Welcome to F.I.E.L.D.- the First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database. Guests are not required to login during this beta-testing phase

NIZAR I (487-490/1095-1097), 19TH IMAM

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

"Abu Mansur al-Nizar, surnamed al-Mustapha al-dinillah (the chosen for God's religion), was born in Cairo on 437/1045. He assumed the Imamate on 18th Zilhaja, 487/January 6, 1095 at the age of 50 years. He had been however proclaimed as a successor in 480/1087 before the notables in the court by his father. His participation in state affairs is scant. In 454/1062, during the perilous period of Egypt, Imam al-Mustansir had however sent him to the port of Damietta with the Fatimid army to execute few assignments.

The name Nizar is a Persian word, means thin, slim, slender, lean, spare or weak. As it is said kilki nizar means a slender reed or pen. The Iranian name tends to the fact that Imam al-Mustansir had perceived the forthcoming bifurcation in the Ismailis, and that his successor would be supported in the Iranian society more than the Arabian territories. It seems that Imam al-Mustansir had chosen the name Nizar to cohere him and his descendants with the Iranian culture. The cause of the Nizarid was also supported by the Iranian missionaries, notably Hasan bin Sabbah, Nasir Khusaro, Abdul Malik bin Attash etc.

When Hasan bin Sabbah was yet in Cairo in 471/1078, De Lacy O'Leary writes in A Short History of the Fatimid Khalifate (London, 1923, p. 209) that, "At the time, it appears, the court was divided into two factions over the question of the succession, the one party holding to the Khalif's elder son Nizar, the other to a younger son named Musta'li. In one place Nasir-i Khusaro says that the Khalif told him that his elder son Nizar was to be his heir, and the succession of the older son would be in accordance with the doctrines of the sect as already proved by their adherence to Ismail, the son of Jafar as-Sadiq. But Badr and the chief officials were on the side of the younger son Musta'li."

Badr al-Jamali thus expected the succession of Musta'li but he died in 487/1095, a month before the death of Imam al-Mustansir. The latter appointed Lawun Amin ad-Dawla as a new vizir, but after few days, al-Afdal, the son of Badr al-Jamali managed to obtain office of vizirate when the Imam was almost on death-bed, and also became amir al-juyush (commander of the army). After the death of Imam al-Mustansir, the year 487/1095 marks the triumph of vizirial prerogative over caliphal authority in the structure of the Fatimid empire. Al-Afdal however, was afraid of being deposed by Imam al-Nizar, so he conspired to remove him. There is one other story purporting his enmity with Imam al-Nizar. If the story quoted by Charles Francois Defremery (1822-1883) in Histoire des Ismaeliens ou Batiniens de la Perse (JA, ser. 5, XV, 1860, p. 154), is genuine, it illustrates how a little, rather a trifling thing determines great events. Al-Afdal, so the account goes, was once mounted on his horse in the passage leading from the golden gate to the entrance of the palace when Nizar passed by. Al-Afdal did not dismount to honour the Prince according to the royal custom. Nizar called out, "Get down from your horse, O'Armenian slave! How impolite you are?" Dr. Zahid Ali is of an opinion that it was a bone of contention and since that day, al-Afdal became an enemy of Nizar, vide Tarikh-i Fatimiyyin Misr (Karachi, 1963, p. 294).

Makrizi also quotes the above incident, vide Itti'az (p.512). The phrases al-adab fil salam and adab al-khidma designated in the broadest sense in the protocol (adab) to be observed in the Fatimid court. It was the custom for the vizirs to ride into the palace through the golden gate (bab al-dhahab) and dismount at a designated spot, called "the passage of the vizirate" (maqta al-vizara), but al-Afdal exceeded the limit and treated impolitely with Imam al-Nizar.

Aiming to retain the power of the state in his own hands, al-Afdal favoured the candidacy of Imam al-Mustansir's youngest son, Abul Kassim Ahmad, surnamed Musta'li, who would entirely depend upon him. Al-Musta'li was about 20 years old, and already married to al-Afdal's daughter. Al-Afdal moved swiftly, and on the day following Imam al-Mustansir's death, he placed the young prince on the throne with the title of al-Musta'li-billah. He quickly obtained for al-Musta'li the allegiance of the notables of the court. He also took favour of Imam al-Mustansir's sister, who was prepared to declare a fabricated story that Imam al-Mustansir had changed the nass in favour of Musta'li at very last hour in presence of the qadi of Egypt, but the cause of change of nass was not given at all. Marshall Hodgson writes in The Order of Assassins (Netherland, 1955, p. 63) that, "Nizar's right to the Egyptian succession by sectarian principles was very strong. The Sunni historians assume him to have been designated heir-apparent. This "first nass" would clearly give him claim to Ismaili allegiance against any later nominee on the analogy of Ismail himself, whose claim could not be set aside for his brother Musa."

