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The History of the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171)

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The Fatimid caliphate 909-1171 was a medieval Shiite Arab state centered in Cairo from 972. In the era of its power, the Fatimid caliphate included the territories of Egypt, the Maghreb, Palestine, and Syria. The caliphate split from the Abbasid caliphate as a result of an uprising of the Berber tribes in the province of Ifrikia, modern Tunisia, headed by the Ismaili preacher, Abu Abdallah. Abu Abdallah transferred all power to Ubeidallah, who claimed to be a descendant of Fatima. The caliphate was defended by Saladin, a Seljuk commander of Kurdish origin, who was called upon to organize a defense against the Crusaders in 1169.

The Beginning

The most famous branch of Shiite Islam, Ismailis, arose in the 8th century. They believed that the successor to the Prophet Muhammad and the first Caliph should have been Ali ibn Abu Talib. The Shiites were distinguished by the recognition of the seventh imam of Muhammad, the son of Ismail ibn Jafar Sadiq; according to their legend, the imamate passed from father to son, and not from brother to brother.

At the beginning of the 10th century, an uprising of Ismailis, led by Abu Abdallah and Ubaidallah, the Ismaili imam who declared himself a descendant of Ali and Fatima, began in the territory of Iphriqia (modern Tunisia). In 909, the Ismaili army occupied the city of Kairouan, where Ubeidallah solemnly proclaimed himself Caliph under the name of al-Mahdi.

Conquest of Egypt

Since the seizure of power by Ubeidallah, the Fatimids had made repeated attempts to seize Egypt, the fertile and richest region of the Abbasid caliphate. In 914, the Fatimid army invaded Egypt and occupied Alexandria, but was soon defeated by the dispatched Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir, led by military commander Munis.

A new invasion attempt was made in 919. However, this time Ubeidallah waited for failure. His fleet was sunk at Rosetta, and the land army, once again able to occupy Alexandria, was at the end of 920 replaced by Abbasid forces from Egypt.

In 936, the campaign ended in failure for Egypt and for the son of Ubeidallah, the Fatimid Caliph al-Qaim.

The great-grandson of Ubeidallah, caliph al-Muiz, was able to conquer Egypt. Having come to power, al-Muiz began active and systematic preparation for the Egyptian campaign. In special camps, he trained his army. A fleet was created to transport food. To Egypt, many agents and preachers had been sent who had established links with Egyptian Shiites.

In the spring of 969, the 100,000-strong Fatimid army led by Jauhar invaded Egypt. Having easily defeated Giza, Jauhar entered Fustat and established a new capital in his neighborhood, Cairo. In 972, the Caliph al-Muizes himself arrived in Cairo. Egypt became part of the Fatimid state.


In 996-1021, the Caliph al-Hakim ruled in Egypt. Al-Hakim carried out a program of reforms, which in particular eliminated slavery. Although in theory, Islam forbade slavery for Muslims, it was legally possible to own Jews and Christians and, of course, the number of abuses by Muslims regarding slavery was also significant.

Hakim banned polygamy, noting that Islam provided for the possibility of having up to four wives as an exceptional measure in emergency circumstances. Hakim issued a decree on the equality of the officially dominant Shiite, Ismaili and Sunni law enforcement. He led a series of wars in Syria.

It is obvious that Darazi played a crucial role in shaping the ideology of Hakim’s reforms and carried out those very reforms with the most radical measures, and eliminating opposition to reforms, at least in the field of foreign propaganda of Ismailism abroad, and conquered Fatimid provinces. Born in Bukhara, Darazi was of Turkic origin. By profession, he most likely was a tailor, but soon became a professional Ismaili preacher, an agent of the Fatimid Special Services and was brought into service at the Fatimid court in Cairo during the time of Caliph Al-Hakim.

Christians of various faiths and Jews were the basis of the administrative apparatus of the Fatimids, who, coming from a backward part of North Africa and the revolutionary destroyers of the Sunni state apparatus, were forced in their civil administration to rely on more educated Christians and Jews, while maintaining a balance of power between the various Christian denominations: Orthodox, Copts, various kinds of Nestorians, Catholics, as well as national churches – Armenians and Ethiopians. However, by the time of Hakim’s accession, this balance had been severely disrupted in favor of Orthodox believers who had occupied the main administrative posts.

At the first stage, Darazi supported Hakim, striking at traditional Christian denominations and supporting opposition Christian churches and the Jewish community, playing on property conflicts between Christian faiths. According to doubtful evidence from Hakim’s enemies, he was an eccentric and even mentally unhealthy person. In general, his reign was marked by the beginning of the decline of the Caliphate government.

The reformist activity of Hakim caused a split among his associates. The most radical Ismailis after Hakim’s transition to a more balanced policy left the Hakim court and took refuge in the mountains of Lebanon, where they began active propaganda activities. In 1021, Al-Hakim disappeared under mysterious circumstances, apparently killed by his relatives, who immediately launched a campaign to blacken Hakim.

Taking the views of Darazi, tribes and clans formed the basis of the Druze. Hakim announced in 1009 a decree on the equality of the officially dominant legal positions of the Shiite (Ismaili) with the Sunni; but, according to Hakim’s enemies, towards the Jews and Christians, he repeatedly violated the Muslim principle of tolerance.

His reign was full of turmoil and threatened the very existence of the dynasty, but his son again restored order.  With them, Egypt was sometimes subjected to internal unrest, but mostly prospered and was enriched with maritime and caravan trade.


  • A. Muller, “The History of Islam”
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