A distinguished Ismaili scholar, author, educator and statesman of the Fatimid era, al- Mu’ayyadfi’l-Din al-Shirazi (1000-1078 CE) lived during one of the most turbulent periods in Muslim history. The 11th century was characterised by, among other things, an acute struggle for supremacy between the Sunni and Shi‘i branches of Islam. The conflict, which was as much ideological as political, manifested itself principally via the two major ruling dynasties of the time, the Abbasids and the Fatimids.
There is little information available about the early life of al-Mu’ayyad other than the fact that he was born to a Daylami Ismaili family in Shiraz, the capital of Fars region in South-West Persia, which was then part of the Abbasid Empire. We also know that his forefathers had a long history of serving the Fatimids as da‘is. In 415 AH / 1025 CE, following the death of his father when al-Mu’ayyad was 25 years old, he too was appointed a da‘i and began to conduct regular majalis (teaching sessions) at his home.
Al-Mu’ayyad first rose to prominence some 10 years later when he entered the service of the local Buyid ruler of Fars, Abu Kalijar. However, the Ismaili da‘i’s proselytising activities and his attempts to convert the ruler to the Fatimid cause incurred so much hostility from the local Sunni political and religious establishment that the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad issued an order for his immediate apprehension. As a result, al-Mu’ayyad was subjected to considerable persecution and placed under house arrest. As fanatical mobs besieged his house by night and day demanding his death, he managed to escape from his tormentors and flee into exile.
The next three years were difficult for al-Mu’ayyad as he travelled in disguise across Khuzistan, Iraq and Syria, in fear of being captured anytime by the Abbasid authorities. Finally, in 437 AH / 1048 CE, he sought refuge in Cairo, the Fatimid capital, which he had yearned to visit since his childhood. After introducing himself to government officials, al-Mu’ayyad was given accommodation and a small stipend. But his expectations of an early audience with the Imam-caliph al-Mustansir bi’llah were thwarted by powerful bureaucrats, who regarded the da‘i as either a troublesome upstart or a potential rival.
Despite such initial setbacks, eventually, al-Mu’ayyad attained the highest ranks in the religious hierarchy of the Fatimid da‘wa, second only to the Imam himself, including that of chief da‘i, Supreme Gate and director of the Dar al-‘Ilm (House of Knowledge) academy in Cairo. During the twenty years he served in these multiple positions until his death at an advanced age, al-Mu’ayyad won widespread acclaim for his scholarship and sagacity, as well as his authorship of a number of theological, devotional and literary works.
Significant among al-Mu’ayyad’s works is his Diwan or collected poems, of which many manuscripts have survived from Tayyibi Ismaili sources in Yemen and preserved in Da’udi Bohra libraries in India, as well as at The Institute of Ismaili Studies in London. The Diwan of al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi is notable for its exceptional poetic quality as well as a unique, personal testimony of his career as a Fatimid da‘i. Comprising a total of 62 qasidas of varying length, the Diwan covers a wide range of political and religious themes, from al-Mu’ayyad’s philosophical meditations, religious disputations and devotional praise of Prophet Muhammad and his family to complaints about the da‘i’s misfortunes, persecution, exile from his homeland and the advance of old age. Among the virtues that he celebrates are knowledge and the intellect, endurance and patience in times of difficulty, and submission to God.
This first complete English translation seeks to recapture some of the poetic power and flavour of one of the undoubted masterpieces of medieval Arabic literature.