With political and religious power, the Fatimids ruled an empire in North Africa that later expanded toward the Middle East from 909 until 1171. They aimed at bringing down the Abbasid dynasty as the spiritual leaders of the Islamic world, and they took their name after Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
By studying the life and times of the Fatimids, you will embark on a journey to North Africa, where strong leaders competed to be the nation’s spiritual and political powerhouse.
The Fatimids belonged to a religious movement called the Isma ili sect of the 10th to the 12th century, which they believed were the legitimate caliphs both by birth and heavenly appointment. They even claimed that they were the rightful heads of the Islamic communities in the world.
Being holy and chosen, it was their goal to overtake the Abbasids and establish a new caliphate instead. They would like to be recognized as the authentic imam of all the Islamic faith on earth.
Do you think such an ambitious dream could be made possible by a single empire?
Who Were the Fatimids?
You have to know who they were. The Fatimid dynasty of Arab descent traced their origin to the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter named Fatimah and her husband, Ali b. Abi Talib who was the first Shiite imam. Under his leadership, they conquered Tunisia until they finally made Egypt the center of the caliphate.
In addition to Egypt, Maghreb, Sudan, Sicily, the Levant, and the Hijaz were later on included in their controlled territory. Abdullah-al-Mahli Bila was designated as the first imam of the group when they established the Fatimid capital in Al Mahdia in 921.
Later on, they moved to al-Mansuriyya until they conquered Egypt and strengthened their capital in Cairo in 973. You have to know that Egypt had become the center of politics, culture, and religion of the empire and the rest of the Arab world at that time.
The Fatimids Empire showed religious tolerance toward non-Shia sects of Islam, as well as toward the Jews and Christians. Still, its leaders only made a little difference in influencing the majority of the Egyptian population to embrace the Shia faith. You would notice their way of leadership and faith were significantly intertwined.
Its leaders were learned men who came to power from the empire’s establishment in Kutama Berbers. Believing that the Umayyad and the Abbasid caliphates were usurpers, the Fatimids did not agree with them.
With much faith in their origin, they preached the exclusive rights of the descendants of Ali and Fatima to lead the Muslim community. For them, they were the real representatives of God on earth. They also claimed that there was messianic hope in Islam concerning the coming of Mahdi
The Shia Muslims have made this claim as the core teaching of their sect. You could imagine how strongly they believed that resurrection would occur at the appointed time.
The Shai tradition has been handed down from one generation to another and manifested when imam Jafar al-Sadiq had appointed his son Isma il ibn Jafar as his successor.
However, these two leaders died, which caused the position to remain open. Now, you might be thinking about who would be perfect for the leadership of the Fatimids.
Waiting for the Mahdi
For quite a while, the people waited for Mahdi. You will be surprised to see some secret networks among themselves. The head of this secret society was proof of the existence of the imam’s seal.
The first huijja or seal was Abdallah al-Akbar, an affluent businessman from Khuzestan who settled in Salamiya. It’s a small town that became the center of Isma ili da wa. This movement became strong in the ninth century and gained popularity due to the collapse of Abbasid power. They were embraced by the people until Kufa in the late 870s. They likewise established their influence in Yemen, India, Bahrain, Persia, and the Maghreb.
After several generations of control of the caliphate in the Arab region, the Fatimid Caliphate had openly challenged the Abbasid representatives in the Maghreb. They inherited the Aghlabid province of Sicily, although it was still incomplete.
The Fatimids gave attention to agriculture to increase their wealth and allowed the dynasty and the Egyptians to live well under the Fatimid’s regime. They also learned to import items from other cities in the world. It was probably safe to conclude that those people were business-minded, too. You could get a sense of their ability to survive.
Establishing a formidable Fatimid Caliphate was not easy. They had to overcome several clans with various opinions and interests aside from the existing rules set by the Fatimids. With a strong determination to save the caliphate, they preached the doctrine of Isma ili until they were able to put up a strong base in Yemen.
It was followed by their greater success in North Africa. Isn’t it amazing to learn how they took territories one at a time?
With the concerted effort of the Fatimid members, as well as their fervent prayers, they were able to gain a strong following that led to the emergence of the imam who had been hiding.
In 909, the imam proclaimed his messianic title of al-Mahdi or the Divinely Guided One, and this formal declaration symbolized the beginning of a new state and dynasty called the Fatimid Caliphate. It was a brave declaration of faith at that time considering the instability of the military control against other dynasties, but the imam’s proclamation emancipated their religious freedom.
Meanwhile, the Fatimid Empire did not stand without any problems. For the first half-century, they only ruled in North Africa and Sicily, where they were bombarded by many problems, such as having Sunnis as subjects. Parts of their minority were Khawarij, who were stubbornly set against the Isma ili doctrines. They had proven that leading people was not easy.
