The Fatimid Empire & the Role of Shi'ism

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  • 0:02 Fatimid Empire and the…
  • 0:29 What Is Shi'ism?
  • 1:49 Berber Conversion
  • 2:37 Fatimid Society
  • 5:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

With a lineage reaching back to the Prophet Muhammad himself, the Fatimids were heavily influenced by their Shi'a beliefs, yet open enough to create a society that saw the role of Jews, Christians, and Sunnis increase.

Fatimid Empire and the Role of Shi-ism

During the 8th century, Islam spread throughout North Africa much like it had spread throughout the Middle East and Asia: quickly. As a result, the Islamic world was unable to completely consolidate some of its differences. Many of these differences were political, which resulted in the breakup of the Islamic world into several smaller pieces, most paying lip service to the caliph, the leader of Sunni Islam. However, not all did.

What Is Shi'ism?

Among those that refused to recognize the power of the caliphs were the Shi'a Muslims. Shi'a Muslims believed that the Islamic world should be ruled by a descendant of Ali, who happened to be not only the Prophet Muhammad's cousin, but also his son-in-law. By contrast, Sunni Muslims recognized the power of a caliph chosen by the elders of the community. In fact, the Shi'a people get their name, Shi'a, from the Arabic word for a political or social faction, as they were the faction that supported Ali.

Specifically, many of these Shi'a Muslims claimed that the rightful leader of Islam, known as the Imam, was descended from Ali and his wife Fatima, Muhammad's daughter. As such, any child descended from these two would have a bloodline from Muhammad.

There are different types of Shi'ism, dependent on which of the historical Imams that a group of people felt was the real Imam. It is important to note that these Imams were all descended from Ali, and they are often categorized by the number of the Imam that divides them from the rest of Shi'ism.

For example, most Shi'a people today are Twelver Shi'as, as they believe that the Twelfth Imam was the last Imam. However, today we will be talking about Sevener Shi'as, also known as Ismailis, after the name of that Imam. Ismailis would be the ones to rule the Fatimid Empire.

Berber Conversion

Needless to say, the caliphs, who followed the version of Islam favored by the majority of people, Sunni Islam, were eager to suppress any such talk of someone else being the rightful leader of Islam. Yet the caliphs did not have universal reach. In their heavily-fragmented domain, there were groups willing to listen to what the Shi'a had to say.

One of those groups in particular lived in North Africa, where modern-day Tunisia and Algeria are. These people were Berbers, meaning that they had lived in the desert as nomads for hundreds of years, and while they embraced Islam, they did not embrace the rule of an urban ruling elite. Ultimately, these Berbers would revolt against the caliph's Sunni government, but with the arrival of Shi'ism, they were more than a rebellion, but now were a cause based around protecting their Shi'a beliefs.

Fatimid Society

Soon, this group of Berbers had gained control over much of North Africa. They called themselves the Fatimids in honor of Fatima. However, when they arrived in Egypt, they lost much of the Berber nomadic spirit that had made them so powerful. Within a few generations, the Fatimid ruling elite was content with living in Egypt, building an impressive new capital in Egypt, Cairo. In fact, the Fatimids grew so content that they left the hard work of governing to slaves.

Yes, you heard that right. The Fatimids bought slaves to both administer and protect their new empire. These slaves primarily came from Central Africa or elsewhere in the Middle East, and if they were Turkic in origin, which almost all of the Middle Eastern slaves were, they were known as Mamluks. These two groups of slaves handled much of the daily work in the empire, but were not in charge. Instead, the Fatimids used a system based on merit to promote the very best people to various positions, without regard to religion. As a result, Christians, Jews, and even Sunni Muslims soon had positions of great power within the Fatimid state.

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