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Fatimid Islamic Caliphate
الدولة الفاطمية




The Fatimid Caliphate at its peak, c. 969.
Capital Mahdia
Languages Arabic (official)
Berber, Coptic
Religion Shia Islam(Ismailism)
Government Islamic Caliphate
 -  909–934 (first) al-Mahdi Billah
 -  1160–1171 (last) al-Adid
Historical era Early Middle Ages
 -  Established January 5, 909
 -  Foundation of Cairo August 8, 969
 -  Disestablished 1171
 -  969[2] 4,100,000 km² (1,583,019 sq mi)
 -  est. 6,200,000 
Currency Dinar
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Succeeded by
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Ikhshidid dynasty
Ayyubid dynasty
Almoravid dynasty
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Emirate of Sicily
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The Fatimid Caliphate (Arabic: الفاطميون, al-Fāṭimiyyūn) was the fourth Islamic caliphate. Its sovereignty spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west.The dynasty ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and ultimately made Egypt the center of the caliphate. At its height, the caliphate included in addition to Egypt varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz.

The Fatimids were mainly descended from Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. The Fatimid state took shape among the Berber Kutama, the people of Algeria. In 909 Fatimid established the Tunisian city of Mahdia as their capital. In 948 they shifted their capital to Al-Mansuriya. In 969 they conquered Egypt and built the city of Cairo, which became the capital of the caliphate, and Egypt became the political, cultural, and religious centre of the state.

The ruling elite of the state belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shi'ism, as were the leaders of the dynasty. They are also part of the chain of holders of the office of Caliph, as recognized by orthodox Muslims. Therefore, this constitutes a rare period in history in which the descendants of Ali via the daughter of the prophet, Fatimah (hence the name Fatimid), and the Caliphate were united to any degree, except for the final period of the Rashidun Caliphate under Ali himself. The term Fatimite is sometimes used to refer to citizens of the caliphate.

The caliphate often exercised a great degree of religious tolerance towards non-Ismaili sects of Islam as well as towards Jews, Maltese Christians, and Coptic Christians.[3] The Fatimid caliphate was also distinguished by the central role of Berbers in its initial establishment and development especially on military and political levels.

In the course of the later eleventh and twelfth century, however, the Fatimid caliphate declined rapidly, and in 1171 the country was invaded by Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, who founded the Ayyubid dynasty and reincorporated the state into the Abbasid Caliphate.[4]

Rise of the Fatimids


The Fatimid Caliphate's religious ideology originated in an Ismaili Shia movement launched in Syria by the ninth Imam Abd Allah al-Akbar.[5] He claimed descent through Ismail, the seventh Shia imam, from the Prophet's daughter Fatimah and her husband ʻAlī ibn-Abī-Tālib, the first Shīʻa Imām, hence the name al-Fātimiyyūn "Fatimid".[6] The ninth to eleventh Imams (Abadullah, Ahmed and Husain) remained hidden and worked for the movement against that time's Abbasid rulers.

Among the Berber Kutama, the people of Algeria,in 899 Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, the 12th Imam, became leader of the movement. He fled Middle East from his enemies to Sijilmasa in Morocco, where he proselytized under the guise of being a merchant. [5] Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi had been imprisoned in Sijilmasa due to his Ismaili beliefs. Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, the man who was later known as the founder of the Fatamid dynasty accompanied by his son al-Qasim, arrived in the Maghrib in 905. Ubayed Allah and his son made their way to Sijilmassa, fleeing persecution by the Abbasids, who found their Isma'ili Shi'ite beliefs not only unorthodox, but also threatening to the status quo of their caliphate. According to legend, ‘Ubayed Allah and his son were fulfilling a prophecy that the madhi would come from Mesopotamia to Sijilmassa. They hid among the population of Sijilmassa for four years under the countenance of the Midrar rulers, specifically one Prince Yasa'. [5]

Al-Mahdi was supported by dedicated Shi'ite Abu 'Abdullah al-Shi'i, and al-Shi'i started his preaching after he encountered a group of Berbers during his hajj. These men bragged about the country of the Kutama in western Ifriqiya (today part of Algeria), and the hostility of the Kutama towards, and their complete independence from, the Aghlabid rulers. This triggered al-Shi'i to travel to the region, where he started to preach the Ismaili doctrine. The Berber peasants, who had been oppressed for decades by the corrupt Aghlabid rule, would prove themselves to be a perfect basis for sedition. Instantly, al-Shi'i began conquering cities in the region: first Mila, then Sétif, Kairouan, and eventually Raqqada, the Aghlabid capital. In 909 Al-Shi'i sent a large expedition force to rescue the Mahdi, conquering the Khariji state of Tahert on its way there. After gaining his freedom, Ubayd Allah became the leader of the growing state and assumed the position of imam and caliph.

