• Home
  • Islam
  • The Fatimids and the Institutionalization of Sunni-Shi’ah Conflicts (Part One)

The Fatimids and the Institutionalization of Sunni-Shi’ah Conflicts (Part One)

The Shi’ah Fatimids were a major Isma’ili Shi’ah dynasty. They founded their own caliphate, in rivalry with the ‘Abbasids, and ruled over different parts of the Islamic world, from North Africa and Sicily to Palestine and Syria. The Fatimid period was also the golden age of Isma’ili thought and literature. Established in 297 AH /909 CE in Ifriqiyah (today’s Tunisia, Western Libya and Eastern Algeria), the seat of the Fatimids was later transferred to Egypt in 362 AH /972 CE, and the dynasty was finally overthrown by Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (Saladin) (d. 590 AH /1193 CE) in 567 AH /1171 CE, when the fourteenth and last Fatimid caliph, al-‘Adid li Dinillah (d. 567 AH /1171 CE), lay dying in Cairo.[1]

The Isma’ilis came into being after the death of Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq (d. 148 AH/ 765 CE), the sixth Shi’i imam. Ja?far’s eldest son, Isma’il (d. 158 AH/ 774 CE) was accepted as his successor only by a minority, who became known as the Isma’ilis. Those who accepted Ja?far’s younger son, Musa b. Ja’far al-Kazim (d. 183 AH/ 799 CE), as the seventh Imam and acknowledged his successors through the 12th Imam became known as Ithna ?Ashariyyah (Twelvers), the largest and most conservative of the Shi’i sects. Certain of the Isma’ilis (known as Waqifiyah, or Stoppers) believed Isma’il to have been the seventh and last Imam and were designated as Seveners (Sab’iyah), while the majority of the Isma’ilis believed the imamate continued in the line of the Fatimid caliphs. However, the term Seveners, in some circles, is applied to all the adherents of Isma’iliyyah.[2] The time between the seventh Imam and the emergence of the first Fatimid Imam and caliph, by and large, is shrouded in a myriad of mysteries and controversies. As a result, several Isma’ili sub-sects were formed and got separated from the Isma’ili mainstream. The time in question -- a period of more than a hundred years -- is marked by the likelihood of an interim occultation which was followed by the intensive Isma’ili da’wah or a secret religio-political movement designated as al-da’wah al-hadiyah (the rightly guiding mission).[3] The Isma’ili or Fatimid da’wah or mission culminated in Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah (d. 323 AH /934 CE), the fourth da’i or missionary of the Isma’ili mission, openly declaring himself as Imam and the first Fatimid caliph.

At first, Isma’ili missionaries became established in many parts of the Islamic state, preaching a doctrine of revolution against the Sunni order and the ‘Abbasid state. After a number of unsuccessful risings, the Isma’ilis were able to establish a firm base in Yemen. From there they sent emissaries to North Africa, where they achieved their greatest success. By 297 AH /909 CE they were strong enough for their Imam, who had been in hiding, to emerge and proclaim himself caliph, with the messianic title of mahdi (the divinely guided one). This marked the beginning of a new state and dynasty, the Fatimid state and dynasty. For the first half-century the Fatimid caliphs ruled only in North Africa and Sicily, where they had to deal with many problems. Most of their subjects were Sunnis of the Maliki school; others -- a substantial minority -- were the Khawarij. Neither group was well disposed toward the Isma’ili doctrines of the new rulers, and they offered stubborn resistance to them.[4]

From North Africa, the Fatimids aimed to expand to the East. In 359 AH /969 CE, they conquered the Nile Valley and advanced across Sinai into Palestine and southern Syria. In the process, the city of Cairo, which became the capital and, at the same time, a symbol of the Fatimid triumphs and presence, was built. Hence the name Cairo, or al-Qahirah in Arabic, was given, which means “the Vanquisher”. Naser Khosraw (d. 481 AH/ 1088 CE), a famed 5th AH / 11th CE century traveler from Iran who visited Cairo, commented that the city was so called because the Fatimid army had gained victory there.[5] Also, for the same reasons, as part of the nascent Cairo urbanization scheme, building the mosque of al-Azhar as a focal point of the city was commissioned. The meaning of the mosque’s name is “the mosque of the most dazzling”. Customarily, moreover, the mosque’s name is thought to allude to the Prophet’s daughter Fatimah (d. 11 AH/ 632 CE) who was given the title al-Zahra’ “the shining one” to show Muslims’ admiration of her moral and physical characteristics. However, this was seen as a desperate attempt by the Fatimids to enhance and authenticate their claims that they were genuine descendents of Fatimah, something which remained highly controversial[6] until today. That was likewise meant to symbolize the chief spiritual objective of the Fatimid existence and mission, that is to say, illuminating the right path to the people and safely guiding them towards, and on, it.

