The Fatimids

[ 972 - 1171 ]


Rise of the Fatimids

In the 8th century AD, Egypt and much of the Islamic world were ruled by the Abbasid Chaliphate. This era was the weaker phase of the Caliphate, where princes (and in cases dynasties) in several provinces were the actual rulers, and the Caliphate's power was superficial. Famous dynasties of the time include the Ikhshidis in Egypt and the Aghlabids in North Africa. The majority of the Moslem population living under the Abbasid rule followed the mainstream Sunni form of Islam. Other sects included the twelver Shiis in Iraq and some parts of Persia, the Zaydi Shiis in Northern Persia and Yemen, and the Kharajites ( al-Khawarij ) scattered in parts of Arabia, Iraq and North Africa.

The political arena was brewing with some underground heretical movements in that time. Most of these movements tried to associate themselves with the prophet's [PBUH] family in order to draw the attention of masses. These were known to the majority of Moslems with the name of al-Batiniyya , meaning those who adhered to secretive and undeclared beliefs. Many of these Batinis created a multitude of legends about the deceased Ismail ibn Ja'far (a direct descendant of the prophet's [PBUH] daughter) and proclaimed themselves to be his descendants. The majority of the Batini sects were considered heretic and blasphemous by other Moslems including the twelver and Zaydi Shiis.

One of these movements was that of Abu Abd-Allah who belonged to a secretive Ismailite sect. He succeeded in gaining a large amount of followers in al-Maghreb (Present day Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), especially within the tribe of Kitama. Abu Abd-Allah propagated a prophecy that the Awaited Guided One (al-Mahdi al-Muntazar) who is a descendant of the prophet [PBUH] has emerged in the Syrian town of Salamiya and that he will come to al-Maghreb to fill the land with justice.

The Guided One whom Abu Abd-Allah called for was none but another member of the same heretic sect called `Ubayd-Allah Sai'd who called himself al-Mahdi. al-Mahdi traveled to al-Maghreb, took over the leadership of Kitama and executed his follower `Ubayd Allah fearing a competition over the leadership of their followers. In a short period of time `Ubayd-Allah was able to conquer by force the whole of al-Maghreb in addition to Tarablus (present day Libya). He made the city of al-Mahdiyya (in present day Tunisia) his capital in 909.

To tarnish his rule with an adorable Islamic name, he claimed to be a descendant of the prophet's daughter (Fatima [RAA]). Hence, their followers addressed them with the title Fatimiyyin. The dynasty and its ministers to an extreme form of Shiism , while the majority of the population they governed adhered to Sunni Islam. They appointed themselves as the Caliphs over all Moslems in a challenge to the Sunni Abbasids.

The Fatimid Conquest of Egypt

Egypt lied on the eastern border of the newly formed Fatimid empire. Its population consisted mainly of Sunni Muslims who had their religious affiliation with the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Most of the Egyptian population followed the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence. Adherents to other religions included Christians and a small community of Jews.

The Fatimids craved for the banks of the Nile in order to make Egypt their capital province. As early as the time of the first Fatimid Ruler ,`Ubayd Allah , four attempts were made to conquer Egypt in 913, 919, 933 and 936, but all these attempts were repelled by the powerful Ikhishidis who ruled Egypt. After these expeditions failed, the Fatimids had to turn their forces to crush several Maghrebian revolts.

With the death of Kafur the last of the Ikhshidi rulers, Egypt fell into chaos. Several members of the family quarreled among themselves and the road was paved for the waiting Fatimids. The fourth Fatimid Caliph, al-Mu'iz li Din Allah, sent his trusted commander Jawhar al-Siqilli with a large army who found no resistance in conquering Egypt in 969.

As soon as Jawhar arrived, he started in building a new capital for his master known as al-Mansuriyya. It was to be built to the north of three other nearby towns which, in consequence, were Egypt's capital. These were al-Fustat, al-`Askar and al-Qatai'. When Jawhar's master al-Mu'iz arrived in Egypt he changed the new city's name into al-Qahira (Cairo). al-Qahira was to be inhabited by the ruling Fatimid elite as well as their loyal Maghrebian tribes who followed their beliefs and who constituted the main body of the Fatimid army.

Hearing the good news, al-Mu'iz hurried to Egypt and transferred all his ministers, ruling elite and soldiers to the new capital. Common Egyptians were sceptic of the heretic beliefs the new rulers. They were appeased at first by an oath made by Jawhar promising tolerance for all beliefs. This policy soon changed, when al-Mu'iz knew that rumors were spreading in the country about his authenticity of his claim of being a descendant of the prophet [PBUH]. To intimidate skeptics, he made his famous comment saying Whoever wants to know who are my ancestors, here they are (and he drew his sword) and here are my kin (and he showed some jewelry) .

The Fatimid forces of al-Mu'iz marched further eastwards and conquered Palestine, the southern part of Syria and western Arabia. That was the maximum expansion of the Fatimid empire. When the empire grew weaker provinces secceded from the empire returning to the Sunni rule. Secessions started in the west (present day Morocco) and continued until Egypt's borders. The Seljuk Turks regained Palestine and Arabia to the Abbasid Caliphate and the Fatimids eventually became confined to Egypt.

The Birth of al-Azhar

When Jawhar al-Siqilli planned for the construction of al-Qahira, he drew plans to construct a new large mosque intended to be the centre of prayers for his master al-Mu'iz and his Maghrebite followers. This mosque was first known as Jami' al-Qahira (The mosque of Cairo). It had one minaret and occupied half the area occupied by the present day al-Azhar mosque.

