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Era 297/909 to 567/1171
Lineage Isma'il b. al-Imam al-Sadiq (a)
Head 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi
Origin Morocco
Residence Africa, Egypt, Syria, Yemen
Rulers 'Ubayd Allah Al-Mahdi, Al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah, Al-Mansur bi-Allah, Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah
Features Promotion of Shi'ism in the north Africa. Establishing Al-Azhar University. Dispatching Isma'ili Da'is (Caller) to different regions.
کتیبه مسجد.png

Fatimid family (Arabic: الفاطميّون) were ruling over the majority of western territory of Muslims from 297/909 to 567/1171 and they were known as 'Ubaydi as well. Fatimids were Isma'ili Shi'ites who were in rivalry with Abbasids on caliphate of Muslims. Fatimid caliphate was established in a region, today known as Morocco. After some time they managed to conquer northern region of Africa, Egypt, Syria (Levant) and Yemen expanding their territory near Hijaz and ruling over parts of Mediterranean Sea and Sicily.

The longevity of Fatimid rule led to expansion and promotion of Shi'ism in the north of Africa especially in Egypt. Great educational centers like Jami' al-Azhar (al-Azhar University) were built in order to teach Isma'ili teachings; important Isma'ili books were written in that time as well. They managed to expand their followers and supporters by means of sending invitations and Isma'ili da'is (who summons to Isma'ilism) to different regions including Yemen, India and eastern parts of Iran.

Disagreements on the Lineage of Fatimid Caliphs

There have been disagreements on the lineage of Fatimid caliphs. 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi believed he was a descendant of 'Abd Allah al-Aftah son of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (a) while Isma'ili Imams were descendants of Muhammad b. Isma'il, the other son of Imam al-Sadiq (a). In order to resolve the disagreements on the lineage of the Fatimid caliphs, the children of 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, with previous Isma'ili Imams, some claimed that the second Fatimid caliph was not the son of 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi but he was a descendant of Muhammad b. Isma'il. He was named as Muhammad and Abu l-Qasim was his kunya and he was titled as al-Qa'im. Later, in the time of al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah the fourth Fatimid caliph it was said that 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi was a descendant of Muhammad b. Isma'il and he exercised taqiyya (precautionary dissimulation) and introduced himself a descendant of 'Abd Allah al-Aftah.

The oppositions of Fatimid cast doubt on the lineage of 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi and believed he was not a descendant of Ahl al-Bayt (a).

Background and Emergence

Abu 'Abd Allah Claimed Isma'ilism in the North of Africa

Fatimid Caliphs
Name Title Reign
'Ubayd Allah b. Husayn 'Ubayd Allah Al-Mahdi 297/909
Abu l-Qasim Muhammad Al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah 322/934
Abu Tahir Isma'il Al-Mansur bi-Allah 334/946
Mu'idd b. Mansur Al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah 341/953
Abu Mansur Nizar Al-Aziz Bi-Allah 365/975
Abu 'Ali Mansur Al-Hakim bi-Allah (bi-Amr Allah) 386/996
Abu l-Hasan 'Ali Al-Zahir li-I'zaz Din Allah 411/1021
Abu Tamim Mu'idd Al-Muntasir bi-Allah 427/1036
Abu l-Qasim 'Ahmad Al-Musta'li bi-Allah 488/1094
Abu 'Ali Mansur Al-'Amir bi-Ahkam Allah 495/1101
Abu l-Maymun 'Abd Al-Majid Al-Hafiz li-Din Allah 524/1130
Abu Mansur 'Isma'il Al-Zafir bi-Amr Allah 544/1149
Abu l-Qasim 'Isa Al-Fa'iz bi-Nasr Allah 549/1154
Abu Muhammad 'Abd Allah Al-'Adid li-Did Allah 555/1160