Isma’ili doctrine stressed the dual nature of Qur’anic interpretation, exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin), and made a distinction between the ordinary Muslim and the initiated Isma’ili. The secret wisdom of the Isma’ilis was accessible only through a hierarchical organization headed by the Imam and was disseminated by da’is (missionaries), who introduced believers into the elite through carefully graded levels.[7] In addition, the Isma’ilis share with the rest of their Shi’ah brethren some of the most fundamental Shi’i teachings and principles. For example, they all share “the belief in the permanent need of mankind for a divinely guided, sinless and infallible Imam, who, after the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), would act as the authoritative teacher and guide of men in all their spiritual affairs. This Imam was entitled to temporal leadership as much as to religious authority; his mandate, however, did not depend on his actual rule. The doctrine further taught that the Prophet himself had designated his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, who was married to the Prophet's daughter Fatimah, as his successor under divine command; and that the imamate was to be transmitted from father to son among the descendants of ‘Ali and Fatimah, through their son Husayn until the end of time. This ‘Alid Imam was in possession of a special knowledge or ‘ilm and had perfect understanding of the exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin) meanings of the Qur’an and the commandments and prohibitions of the Shari’ah or the sacred law of Islam. Recognition of this Imam, the sole legitimate Imam at any time, and obedience to him were made the absolute duties of every believer.”[8]

The Fa?imid rulers pursued their aim of establishing the universal Isma’ili imamate. The Fatimid caliphate was a regime at once imperial and revolutionary. At home, the caliph was a sovereign, governing a vast empire and seeking to expand it by normal military and political means. Its heart was Egypt; its provinces at its peak included North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Syria, Palestine, Yemen and Hijaz, with the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Control of these was of immense value to a Muslim ruler, conferring great religious prestige and enabling him to exploit the annual pilgrimage to his advantage.[9] Furthermore, the Fatimids ruled their imperial domain as both caliphs and as, more importantly, Imams in the full Shi’i sense of that term which made them the supreme authority in all religious as well as secular affairs. For the Isma’ilis “the reigning Imam had a status equivalent to that of the Prophet (pbuh), except that he did not receive revelation from God. In all other respects the Fatimid rulers were the divinely ordained successors of the Prophet (pbuh), heirs thus to the full extent of his sanctity and sacral authority. Isma’ili doctrine was thus intimately bound up in the progress of Fatimid government.”[10] Accordingly, as an illustration, in the first cities thoroughly controlled by the Isma’ilis in North Africa, such as Qayrawan and Raqqadah, the first Fatimid Imam and caliph, Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, issued a decree, ordering it to be invoked from the pulpits of mosques. He prescribed invocation of blessings upon himself after the invocation of blessings of God upon the Prophet (pbuh), ‘Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, Husayn and the Imams from his posterity. This same tradition continued with all the Fatimid rulers throughout their tenures as Fatimid Imams and caliphs, and all over their vast domains.[11]

The Fatimids existed in what could be described as the twilight of the Islamic golden age. By the time they arrived at the Islamic religious, intellectual and civilizational scene, the Muslim world was in rapid decline. The matter was compounded and further exacerbated by the advent of the Shi’ah Buyids (323-447 AH /934-1055 CE) who controlled most of modern-day Iraq and Iran, including the city of Baghdad, the capital of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. The Buyids might have been at first the followers of the Zaydiyyah branch of Shi’ism, but later converted to the Ithna ?Ashariyyah (Twelvers) branch, as the idea of the occultation of the twelfth Imam appears to have been more suitable and more politically attractive to them.[12] Besides, they were not of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib’s descendents. They were a dynasty of Daylamite origin (today’s Gilan province in Iran along the Caspian Sea). Luckily for the rest of the Muslim world, especially Sunnis, the Isma’ili Fatimids and the Imami or Ithna ?Ashariyyah (Twelvers) Buyids were perennially at odds with each other, even confronting one another along the Syria-Hijaz-Yemen line. The Buyids regarded the Fatimids as agents of a hostile power. In their capacity as the Imami or Ithna ?Ashariyyah Shi’is, they also must have regarded the Isma’ili Fatimids as deviationists. According to Murtada Mutahhari, “the Isma’ilis are so-called Shi’is who believe in six Imams. But all the Twelve Imami Shi’i scholars are unanimous in the opinion that in spite of their belief in six Imams, the Isma’ilis stand at a greater distance from the Shi’i faith than the non-Shi’i sects. The Sunnis, who do not believe in any of the Imams in the same sense as the Shi’is do, nevertheless are nearer to the Shi’is than these ‘Six Imami Shi’is’. The Isma’ilis, on account of their batini (esoteric) beliefs and secretive practices have played a treacherous role in the history of Islam and have had a big hand in causing serious deviations in the realm of Islam.”[13]

