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.)