Ismaili History 538 - AL-AZIZ (365-386/975-996)

He was born on 14th Muharram, 344/May 10, 955 in Mahdiya. His name was Nizar Abu Mansur, surnamed al-Aziz bi-lllah (August by the grace of God). He assumed the Imamate and Caliphate on 14th Rabi II, 365/December 21, 975. He was tall, broad shouldered, with reddish hair and large eyes having a dark blue colour. He was fond of sports and showed a marked interest in literature and learning.
It was owing to his generous patronage that the University of al-Azhar could maintain itself as a unique and distinguished seat of Islamic learning. He also created an almshouse in it for 35 men. Al-Azhar contained a huge library. The royal library of al-Aziz itself contained 200,000 rare manuscripts and an equal number of manuscripts were kept at al-Azhar. It also contained 2400 illuminated copies of Holy Koran. Later, in 436/1045 a new catalogue had been prepared in al-Azhar, listing 6500 volumes of astronomy, architecture and philosophy. When Nasir Khusaro visited Cairo, he had found 317 professors and as many as 9758 students engaged in the study of various subjects in al-Azhar. Marshall W. Baldwin writes in 'A History of the Crusades' (London, 1958, p. 102) that, 'The intellectual influences of Ismailism on Islam was very great indeed. During the heyday of its expansion, the poets, philosophers, theologians and scholars flocked to the Ismailite centres and produced works of a high order.'

Al-Aziz was also known for his paternal care of the people and introduced many financial reforms in the country. He introduced the system of paying a fixed stipends for services to the official and household servants and also used to give them robes and mules to ride on. Among his outstanding reforms, the most significant was that he put down bribery and corruption with a firm hand in Egypt.

Writing in the year 372/982, the anonymous writer of 'Hudud al-Alam' (tr. by V. Minorsky, London, 1937, p. 151) describes that, 'Egypt is the wealthiest country of Islam, and in it lies numerous towns, all prosperous, flourishing, wealthy, and extremely favoured by nature in many respects. It produces textiles, handkerchiefs, and robes of various kinds, than which there are none more precious in the whole world - such as Egyptian woollen goods and textiles, and handkerchiefs made of dabiqi (silk brocade or linen drapes) and khazz(tissue of silk and wool). And in this country, good asses are found of great price. Fustat is the capital of Egypt. It is the wealthiest city in the world, extremely prosperous and very pleasant. It lies to the east of the river Nile.'

Ismaili History 539 - Conditions of the Maghrib

It must be remembered that before embarking on his historic journey from Maghrib to Egypt in 361/972, Imam al-Muizz had appointed Buluggin bin Ziri, the amir of the Sanhaja tribe, as the governor of Maghrib, and invested him the honorific name, Abul Futuh Yousuf. He was vested with the governorship of all the Fatimid dominions in the west, except for Kalbid Sicily and for Tripoli. Later on, Buluggin moved from Ashir to Kairwan, where he founded the Zirid dynasty (361-543/972-1148). He was succeeded by his son, Mansur (373-386/984- 996), who fought with the Katama tribe and began to detach from the Fatimids. He also expelled the persons from different key posts being appointed by al-Aziz in Maghrib. It is related that al-Aziz deputed a dai Abul Fahm Hasan bin Nasr in Maghrib to collect the informations and report him back. Mansur arrested and put him to death. Al-Aziz however tried to cope with the situation of the Maghrib very politely. The Zirid ruler Mansur was succeeded by his son, Badis (386-406/996-1016), who had procured his close ties with Imam al- Hakim. The fourth Zirid ruler, al-Muizz bin Badis had however renounced the suzerainty of the Fatimids in 436/1044.

