It has been argued that the writing of autobiography is a particularly Western phenomenon because emphasis on communal identities and relations in non-Western societies, such as that of the Islamic world, suppressed the articulation of individual identity and accomplishments usually expressed in autobiographical literature. Thus, while the copious biographical literature of Islamic societies has been acknowledged and studied, autobiographical works have remained largely unacknowledged and viewed as exceptional or insignificant. This paper investigates three autobiographical works from the Fatimid period, with the aim of exploring when and why autobiographical works were written.
The Fatimid period (909-1171 CE) provides interesting examples of autobiographical literature, precisely because communal identity was fraught and divisive. The elite of Fatimid society belonged to a religious minority whose members were not acknowledged in the more common biographical literature (tabaqat) of the Sunni Muslim majority. Moreover, due to the da‘wa’s revolutionary, and therefore secret origins and membership, a sectarian biographical literature did not evolve to commemorate or record the identity and achievements of its members. In part because of this, autobiographical literature composed by a few members of the da‘wa served rather both to defend credentials among peers as well as to bring its authors to the attention of the Fatimid Imam.
An example is the memoir of a da‘i of the early Fatimid period, a certain Abu ‘Abdallah Ja‘far ibn al-Haytham (d. after 947), whose Kitab al-Munazarat this paper examines for its evidence concerning the circumstances that compelled this author to seek exceptional individual recognition over and against that of his peers. The Fatimid court also attracted or employed individuals who were neither associated with the da‘wa, nor another group that produced an associational or communal roster. Such individuals again sometimes produced autobiographies aimed at garnering acknowledgment from patrons, if not peers.
One example is the Sirat al-Ustadh Jawdhar, the recollected autobiography and personal archive of a slave, Jawdhar (d. 973), who rose high in the imperial service, and whose servant, Abu ‘Ali Mansur, sought to record for posterity the exceptionally intimate relationship his master had had with the Fatimid caliphs al-Mansur (d. 953), and al-Mu‘izz (d. 975). This source provides an interesting example of autobiography in terms both of genre as well as motives. A final example is the travelogue and memoir of a Sunni Andalusian mathematician, astronomer, and poet who travelled to the Fatimid court seeking patronage from the vizier al-Afdal (d. 1121).
Umayya Abi’l Salt al-Dani’s (d. AH 529/1134 CE) career did not reach the spectacular heights he had hoped for, and he eventually returned to North Africa, where he composed his Risala al-Misriyya, to justify and explain his experiences in Egypt. As these three autobiographical works, among others, from the Fatimid period indicate, the cultural argument regarding a monolithic emphasis on communal identity in Islam did not prevent individuals from seeking special recognition for themselves. The autobiographical works of these three individuals, an Ismaili Shi‘i, a court slave, and a Sunni adib, reflect a wide range of causes and circumstances that transcended their identification with particular communities or professions, and that involved the specific environment of the Fatimid period, as well as of Islamic society generally.
Sumaiya A. Hamdani received her Ph D degree in Islamic history from Princeton University specialising in medieval Islamic and Fatimid history. From 1998-1999 Sumaiya was a Visiting Research Fellow with the Department of Academic Research and Publications at the IIS.