The Fatimid Caliphate (Arabic: الفاطميون, al-Fāṭimīyūn) was an Ismaili Shia Islamic caliphate that 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 centre 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 claimed descent from Fatima bint Muhammad, the daughter of Islamic prophet Muhammad. The Fatimids conquered North Africa and their Fatimid state took shape among the Kutama Berbers, in the West of the North African littoral, particularly Algeria, in 909 conquering Raqqada, the Aghlabid capital. In 921 the Fatimids established the Tunisian city of Mahdia as their new capital. In 948 they shifted their capital to Al-Mansuriya, near Kairouan in Tunisia. In 969 they conquered Egypt and established Cairo as the capital of their caliphate; Egypt became the political, cultural, and religious centre of their empire.
The ruling class belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shi'ism, as did the leaders of the dynasty. The existence of the caliphate marked the only time the descendants of Ali through Fatimah (the daughter of the prophet) were united to any degree (except for the final period of the Rashidun Caliphate under Ali himself from 656 to 661) and the name "Fatimid" refers to Fatimah. The different term Fatimite is sometimes used to refer to the caliphate's subjects.
After the initial conquests, the caliphate often allowed a degree of religious tolerance towards non-Ismaili sects of Islam, as well as to Jews, Maltese Christians, and Egyptian Coptic Christians. The Fatimid caliphate was also distinguished by the central role of Berbers in its initial establishment and in helping its development, especially on the military and political levels.
During the late eleventh and twelfth centuries the Fatimid caliphate declined rapidly, and in 1171 Saladin invaded their territory. He founded the Ayyubid dynasty and incorporated the Fatimid state into the Abbasid Caliphate. The Fatimid regime lasted until the late twelfth century, though its leaders made little headway in persuading the Egyptian population.
The Fatimid Caliphate's religious ideology originated in an Ismaili Shia movement launched in the 9th century in Salamiyah, Syria by the eighth Imam, Abd Allah al-Akbar. He claimed descent through Ismail, the seventh Ismaili Imam, from Fatimah and her husband ʻAlī ibn-Abī-Tālib, the first Shīʻa Imām. Thus his name was al-Fātimiyyūn "Fatimid". The eighth to tenth Imams, (Abadullah, Ahmed and Husain), remained hidden and worked for the movement against the period's time's rulers.
The 11th Imam Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah, under the guise of being a merchant, and his son had made their way to Sijilmasa, 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, 'Abdullah and his son were fulfilling a prophecy that the mahdi would come from Mesopotamia to Sijilmasa. They hid among the population of Sijilmasa, then an independent emirate, for four years under the countenance of the Midrar rulers, specifically one Prince Yasa' ibn Midrar (r. 884-909).
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 Muslim North African 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, Abdullah al-Mahdi Billah became the leader of the growing state and assumed the position of imam and caliph.
The Fatimids existed during the Islamic Golden Age. 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. 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.
The Fatimid Caliphate grew to include Sicily and to stretch across North Africa from the Atlantic Ocean to Libya. 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, in Tunisia. Newly built capital 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 conquered the Ikhshidid Wilayah (see Fatimid Egypt), founding a new capital at al-Qāhira (Cairo) in 969. The name was a reference to the planet Mars, "The Subduer", 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 parts of 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.
Unlike western European governments in the era, advancement in Fatimid state offices was more meritocratic than based 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, 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.
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. 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.
Intellectual life in Egypt during the Fatimid period achieved great progress and activity, due to many scholars who lived in or came to Egypt, as well as the number of books available. Fatimid Caliphs gave prominent positions to scholars in their courts, encouraged students, and established libraries in their palaces, so that scholars might expand their knowledge and reap benefits from the work of their predecessors.
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.
The Fatimid palace in Cairo had two parts. It stood in the Khan el-Khalili area at Bayn El-Qasryn street.
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. After their successful establishment in Egypt, local Egyptian forces were also incorporated into the army, so the Fatimid Army were reinforced by North African soldiers from Algeria to Egypt in the Eastern North. (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). The army units were generally separated along ethnic lines, thus the Berbers were usually the light cavalry and foot skirmishers, while the Turks were 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 for many centuries after the fall of the Fatimid Caliph.
The Fatimids put all their military power toward the defense of the empire whenever it was menaced by dangers and threats, which they were able to repel, especially during the rule of Al-Muizz Lideenillah. During his reign, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by Nikephoros II Phokas, who had destroyed the Muslim Emirate of Chandax in 961 and conquered Tartus, Al-Masaisah, 'Ain Zarbah, and other places, gaining complete control of Iraq and the Syrian borders as well as earning the sobriquet, the "Pale Death of the Saracens". With the Fatimids, however, he proved less successful. After renouncing his payments of tribute to the Fatimid caliphs, he sent an expedition to Sicily, but was forced by defeats on land and sea to evacuate the island completely. In 967, he made peace with the Fatimids of Kairawan and turned to defend himself against their common enemy, Otto I, who had proclaimed himself Western Emperor and had attacked Byzantine possessions in Italy.
