The Socio-Economic Aspects of the Fatimid Caliphate

By Sadru K. Hassam

Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of an empire that included at its peak North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen and the Hejaz. Egypt flourished, and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade and diplomatic network and ties which extended all the way to China and its Song Dynasty. Map Credit: Wikipedia Commons


In order to simplify the understanding of the underlying socio-economic factors of the Fatimid Caliphate, this article will first examine separately the North African Period (909-969 A.C.) and then the Egyptian Period (969-1171 A.C.) in a chronological sequence. Each of these periods had its own set of socio-economic factors, the major being that the Fatimids were a Shiite minority ruling over the Sunni majority. Throughout the Fatimid period, the Sunni Abbasids were the main political rivals and during the North African period there was also a clash of interest in the Mediterranean trade with the Christian Byzantine Empire. Even though the Fatimid rule attempted to be fair to all most of the time, it did not seem so to the majority, especially in times of famine and economic hardship.


The first four Fatimid Imams, al-Mahdi, al-Qaim, al-Mansur and al-Muiz consolidated their rule in North Africa politically, economically and militarily. But Ismailism, a creed of the Fatimids, which was essentially religious and philosophical, could not be disassociated from political and social movements at the same time and since the Ismailis were in minority ruling the majority of the Sunnis who had been nominally under the Abbasids, they were bound to face opposition.

Socio-Political Problems

In North Africa, the political and religious opposition came mainly from Sunnism which itself was weakened by the split between Malikism and Kharidjism especially in its Ibadi and Sufri forms. The other opposition came from the Berbers. There were two main rival groups, the Zenata in the West and the Sanhadja in the East. The latter included the Kutama, who initially had supported the Fatimids, but later on revolted, especially after the execution of Dai Abu Abdulla al-Shii for high treason. The first years of the Fatimid rule in North Africa were therefore spent in overcoming these opponents and consolidating their rule.

In theory all the lands in North Africa were supposed to be nominally under the Abbasids, but in reality the Muslim dynasties like the Aghlabids, whom the Fatimids had overthrown, the Idrisids of Fez in Morocco, the Umayyads of Spain and the dissident Kharidjites in North Africa were virtually independent. These became the closest rivals of the Fatimids, but were eventually overcome.

In the Mediterranean, there was a clash of interests in Genoa, Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia between the Christian Byzantine Empire and the expanding Fatimid Caliphate. After several encounters between the navies of the two contending empires, a peace treaty was signed in 967 A.C. between the Fatimids and the Byzantines. The Fatimids were also able to hold their own against all the other political opponents because of their powerful army and navy, but in order to sustain these, the state in North Africa had to have a strong economic base.

Economic Activities

When North Africa was conquered, it was in flourishing conditions mainly because of the development of town life. The northern strip of North Africa which has the Mediterranean type of climate is fertile. It was not agriculture alone that was the mainstay of the economy of North Africa, but the transit trade between Southern Europe and the Trans-Sahara trade that encouraged the growth of town life. For, to the Arabs and the Berbers, unlike to the Romans before them, the Sahara and the lands to the south were not terra incognita. In fact the Sahara was criss-crossed with several camel caravan routes which carried the trade between North Africa and the black Africa.[1] Gold, kola nuts and other tropical products from the grasslands of West Africa were exchanged for the goods from North Africa and Europe, and also for rock salt from the desert which was in short supply in these grasslands. It was through this trade that Islam had penetrated into these regions of Africa, where a number of African Kingdoms like Ghana, Mali, Songhay and Kanem-Bornu flourished until their decline after the European penetration of West Africa.

The Fatimids in North Africa benefited from the North African agriculture and local trade, as well as from this transit international trade with the ports of Southern Europe in the Mediterranean and the overland Trans-Saharan trade. North Africa for them then became a prosperous base for the conquest of Egypt, but they were successful only after they had consolidated their rule at home, extended their sway westwards to the Atlantic and had come to terms with the Byzantines by signing a peace treaty with them in 967 A.C. In 969 A.C. Gazi Jawhar, the Commander-in-Chief of the Fatimid forces, conquered Egypt from the Ikshidid rulers after making a two-pronged attack from the land and the sea. For the next two centuries Egypt came under the Shiite Fatimid rule.



