1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fatimites
FATIMITES, or Fatimides, the name of a dynasty called after Fatima, daughter of the prophet Mahomet, from whom and her husband the caliph Ali, son of Abu Talib, they claimed descent. The dynasty is also called ‘Obaidi (Ubaidī) after ‘Obaidallah, the first sovereign, and ‘Alawī, a title which it shares with other dynasties claiming the same ancestry. For a list of sovereigns see Egypt, section History (Mahommedan period); three, however, must be prefixed who reigned in north-western Africa before the annexation of Egypt: al-Mahdī ‘Obaidallah 297 (909), al-Qā’im Mahommed 322 (934), al-Mansūr Ismā‘īl 334 (945).
The dynasty owed its rise to the attachment to the family of the prophet which was widespread in the Moslem world, and the belief that the sovereignty was the right of one of its members. Owing, however, to the absence of the principle of primogeniture there was difference of opinion as to the person whose claim should be enforced, and a number of sects arose maintaining the rights of different branches of the family. The Fatimites were supported by those who regarded the sovereignty as vested in Ismā‘īl, son of Ja‘far al-Sādiq, great-great-grandson of Alī, through his second son Hosain (Ḥusain). Of this Ismā‘īl the first Fatimite caliph was supposed to be the great-grandson. The line of ancestors between him and Ismā‘īl is, however, variously given, even his father's name being quite uncertain, and in some of the pedigrees even Ismā‘īl does not figure. Apparently when the family first became of political importance their Alid descent was not disputed at Bagdad, and the poet al-Sharīf al-Radī (d. A.H. 406: A.D. 1015), in whose family the office of Naqīb (registrar of the Alids) was hereditary, appears to have acknowledged it (Dīwān, ed. Beirut, p. 972). When their success became a menace to the caliphs of Bagdad, genealogists were employed to demonstrate the falsity of the claim, and a considerable literature, both official and unofficial, rose in consequence. The founder of the dynasty was made out to be a scion of a family of heretics from whom the terrible Carmathian sect had originated: later on (perhaps owing to the rôle played by Jacob, son of Killis, in bringing the Fatimites to Egypt), the founder was made out to have been a Jew, either as having been adopted by the heretic supposed to be his father, or as having been made to personate the real ‘Obaidallah, who had been killed in captivity. While the stories that make him of either Jewish or Carmathian origin may be neglected, as the product of malice, the uncertainty of the genealogies offered by their partisans renders any positive solution of the problem impossible. What seems to be clear is that secretly within the Abbasid empire propaganda was carried on in favour of one or other Alid aspirant, and the danger which any such aspirant incurred by coming forward openly led to his whereabouts being concealed except from a very few adherents. What is known then is that towards the end of the 3rd Islamic century the leader of the sect of Ismā‘īlites (Assassins, q.v.) who afterwards mounted a throne, lived at Salamia, near Emesa (Homs), having agents spread over Arabia, Persia and Syria, and frequently receiving visits from pious adherents, who had been on pilgrimage to the grave of Hosain (Ḥusain). Such visitors received directions and orders such as are usual in secret societies. One of these agents, Abū Abdallah al-Hosain called al-Shī‘ī, said to have filled the office of censor (muhtasib) at Basra, received orders to carry on a mission in Arabia, and at Mecca is said to have made the acquaintance of some members of the Berber tribe Kutama, south of the bay of Bougie. These persons persuaded him to travel home with them in the character of teacher of the Koran, but according to some authorities the ground had already been prepared there for a political mission. He arrived in the Kutama country in June 893, and appears very soon to have been made chief, thereby exciting the suspicion of the Aghlabite ruler of Kairawān, Ibrāhīm b. Aḥmad, which, however, was soon allayed. His success provoked a civil war among the Berbers, but he was protected by a chief named Ḥasan b. Hārūn, and displayed sufficient military ability to win respect. Nine years after his arrival he made use of the unrest following on the death of the Aghlabite Ibrāhīm to attack the town of Mila, which he took by treachery, and turned into his capital; the son and successor of Ibrāhīm, Abu’l-‘Abbās ‘Abdallah, sent his son al-Aḥwal to deal with the new power, and he defeated al-Shī‘ī in some battles, but in 903 al-Aḥwal was recalled by his brother Ziyādatallah, who had usurped the throne, and put to death.
