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The Fatimid  (Arabic:  الفاطميون al-Fātimiyyūn) Arab  dynasty ruled over varying areas of North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, and even Sicily and Yemen from 909 to 1171. It is considered by some to be  the fourth and "final"  "pure" Arab caliphate, but at least formally the Abbasid caliphate, outlasted it, as the last Abbasid Caliph was deposed in 1258. The Fatimid Caliphate was an exception in that the ruling elite belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam. The rulers were also Shia Ismaili Imams, hence, they had a religious significance to Ismaili Muslims. They are also part of the chain of holders of the office of Caliph, as recognized by most Muslims, the only period in which the Shia Imamate and the Caliphate were united to any degree after the death of Ali.

The Fatimids claimed to be descendants of Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad , and wife of Ali, the fourth caliph, regarded as the first Shi'i imam.

In line with Ismaili belief, the Fatimid leader declared himself not only caliph, but also  Mahdi, the promised savior of the Muslim world.

The Fatimids set themselves up as rivals to the Sunni Abbasid caliphate of Baghdad hoping to displace it with descendants of Ali, who are the true caliphs according to Shi'a belief.

The Fatimids spread their religion by training missionaries, Dai, who made converts throughout North Africa Egypt, Yemen and eventually founded branches in Persia and India as well. Originating in "Ifriqiyyah" or modern Tunisia, the empire spread across North Africa, Sardinia Sicily and Egypt. In 969, the Fatimids conquered northern Egypt from the Ikhshidid dynasty and built a new capital, al-Qāhira, Cairo, named after the planet Mars.  which they made their center. Cairo was not intended to be a city, but rather a compound for the Caliph and his army. Fustat and Alexandria remained the main administrative centers. 

In Cairo, the Fatimids founded the Al Azhar mosque and university as an Ismaili missionary training center. They later controlled the Arabian peninsula including  Mecca and Medina. Missionaries were also sent to India and Central Asia.

The Fatimids established a new route for trade with East Asia over the Red Sea, instead of the Persian Gulf,  which had been dominant until then to rival the Abbasids. This resulted in an increase in the importance of Hejaz in the Arabian peninsula. Egyptian trade with China was to define its role throughout the high Middle Ages.

Successive Fatimid caliphs allowed power to fall to the army and the vizier. in the familiar pattern of such empires. 

The Fatimid Caliphs

Ubayd Allah (Abū Muhammad Abdu l-Lāh (Ubaydu l-Lāh) al-Mahdī bi'llāh) 909-934
al-Qa'im (Abū l-Qāsim Muhammad al-Qā'im bi-Amr Allāh) 934-946
al-Mansur (Abū Tāhir Ismā'il al-Mansūr bi-llāh) 946-953
Abū Tamīm (Abū Tamīm Ma'add al-Mu'izz li-Dīn Allāh) 953-975
al-Aziz (Abū Mansūr Nizār al-'Azīz bi-llāh) 975-996
al-Hakim (Abū 'Alī al-Mansūr al-hākim bi-Amr Allāh) 996-1021
al-Zahir (Abū'l-Hasan 'Alī al-Zāhir li-I'zāz Dīn Allāh) 1021-1036
al-Mustansir (Abū Tamīm Ma'add al-Mustansir bi-llāh 1036-1094
al-Musta'li (al-Musta'lī bi-llāh) 1094-1101
al-Amir (al-Āmir bi-Ahkām Allāh) 1101-1130
al-Hafiz ('Abd al-Majīd al-hāfiz) 1130-1149
al-Zafir 1149-1154
al-Fa'iz 1154-1160
al-Adid 1160-1171

Timeline of the Fatimid Caliphate

8??? Isma'ilis in Yemen send missionaries to North Africa, and form a base in Tunisia, gathering political support.
909  Ubayd Allah proclaims himself caliph of the Muslim world.
913  Unsuccessful war against Egypt.
919  Second unsuccessful war against Egypt.
920  A new capital, Mahdia, is founded in Ifriqiyya (Tunis).
925 Third unsuccessful war against Egypt of Ubayd Allah.
934 al-Qa'im succeeds Ubayd Allah as Caliph.
946 al-Mansur succeeds al-Qa'im as Caliph.
954 Abū Tamīm Ma'add succeeds al-Mansur as Caliph.
969 Fatimid troops of Abu Tamim conquer northern Egypt, founding Cairo north of Fustat.
970 The al-Azhar mosque is founded, and becomes the foremost Islamic learning institution of the Muslim world.
975 al-Aziz succeeds Abū Tamīm Ma'add as Caliph.
996 al-Hakim succeeds al-Aziz as Caliph.
1016 Caliph al-Hakim declares himself to be the earthly incarnation of Allah, evidently the beginning of the Druze religion. 
1021 al-Zahir succeeds al-Hakim as Caliph.
1036 al-Mustansir succeeds al-Hakim as Caliph but is unable to maintain secular control.
1073 After a time of disturbances, Badr al-Jamali seizes power, and takes control over the government. He is unable to exercise power over Syria and the Arabian peninsula.
1094 Caliph al-Mustansir dies, and a struggle breaks out between supporters of the legitimate heir and the caliph al-Musta'li, appointed by vizier al-Afdal. al-Musta'li is victorious and rules until 1101. Syria, Iraq, Persia and Central Asia break free from the control of Cairo together with many Ismai'ilis from Yemen. The leader of the Isma'ili mission in the Middle East, Hassan e-Sabbah, founds the Assassins in opposition to the regime of Cairo as well as being a means to spread the Ismaili religion in the east.
1101 al-Amir rules in place of al-Mustali
1130 al Hafiz rules in place of al-Amir
1149 al Zafir succeeds al Hafiz.
1154 al Faiz succeeds al Zafir.
1160 al-Adid succeeds al Faiz as caliph.
1171 After the death of Caliph al-Adid, the Kurdish military ruler of Egypt, Salah a-din seizes power, abolishing the Cairo caliphate. The Fatimid dynasty is replaced by the Ayyubid.


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information:  See  History of Islam and the Arabs


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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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