The time when the Fatimid cause and mission reached their peak, was a time when much of the Muslim world was in disarray. It was an inter-state system with unstable components, fluid boundaries and powerful non-governmental, inter-state movements. The main religious groupings were not territorially defined.[14] Conceptually, too, much ambiguity still lingered pertaining to a host of issues and quandaries. Religious sectarianism was rampant. Each sect, or group, aspired to convert all the others to the “right path”.[15] Macro and collective unity, cooperation and brotherhood, consequently, were rather illusory. They were the matters of the past. The condition impeccably corresponded to the Qur’anic disclosure: “…Of those who have divided their religion and become sects, every faction rejoicing in what it has.” (Al-Rum, 32). Thus the Muslim Ummah was on the “right track” to reach the nadir of its existential turmoil. The stage was getting perfectly set for the occurrence of the most devastating events ever witnessed by Muslims, i.e., the Crusades during which Muslims lost Jerusalem to the invading Crusaders, precisely in 493 AH /1099 CE, and the subsequent loss of Baghdad as the capital city to the invading Mongols in 657 AH /1258 CE which spelled the end of the ‘Abbasid caliphate.

The Fatimids promised the masses that they will restore the leadership of Muslims to ahl al-bayt whose legitimate rights to leadership had been successively usurped by the Umayyads and the ‘Abbasids. The ‘Abbasids were especially targeted because at the time of the Isma’ili or Fatimid da’wah and throughout their subsequent existence as an independent state, they stood at the helm of the Muslim Sunni leadership, and also because the ‘Abbasids, while rising against and successfully overthrowing the Umayyads, made the same promises. They capitalized on the strong ahl al-bayt sentiment, thus attempting nothing but to garner wide public support for their own designs and plots. In the end, however, the ‘Abbasids let many people down, above all the Shi’ah and ahl al-bayt sympathizers, by deceiving them and manipulating their moral and material support.[16] Ultimately, the Isma’ili and Fatimid missionaries won an increasing number of converts among a multitude of discontented groups of diverse social backgrounds, such as landless peasantry and Bedouin tribesmen whose interests were set apart from those of the prospering urban classes. The missionaries also exploited regional grievances.[17] According to Farhad Daftary, therefore, “on the basis of a well-designed da’wah strategy, the da’is were initially more successful in nonurban milieus, removed from the administrative centers of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. This explains the early spread of Isma’ilism among rural inhabitants and Bedouin tribesmen of the Arab lands, notably in southern Iraq, eastern Arabia (Bahrayn) and Yemen. In contrast, in the Iranian lands, especially in the Jibal, Khorosan and Transoxania, the da’wah was primarily addressed to the ruling classes of the educated elite.”[18]

In due course, by acquiring political power and then transforming the embryonic Fatimid establishment into a flourishing empire, Isma’ilis presented their Shi’i challenge to ‘Abbasid hegemony and Sunni interpretation of Islam. “Isma’ilism, too, had now found its own place among the state-sponsored communities of interpretation in Islam. Henceforth, the Fatimid caliph-Imam could claim to act as the spiritual spokesman of Shi’i Islam in general, much like the ‘Abbasid caliph was the mouthpiece of Sunni Islam.”[19] The Fatimids aimed to extend their authority and rule not only over the entire Muslim Ummah, but also over the regions of the world inhabited and controlled by non-Muslims.[20] Hence, when supplicating after a Jumu’ah sermon for al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah (d. 365 AH /975 CE), the first Fatimid caliph-Imam who moved from Ifriqiyah to Egypt following the creation of Cairo, the prayer leader in the mosque of ‘Amr b. al-‘As in Egypt implored God to unite the whole Muslim Ummah in submission to the Fatimid caliph-Imam, whom he called in his supplication the rightly guided commander of the faithful (amir al-mu’minin). He also prayed for Muslims’ hearts to get united in their loyalty and devotion to the new ruler, and that God makes him inherit the easts and wests of the earth, just as He had promised in the Qur’an for His faithful servants.[21] This supplication was made in the presence of Jawhar al-Siqili (d. 382 AH /992 CE), the most important military leader in Fatimid history and the conqueror of Egypt and builder of Cairo. It was made in the mosque of ‘Amr b. al-‘As in 358 AH /968 CE, the year Jawhar al-Siqili arrived in Egypt as a conqueror and laid the foundation of Cairo, and about one year before building the mosque of al-Azhar commenced. The prayer leader read out the mentioned supplication from a label, which shows that the supplication was prepared earlier for him and he just had to read it out verbatim.[22]