At some time after his first successes al-Shī‘ī sent a messenger (apparently his brother) to the head of his sect at Salamia, bidding him come to the Kutama country, and place himself at the head of affairs, since al-Shī‘ī's followers had been taught to pay homage to a Mahdī who would at some time be shown them. It is said that ‘Obaidallah, who now held this post, was known to the court at Bagdad, and that on the news of his departure orders were- sent to the governor of Egypt to arrest himr but by skilful simulation ‘Obaidallah succeeded in escaping this danger, and with his escort reached Tripoli safely. Instructions had by this time reached the Aghlabite Ziyādatallah to be on the watch for the Mahdī, who was finally arrested at Sijilmāsa (Tafilalt) in the year A.H. 292 (A.D. 905); his companion, al-Shī‘ī's brother, had been arrested at an earlier point, and the Mahdī's journey to the south-west must have been to elude pursuit.
The invitation to the Mahdī turned out to have been premature; for Ziyādatallah had sent a powerful army to oppose al-Shī‘ī, which, making Constantine its headquarters, had driven al-Shī‘ī into the mountains: after six months al-Shi'i secured an opportunity for attacking it, and won a complete victory. Early in 906 another army was sent to deal with al-Shī‘ī, and an earnest appeal came from the caliph Muqtafī (Moktafi), addressed to all the Moslems of Africa, to aid Ziyādatallah against the usurper. The operations of the Aghlabite prince were unproductive of any decided result, and by September 906 al-Shī‘ī had got possession of the important fortress Tubna and some others. Further forces were immediately sent to the front by Ziyādatallah, but these were defeated by al-Shi'i and his officers, to whom other towns capitulated, till Ziyādatallah found it prudent to retire from Al-Urbus or Laribus, which had been his headquarters, and entrench himself in Raqqāda, one of the two capitals of his kingdom, Kairawān being the other. Ziyādatallah is charged by the chroniclers with dissoluteness and levity, and even cowardice: after his retreat the fortresses and towns in what now constitute the department of Constantine and in Tunisia fell fast into al-Shī‘ī's hands, and he was soon able to threaten Raqqāda itself.
By March 909 Raqqāda had become untenable, and Ziyādatallah resolved to flee from his kingdom; taking with him his chief possessions, he made for Egypt, and thence to ‘Irak: his final fate is uncertain. The cities Raqqāda and Kairawān were immediately occupied by Al-Shī‘ī, who proceeded to send governors to the other places of importance in what had been the Aghlabite kingdom, and to strike new coins, which, however, bore no sovereign's name. Orders were given that the Shī‘ite peculiarities should be introduced into public worship.
In May 909 al-Shī‘ī led a tremendous army westwards to the kingdom of Tahert, where he put an end to the Rustamite dynasty, and appointed a governor of his own; he thence proceeded to Sijilmasa where ‘Obaidallah lay imprisoned, with the intention of releasing him and placing him on the throne. After a brief attempt at resistance, the governor fled, and al-Shī‘ī entered the city, released ‘Obaidallah and presented him to the army as the long-promised Imām. The day is given as the 26th of August 909. ‘Obaidallah had been in prison more than three years. Whether his identity with the Mahdī for whom al-Shī‘ī had been fighting was known to the governor of Sijilmāsa is uncertain. If it was, the governor and his master the Aghlabite sovereign might have been expected to make use of their knowledge and outwit al-Shī‘ī by putting his Mahdī to death. Opponents of the Fatimites assert that this was actually done, and that the Mahdī presented to the army was not the real ‘Obaidallah, but (as usual) a Jewish captive, who had been suborned to play the role.
