Academic Article

Governance and Pluralism under the Fatimids (909-996 CE)

Dr Shainool Jiwa

This is an edited version of an article originally published in The Shi‘i World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity. I.B. Taurus, London, 2015, pp 111-130.

The medieval Mediterranean littoral was a region inhabited by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions. This was evident in 10th century Egypt, the mainstay of Fatimid domains, a land in which lived Arabs, Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Berbers and Sudanese - among whom were Sunni and Shiainfo-icon Muslims, Coptic, Melkite and Nestorian Christians, as well as Rabbanite and Qaraite Jews. It was in this milieu that the Fatimidsinfo-icon established the first Shi‘i Empire across the southern shores of the Mediterranean, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. 

Over the course of their two and a half century rule, from 909 to 1171 CE, the Fatimids,  a Shi‘i Ismaili dynasty, developed a model of governance recognised both in medieval and modern times for its inclusive nature; particularly for the participation of Christians and Jews in the state administration. Doctrinally, their model was underpinned by a universalist notion of authority of the divinely designated Imaminfo-icon-caliphinfo-icon. Pragmatically, the model evolved with their experience of governing diverse communities across a vast terrain. This led to a relationship between the state and its diverse subjects, which fluctuated with time and circumstance.

While participation of non-Muslims in the administration of Muslim polities was common in the formative period of Muslim rule, Fatimid governance has been presented in medieval Muslim chronicles and in modern scholarship as being exceptional in this regard. Varied arguments have been postulated as to why, ranging from inherent pluralism in the Fatimid approach to governance to pragmatic necessity, with the Fatimids as a Shi‘i minority seeking support from other minority groups.

This chapter examines the theoretical constructs that underpinned Fatimid governance and reviews the extent to which Fatimid policy was the result of the interplay between doctrinal commitments and their lived experience, tempered by local conditions and communal dynamics. It focuses on the conceptual formulations of Fatimid governance that took shape in the reign of the fourth Fatimid Imam-caliph al-Mu‘izz li-Dininfo-icon Allah (r. 953-975 CE), and which came to be regarded as the blueprint for Fatimid governance in Egypt. 

In this chapter, the term religious pluralism refers to the accommodatory approaches which the Fatimids developed in their conceptual framework regarding governance of non-Ismaili subjects over the formative period of their empire, which spanned their 60 year reign in North Africa and the first two decades of their rule in Egypt. In reviewing these developments through a close reading of primary texts, the relationship between doctrine and history is examined to elicit how Fatimid doctrinal formulations of governance evolved in tandem with their lived experience, a dialectic that was enabled by the scope of authority with which the Fatimid Imam-caliph was invested, as the supreme authoritative source of law and doctrine.

Universalist Rule: The Fatimid Framework

Inherent to the monotheistic tradition, with their belief in a universal God, are aspirations for the creation of a universal polity engendered towards the realisation of salvation.[1] This notion was manifested in the relationship between Christianity and the Roman Empire, after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, and Islam subsequently inherited the same predisposition to universalist rule.[2] The connection between religion and state was firmly established during the time of Prophet Muhammad and subsequently framed the Islamic models of leadership such as the imamateinfo-icon and the caliphateinfo-icon. In both Shii and Sunni Islam, the continued saliency of the principle of universalism was regarded as the culmination rather than a rupture of the historical process.[3]

The same ideal of a universal order characterised the religio-political vision of the Fatimids. Proclaiming his caliphate in Ifriqiyainfo-icon (present-day Tunisia and eastern Algeria) in 909 CE, the founder of the dynasty Abd Allah al-Mahdiinfo-icon, pronounced his lineage to the ahl al-Baytinfo-icon, the household of Prophet Muhammad, and claimed to be the only legitimate successor to the Prophets mantle of temporal and religious leadership over the Muslim ummainfo-icon. The Fatimid investiture was rooted in the Imami Shii belief in the continuity of divine guidance inherited through a designated sequence of prophets and imams. They held that authority after Prophet Muhammad was only legitimately held by Ali b. Abi Talibinfo-icon, Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and thereafter upheld in an ordained line of Imams from his descendants. The Imams were considered to be the bearers of divine light and knowledge, as inherited from the Prophet, and were the sole authoritative exponents of Scriptural interpretation, law and creed. As such, the manifestation of an imam in each age was indispensable, and allegiance to the Imam as ‘God’s Representative on Earth’ was incumbent upon the believers.

The Fatimid claim to universal authority was asserted in direct opposition to that of the then reigning Abbasid caliphs and was notably distinct, with the Shi‘i model of the Imamate harkening back to the notion of the Imam being authoritative in law and doctrine. In their early years the Abbasidsinfo-icon had sought to realise a similar model. In the 9th century, they exerted strenuous efforts to stem the rising prestige of the proto-Sunni religious scholars, the ulamainfo-icon, with the caliph al-Ma’mun’s so-called mihna (or ‘trial’) and the inquisition of Ahmad b. Hanbal (780-855 CE) being a case in point; but they were swimming against the consensual Sunni tide. The mihna had been instituted by al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833 CE) to ensure he was recognised as the supreme authority on law and doctrine. Religious scholars were put through ‘trials’ to enforce their compliance with al-Ma’mun’s position. Resistance by scholars such as Ahmad b. Hanbal led to the eventual refutation of the caliph’s stance. Consequently, by the time the Fatimids rose to power in the 10th century, a general consensus was being reached in the proto-Sunni schools of thought that it was not the caliph but the ulama, considered unrivalled bearers of the Prophetic ‘tradition’, who were the ultimate determiners over religious doctrine and practice. Though the theoretical necessity of the caliph, as God’s representative on Earth and embodying religious authority remained an abiding principle in Sunni Islam, his authority was increasingly limited to a symbolic role. 

