*The post topics here at Views from the Occident will, as they have in the past, be diversifying a bit. One of my closest friends, "M.G.", and I had a long conversation about two weeks ago about my blog. He strongly suggested that I diversify my writing, as I have done in the not-so-distant past. He was also critical of my heavy focus on jihadi groups over the past five months or so. Although I do not agree with all of his points of view, I must say that my posts have indeed been very heavily focused on jihadi groups since May-ish of this year. Now, I will still be writing about these groups and their ideologies, as they are the basis of my current research project that focuses more broadly on Islamist (and not just jihadi) artwork, but I will try to write about a wider array of topics. This will include a return to my other main area of research, Shi'i Islam, particularly in the modern period.
The first "inaugural" post in this effort is a review essay on the intellectual and ideological foundations of the Fatimid caliphate (state), the first Shi'i Muslim dynasty in history, that ruled much of North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the Hijaz (western Arabia) from 909 to 1171 C.E. The post is centered on Between Revolution and State: The Path to Fatimid Statehood, Professor Sumaiya A. Hamdani's excellent study of the thought of al-Qadi al-Nu'man, the preeminent Fatimid jurist, and his role in the establishment of the dynasty's legitimacy. A valued professorial mentor of mine, she is one of a small group of Islamicists who specialize on Isma'ili Shi'ism and an even smaller group who specialize on medieval Isma'ili history. Her book, however, is also widely applicable to individuals in other sub-fields, including medieval Middle Eastern history and Shi'ism generally, as she discusses al-Qadi al-Nu'man comparatively with his contemporary, the Twelver Shi'i jurist and ahadith compiler Abu Ja'far Muhammad bin Ya'qub al-Kulayni.
The Fatimid caliphs (rulers) claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter, Fatima, from whom they derive their dynastic name. She was also the wife of the first Shi'i Imam, 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, who Sunni Muslims view as the fourth Rashidun ["Rightly-guided"] successor to Muhammad. In the pre-caliphate period, the Fatimid family, residing in Salamiyya, Syria, dispatched missionaries (singular: da'i , plural: du'aat) to North Africa, Iran, Central and South Asia, Yemen, and eastern Arabia and Bahrayn to propagate their cause. These missionaries won over converts across the Muslim world and were particularly successful in Yemen, Syria, Iran, South Asia, and eastern Arabia, as well as among the Kutama Berbers of North Africa near present-day Tunisia. The Kutama Berbers would form the bulk of the Fatimid army during the caliphate's early decades and allowed the Fatimid family to move from Salamiyya to Tunisia, where they were safer from their rivals, the 'Abbasid caliphs in Iraq. The Fatimids built the city of Mahdiyya in modern day Tunisia, which served as their first capital.
Before coming to power in 909 C.E., the Fatimids upheld the then-popular Isma'ili Shi'i belief that an occulted Imam would return as a messianic figure. The Fatimid caliphs initially claimed to only be deputies for this Imam. However, shortly after they established their state, the Fatimids claimed to be both caliphs (temporal rulers) and Imams (religious authorities), and dropped their advocacy of a belief in an occulted Imam. Similar to other Isma'ilis who retained this belief, such as their rivals the Qaramatiyyun in Bahrayn and eastern Arabia as well as Twelver Shi'is, the Fatimid Isma'ilis believed that their Imam-caliphs possessed special abilities to interpret and discern meanings from the Qur'an and other religious sources, abilities denied normal human beings. It was through the Imam-caliph that the revelation of the Qur'an was fully accessible.
The belief in an occulted Imam, a Mahdi (roughly, "messiah"), appears in Isma'ili Shi'ism at least one century before it emerged among Twelver Shi'is, who today form the majority of the world's Shi'i Muslims. Twelver Shi'is also believe in an occulted Imam, who they believe to be the twelfth Imam in the line of Imams they view as temporal and religious successors to Muhammad beginning with 'Ali ibn Abi Talib. This belief began to develop during the lifetime of their eleventh Imam, Hasan al-'Askari (846-874 C.E.) and it is the son Twelver Shi'is claim he had, Muhammad bin Hasan, who went into a mystical hiding to save him from the 'Abbasids and who will return as the promised Mahdi. Sunnis dispute the Twelver Shi'i claim that Hasan al-'Askari even had an heir when he died, though they also believe in a promised Mahdi. However, Sunnis believe the Mahdi will not be the son of Hasan al-'Askari.