The dinar used as currency was almost hundred percent pure gold, mainly because the Fatimid rulers came with great amount of gold from North Africa. The trans-Saharan trade routes had remained open to them and after the conquest of Egypt gold was also obtained from the Nubian mines. The purity of the gold dinar was one of the striking features of Egypt’s economy down to the end of the Fatimid rule

It should be remembered that three previous attempts to conquer Egypt had not been successful, but, as a result of these campaigns, the Fatimid forces gained much experience. This eastern policy of the conquest of Egypt was pursued by careful planning in the practical aspects and psychologically, by skilful propaganda. The internal chaos in Egypt, which was ravaged by famine also helped. The consolidation of the Fatimid rule in North Africa, their peace treaty with the Byzantine Empire and the effective generalship of Gazi Jawhar were the other factors which resulted in the conquest of Egypt.

Socio-Political Problems

The main problem in Egypt arose from the fact that the Fatimid dynasty was Shiite ruling over the majority of the Sunnis, who apparently did not really mind because, on the whole, the rule was fair and just, and there was no attempt to force Ismailism upon them. As soon as Egypt was conquered, the name of the Abbasid ruler was dropped in Friday khutba, but the mention of Fatimid name was introduced gradually, in order not to upset the Sunni sentiments.

Under the Fatimids, the Christians and Jews, known as dhimmis in Islam, were relatively better off, for they could be promoted to the highest posts in the Empire. Merit and ability, rather than religion, were the criteria for selecting one for high office, but at times this tolerance towards the dhimmis was not looked on with favour by the Sunnis.

The other social problems were the result of racial rivalries especially in the army among the Berbers (Maghribi), the Turks, the Daylamis (Masharika), the Armenians and the Sudanese. These men, introduced into the Caliphate as praetorian guards for the Caliphs at different times, later on became undisciplined, unruly and jealous of each other. Sometimes they stirred rebellions into the streets and were powerful enough to cause the downfall of ministers. They were one main reason why the Caliphs, after the wafat of Imam Mustansirbillah, became ineffective rulers.

There was also a class struggle between the prosperous bourgeois classes and the distressed working masses which had an outlet in various political movements, civil disobedience, revolts and civil war. The bourgeoisie always sided with the caliphal government, but the other classes opposed it especially in Syria, which had suffered from the shift of trade routes. Syria’s silk industry declined and there was much unemployment and great discontent. Revolutionary movements of the lower classes allied itself with the Bedouin revolts in Palestine, which had to be suppressed, but by 1092 A.C. the Fatimids lost their control over Syria which, with Palestine, was divided among the different Bedouin chiefs. [2]

Students of Islamic history more or less agree that the Fatimid regime conducted what may be loosely termed a liberal economy policy, and that the rulers of 10th-12th century Egypt intervened in the Egyptian economy to a minimum degree. Goitein, maintaining that the Fatimid period “was one of relative tolerance and liberalism, if compared with the preceding and, in particular, the following periods,” also stresses the “comparatively little interference by the [Fatimid] governments in the trade of their subjects.” Ashtor tells us that “a striking feature of the Fatimid regime was freedom of enterprise,” and that “all sectors of the economic life were free – crafts, industry and trade.” Staffa asserts that “the [Fatimid] government made no attempt to impose strict control over the economy…[3]

In the middle of the eleventh century in the reign of Hazrat Imam Mustansirbillah, the flourishing period of the Fatimid caliphate ended. Apart from the constant fighting between the Turkish and Sudanese troops, the country suffered a terrible famine, caused by a low Nile which lasted for seven years from 1066 to 1072 A.C. This brought about an economic and social catastrophe. For, during these long years of famine and civil wars, many peasants left their villages and went to live in the towns. This crisis was a turning point in the demographic history of Egypt. Depopulation became the most important phenomenon in Egypt’s social history.

Despite these socio-political problems, famines, disturbances and rebellions, Fatimid Egypt, on the whole, enjoyed prosperity in general because of good administration and sound financial apparatus. The picture will become more balanced if we look at the multifarious economic activities during the whole of this period.

