The Fatimid leader defined himself not only as caliph — leader of the Muslim world but even as Mahdi, the promised leader of the Muslim world. According to old ideas of the caliph, the Fatimid caliphs considered themselves to be infallible and sinless, and divinely chosen perpetrators of the true form of Islam.
The ultimate goal of the Fatimids was to replace the Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad with their own, thereby correcting what they considered to have been a grave error back in the 7th century when the initial schism between Sunni and Shi’i Islam occurred.
The Fatimids were zealous missionaries and managed to spread the religion into Yemen and large parts of Egypt. By military means, they managed to broaden their control over areas beyond the homeland of Tunisia, into large parts of North Africa, Sardinia, and Sicily.
Towards the end of the 10th century, the Fatimids made Egypt their centre, and managed even to extend control into the homelands of Islam, securing control over the holy cities of Mecca and Madina. Missionaries were also sent to India and Central Asia.
The Fatimid missionaries were well-organized. They represented a structure within the state that came to exercise much power. The Fatimids established many libraries and colleges, in which Isma’ili missionaries were trained. They were often secretly organized, and worked undercover in foreign states, aiming at converting important individuals to Isma’ili Shi’ism, so that the state eventually could turn away from the Sunni Abbasid caliph of Baghdad.
Despite their successes, the Fatimids and their missionaries met much opposition from other Muslim orientations, like Sunni and Ibadi. There were also problems with missionaries who used means far more dramatic and violent than the core Ismaili allowed.
In the early periods of Fatimid rule, the caliph was personally involved in the affairs of the government. But over time, the importance of the army in state affairs grew increasingly significant. There was also destructive friction between the ethnical groups of Berbers, Turkish, Sudanese, and Nubian troops. After the 11th century, the power in state affairs moved into the hands of the vizier and the generals.
As part of their campaign against the caliph of Baghdad, the Fatimids established a new route for the important trade with Asia over the Red Sea, instead of the Persian Gulf, which had been dominant until then.
9th century: Isma’ilis in Yemen sends missionaries to North Africa, and are able to form a base in Tunisia. They acquire many supporters and develop into a strong political force.
909: Ubayd Allah proclaims himself caliph of the Muslim world, in opposition to the Sunni caliph of Baghdad.
913: Military campaign against Egypt, but is defeated.
919: A second military campaign against Egypt, but this is also defeated.
925: The third campaign against Egypt, but without more success than the two previous ones.
920: A new Tunisian capital, Mahdia, is founded.
969: Fatimid troops conquer northern Egypt, and found a new capital, Cairo, right north of the old, Fustat.
970: The al-Azhar mosque is founded, and becomes the main learning institution of the Muslim world.
1016: Caliph al-Hakim declares himself the earthly incarnation of God. From him, the Druze would derive their religion.
1057: A rebel general in Iraq converts to Isma’ili Shi’ism, and declares the suzerainty of the Fatimid caliph first over Mosul and, later, over Baghdad.
1059: The rebel general is defeated by Seljuq Turks.
Second half 11th century: Feuds between racial groups in the Fatimid army weaken its force, bringing forth the collapse of the Egyptian government.
1073: General Badr al-Jamali seizes power, and takes control of the government. Although this brings stability to the state, he is not able to exercise power over Syria and the Arabian peninsula.
1094: Caliph al-Mustansir dies, and a struggle breaks out between supporters of the real heir and the caliph al-Musta’li, who had been appointed by vizier al-Afdal. Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Central Asia break free from the control of Cairo together with many Ismai’ilis from Yemen. The leader of the Isma’ili mission in the Middle East, Hassan e-Sabbah, founds the Assassins in opposition to the regime of Cairo.
1130: The Isma’ilis of Yemen who still owed their allegiance to Cairo, break free, following the death of caliph al-Amir, and the succession of al-Hafiz. This Yemeni group claimed that al-Amir had left a son who had become the hidden imam.
1171: With the death of caliph al-Adid, the strong man of Egypt, Saladin effectively takes power, and abolishes the Cairene caliphate. The Fatimid dynasty is replaced by the Ayyubid.