Isma'ili Shi'is take their name from Isma'il, son of the sixth Shi'i Imam to both Isma'ilis and Twelvers, Ja'far al-Sadiq (702-765 C.E.). Ja'far named his son Isma'il to be his successor as Imam, fulfilling the requirement of nass, a Shi'i belief that the Imam had to designate his successor. However Isma'il died before his father. Twelvers believe that Ja'far then designated his other son, Musa al-Kadhim (Kazim), as his successor, with the line of the Imamate (line of Imams) continuing through him up to the twelfth Imam, Muhammad bin Hasan "al-Mahdi." A large group of Shi'is at the time however believed that because Isma'il had been designated by his father as successor, the line of Imams should continue through him. Of this group, some believed that Isma'il had not really died but had instead gone into occultation. Others believed that his son Muhammad was the rightful heir to the Imamate. When Muhammad bin Isma'il died, some Isma'ilis believed he had not died but had gone into occultation.
At the height of their power in the tenth century, the Fatimids were a formidable military, social, and architectural/artistic force. They ruled much of the central Muslim heartlands of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and the Hijaz region in western Arabia, where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located. They presented a very real alternative to the Sunni 'Abbasid caliphs in Iraq, who by the middle of the tenth century had begun to see their authority decline as the power of their Turkic slave soldiers (singular: ghulam , plural: ghilmaan) rose. The Fatimids are perhaps most famous for building the city of Cairo near the old Muslim riverside garrison town of al-Fustat on the Nile River, transforming it into their imperial capital. Many of Cairo's most famous landmarks, such as al-Azhar University and Mosque and the Zaynabiyya and Imam Husayn shrine-mosques were built during the Fatimid period. It is likely that the body of Zaynab, daughter of Imam 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, and the head of the third Shi'i Imam (to all Shi'is: Isma'ilis, Twelvers, and Zaydis), Husayn bin 'Ali, are buried in the latter two shrines. The Fatimids were patrons of Syria's many Shi'i shrines and brought back relics when their control of Syria was threatened by the horde of European Crusaders who came to the Near East in the late eleventh century.
Zaynabiyya Shrine-Mosque in Cairo
The Fatimids even had their own school of Islamic jurisprudence and ahadith tradition, developed by their chief jurist, al-Qadi al-Nu'man, who is the focus of Professor Hamdani's book. Ahadith (singular: hadith) are reports of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings, habits, and deeds that are a key foundation of Islamic jurisprudence and law. Sunnis and Twelver Shi'is have their own authoritative ahadith collections, as do Zaydi Shi'is. During the Fatimid period, the Isma'ili Shi'is also had their own collections, though many of these have been lost.
Today, "Shi'i" generally refers to Twelvers, who form the majority of the world's Shi'i Muslims and are the largest single religious group in Iran, Bahrayn, Iraq, and Lebanon, with sizable minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, West Africa, and in Muslim communities in Europe and North and South America. However, in the medieval period, if you wished to be a politically active Shi'i, you would have undoubtedly been an Isma'ili. The Twelvers in this period were politically quiescent and would not emerge as a real political force until the early sixteenth century with the foundation of the Safavid dynasty in Azerbaijan and Iran. In many ways, the tenth century, stretching into the eleventh, was the "Shi'i century," with the Isma'ili Fatimids at the helm.
The Shi'i Buyids (Buwayhids), a military family from Rayy near the Caspian Sea in what is now northern Iran, ruled as regents for the 'Abbasid caliphs from 945-1055. The Buyids were originally Zaydi Shi'is but upon coming to power as de facto rulers-in-the-name of the caliphs in Baghdad became closer to Twelver Shi'ism, though they never attempted to impose their own religious views on their mostly Sunni subjects. The Buyids did patronize descendants of the Prophet Muhammad (sayyids) and allow Shi'i mourning rituals during the month of 'Ashura, when Shi'is of all groups commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in 680 C.E. at the hands of the Umayyad general 'Umar bin Sa'd, who was acting on the orders of 'Ubaydullah bin Ziyad, the Umayyad governor of Iraq, who in turn was acting on the orders of the second Umayyad caliph, Yazid bin Mu'awiyah (Yazid I). It was the Isma'ili Fatimids, however, who developed a school of religious thought and jurisprudence, as well as political thought, that rivaled the dominant Sunni views epitomized by the 'Abbasid caliphs.