The Egyptian historian, Nuwayri (d. 732/1332) writes in Nihayat al-Arab that, "When al-Mustansir billah died, his son al-Nizar, who was the wali'l-ahd, took his seat on the throne and desired homage to be done to himself; but al-Afdal refused, through dislike to al-Nizar, and he had a meeting with a member of amirs and men of rank, to whom he said, that Nizar was come to the age of manhood, and they could not hope to escape his severity; so the best thing to be done was to do homage to his youngest brother Musta'li. This plan was approved of by all except Muhammad Ibn Massal al-Maliki". The extant sources recount that al-Afdal hastened to proclaim Musta'li and on the next day, al-Afdal sent for the other sons of Imam al-Mustansir, biding them to come quickly. Imam al-Nizar and his brothers, Abdullah and Ismail as soon as entered the palace, and saw the younger brother seated on the throne, at which they were filled with indignation. Nuwayri writes in Nihayat al-Arab that al-Afdal said to them: "Go forward and kiss the earth in the presence of God and of our lord al-Must'ali billah! Do him homage, for it is he whom the Imam al-Mustansir billah has declared as his successor to the caliphate." To this al-Nizar answered: "I would rather be cut in pieces than do homage to one younger than myself, and moreover I possess a document in the handwriting of my father by which he names me successor, and I shall go and bring it." He withdrew from the court in haste.

It implies that Imam al-Nizar and his brothers were summoned in the palace under usual manner. He must have brought the written document with him, had he known the enthronement of Must'ali. The significant feature of Musta'li was that he was silent on the whole, and himself did not ask his brothers to pay him homage. It was only al-Afdal to deal the proceeding. Musta'li was planned to enthrone with the firm hold of the vizir. According to Religion in the Middle East (London, 1969, 2:321) ed. by A.J. Arberry, "Both Ibn al-Athir and Ibn Khaldun agree that Nizar was the duly appointed heir apparent whose claims were overlooked by the energy and diplomacy of al-Afdal."

Imam al-Nizar was well aware of the domination of al-Afdal and a vein of animosity in his character for him. It is possible that he thought it futile to produce the written document in the palace, because according to Ibn Khaldun (4:139) the sister of Imam al-Mustansir had falsely witnessed in the court the story of change of nass, therefore, he did not come back to the palace and quitted Cairo. Soon afterwards, Imam al-Nizar appeared in Alexandria, with his brother, Abdullah and an amir, Muhammad ibn Massal al-Maliki. Nasir ad-Dawla Iftagin at-Turki, the governor of Alexandria swore allegiance to Imam al-Nizar and proclaimed his support. Jalal ad-Dawla bin Ammar, the qadi of Alexandria also supported the cause of Imam al-Nizar. In Alexandria, the Imam promulgated the Nizarid Ismaili mission and adopted the title of al-Mustapha li-dinillah (the chosen for God's religion).

Nasir Khusaro and Hasan bin Sabbah were promulgating the Nizarid Ismaili mission in Badakhshan and Iran in accordance with the directions they had personally received from Imam al-Mustansir when they had been in Cairo. Granted that the theory of change of nass was a genuine, then these missionaries must have been intimated, but it was claimed only in the court as a tool to make al-Musta'li enthroned.

Al-Afdal feared the growing power of Imam al-Nizar in Alexandria, where he spurred his horses in 488/1095, but suffered a sharp repulse in the first engagement, and retreated to Cairo. According to Ibn Athir and Ibn Khallikan, Imam al-Nizar also got favour of the nomad Arabs and dominated the northern area of Egypt.

Al-Afdal once again took field with huge army and besieged Alexandria. He tempted the companions of Imam al-Nizar, and fetched them to his side. Ibn Massal was the first to have deserted the field from the thick of fight, and fled with his materials by sea towards Maghrib. It is related that Ibn Massal had a dream that he was walking on horseback, and al-Afdal was walking in his train. He consulted an astrologer, who remarked that he who walked on the earth was to possess it. On hearing this, Ibn Massal collected his wealth and fled to Lokk, a village near Barqa in Maghrib. This defection marked the turning point of Imam's power. In addition, the long siege resulted great fortune to al-Afdal, wherein many skirmishes took place. Imam al-Nizar and his faithful fought valiantly, but due to the treachery of his men, he was arrested and taken prisoner with Abdullah and Iftagin to Cairo.