In Imami Shi‘i thought, the distinction between the functions of the Imam and caliph received elucidations in the writings of Imam Muhammad al-Baqir (d. 733 CE) and Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d. 765 CE). The Imam was regarded as a spiritual teacher and guide who may or may not wield temporal power; the caliph was a worldly ruler, who claimed to govern with divine sanction.  The Fatimids as ‘Imam-caliphs’ were synthesising these roles — consistent with the paradigm of the Prophet as a religious and political leader in Medina, a synthesis which was inherited by the four caliphs who followed Prophet Muhammad. That paradigm was not sustained thereafter, and a de facto separation of roles emerged as the norm by the early ninth century under the rule of the Abbasids.[4]

The Fatimid model of the Caliphate was thus a novel phenomenon in the Muslim world of the 10th century, with the assertion of divinely-mandated authority over doctrine and belief, as well as their legal and theological interpretations. Although the Zaydi Shi‘i model of the Imamate emphasised superior knowledge as a qualification of the righteous Imam, the Imami Shi‘i notion of Imam as possessor of Divine Support (ta’yid) and inheritor of esoteric knowledge rendered his authority unrivalled. The distinction of the Fatimid model of governance stemmed from how the Fatimid Imam-caliph, as ruler of a vast empire, exercised this authority.  As authoritative exponents of doctrine, every Fatimid Imam was able to reform and reformulate, to adapt and to alter, and thus to negotiate the relationship between the ruler and the ruled, as he deemed appropriate. The notion of the living Imam as the ultimate arbiter of human affairs meant that the Fatimid sovereigns had the potential to be authoritarian, with unfettered power at their disposal. A study of their governance structures reveals that by and large, they maintained an inclusive approach to governance, but one which nonetheless gave rise to its own challenges. 

The claim to universal authority remained the raison dêtre of Fatimid rule, and conceptual articulations of the Fatimid Imamate became an essential aspect of the Fatimid da‘wainfo-icon literature, which proliferated in the 10th and 11th centuries in tandem with the expansion of the Fatimid Empire. 

The growing availability over the past few decades of an increasing number of Fatimid texts has led to instructive insights on the vital issue of righteous rule and just governance. These texts allow for a close reading of Fatimid approaches to governance as well as to understand their vicissitudes and distinctions. Authors such as Hamdani, Brett, Halm, Walker, Lev, Madelung and Daftary have increasingly relied on these texts to enlarge on various aspects of this theme. Yet the systematic study of the evolution of the Fatimid model of governance remains to be done.  In this chapter, while a range of Fatimid sources have been reviewed to develop a nuanced understanding of the developments in Fatimid governance, two documents in particular – the ahdinfo-icon of Ali as cited in al-Qadiinfo-icon al-Nu‘man’s (c. 903-974 CE) Da‘a’im al-Islam,[5] and the Aman document as preserved both in the Itti‘az al-Hunafa of Taqi al-Dininfo-icon al-Maqrizi (1364-1442 CE)[6] and the Uyuninfo-icon al-Akhbar of Idris Imad al-Din (1392-1468 CE)[7] have been closely examined for their value in tracing the shaping of Fatimid governance. 


Toward a Fatimid Model of Governance

The universalist nature of the Fatimid model of authority led to two significant challenges following their assumption of political power. The first was the messianic and exclusivist demands of the segments of the Fatimid da‘wa (religio-political mission) that brought them to power. The second was the expectations of inclusion required by the multi-ethnic and religiously diverse populace over whom the Fatimids came to rule in North Africa.

The messianic challenge came from within the movement that had led to the establishment of the Fatimid state. The Ismaili da‘wa, which traced the Shi‘i Imamate in the line of Isma‘il b. Ja‘far al-Sadiq, aimed at replacing the Abbasids by promising an era of just rule under the sole legitimate Imam. In the 10th century, it gained particular momentum across many different regions of the Muslim world. The founding of the Fatimid state was realised by the Kutama Berbers, amongst whom there had been a presence of Shiism and who, after 902 CE, began in increasing numbers to adhere to the Ismaili dawa under the leadership of the pioneering da‘iinfo-icon Abu Abd Allah al-Shii. Over the following years, the Kutama rallied around the da‘i, forming an exclusivist community of believers. Centred at Ikjan, a new urban centre which they characterised as their dar al-hijrainfo-icon (place of refuge), the Kutama under the da‘i Abu Abd Allah expanded their rule in preparation of the inception of the empire of the Mahdi. Bringing the previous Abbasid-affiliated regime in the region, of the Aghlabidsinfo-icon, to an end in 909 CE, Abd Allah al-Mahdi was publicly proclaimed as the first Fatimid imam-caliph in 910 CE.

This proclamation was the da‘was crowning glory. The successful proclamation gave vent to the messianic expectations of the mission, of the Imam being the Mahdi, the saviour who would usher in an awaited utopia. An inherent expectation of this vision was the establishment of a polity in which belief in the Imamate of al-Mahdi bi’llah was the exclusive qualification of social standing and power. However, the early Fatimid model of governance inevitably dashed some of these exclusivist aspirations, resulting in particular challenges for the nascent Fatimid state.

The second issue that pressed upon Fatimid governance was the demographic reality of the region. At the inception of Fatimid rule in North Africa, the key ethnic groups were the mainly urban Arabs and the native Berbers. The majority were Muslims, with Sunni Malikism especially dominant amongst the Arabs and their ulama unrivalled in influence, followed by a notable community of Hanafis and a small but distinct grouping of Shi‘ainfo-icon. While many of the Berbers had embraced either Sunni or Shi‘i Islam, a significant number were Kharijisinfo-icon, especially amongst the rural inhabitants of the region. Christian and Jewish communities were also present. Fractiousness between ethnic and religious communities was a recurrent feature in this period. The Berbers themselves divided along old tribal divisions, notably the rival Sanhajainfo-icon and Zanatainfo-icon confederations, while Maliki Arabs vied with the Hanafis for authority at the Aghlabid court.

The demographic and communal context of North Africa presented the first Fatimid rulers with their second set of challenges. How were the Ismaili Imam-caliphs to govern over this majority non-Ismaili populace?  What was to be the status of Sunni Muslims in a Shi‘i Ismaili state?  How were their legal systems and public rituals to function? These were among the issues that were of paramount concern to the non-Ismaili subjects of the Fatimid state.  They were, therefore, of salient importance to the Fatimids. 


Al-Mahdi and al-Qa’iminfo-icon: The Early Fatimid Experience

The primary preoccupation of the first two imam-caliphs, al-Mahdi (r. 909-934 CE) and al-Qa’im (r. 934-946 CE) was defending the nascent Fatimid polity and establishing the parameters of Fatimid governance in ways that were responsive to the challenges noted earlier.