To accomplish this ambitious dream, they first planned to attack Mahdiyah, a city on the east coast of Tunisia. Their first advances were not successful until they finally controlled the East in 969 under the caliph al-Mu’izz.
The Fatimid army conquered the Nile Valley, and they continued to rally in Sinai, which was then followed by a successful battle in Palestine and southern Syria. You could see their determination to win the East in those battles where they fought hard until they subdued al-Fustat, the old administrative center of Muslim brothers in Egypt.
There, they built their capital in Cairo, which served as the capital of the Fatimid Empire for years. Reigning in the East was a success for the Fatimids, who gained more strength in Cairo, the Fatimid capital. For more than a century, the Fatimid rulers in Cairo pursued the establishment of a universal Ismāʿīlī imamate.
There had been wars, unrest, and unstable leadership in some areas, but they were manageable. As they were already a caliphate, they wanted to establish an imperial regime that would solidify their strength in the East. They sought military and political stability in the region.
You could see the magnitude of the Fatimid Dynasty since its establishment in the East. It was their pride to build a capital in Cairo, Egypt, and in several cities and regions like North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea, and so on.
Expansion of the Fatimid Empire
The Fatimid Empire was already a powerful dynasty in the orient, and to serve as imam in this vast region was a challenging experience. It was considered a supreme honor to be able to serve in this indestructible territory because of the formidable tasks given to its leader. Do you know that it already expanded to Yemen, Jejaz, Mecca, and Medina?
To be able to lead this dynasty was a priceless opportunity that brought high prestige. Hence, this massive control of several regions under one dynasty entailed a conscientious responsibility.
Its caliph served as the emperor and imam at the same time, being recognized as the spiritual leader of the Ismāʿīlīs and who, according to their doctrines, was equivalent to God, the Supreme Being of all with all the power of infallibility. That’s how immense the Fatimid Dynasty was.
You needed to be a tried-and-true leader to rule this territory. That era of the Fatimid Caliphate needed a strong network of leaders, missionaries, and workers to be able to balance power and ensure the safety and security of everyone.
Their main task was to reach out to the people and manage to meet guests for conversion to the Islamic faith. They were also tasked to practice subversion against the Sunni faith.
This new religious order was meticulously planned under the management of the chief minister in Cairo. Surprisingly, you should note the differences within the Fatimid Dynasty.
It was secretly organized that the Fatimid state considered the religious side as part of the third branch of government. This was in line with the military and the bureaucratic sections of the state.
One could say that the Fatimid period relied on the traditional empire with the military as its foremost defense. For them, the main task of the mission is the formulation and spread of the Isma ili teachings.
This so-called Isma ili theology supported the arguments that their members should deny the Abbasids and their right to claim the caliphate. It was a clear provocation against other Islamic faiths. You would recall that a large territory and advanced military weapons would not be enough to protect the empire.
Later on, leaders of the empire met in Tunisia and then in Egypt together with a group of theologians to formulate the classical tenets of Isma ili doctrine. The Fatimids founded huge libraries and colleges whose functions were to empower their missionaries to go out and preach and to provide teachings for the new members of the empire.
The Fatimids commissioned workers for a massive campaign to lead the people and form a strategy against the Sunni Empire.
To succeed in this goal, they merged the vision of the Isma ili faith and the goals of the Fatimid empire. Such a formation of an alliance could have made a formidable defense against the Sunni and win the entire Muslim region.
You would be amazed at the scope of the Fatimid Empire. Merging a religious ideology and military power was a tall order, but Fatimid leaders made it work in favor of the Isma ili faith.
Consequently, the connection between these decisions meant massive economic expansion and commercial development centering on the improvement of the Red Sea economic trade between Asia and the Near East.
It was also devised to block the alternative route going to the Persian Gulf, which was under the Sunni powers. It was a political and a military strategy as well to hinder the power of the Sunnis.
Implementing this plan was a clever move for the Fatimids to extend their power down both shores of the Red Sea. They also strengthened their control of Yemen as they sent missionaries to eastern Arabia, all the way to Central Asia and down to India.
Those decisions were intelligently formulated to advance the cause of the Fatimids. You will just be in awe at how crafty their military leaders were in defeating their enemies, considering the presence of crude military weapons then.
Knowledge of engineering and architecture was strengthened during the Fatimid Dynasty. They had to build formidable structures, and the grandeur of Fatimid architecture could be found in the major cities of Mahdia and Cairo.
