Citation for The Ismaili Challenge

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Donner, Fred M. . "Muhammad and the Caliphate." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 5, 2021. <>.


Donner, Fred M. . "Muhammad and the Caliphate." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 5, 2021).

Muhammad and the Caliphate >
The Ismaili Challenge

The most effective ideological challenge to the Abbasid caliphate from within the Islamic community arose from developments in Shiism in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Shiites had articulated the doctrine that only a descendant of the Prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, could be imam or leader of the Muslim community. Some Shiites argued that the imam's leadership was crucial because he possessed a secret knowledge. In their view this secret knowledge, which each imam conveyed to his designated successor before his death, was vital to the proper guidance of the community. This group split into activist and quietist wings. The quietists, usually called Imami or “Twelver” Shiites, believed that the line of visible imams had ended in 874 when the twelfth imam, still only an infant, had gone into hiding in Samarra, from which he would return in the fullness of time as the mahdi, a millenarian figure expected to lead the Muslim community in righteous preparation for the Last Judgment. For many Twelvers, then, there was no longer any basis for political action after 874, because there was no longer any imam in whose name rebellion could be raised. A more activist group, however, the Ismailis, argued that the imamate had not ended as the Twelvers claim. Rather, it continued in a different line of Ali's descendants. In the Ismaili view, there never ceased to be a living imam among Muslims, even though his identity at a particular moment might not be generally known. Periodically individuals emerged who claimed to be the imam. Clearly, this version of Shiite doctrine was likely to appeal to those with an activist turn of mind. A third variant of Shiism, called the Zaydiyya, argued that the imamate did not proceed in a particular line of descendants. Rather, it resided in the Alid who was most capable of providing effective leadership for his generation. This variant became especially important in Yemen.

The Ismailis, who were initially a unified movement with a secret, centralized leadership, strove to win adherents by means of dawa (missionary work) carried out by agents highly trained in theological argument. Their aim was to establish small groups or communities of followers secretly pledged to follow the imam upon his appearance, even though his identity was for reasons of prudence not divulged. By the late ninth century, as the Abbasid caliphate's power was dwindling, Ismaili communities were established in many areas: Yemen, North Africa, Iran, southern Iraq, eastern Arabia, and Syria. One group of Ismailis, the Qarmatis, rebelled openly against the Abbasids in the 890s and in 899 established a small state in northeastern Arabia; this state lasted until the 1070s and was for much of the tenth century a power to be reckoned with in northern Arabia and Syria.

The Ismaili Challenge

The Great Mosque at Mahdiyah is the most important structure to survive from the new capital established on the Tunisian coast by the first Fatimid caliph al-Mahdi (r. 909–34). The design of the portal was inspired by Roman triumphal arches and gateways in the region.

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The most successful Ismaili movement, however, grew out of the missionary work of a Yemeni agent in North Africa, who during the 890s established a strong Ismaili following among the Kutama Berbers, in opposition to the Abbasids' Aghlabid governors. By 899 a leader of the Ismailis in Syria, Ubayd Allah, had broken with the Qarmatis, proclaimed himself to be the imam, and in 902 made his way to Ifriqiya to lead the new state. Because Ubayd Allah, as imam, claimed descent from Ali's wife Fatima, he and his descendants are called Fatimids. Ubayd Allah was imprisoned for a time by the Aghlabids, but in 909 the Ismaili movement in North Africa succeeded in overthrowing the Aghlabids. Ubayd Allah was freed and assumed power, taking the regnal name al-Mahdi (r. 909–34) and the title amir al-muminin in defiance of the Abbasids. The Umayyads in Spain responded to the Fatimid claim by also assuming this title in 923. Ubayd Allah also founded a new capital at Mahdiyah, to symbolize his inauguration of a new order. For sixty years (909–69) the Fatimids carefully built up a powerful state in North Africa, first consolidating their power against the very propaganda movement that had brought them to power, then against widespread local opposition. The Sunni religious establishment in Qayrawan and the Sunni population of Ifriqiya generally were unsympathetic to the Ismaili's Fatimid claims. Even more hostile were the large number of North African Berber tribes who had embraced Kharijism. These tribes mounted numerous rebellions against the Fatimids, including a major one in the 940s that nearly toppled the dynasty. In the central and western Maghreb (northwest Africa), the Fatimids had to face the resistance of the small Rustamid and Idrisid states as well as the challenge of the more powerful, but more distant, Umayyads of Spain. The Fatimids overcame all these challenges, particularly during the reign of the great caliph al-Muizz (r. 953–75), whose brilliant general, Jawhar, consolidated Fatimid rule as far as the Atlantic Ocean. Al-Muizz also oversaw the construction of a powerful navy, with which the Fatimids established control over Sicily; it also played a crucial role in their conquest of Egypt.

As important as Ifriqiya was to them, the Fatimids never seem to have considered it as more than an interim station on the path to supreme power in the Islamic world. Almost immediately after their rise to power in 909, they tried unsuccessfully to conquer Egypt. Only after the Fatimids had built a strong base in Ifriqiya and engaged in extensive missionary work in Egypt was General Jawhar able to organize a successful conquest of Egypt in 969. Within a few years the Fatimid caliph left Ifriqiya in the hands of their Berber supporters, the Zirids, and took up residence in a new capital in Egypt at Cairo (from Arabic al-Qahira, meaning “the victorious”), a government and military complex that they founded beside Fustat. The splendid mosque of Al-Azhar was built in the new city to serve as the center of Ismaili worship. The extensive education that underlay the Ismaili dawa was carried out at many locations.

The Ismaili Challenge

This ewer hollowed out from a single block of rock crystal epitomizes the luxury arts associated with the splendid court established by the Fatimids after they conquered Egypt in 969. Texts describe hundreds of such objects, but only a handful has survived.

