The author of Iftitah al-da‘wa (Commencement of the Mission), Abu Hanifa al-Nu‘man b. Muhammad b. Mansur b. Ahmad b. Hayyun al-Tamimi, generally called al-Qadi al-Nu‘man (d. 363AH/ 974CE), was the most eminent exponent of Fatimid jurisprudence and an official historian of the Fatimids. He entered the service of the first Fatimid caliph-imam al-Mahdi billah (r. 297-322 AH/ 909-934 CE) in Ifriqiya (present-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria), and served the first four Fatimid caliph-imams in various capacities for almost fifty years until his death. He reached the height of his career during the reign of the caliph-imam al-Mu‘izz li-din Allah (r. 341-365 AH/ 953-975 CE) under whose close supervision he composed his Da‘a’im al-Islam (The Pillars of Islam) which represents a culmination of more than thirty years of his effort to codify Fatimid jurisprudence. It was proclaimed as the official code of the Fatimid state, and continues to be one of the primary sources of Ismaili law to the present day for some Muste‘alvi Ismaili communities. When caliph-imam al-Mu‘izz moved to Egypt in 362 AH/ 973 CE, after the Fatimid conquest of that country, al-Nu‘man accompanied him and continued to serve caliph-imam al- Mu‘izz until his death in Cairo at the end of Jumada II 363 AH/ 27 March 974 CE.
Al-Nu‘man is also regarded as the founder of Fatimid historiography. His major historical work, Iftitah al-da‘wa, completed during the reign of caliph-imam al-Mu‘izz is the most important primary source containing a detailed narrative account of the establishment of Fatimid rule in North Africa. It relates the successive phases of the Ismaili da‘wa: its rise in the Yemen under the direction of the da‘i Ibn Hawshab, the da‘i Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Shi‘i’s initial training under him, his mission among the Kutama Berbers, his military campaigns, the fall of the Aghlabids, and the advent of caliph-imam al-Mahdi in Ifriqiya. The author relates these events using biographical and archival sources and his work has become a reference for subsequent narratives of the rise of the Fatimids in Ifriqiya. The Iftitah devotes a few pages to Imam al-Mahdi’s emigration to the Maghrib and his captivity in Sijilmasa. The author retraces briefly successive stops of caliph-imam al-Mahdi’s journey, which allows us to verify the account of another early Ismaili text, Sirat al-Hajib Ja‘far, whose version of Imam al-Mahdi’s emigration is more detailed. The Iftitah specifies the historical context of his emigration and elucidates the choice of his destination which was determined especially by the rising fortunes of Abu ‘Abd Allah.
The Iftitah provides valuable information on some Aghlabid emirs, particularly the last of them, Ziyadat Allah (r. 290-296 AH/ 903-909 CE), as well as officials who exercised military and civil functions in the Aghlabid state, complementing information found in other sources. More significantly, it highlights the activity of some supporters of Abu ‘Abd Allah who played a major role in his mission, but about whom only sketchy information has been preserved in the sources. They were Kutama tribesmen who adhered to the da‘wa very early and became pillars of his administration.
The Iftitah is equally important for the social and political history of Ifriqiya at the advent of the Fatimids. It relates in detail the conditions among the Kutama where the da‘wa was established. Their territory was a remote, mountainous region where the Aghlabids exercised only nominal authority. The Kutama represented several clans which did not recognise any authority other than their chiefs. Their situation afforded a favourable terrain to Abu ‘Abd Allah’s mission. However, Abu ‘Abd Allah was not able at first to rally all the Kutama to his cause. Some tribes offered him their strong and immediate support while others, led by chiefs jealous of their authority, rose against him. About this turbulent phase of the da‘wa among the Kutama, the Iftitah presents details of Abu ‘Abd Allah’s struggles against a hostile tribal coalition which eventually turned in his favour, allowing him to establish his authority over all the Kutama, who then became instrumental in his military campaigns which led to the establishment of Fatimid dominion in North Africa.