Fatimid caliphate was established in a region in the north of Africa; today it is called Morocco. The bulk of its military troops were members of Berber tribes of the region who converted to Isma'ilism by the invitation of Husayn b. Ahmad b. Zakariyya known as Abu 'Abd Allah al-Shi'i. Abu 'Abd Allah was originally from Yemen who traveled to Africa in 280/893-94 in order to preach Isma'ilism and its teaching there. In that time, Yemen was one of the Isma'ili centers of da'wa (invitation) and Ibn Hawshab was its leader who sent a large number of them to different region of Islamic territories. Abu 'Abd Allah was also ordered by Ibn Hawshab to travel to Africa and preach Isma'ilism. He managed to encourage members of Kutama tribes, who were members of a larger tribe called Sanhaja, to convert to Isma'ilism. Meanwhile Aghlabid government was in decline, they were ruling in a semi-independent rule under the protection and authority of Abbasid caliphs since 184/800 in Maghreb. Kutama tribe led by Abu 'Abd Allah rebelled against Aghlabids in 296/908-9 and they successfully conquered Raqqada a crucial city and the second capital of Aghlabids. Abu 'Abd Allah managed to defeat Aghlabids and then he attacked the western regions and defeated Banu Midrar and Rustamids to conquer Sijilmasa where he founded a new government; he appointed 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi as the caliph.

'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, the First Fatimid Caliph

There are numerous disagreements on the personality of 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi the first Fatimid caliph. Some believe he was a descendant of Muhammad b. Isma'il b. Ja'far (a), on the other hand some refuse the idea that he was a descendant of Imam Ja'far al-Sadiq (a). 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi claimed Imamate which was rejected by Abbasid caliphs and other groups of Isma'ilis including Qarmatians; then he was prosecuted and imprisoned. However, he managed to defeat the ruler of the time in 296/908-9 and fled from prison; he claimed to be the first Fatimid caliph. Mahdia, today known as Tunisia, was built during his reign as the capital of Fatimid dynasty. After some time, 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi killed Abu 'Abd Allah and a number of Kutama tribe and achieved ultimate power.

The gate of Mahdia, today known as Tunisia, which was built during 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi's reign as the capital of Fatimid dynasty.

Fatimid in Maghreb

In the time of caliphate of the first three Fatimid caliphs, 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi (r. 297/909 - 322/934), al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah (r. 322/934 - 334/946) and al-Mansur bi-Allah (r. 334/946 - 341/953) and through half of al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah's caliphate, Fatimids were emphasizing on stabilization of their power and suppression of internal oppositions and rebellions of tribes as well as conquering western regions.

In the time of al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah, the fourth Fatimid caliph (r. 341/953 - 365/975), Fatimids managed to stabilize and dominate over their territory which prepared the situation for moving toward Egypt. They had tried to conquer Egypt for a number of times and they failed. But this time, as Egyptians were suffering from drought and chaos, they conquered Egypt and people welcomed them. After four years, al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah moved to Egypt and settled in Cairo.

After the Conquest of Egypt

Northern and Western Borders

When al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah moved to Egypt, the capital of Fatimid dynasty changed from Mahdia to Cairo and the governance of Maghreb was given to Zairids who became stronger and managed to rule over Maghreb independently. In northern regions Fatimid and Umayyad rulers in Andalusia always had military conflicts and oppositions in the borders of Andalusia and Africa. Umayyads were also supporting internal oppositions of Fatimids in Egypt and they encouraged them to rebel against Fatimids. They also formed alliance with Byzantine rulers against Fatimids.

Fatimid was dealing with Byzantines in their northern borders. Also Fatimid rulers in Sicily had military clashes with Byzantine. They were battling against Byzantines in northern regions of Syria as well.

Syria and Iraq

The collapse of Abbasid dynasty and ruling over all Islamic territories were the ultimate goals of Fatimid rulers. Then after moving the capital to Cairo the attention of Fatimid rulers were focused on conquering eastern lands. It began with conquering regions of Syria (Levant) by Jawhar in the time of al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah and it continued by other caliphs. The conflicts of Fatimid rulers in Syria with local governors who claimed independence and also Byzantines who supported some of these local rulers continued during the time of Fatimid dominance over Syria.