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The Fatimids would govern Egypt for two centuries (969–1171). During the first century of their rule there, they made impressive gains on several fronts. They established a presence in Syria and intermittent control over its main towns, Damascus and Aleppo, but they continually faced opposition from the Qarmatis; from bands of Turkish mercenaries dislodged from Buyid Baghdad; from local tribal powers, the Jarrahids in Palestine and the Hamdanids in Aleppo; and from the Byzantine Empire, resurgent under powerful military emperors from 975 to 1025. Their power was recognized in the holy cities of the Hejaz and by some Ismaili groups in Yemen. From Yemen, Ismaili agents established communities of supporters among the Muslims of India. Despite persistent diplomatic and propagnda efforts, however, the Fatimids failed to gain recognition in Baghdad, then under control of (Twelver) Shiite Buyids.

Under the caliphs al-Aziz (r. 975–96), al-Hakim (r. 996–1021), and al-Zahir (r. 1021–36), the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt became the most powerful state in the Islamic world and displayed a durability that enabled it to weather numerous crisis—even the protracted chaos and terror unleashed by al-Hakim, whose repressions of Egypt's large Christian population, assassination of many of his key advisers and commanders, and many other unpredictable measures would have undone a less stable regime. Fatimid might was based on a prosperous economy, an efficient, centralized administration, a powerful army, and skilled use of military governors to manage complex provinces, particularly Syria. The economy burgeoned partly because of a fortuitous increase in international trade passing through Egypt. This quickening of trade was to some extent the result of increasing demand in Europe, which was reviving economically, but it was also fostered by the instability of Iraq at this time, which caused merchants coming from the east to favor the Red Sea route to the Mediterranean.

The Fatimids also had access to plentiful gold supplies in Nubia (along the Upper Nile), which helped them to pay their armies and to mount the ambitious program of missionary work aimed at spreading recognition of the Fatimid caliphate. Egypt's rich farmland provided a steady flow of tax revenues, thanks to careful management by the Fatimid bureaucracy, supervised by a series of talented viziers (some of whom were native Christians, and some, such as Yaqub ibn Killis and al-Jarjarai, were of Iraqi origin). The Fatimid army consisted of a core of Kutama Berber units—heritage of their North African origins and staunch Ismailis—and units of African slaves and “easterners,” mainly Turks but also including Daylamis, Armenians, and others. Key military men became important pillars of the regime, such as the Turk Anushtakin al-Dizbari, who in the 1020s and 1030s helped contain the threat posed to Syria by the Jarrahids and other bedouin groups.

After about 1045 the power and stability of Fatimid rule slipped rapidly because of the rise of factional fighting between Berber and “eastern” cliques in the bureaucracy and among Berber, Turkish, and African contingents in the army. The earlier Fatimids had been careful to maintain a balance among different groups, but when this balance was lost, it proved impossible to restore. This internal strife caused the Fatimids to lose Syria to the Hamdanids and then, later in the eleventh century, to the Seljuk Turks, who had ousted the Buyids as protectors of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. The Abbasids and their Seljuk guardians were also recognized in the Hejaz, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, by the end of the eleventh century. The Fatimids' weakening grip was symbolized by the decision of their Zirid vassals in Ifriqiya to repudiate the Fatimids and shift their formal allegiance to the Abbasid caliphs in 1044. The Zirids were in effect declaring themselves independent, because the Abbasids were too far away to have any real control over them. In retaliation, the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir (r. 1036–94) sent the bedouin tribes of Hilal and Sulaym, who had proven troublesome in Egypt, to find new abodes in Ifriqiya. The long-term impact of the so-called Hilalian invasion has been hotly debated, but the arrival of these groups in Ifriqiya did disrupt the region politically (they sacked Qayrawan in 1057) and hastened the spread of Arabic as a spoken language in parts of the North African countryside.

In 1073 the caliph al-Mustansir, facing grave civil disorder in Cairo, called on his military governor in Syria, an Armenian named Badr al-Jamali, to restore order. Badr (r. 1073–94) and his son al-Afdal ibn Badr (r. 1094–1121) did restore order, but in the process they reduced the Fatimid caliphs to figurehead status, similar to that occupied by the Abbasids during the Buyid period. Henceforth, real power in the Fatimid domains was held by viziers and by key army chiefs, who were often engaged in complex intrigues and factional fighting. The presence of the Crusaders in Syria after 1099 only further complicated the situation of the Fatimids. Eventually, a desperate vizier called for support from Saladin (known in Arabic as Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub), a Kurdish military commander who had risen in the service of a Seljuk successor state in Syria, the Zangids. In 1171, Saladin himself acceded to the vizierate. One of his first acts after doing so was to renounce the Fatimids and recognize the Abbasids once again—in theory at least—as the overlords of Egypt.

Despite the Fatimids' concern for the Ismaili dawa, Ismailism made surprisingly little progress in Egypt during their rule. When the dynasty fell in 1171, Egypt's Muslim population was still staunchly Sunni, and Christian and Jewish communities were still strong. The Ismaili notion of the imamate as a linear progression made it prone to schism; several of these shook the Fatimid caliphate. One offshoot was the Druze faith, whose adherents considered the caliph al-Hakim to be divine; they established themselves (and are still to be found) in Lebanon and Syria. The so-called Assassins were another offshoot; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries they became the radical terrorists of the Islamic world, striking down selected political and cultural leaders to advance the cause of an Ismaili revolution. The positive accomplishments of the Fatimids, however, were significant. The brilliance and prosperity of Fatimid Cairo attracted many talented people in the arts, architecture, literature, administration, and military service. Consequently Fatimid Cairo replaced Baghdad as the most important cultural, and to some extent political, center of the eastern Arabic-speaking world, a position it has never relinquished.

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