Type of Government
The Fāṭimid dynasty was a hereditary caliphate (ruling dynasty) of the Shia Islamic sect. Between 909 and 1171 the Fāṭimids ruled as absolute monarchs of an empire that covered North Africa and Egypt, and at its apex it included Sicily, Palestine, Syria, the Red Sea coast of Africa, Yemen, and the Hejaz of western Arabia, containing the cities of Mecca and Medina.
A product of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam, the Fāṭimid caliphate traced its bloodline to the prophet Muḥammad (c. 570–632) through his daughter Fāṭimah (c. 616–633)—for whom they were named—and Fāṭimah’s husband, ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (c. 600–661), Islam’s fourth caliph. To the Shia, this is the one legitimate bloodline through which Muḥammad’s authority transmitted itself, distinguishing them from the Sunni majority of Islam, which supported other caliphs, not just those from ʿAlī’s line. The Fāṭimid dynasty established itself in North Africa, under the caliph (ruler) al-Muʾizz (d. 975) in 909. Al-Muʾizz sent missionaries to Egypt, met with success, and then followed up with a bloodless takeover of the country after its people grew dissatisfied with a previous caliph’s rule. Conquest of Egypt provided a springboard for successive campaigns into other territories. Taking a lesson from their experience in Egypt, the Fāṭimids added a propaganda mission to their military and bureaucratic initiatives by sending a network of emissaries abroad to infiltrate coveted territories in the east. The Fāṭimids met with great success in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, where a liberal distribution of gold helped win Fāṭimid recognition in 970–971. Al-Muʾizz met with less success in Syria, where Fāṭimid authority continued to meet with contention throughout all the years of its presence. His son al-ʿAzīz (955–996) persisted with territorial expansion and under his reign the Fāṭimid dynasty grew to its greatest geographical reach.
The real architect of the Fāṭimid state was its most famous administrator, Ya qūb ibn Killis (930–991), a Jewish convert to Islam. He set in motion a series of significant administrative and fiscal reforms that lasted through the remainder of Fāṭimid rule and into the succeeding dynasty. Killis established a centralized revenue collection system. Administration of the state was carried out via diwan (ministries) that focused on specific concerns of the empire, such as the treasury. Killis’s extraordinary skills were recognized when he became the first Fāṭimid minister to bear the title vizier (prime minister).
The vizier was one of three key counselors—along with the commander of the armies and the guide of the missionaries (or propagandists)—who counseled Fāṭimid caliph on his roles as civilian head of government, commander in chief, and religious leader. Viziers were only executors of the caliph’s wishes; but the viziership of Badr al-Jamālī (d.1094), changed this relationship. Badr, the governor of Acre and a freed slave of Armenian origin, was made vizier in 1074 by caliph al-Mustanṣir (1029–1094), who called for his assistance in restoring the caliphate to order after years of incompetent rule. Under Badr, the vizier’s authority grew until he effectively assumed control of all three of the caliph’s areas of responsibility. After Badr, the viziers became the actual rulers of the Egypt, with only scattered periods of true authority exercised by the caliphs. Viziers could, however, be appointed or dismissed at the caliph’s whim; some were reappointed to office after being banished in disgrace or even imprisoned.
Political Parties and Factions
The Kutāma Berbers of North Africa provided military strength and know-how to the early Fāṭimid dynasty. They were largely replaced during al-ʿAzīz’s reign by Turkish mamluks (slave-soldiers).
Jews and Christians generally fared well under Fāṭimid rule. Often, they held some of the highest offices of state; for example, three powerful Fāṭimid caliphs had Christian viziers. The physician serving the Fāṭimid court was usually a non-Muslim. Sunni Muslims did not enjoy the same favor as Jews and Christians under Fāṭimid rule. Policies involving them were likely to fluctuate among caliphs.
The enigmatic and unpredictable behavior of the caliph al-Ḥākim (985–1021?) included imposition of strict anti-Sunni laws and active persecution of Jews and Christians. He also instituted laws restricting the activities of women and destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 1009. Much of his behavior was eccentric and inexplicable. A small group of followers believed him to be a divine incarnation, a notion he seems to have encouraged. After his mysterious disappearance in 1021, his followers declared him to be in hiding and predicted his reemergence in the future. Their movement faded away in Egypt, but in Syria it remained active and developed into the Druze sect.
In 1038 Fāṭimid and Byzantine rulers signed a thirty-year peace treaty ending years of hostilities in Syria and initiating a long period of friendship between the two empires. That same year the caliph al-Mustanṣir granted permission for the rebuilding of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.
From the mid-eleventh century onward, determined Sunnis steadily undermined Shia Fāṭimid authority. Jerusalem and key cities in Syria were lost to the Fāṭimids in the 1070s, followed by other loses in the east, until by 1094 only the original conquered state of Egypt remained under Fāṭimid rule. Disputed successions and a schism in relations between Shia Ismaili communities in the east and the Fāṭimids in Egypt ensued. The Fāṭimid dynasty ended with three successive caliphs who were all children when they took the throne, and Egypt was ruled by powerful viziers assisted by factions of the army. In 1171 Sunni supporters of the Abbasid caliphate assumed power and the Fāṭimid palaces were sacked and the remaining family taken into custody.
Egger, Vernon O. A History of the Muslim World to 1405: The Making of a Civilization. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Gordon, Matthew S. The Rise of Islam. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991.