As Sumaiya Hamdanis erudite study of the early Fatimid texts on the transformation from their dawa to the state demonstrates, among the first constituencies which al-Mahdi had to address were these coterie of dais who had brought the Fatimids to power, and who were reigning on his behalf prior to his arrival in North Africa.[8]

Their expectation was that the establishment of the Fatimid state would be followed by a fulfilment of the messianic expectations held by a number of individuals within the da‘wa. Of paramount importance to the Fatimid Imam-caliph al-Mahdi instead was the establishment of a functional administration for the nascent state. Consequently, tempering messianic and eschatological concerns regarding his reign was of immediate concern. The choice of his own regnal title, al-Mahdi billah (the Rightly-Guided through God), which qualified the idea of his messianic status, and the appointment of his son Abul-Qasim al-Qa’im bi-Amr Allah as his successor in 912 CE, thus signifying that there was to be a continuity of the Fatimid imamate, were important early measures that he took in this regard.  

However, it was the model of Fatimid governance that first emerged as the clearest indicator of the move from an exclusivist messianic community, as previously manifest in the dar al-hijra, to a more inclusive empire. Contrary to the previously reigning daiscustom of maintaining exclusive control over their territories, al-Mahdi appointed administrators from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds, including those who had served in the previous Sunni Aghlabid administration. Among these were Ibn al-Qadim, a senior Aghlabid official who was given supervision of the diwaninfo-icon al-kharajinfo-icon, the ministry responsible for tax and finance, as well as the barid (postal-service), and Ibn al-Qamudi who was retained for his expertise in supervising the official mint.

Al-Mahdis approach led to the disaffection of some of the senior dais including Abu Abd Allah al-Shi‘i, who saw their messianic expectations thwarted. Divested of power and forced to the peripheries, they clamoured for a restitution of what they considered to be their rightful position. They conspired to remove al-Mahdi, leading to their own executions in 911 CE. A period of inter-dawa warfare followed, where some members of the Kutama proclaimed a Berberinfo-icon youth as a rival Mahdi in 912 CE. Yet, significant elements of the dawa retained loyalty to al-Mahdi. This major rupture within the da‘wa was strikingly similar to the Abbasid experience in their own da‘wa a century and a half earlier.[9] Yet the Fatimids did not follow the Abbasid precedent of dismantling the dawa network, and subsequently it became an integral part of the Fatimid state apparatus. Over time, there developed a symbiotic relationship between the two, such that the dawa became a state-sponsored network for the teaching of Ismaili doctrine and promoting allegiance to the Fatimid imam.

From the onset of Fatimid rule in North Africa, the Sunni Maliki ulama who dominated the region virulently opposed the Fatimid regime, an opposition catalysed by their hostility to Shi‘i movements but more importantly resulting from the undermining of their own power.  Previously, the Maliki ulama had dominated the intellectual and religious scene in Qayrawaninfo-icon, functioning as the stewards of doctrine and piety, and often exercising significant influence over the regional rulers. The establishment of the Fatimid state made it impossible for them to continue in this role.  The Shi‘i imam, the Fatimid caliph, had also replaced them as the source of religious authority and legal instruction, thus depriving them of their traditional role in society as well as their means of livelihood.[10]

While the Early Fatimid model signalled a generally inclusive attitude towards administration, in matters related to public ritual, law and religious affairs, they resolutely promoted an exclusively Shii stance. Not only were Sunnisinfo-icon unable to occupy religious office, but the promotion of their madhhabs was circumscribed.

In 909 CE, the first Ismaili judge (qadi al-qudat) was appointed over the staunchly Sunni Maliki-dominated city of Qayrawan. The qadi al-Marwarrudhi immediately banned the teaching of both the Maliki and Hanafi traditions. Though he was removed from office in 915 CE, the precedent that the office of chief justice in Qayrawan and in other Sunni cities was to be held by a Shii official was established. A number of major judicial and administrative figures were appointed from the local Shii community, whose numbers now swelled by an influx of Hanafi converts.[11] The early Fatimid model of governance during which Shiism was the only publicly sanctioned religious tradition lasted 37 years, spanning the reigns of the first two Imam-caliphs.

Opposition to Fatimid rule was most potently expressed however in 943 CE when the Khariji Berbers led a wide-scale anti-Fatimid rebellion led by Abu Yazid al-Nukkari (d. 947 CE), supported in the main by the Zanata Berbers who felt dispossessed following the Fatimid arrival. Forming an alliance with the Maliki ulama of Qayrawan, the rebellion threatened the very survival of Fatimid rule in North Africa.[12] Such was the severity of the insurrection that the death of the second Fatimid Imam-caliph al-Qa’im was kept secret until his successor al-Mansur billah (r. 946-953 CE), had successfully quelled the rebellion.


Al-Mansur: The Broadening of the Fatimid base

Al-Mansur’s reign, arising from the embers of the Khariji revolt, marks the first major milestone in the evolution in the Fatimid model of governance. Following his successful restoration of Fatimid rule over the region, al-Mansur had the option to curb the Maliki ulama in Qayrawan and to revert to the earlier policy of appointing a Fatimid official over the city. However, in a change, which Madelung notes as a ‘momentous development in Islamic government’,[13] the Fatimid Imam-caliph explicitly recognised the Sunni madhhabinfo-icons as a ‘legitimate religious and legal community’. Al-Mansurs gesture of reconciliation with the Malikis was the first time that a Muslim legal school different to that of the ruling dynasty was given official recognition, which marks a milestone in mediaeval Muslim governance, and indicates that there was a notable broadening of the Fatimid approach to governance.

The shift was underlined by al-Mansur’s appointment of a Maliki administrator over Qayrawan instead of an Ismaili or a Shi‘i one. This was replicated across other Fatimid regions where Sunni qadis were appointed over towns which had a Sunni majority, while retaining Ismaili qadis over the Fatimid cities of al-Mahdiyya and al-Mansuriyya.  Hence, two judicial systems with their own legal codes were given official sanction and support.  In all likelihood, it is this development towards more inclusive governance which saw al-Mansur being held in particular regard by the Sunnis of Ifriqiya. As noted by Sumaiya Hamdani, this signalled a shift in the official Fatimid policy towards striking a balance between the propagation of the doctrines of Ismaili Shi‘isminfo-icon, and ensuring that some form of acceptance of the Fatimid state by its non-Ismaili subjects could be generated. 