Economic Activities

The prosperity which the Fatimids enjoyed in North Africa and the experience of sixty years of rule there helped the Fatimids to be in a strong position in Egypt. Despite the economic hardship in the last days of the Ikshidid rule in Egypt, the country, as a whole, had greatly prospered since the times of the Tulunids. Unlike the Abbasids, the Tulunids did not allow the produce of Egypt to contribute to the prosperity of peoples elsewhere. In other words, the Egyptains themselves profited from their own labour and this gave a great boost to the agriculture of Egypt. [4] Then, for a short period, the country reverted to Abbasid rule, but the Ikshidids established themselves as a semi-autonomous dynasty until they were overthrown by the Fatimids.

The revenue for the Fatimid Caliphate was derived from customs dues, trade and taxes. The dinar used as currency was almost hundred percent pure gold, mainly because the Fatimid rulers came with great amount of gold from North Africa. The trans-Saharan trade routes had remained open to them and after the conquest of Egypt gold was also obtained from the Nubian mines. The purity of the gold dinar was one of the striking features of Egypt’s economy down to the end of the Fatimid rule. [5]

In order to pay for the expenses of the government administration, the army and the institutions of learning, the Fatimids had to increase the taxes levied by their predecessors and to impose new ones. The finances were managed mostly by the Christian Copts. The Fatimids farmed out the land-tax and the other taxes against a fixed sum. Any surplus revenue obtained was the profit of the tax farmers . Ikta (estates) were granted to any private undertakers by public auction against a sum comprising the rent and the taxes. These estates were allotted for four years.

The Fatimids established a vast network of trade and commerce, with Egypt as the focal point of trading activities that extended as far as Spain in the west and India in the east (and beyond the Muslim regions as well). Describing the markets in Fatimid Cairo, Nasir Khusraw writes:

“I estimated that there were no less than twenty thousand shops in Cairo… Every sort of rare goods from all over the world can be had there: I saw tortoise-shell implements such as small boxes, knife handles, and so on. I also saw extremely fine crystal, which the master craftsmen etch most beautifully… I saw the following fruits and herbs, all in one day: red roses, lilies, narcissus, oranges, citrons, limes and other citrus fruits, apples, jasmine, basil, quince, pomegranates, pears, melons of various sorts, bananas, olives, myrobalan, fresh dates, grapes, sugarcane, eggplants, fresh squash, turnips, radishes, cabbage, fresh beans, cucumbers, green onions, fresh garlic, carrots, and beets… In Old Cairo they make all types of porcelain, so fine and translucent that you can see your hand behind it when held up to the light. From this porcelain they make cups, bowls, plates, and so forth…They also produce a glass so pure and flawless that it resembles chrysolite, and it is sold by weight.” [6]

This remarkable economic vitality led to the development of complex administrative and financial systems comprising a number of diwans, ministries or departments, including the diwan al-insha’ (the chancery of state), and the diwan al-amwal (ministry of finance).

Agriculture has always been important for Egypt. Egypt is the gift of the Nile without which Egypt could become part of the Sahara desert. River Nile enriches the soil and sustains agriculture in the Nile valley and the Nile delta. During the Fatimid period numerous crops like wheat, barley and a variety of vegetables were cultivated. Wheat was not sufficient and had to be imported. The chief industrial crops were flax, sugar-cane, dye-plants, animal-fodder and, to a lesser degree, cotton. The production of soft-wood was inadequate for ship-building and had to be imported from Venice.

There were times when the river failed to rise enough. At such times dams and canals were neglected and thus agricultural production suffered. Severe draughts, in the reign of Hazrat Imam Mustansirbillah, led to widespread famines which resulted in the depopulation of the countryside.

“A striking feature of the Fatimid regime was the freedom of enterprise. All sectors of economic life were free-crafts, industry and trade. The government interfered in the trade in victuals only so far as it had to in order to guarantee the supply of wheat to the big towns”. [7] This freedom of enterprise encouraged industry and trade, both internal and external.

