Reign of the Fātimids

The Fāṭimids, an Islamic movement of Ismālī Shīՙite dissidents from North Africa, conquered Egypt and created their own caliphate there to rival the Sunni ՙAbbāsid caliphate of Baghdad. The Fāṭimid caliphs lived two centuries of splendor until they succumbed to internal factionalism, civil strife, and foreign incursions.

Summary of Event

During the late-800’, Ismālī Ismāՙīlī Shīՙite Islam[Ismaili Shiite Islam] Shīՙite Shīՙite Islam[Shiite Islam] Muslims launched an unprecedented challenge against the ՙAbbāsid caliphate for rule of the Islamic world. The ՙAbbāsid ՙAbbāsids[Abbasids] caliphs of Baghdad, although still the symbolic leaders of Sunni Sunni Islam Islam and claiming authority over all Muslims, had lost real political control over almost all the Islamic empire except Iraq. As the empire fragmented, local military governors ran their provinces like independent enterprises, often for the benefit of their own tribe or ethnic group. [kw]Reign of the Fāṭimids (969-1171)
[kw]Fāṭimids, Reign of the (969-1171)
Egypt;969-1171: Reign of the Fāṭimids[1270]
Government and politics;969-1171: Reign of the Fāṭimids[1270]
Expansion and land acquisition;969-1171: Reign of the Fāṭimids[1270]
Religion;969-1171: Reign of the Fāṭimids[1270]
ՙUbayd Allāh al-Mahdī
Ḥasān-e Ṣabbā

In this decadent environment, followers of an Ismālī leader named 4Ubayd All3h al-Mahdt [Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi] ՙUbayd Allāh al-Mahdī convinced a Berber Berbers tribe, the Kutama, to embrace his revolutionary religious doctrines. Decrying the ՙAbbāsids as usurpers and tyrants, ՙUbayd presented himself as a direct descendant of the Prophet Muḥammad and the great champions of Shīՙite Islam, ՙAlībū Abū Ṭālib and Ismāl. In 909, ՙUbayd’s forces swept out of Algeria and conquered Tunisia, and he declared himself the true and divinely ordained caliph of Islam. Taking the name of Fāṭimah, Muḥammad’s daughter and ՙAlī’s wife, his regime came to be called the Fāṭimids.

Decades later, the fourth Fāṭimid caliph, al-Mu՚izz Mu՚izz, al- , not only completed the pacification of North Africa and Sicily but also swept into Egypt. Exhausted by famine, taxation, and harsh rule, the Sunni Muslims of Egypt lacked the energy and will to resist the Ismālī forces. In July, 969, Fāṭimid armies entered the Nile Valley and established their ruling center at a massive troop camp that eventually became the city of Cairo. Caliph al-Mu՚izz himself entered Egypt Egypt;Fāṭimid conquest of[Fatimid conquest of] in 973. A vigorous leader, he made Cairo the imperial capital and created an efficiently centralized administrative hierarchy.

Through a mix of state industry, commercial subsidies, and patronage of private merchant initiatives, the caliph laid the foundations for Egypt’s dramatic economic recovery. Ismālī Shīՙite Islam now became the ruling religion, taking over the major mosques, schools, and judicial posts throughout Egypt. However, since Ismālī Muslims remained a tiny minority of the population, al-Mu՚izz extended official toleration to Sunni Muslims as well as Christians and Jews so long as they remained docile. In fact, many of them joined the Fāṭimid civil service. Nonetheless, the caliph regarded Egypt as the base from which Ismālī Shiism must spread through the Muslim world. To this end, he established a grand mosque, al-Azhar Al-Azhar mosque[Al Azhar mosque] , to become the religious, political, and intellectual training center for Ismālīsm. Fāṭimid military expeditions also extended eastward, bringing much of Palestine, Lebanon, southern Syria, and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina under Cairo’s power.

The caliphs who succeeded al-Mu՚izz inherited a complex, volatile legacy and thus achieved contradictory results. On the positive side, Fāṭimid economic policies made Egypt the commercial hub of the eastern Afro-Eurasian continent for more than two centuries and rewarded Egyptians with considerable prosperity. Local manufactures such as textiles, glassware, and foodstuffs were exchanged for raw materials from Europe and luxuries from the Indian Ocean emporium. Italian ports in particular profited richly. Trade;Egypt

Ismālī doctrine encouraged not only religious scholarship but the study of astronomy, optics, mathematics, and medicine as well. The luxuriant image of the Fāṭimid state often combined with the appeal of Ismālī propagandists to inspire revolts and subversion in lands outside Cairo’s control. In 1054, for example, conspirators took over Baghdad for a month and almost overthrew the beleaguered ՙAbbāsid caliphate.

Nonetheless, instability haunted and enfeebled the Fāṭimid caliphate throughout its existence. Ironically, certain aspects of Ismālī practice that might have been sources of strength contributed directly to weakening the system. For Ismālīs, the caliphs were divinely guided authorities, answerable only to God and ruling in response to God’s direction. For the traditionalist Sunni majority, however, such claims were at best arrogant posturing and at worst blasphemous and tyrannical. Either way, both North Africans and Egyptians viewed Ismālī Fāṭimid rule with sullen resentment and, sometimes, as worse. In the 1020’, Sunni Muslim revolts began in North Africa that, by the 1050’, finally forced the Fāṭimids to abandon their hold over everything except Egypt and parts of Libya.