Local Shi'ite rules in Iraq like 'Uqaylids (r. 379/989 - 489/1096) who ruled over regions of Iraq and Peninsula, Mazaydids (r. 403/403 - 545/1150) who were ruling in Hillah and Mirdasids (r. 414/1023 - 472/1076) who were ruling over north of Syria, were having friendly relations with Fatimid rulers when they had fallen under their domination.

When Buyids who dominated over Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad were becoming weak and their decline began, Fatimids found a chance to dominate over Iraq and Syria. The peak of their power in Iraq was in the time of chaos when Seljuks were taking over Buyids; it did not last long though, as Seljuks conquered Baghdad in 451/1059.

As Seljuk were Sunni, they believed they came to rescue Abbasid caliphate and they fiercely opposed Fatimid Shi'ite rulers to revive Sunnism in order to prove the legitimacy of themselves. As Seljuk were powerful at that time, they were able to conquer Syria immediately and they took over Damascus from Fatimids in 471/1078. Therefore, Fatimids were only governing over Egypt as their influence over Sharifs of Mecca and Medina ended as well.

Arabian Peninsula

Having Mecca and Medina in Hijaz, the region was significantly important for Muslim rulers including Fatimids who were monitoring the situation. Jawhar sent gifts and assets for the governors of Mecca and Medina in 359/970 and told them to begin their speeches in the name of Fatimid caliphs. Since then conflicts between Abbasids and Fatimids started over having influence over Hijaz. The governors of Mecca and Medina were ruling independently and they praised sometimes Fatimid caliphs and sometimes Abbasid caliphs in their speeches.

Isma'ilis were promoting their teachings in Yemen for a long time, but they managed to politically dominate over the region in the middle of 5th/11th century. 'Ali b. Muhammad was a Fatimid da'i who captured Yemen in 455/1063 after long-lasting battles. Sulayhids ruled over Yemen about hundred years, until 532/1137. They were allies of Fatimids in Egypt and they were supported by them as well.

Internal Disputes and Decline

Disputes of Tribes

The disputes among different tribes in Egypt lasted for a long time during Fatimid era, which became the main reason behind the collapse of Fatimid dynasty. They were clashing with each other over their territories and military group were trying to achieve more power. At the beginning, Fatimids were relying on Berber tribes' soldiers and troops of Maghreb and north of Africa whose leaders were among the high ranks of Fatimid army. When Fatimid caliphs settled in Egypt, they also employed troops from other tribes in order to depend less on Berber tribes; it continued in next periods of their caliphate. Hence Fatimid troops were soldiers of Turk and Berber tribes who had clashes with each other in order to achieve more power and influence. Such disputes led to coups, dismissal of ministers and even rebellions against Fatimid caliphs. On the other hand, Fatimid caliphs and those who claimed to be the caliphs became allies with ethnic groups of their regions to defeat their rivals and achieve power.

Disputes over Caliphate

Parting of Nizaris

After the death of al-Mustansir bi-Allah the Fatimid caliph, the court was divided into two groups. Al-Mustansir bi-Allah appointed his older son, Nizar as his successor, but Afdal b. Badr al-Jamali who was an influential minister, introduced Abu l-Qasim Ahmad the youngest son of al-Mustansir bi-Allah as the successor. He asked people of Cairo to take oath of allegiance to Abu l-Qasim and then he was appointed as the new caliph in 487/1094; Abu l-Qasim was titled al-Musta'li bi-Allah. Nizar fled to Alexandria and with the support of other oppositions of Afdal rebelled against Cairo. At the beginning they captured some regions but eventually they were defeated and Nizar was imprisoned. Although Isma'ilis of Egypt, majority of Syrian Isma'ilis as well as Isma'ili supporters in Yemen and west India accepted al-Musta'li's caliphate and regarded him as the ninth Fatimid Imam, Isma'ilis in Iran, led by Hasan al-Sabbah and a number of Syrian Isma'ilis regarded Nizar as the caliph of Fatimids. As a result, Fatimids were divided into two groups who were supporting al-Musta'li and Nizar. Later, supporters of Nizar were known as "al-Da'wat al-Jadida" (The New Invitation) who opposed supporters of al-Musta'li, known as "al-Da'wata al-Qadima" (The Old Invitation).