Iftagin was executed in Cairo. According to Ibn Khallikan, Imam al-Nizar was immured by his brother al-Musta'li's orders and al-Afdal had him shut up between two walls till he died in 490/1097. According to John Alden Williams in Islam (New York, 1967, p. 218), "The followers of al-Nizar in Abbasid territory refused to accept this and took Nizar's son to one of their mountain fortress, Alamut."

The Ismaili missionaries spread the Nizari Ismailism since the time of Imam al-Mustansir by leaps and bounds. Hasan bin Sabbah operated the Nizarid mission freely throughout its length and breath and established the Nizarid rule at Alamut in Iran. Henceforward, the center of the Nizari Imamate with a large following in Iran, Syria and Central Asia, transferred from Egypt to Iran.

Muhammad bin Ali al-Suri, the Fatimid da'i in Syria, who died few months after Imam al-Mustansir billah in 488/1095, had enumerated the Imams in a long Arabic poem, vide al-Qasida al-Suriyya (ed. Arif Tamir, Damascus, 1955, pp. 41-71). He is said to have given his full supports to the cause of Imam al-Nizar in Syria and propagated to this effect in his region.

According to Ibn Khallikan, Ibn Massal received a letter from al-Afdal, inviting him to return to Egypt, which he did, and was honourably received in Cairo.

Al-Musta'li remained a puppet in the hands of al-Afdal throughout his short reign (1094-1101), during which the Crusaders first appeared in 490/1097 in the Levant to liberate the holy land of Christendom. The Crusaders easily defeated the local Fatimid garrison, and occupied Jerusalem in 492/1099. By 493/1100, the Crusaders had gained their footholds in Palestine, and founded several principalities based on Jerusalem and other localities in Palestine and Syria. In the midst of the Fatimids' continued attempts to repel the Crusaders, al-Musta'li died in 495/1102, who made no personal contribution to the Fatimid rule. He virtually held no power in the state, and came out only as required by al-Afdal at the public functions.

W.B. Fisher writes in The Middle East and North Africa (London, 1973, p. 243) that, "After the death of al-Mustansir, the six succeeding caliphs had no power". After Musta'li's death, al-Afdal proclaimed al-Musta'li's five year-old son, Abu Ali al-Mansur, surnamed al-Amir (d. 524/1130).

We have seen heretofore that al-Afdal was an absolute master of the Fatimid empire for 27 years and was murdered in 515/1121. Ibn Qalanisi writes in Tarikh-i Dimashq (tr. H.A.R. Gibb, London, 1932, p. 163) that, "It was asserted that the Batinis (Ismailis) were responsible for his assassination, but this statement is not true." Yaacov Lev writes in State and Society in Fatimid Egypt (London, 1991, p. 55) that, "On 30 Ramzan 515/12 December 1121, al-Afdal was assassinated and his twenty-seven years of military dictatorship were brought to an end. Although one of the assassins was captured, who masterminded the plot remains unknown. From reading the sources one receives the impression that the Nizari Ismailis perpetrated the killing. However, judging by the subsequent events, al-Amir must have been involved in the plot."

Ibn Khallikan (1:613-4) writes that, "It was al-Afdal who, on the death of al-Musta'li, placed al-Amir, that sovereign's son on the throne: he then took the direction of public affairs into his own hands, and having confined the prince in his palace, he prevented him from indulging his passion for pleasure and amusements. This treatment induced al-Amir to plot against his vizir's life, and on the evening of Sunday, the 30th Ramzan, 515, as al-Afdal rode forth from his habitation in the imperial palace, he was attacked by the conspirators and slain while proceeding towards the river."

Henceforward, the Fatimid rule embarked on its rapid decline. The supposed infant son of al-Amir is named, Tayyib, about two and half years old, but De Lacy O'Leary holds however that when al-Amir's wife was delivered, her child was a daughter (op. cit., p. 223). Anyhow, the chief guardian of Tayyib was Ibn Madyan, who is said to have hidden the minor Tayyib in a mosque called Masjid ar-Rahma. Makrizi tells that the infant son of al-Amir was carried in a basket after wrapping it up and covering it over with vegetables. Here in the mosque, a wet nurse cared for him. And all of this was done without Hafiz knowing anything about it. Makrizi also writes that Tayyib was arrested and killed. The followers of Tayyib in Yamen however believed that he was hidden in 524/1130 and his line exists even today in concealment. The Ayyubid ruler Saladin (d. 589/1193) at length, put an end of the Fatimid rule in 567/1171, and had the khutba read in Cairo in the name of Abbasid caliph al-Mustadi (d. 575/1180), thus proclaiming Abbasid suzerainty in Egypt.

Back to top