The eighth century and ninth centuries were periods of great social, theological, and military upheaval in the Muslim Middle East, and particularly during the lifetimes of the sixth Shi‘ī Imam, Ja‘far al-Sadiq (702-765), and his father, the fifth Shi‘ī Imam, Muhammad al-Baqir (675-732). It was during the latter’s lifetime that the practice of designation (nass), whereby the current Imam would explicitly name his successor, became a standard in Shi‘ism. The Imam, Shi‘īs believed, would receive divine guidance when making his choice. Unfortunately, Ja‘far al-Sadiq’s first chosen heir, his son Isma‘īl (721-755), died before his father. What happened next is still the subject of debate between the different surviving Shi‘ī sects. Those that became Twelver Shi‘īs supported the claims of Ja‘far’s son and Isma‘īl’s half-brother, Musa al-Kazim, who would eventually become their seventh Imam. Other Shi‘īs supported one or the other of Isma‘īl’s full brothers, Muhammad and ‘Abd Allah. As Hamdani notes, the sources on this period of Isma‘īlī Shi‘ī history is limited and much of what survives are heresiographical works produced by one Shi‘ī faction or another. Many early Isma‘ilis and other Shi‘īs during this period believed that their leader, either Ja‘far al-Sadiq or his son Isma‘il, had not really died, but instead had gone into occultation.
The Fatimid Isma‘īlī da‘wa (“call” or “mission”) has its roots in this social and theological milieu. ‘Abd Allah bin Muhammad (909-934), one of the sons of Muhammad, a son of Ja‘far al-Sadiq’s son Isma‘īl, became the first Fatimid imam-caliph, taking the name al-Mahdi (hereafter referred to as al-Mahdi), and residing in the town of
Eventually, al-Mahdi moved from
Although the cities of North Africa and
'Abbasid Caliphate and its fragmentation
The Fatimids, particularly during the lifetime of the imam-caliph al-Mansur (r. 946-953), developed a two-pronged policy: a public (zahiri) discourse aimed at satisfying the need to rule a mostly non-Shi‘ī population, and an esoteric (batini) discourse that allowed them to continue disseminating information and teachings to their Isma‘īlī subjects. Qadi al-Nu‘man was the architect of this system and is the main subject of Hamdani’s short, but in-depth study of the transformation of the Fatimid da‘wa into a dawla, a state. It is perhaps no wonder that al-Nu‘man’s most famous work is entitled Iftitah al-Da‘wa wa Ibtida’ al-dawla (“The Opening of the
al-Qadi al-Nu‘man: Kitab al-Urjuzah al-Muntakhabah fi Fiqh Ahl al-Bayt (“A Versified Selection on the Jurisprudence of the Ahl al-Bayt”)
The role of the Isma‘īlī Fatimid imam was to interpret the inner (batin) meanings of the Qur’an and religious sources, which were hidden from the view of ordinary Muslims behind the outer (zahir) meanings. The prophets brought revelation and the imams were believed to be the only ones who were able to reveal the batini meanings to the believers. Prior to the Day of Judgment at an appointed time, the mahdi or savior would come and would found a society based on absolute justice for those who followed him and his predecessors. The Fatimid da‘is held debates with local Sunnī Maliki ‘ulama, arguing for the supremacy of ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib over the other Companions of the Prophet and the three “Rashidun” caliphs recognized by the Sunnīs. The da‘is, using interpretations of Qur’anic verses and Ahadith, also argued in support of the imamate, since a living imam was always required to be present, though he may often be in hiding, in order to lead his community.