However, this conciliatory arrangement presented a new set of challenges that would recur in subsequent phases of Fatimid rule, primarily disputes as to which code held precedence on matters related to public affairs. A case in point was the determination of the public calendar of events. The Ismaili approach of citing the new moon was based on astronomical calculations, whilst the Malikis required the visual sighting of the new moon as a necessary prerequisite for confirmation. This had a bearing on the celebration of communal Muslim festivals.  Thus, when in 953 CE the Maliki judge of Barqa declared the celebration of the Eid on a different day to the official Fatimid one, this threatened schism in the performance of public ritual, and so he was arrested by the regional governor and eventually executed for refusing to comply with state policy. 

An instructive manifestation of the broadening of the previously exclusive relationship between the imam and his believers, to one where the imam is the head of a state who provides oversight to all his people regardless of denomination, much like the shepherd providing care and protection to all his flock (ra‘iyya), is evident in the reign of al-Qa’im, the predecessor to al-Mansur.  The use of the term ra‘iyya was by then widespread in Muslim political literature to refer to the relationship between the ruler and his subjects. In a sermon (khutbainfo-icon) to the people of Alexandria during the first Fatimid expedition to Egypt (913-915 CE), recounted by the Yemeni Ismaili author Idris Imad al-Din, the second Fatimid Imam-caliph al-Qa’im proclaimed, The Imam does not have the option to reduce the rights of his flock, nor is the flock to decrease the rights of their imam. [14]

Under al-Mansur, this broadening scope of the conception of the Imam’s ‘duty of care’ is evident. In 946 CE, al-Mansur announced a series of tax-remission measures in a sermon to the people of Qayrawan following the depredations of Khariji insurrections. The injunction expressly offered those measures designed to alleviate the exactions for all his subjects Muslim as well as non-Muslim.[15]


Universal Dhimma: Articulating Governance under al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah

It was during the reign of al-Mansur’s son and successor, al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah, that the conceptual framing of an inclusive, universal imamate was systemically fostered. Al-Mu‘izz’s 22-year reign (953-975 CE) witnessed the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969 CE. The major expansion of the Empire, into Egypt and then Palestine and Syria, brought forth a substantial series of new challenges.

The messianic undercurrent ever-present within the Ismaili da‘wa from the time of al-Mahdi, was a central doctrinal issue with which al-Mu‘izz had to contend. Early Ismaili doctrine in the pre-Fatimid period had postulated the nascent vision of the Mahdi as a single messianic saviour.[16] Under al-Mu‘izz, the notion of the singular Mahdi was amplified, through the works of al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, to extend the function of a Mahdi across a successive cycle of imams, each of whom would have his designated share in realising the fulfilment of the messianic vision.[17] Yet, while the messianic and eschatological expectations were thus extended across time and space, and therefore receded to the horizon, the Imam’s duty and responsibility to exercise inclusive care and protection, that is his dhimma, was given immediacy.


Iman and Islam

Notions of governance under al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah received a systematic formulation in the writings of al-Qadi al-Nu‘man who was the preeminent Fatimid jurist and scholar of his age.[18] The large corpus of his scholarship, covering a range of disciplines including historiography, adabinfo-icon, and ta’wilinfo-icon (esoteric interpretation) works, became major markers in the formulation of Fatimid doctrine. Being a trusted companion and disciple of al-Mu‘izz, al-Nu‘man’s writings had the seal of approval from the Imam himself. Al-Nu‘man was also the architect of the Fatimid legal code. His magnum opus, the Da‘a’im al-Islam (The Pillars of Islam), was composed in the first decade of al-Mu‘izz’s reign and subsequently became the preeminent legal text of the Fatimid state.[19] Of particular interest in this chapter is that alongside its stipulations regarding law, the Da‘a’im also articulated salient principles of Fatimid governance as they had developed by the reign of al-Mu‘izz.

The Da‘a’im begins with arguably its most original contribution, the Fatimid Ismaili theory of the Imamate.[20]  It earmarks walayainfo-icon, allegiance and obedience to the Imam as the premier condition of faith (iman), and the first of the seven ‘Pillars of Islam.’ While resolutely upholding the universal authority of the Fatimid imam and remaining engaged in polemic with the major proponents and tenets of other Sunni and Shi‘i madhhabs, the Da‘a’im notably allows a doctrinal space for the co-existence of variant schools of thought in the Fatimid polity. Adopting the schema of the Shi‘i Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq (d.765 CE), al-Nu‘man emphasises the recognition of the Fatimid Imam as a prerequisite of iman, denoting its possessor as a mu’min (faithful, or believer). Nevertheless, he distinguishes between iman (faith) and islam (submission), with the former encompassing the latter, but the latter not including the former.[21] Thus, according to the Da‘a’im, one could be a Muslim without being a mu’min, and therefore follow the common Islamic laws. Consequently, while distinguishing between a mu’min and a Muslim, or between the khassa (elite) and the amma (commoners), the former are privileged but the latter are not condemned.[22] Rather, the mu’mins represent those who have access to the esoteric (batininfo-icon) understanding of the reality, while the latter as those who remain on the exoteric (zahirinfo-icon) plane. In a milieu where proponents of many other madhhabs were engaged in placing their adversaries in binary categories of belief and unbelief, the Da‘a’im presented a hierarchical gradation. Thus it paves the way for the co-existence of madhhabs, as would be manifested in the premier political document of the Fatimid age.


