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ZAHIR (411-427/1021-1036), 17TH IMAM

Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

"He was born on 20th Ramzan, 395/June 4, 1005. His name was Ali Abul Hasan, or Abu Ma'd, surnamed az-Zahir la-azaz dinallah (Assister in exalting the religion of God). His mother Amina was the daughter of Abdullah, the son of Imam al-Muizz. He acceded on the throne of Fatimid Caliphate and Imamate on 411/1021 at the age of 16 years. On the occasion of his coronation, a special payment in excess (fadl) of 20 dinars was granted to each soldier.

A black eunuch Midad began his career in the service of Sit al-Mulk, the aunt of Imam az-Zahir. She employed him as a teacher of Imam az-Zahir. On Friday, the 18th Safar, 415/May 1, 1024, Imam az-Zahir invested Midad the honorific title and named him Abul Fawaris. Later on, Midad was assigned the administration of the affairs of the soldiers according to a long edict read publicly in the palace.

Imam az-Zahir began his career under the tutelage of his aunt, Sit al-Mulk (the lady of the state), also known as Sit al-Nasr, who was born in 359/980. During the first four years of Imam az-Zahir's rule, the whole power was in the hands of his aunt. The personnel of Sit al-Mulk in the administration included both men and women. Abul Abbas Ahmad bin a-Maghribi, for example, served as her agent, who was a man of laudable character and had already served the mother of Sit al-Mulk in the same capacity. She also employed a slave girl of her mother, named Takarrub, was her confidante. She also served as her informant and handled the petitions submitted to her. It is said that at the beginning of her regency, she managed to summon Abdul Rahman bin Ilyas bin Ahmad, the great-grandson of Imam al-Mahdi and the cousin of Imam al-Hakim, who had hatched rebellion against the Fatimids at Damascus, and is reported to have made his contact with the Jarrahids of Palestine to help him in his action. Sit al-Mulk made vizir Khatir al-Mulk, Ammar bin Muhammad write a letter to Abdul Rahman. He had been arrested in Cairo and imprisoned for some four years, then fell ill and died just three days before Sit al-Mulk herself died. Thus, she is reported to have wielded great influence over the masses and directly participated in the state affairs, and remained quite influential until her death in 416/1026. Ibn Khallikan (8:130) writes that, "She showed exceptional ability, especially in legal matters, and made herself loved by the people." During these four years, the chief ministers changed in quick succession and thus the administration could not acquire stability. After the death of Sit al-Mulk, the principle power passed into the hands of a trio from among the court nobles, who paid daily visit to the Imam for getting decision on all important matters.

It has been hitherto discussed the closure of the majalis al-hikmah during the period of Imam al-Hakim. But it was evidently reopened by his successor. He conferred the office of the qadi and the mission in the royal palace (bab al-khalifa) to Qadi Kassim bin Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad bin an-Noman in 418/1027, ordering to take charge of the mission and the proper guidance of the readings of the majalis al-hikmah and the spread of the science of tawil among the followers. He also sent an edict in this context to all his followers and also ordered the da'is to read it out explicitly to the faithful in their respective regions. According to Uyun'l-Akhbar (6:315), the edict of Imam az-Zahir of 5th Shaban, 417/September 21, 1026 reads:- "The gate of wisdom was open until our Lord al-Hakim bi-Amrillah thought it right to close it because of the prevailing circumstances and on political grounds (bi-siyasti'l jumhur). But now, continues the edict, the conditions that Commander of the Faithful has ordered the chief da'i, Kassim bin Abdul Aziz bin Muhammad bin an-Noman to open the gate of wisdom to those who long for it, and to read the majalis again in the palace of the Caliphs as has been customary there before."

Meanwhile, a terrible famine broke out in Egypt as a result of a series of bad Niles, and the resultant distress lasted all through 416/1026 and 417/1027. In many cases the starving villages took to brigandage. Even the pilgrims on their way through Egypt were attacked. Regulations were passed to prevent the slaughter of cattle. The camels were scarce as many were killed because it was impossible to provide them with food, and poultry could hardly be procured. The royal treasury was practically depleted, for it was impossible to collect taxes.

Imam az-Zahir once on that perilous time was passing through Fustat when going to one of his palaces. Everywhere he encountered starving, shouting people who cried out: "Hunger, O' Amir al-mominin! hunger. Neither your father nor your grandfather did such things to us. In the name of God, to God we entrust our affair." These cries reflected the feeling that the regime had mishandled the situation. The Imam took its serious and arranged to distribute food for them, and assured the people to take actions. On the same day, Ibn Dawwas, the market inspector was summoned to the palace; he was accused of causing the famine and blamed for bringing the town to the verge of violent outburst. The people rebuked him and said: "A document in your handwriting is evidence on your part, which serves against you that you undertook upon yourself to provide the town with bread and wheat until the time of the new harvest." Following this conversation, the millers were permitted to buy wheat from granaries (makaazin) at a fixed price of one tillis (one tillis is equivalent to 67.5 kg.) for 2.5 dinars, and the price of a load of flour was determined at 4 dinars. The price of bread was fixed at two and half ratls for dhiram. The prices established by the market inspector were considerably lower than those of the free market. The same was applied to bread, following the sealing of the granaries, two ratls of black bread were sold for 1.5 dhiram. These swift measures brought great deal of relief. Further, punitive actions were taken by the market inspectors against several flour merchants (qammahun), including a prominent member of the trade. Later in a year, however, there was a good inundation, called ziyadat al-nil (the plentitude of the Nile) and this restored plenty, so that the country was once more under normal conditions and order was restored.