Jawhar conquered Syria in 359/969, making Jafar bin Falah as a governor. When al-Muizz was in Cairo, a Turkish commander Iftagin, under the Buwahids defeated the Fatimid governor of Damascus, and started the Abbasid khutba. Al-Muizz had offered him to come in Cairo, but Iftagin declined it, and as a result, al-Muizz took field against him, but died at Balbis. Iftagin sacked Syria, thus al-Aziz sent his general, Jawhar. He besieged Damascus on 22nd Zilkada, 365/July 22, 976 for two months. Meanwhile, the Qarmatians led by Hasan al-A'sam came to the help of Iftagin. Jawhar lifted the seige, because his supplies were running short, and went to Ramla, then returned to Cairo and reported to al-Aziz. This time al-Aziz himself commanded his forces and attacked enemies with all his might at Ramla, and forced them to retreat. Iftagin and Hasan al-A'sam took their heels. Al-Aziz announced a reward for one lac dinar for capturing Iftagin. Ironically, Iftagin was caught by one of his friends and brought before al-Aziz. He, keeping with his nature, behaved very politely with Iftagin, and returned to him all his personal belongings and included him among his door-keepers (hajib), a high grade in the hierarchy of the Fatimid court. His behaviour with Iftagin was so remarkable that Iftagin himself admitted: 'I blush to mount my horse in the presence of our Lord al-Aziz. I did everything to oppose him, but he did not seek revenge, and I dare not to look at him because of the gifts and favours with which he overwhelms me.' The Qarmatian leader, Hasan al-A'sam was forced to flee from Ramla, and lost his influence in Damascus.

When Iftagin fought with the Fatimid at Ramla, he had left behind Kassam Sharrab in Damascus. When al-Aziz defeated Iftagin, he sent Fazal bin Saleh and Suleman bin Jafar Falah, one after another, but none could capture Damascus. Fazal bin Saleh retreated to Palestine and held a series of talks with the Hamdanid Abu Taghlib, who had been expelled from Mosul by the Buwahid Adud ad-Dawla (367-372/978- 983). Abu Taghlib had also failed to occupy Damascus, therefore, he aspired to obtain at least its governorship from the Fatimid Imam al-Aziz. Abu Taghlib gave his words to Fazal bin Saleh in the campaign to conquer Damascus, but the latter had already allied himself with the Jarrahid leader, Mufraj bin Dagfal bin Jarrah of Palestine. In sum, Mufraj defeated Abu Taghlib in 369/979 and took possession of the whole territory of Palestine. His cooperation with Fazal bin Saleh was however short-lived, as he had shaken his hand with Kassam Sharrab, the chief of Damascus.

In 373/983, Imam al-Aziz sent Balaktagin, a Turkish commander of the Fatimid forces against these two rebels. He defeated Mufraj bin Dagfal in Palestine, who managed to flee to Antioch, where he took refuge with the Byzantines. Thence, Balaktagin proceeded to Damascus and defeated Kassam, and appointed Akhlaj as a governor, who was followed by Bekjur in 373/983.

Bekjur was a slave of Sa'd ad-Dawla (356-381/967-991), the Hamdanid chief of Aleppo. When Balaktagin had taken field against Kassam Sharrab in Damascus, Bekjur had provided necessary provisions to the Fatimid forces from Aleppo, and therefore, he was made the governor of Damascus after Akhlaj in appreciation of his aids. In the meantime, Bekjur sought permission from al-Aziz to conquer Aleppo, and soon afterwards, he besieged Aleppo. Sa'd ad-Dawla, the chief of Aleppo sought reinforcement from the Byzantine, forcing Bekjur to lift the siege and retreat to Damascus.

Al-Aziz however retained Bekjur's governorship in Damascus, but was expelled later in 378/988. He persuaded al-Aziz to assign him with the command of a new expedition against Aleppo. He however acquired little help from the local Fatimid forces, but was defeated and killed in 381/991 by Sa'd ad-Dawla, who was aided as usual by the Byzantines.