The Ahd: Principles of Good Governance

Among the exceptional features of the Da‘a’im which scholars have noted, besides the articulation of islam and iman as mentioned above, is the inclusion within the text of the document on governance known as the ‘ahd of Ali’ in the Da‘a’im’s chapter on jihadinfo-icon.  While the exact provenance of the ‘ahd has been a matter of scholarly debate, its inclusion in the Da‘a’im is nonetheless significant. As Wadad al-Qadi, who drew attention to debates about the provenance of this text, notes, “The ahd represents the first political constitution of the Fatimid state after its final establishment as a dawlainfo-icon. ...With the ‘ahd’s incorporation in the Da‘a’im, the Da‘a’im came to represent not only the paramount divine constitution of the Fatimid state but also the civil constitution of the state.”[23] The inclusion of the ahd in the Da‘a’im thus made it part of al-Mu‘izz’s code of practice, and a representation of the Fatimid model of governance as developed by his reign. 

The ahd as presented in the Da‘a’im provides a detailed exposition of good governance.  It delineates specific guidelines to governors and other administrators for governing the subjects of the imam with justice.[24] While it notes briefly the subjects’ responsibilities of subjects towards their rulers, its main focus is on enunciating the governors’ responsibilities towards their subjects, to ensure their care and protection.

The ahd outlines a vision of an ideal government, prescribing particular requirements for the maintenance of an ideal socio-political order. Its vision of the political order is that of a complex polity, in which the governing officials and the subject population, who are compartmentalised into classes according to their function in society, exist in a cycle of co-dependency, each reliant on the proper functioning of the other.

A salient distinction of this ahd is that its principal focus is on the ‘satisfaction of the common people’ (rida’l-amma). Accordingly, a governor is advised, ‘Let the most cherished of affairs to you be that which is between the two extremes and the most comprehensive of them in relation to the obedience to God and the satisfaction of the common people.’  

Throughout the text of the ahd, the subject population of the Imam’s realms, variously called the people (al-nas), the subjects (ra’iyya) or the commonalty (al-amma), are conceived as the source of strength and resilience of the state. The ahd asserts that the totality of the affairs of the state, the ability to express power and even its ability to fight enemies all stem from the amma. Concurrently, their ‘discontent’ can be a cause of instability. Their protection and amelioration is therefore necessary to ensure good governance, and the provision of justice for them is vital as, ‘it is upon that alone that the welfare of the servants (of God) and countries depends.’[25]

Significantly, the ahd is almost non-denominational in its tone, making it noticeably different from its recension in the Nahj al-Balaghainfo-icon.[26] Its conception of a stable political order is based on ensuring peace as well as protection from harm of all segments of the population. Its prescription on selection of governors and administrators therefore, is based principally on merit and competence, so as to protect the people from ‘nepotism, tyranny, arrogance, cruelty and other human excesses.’ The ahd casts bad government as that which unleashes tyranny (tajjabur), arrogance (takkabur), excessive punishment, cruelty, lust for wealth and possessions, and which causes hardship for the wealthy. It makes particular reference to the ills of favouritism by those in government, namely the undue preferences shown to others and to themselves by administrators and officials.[27]

The ahd thus provides a tangible marker for the evolution of Fatimid governance. The broader, more inclusive approach to governance as represented in the Da‘a’im shows a significant gradation of the development of the Fatimid model from its beginnings as a dominant Ismaili administration concerned with establishing Ismaili legal systems and practices. The Fatimid model as espoused in the reign of al-Mu‘izz received a further articulation in the stipulations of the Aman document, the Guarantee of Safety which the Fatimid general Jawhar al-Siqili issued, on the instructions of al-Mu‘izz, to the Egyptian population upon the Fatimid entry into Egypt in 969 CE. 


The Fatimid Guarantee of Safety

The Aman document was publically read out to the populace of Egypt on the eve of the Fatimid conquest. It set out a blueprint of Fatimid governance. Its stipulations represent a practical manifestation of the principles of Fatimid governance, namely, an administration that sought social stability, justice and prosperity fostered by the universalist authority of the Fatimid Imam-caliph. It reflected the developing conceptual underpinnings that emerged from their 60 years of experience at the head of a state in North Africa. It subsequently became the standard by which they reign in Egypt for the next two centuries. 

The import of the Aman document continued to reverberate in Egyptian historiography as well as in Ismaili writings over the subsequent centuries, such that its full recension survives in the extant writings of two 15th century scholars, those of the erudite Mamluk historian Taqi al-Din al-Maqrizi as well as of the chief da‘i of the Tayyibi Ismaili community in Yemen, Idris Imad al-Din.[28]


The Fatimids as the Sole Legitimate Universal Authority

The text of the Aman presents the Fatimid Imam-caliph as the sole universal legitimate authority over the Muslim umma, to whom obedience is mandatory. It refers to al-Mu‘izz both as the amir al-mu’minininfo-icon, (Commander of the Faithful), the most-commonly used title for the caliph, and as the waliinfo-icon Allah  (friend of God), implicitly referring to the Shi‘i conception of the imamate. Subsequently, the Aman presents the relationship of the Fatimid imam and his subjects as a covenantal one, whereby the subject population, irrespective of all denominations and backgrounds, are considered to be under the dhimma, the canopy, of the imam-caliph. The Aman thus iterates al-Mu‘izz’s duty to redress the malaise afflicting the eastern Muslim world, through his restoration of order in Egypt, offering protection to the Muslims of Syria against Byzantineinfo-icon advances, and the establishment of the hajjinfo-icon, considered to be among the responsibilities of the Muslim ruler.[29] The Aman then proceeds to offer the Imam’s dhimma to those who are now directly under his care, proclaiming: ‘I guarantee you God’s complete and universal safety, eternal and continuous, inclusive and perfect, renewed and confirmed through the days and recurring through the years.’

In their acceptance of the Aman all the Egyptians, regardless of their religious persuasion, are considered to have entered into a bond with the Fatimid imam which has divine sanction. Thus it is referred to as an ahd (oath) of God, His mithaqinfo-icon (pact) and dhimma (guarantee of protection).[30] The dhimma issued in the name of the Fatimid Imam is positioned as being also the dhimma offered by the Prophets and the imams before him.[31]

As Michael Brett has pointed out, the Fatimids, drawing upon Shi‘i Imami notions of authority, were able to extend the narrower legalistic notions of dhimma of their time, which at the time referred to the rights and obligations of the ‘people of the book’ (ahl al-kitabinfo-icon), by reinvigorating earlier notions of dhimma as expressed in Prophet Muhammad’s own precedent in Medina, where Muslims, Jews and others, formed part of the nascent umma, and were jointly responsible for its safety and security.[32]

Through this framework, the Aman sought to present a unifying vision of Islam, in which various Muslim traditions, Sunni and ‘Shia, were accorded their own place for belief and practice. It thus marks a major milestone in the development of the inclusive Fatimid model. It notes:

Islam consists of one sunnainfo-icon and a shari‘ainfo-icon followed [by all]...You shall continue in your madhhab. You shall be permitted to perform your obligations according to religious scholarship, and to gather for it in your congregational and other mosques, and to remain steadfast in the beliefs of the worthy ancestors from the Companions of the Prophet, may God be pleased with them, and those who succeeded them, the jurists of the cities who have pronounced judgements according to their madhhab and fatwas.