The Fatimids existed during the Islamic Golden Age.[7] The dynasty was founded in 909 by the eleventh Imam ʻAbdullāh al-Mahdī Billah. For the first half of its existence the empire's power rested primarily on its strength, as its army conquered northern Africa, Palestine, Syria, and for a short time, Baghdad.

A new capital was established at al-Mahdiyya. The Muslim Mahdia was founded by the Fatimids under the Caliph Abdallah al-Mahdi in 921 and made Ifriqiya their capital city.[8] It was chosen as the capital because of its proximity to the sea and the promontory on which an important military settlement had been since the time of the Phoenicians.[9]


The Fatimid Caliphate grew to include Sicily and to stretch across North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to Libya.[10] Abdullāh al-Mahdi's control soon extended over all of central Maghreb, an area consisting of the modern countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, which he ruled from Mahdia, his newly built capital in Tunisia. Al-Mansuriya, or Mansuriyya (Arabic: المنصوريه ‎), near Kairouan, Tunisia, was the capital of the Fatimid Caliphate during the rules of the Imams Al-Mansur Billah (r. 946–953) and Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah (r. 953–975).

The Fatimid general Jawhar conquered Egypt in 969, and he built a new palace city there, near Fusṭāt, which he also called al-Manṣūriyya. Under Al-Muizz Lideenillah, the Fatimids (see Fatimid Egypt) conquered the Ikhshidid dynasty, founding a new capital at al-Qāhira (Cairo) in 969.[11] The name was a reference to the planet Mars, "The Subduer",[6] which was prominent in the sky at the moment that city construction started. Cairo was intended as a royal enclosure for the Fatimid caliph and his army, though the actual administrative and economic capital of Egypt was in cities such as Fustat until 1169. After Egypt, the Fatimids continued to conquer the surrounding areas until they ruled from Tunisia to Syria, as well as Sicily.

Under the Fatimids, Egypt became the center of an empire that included at its peak North Africa, Sicily, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Tihamah, Hejaz, and Yemen. Egypt flourished, and the Fatimids developed an extensive trade network in both the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. Their trade and diplomatic ties extended all the way to China and its Song Dynasty, which eventually determined the economic course of Egypt during the High Middle Ages. The Fatimid focus on long-distance trade was accompanied by a lack of interest in agriculture and a neglect of the Nile irrigation system.[6]

Administration and culture

Unlike other governments in the area, advancement in Fatimid state offices was based more on merit than on heredity. Members of other branches of Islam, like the Sunnis, were just as likely to be appointed to government posts as Shiites. Tolerance was extended to non-Muslims such as Christians and Jews,[6] who occupied high levels in government based on ability, and tolerance was set into place to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims in order to finance the Caliphs' large army of Mamluks brought in from Circassia by Genoese merchants. There were exceptions to this general attitude of tolerance, however, most notably by Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, though this has been highly debated, with Al-Hakim's reputation among medieval Muslim historians conflated with his role in the Druze faith.[6]

The Fatimids were also known for their exquisite arts. A type of ceramic, lustreware, was prevalent during the Fatimid period. Glassware and metalworking was also popular. Many traces of Fatimid architecture exist in Cairo today; the most defining examples include the Al Azhar University and the Al Hakim mosque. The Al Azhar University was the first university in the East and perhaps the oldest in history. The madrasa is one of the relics of the Fatimid dynasty era of Egypt, descended from Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad. Fatimah was called Az-Zahra (the brilliant), and the madrasa was named in her honor. It was founded as a mosque by the Fatimid commander Jawhar at the orders of the Caliph Al-Muizz when he founded the city of Cairo. It was (probably on Saturday) in Jamadi al-Awwal in the year 359 A.H. Its building was completed on the 9th of Ramadan in the year 361 A.H. Both Al-'Aziz Billah and Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah added to its premises. It was further repaired, renovated, and extended by Al-Mustansir Billah and Al-Hafiz Li-Din-illah. Fatimid Caliphs always encouraged scholars and jurists to have their study-circles and gatherings in this mosque, and thus it was turned into a university that has the claim to be considered as the oldest still-functioning University.[12]

The intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid period reached a great degree of progress and activity due to the number of scholars who either lived in Egypt or came from outside, as well as to the number of books available. The Fatimid Caliphs gave prominent positions to the scholars in their courts and encouraged the students. Fatimids paid attention to establishing libraries in their palaces so that the scholars might polish up their knowledge and get the benefit of what their predecessors had done.[12]