Few years later, al-Aziz once again turned his attention to conquer Aleppo. This time the Fatimid forces besieged Aleppo in 385/995 for several months at the command of Manjutagin. Meanwhile, the Byzantine emperor Basil II (975-1025) himself came with a large force to help Sa'd ad-Dawla's son, Sa'id ad-Dawla (381-392/992-1002) and saved Aleppo from going into Fatimid hands.

Inspite of political differences between the Fatimids and the Umayyads of Spain, there had been cultural and commercial transactions between the two Muslim empires. During al-Aziz's period, the relations between him and Umayyad caliph al-Hakam II (350-366/961-976) were improved and there had been diplomatic correspondence between them as is learnt from a letter of al-Aziz, vide 'Nihayat al-Arab' (p. 58) by Nuwayri (d. 732/1332). Their relations can also be ascertained from the fact that the Umayyad Prince Muhammad bin Abdul Malik bin Abdur Rehman al-Nasir composed few verses in praise of Imam al-Aziz.

Ismaili History 540 - Military reforms

During the Fatimid expansion into Syria, the Fatimids were confronted with armies superior to their own which was mainly composed of Berber forces. In the Byzantine and Muslim armies which the Fatimids fought in Syria, the archers played prominent role. The Katama Berbers in general did not make use of the bow as a weapon. The absence of archers among the Fatimid ranks hindered their military performances. The only possible way for al-Aziz to overcome the military inferiority of his Berber troops was to incorporate ethnic groups skilled in archery into his army. This policy was inaugurated following al-Aziz's victory over an anti-Fatimid coalition in Palestine headed by Iftagin. Thus, the Turks and Iranians were introduced for the first time in the Fatimid army, who were skilled as mounted archers, while the Berbers were the horsemen carrying lances and shields.

In Egypt, these new elements were enlisted in the Fatimid army as professional soldiers and given special accomodation areas in Cairo, known as harat al-Atrak (barrack of the Turks), and harat al-Daylam (barrack of the Iranians). This new fighting element sponsored by al-Aziz, grew rapidly and before long its chiefs were appointed as commanders. In 381/991, the command of the Fatimid army was given to one of these men, called Manjutagin, with the title amir al-juyush al-mansura (commander of the victorious armies). He was charged to put down the disturbances in Syria, strike at the Byzantines in the north and bring Aleppo under the direct control of the Fatimids.

It must also be known that the Katama Berbers enjoyed special privileges in the Fatimid army since beginning and were exempted from taxation. In Egypt, they began to dominate almost in all state affairs and wielded political influences. They were known in Egypt as Maghriba (the westeners). In contrast, the Turks and Iranians were called as Mashriqa (the easterners), who were also a counterpoise against the growing influence of the Berbers.

In 380/990, al-Aziz also erected an army corp named al-Azizia. In 385/995, al-Azizia together with other corps, was dispatched to reinforce the Fatimid contingents in Syria.

Ismaili History 541 - Ismaili mission

The Ismaili dawa was brisk in this period through a network of the dais. In 385/995, Abul Jabbar Hamdani, the Mutazalite chief Qadi of Ray (325-415/936-1025) gives a list of the dais, who visited Cairo in his 'Tathbit Dala'il Nubuwwat' (p. 180) as follows:- Abu Jabala Ibrahim bin Ghassan, Jabir al-Manufi, Abul Fawaris al-Hasan bin Muhammad al-Mimadhi, Abul Hussain Ahmad bin Muhammad bin al-Kumayt, Abu Muhammad al-Tabari, Abul Hasan al-Halabi, Abu Tamim Abul Kassim al-Bukhari, Abul Wafa al-Daylami, Ibn Abi'l Dibs, Khuzayma bin Abi Khuzayma and Abu Abdullah bin al-Naman. These all dais belonged to Cairo, Tyre, Acre, Askalan, Damascus, Baghdad and Central Asia. Abul Jabbar also writes that, 'At the court of the fifth Fatimid Imam al-Aziz, there are many visitors from Khwarizm and Multan, and other countries, carrying money and presents.'