In 362 AH/ 972 CE, the caliph-Imam al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah arrived in Egypt and stayed in a just-completed caliphal palace complex inside a just-completed walled city of Cairo.[23] At its peak, the Fatimid empire encompassed and supplications for its leaders, as well as for its Shi’i ancestors, were read across territories in North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Syria, Palestine, Yemen and Hijaz with the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. The Fatimid caliphs-Imams, therefore, used to prepare and send the covering (kiswah) for the Ka’bah in Makkah every year during the pilgrimage season (hajj). The caliph-Imam al-Mustansir Billah (d. 487 AH /1094 CE) did so twice a year.[24]

As soon as they arrived in the new territories, the Fatimids went about intensifying their propaganda against the ‘Abbasid rule. They doubled their efforts towards uprooting the ‘Abbasids and installing themselves as lawful leaders. Weakening and discrediting Sunnism, while enhancing and venerating Shi’ism, stood at the heart of the same plan. Thus, the goals, means and strategies of the Isma’ili da’wah (mission) took on some unprecedented moves which would have been unlikely were it not for the creation of the Isma’ili and Fatimid empire. As a result, as early as in 359 AH /969 CE in the mosques of Egypt as part of adhan (call for prayers), the words “come to the best of deeds”, as a symbol of Shi’ism in a area, were added.[25] That routine continued until the arrival of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (Saladin) in Egypt when the Fatimids were cast out, following which Sunnism and its jurisprudence and creed were officially reinstalled. Moreover, no sooner had he arrived and settled down in Cairo in 362 AH/ 972 CE, al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah wrote to Egypt’s religious leaders, acquainting them with a new Shi’i-Isma’ili creed as the future official state creed, that after the Prophet (pbuh), the best person was the commander of the faithful (amir al-mu’minin), ‘Ali b. Abi Talib.[26] In the same year, commemorating the anniversary of the Prophet’s alleged appointment of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib as his successor at Ghadir al-Khumm, took place for the first time in Egypt.[27] The following year, in 363 AH/ 973 CE, a major Shi’ah festival of public wailing and mourning on the anniversary of the death of Husayn, accompanied by collective visiting of Shi’ah tombs such as those of Nafisah bt. Hasan b. Zayd b. al-Hasan b. ‘Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 210 AH /825 CE) and Kulthum b. Muhammad b. Ja’far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq, was likewise observed, resulting in a chaos and skirmishes that involved a number of Shi’is and non-Shi’is.[28] However, according to Ibn Taghribirdi (d. 874 AH /1469 CE), publicly observing the anniversary of the death of Husayn, with all the formal rites and ceremonies that are normally associated with it, did not occur until the year 366 AH / 976 CE,[29] three years later than what al-Maqrizi (845 AH /1441 CE) in the earlier narrative has mentioned. Ibn Taghribirdi explicitly wrote that that was the first time when such abhorrent custom was held in Egypt, and it persisted until the demise of the Fatimid state.[30]

Nonetheless, it seems that the two masters of Egypt’s history did not contradict each other. What al-Maqrizi had in mind, in all probability, was the celebration of the said event by the commoners, which however was yet to get an overt seal of approval and full-fledged support from the Fatimid government, and which in some circles was part of a popular culture even prior to the arrival of the Fatimids. So, therefore, with or without the Fatimids, the culture of elaborate and heartrending memorializing of Husayn’s martyrdom would have continued with different degrees of scope and intensity. On the other hand, what Ibn Taghribirdi wanted to convey, presumably, was the full-scale commemoration of the festival with the Fatimid government leading the way. The first occasion thus could be seen as a precursor to the second one which needed a few years to fully materialize.

This explanation becomes more plausible when we remember that in the territories controlled by the Fatimids, most people were and remained Sunnis, so they had to be extremely careful when issuing and applying edicts, in particular during the early years of their rule and in connection with those matters which were highly sensitive. That said, Farhad Daftary maintains that, by and large, the Fatimids behaved leniently towards Egyptians, declaring general amnesty upon their arrival in Egypt as victors. “Subsequently, the Fatimids introduced the Isma’ili madhhab only gradually in Egypt, where Shi’ism had never acquired a stronghold. Fatimid Egypt remained primarily Sunni, and the Shafi’i madhhab, with an important community of Christian Copts. The Fatimids never attempted forced conversion of their subjects and the minoritarian status of the Shi’ah remained unchanged in Egypt despite two centuries of Isma’ili Shi’i rule.”[31]