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 under Nasir al-Dawla ibn Hamdan and Black African troops, while the Berbers shifted alliance between the two sides. 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.
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. This Mosque/mashhad was also known as a victory monument commemorating vizier Badr's restoration of order for the Imam Mustansir. 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.
After the eighteenth Imam, al-Mustansir Billah, the Nizari sect believed that his son Nizar was his successor, while another Ismāʿīlī branch known as the Mustaali (from whom the Dawoodi Bohra would eventually descend), supported his other son, al-Musta'li. The Fatimid dynasty continued with al-Musta'li as both Imam and Caliph, and that joint position held until the 20th Imam, al-Amir bi-Ahkami l-Lah (1132 CE). At the death of Imam Amir, one branch of the Mustaali faith claimed that he had transferred the imamate to his son at-Tayyib Abi l-Qasim, who was then two years old. Another faction claimed Amir died without producing an heir, and supported Amir's cousin al-Hafiz as both the rightful Caliph and Imam. The al-Hafiz faction became the Hafizi Ismailis, who later converted during the rule of Sultan Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūbi. The supporters of Tayyeb became the Tayyibi Ismāʿīlī. Tayyeb's claim to the imamate was endorsed by the Hurratu l-Malika ("the Noble Queen") Arwa al-Sulayhi, the Queen of Yemen. Arwa was designated a hujjah (a holy, pious lady), the highest rank in the Yemeni Dawat, by al-Mustansir in 1084 CE. Under Queen Arwa, the Dai al-Balagh (intermediary between the Imam in Cairo and local headquarters) Lamak ibn Malik and then Yahya ibn Lamak worked for the cause of the Fatimids. After seclusion of Imam Taiyab Dai given independent charge by Queen Arwa, and were called Dai al Mutlaq. First Dai Mutlaq was Syedna Zoib, common Dai of all Taiybians.
- Abū Muḥammad 'Abdul-Lāh al-Mahdī bi'llāh (909–934) founder Fatimid dynasty
- Abū l-Qāsim Muḥammad al-Qā'im bi-Amr Allāh (934–946)
- Abū Ṭāhir Ismā'il al-Manṣūr bi-llāh (946–953)
- Abū Tamīm Ma'add al-Mu'izz li-Dīn Allāh (953–975) Egypt is conquered during his reign
- Abū Manṣūr Nizār al-'Azīz bi-llāh (975–996)
- Abū 'Alī al-Manṣūr al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh (996–1021) The Druze religion is founded during the lifetime of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah.
- Abū'l-Ḥasan 'Alī al-Ẓāhir li-I'zāz Dīn Allāh (1021–1036)
- Abū Tamīm Ma'add al-Mustanṣir bi-llāh (1036–1094)
- al-Musta'lī bi-llāh (1094–1101) Quarrels over his succession led to the Nizari split.
- Abū 'Alī Mansur al-Āmir bi-Aḥkām Allāh (1101–1130) The Fatimid rulers of Egypt after him are not recognized as Imams by Mustaali/Taiyabi Ismailis.
- 'Abd al-Majīd al-Ḥāfiẓ (1130–1149) The Hafizi sect is founded with Al-Hafiz as Imam.
- al-Ẓāfir (1149–1154)
- al-Fā'iz (1154–1160)
- al-'Āḍid (1160–1171).
There is the place known as "Al-Mashhad al-Hussaini" (Masjid Imam Husain, Cairo), wherein lie buried underground Twelve Fatimid Imams from 9th Taqi Muhammad to 20th Mansur al-Āmir. This place is also known as "Bāb Mukhallafāt al-Rasul" (door of remaining part of Rasul), where Sacred Hair of Muhammad is preserved.
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 Fatimids 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. This began the Ayyubid Sultanate of Egypt and Syria.
After caliph al-'Āḍid, the Fatimids were deposed from rule over Egypt by the Ayyubids. Many "Tayyibi groups" (Alavi, Hebtiahs, Atbai Malak, Dawoodi) lay claim to the Fatimid legacy. The Taiyabi (the Dawoodi Bohra being a majority constituent) claim that their Da`is (see List of Dai of Dawoodi Bohra) are successors in authority to 21st Imam Taiyab abi al-Qasim, the son of 20th Imam Mansur al-Āmir bi-Aḥkām Allāh (10th Fatimid calipha) (the office of Da`i being instituted by Sulayhid queen of Yemen Arwa al-Sulayhi). The current Dai of Dawoodi Bohra community is His Holiness Dr. Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin.
Imam Nizar continued Imamat as a next Imam 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. The current claimant to be genealogical heir of the Nizari line is the Aga Khan.