It must be known that the initial slip of employing the dais with officials and regular payment appeared during al-Aziz's reign. Makrizi writes in 'Khitat' (2nd vol., p. 273) that, 'In 378/988, the vizir Yaqub bin Killis employed 35 men and provided them with accomodation near the mosque of al-Azhar. From thence the idea developed and in Imam al-Hakim's period, the services of the dais became a full time and well remunerated profession.

Ismaili History 542 - Yaqub bin Killis

Abul Faraj Yaqub bin Yousuf, known as Ibn Killis was born in a reputed Jewish family of Baghdad on 318/930. When he grew young, he came with his father to Egypt and began his political career at the court of Abul Misk Kafur. Very soon, he secured key position in the court because of being intelligent, honest and efficient. He embraced Islam in 357/968 and Kafur too died in the same year. The new vizir Abu Jafar Furat had imprisoned him in enmity, but was relieved soon by the intervention of Sharif Muslim al-Hussain. He finally quitted Egypt and entered into the Fatimid services in Maghrib. Imam al-Muizz had assigned him the tasks of accelerating the economy of Maghrib, which he discharged efficiently. He also accompanied Imam al-Muizz to Egypt and was handed over the administration in 363/974. He was a man of great ability and is credited with having organised the fiscal and administrative system.
Imam al-Aziz appointed him as Vizir al-Ajall (chief minister) in 367/977 and became the first Fatimid vizir. Qalqashandi (d. 821/1418) writes in 'Subh al-A'asha' (3rd vol., p. 483) that, 'The first man to be addressed as vizir during the Fatimid Caliphate was Yaqub bin Killis, the minister of al-Aziz.' He created different cells for the administration of the state, and promoted the output of agriculture, reformed trade and stabilized currency, causing increase of state revenue. In 373/983, he had fallen from his office because he is said to have ill-treated with one of the court prisoners of al-Aziz whom the Imam had promised all honours. Thus, al-Aziz penalised him with the fine of 200,000 dinars and after one year, he was reinstated in the office.

One can well judged the status of Yaqub bin Killis in the eyes of the Imam, when he fell seriously ill in 380/991. Al-Aziz visited him and said, 'O Yaqub! if your recovery is to be gained through spending wealth, then I am prepared to give away the whole wealth of the state. If your life is saved by sacrificing any life, I am ready to sacrifice my own son.'

Yaqub bin Killis died in 380/991 and his death was mourned through out Egypt and all the people assembled in the street leading from the citadel to his house. His shroud was decorated with 50 pieces of clothes of which 30 were embroidered with gold threads. Al-Aziz came forth, evidently much afflicted; he was mounted on a mule, and, contrary to his usual custom when riding out, no parasol was borne over him. He offered the funeral service over him; and said, 'O vizir! how long shall I grieve for you.' Ibn Khallikan writes that hundred of poets composed lamenting stanzas and every poet earned his reward from al-Aziz. In Cairo, a place was named al-Harat al-Viziria in his memory.

During the festival of Id al-nahr, the principle celebration took place at the open praying ground outside Cairo. The Imam used to go there in a splendid procession to perform prayer and deliver sermon. Upon his return to the palace, the people were repasted with delicious meals. Makrizi writes in 'Khitat' (2nd vol., p. 220) that, 'Al-Aziz introduced an innovation by building in Cairo a special house (dar al-fitra), in which meals were served during the festival of Id al-Fitr.'

The period of al-Aziz on the whole was one of peace and prosperity. He also patronised scholars and encouraged learning. His generosity became so popular that the common people were comparatively happier in his regime. The trade flourished to such extent that the industry of Cairo produced such a fine cloth that a whole robe could be passed through a finger ring. In 365/976, al-Aziz built the first market in Cairo alongwith the first bathhouses.