Another development in the 1020’s underscored two further dangers that Fāṭimid religious ideology invited—dictatorial personalities and child rulers. The sixth caliph, al-Ḥākim Ḥākim, al- , invoking his inspired powers, launched a host of radical measures offensive to many of the traditional landowners, to urban non-Muslims, and even to his own clergy. Depicted by many chroniclers as brutal, even deranged, he disappeared under mysterious circumstances, probably assassinated. (The Druze Muslims, now prominent in Lebanon, arose from the preaching of some of al-Ḥākim’s most devoted followers.) Like several later caliphs, al-Ḥākim had been ordained to rule while still a child. Because the quality of spiritual insight that conferred true power purportedly passed from father to son, a child might be designated heir and thus require a regency until maturity. Regencies, by their nature, promoted factionalism and internal conflicts within religious, military, and bureaucratic cadres. Some of al-Ḥākim’s actions undoubtedly reflected his struggles to surmount and subjugate these interest groups.

Fāṭimid military structures also bred factionalism within the ruling elites. Essentially, Cairo’s army was a loose constellation of slave soldiers and mercenary units, recruited, organized, and run on the basis of ethnic identity. Under Ubayd Allāh, Berber tribes, supplemented by recruits from port towns to serve the navy and Bedouin mercenaries, provided the original fighting forces. After Egypt fell, however, the state gained access to Turkish, Daylam (from northern Iran), Slavic, and black African recruits from the Middle East to balance off Berber warriors. To control these diverse units, the state often played one ethnic group off against the others, gradually wrecking its ability to command any real loyalty among any of them. Rivalries between different commanders and garrisons intensified, sometimes leading to disruptions, riots, and mutinies. The military became undisciplined, hostility destroyed cohesiveness and morale, and fighting capability slackened. Officers made alliances with ambitious civilian politicians, steadily reducing the caliph to a passive and increasingly pathetic figurehead.

In 1094, on the eve of the First Crusade, Crusades;First[01] a clique of courtiers and officers seeking to protect their selfish interests blocked the designated heir, al-Nizār, and replaced him with his eight-year old brother, al-Mustaՙlī. This coup led one of the rightful caliph’s allies, Ḥasān-e Ṣabbā Ḥasān-e Ṣabbāḥ , to organize a religious countermovement within the Ismālī faith known as the Nizaris Nizaris . His enemies, however, called Nizaris Assassins Assassins because, among other tactics, they used lone attackers to menace or murder opponents.

The loss of Jerusalem, Palestine, and most Levantine ports to the Crusaders combined with Nizari attacks to humiliate the Fāṭimids and expose their military ineptitude. Such losses also plunged Egypt into economic recession and threatened urban famine. By 1118, the Europeans raided regularly along the Egyptian coast while caliphs became pawns in civil wars between the military factions. In 1154, a uniquely vicious coup massacred most of the royal family. Another infant caliph was placed on the throne but, in reality, the Fāṭimid caliphate was in virtual collapse.

In the last decade of the caliphate’s life, foreign powers sought to subvert Egypt by manipulating one of the contending domestic commanders. It was a Kurdish general known as Saladin Saladin who finally succeeded by first gaining control of a garrison on the Nile and bringing in reinforcements to help repulse two Crusader invasions. After his victories, Saladin compelled the sickly young caliph to give him complete power over the government, which he set about to quietly reshape. Except for some Sudanese troops, public resistance to the transformation was scant. In 1171, when the caliph died, Saladin simply refused to allow a successor and declared himself loyal to the ՙAbbāsid caliph of Baghdad. The Fāṭimid caliphate was gone.


The Fāṭimid movement and dynasty played a vital role in medieval history. For a time, the Fāṭimids united all of North Africa, Egypt, and much of the western Middle East under one ruler. Not since the time of the pharaohs had Egypt been an imperial center. The economic revival stimulated by Fāṭimid trade helped to finance the rebirth of urban commerce in medieval Italy and had a positive impact on western Europe. Cairo became one of the great cities of the Mediterranean, a center of power, culture, and wealth. Ismālīsm, however, failed to become dominant in Islam, and Fāṭimid decline opened Palestine to Crusader invasion. Saladin’s elimination of the Fāṭimid caliphate in 1171 ensured that Sunni Islam in Egypt would survive both Ismālīs and Crusaders.

Further Reading

  • Brett, Michael. The Rise of the Fāṭimids: The World of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the Fourth Century of the Hijra, Tenth Century C.E. Boston: Brill, 2001. A look at the early decades of the Fāṭimid movement in Egypt, North Africa, and Syria. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Halm, Heinz. The Fāṭimids and Their Traditions of Learning. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1997. Overview to Fāṭimid contributions to education and teaching, the humanities, and science. Bibliography, index.
  • Lev, Yaacov. State and Society in Fāṭimid Egypt. New York: E. J. Brill, 1991. The best current introduction to the subject. Part of the Arab History and Civilization series. Bibliography, index.
  • Lyons, Malcolm Cameron, and D. E. P. Jackson. Saladin: The Politics of Holy War. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Provides insights into the final years and the fall of the Fāṭimid Dynasty. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Sanders, Paula. Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fāṭimid Cairo. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. A social history that surveys the place of rituals, rites, customs, and ceremonies in the Cairo of the Fāṭimid era. Maps, bibliography, index.
  • Walker, Paul, E. Exploring an Islamic Empire: Fāṭimid History and Its Sources. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2002. A comprehensive source on Fāṭimid history, from its beginnings to its fall in 1171. Includes an introduction to the dynasty and its place in the history of the Islamic world. Especially useful as a resource for further study. Illustrations, extensive bibliography, index.