Separation of Taiyabi Isma'ilism

Similarly, after the death of Amir bi-ahkam Allah, the Fatimid caliph in 524/1130, Fatimids were divided again. Amir did not have a child and after his death, 'Abd al-Majid his cousin came to power. At the beginning he was ruling as the deputy, but in 526/1130 he was appointed as the caliph and he was titled as al-Hafiz li-Din Allah (the protector of God's religion) and his supporters talked about a document, proving that Amir bi-ahkam Allah appointed his cousin as the next caliph the same as Prophet Muhammad (s) appointed his cousin 'Ali b. Abi Talib (a) as his successor. A large number of Isma'ilis in Yemen did not accept this, they believed Tayyib the child of Amir who was born a couple of months before his father's death, is the true successor of caliphate. Researchers also prove that a child of Amir was born before his death.

Decline of Caliphate and Collapse

In the second part of Fatimid caliphate, as the power and influence of ministers became stronger, Fatimid caliphate became weaker. In this era, ministers were in charge of caliphate affairs, they even told caliph what to do and what not to do; sometimes they appointed a weak caliph to increase their influence. When an authoritative minister was in charge, governmental affairs were in order, but when he was not in charge, competitions over taking minister position steered to long-lasting conflicts.

Since the caliphate of Hafiz, Fatimid court was in huge internal disputes. Ministers and regional governors rebelled and they exercised influence in choosing and removing caliphs. Nur al-Din Zengi, the local governor of Syria in 548/1153 sent Shirkuh and Salah al-Din b. Ayyub to Egypt. When Shirkuh entered Cairo, al-'Adid li-Din Allah the Fatimid caliph, appointed him as his minister. After the death of Shirkuh, Salah al-Din b. Ayyub was appointed as the minister. He weakened and restricted Fatimid and Shi'ite caliphate institutions and brought Sunni scholars in charge of affairs. Eventually in the last days of the last Fatimid caliph in 567/1171 Salah al-Din b. Ayyub ordered to begin speeches in Cairo by the name of Abbasid caliph.

Religious Policies of Fatimids

Religious policies of Fatimid throughout their long-lasting rule was relatively different in the time of each caliph and it was based on their perspective, however generally it was based on tolerance and patience. Naturally Isma'ili Fatimids made efforts to expand Shi'ism in their territory. They built preaching and religious institutions, promoted Shi'ite rituals and supported Shi'ite scholars; sometimes they restricted Sunnis Muslims as well. However, generally during Fatimid era, Sunni Muslims were living freely and they attended their own religious and social ceremonies and activities without any problem. Each religious sect had its own judge and the supreme judge of numerous cities and regions were Sunni who exercised their own religious laws. In addition, Sunnis were permitted to have their own religious conventions and they were able to achieve high governmental positions; for example Ridwan b. al-Wilkhashi was appointed as the minister in the time of al-Hafiz li-Din Allah.

In Maghreb

When Fatimid founded their caliphate, they made efforts to promote Isma'ili Shi'ism in their territory. When they captured a city or a region they ordered to begin the sermons by the name of Shi'ite Imams. Even the expression "Hayya 'ala khayr al-'amal" (Hurry toward the best of deeds) was added to adhan and discussions between two religious sects were held as well.

The religious policies of the firsts Fatimid caliphs in promoting Isma'ilism were different. In the time of the first two caliphs, 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi and al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah, the emphasis was on converting people to Shi'ism and restricting Sunni Muslims which were fiercely opposed by Sunnis. In that time Isma'ilism was promoted and expanded in gatherings and Maliki supporters who were the majority in northern regions of Africa were restricted. Teaching, writing and issuing fatwa were prohibited for Maliki supporters which led to prevalence of cursing caliphs and their companions; besides performing special Sunni rituals like prayer was prohibited. According to sources a number of Maliki scholars were murdered in that time. Such behaviors were confronted by the oppositions as a result they cooperated with Kharijites to rebel against Fatimid caliphs including the rise of Abu Yazid.