Chapters of the Book
The Iftitah contains forty-two chapters of unequal length which follow a chronological order. The first five chapters give a detailed account of the initial stage of the da‘wa in the Yemen. The imam appointed Ibn Hawshab to conduct the da‘wa there together with a Yemenite, ‘Ali b. al-Fadl. The two da‘is arrived in the Yemen in 268 AH/ 881 CE, and their joint effort resulted in the firm establishment of the da‘wa in the Yemen, from where da‘is were sent to other countries. Abu ‘Abd Allah was sent to the Yemen to be trained for his mission. He remained close to Ibn Hawshab for about a year, attending his teaching sessions (majalis) and accompanying him on military expeditions. This prepared him for his mission in North Africa where Shi‘ism had already gained a foothold with the coming of two da‘is, Abu Sufyan and al-Hulwani, about 135 years before him. North Africa appeared to be a favourable terrain for his assignment, and Abu ‘Abd Allah proceeded there after a pilgrimage to Makka. Among the pilgrims, he met some Kutama Berber tribesmen from Ifriqiya, who were impressed by his personality, eloquence and knowledge. Abu ‘Abd Allah accepted their invitation to accompany them on their return journey to their land and settled in a fortified place in the mountainous region of Ikjan which became the headquarters of his mission. Abu ‘Abd Allah’s sincerity and dedication to his work and his ability to inspire this dedication in others gave impetus to his mission.
The next eight chapters relate Abu ‘Abd Allah’s establishment in Kutama territory and the emergence of a local community of supporters. Abu ‘Abd Allah assumed the role of a teacher among the Kutama. He set out to create a community based on norms of conduct applicable to all its members. He endowed the emergent community with the appropriate structure before confronting Aghlabid armies. He reorganised the politico-social structure of the Kutama by dividing them into seven sections which constituted military divisions, and he appointed for each section a body of responsible commanders and da‘is to consolidate his government. He introduced acts of worship among his companions, and implemented various regulations to curb offences and encourage charity and piety. He treated everybody with justice and equity, and punished severely anyone who deserved to be punished. This emergent community, based on a new authority over and above the authority of the elders of the tribes, was perceived as a threat not only by the Aghlabid rulers of Ifriqiya but also by the prevalent tribal order among the Kutama and other Berber tribes. Clashes erupted between Kutama clans supporting Abu ‘Abd Allah and those opposing him. An alliance between the rulers of Mila, Satif and Billizma, and the leaders of the Kutama tried to break his ranks, but their alliance fell apart, and Abu ‘Abd Allah was able to extend his leadership among the Kutama, including those who had not adhered to the da‘wa. Having united the Kutama under his authority, Abu ‘Abd Allah was now ready for the inevitable military confrontation with those who resisted him. Alarmed at the growing influence of the Ismaili da‘i, the Aghlabid emir, Ibrahim b. Ahmad (r. 261-289 AH/ 857-902 CE), tried to tempt him with worldly reward in exchange for abandoning his mission, and threatened to attack him if he did not accept his offer. Abu ‘Abd Allah was not intimidated. He rejected the emir’s offer and in turn spelled out boldly the objectives of his mission, summoning the emir to his mission.
The next nineteen chapters, with the exception of an intervening chapter on caliph-imam al-Mahdi’s emigration, describe military expeditions and Abu ‘Abd Allah’s conquests until his final victory and the fall of the Aghlabids. Abu ‘Abd Allah’s final victory subdued vast regions of the Maghrib as well as the former Aghlabid domains in Sicily, Italy.
The last ten chapters give an account of the advent of the Fatimids, the reign of caliph-imam al-Mahdi and a general survey of events until the year 346 AH/ 957 CE when the work was completed. Abu ‘Abd Allah’s mission entered its conclusive phase when he entered Raqqada in 296 AH/ 909 CE. He remained in the Aghlabid capital for about two months until the situation became stable. During this short period, he introduced administrative and political measures to reflect the new order. Having granted safety to the populace, including those who had served the Aghlabids, he outlined the behaviour he expected from the people and intensified the search for opponents of his orders to bring them to justice. Changes introduced in the call to prayer and sermons began to reflect the Shi‘i ritual. A Shi‘i qadi appointed by him was authorised to appoint judges and arbitrators in the other towns. Having appointed his brother Abu al-‘Abbas and Abu Zaki as his deputies to govern Ifriqiya, Abu ‘Abd Allah set out on a military campaign to free Imam al-Mahdi from captivity in Sijilmasa. On this arduous westward march to the remote regions of the Maghrib, Abu ‘Abd Allah attacked and subdued Berber tribes that he came across on his way. Having secured the release of caliph-imam al-Mahdi and his son, after conquering Sijilmasa, Abu ‘Abd Allah returned to al-Qayrawan with Imam al-Mahdi who formally assumed supreme authority.