The chief command was now assumed by ‘Obaidallah, who took the title “al-Mahdī, Commander of the Faithful,” thereby claiming the headship of the whole Moslem world: Raqqāda was at the first made the seat of the court, and the Shi'ite doctrines were enforced on the inhabitants, not without encountering some opposition. Revolts which arose in different parts of the Aghlabite kingdom were, however, speedily quelled.
The course followed by ‘Obaidallah in governing independently of al-Shī‘ī soon led to dissatisfaction on the part of the latter, who, urged on it is said by his brother, decided to dethrone their Mahdī, and on the occasion of an expedition to Ténés, which al-Shī‘ī commanded, organized a conspiracy with that end. The conspiracy was betrayed to ‘Obaidallah, who took steps to defeat it, and on the last day of July 911 contrived to assassinate both al-Shī‘ī and his brother. Thus the procedure which had characterized the accession of the ‘Abbasid dynasty was repeated. It has been conjectured that these assassinations lost the Fatimites the support of the organization that continued to exist in the East, whence the Carmathians figure as an independent and even hostile community, though they appear to have been amenable to the influence of the African caliph.
‘Obaidallah had now to face the dissatisfaction of the tribes whose allegiance al-Shī‘ī had won, especially the Kutāma, Zenāta and Lawāta: the uprising of the first assumed formidable proportions, and they even elected a Mahdī of their own, one Kādū b. Mu’ārik al-Māwatī, who promulgated a new revelation for their guidance. They were finally defeated by ‘Obaidallah's son Abu’l-Qāsim Mahommed, who took Constantine, and succeeded in capturing the new Mahdī, whom he brought to Raqqāda. Other opponents were got rid of by ‘Obaidallah by ruthless executions. By the middle of the year 913 by his own and his son's efforts he had brought his kingdom into order. After the style of most founders of dynasties he then selected a site for a new capital, to be called after his title Mahdia (q.v.), on a peninsula called Ḥamma (Cape Africa) S.S.E. of Kairawān. Eight years were spent in fortifying this place, which in 921 was made the capital of the empire.
After defeating internal enemies ‘Obaidallah turned his attention to the remaining ‘Abbāsid possessions in Africa, and his general Habāsah b. Yūsuf in the year 913 advanced along the northern coast, taking various places, including the important town of Barca, his progress, it is said, being marked by great cruelty. He then advanced towards Egypt, and towards the end of July 914, being reinforced by Abu’l-Qāsim, afterwards al-Qā’im, entered Alexandria. The danger led to measures of unusual energy being taken by the Bagdad caliph Moqtadir, an army being sent to Egypt under Mu‘nis, and a special post being organized between that country and Bagdad to convey messages uninterruptedly. The Fatimite forces were defeated, partly owing to the insubordination of the general Habāsah, in the winter of 914, and returned to Barca and Kairawān with great loss.
A second expedition was undertaken against Egypt in the year 919, and on the 10th of July Alexandria was entered by Abu’l-Qāsim, who then advanced southward, seizing the Fayum and Ushmūnain (Eshmunain). He was presently reinforced by a fleet, which, however, was defeated at Rosetta in March of the year 920 by a fleet dispatched from Tarsus by the ‘Abbāsid caliph Moqtadir, most of the vessels being burned. Through the energetic measures of the caliph, who sent repeated reinforcements to Fostat, Abu’l-Qāsim was compelled in the spring of 921 to evacuate the places which he had seized, and return to the west with the remains of his army, which had suffered much from plague as well as defeat on the field. On his return he found that the court had migrated from Raqqāda to the new capital Mahdia (q.v.). Meanwhile other expeditions had been dispatched by ‘Obaidallah towards the west, and Nekor (Nakur) and Fez had been forced to acknowledge his sovereignty.
The remaining years of ‘Obaidallah's reign were largely spent in dealing with uprisings in various parts of his dominions, the success of which at times reduced the territory in which he was recognized to a small area.
