iliyya. This is an indication of the extent of tolerance shown by the Fatimids towards ‘ulama, scholars and functionaries who belonged to different religious streams. See for example the biographies of numerous Fatimid viziers included in Ibn al-Sayrafi’s work, Al-Ishara ila man Nal al-Wazara. On the role played by the Jewish family Banu Tustar in the Fatimid service in Egypt see, Moshe Gil, Hatustarim: Hamishpaha Ve-hakat, (Tel Aviv, 1981), (in Hebrew).

[24] See the whole poem: Mustafa Ghalib, pp.195-198

[25] See, Ibn al-furat, (4), p. 154. On al-Hakim’s qualities see, Muhammad Ahmad al-Hatib, ‘Aqidat al-Duruz, (Amman, 1980), pp. 37-80; Abdallāh al-Amin, Dirāsat fi al-Firaq wal-Madahib al-Qadima al-Mu‘āsira, (Beirut, 1986), pp. 158-160.

[26] Mustafa Ghalib, pp. 224-227. On the growth of the Druzi faction after the death of Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allāh, and the Druzean belief system and da‘wa see, ‘Abdallāh al-Amin, pp. 142-162; Muhammad Ahmad al-Hatib, pp. 103-118.

[27] Ibn Muyassar, pp. 99-101; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (3), p. 87. See also, S. M. Stern, “ The Epistle…”, pp. 20-31. In this context see also the sijill (document) of the al-Hidaya al-Amiriyya, Al-Shayyal, pp. 205-230.

[28] Several versions exist regarding the existence of an heir to the Imam al-Amir. On the schism between the al-Hafiziyya and al-Tayyibiyya see, S. M. Stern, “The Succession…”, pp. 193-212.

[29] Ibn Muyassar, pp. 114-115; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (3), p. 142.

[30] Regarding the steps taken by the Emir Hasan against the Isma‘ili judges see, Ibn Zafir, Akhbar al-Duwal al-Munqati‘a, (Andrey Ferry ed.), (Cairo, 1972), p. 46; Ibn Al-Qalanisi, Dayl Tarih Dima¡q, (Amidrose, ed.), (Beirut, 1908), p. 242; Ibn Muyassar, p. 120; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (3), p. 151; Al-Maqrizi, Hitat…, (2), p. 318.

[31] Shihab al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman Abu Shama, Kitab al-Rawdatayn fi Ahbar al-Dawlatayn, al-Nuriyya wal-Salahiyya, (1), (Muhammad Hilmi and Muhammad Mustafa Ziyada eds.), (Cairo, 1965, p. 486; ‘Izz al-Din abu al-Hasan ibn al-Athir, Al-Kamil fi al-Tarih, (9), (Beirut, 1983), p. 110; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (3), p. 319; Abu al-Mahasin ibn Taghri Bardi, Al-Nujum al-Zahira fi Muluk Misr wal-Qahira, (5), (Cairo, 1935), p. 385; Jalal al-Din al-Suyyuti, Husn al-Muhadara fi Tari Misr wal-Qahira, (2), (Muhammad Abu al-Fadl Ibrahim ed.), (Cairo, 1967), pp. 5, 153.

[32] Abu Sama, (1), p. 488; Ibn al-Athir, (9), pp. 111-113; Al-Suyyuti, (2), p. 216; Al-Maqrizi, Itti‘az…, (3), p. 325; Ibn Taghri Bardi, (5), 355-356.

[33] Isma‘il bin ‘Umar Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidaya wal-Nihaya fi al-Tari, (11), (Aleppo, undated), pp. 321-322.

[34] On the assembly of the ‘ulama in Baghdad see, Ibn Muyassar, p. 13; Ibn Kathir (12), p. 70; Ibn al-Athir, (8), p. 64; Ibn Tajri Bardi, p. 53.

[35] Ibn Muyassar, p. 63.

[36] Ibn al-Athir, (11), p. 322.

[37] Ibn al-Furat, (4), p.155.

[38] See, Ibn al-Atir, (8), pp. 70, 72, 83. He refers to Caliph al-Mustansir by the title Sahib Misr (the Owner of Egypt/the Ruler of Egypt). Ibn Muyassar, 13, 63, refers to the Fatimid caliphs with the title al-Khulafa’ al-Misriyyun (the Caliphs of Egypt). Ibn Kathir names them Ashab Misr, Ashab Misr wal Sham (the Rulers of Egypt and Syria) and occasionally Muluk Misr (the Kings of Egypt). See Ibn Kathir, (11), pp. 314, 319, 321; ibid, (12), pp. 70, 286;.

[39] On these titles see, Ibn al-Furat, (4), pp. 151-172. Ibn Kathir also names them al-Khulafa’ al-‘Ubaydiyyun. See, Ibn Kathir, (11), pp. 314, 317, 319; Ibid, (12), pp.70, 286.

[40] Ibn al-Furat, (4), pp. 154, 155, 176-177. When describing the protocol issued by the Abbasid caliph and the ‘ulama in Baghdad to denounce the Fatimids and the Ismā‘iliyya, Ibn al-Athir refers to the Fatimids by such titles as Amgushids and Jews (al-Disaniyya min al-Majus wal-Qaddahiyya min al-Yahud…). Ibn al-Athir, (8), p. 64; See also, Ibn Kathir, (12), pp. 70, 289-290.

[41] See, Ibn al-Furat, (4), pp. 173-183.


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