The Mad Caliph

By the late 900s, the Fatimid dynasty was in control of all of North Africa, Palestine, and the holy places in Arabia, Mecca and Medina.

Sunni Muslims had been the norm in Egypt; now they were pressured to become Ismailis. This meant they had to denounce the Companions of Mohammed and accept changed customs of public prayer. Prayers were no longer offered for the Abbasid Caliph, since he was the apostate false Imam. With the Ismailis in charge of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Sunni pilgrims were out of luck. It may have been possible to make the official trip to Mecca some or even most of the time, but there were times when Sunni pilgrims were attacked and killed. Only Ismaili Muslims were permitted into Jerusalem.

Imam-Caliph al-Hakim went through three stages in his reign (996-1021). First, he was a pretty good guy like his father al-Aziz. Then he was stark raving mad. Then he mellowed a bit and vanished.

In childhood, he went by the name Mansur; it’s not clear which of al-Aziz’s wives was his mother, but she may have been Greek Orthodox Christian. Little Mansur had blue eyes. When he was only 11, his father the Caliph died, and he took the regnal name al-Hakim bi-Amur Allah, Ruler by God’s Command.

Al-Hakim’s first act on coming into his majority, 10 years later, seems to have been a public posting of curses against Aisha, Mohammed’s wife, and the first 3 Caliphs for not immediately giving power to Ali and Fatima. As an Ismaili Shi’ite, he was deeply hostile to the Sunnis. In retaliation, Baghdad commanded a group of scholars to declare that the Fatimids weren’t actually related to Fatima at all. They also accused al-Hakim of favoring Christians and Jews over (Sunni) Muslims.

Now began the Caliph’s crazy period. He may have been trying to prove he wasn’t that nice to Christians and Jews, but his actions went well past that. Legends of his insane decisions vary; Sunni historians credit him with much worse things than Shi’ite ones (who point out that he established Al-Azhar university and did some pious charitable things). It still seems likely that he had bipolar or schizoaffective disorder.

He banned various vegetables, shellfish, and chess. He ordered all dogs killed because their barking was intolerable. He outlawed wine and the Christian holidays of Easter and Christmas. He ordered Christians to wear a large iron cross around their necks, and Jews to wear a wooden calf (or a bell!). Their women had to wear non-matching shoes, red and black. He sacked a town near Cairo, perhaps due to its large Jewish population (Fustat is where Maimonides later lived).

From 1007 to 1012, he ordered the wholesale destruction of churches, monasteries and synagogues across his realm, which included the Holy Land. Constantine’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher was dismantled stone by stone (1009). By 1012, historians say that no churches or synagogues remained in Palestine.

After that, he backed off considerably on the Christians and Jews, and instead began to persecute Sunni Muslims and people in general. In 1014, he ordered women to stay indoors and forbade the making of women’s shoes. He executed countless people, including close friends and complete strangers. Sometimes, they say, he did the killing personally.

His zeal for the Ismaili faith began to win him significant support among the most fanatical Shi’ites. One Persian preacher, Hamza, declared that al-Hakim was the Incarnation of God, 1000 years after Christ. This was perhaps the only attention Muslims paid to the Millennium, since they counted years since the Prophet. Christians, by contrast, were swept with Millennial zeal and some expected the end of the world. They did get the end of the church built on Jesus’ tomb; it was so noted and never forgotten.

Al-Hakim grew a little more mellow and ascetic with age. His reign wasn’t bad for the Fatimid dynasty in some ways; in others it was a disaster. In 1021, he went into the desert to meditate, and he never came back. History assumes that his older sister had him assassinated; she became regent for his young son.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was rebuilt later by the Byzantine Emperor, with the Caliph’s permission. The church that Crusaders later prayed in was this recently-built basilica, begun in 1042. But the stories of Christian persecution and martyrdom remained in circulation. Al-Hakim’s mad ideological rampage was the first step toward international war.

 

 

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