Fatimid ideology


During the Abbasid years, Shi’ite believers had turned away from secular power in order to survive. Those who challenged the Caliph openly usually died. Those who developed the ability to go undercover while seeming loyal, survived. We hear this word, “taqqiyah,” sometimes in our time; it was not endorsement of lying, but it was some kind of admission that joining Friday prayers for the Abbasid Caliph would be necessary and therefore permissible.

From this background, Shi’ite ideology developed two opposing fundamental beliefs. First, they believed that only a true Imam should be Caliph: that state and religion should be one. Second, they believed that the true Imam could be known by the way he shunned secular power and wealth in favor of studying esoteric theology. This is the paradox of Shi’ite Islam: the true Imam is both a secular ruler and a secretive mystic.

“Imam” is the key word for Shi’ites. It means leader, path, and guide. In the desert, where Arabic originated, the three concepts were pretty close in meaning: the path was where the leader guided you; it was not marked out separately by paving and yellow lines. The true leader is the one who knows the path to the next oasis.

“Imam” is the key word for Shi’ites. It means leader, path, and guide. In the desert, where Arabic originated, the three concepts were pretty close in meaning: the path was where the leader guided you; it was not marked out separately by paving and yellow lines. The true leader is the one who knows the path to the next oasis.

Their fundamental belief is that Mohammed appointed Fatima’s husband (and his own cousin) Ali to be the next Imam after himself. Imams can be appointed this way in a sort of “laying on of hands” succession. Imams can also arise from God’s appointment through their holiness and devotion to esoteric studies. Imams who are neither appointed nor preoccupied with esoteric mysteries are not true Imams, they are false ones that lead people astray.

Shi’ites agreed on the succession of Imams to a certain point, where they divided. One Imam had two sons; the Twelvers believe the younger son, Musa, was his successor, while the Ismailis (Seveners) follow the older son, Ismail. This division already existed before Fatimid times, but it was not yet important as long as they were only studying mystical writings. Competing branches of Imams discussed law and theology in secret. Once the Fatimids had secular power, factions among Shi’ites started to matter a lot.


Dawa means an invitation or summons to meet Allah. The person who gives this message is the Da’i, the summoner. The words are in the Quran, and the concept has always been part of Mohammed’s message. But nobody really developed the idea until the Fatimids set up Al-Azhar Mosque and school, around 990.

The Ismaili faith (like other branches of Shi’ism) was more intensely spiritual than what the average Sunni Muslim in Damascus or Isfahan practiced. There are two main reasons for this. First, historically the conversion to Islam had been mostly pragmatic for most people. It required them to confess Allah and Mohammed, follow some basic rules, and pray certain words. It was a lifestyle, a cultural habit. Their keenest interests and passions lay elsewhere.

The focus on imitating a holy Imam is the other reason. The line of Imams descended from Hussein’s one surviving child were all ascetic scholars and mystics. Excluded from ruling power, and often forced to live in hiding, they channeled their energies into esoteric knowledge about the structure of Heaven, the names of God, and things like that. Their faith was passionately serious and required deep interest and feeling. They developed a theology of redemption like the Christians; Ali and Hussein had died for their people.

So now, Al-Azhar Mosque and school trained Da’i agents in how to explain Ismaili faith and effect conversions. They sent them out in an organized fashion, in all directions but mostly toward the Iraq/Iran Muslim heartland. The missionaries had to operate in complete secrecy, because although they were merely preaching Islam among Muslims, their message could lead to the overthrow of the pragmatic Sunni government. They were preparing the ground for a possible Fatimid invasion, at the same time that they were soliciting devout personal faith. Mostly, they posed as merchants.

Yemen and the region of Iraq/Iran were the most fertile ground for Dawa activity. If you think about it, the Shi’ite faith is easiest to accept if you are ethnically or geographically related to it. If you’re part of the Arabian tribes, or even in some sense part of the Quraysh, it’s a very welcome message. If you live near Karbala, the holy site of Hussein’s self-sacrifice, it’s also welcome. It’s at this time that Iran became largely Shi’ite in faith, through the work of Egyptian missionaries.

The Seljuk Turks were as adamantly opposed to the Ismaili faith as were the Abbasids. Their conversion to Islam was pragmatic, and they could not fancy themselves part of the Ismaili holy faction. Shi’a appeared to exclude them; it was not appealing. In the Ghaznavid kingdom, or in other cities with Turkic majorities, the Da’i were arrested if found. So too wherever Baghdad’s power was still in force. The Ismaili faith was political treason and merited a death penalty.


The Fatimid dynasty ruled Egypt and Syria as a very small minority among the native Christian populations, and even as a minority among Muslims. During the 900s, Egyptians were still mostly Christian. If there are numbers to estimate how many had converted to Islam, I can’t find them, but definitely the following century had some really big waves of conversion that hadn’t happened yet. Let’s guess that 20% were Muslims, 5% Jews, and 75% Christians. In rural Egypt, over 90% were still Christians.

The Fatimids had conquered the Abbasid emir’s army, but they still needed some popular support for their rule. They couldn’t rock the boat with harsh or large changes, and they also had to court the favor of all intellectuals and landowners. This meant that they had to show fairness and even favoritism toward Jews and Christians. For this reason, the Fatimid period was a great time for rebuilding synagogues and churches, and for taking a rest period from persecution.

Iman-Caliph al-Aziz (975-996) liked to sponsor three-way interfaith debates. He called this gathering a majlis, the word now used for a parliament. A famous Coptic legendary miracle came out of one of the majlis debates. A rabbi challenged the Caliph to make the Christians prove Jesus’ saying that “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move a mountain.” The Caliph, perhaps amused, but more likely sincerely interested since Ismailis were interested in the supernatural, gave the Patriarch three days to come up with a mountain-moving solution. If the Christian scriptures were proven false, they would be demoted and persecuted.

The Coptic Patriarch, who was a Syrian monk named Afraham, called for a universal fast. The Patriarch had a vision that told him a one-eyed tanner would move the mountain. This man was called Simon, and he was indeed very pious. As Jews, Christians and Muslims gathered around one of Cairo’s nearby hills to watch, the Christians led by Simon prayed, and then Mt. Moqattam moved. The Caliph rewarded them with permission to rebuild more churches.

The early Fatimids were easy rulers for other faiths. Because they understood devout loyalty and had been persecuted, they did not rush to inflict persecution. We’ll look next at the most infamous Fatimid, an Imam who was unfortunately mentally ill. His rule was uniquely difficult; but afterward, the dynasty faced a rebellion among Ismailis. The Fatimids followed the path of all rulers who begin with idealism: first they had to consolidate power with a slave army, then they had to pacify their own factions by ceasing to favor Jews and Christians.


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