One of the famous persons during al-Aziz's period was Abul Hussain Ali bin Qadi Noman, who attained a high rank of chief justice (qadi al-qudat) after the death of Qadi Abu Tahir in 367/977. His appointment was proclaimed at the summit of the mosque of al-Azhar and Jam- i'l Atiq in Cairo. He was also assigned with the supervision of cases of inheritance, the mint and the quality of gold and silver coins. He appointed his brother, Muhammad bin Noman as his deputy and the qadi of Mediterranean towns of Farama, Tunnis and Damietta. Qadi Abdul Hussain Ali was a prolific writer, upright as a judge, talented in Arabic literature and well steeped in poetry. He died on 6th Rajab, 374/December 3, 984 in Cairo, and al-Aziz had offered his funeral prayer.

After the death of Qadi Abul Hussain Ali bin Noman, al-Aziz wrote to his brother, Abu Abdullah Muhammad to take over the charge of the office of qadi al-qudat to fill the gap of his brother. In 382/992, Qadi Abdullah Muhammad had established a juridical office in the old mosque to give legal opinion according to the Fatimid law. He was also a man of great talent, skilled in the system of jurisprudence and diligent as a scholar. He died on 4th Safar, 389/January 25, 998 in Cairo. Imam al-Hakim led his funeral prayer.

Joel Carmichael writes in 'The Shaping of the Arabs' (London, 1969, pp. 242-3) that, 'The Fatimid age was one of great prosperity, with a thorough awareness of the vital importance of commerce, both economically and politically, for the extension of Fatimid political influence. Egyptian trade before the Fatimids had been quite limited in scope, but under the impulse of the financial administration founded by Ibn Killis whole plantations and industries were developed in the countryside and Egyptian products began being exported in quantity, while at the same time an extensive network of trade relations evolved both with Europe and with India. The Fatimids, while still based in Tunisia, had had lively trade relations with southern Europe, and when they got to Egypt their business conncetions with Italy, especially Pisa, Amalfi and Venice, were resumed and extended. Egyptian ships and traders, based at two great harbours, Alexandria in Egypt and Tripoli in Syria, went as far west as Spain. Indeed, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean was dominated by the ships of the Fatimid regime.'

Hamilton A.R. Gibb writes in 'Studies on the Civilization of Islam' (Boston, 1962, p. 20) that, 'The significance of the Fatimid movement in the Islamic Renaissance is not to be measured only by the contributions of its professed adherents or sympathizers, but by the encouragement which it gave to intellectual activities of all kinds, even among its political or religious opponents, and its influence long survived the fall of the Fatimid Caliphate in 1171. It spread a spirit of free enquiry, individuals endeavour, and interaction of ideas, which expressed itself in the works of almost all the outstanding writers of Persia and Iraq in the fourth century, and most notably in Ibn Sina (Avicenna), and found echoes even in Muslim Spain, in spite of the restrictive tendencies of the orthodox Maliki school and the Almoravid rulers.'

It should be known that a rare pear-shaped ewer made of rock crystal, bearing a Kufic inscription with the name of al-Aziz, represents one of the finest achievements of Islamic rock-crystal carvings. It is decorated with two seated lions confronting a tree of life, which is preserved in the treasury of St. Mark's in Venice.

It will be interesting to note that Makrizi quotes in his 'Khitat' (1st vol., p. 121) an Egyptian poet, Abdul Wahab bin al-Hajib (d. 387/997) speaking of the two gigantic pyramids in his time in the following words:-

'Tis as though the country, parched with thirst, had bared her two towering breasts, invoking God's help; like a woman bereft of her child. And then the Almighty made her a gift of the Nile, which supplies a copious draught to her.'

In 375/985, one Muhallabi drew up an itinerary for the Fatimid Imam al-Aziz which, for the first time, gave accurate information about the Sudan of which the other geographers of that century knew very little. His book was named, 'al-Aziz' which he dedicated to al-Aziz, and had become the main source of Yaqut (d. 626/1229) for the Sudan.