The Aman proceeds to demarcate how the ideals of the Fatimid model of governance are to be realised. It delineates four areas of responsibility which the Fatimid governance was to address: (a) provision of security and protection for all its subjects; (b) ensuring economic stability; (c) upholding justice; and (d) patronage of religious practice. 

The Imam’s responsibility for the protection of the people and the provision of security form a central concern of the Aman. The text vouchsafes i) security of life and possessions, ii) the protection of borders from foreign invasion,  iii) protection from crime,  v) protection from poverty and want, including the provision to supervise living conditions.

Thereafter, it focuses on the realisation of economic prosperity as an aspect of the Imam’s purview of protection. The Aman thus promises the restoration of trade through the safeguarding of trade-routes that had been cut off. It also promises monetary reform and the renewal of coinage, the debasement of which had plagued the country previously. It notes that all these measures were to be taken so that it would enable the people ‘to earn a living.’ 

Reflecting the importance of the notion of justice, the Aman offers the promise of equity and the eradication of injustice and transgression, with particular attention to those who have been oppressed.  More specifically, it stipulates the annulment of illegal and unjust taxes.

Finally, as regards the upholding of religious practices of Muslims from various madhhabs, the Aman promised the maintenance and upkeep of their mosques, their commemoration of the Ramadan rituals, the collection of the zakatinfo-icon, the performance of pilgrimage and the undertaking of jihad as required.


Expressions of the Dhimma

While the Aman document enunciated these ideals of governance, it is in their pragmatic application in the Fatimid administration in Egypt that the proverbial rubber met the road. Al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah died in 975 CE, just over two years after his arrival in Egypt. The application of the principles of governance therefore took place in the reign of his successor, al-Aziz bi’llah (r. 975-996 CE). These were realised through the creation of a broadly inclusive administration, a judicial system which accommodated the Sunni legal systems and the upholding of various schools’ practises of ritual worship which extended to the sponsorship and protection of non-Muslim places. Nonetheless, their approach also met with significant challenges. These included issues of ritual performance that contravened Fatimid Shi‘i practice, the issue of plurality of legal systems in the public sphere, and critically, challenges arising from inter-confessional boundaries, expectations and notions of privilege.


Broadening Administration

The arrival of the Fatimids in 969 CE raised the possibility of an overhaul of the previous administration. Instead, the Fatimid general Jawhar, confirmed the continuity in office of the senior administrators from the previous Ikhshidid regime. Accordingly, Ja‘far b. al-Furat was reconfirmed as the chief minister of the state.[33] Importantly, North African bureaucrats were appointed in joint positions with their Egyptian counterparts. This allowed for a gradual yet effective transition of expertise from one administration to the other. 

Abu al-Faraj Ya‘qub b. Killis (d. 991 CE), the first Fatimid vizierinfo-icon, was among the most illustrious administrators of his age. Having previously converted to Islam from Judaism, Ya‘qub’s exceptional acumen led to his rapid promotion through the Fatimid state bureaucracy to become the first Fatimid vizier in Egypt. It was under his tenure that leading figures from both the Christian and Jewish communities found unrivalled prominence in the Fatimid judiciary.[34]


The Legal System

The integration of Sunni judges in the Fatimid judiciary illustrates the negotiation between upholding their own universalist claim and maintaining the legal validity of other Muslim schools of law. Upon his accession over Egypt, al-Mu‘izz retained the Maliki qadi Abu Tahir as his Chief Justice, a role which the latter had occupied in the previous Ikhshidid administration. Reminiscent of the co-existence policy of al-Mansur, al-Mu‘izz also appointed a son of Qadi al-Nu‘man, Ali b. al-Nu‘man, alongside the Sunni Qadi, an arrangement that continued under al-Aziz, until paralysis led the Sunni Qadi to present his resignation in 976 CE. Of the 16 years Abu Tahir served as chief qadi of Egypt, seven were thus in the service of the Fatimid caliphate.[35] References to several judges from different Sunni and Shi‘i madhhabs being appointed to the judiciary are fairly commonplace in subsequent Fatimid reigns.[36]


Ritual and Worship

During al-Aziz’s reign, Muslim and non-Muslim communities were by and large permitted the performance of their religious rituals and obligations. The Fatimid sponsorship of mosques and congregational spaces was retained not only for the construction of new Fatimid mosques, such as al-Azharinfo-icon and al-Anwar, but was also extended to Sunni religious spaces. The latitude afforded to the Christian and Jewish communities in the maintenance of their spaces of worship and the performance of their religious rituals became one of the notable features of al-Aziz’s reign, as recorded by Severus Ibn al-Muqaffa (d. 987 CE), the Coptic bishop of al-Ashmunayn, who was among the most well-regarded theologians and writers of the Coptic Church in the early medieval period. It was the safeguarding of the Coptic spaces of worship by al-Mu‘izz and al-Aziz that led Ibn al-Muqaffa to remark that there was ‘great peace for the churches’ in the reigns of these two sovereigns.

The functioning of Christian religious life was further realised in the state protection of the performance of their public festivals. Al-Maqrizi notes in his Khitat that numerous Christian festivals were celebrated during the Fatimid era, including the Coptic New Year (Nawruz), the Nativity (al-Milad), the Epiphany (al-Ghitas), and Maundy Thursday, amongst others. In a number of instances during the reigns of al-Aziz and his successors, the sources mention the Fatimid sovereigns’ participation in the celebrations.