Since the time of al-Mansur bi-Allah, the third Fatimid caliph, religious policies of Fatimids changed as they tried to persuade Sunnis [to trust Fatimid rulers as fair rulers] and they promoted Isma'ilism peacefully and was continued by al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah the authoritative Fatimid caliph. In that period of time, Maliki judges were appointed in the regions in which Sunnis were the majority. When Egypt was conquered in 358/968-69 Abu Tahir the judge of Cairo was not replaced and was retained in his position.

In Egypt

When Fatimids conquered Egypt, their policy was to let non-Isma'ilis to live freely and perform their own religious rituals. Fatimids were also promoting their own Isma'ili rituals. However, Isma'ili thoughts and deeds were performed in the region Fatimids conquered, for instance the sermons should be started with the names of Fatimid Imams, besides adhan and funeral ceremonies were performed according to Shi'ite thoughts.

Shi'ite Rituals: In Fatimid era, Isma'ili Shi'ism was promoted in Shi'ite ceremonies including the Ashura Day, Eid al-Ghadir, the annual birthday of Imams and Lady Fatima (s). In the time of caliphate of al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah the first 'Ashura ceremony in Fatimid era was held in 363/973-74, malls were closed in the Day of 'Ashura and people along with ministers, judges and government officials attended the mourning ceremonies in Jami' al-Azhar. Also people visited the shrines of Umm Kulthum and Sayyida Nafisa to perform mourning ceremonies.

Teaching Isma'ili Fiqh: Performing Shi'ite rituals and holding cultural ceremonies were based on stabilizing Isma'ilism. Writing Isma'ili fiqh books and holding educational assemblies under the name of Majalis al-Hikma (Arabic: مجالس الحكمة) to teach Isma'ili thoughts for new-Isma'ilis were the main actions taken by Fatimids.

In that time, Qadi Nu'man who was an Isma'ili Shi'ite with the support of al-Mu'izz li-Din Allah tried to write and shape a fiqh system of Isma'ili. He wrote the most important Isma'ili fiqh books and started teaching them after congregational prayers. It was regarded also a reaction to the accusation made supposing that Isma'ilism has a tendency of disobeying Shari'a; they also emphasized on observation of visual aspect of their religion. Therefore, Fatimids tried to expand teaching institutions and they founded Jami' al-Azhar (al-Azhar University) in which grand Isma'ili faqihs were teaching. Also common people were allowed to attend the religious teachings sessions in al-Azhar; esoteric sciences were almost ignored.

Caliphate of al-Hākim bi-Allah and Appearance of Druze

In the time of caliphate of al-Hākim bi-Allah, biased and prejudiced policies in promoting Isma'ilism became prevalent. The caliph issued harsh laws on Christians, Jews and the non-Muslims living in Islamic territories; also Sunnis were restricted. These policies led to expansion of cursing caliph and companions and torture of oppositions. As the situation became worse and oppositions became fiercer, Sunnis led by Abu Rakwa rebelled against Fatimid caliph in 369/979-80. The caliph who was known for having inconsistent and difference attitudes, changed his mind and soften the situation by giving non-Isma'ilis more freedom. Such harsh policies did not continued by the next Fatimid caliphs.

Al-Hakim bi-Allah was disappeared in 411/1020-21. Before the incident a hypothesis was becoming widespread among his supporters that the divine spirit was incarnated in al-Hakim. The group who promoted and preached the idea of divinity of al-Hakim later were known as new Isma'ili sect recognized as Druze.

Da'wa Organization

Da'wa organization which was responsible for educating and preaching Isma'ilism in other regions was systematized in the time of Fatimids. It was working efficiently as Isma'ili preachers were able to persuade people of other regions to convert to Isma'ilism. Regularly the head of Da'wa organization was the holder of a high religious position in Fatimid caliphate or the supreme judge who was titled as Bab, Bab al-Abwab or Da'i al-Du'at. He was appointed by Isma'ili Imam and he was in charge of choosing other da'is.