‘Obaidallah died on the 4th of March 933, and was succeeded by Abu’l-Qāsim, who took the title al-Qā’im biamr allah. He immediately after his accession occupied himself with the reconquest of Fez and Nekor, which had revolted during the last years of the former caliph. He also dispatched a fleet under Ya‘qūb b. Isḥāq, which ravaged the coast of France, took Genoa, and plundered the coast of Calabria before returning to Africa. A third attempt made by him to take Egypt resulted in a disastrous defeat at Dhāt al-Humān, after which the remains of the expedition retreated in disorder to Barca.
The later years of the reign of Qā’im were troubled by the uprising of Abū Yazīd Makhlad al-Zenātī, a leader who during the former reign had acquired a following among the tribes inhabiting the Jebel Aures, including adherents of the ‘Ibādī sect. After having fled for a time to Mecca; this person returned in 937 to Tauzar (Touzer), the original seat of his operations, and was imprisoned by Qā’im's order. His sons, aided by the powerful tribe Zenāta, succeeded in forcing the prison, and releasing their father, who continued to organize a conspiracy on a vast scale, and by the end of 943 was strong enough to take the field against the Fatimite sovereign, whom he drove out of Kairawān. Abū Yazīd proclaimed himself a champion of Sunnī doctrine against the Shī‘is, and ordered the legal system of Mālik to be restored in place of that introduced by the Fatimites. Apparently the doctrines of the latter has as yet won little popularity, and Abū Yazīd won an enormous following, except among the Kutāma, who remained faithful to Qā’im. On the last day of October 944, an engagement was fought between Kairawān and Mahdia at a place called al-Akhawān, which resulted in the rout of Qā’im's forces, and the caliph's being shortly after shut up in his capital, the suburbs of which he defended by a trench. Abū Yazīd's forces were ill-suited to maintain a protracted siege, and since, owing to the former caliph's forethought, the capital was in a condition to hold out for a long time, many of them deserted and the besiegers gained no permanent advantage. After the siege had lasted some ten months Abū Yazīd was compelled to raise it (September 945); the struggle, however, did not end with that event, and for a time the caliph and Abū Yazīd continued to fight with varying fortune, while anarchy prevailed over most of the caliph's dominions. On the 13th of January 946, Abū Yazīd shut up Qā’im's forces in Susa which he began to besiege, and attempted to take by storm.
On the 18th of May 945, while Abū Yazīd was besieging Susa, the caliph al-Qā’im died at Mahdia, and was succeeded by his son Ismā’īl, who took the title Manṣūr. He almost immediately relieved Susa by sending a fleet, which joining with the garrison inflicted a severe defeat on Abū Yazīd, who had to evacuate Kairawān also; but though the cities were mainly in the hands of Fatimite prefects, Abū Yazīd was able to maintain the field for more than two years longer, while his followers were steadily decreasing in numbers, and he was repeatedly driven into fastnesses of the Sahara. In August 947 his last stronghold was taken, and he died of wounds received in defending it. His sons carried on some desultory warfare against Manṣūr after their father's death. A town called Manṣūra or Ṣābrā was built adjoining Kairawān to celebrate the decisive victory over Abū Yazīd, which, however, did not long preserve its name. The exhausted condition of north-west Africa due to the protracted civil war required some years of peace for recuperation, and further exploits are not recorded for Manṣūr, who died on the 19th of March 952.
His son, Abū Tamīm Ma‘add, was twenty-two years of age at the time, and succeeded his father with the title Mo‘izz lidīn allah. His authority was acknowledged over the greater part of the region now constituting Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, as well as Sicily, and he appears to have had serious thoughts of endeavouring to annex Spain. At an early period in his reign he made Jauhar, who had been secretary under the former caliph, commander of the forces, and the services rendered by this person to the dynasty made him count as its second founder after al-Shī‘ī. In the years 958 and 959 he was sent westwards to reduce Fez and other places where the authority of the Fatimite caliph had been repudiated, and after a successful expedition advanced as far as the Atlantic. As early as 966 the plan of attempting a fresh invasion of Egypt was conceived, and preparations made for its execution; but it was delayed, it is said at the request of the caliph's mother, who wished to make a pilgrimage to Mecca first; and her honourable treatment by Kāfūr when she passed through Egypt induced the caliph to postpone the invasion till that sovereign's death.