However, there were times when such leniency and tolerance were replaced with relative fear and hostile attitudes and practices. The two patterns were intermittent and the Fatimid rulers with different levels of involvements were responsible for them. It is for example reported that a man in Cairo was beaten and dragged through the streets of the city merely because he possessed a copy of Malik b. Anas’s work, al-Muwatta’.[32] This other side of the coin, surely, al-Suyuti had in mind when he said that the Fatimids in the process of establishing their Shi’i madhhab in Egypt eliminated the leaders of the three Sunni schools of jurisprudence or madhhabs: the Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanafi schools. They did so by means of condemnations, executions and banishments.[33] 

In the same vein, Ibn Taghribirdi charged the Fatimids with the felonies of extinguishing the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) and decimating the intellectual elite. He thus did not hesitate to declare that the Fatimid claims that they were genealogical heirs of ‘Ali and Fatimah were a sheer forgery,[34] indirectly implying that the exterminators of the Sunnah and the persecutors of the scholars, the true and only inheritors of the Prophet (pbuh) and his heavenly legacy, cannot be associated even indirectly with ahl al-bayt or the household of the Prophet (pbuh), let alone be their successors. Ibn Taghribirdi explicitly said about the caliph-Imam al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah that he was not noble; he was just a pretender. He narrated that when he arrived in Cairo, he gathered all the city’s nobles. He then unsheathed his sword and said ominously: “This is my lineage”. Next, he distributed lots of gold to them and said: “This is my account.” All those who were present then responded: “We heard, and we obeyed.”[35] On account of the Fatimid caliphs-Imams’ certain repulsive religious novelties, it was a custom for the people to prostrate themselves and say a prayer when a caliph-Imam passed.[36] Furthermore, about the caliph-Imam al-Hakam, Ibn Taghribirdi narrated that he was a controversial personality beset with extremes. For example, he loved knowledge but often harassed and killed scholars; he loved reforms but often persecuted and killed reformers; at times he was generous, but at other times he was miserly even about the things which nobody was ever miserly about. He killed an incalculable number of scholars and other righteous individuals.[37] So controversial a personality was al-Hakim that even such blasphemous ideas as transmigration of the soul from one person to another (tanasukh al-arwah), the incarnation of God, and prohibiting the permissible and permitting the prohibited, were associated with him and his time in power. Consequently, he is often referred to as the “mad caliph” due to whose actions the people, apparently not only Sunnis but also a great many Shi’is, were constantly very infuriated. For most Sunnis, he was an outright apostate, an infidel.[38]

Moreover, for the purpose of realizing their multifaceted socio-political and ideological objectives, the Fatimids created a number of distinctive traditions and institutions, the most remarkable ones, perhaps, having been those related to teaching and learning.[39] The da’wah as the lifeblood of the Isma’ili movement and the Fatimid regime was mainly concerned with the religious education of converts, who had to be duly instructed in Isma’ili esoteric doctrine. For that purpose a variety of teaching sessions addressed to different audiences were organized. Some sessions were private in nature and others public; some were for women and others for men. There were also public lectures on Isma’ili law or jurisprudence which was adopted as the official system of religious law in the Fatimid state. “But the Isma’ili legal code, governing the juridical basis of the daily life of the Muslim subjects of the Fatimid state, was new and its precepts had to be explained to Isma’ili as well as non-Isma’ili Muslims. As a result, public sessions on the Shari’ah as interpreted by Isma’ili jurisprudence, were held by al-Qadi al-Nu’man (d. 351 AH/ 962 CE) and his successors as chief qadis (judges), after the Friday midday (Jumu’ah) prayers, in the Fatimid capital.”[40]

Public disputations with Sunni scholars were also occasionally held. The main objective of those meetings was to expound the Shi’i foundations of the new Fatimid regime and the legitimate rights of ahl al-bayt to the leadership of the Islamic community,[41] and to elucidate how illegitimate the purported rights of the Sunni ‘Abbasids and their Umayyad predecessors to the same mantle, were. Understandably, an institution of public and semi-public debate or dispute was known to the Fatimids from the days of their first victories in North Africa, in that they were originally a proselytizing organization and then a proselytizing government. Their development and continued existence, to a large extent, depended on it. Paul E. Walker said that “from the first days of their victory in North Africa and before the liberation and advent of al-Mahdi, the brothers Abu Abdullah al-Shi’i and Abu al-‘Abbas orchestrated a series of munazarat (disputations or debates) in which one or the other of them tested the leading non-Isma’ili figures from Qayrawan and the former territories of the Aghlabids. As a direct result, substantial numbers of former Hanafis and Shi’is, plus some others, converted and joined the Fatimid movement.”[42]

