Fatimid Caliphate

Fatimid Caliphate

Fatimid Islamic Caliphate
الدولة الفاطمية


Fatimid green banner[1]

The Fatimid Caliphate at its peak, c. 969.
Capital Mahdia (909-969)
Cairo (969-1171)
Religion Shia Islam
Government Islamic Caliphate
 - 909-934 (first) Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah
 - 1160-1171 (last) Al-'Āḍid
 - Established January 5, 909
 - Foundation of Cairo August 8, 969
 - Disestablished 1171
 - 969 5,100,000 km2 (1,969,121 sq mi)
 -  est. 6,200,000 
Currency Dinar
Preceded by Succeeded by
Abbasid Caliphate
Ayyubid dynasty
Almohad dynasty
Kingdom of Jerusalem
Principality of Antioch
County of Edessa
County of Tripoli
Zirid dynasty
Emirate of Sicily
County of Sicily
Today part of  Algeria
 Saudi Arabia
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The Fatimid Islamic Caliphate or al-Fāṭimiyyūn (Arabic الفاطميون) was a Berber Shia Muslim caliphate first centered in Tunisia and later in Egypt that ruled over varying areas of the Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and Hijaz from 5 January 909 to 1171.

The caliphate was ruled by the Fatimids, who established the Tunisian city of Mahdia and made it their capital city, before conquering Egypt and building the city of Cairo in 969, which thereafter became their capital. The 4th century AH /10th century CE has been called by Louis Massignon ‘the Ismaili century in the history of Islam’.[2]

The term Fatimite is sometimes used to refer to the citizens of this caliphate. The ruling elite of the state belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shi'ism. The leaders of the dynasty were also Shia Ismaili Imams, hence, they had a religious significance to Ismaili Muslims. They are also part of the chain of holders of the office of Caliph, as recognized by some Muslims. Therefore, this constitutes a rare period in history in which the descendants of Ali (hence the name Fatimid, referring to Ali's wife Fatima) and the Caliphate were united to any degree, excepting the final period of the Rashidun Caliphate under Ali himself.

The caliphate was reputed to exercise a degree of religious tolerance towards non-Ismaili sects of Islam as well as towards Jews, Maltese Christians, and Coptic Christians.[3]


Rise of the Fatimids

The Fatimid state originated among the Kutama people of Algeria. The dynasty was founded in 909 by ʻAbdullāh al-Mahdī Billah, who in the late 9th century started a movement among the Kutama Berbers and managed to convert them to Shi'a Isam. He would seize Tunis the same year.[4]

Ubayd Allah made his claim through his descent from Muhammad by way of his daughter Fātima as-Zahra and her husband ʻAlī ibn-Abī-Tālib, the first Shīʻa Imām, hence the name al-Fātimiyyūn "Fatimid".[5] For the first half of its existence the empire's power rested primarily on the Kutama Berbers and their strength, with a Berber army conquering northern Africa, Palestine, Syria and, for a short time, Baghdad. Their role within the Fatimid state was so central that Ibn Khaldun counted the Fatimids among the Berber dynasties. The Fatimids existed during the Islamic Golden Age.[6]

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.

Under Al-Muizz Lideenillah, the Fatimids entered Egypt (may refer Fatimid Egypt) in the late 10th century, conquering the Ikhshidid dynasty, and founding a new capital at al-Qāhira (Cairo) in 969.[7] The name was a reference to the planet Mars, "The Subduer",[5] 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, and even ruling Sicily, and southern parts of the Italian Peninsula.

Map of the Fatimid Caliphate also showing cities

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, Hejaz, and Yemen[citation needed]. 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 Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo, of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the sixth Caliph, as renovated by Dawoodi Bohra

The Fatimid focus on long-distance trade was accompanied by a lack of interest in agriculture and a neglect of the Nile irrigation system.[5]

Unlike other governments in the area, Fatimid advancement in 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,[5] who occupied high levels in government based on ability. However, it is important to note here that Jews in particular were part of a larger scheme to gain monetary leverage for trade in Europe. And tolerance was set into place to ensure the flow of money from all those who were non-Muslims too in order to finance the Fatimids Caliphs' large army of Mamluks brought in from Circassia by Genoese merchants.[citation needed] There were, however, exceptions to this general attitude of tolerance, most notably Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah although this has been highly debated, with Al-Hakim's reputation among medieval Muslim historians conflated with his role in the Druze faith.[5]

The Al-Azhar Mosque, of medieval Islamic Cairo.