In 418-9/1028-9, Imam az-Zahir was able to make a treaty with the Greek emperor, Costantine III. It was agreed that the Fatimid Caliph should be prayed for in the khutba in every mosque in the Byzantine dominions, and permission was granted for the restoration of the mosque at Constantinople, which had been ruined in retaliation for the destruction of the church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. Imam az-Zahir on his part agreed to permit the rebuilding of the church at Jerusalem.

In the meantime, the attacks which the Sicilian launched on the Byzantine coasts were reinforced by the Fatimids. The Byzantine force commanded by the general George Maniaces was badly defeated. In his negotiations with the Fatimid Imam az-Zahir in 423/1032, the emperor Romanus III Argyrus (968-1034) however expressly demanded that the Fatimids should not aid the Sahib Sikilliyya in the campaign against Byzantine.

Sicily became virtually independent of the Fatimids. The Kalbid governors confined themselves to accepting retrospective investiture from Cairo. They have cemented their close ties with the Zirids, whose suzerainty the Sicilian recognized in 427/1036. Until the time of Imam az-Zahir and even under his successor, the Sicilian coins however bore the name of the Fatimid Caliph.

The Fatimid power in Syria was seriously impugned at the time of Imam az-Zahir's accession, but it was soon altered by the ability and enterprise of Anushtagin ad-Dizbiri. His first important action was against Saleh bin Mirdas, the Arab chieftain who had taken Aleppo from Murtada and had now established himself as an independent prince.

Ibn Hawshab had formed an Ismaili state in 268/882 in Yamen. Long after his death, the political power slipped away from the hands of the Ismailis, but their mission continued actively. During the period of Imam az-Zahir, the headship of the Yamenite mission had come to be vested in a certain da'i Suleman bin Abdullah al-Zawahi, a learned and influential person residing in the mountainous region of Haraz. He made a large conversion and wished to re-establish the political power of the Ismailis in Yamen. It is said that a certain Hamdani chieftain, named Ali bin Muhammad al-Sulayhi, the son of the qadi of Haraz, once came to lead the pilgrim caravans to Mecca, and had learnt much about Ismaili doctrines from Suleman and espoused Ismailism. Ali took a leading part in the mission works in Yamen and became the assistant of Suleman, who chose him as his successor. Ali bin Muhammad al-Sulayhi generated his close contact with Imam az-Zahir and the mission headquarters in Cairo.

In 429/1038, during the period of Imam al-Mustansir billah, Ali bin Muhammad captured Mount Masar in Haraz to the north of Yamen, and fortified it, whom he made his centre. This marked the foundation of the Sulayhid dynasty, which ruled over Yamen as a vassal of the Fatimids for almost a century until 532/1138. He obtained support from the Hamdani, Humayri and other petty tribes of Yamen and instituted the Fatimid khutba everywhere.

We have discussed previously that Fatik, the governor of Aleppo had declared himself as an independent ruler on the eve of the death of Imam al-Hakim. Later on, Fatik admitted his mistakes and apologized from Imam az-Zahir and Sit al-Mulk. In 413/1022, Badr, the commander of the stronghold of Aleppo had killed Fatik. In the following year, az-Zahir expelled Badr from Aleppo and appointed Abdullah bin Ali bin Jafar al-Katami as the governor of Aleppo and Safi ad-Dawla to administer the command of the stronghold.

During the later part of Imam az-Zahir's rule, the Fatimid influence had become supreme in Palestine and Syria, save only in the few northern districts which remained subject to the Greek empire. It seemed indeed to be the triumph of the Fatimids.

In Cairo, Abu Sa'ad Ibrahim (d. 440/1048) was a famous Jewish dealer in very rare and precious things and made long journey to acquire them. Imam az-Zahir used to be a frequent customer of Abu Sa'ad, from whom he bought antiques for his personal collections. The Fatimids made great contribution in the rock-crystal works in various forms, mostly developed during the time of Imam az-Zahir, such as ewers, bottles, cups, saucers, boxes, chessmen and flasks of different shapes. One of these interesting piece is preserved in crescent shape work in the Germanisches National Museum in Nurnberg. It was originally used as an ornament for one of the horses of Imam az-Zahir, whose name is inscribed on it. There are also another rock-crystal mugs in the collections of Lourvre, Venice, Vienna and Prague; belonging to the period of Imam az-Zahir.

In 421/1030 and again in 424/1033, Imam az-Zahir rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, which had collapsed following an earthquake. He was also responsible for rebuilding the Aqsa Mosque and the repair of its mosaics.

In 427/1036, Imam az-Zahir was detained some time by sickness. He was taken to Maks, then the port of Cairo, where he died on the 15th of Shaban, 427/June 13, 1036, leaving the Caliphate and Imamate to his son, al-Mustansir, then a child of seven years of age.


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