The name, Jami' al-Qahira, remained for most of the Fatimid rule of Egypt. It is not known when the name was changed to al-Azhar and even historians differ to the cause of calling it al-Azhar. While some historians attribute the name to the remembrance to Fatima al-Zahra' [RAA] (the prophet's [PBUH] daughter), others mention that the mosque was built amidst a number of palaces known as al-Qusur al-Zahira and that the name Azhar was drawn from that name.

Since its establishment al-Azhar was the mosque in which main Friday prayers was conducted, and inhabitants of other nearby towns, Misr (al-Askar and al-Fustat combined) and al-Qatai', had to flock every Friday to al-Qahira to attend the Friday prayers and listen to the Khutba (The ritual mass addressing preceding the prayers) of the Fatimid Caliph.

The form of the Adhan (The call for prayers) and Khutba in al-Azhar, during the Fatimid era, followed the Shiite model. The mosque remained the official mosque of the Fatimid state for fourty years until the construction of Jami' al-Hakim (al-Hakim's mosque) during the reign of the Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi Amr Allah.

al-Azhar was also the centre of several celebrations of the Fatimids like the celebration of the prophet's [PBUH] birthday.

al-Azhar becomes a university

As soon as the al-Azhar was built, al-Mu'iz instructed his friend Ali ibn al-Nu'man to make a halaqa (a tutoring circle) for teaching the Ismaili-Shiite jurisprudence. Ali ibn al-Nu'man belonged to a Maghrebite family who followed the same beliefs of their Fatimid masters. His father wrote a book in Ismaili jurisprudence known as al-Ikhtisar . It was this book that started the Azharite education. The first halaqa took place in 975.

This halaqa was followed by others, which were headed by Ali ibn al-Nu'man's brothers. So al-Nu'man's family formed the intellectual elite of the Fatimids and became the first teachers in al-Azhar. The halaqas in al-Azhar were paralleled by others that were present in Egypt before the Fatimid rule. These included halaqas in the mosques of Amr ibn al-As and ibn-Tulun.

In the year 998, al-Azhar moved a further step in becoming an Islamic university. The Fatimid caliph al-`Azeez Billah approved a proposal by his trusted minister Ya'qub ibn Kils to organize the Azharite education. He proposed to allocate a number of regular teachers to the education process in al-Azhar. The future teachers were to be educated by ibn-Kils personally and this system was to be the nucleous of the Azharite academic education. Furthermore these teachers would follow an organized curriculum and they would recieve regular payments from the Fatimid government.

The education in al-Azhar concentrated on the Ismaili-Shiite beliefs, but eventually Arabic grammar, literature and history were included. The historian al-Makrizi states that in the early years of the Fatimid rule, the sectarian education was so strict in al-Azhar that the ownership of a book authored by a Sunni scholar was severly punished. This tradition eased when the Fatimids built another mosque whose school took the lead of Ismaili-Shiite teachings from al-Azhar. This school was Dar al-Hikma .

al-Azhar and Dar al-Hikma

In the year 1005 AD, the sixth Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi Amr Allah ordered the construction of another mosque in his own name (Jami' al-Hakim) along with a school called Dar al-Hikma. It was this school which took the lead from al-Azhar (or Jami' al-Qahira as it was called in that time) in propagating the Ismaili-Shiite teachings.

The main purpose of building Dar al-Hikma in addition to al-Azhar was to instruct the secret beliefs of the heretic sect to selected students, whereas al-Azhar was meant for public education. Nevertheless Dar al-Hikma had a wide scope of sciences that was taught in its halaqas . These sciences included Arabic language, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, medicine and astrology.

The establishment of Dar al-Hikma lowered the sectarian tone of Azharite education, and non-Ismaili books became tolerated. At the same time the Ismaili-Shiite teaching in al-Azhar became limited to some Shii jurispudence, whereas the extreme forms of Ismailism was transferred to Dar al-Hikma.

The secretive exteremist teachings that were taught in Dar al-Hikma leaked out of the school and its role in converting students to its beliefs leaked and was met by a revolt in the Cairean population. The Fatimids at one time had to close the school and then reopened it after cancelling its secretive courses.

In the years when Dar al-Hikma emerged over al-Azhar as the centre of Fatimid education, several prominent figures who visited Egypt were educated in it. These include the Persian poet and traveller Naser-i-Khusru who had his Ismaili education in Dar al-Hikma and Hassan-i-Sabbah the founder of the Hashashin order in Persia.

Azharite Scholars during the Fatimid Period

Although al-Nu'man family took care of teaching Ismaili-Shiite jurisprudence in al-Azhar, some prominent scholars taught in al-Azhar in the time of the Fatimids specially when the core of the Ismaili teachings were transferred to Dar al-Hikma.

These include al-Hufi the grammarian, Abu Abd-Allah al-Quda'i the Hadith scholar, Ahmad ibn Hashim al-Misri the Imam of al-Qira'at , ibn-Babshad the grammarian and ibn-Barakat the grammarian.

Finance of al-Azhar

After its establishment, al-Azhar was financed directly by the Fatimid caliphs. Eventually the financial system changed and the Fatimid caliphs as well as some of the wealthy members of the Egyptian communities offered their belongings (land, shops, markets, etc.) so that the profit is channeled to al-Azhar's budget. These belongings were known as al-Ahbas.