The basis of the nascent state rested on al-Mahdi’s sovereignty as imam from the progeny of the Prophet, the ahl al-bayt. Anyone rebelling against the imam would have to be fought. The Iftitah elucidates the circumstances that led to the execution of Abu ‘Abd Allah, his brother Abu al-‘Abbas and several others. Al-Nu‘man informs us on the cause of Abu ‘Abd Allah’s downfall and the plot against caliph-imam al-Mahdi just two years after his advent. He names the conspirators, their motives, the place of their secret meetings, and reveals the measures taken by Imam al-Mahdi to thwart the conspiracy. Abu al-‘Abbas, the ambitious brother of Abu ‘Abd Allah, appears as the leader of the plot who exerts his influence on his younger brother. Having exercised power until caliph-imam al-Mahdi’s arrival in Raqqada, he expressed his resentment when Imam al-Mahdi assumed the responsibilities of the state without intending to share his authority. He incited some Berber chiefs against Imam al-Mahdi until they dared to express openly their suspicions on the imam’s impeccability and even question the authenticity of his imamate. Abu ‘Abd Allah eventually succumbed to the instigation of his brother and asked caliph-imam al-Mahdi openly to reign without governing and let him exercise power in his name. Al-Nu‘man presents in detail how Imam al-Mahdi, well informed of the intentions of the conspirators, exploited their hesitations and thwarted the conspiracy. Al-Nu‘man throws all responsibility for this conspiracy on Abu al-‘Abbas, without tarnishing the memory of Abu ‘Abd Allah, whose merit was recognised by Imam al-Mahdi. Having eliminated the conspirators, caliph-imam al-Mahdi sent armies to the outlying regions to suppress rebellions. This situation continued during the reign of his son and successor caliph-imam al-Qa’im bi-amr Allah and his grandson caliph-imam al-Mansur bi-llah. The Iftitah was completed during the reign of Imam al-Mu‘izz li-din Allah, in 346 AH/ 957 CE, twelve years before the Fatimid conquest of Egypt. The author deals briefly with these later events, as the aim of this publication was to focus on the stages of the establishment of the da‘wa itself to preserve its history for posterity.
A Contribution to Ismaili Studies
It was due to the pioneering efforts of Wladimir Ivanow that Arabic Ismaili texts relating to the rise of the Fatimids were first edited and translated into English, including some fragments of the Iftitah. These fragments give an account of caliph-imam al-Mahdi’s emigration from his residence in Salamiya in Syria, his arrival in Sijilmasa in the remote Maghrib, and Abu ‘Abd Allah’s successful campaign to liberate him from captivity. It was not until 1970 that the integral text of the Iftitah, edited by Wadad al-Qadi, was first published in Beirut. It is based on three manuscripts: two from the American University in Beirut, and one from the Hamdani Collection from its photocopy in the Egyptian National Library. This latter manuscript was also used as a basis by Farhat Dachraoui, together with one manuscript of Indian origin, copied in 1350 AH/ 1931 CE, from the collection of Louis Massignon. Farhat Dachraoui’s integral edition, already completed in 1961, was published in Tunis only in 1975. Besides the manuscripts used by the editors, several other manuscripts of the Iftitah are held in private libraries of Ismaili communities in Yemen, India and Pakistan, some of which are now preserved in the West. The Institute of Ismaili Studies has seven copies in its collection of manuscripts. The translator has compared these copies with the other editions, where necessary, producing this first integral translation of the work into any language.
The translation of the Iftitah allows non-Arabist readers to access this important primary source. The translation strives to be as close to the original Arabic text as possible, but makes allowance for modern English idiom and expressions. The translation of verses from the Qur’an draws upon Yusuf Ali’s and Pickthall’s translations with some adaptation. Ample footnotes with references have been provided for toponyms, names of individuals and tribes and events to aid further reading. The material has been organised into numbered chapters, with subdivisions introduced in some chapters to make the text more readable and accessible. The publication includes genealogical charts, maps of Ifriqiya and eastern Maghrib, as well as a chronology summarising the complex chain of events and battles that gave rise to the Fatimid state.