Teaching sessions were held most regularly and most systematically in mosques which functioned as community centers,[43] in the Fatimid caliphal palace complex, in private houses, and in some newly emerged institutions of learning such as Dar al-‘Ilm (the House of knowledge). Libraries with massive collections of books were also built, the most significant of which was the one incorporated into the Dar al-‘Ilm.[44] As a small digression, Dar al-‘Ilm was founded in 395 AH / 1005 CE by the third (sixth overall) Fatimid caliph-Imam in Cairo, al-Hakim (d. 412 AH / 1021 CE). It was an educational institution where a wide variety of religious and non-religious sciences were taught. Many Fatimid da’is (missionaries) received at least part of their education at the Dar al-‘Ilm. By later Fatimid times, the Dar al-‘Ilm more closely served the needs of the da’wah.[45] Clearly, the establishment was a true institute for advancement, preservation and propagation of knowledge and with no other purpose. “In many respects it was unprecedented, although the Bayt al-Hikmah (the House of wisdom) frequently cited as a foundation of the ‘Abbasids some two centuries earlier in Baghdad, was a possible model.”[46]

For the same reasons entailed in the da’wah, during the reign of the first (fourth overall) Fatimid caliph-Imam in Egypt, al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah, the process of codifying Isma’ili law attained its climax. It was done mainly through the efforts of al-Qadi al-Nu’man, the foremost Fatimid jurist. Al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah “officially commissioned al-Qadi al-Nu’man, who headed the Fatimid judiciary from 337 AH/ 948 CE in the reign of the third Fatimid caliph-Imam al-Mansur (d. 342 AH/ 953 CE), to promulgate an Isma’ili madhhab. His efforts culminated in the compilation of the Da’a’im al-Islam (the Pillars of Islam), which was endorsed by al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah as the official code of the Fatimid dawlah. The Isma’ilis, too, now possessed a system of law and jurisprudence as well as an Isma’ili paradigm of governance.”[47]

That the mosques were playing a major role in the Fatimid da’wah and their general educational systems, plus a very few governmental institutions as well as private residences, could be corroborated by what al-Maqrizi wrote about the evolution of the madrasah (school) institution. Al-Maqrizi said that the madrasah as an independent and systematic educational institution did not materialize until the 5th AH/ 11th CE century, and its birthplace and early flourishing were in the Muslim East, i.e., in Khorosan, Iran and Iraq.[48] The madrasah phenomenon did not officially spread in Egypt until the arrival of the Ayyubids, following their ousting of the Fatimids in 567 AH /1171 CE. Madrasahs founded for teaching and disseminating Sunnism were an effective measure for uprooting Isma’ili Shi’ism and replacing it with Sunni orthodoxy in territories formerly controlled by the Fatimids, much like the Saljuqs’ tactics against the Shi’i Buyid dynasty in modern-day Iraq and Iran after they had overthrown them, especially in Iraq, approximately a century ago in 447 AH /1055 CE. Exactly those developments in the Muslim East as regards the downfall of the Shi’i Buyids and the rapid rise of the Sunni Saljuqs, and the critical role of madrasahs in their wake, al-Maqrizi had in mind when he affirmed that the madrasah phenomenon came about only in the 5th AH/ 11th CE century and in the East. As to the Fatimid era, it was a transitional period in which the mosque’s perennial function as a learning center was gradually developing into an institution, but still remained both physically and conceptually under the jurisdiction and framework of the mosque as a community development center. Madrasahs’ full and autonomous institutionalization came to pass in the timeframe mentioned by al-Maqrizi. It came to pass firstly in the regions which he also mentioned, and thence the new educational trend expanded to the rest of the Muslim world. About a century, or so, later, it arrived in Egypt too, with the arrival of the Ayyubids.[49]

Thus, al-Maqrizi said that in the absence of madrasahs in Cairo – one of the reasons having been the fact that the Fatimids followed a different (Shi’i) madhhab from the (Sunni) madhhab of most of the Muslims in Khorosan, Iran and Iraq, subsequent to the toppling of the Buyid Shi’ah dynasty there, as a result of which the two blocs vastly differed not only concerning the substance and interpretation of various aspects of the Islamic message, but also concerning the ways, means and procedures of knowledge incubation, propagation and delivery – the official study circles were held firstly in the mosque of al-Azhar, then in the mosque of ‘Amr b. al-‘As. When Naser Khosraw visited Cairo in the 5th AH /11th CE century, he remarked that in the mosque of ‘Amr b. al-‘As, as part of its astonishing function and ambiance, there were always teachers and Qur’an-readers.[50] Al-Maqrizi also mentioned Dar al-‘Ilm (the House of knowledge) set up by the caliph-Imam al-Hakim, and that the house of Ya’qub b. Killis, the first Fatimid vizier in Cairo, served as an Isma’ili educational center where Isma’ili jurists and other erudite men used to gather, learn and teach.[51] The vizier himself was an outstanding scholar. He composed several books some of which were used as main references in Isma’ili scholarship.