Weaving was encouraged by the cultivation of flax. Silk was manufactured in Cairo. This led to the decline of the Syrian silk industry which led to the unemployment of many people in Syria who then took part in the revolts there. As mentioned earlier, local wood was not sufficient and had to be imported from Venice for shipbuilding, for Egypt has always been short of wood. In the Pharaonic period wood had to be imported from the highlands of Lebanon.

Fatimid Ivory Panels

The Fatimid period is famous for its glass and crystals. Glass industry flourished in Fustat and Alexandria. Pottery, ceramics and mosaic were also manufactured in Egypt. Metal work, iron and copper-making were the other industrial activities. Work in ivory and leather were the main craft industries. Oil was extracted from vegetable and sugar from sugar-cane. Both these were also refined.

Industry also benefited from the pomp of the Fatimid court and by the liberal distribution of gifts and garments. Paper-making and work in leather was encouraged by the need for manuscripts and writing paper in the institutions of learning like the Al-Azhar and Dar-al-Hikma. In his Safarnama, Nasir Khusraw mentions about the luxury industries which flourished.

The ‘guilds’, the development of which the Fatimids encouraged, not only improved the quality of the goods produced, but also to some extent improved the industrial relations between the owners and the workers. The lowest paid workers, however, were not happy with their wages and in times of famines and disturbances they used to join the riots. The inflation caused mainly due to the influx of gold, hit the working classes much more whilst the bourgeois classes profited from it.

Trade, both internal and external, thrived. The Fatimids carried on commercial relations with many countries. There was no discriminatory tariffs against Christians and Jews. Both these communities were active in trade. The Geniza documents further testify that the Jews were active in trade.

In the Mediterranean, the sea-borne trade was carried on with Constantinople, Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, Venice, Sicily, North Africa and Spain. There was also much trade with Nubia, Sudan and West Africa. These countries bought spices, cloth and other Egyptian products and sold commodities which Egypt lacked e.g. wheat, iron, wood, silk, wool and cheese

External trade with India was carried on via the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea in merchant ships. In fact, the Red Sea supplanted the Persian Gulf as the main trade route from India to the Mediterranean. This shift of sea-trade route, the control of the Hejaz – Yemen land-route, the establishment of two states in Multan and Mansura in India and the establishment of the Alamut State in the last quarter of the eleventh century may have forced the Abbasid Caliphate into economic doldrums. [8]

From the above detailed examination of the socio-economic factors in the Fatimid Caliphate, we may conclude that it was the economic strength of the empire that enabled the Fatimids to pay for the intellectual, artistic and cultural achievements and also sustain the socio-political problems and the natural disasters. This economic strength also enabled them not only to challenge the Abbasids, but also weaken them economically. This strength combined with the liberal philosophy also enabled the Fatimid Caliphate not only to rule Egypt for nearly two hundred years after the conquest, but also usher in the most glorious period in Egypt’s long history.



[1] A Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages by E. Ashtor, Collins (1976), pp. 80-83

[2] ibid, pp. 202-207

[3] Quote on Fatimid Economy excerpted from “Fatimid Grain Policy and the Post of the Muhtasib” by Boaz Shoshan published in the International Journal of Middle East Studies, May 1981, Volume 13, Number 2, pages 181-189

[4] A Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages by E. Ashtor, Collins (1976), pp. 126-131

[5] ibid, pp. 192-195

[6] Description  of the Cairo market excerpted from Nasir Khusraw’s Safarnama (Book of Travels).

[7] A Social and Economic History of the Near East in the Middle Ages by E. Ashtor, Collins (1976), pp. 183

 [8] An Interpretation of Fatimid History by Bernard Lewis, see Colloque International sur l’Histoire du Caire published by the Ministry of Culture of the Arab Republic of Egypt.

Recommended Reading:

1. Fatimids by M. Canard, see The Encyclopaedia of Islam,  Vol II, pp. 850-862

2. The Nature of Fatimid Achievement by Gustav E. Von Grunebaum, see Colloque International sur l’Histoire du Caire.


Article adapted from “The Socio-Economic Aspects of the Fatimid Caliphate” by Sadru K. Hassam, published in Ilm, Volume 8, Numbers 2 and 3 (December 1982 – February 1983).  

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