Ibn Taghri Birdi (4th vol., p. 152) writes that al-Aziz had signed a truce for seven years with the Byzantine emperor in 377/987, stipulating three terms:- the release of 5000 Muslim prisoners captured by the Byzantines, the recitation of the Fatimid khutba in the grand mosque of Constantinople and the supply of the merchandise needed for the Egyptians.

Yaqub bin Killis was followed in rapid succession by six vizirs. In 380/991, al-Aziz appointed a Copic Christian, Isa bin Nestorius (d. 387/397) as his vizir, and the latter appointed a Jew, Manasseh bin Ibrahim al-Kazzaz as his deputy in Syria and Palestine. The vizir began to favour the Christians in Egypt and his deputy to the Jews in Syria and Palestine. When the Muslims made the complaints, al-Aziz at once dismissed them in 385/995 and seized 300,000 dinars from Isa bin Nestorious and a large sum from Manesseh bin Ibrahim.

In 382/992, Abul Darda Muhammad bin al-Musayyib Uqayti (d. 386/996), the governor of Mosul, declared his loyalty to al-Aziz and recited the Fatimid khutba in Mosul.

In 386/996, al-Aziz had personally set out to command the Fatimid armies against the joint forces of the Hamdanids of Aleppo and the Byzantines, but he at once fell ill at Bilbis, the first junction on his route to Syria. When al-Aziz felt that the shadows of his death were closing upon him, he summoned Ibn Ammar and Qadi Muhammad bin Noman and declared to them his son, al-Hakim as his successor. Both are said to have sworn loyalty and obedience to al-Aziz's command. On 28th Ramdan, 386/October 14, 996, al-Aziz met sudden death, from a stone in the kidney in the town of Bilbis.

Philip K. Hitti writes in 'Capital Cities of Arab Islam' (London, 1973, p. 119), 'Before his (al-Aziz) death at the age of forty-one, his name was cited in the Friday sermons from the Atlantic to the Red Sea, from southern Yamen to northern Syria, and at least once in northern Iraq.' According to Sayyid Fayyaz Mahmud in 'Short History of Islam' (Karachi, 1960, p. 214), 'The Fatimid power reached its peak in the days of the fifth Caliph, Nizar al-Aziz, whose dominions were greater in area than those of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad. There was inevitably keen rivalry between the two, and no love was lost between them either, for they divided the Muslim world into two halves, the Sunni East and the Shiite West of the Fatimids.' Rom Landau writes in 'Islam and the Arabs' (London, 1958, p. 63) that, 'During the reign of the fifth Fatimid Caliph, Nizar al-Aziz, the dynasty reached its highest point in power, prosperity and extent. The development of trade, the building up of plantations and the encouragement of industry so increased the power of this dynasty that it was able to exert its influence in Syria, Arabia, much of North Africa, and, on one occasion, even in Baghdad.' Dr. Amir Hasan Siddiqui writes in 'Cultural Centres of Islam' (Karachi, 1970, pp. 61-62) that, 'The Caliph al-Aziz was himself a poet and lover of learning. It was he who made the Azhar mosque and academy. He also built dwellings for a large number of professors and students, who were paid salaries and stipends respectively.'

The famous poet, al-Amir Tamim bin al-Muizz (d. 375/985) in his 'Diwan al-Amir Tamim' (Ms. in the private collection of Dr. Kamil Hussain) had composed many verses in praise of al-Aziz, whose few examples are given below:-

'Surely, you are the chosen Caliph by obedience to whom we become nearer to God.' (p. 23)

'Without al-Aziz, the deputy of God, I would not have dared to resort to God or seek His help.' (p. 51)

'You alone of the kings of the world have a divine soul in a mortal body.' (p. 52)

'You are the chosen of God from among all his creatures, and you are the visible aspect of the majesty of God.' (p. 61)

'You are the God's sign which sheds light among us and you possess the treasure of knowledge.' (p. 63)

'Those who sin and doubt and commit inequity, you lead in the path of righteousness.' (Ibid.)