Fatimids, have divided the non-Isma'ili world into twelve parts or islands and they sent one da'i to each island who was known as Hujjat. The islands were known as Arab, Rum (Byzantine), Saqaliba (Slavs), Nub, Khazar, Hind (India), Sind, Zanj (African), Habash (Abyssinia), Sin (China), Daylam (Iran) and Berber. Each island had one Hujjat who had a number of da'is, based on their importance and duties they were divided as Da'i Balagh, Da'i Mutlaq and Da'i Mahdud, who also had assistants. It must be taken into consideration that Da'wa organization was an ideal pattern which was not carried out flawlessly as some parts of it were left incomplete.

Isma'ili da'is, with the help of their assistants, were searching in different classes of societies for potential individuals and introduced Isma'ilism to them. If individuals were eager, they would explain Isma'ili teachings to persuade them to convert to Isma'ilism. The new-Isma'ili were known as Mustajib, they had to take oath of allegiance to maintain secrecy in Isma'ili doctrine taught to him/her by the da'i.

Civilization during Fatimid Era

Fatimid era is regarded among the most magnificent era in Islamic civilization. Except for periods of economic crisis and drought, Egypt was enjoying flourishing industries and commerce in Fatimid era. As Fatimid caliphs in Egypt were interested in magnificent and glorious structure, decorative and architectural arts massively improved in that time. The travel accounts of Nasir Khusraw, the Iranian poet and scholar who visited Egypt in Fatimid era, is regarded amongst the most important sources which described the beautiful and flourishing cities, malls and commerce in Egypt as well as magnificent palaces of Egyptian caliphs.

Municipal Architecture

Fatimid era is considered as one of the most prominent time in the history of Islamic art which is analyzed by art researchers. The architectural works remained from Fatimid time, eloquently representing the Islamic art of the time which are perfectly expressed in Jami' al-Azhar and Jami' al-Hakim and Jami' al-Qamar.

Nasir Khusraw visited Egypt in Fatimid era and described Cairo as a magnificent model of municipal architecture. He described the flourishing and thriving cities which contained a large number of caravansaries and public bathrooms and streets being decorated with beautiful trees and gardens. He also perfectly described the magnificent palace of caliph which was decorated with royal architecture; it was as big as a city. Having such tall building, the palace could be seen out of Cairo like a mountain. Even trees were planted on top of the buildings, making them a place for leisure time.

Arts and Crafts

Pottery in Fatimid Era

In addition, artistic works such as paintings, glassblowing, pottery, tiling, woodwork and paper industry show the flourishing art and craft in Fatimid era. These arts also evolved and innovated during different times which brought new artistic styles, including new styles in glassblowing, crystal and pottery.

Textile industry was among the industries which was promoted and expanded in Fatimid era. Important cities in Egypt including Cairo and Damietta were the prominent centers of textile industry which were producing quality fabrics. Also Fatimid caliphs and high officials were famous for using expensive and majestic textiles.


Business was flourishing in Fatimid era which played an important role in economy of Fatimids. They were trading with different parts of the world including Europeans by means of Mediterranean Sea and also southern islands on Italy. Europeans and Byzantines were eager buyers of Egyptian textiles.

Fatimids supported commerce as they provided buildings and resting places for traders and foreign travelers. They built a large number of funduqs (trading facilities) all over the country which accommodated foreign traders; they had a lot of rooms and a yard and storage.

Sciences and Knowledge

With expansion of scientific institutions, sciences thrived in the time of Fatimid dynasty. Scientific centers were built including Jami' al-Azhar in that time. Al-Hākim bi-Allah built Dar al-Hikma in 395/1004-5 where scientists were teaching different sciences. Also grand equipped libraries were situated in the palace of caliph where scientist gathered together and held meetings and discussions.

Libraries thrived under Fatimid, Khazanat al-Kutub, the grand library of the palace in Cairo was the most notable one in Egypt. Other grand libraries in Egypt were called Dar al-'Ilm, and they were owned by Dar al-Hikma. In addition, Fatimids built observatories in their territory including al-Hakami Observatory built by the order of al-Hākim bi-Allah.

Although Isma'ili teachings were preached and promoted in scientific centers of Fatimids, as they were exercising religious tolerance they became famous all over Islamic world and Sunni scholars also joined and learned sciences in these centers.


  • The material for this article is mainly taken from فاطمیان in Farsi Wikishia.