Challenges and Legacies

The Fatimid model of governance was not without its challenges, many of which came to the fore in the subsequent phases of their reign. These included issues relating to the prevailing custom in matters such as the sighting of the new moon, where there were significant variances between Sunni and Ismaili practice. Amongst the most critical challenges however were those concerned with managing expectations of different religious communities. Muslim expectations of privilege vis-à-vis Christians and Jews were at times met by incidents of self-promotion and nepotism by the latter when in positions of power in the Fatimid administration. The sources note the reaction of certain segments of the Muslim population against the ascent of both Christians and Jews in the administration of al-Aziz. Elsewhere, cases are reported in al-Mu‘izz and al-Aziz’s time where some hard-line Sunni clerics protested vociferously against the rebuilding of Christian churches in Fustatinfo-icon. The work was nonetheless allowed to progress, under the protection of Fatimid troops. On the other hand, al-Aziz is similarly recorded to have taken action against leading Christian figures of the administration when accounts of self-promotion at Muslim expense were brought to his attention. Among the distinctive social groups with whom the first Fatimid sovereigns in Egypt were able to forge alliances were the ashraf, the lineal descendants of the Prophet, whose privileged status was well established by the tenth century. Their shared lineage afforded a common bond which enabled the ashraf to benefit from the Fatimid presence in Egypt, as much as it enabled the Fatimids to establish their rule in the region. 

During the reigns of the latter Fatimid imam-caliphs, it was the contestations among power brokers from different ethnic groups at the Fatimid court that led to factional contestations and breakout of violence from time to time. The divergent personalities and approaches of the Fatimid sovereigns and their overshadowing by the viziers from the time of Badr al-Jamali (d. 1094 CE) onwards significantly impacted the nature of Fatimid governance. Nonetheless, the Fatimid model of governance as articulated in the formative period of Fatimid rule, continued to remain an ideal to which each successive Fatimid Imam-caliph aimed to aspire, as well as the bedrock upon which they aimed to build the edifice of their own rule over the two centuries of Fatimid rule in Egypt - a unique Ismaili Shi‘i legacy in Egypt.


Further Reading

Brett, Michael, The Rise of the Fatimids: The World of the Mediterranean and the Middle East in the Fourth Century of the Hijrainfo-icon, Tenth Century CE. Leiden, 2001.

Daftary, Farhad, The Isma‘ilisinfo-icon: Their History and Doctrines, 2nd ed., Cambridge, 2007.

Fowden, Garth, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity, Princeton, NJ, 1993.

Halm, Heinz, The Empire of the Mahdi, tr. M. Bonner. Leiden, 1996.

Hamdani, Sumaiya. Between Revolution and State: The Path to Fatimid Statehood. London, 2006.

Idris, Imad al-Din, Uyun al-akhbar wa funun al-athar, vol. 5 and part of vol. 6, ed. Muhammad al-Yalawi (Beirut, 1985); English translation of the reign of al-Mu‘izz by Shainool Jiwa as The Founder of Cairo: The Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz and his Era. London, 2013.

Jiwa, Shainool, “Inclusive governance: a Fatimid Illustration”, in Amyn Sajoo, (ed.), A Companion to the Muslim World. London, 2009, pp. 157-177.

Madelung, Wilferd, ‘A Treatise on the Imamate of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mansur bi-Allah’, in C. F. Robinson, ed., Texts, Documents and Artefacts: Islamic Studies in Honour of D.S. Richards. Leiden, 2003, pp. 69-77.

Al-Maqrizi, Taqi al-Din, Itti‘az al-hunafa bi-akhbar al-a’imma al-Fatimiyyin al-khulafa, vol. 1, ed., Jamal al-Din al-Shayyal (Cairo, 1967); English translation of the reign of al-Mu‘izz by Shainool Jiwa as Towards a Shi‘i Mediterranean Empire: Fatimid Egypt and the Founding of Cairo. London, 2009.

Al-Nu‘man, al-Qadi Abu Hanifa,  Da‘a’im al-Islam, ed. Asaf A. A. Fyzee (Cairo, 1951-1960); English tr. A. A. A. Fyzee, revised by Ismail K. Poonawala, The Pillars of Islam. New Delhi-Oxford, 2002-2004.

Al-Nu‘man, al-Qadi Abu Hanifa, Iftitah al-da‘wa, tr. Hamid Haji as Founding the Fatimid State: The Rise of an Early Islamic Empire. London, 2006.

Al-Qadi, Wadad, ‘An Early Fatimid political document’, Studia Islamica, 48 (1978), pp. 71-108.

Walker, Paul (ed. and trans.), Orations of the Fatimid caliphs: Festival sermons of the Ismaili imams: an edition of the Arabic texts and English translation of Fatimid khuṭbas, London, 2009.


[1] This section of the article has been abridged from S. Jiwa, The founder of Cairo: The Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz and His Era (London, 2013), where the related arguments have been discussed extensively.

[2] Garth Fowden is among the authors who have examined the relationship between monotheism and universal sovereignty in his Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity (Princeton, 1993).

[3] Sumaiya Hamdani, Between Revolution and State: The Path to Fatimid Statehood. London, 2006, pp. xvii xviii.

[4] Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 2nd ed (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 99-102.

[5] Al-Qadi Al-Nu‘man, Da‘a’im al-Islam, ed. Asaf A. A. Fyzee (Cairo, 1951-1960) pp. 350-365 English tr. A. A. A. Fyzee, revised by Ismail K. Poonawala, The Pillars of Islam (New Delhi and Oxford, 2002-2004), vol. 1, pp. 436-456.

[6] Taqi al-Din al-Maqriz, Itti‘az al-hunafa bi-akhbar al-a’imma al-Fatimiyyin al-khulafa, vol. 1, ed., Jamal al-Din al-Shayyal (Cairo, 1967); English translation of the reign of al-Mu‘izz by Shainool Jiwa as Towards a Shi‘i Mediterranean Empire: Fatimid Egypt and the Founding of Cairo (London, 2009).

[7] Idris Imad al-Din, Uyun al-akhbar wa funun al-athar, vol. 6, ed. Muhammad al-Yalawi (Beirut, 1985); English translation of the reign of al-Mu‘izz by Shainool Jiwa as The Founder of Cairo: The Fatimid Imam-Caliph al-Mu‘izz and his Era (London, 2013). 