The Fatimids were also known to a great extent 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. It was founded by Caliph Muizz and was one of the highest educational facilities of the Fatimid Empire.

The Fatimid palace in Cairo had two parts. It stood in the Khan el-Khalili area at Bin El-Quasryn street.[8]

Military system

The Fatimids military was originally based largely on the Kutama Berber tribesmen it brought with them on their march to Egypt, and they remained an important part of the Fatimid military even after Tunisia itself began to break away.[9]

After their successful establishment in Egypt, local forces were also incorporated into their army, though they remained a relatively minor part of the Fatimid (and in fact, succeeding dynasties as well) forces.

A fundamental change occurred when the Fatimid Caliph attempted to push into Syria in the later half of the 10th century, here they were faced with the now Turkish dominated forces of the Abbasid Caliph and the powerful Byzantium armies, and began to realize the limits of their current military, thus during the reign of Abu Mansoor 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).[10]

The army units were generally separated along ethnic lines, thus the Berbers were usually the light cavalry / foot skirmishers, while the Turks would be the horse archers or heavy cavalry (known as Mamluks), and 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 Fatimid caliph's fall.

Civil war and decline

Genealogical tree of the Fatimid caliphs (in yellow). Their ancestry from the seven Ismaili imams (in grey) and Muhammad is also shown.

While the ethnic based army was generally successful on the battlefields, they began to have negative effects on the Fatimid's internal politics, traditionally the Berber element of the army had the strongest sway over political affairs, but as the Turkish element grew more powerful they began to challenge this, and eventually by 1020 serious riots began to break out among the Black African troops who were fighting back against a Berber/ Turks Alliance.

By 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 between the different ethnic factions and outright civil war began, primarily the Turks and Black African troops were fighting each other while the Berbers shifted alliance in between.[11] The Turkish forces of the Fatimid army would end up seizing most of Cairo held the city and Caliph at ransom while the Berbers troops and remaining Sudanese forces roam 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 Armenian general Badr al-Jamali whom 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 of this event, Badr al-Jamali was also made into the vizier of the Fatimid caliph, becoming one of the first military viziers that would dominate the late Fatimid politics. As the military viziers effectively became heads of state, the Caliph himself was reduced to the role of a figure head. Badr al-Jamali's son, Al-Afdal Shahanshah, succeeded him in power as vizier.

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 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, seize Egypt from the vizier Shawar in 1169. Shirkuh died two months after taking power, and the rule went to his nephew, Saladin.[12] This began the Ayyubid Sultanate of Egypt and Syria.

Fatimid caliphs

A tree depicting the Fatimids amongst Shi'a Islam
  1. Abū Muḥammad ʻAbdu l-Lāh (ʻUbaydu l-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).

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).

The current claimant to be genealogical heir of the Nizari line is the Aga Khan.

See also


  1. ^ Ibn Hammad (d. 1230) in Akhbar al-Muluk Bani Ubayd (ed. Paris, 1927, p. 57) mentions that Ismail al-Mansur in 948 after his victory over Abu Yazid was met at Kairwan by the notables mounted on fine horses and carrying drums and green flags.
  2. ^ In his “Mutanabbi devant le siècle ismaëlien de l’Islam”, in Mém. de l’Inst Français de Damas, 1935, p.
  3. ^ Wintle, Justin (May 2003). History of Islam. London: Rough Guides Ltd. pp. 136–7. ISBN 184353018X. 
  4. ^ Goldschmidt, Arthur (2002). A concise history of the Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. pp. 82. ISBN 0813338859. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Goldschmidt 84-86
  6. ^ The Fatimids and their traditions of learning (1997) Heinz Helm
  7. ^ Beeson, Irene (September/October 1969). "Cairo, a Millennial". Saudi Aramco World: 24, 26–30. http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/196905/cairo-a.millennial.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-09. 
  8. ^ http://www.oldroads.org/pastblogs/pastsingles2007/Cairo_of_the_mind.htm
  9. ^ Cambridge history of Egypt vol 1 page 154
  10. ^ Cambridge history of Egypt Vol 1 page 155
  11. ^ Cambridge history of Egypt vol 1 page 155
  12. ^ Amin Maalouf (1984). The Crusades Through Arab Eyes. Al Saqi Books. pp. 160–170. ISBN 0-8052-0898-4. 


  • 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.

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