In August 972 Mo‘izz resolved to follow Jauhar's pressing invitation to enter his new capital Cairo. With his arrival there the centre of the Fatimite power was transferred from Mahdia and Kairawān to Egypt, and their original dominion became a province called al-Maghrib, which immediately fell into the hands of a hereditary dynasty, the Zeirids, acknowledging Fatimite suzerainty. The first sovereign was Bulukkin, also called Abu’l-Futūḥ Yūsuf, appointed by Mo‘izz as his Viceroy on the occasion of his departure for Egypt: separate prefects were appointed for Sicily and Tripoli; and at the first the minister of finance was to be an official independent of the governor of the Maghrib. On the death of Bulukkin in 984 he was succeeded by a son who took the royal title al-Manṣūr, under whose rule an attempt was made by the Kutāma, instigated by the caliph, to shake off the yoke of the Zeirids, who originated from the Sanhaja tribe. This attempt was defeated by the energy of Manṣūr in 988; and the sovereignty of the Fatimites in the Maghrib became more and more confined to recognition in public prayer and on coins, and the payment of tribute and the giving of presents to the viziers at Cairo. The fourth ruler of the Zeirid dynasty, called Mo‘izz, endeavoured to substitute ‘Abbāsid suzerainty for Fatimite: his land was invaded by Arab colonies sent by the Fatimite caliph, with whom in 1051 Mo‘izz fought a decisive engagement, after which the dominion of the Zeirids was restricted to the territory adjoining Mahdia; a number of smaller kingdoms rising up around them. The Zeirids were finally overthrown by Roger II. of Sicily in 1148.
After the death of al-Ādid, the last Fatimite caliph in Egypt, some attempts were made to place on the throne a member of the family, and at one time there seemed a chance of the Assassins, who formed a branch of the Fatimite sect, assisting in this project. In 1174 a conspiracy for the restoration of the dynasty was organized by ‘Umarah of Yemen, a court poet, with the aid of eight officials of the government: it was discovered and those who were implicated were executed. Two persons claiming Fatimite descent took the royal titles al-Mo‘taṣim billah and al-Ḥāmid lillah in the years 1175 and 1176 respectively; and as late as 1192 we hear of pretenders in Egypt. Some members of the family are traceable till near the end of the 7th century of Islam.
The doctrines of the Fatimites as a sect, apart from their claim to the sovereignty in Islam, are little known, and we are not justified in identifying them with those of the Assassins, the Carmathians or the Druses, though all these sects are connected with them in origin. A famous account is given by Maqrīzī of a system of education by which the neophyte had doubts gently instilled into his mind till he was prepared to have the allegorical meaning of the Koran set before him, and to substitute some form of natural for revealed religion. In most accounts of the early days of the community it is stated that the permission of wine-drinking and licentiousness, and the community of wives and property formed part of its tenets. There is little in the recorded practice of the Fatimite state to confirm or justify these assertions; and they appear to have differed from orthodox Moslems rather in small details of ritual and law than in deep matters of doctrine.
Authorities.—F. Wüstenfeld, Geschichte der Fatimiden Chalifen (Göttingen, 1881); E. Mercier, Histoire de l'Afrique Septentrionale (Paris, 1888); M. J. de Goeje, Mémoire sur les Carmathes de Bahrain et les Fatimides (2nd ed., Leiden, 1886); P. Casanova, “Mémoire sur les derniers Fatimides,” Mem. Miss. archéologique au Caire, vol. vi.; for the lives of ‘Obaidallah and Abū Yazīd, Cherbonneau in the Journal Asiatique, sér. iv. vol. 20, and sér. v. vol. 5. See also Egypt: History, sect. Mahommedan.