Perhaps the most significant feature of Fatimid rule was the freedom of thought and reason extended to the people, who could believe in whatever they liked provided they did not infringe on the rights of others. Fatimids reserved separate pulpits for different Islamic sects, where the scholars expressed their ideas in whatever manner they liked. Fatimids gave patronage to scholars and invited them from every place, spending money on them even when their beliefs conflicted with those of the Fatimids. The history of the Fatimids, from this point of view, is in fact the history of knowledge, literature, and philosophy. It is the history of sacred freedom of expression.[12]

The Fatimid palace in Cairo had two parts. It stood in the Khan el-Khalili area at Bayn El-Qasryn street.[13]

Military system

The Fatimid military was based largely on the Kutama Berber tribesmen brought along on the march to Egypt, and they remained an important part of the military even after Tunisia began to break away.[14] After their successful establishment in Egypt, local forces were also incorporated into the army, though they remained a relatively minor part of the Fatimid forces (and of succeeding dynasties as well).

A fundamental change occurred when the Fatimid Caliph attempted to push into Syria in the later half of the 10th century. The Fatimids were faced with the now Turkish-dominated forces of the Abbasid Caliph and began to realize the limits of their current military. Thus during the reign of Abu Mansur Nizar al-Aziz Billah and Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the Caliph began incorporating armies of Turks and later Black Africans (even later, other groups such as Armenians were also used).[15] The army units were generally separated along ethnic lines, thus the Berbers were usually the light cavalry and foot skirmishers, while the Turks would be the horse archers or heavy cavalry (known as Mamluks). The black Africans, Syrians, and Arabs generally acted as the heavy infantry and foot archers. This ethnic-based army system, along with the partial slave status of many of the imported ethnic fighters, would remain fundamentally unchanged in Egypt many centuries after the fall of the Fatimid caliph.

The Fatimids put all their military power toward the defense of the Islamic world whenever it was menaced by dangers and threats. The Fatimids were able to meet these threats and repel attacks, especially during the rule of Al-Muizz Lideenillah. During his reign, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Nikephoros II Phokas, who had clashed with Muslims in Crete in 961. He conquered Tartus, Al-Masaisah, 'Ain Zarbah, and other places, and as Ibn-ul-Athir says, he set upon reconquering the whole Roman Empire. His objectives were fulfilled due to fighting among the Muslim rulers, and he ravaged the Islamic territories. His method was to attack small villages, plunder, devastate, and capture them. He gained complete control of the Iraq and Syrian borders. The Muslims were terrified and were quite convinced that the Byzantines would occupy all of Syria, Egypt, Al-Jazira (Northern Iraq), and Diyar Bakr. But the armies and the navy of the Fatimids defeated the Byzantines.[12]

Civil war and decline

While the ethnic-based army was generally successful on the battlefield, it began to have negative effects on Fatimid internal politics. Traditionally the Berber element of the army had the strongest sway over political affairs, but as the Turkish element grew more powerful, it began to challenge this, and by 1020 serious riots had begun to break out among the Black African troops who were fighting back against a Berber-Turk Alliance.

By the 1060s, the tentative balance between the different ethnic groups within the Fatimid army collapsed as Egypt was suffering through a serious span of drought and famine. The declining resources accelerated the problems among the different ethnic factions, and outright civil war began, primarily between the Turks and Black African troops, while the Berbers shifted alliance between the two sides.[16] The Turkish forces of the Fatimid army seized most of Cairo and held the city and Caliph at ransom, while the Berber troops and remaining Sudanese forces roamed the other parts of Egypt, making an already bad situation much worse.

By 1072 the Fatimid Caliph Abū Tamīm Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah in a desperate attempt to save Egypt recalled the general Badr al-Jamali, who was at the time the governor of Acre, Palestine. Badr al-Jamali led his troops into Egypt and was able to successfully suppress the different groups of the rebelling armies, largely purging the Turks in the process. Although the Caliphate was saved from immediate destruction, the decade long rebellion devastated Egypt and it was never able to regain much power. As a result, Badr al-Jamali was also made the vizier of the Fatimid caliph, becoming one of the first military viziers ("Amir al Juyush", Arabic: امير الجيوش‎, Commander of Forces of the Fatimids) that would dominate late Fatimid politics. Al-Jam`e Al-Juyushi (Arabic: الجامع الجيوشي‎, The Mosque of the Armies), or Juyushi Mosque, was built by Badr al-Jamali. The mosque was completed in 478 H/1085 AD under the patronage of then Caliph and Imam Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah. It was built on an end of the Mokattam Hills, ensuring a view of the Cairo city.[17] This Mosque/mashhad was also known as a victory monument commemorating vizier Badr's restoration of order for the Imam Mustansir.[18] As the military viziers effectively became heads of state, the Caliph himself was reduced to the role of a figurehead. Badr al-Jamali's son, Al-Afdal Shahanshah, succeeded him in power as vizier.