About further educational activities of the vizier Ya’qub b. Killis, Paul E. Walker wrote that in the year 378 AH /988 CE, he “asked the caliph (al-‘Aziz Billah, d. 386 AH /996 CE) for a grant of funds as stipends for a group of fuqaha’ (jurists) and he then provided for them a cash stipend in an amount suitable for each one. He ordered that they acquire a house in the vicinity of the al-Azhar mosque and renovate it to suit their purpose. On Fridays they would assemble at the mosque and hold a halqah (study circle) in it following the noon prayer and lasting until the ‘asr (afternoon) prayer. In addition, they were to receive a grant out of the funds of the vizier each year. There were thirty-five individuals in this group.”[52] Based on this account, the vizier appears to have created a residential college associated with the al-Azhar mosque for the teaching of Isma’ili creed and jurisprudence. An indication of an endowment that might perpetuate the college’s existence beyond the vizier’s time is especially significant in terms of mapping out the history of the madrasah phenomenon.[53] Paul E. Walker went so far as to claim that the vizier, in fact, created the equivalent of a madrasah at the al-Azhar mosque.[54] The claim, however, is not far from truth because the pointed out events clearly reveal that by the end of the 4th AH /10th CE century, the transition of teaching and learning activities from a mere function or a purpose of the mosque as a community development center, regardless of how advanced such function or purpose might have been, to an independent and self-sufficient educational institution, was maturing and was approaching its completion. There were no madrasahs as full-fledged institutions affiliated with al-Azhar until approximately the middle of the Mamluki era in the early 8th AH /14th CE century.[55] Furthermore, the vizier Ya’qub b. Killis employed a portion of his personal wealth for the support of a cadre of scholars and intellectuals who were attached to his private retinue and who participated as an audience in numerous public and semi-public munazarat or debates that often featured, among a wide array of Muslims, local Jews and Christians of different factions.[56]

Reviling and insulting a number of leading companions of the Prophet (pbuh) was a well known Isma’ili norm. After the establishment of the Fatimid state, the matter was taken to a whole new level. Insulting and abusing the companions was done more commonly, more systematically and more freely. The most responsible caliph-Imam for the misdemeanor, certainly, was al-Hakim. Apart from the conventional practices and means, he in the year 395 AH / 1004 CE ordered that near the entrances to the mosques and in the streets, insults and abuses against Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘A’ishah, Talhah (d. 36 AH/ 656 CE), Zubayr (d. 36 AH/ 656 CE), Mu’awiyah and ‘Amr b. al-‘As (d. 44 AH /664 CE), be written. He also asked his state administrators outside Cairo to follow suit. However, two years later he rescinded his malicious initiative, although the practice of disparaging the companions continued unabated till the end of the Fatimid tenure.[57] Al-Maqrizi furnishes us with far more details about those actions of al-Hakim. He said that both the interior and exterior of the mosques, with no section thereof left, were covered with insulting and cursing phrases. The doorways of shops, houses, tombs and bazaars were also used for the same purpose. The insulting and cursing slogans were either written or engraved, using color and sometimes even gold.[58]


Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com


[1] Fatimids, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/fatimids (accessed November 23, 2013).

[2] Shi’ite, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/540503/Shiite (accessed November 23, 2013).

Isma’ilite, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/296133/Ismailite, (accessed September 22, 2013).

[3] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 23, 2013).

[4] Fatimid Dynasty, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/202580/Fatimid-Dynasty (accessed November 23, 2013).

Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ilis, their History and Doctrines, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 98-116.

[5] Naser Khosraw, Book of Travels, translated from Persian by W. M. Thackston, Jr., (Albany: Bibliotheca Persica, 1986), p. 45.

[6] Al-Maqrizi, Itti’az al-Hunafa bi Akhbar al-A’immah al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), vol. 1 p. 118-125. Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 11 p. 191. Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, Fada’ih al-Batiniyyah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), p. 23-27.

[7] Isma’ilite, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/296133/Ismailite, (accessed September 22, 2013).

Ahmad ‘Arafat, Al-Fikr al-Siyasi ‘ind al-Batiniyyah, (Cairo: al-Hay’ah al-Masriyyah al-‘Ammah li al-Kitab, 1993), p. 109-128.

[8] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 23, 2013).

[9] Fatimid Dynasty, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/202580/Fatimid-Dynasty (accessed November 23, 2013).

Ahmad ‘Arafat, Al-Fikr al-Siyasi ‘ind al-Batiniyyah, p. 163-189.

[10] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008), p. vii (Introduction).