[8] Hamdani, Between Revolution and State, pp. 26-29.

[9] The initial Abbasid dawa was infused with religious and messianic elements revolving around the claim that political authority should revert to the family of the Prophet. It was hastily dismembered however, once the newly installed Abbasid caliphs wished to cast themselves in the proto-Sunni mould, and therefore to rid themselves of their Shi‘i, messianic past.

[10] Sumaiya Hamdani, Between Revolution and State, p. 26.

[11] Ibid pp. 26-27. 

[12] The Berber Abu Yazid became a leading proponent of the Nukkar, a schism of the Khariji Ibadisinfo-icon, earning him the epithet al-Nukkari. His opposition to the Fatimids culminated in a major revolt in 332 AH / 943 CE, which posed a serious challenge to the Fatimid state in the Maghribinfo-icon, and was only curbed by his defeat and subsequent death in 336 AH / 947 CE. See Halm, Empire of the Mahdi, pp. 329, 393, and S. M. Stern, Abu Yazid Makhlad b. Kaydad al-Nukkari, EI2.

[13] Wilferd Madelung, ‘A Treatise on the Imamate of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mansur bi-Allah’, in C. F. Robinson, ed., Texts, Documents and Artefacts: Islamic Studies in Honour of D.S. Richards (Leiden, 2003), pp. 69-77.

[14] Paul E. Walker, Orations of the Fatimid caliphs: festival sermons of the Ismaili imams: an edition of the Arabic texts and English translation of Fatimid khuṭbas, (London, 2009), English text, p. 90, Ar. p. 4.

[15] Ibid, p. 100

[16] For an exposition of the role of the mahdi in Ismaili history, see Farhad Daftary, ‘Hidden Imams and Mahdis in Ismaili History’, in B. Craig, ed., Ismaili and Fatimid Studies in Honor of Paul E. Walker (Chicago, 2010), pp. 1-22.

[17] Ibid., pp. 8-9, particularly note 12, which cites a number of primary and secondary sources.  

[18] Entering in the service of the Fatimids during the reign of al-Mahdi, al-Nu‘man’s lifetime of service culminated in his heading the judiciary as well as the da‘wa during the reigns of al-Manṣur and al-Mu‘izz.

[19] Circa 958 to 960.

[20] Al-Nu‘man, Da‘a’im, English trans., vol. 1, p. xxx1.

[21] Represented in the writings of Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq by the image of the two concentric circles, of iman and islam, one within the other; Hamdani, p. 67.

[22] Ibid., p. 68.

[23] Wadad al-Qadi, ‘An Early Fatimid Political Document,’ Studia Islamica, 48 (1978), p. 104.

[24] Ibid., p. 73.

[25]Al-Nu‘man, Da‘a’im, Ar. Vol 1, p. 355; trans., vol 1, p. 441.

[26] Al-Qadi, ‘Early Fatimid Political Document’, pp. 81-82.

[27] Al-Nu‘man, Da‘a’im, Ar. Vol 1, p.345; trans., vol. 1, p. 438.

[28] The full Aman document has been translated and analysed in my earlier work, “Inclusive Governance: A Fatimid Illustration” in A. Sajoo, (ed.) A Companion to the Muslim World, (London, 2009), pp. 157-177.

[29] The decades preceding 969 CE had seen a general breakdown of central authority in the lands of Syria, Arabia and Iraq, catalysed by the decline of Abbasid authority. In Egypt and Syria in particular, the fragmentation of state authority following the death of Kafur led to severe factional fighting and anarchy.

[30] By the 10th Century, the issuance of an Aman existed as a distinct legal mechanism across the Muslim world. It denoted a contractual relationship, usually between two warring parties, whereby safety and security is guarantee upon mutually agreed terms. Its standard function was to guarantee the life and property of the inhabitants, upon the takeover of a city. 

[31] The Aman states: “I promise to fulfil what I have pledged to you, in the name of God’s sacred covenant and protection, and by the covenant of His Prophets and Messengers, and by the covenant of the Imams, our masters, the Commanders of the Faithful, may God sanctify their souls, and by the covenant of our lord and master, the Commander of the Faithful, al-Mu‘izz li-Din Allah, may God’s blessing be upon him.”

[32] Brett, Rise of the Fatimids, pp. p. 299-303.

[33] Al-Maqrizi, Towards a Mediterranean Empire, p. 86.

[34] Isa b. Nasturus and Menashe b. Ibrahim respectively. The subsequent ascent of Fahd b. Ibrahim, the Christian fiscal administrator, during the final years of al-Aziz’s reign further testified to the trend.

[35] Qadi Abu Tahir was born into a family of qadis, and he himself had previously held positions as the Qadi of Baghdad, Wasit and Damascus, and was one of the noted figures that set out from Fustat to negotiate the Aman with the Fatimid general Jawhar. See al-Maqrizi, Muqaffa, 5:189-190.

[36] The sources record that on his appointment as the Chief Justice, Ali b. al-Nu‘man, nominated two deputies: his own brother, Muhammad b. al-Nu‘man as well as a Sunni Shafi‘iinfo-icon jurist Hasan ibn Khalil. Justice Muhammad b. al-Nu‘man in turn appointed a Hanafi jurist, Ibn Abi’l-Awwam, as the Qadi over al-Fustat. The appointment of Ithna Ashari Shi‘i jurists to the Fatimid judiciary is also recorded. In 991 Qadi ‘Abd al-Aziz, the son of Qadi Muhammad b. al-Nu‘man, appointed a body of ashraf to pronounce judgements in the Mosque of ‘Amr based on the madhhab of the Ahl al-Bayt. The following year, an Ithna Ashari Shi‘i is noted to have been commissioned with a similar responsibility. These references demonstrate that the Fatimid judiciary drew upon scholars from a variety of Shi‘i as well as Sunni madhhabs.


This is an edited version of an article originally published in The Shi‘i World: Pathways in Tradition and Modernity. I.B. Taurus, London, 2015, pp 111-130.

The medieval Mediterranean littoral was a region inhabited by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions. This was evident in 10th century Egypt, the mainstay of Fatimid domains, a land in which lived Arabs, Turks,...