Fatimid caliphs

Main article: List of caliphs of the Fatimid Caliphate
  1. Abū Muḥammad 'Abdul-Lāh al-Mahdī bi'llāh (909–934) founder Fatimid dynasty
  2. Abū l-Qāsim Muḥammad al-Qā'im bi-Amr Allāh (934–946)
  3. Abū Ṭāhir Ismā'il al-Manṣūr bi-llāh (946–953)
  4. Abū Tamīm Ma'add al-Mu'izz li-Dīn Allāh (953–975) Egypt is conquered during his reign
  5. Abū Manṣūr Nizār al-'Azīz bi-llāh (975–996)
  6. Abū 'Alī al-Manṣūr al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh (996–1021)
  7. Abū'l-Ḥasan 'Alī al-Ẓāhir li-I'zāz Dīn Allāh (1021–1036)
  8. Abū Tamīm Ma'add al-Mustanṣir bi-llāh (1036–1094)
  9. al-Musta'lī bi-llāh (1094–1101) Quarrels over his succession led to the Nizari split.
  10. al-Āmir bi-Aḥkām Allāh (1101–1130) The Fatimid rulers of Egypt after him are not recognized as Imams by Mustaali/Taiyabi Ismailis.
  11. 'Abd al-Majīd al-Ḥāfiẓ (1130–1149)
  12. al-Ẓāfir (1149–1154)
  13. al-Fā'iz (1154–1160)
  14. al-'Āḍid (1160–1171).

Burial place of Fatimid

There is the place known as "Al Mashhad al Husain" (Masjid Imam Husain, Cairo), wherein lie buried underground thirteen Fatemi Imams from 9th Ahmad al Mastur to 20th al A’amir). This place is also known as "B’ab Makhallif’at al Rasul" (door of remaining part of Rasul), where Sacred Hair of Mohammad is preserved}. [19][20]

Decay and fall

In the 1040s, the Berber Zirids (governors of North Africa under the Fatimids) declared their independence from the Fatimids and their recognition of the Sunni Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad, which led the Fatimids to launch devastating Banū Hilal invasions. After about 1070, the Fatimid hold on the Levant coast and parts of Syria was challenged first by Turkic invasions, then the Crusades, so that Fatimid territory shrank until it consisted only of Egypt. The Fatamids gradually lost the Emirate of Sicily over thirty years to the Italo-Norman Roger I who was in total control of the entire island by 1091.

The reliance on the Iqta system also ate into Fatimid central authority, as more and more the military officers at the further ends of the empire became semi-independent and were often a source of problems.

After the decay of the Fatimid political system in the 1160s, the Zengid ruler Nūr ad-Dīn had his general, Shirkuh, seized Egypt from the vizier Shawar in 1169. Shirkuh died two months after taking power, and the rule went to his nephew, Saladin.[21] This began the Ayyubid Sultanate of Egypt and Syria.

Fatimid heritage

After caliph `Adid, the Fatimids were deposed from rule over Egypt by the Ayyubids.

Currently two groups lay claim to the Fatimid legacy. The Taiyabi (including the Dawoodi Bohra) claim that their Da`is (see List of Dai of Dawoodi Bohra) are successors in authority to 21st Imam Taiyab, the son of 20th Imam Amir (10th Fatimid calipha) (the office of Da`i being instituted by Sulayhid queen of Yemen Arwa al-Sulayhi). Dawoodi Bohra are presently headed by their 52nd Dai Syedna Mohammad Burhanuddin.

The current claimant to be genealogical heir of the Nizari line is the Aga Khan. Imam Abdul Salam, Imam Ghareeb Mirza and continued Imamat as a next Imams after Imam Mustansir Billah and started imamat series of Nizari ismailies now as an Imam is Shah karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan IV as 49th Hazir Imam. File:Tree shia islam n3.pdf

See also



  • Halm, Heinz. Empire of the Mahdi. Michael Bonner trans.
  • Halm, Heinz. Die Kalifen von Kairo.
  • Walker, Paul. Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fatimid History and Its Sources.

External links

  • .
  • Institute of Ismaili Studies London.
  • The Shia Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt
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