[11] Hamid Haji, Founding the Fatimid State, an annotated English translation of al-Qadi al-Nu’man’s Iftitah al-Da’wah, (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2006), p. 205.

[12] Paul Ernest Walker, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani: Ismaili Thought in the Age of al-Hakim, (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1999), p. 13.

[13] Murtada Mutahhari, The Shi’i Interpretation of the Qur’an, in: Shi’ism: Doctrines, Thought and Spirituality, (Ads.) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Dabashi & Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1988), p. 31.

[14] Antony Black, The History of Islamic Political Thought, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), p. 45-65.

[15] Al-Qadi al-Nu’man, Ikhtilaf Usul al-Madhahib, (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1983), p. 46-68.

[16] Husayn ‘Atwan, Al-Da’wah al-‘Abbasiyyah, Mabadi’ wa Asalib, (Beirut: Dar al-Jayl, 1984), p. 91-107. Husayn ‘Atwan, Al-Da’wah al-‘Abbasiyyah, Tarikh wa Tatawwur, (Amman: Maktabah al-Muhtasib, n.d.), p. 331-351.

[17] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013). Hatim Mahamid, Isma’ili Da’wah and Politics in Fatimid Egypt, http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Mahamid.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

Khidr Ahmad, Al-Hayah al-Fikriyyah fi Misr fi al-‘Asr al-‘Fatimi, (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1989), p. 40-99.

[18] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Al-Maqrizi, Itti’az al-Hunafa bi Akhbar al-A’immah al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, vol. 1 p. 186.

[22] Ibid., vol. 1 p. 186.

[23] Ibn Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah, (Cairo: Wizarah al-Thaqafah wa al-Irshad al-Qawmi, n.dp.), vol. 4 p. 66.

[24] Naser Khosraw, Book of Travels,p. 59.

[25] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1998), vol. 4 p. 46. Al-Maqrizi, Itti’az al-Hunafa bi Akhbar al-A’immah al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, vol. 1 p. 190.

[26] Al-Maqrizi, Itti’az al-Hunafa bi Akhbar al-A’immah al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, vol. 1 p. 204.

[27] Ibid., vol. 1 p. 209.

[28] Ibid., vol. 210.

[29] Ibn Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah, vol. 4 p. 126.

[30] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 126.

[31] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

[32] Ahmad ‘Arafat, Al-Fikr al-Siyasi ‘ind al-Batiniyyah, p. 191.

[33] Khidr Ahmad, Al-Hayah al-Fikriyyah fi Misr fi al-‘Asr al-‘Fatimi, p. 146.

[34] Ibn Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah, vol. 4 p. 74-77.

[35] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 77.

[36] Naser Khosraw, Book of Travels,p. 50.

[37] Ibn Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah, vol. 4 p. 176.

[38] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 222. Al-Maqrizi, Itti’az al-Hunafa bi Akhbar al-A’immah al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, vol. 1 p. 395.

[39] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, p. 1-39. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 627-629.

[40] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

Hatim Mahamid, Isma’ili Da’wah and Politics in Fatimid Egypt, http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Mahamid.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

[41] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

[42] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, p. 4.

[43] Khidr Ahmad, Al-Hayah al-Fikriyyah fi Misr fi al-‘Asr al-‘Fatimi, p. 110-122. Hatim Mahamid, Isma’ili Da’wah and Politics in Fatimid Egypt, http://www.nobleworld.biz/images/Mahamid.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

[44] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, p. 28. Ibn Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah, vol. 4 p. 101, 222. Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 629.

[45] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

Khidr Ahmad, Al-Hayah al-Fikriyyah fi Misr fi al-‘Asr al-‘Fatimi, (Cairo: Dar al-Fikr al-‘Arabi, 1989), p. 161-199.

[46] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, p. 20.

[47] Farhad Daftary, The Isma’ili Da’wa outside the Fatimid Dawla,

http://www.iis.ac.uk/SiteAssets/pdf/Daftary_fatimid_dawa_outside.pdf (accessed November 25, 2013).

[48] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah, vol. 4 p. 199.

[49] Ibid., vol. 4 p. 200. George Makdisi, The Rise of Colleges, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1981), p. 20-32.

[50] Naser Khosraw, Book of Travels, p. 53.

[51] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah, vol. 4 p. 199-200.

[52] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, p. 15-16.

[53] Ibid., p. 16.

[54] Ibid., p. 16.

[56] Paul E. Walker, Fatimid History and Ismaili Doctrine, p. 5.

[57] Ibn Taghribirdi, Al-Nujum al-Zahirah, vol. 4 p. 176-178, 218.

[58] Al-Maqrizi, Itti’az al-Hunafa bi Akhbar al-A’immah al-Fatimiyyin al-Khulafa, vol. 1 p. 357.