The palaces and mosques during those days were done meticulously, showcasing the economic stability of the nation. You would envy their extensive designs and state-of-the-art palaces. Most of the Fatimid architecture was a beauty to behold and a landmark in those cities. One could see the immense wealth and grandeur of the caliphate through their architectural designs.
The Beginning of Fatimid Decline
The highlight of the expansion of the Fatimid Caliphate was reached in 1057 to 1059 when a subversive general in Iraq opposed the doctrines and proclaimed the fall of the Fatimid caliph in Mosul and Baghdad as well. The Fatimid Empire was unable to provide reinforcement. However, the general was defeated by the Seljuq Turks.
This was the beginning of a turning point and the decline of the Fatimid dynasty. You could have envisioned the reasons for the failure of the Fatimid quest for Islāmic leadership. One was their representation of old theology, which was no longer acceptable to the people.
Fāṭimid Ismāʿīlism, as a theological principle, was antiquated teaching compared to the current teachings of Islam. Maybe it’s safe to conclude that the doctrines of the Fatimid Empire were already obsolete as opposed to the more independent thoughts of the Sunni doctrine. In their adventures overseas, the Fatimids claimed a bunch of glorious victories like the single-handed conquest of Egypt.
Likewise, they suffered a couple of defeats from Palestine and Syria. It was only the beginning because there were also attacks from outside foes like the Byzantines, the Turks, and the European Crusaders that crippled their leadership in several territories. You might suggest that the glory that was the Fatimid Empire had reached its decline because of growing discontent in Egypt.
They had controlled the government and the military, but the presence of factions that attacked from the grassroots was prevalent. Several attacks started to rise due to the presence of unhappy factions on Egyptian land. Groups with political interests to destroy the state were creeping into cities.
They could be felt because they were growing in number and power. For example, the feud during the reign of al-Mustansir from 1036 to 1094 had brought anarchy and tyranny on the streets of Egypt. It became even more terrible with the effects of famine and the plague.
In 1073, a major change in the leadership of Egypt happened when a stalwart soldier, Badr al-Jamālī, went to Cairo as a guest of the caliph, and there, he seized power by rounding up the leading generals and officials and killing them. He immediately assumed several titles like the commander of the army to show his control of the military and the government.
Known all over the country by his military title, Badr al-Jamālī brought back more peace and economic prosperity to the country. He started a new leadership using military power, and that’s how Egypt evolved. The Fatimids, on the other hand, had to learn more from the military when it comes to real leadership.
Later, Badr was succeeded by his son, who continued the restorations started by his father. His succession to power was an abrupt event in history, but Badr was able to show developments in his short stay in power.
Interestingly, Badr saved the Fatimid state from total collapse and delayed its demise for over a century. Being military-trained, he rescued the country from foreign invaders like Syria and Arabia. You have to consider the fact that the Fatimids had already suffered a couple of defeats at the hands of the Syrians. Badr’s son and his succeeding officials had rejected the idea of an Egyptian Fatimid dynasty over the territory.
You can tell that the Fatimid period was marked by a roller coaster of events. It started from scratch but gained unity and prosperity. However, it didn’t end there. The next stage was a gradual decline of power.
Тhere were some oppositionists in Egypt, Persia, and Central Asia because they didn’t recognize the caliph. Thus, they renounced their relationship with the Fatimid Empire. More territories had expressed their disappointment with the Fatimid Empire, which naturally weakened the leadership of the caliph.
This is because they were unable to control the wide territories that comprised the whole dynasty. It was also timely for the people to find their independence because they had been under the caliph for years. Probably, it was meant for those territories to be released to lighten their burden.
The end of the dynasty occurred in 1711 when the last four caliphs lost their economic and political power and influence. This was when Saladin, the last caliph, died. Since then, the Fatimid rule, formerly an empire, simply became a religious and political background and was formally abolished. New leaders were born to spearhead a good start from the shadows of the Fatimids.
The Fatimid dynasty was born at the right time. It came during a period when leadership was badly needed to shape the hungry minds of the people in Egypt and the Arab world. You have seen how the Fatimids started to grow in Persia and the neighboring nations.
In this generation, one was able to see the rise and fall of political power. It was a good start for the Fatimids because they had the backup of religious faith, which made it easier for the people to follow a new ideology.
Looking back, the Fatimids started in the right direction of rescuing the people from foreign invaders, but they also used the opportunity to bring down the Abbasids. They aimed at bringing down the Abbasid dynasty as the spiritual leaders of the Islamic world.
They took their name after Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, claiming that they were the rightful heads of the Islamic communities in the world.
In retrospect, you can easily discern the story of the Fatimids who had enjoyed so much power despite the challenging timeline of the Muslim faith. They celebrated their reign. They applied their power. However, they humbly relinquished their right to rule at the twilight of their days to give way to the next in line.