The biographical details of al-Qadi Abu Hanifa al-Nu‘man bin Muhammad bin Mansur bin Ahmad bin Hayyun al-Tamimi (known hereafter as “Qadi al-Nu‘man”) are incomplete. He came from a Maliki Sunnī family that had converted, before he was born, to Isma‘īlī Shi‘ism and he entered into the service of the Fatimid imam-caliph al-Mahdi in 925. He first was appointed qadi of
Fatimid cemetery at Minya, Egypt near Aswan on the Nile River
During his lifetime, he supervised Fatimid religious education, served as the imam-caliphs’ secretary, taught Fatimid doctrine, and wrote theological, juridical, and historical treatises on the founding of the Fatimid state and Fatimid law and jurisprudence. He also collected Ahadith, traditions from the Prophet and, for Shi‘īs, their Imams. One of the first works commissioned from him was Kitab al-Idah, a collection of Ahadith testifying to the authority of the Ahl al-Bayt and the Imams, which was useful in debates between Fatimid and Sunnī Maliki scholars. This work, and many others, of al-Nu‘man’s has not survived completely extant. Many of his works have been lost, and others are only available in part or through references. The sources we have on his life do not tell us how he was educated, so the nature of his education in Islamic religious sciences and the Fatimid da‘wa is unclear.
Perhaps Qadi al-Nu‘man’s most important legacy was his three-pronged defense of the legitimacy of both the Shi‘ī and the Fatimid cause. In Da‘a’im al-Islam (“Pillars of Islam”), he describes the Shi‘ī concepts of imama (the regency of the Imams, in this case the Isma‘īlī Fatimid ones) and walaya, or the duty of Muslims to follow the teachings of the Imams because of their special position. He then presents evidence from the Qur’an, Ahadith, and historical accounts to support the Shi‘ī interpretation of how the succession to the Prophet should have been, namely that ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib was the individual who had been named by Muhammad as his successor at Ghadir Khumm during his final pilgrimage, an event that is detailed in Sunni texts, such as the Musnad of the great Sunnī muhaddith Ibn Hanbal. Qadi al-Nu‘man then disputes Sunnī counterclaims about the succession and Ghadir Khumm, as well as Sunnsī fiqh practices. In the realm of historiography, Qadi al-Nu‘man is best known for writing Iftitah al-Da‘wa wa Ibtida’ al-dawla (“The Beginning of the
Map of the Fatimid palaces of Cairo
After periods of communal tension between Sunnīs and Shi‘īs during the early Fatimid period, which led to the outbreak of revolts, the third and fourth Fatimid imam-caliphs, al-Mansur (r. 946-953) and al-Mu‘izz (r. 953-975), pursued a policy of rapprochement with both their Sunnī subjects and rival Isma‘īlī trends in the Mashriq, the eastern Arab Islamic lands and
The transformation of the Fatimid project from a covert revolutionary “mission” (da‘wa) into a state (dawla) required a thorough reconsideration and reworking of Fatimid doctrines. Whereas they emphasized the esoteric (batini) in their da‘wa period, the foundation of the Fatimid state, the majority of whose subjects were Maliki Sunnīs, many of whom were not well disposed toward the Fatimids, required the development of public (zahiri) discourse. Qadi al-Nu‘man, for example, in his work Da‘a’im al-Islam defends the legitimacy of the Shi‘ī view of the succession to the Prophet and the concepts of imama and walaya in historical terms, using Qur’anic verses, Ahadith, and historical accounts in a way that was intelligible to Sunnīs. Fatimid imam-caliphs, such as al-Mu‘izz, sought out ways to coexist with their predominantly Sunnī subjects, while still maintaining an official place for Fatimid Isma‘īlism in the state structure. Likewise, more radical tendencies among the Fatimid and Isma‘īlī da‘is were suppressed in the interest of maintaining a zahiri framework that allowed the Fatimids to establish, rule, and expand an empire in a predominantly Sunnī setting.
Da‘a’im al-Islam, The Pillars of Islam
Sumaiya A. Hamdani, "The Dialectic of Power: Sunni-Shi'i Debates in Tenth Century North Africa," in Studia Islamica, no. 90 (2000), pgs. 5-21
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning (1997)
Farhad Daftary, The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines: 2nd Edition (2007)
Farhad Daftary, A Short History of the Ismailis (1998)
Farhad Daftary, Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Societies (2006)
Paul Walker, Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fatimid History and its Sources (2002)
Paula Sanders, Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (1994)
Shainool Jiwa (ed.) Towards a Shi'i Mediterranean Empire: Fatimid Egypt and the Founding of Cairo (2009), a translation of a work by the medieval Sunni historian Taqi al-Din Ahmad bin 'Ali al-Maqrizi
Ismail Poonawala, The Pillars of Islam, 2 volumes (2004 & 2006), a translation of al-Qadi al-Nu'man's Da‘a’im al-Islam