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The Empire of the Mahdi: The Rise of the Fatimids.

By HEINZ HALM. Translated from the German by MICHAEL BONNER. Handbook of Oriental Studies, the Near and Middle East, vol. 26. Leiden: E. J. BRILL, 1996. Pp. xiii + 452. HFI 260, $167.75.

After almost a century of clandestine activity by a number of obscure splinter groups, early Ismailism appeared on the historical stage around the middle of the third/ninth century as a dynamic and revolutionary religio-political movement. A large number of da is or missionaries propagated the doctrines of this Shi i movement, which aimed to uproot the Abbasid regime and install the Ismaili Imam al-Mahdi to the actual leadership of the Muslim community. At the time, the Ismaili da wa or mission was secretly and centrally directed from Salamiyya in Syria. In order to safeguard themselves against Abbasid persecutions, the principal leaders of the early Ismaili movement, who were members of the same Fatimid Alid family in the progeny of the Imam Ja far al-Sadiq (d. 148/765), adopted different guises to hide their true identity, which was initially known only to a handful of trusted associates. It was only in 286/899, shortly after the accession of Abd Allah (Ubayd Allah) al-Mahdi to the central leadership of the movement, that the identity of the early Ismaili leaders was divulged. In that year, Abd Allah al-Mahdi openly claimed the imamate of the Isma iliyya for himself and his ancestors, the same individuals who had actually organized and led the movement on a hereditary basis.

Abd Allah al-Mahdi's claims, and his imamate, were accepted by a faction of the Ismaili community, including those living in Yemen and north Africa, while the Ismailis of Iraq and Bahrayn and the bulk of those living in the Iranian lands refused to acknowledge al-Mahdi as well as his predecessors as their imams. As a result, the then unified Ismaili da wa and community was split into two rival factions, later designated as loyal Fatimid Ismallis and dissident Qarmatis, who never recognized the imamate of al-Mahdi and his successors in the Fatimid dynasty.

The Fatimid Ismaili camp soon achieved its greatest success in north Africa through the efforts of the da i Abu Abd Allah al-Shi i, who had been spreading the Ismaili message among the Kutama Berbers of the region for some two decades. In fact, the da i al-Shi i managed to organize the converted Berbers into a formidable fighting force, who readily overran Ifriqiya (modern-day Tunisia), preparing the ground for the establishment of Fatimid Ismaill rule in that remote part of the Islamic world. It was under such circumstances that Abd Allah alMahdi, who had meanwhile journeyed secretly from Syria to Morocco, was installed in the first Shi i caliphate in 297/909, marking the foundation of the Fatimid state and dynasty. AlMahdi and his successors ruled as Fatimid Ismaili caliph-imams over an empire that stretched at various times from north Africa to Palestine and Syria, until the downfall of the dynasty in 567/1171. The Fatimid period also represented the "golden age" of Ismailism, when Ismaili thought and literature attained their summit. It was indeed during their Fatimid centuries that the Ismailis developed a diversity of intellectual traditions and made important contributions to Islamic civilization.

With modern progress in Ismaili studies, the Fatimid period of Ismaili history, too, has now become much better understood by scholars. The book under review, written originally in German by one of the foremost contemporary authorities in the field,(1) is the fullest scholarly treatment of the religio-political history of the Ismailis during the late pre-Fatimid and early Fatimid periods, until the transference of the seat of the Fatimid state from Ifriqiya to Egypt in 362/973. As in his other writings on the Ismailis, Professor Halm has extensively used a variety of primary sources, including especially the contemporary Ismaili texts and numerous chronicles, and his treatment of the complex issues of early Ismailism fully reflects the state of modern scholarship in the field, to which he himself has made valuable contributions over the last two decades.

In chapter one (pp. 5-57), Halm offers a summary survey of aspects of early Ismailism, with due attention to the identity of its central leaders and the purposes of their mission, as well as the policies pursued by da is for acquiring new converts in different regions, designated by the Ismailis as "islands" (jaziras). In chapter two (pp. 58-140), after a discussion of Abd Allah al-Mahdi's proclamations of the year 286/899, the author analyzes at length one of the least understood early reactions of the Ismailis in terms of the activities of the da i Zakaroye b. Mihroye (Zikrawayh b. Mihrawayh) and his sons. Here Halm makes available for the first time in the English language the results of his own earlier research,(2) arguing convincingly that contrary to the impressions of other modern scholars Zakaroye and his sons originally worked on behalf of al-Mahdi and aimed to establish a Fatimid state in Syria, before they turned against him and aligned themselves with the Qarmati camp. Halm then traces al-Mahdi's fateful journey from Salamiyya to Sijilmasa and Qayrawan in Ifriqiya where his caliphate was eventually proclaimed. The author also reviews the circumstances and events leading to the founding of what he calls the "empire of the Mahdi."

Al-Mahdi (297-322/909-934) and his next two successors, al-Qa im (322-334/934-946) and al-Mansur (334-341/946953), were mainly preoccupied with consolidating Fatimid rule in north Africa, where they encountered the hostility of the Khariji Berbers and the Maliki Sunni townspeople. The events of the Fatimid caliphate during this early period are covered in chapter three, the longest chapter of the book (pp. 141-274), devoted to al-Mahdi's reign, and in the next two chapters (pp. 275-337) on his immediate successors. The author covers all the major diplomatic issues and religio-political difficulties confronted by the early Fatimids during this formative north African phase of their empire, including their abortive Egyptian campaigns and their encounters with the Umayyads of Spain and the Byzantines, as well as the lesser regional dynasties and Berber tribal confederations. In this context, of particular importance is Halm's exposition, based on his own earlier study,(3) of the prolonged revolt of the Khariji Berbers under the leadership of Abu Yazid Makhlad, known as the "man on the donkey," who shook the very foundations of the new dynasty and came close to toppling it. Halm also discusses the activities of the dissident eastern communities, notably the Qarmatis of Bahrayn, whose rampages culminated in the sack of Mecca during the pilgrimage season of 317/930, when they committed numerous sacrilegious acts and finally carried away the Black Stone of the Ka ba. The author also explains the symbolism of this enigmatic theft of the Black Stone, which was not returned to Mecca until 339/951.

In the sixth and final chapter (pp. 338-422), the author covers the reign of al-Mu izz (341-365/953-975), the fourth Fatimid caliph-imam, who succeeded in subjugating the entire Maghrib and also realized the Fatimids' perennial ambition of conquering Egypt. Al-Mu izz was the first member of his dynasty who was able to concern himself with various doctrinal issues. Halm explains how in his reign Fatimid Ismaili law was finally codified through the efforts of al-Qadi al-Nu man (d. 363/974), whose legal compendia were closely scrutinized by alMu izz himself. Halm also relates how, as part of his eastern strategy, al-Mu izz succeeded in winning the allegiance of some of the dissident eastern communities. Other important features of this chapter include discussions of certain Ismaili institutions of learning, such as the "sessions of wisdom" (majalis al-hikma), which have been treated more fully in Halm's subsequent studies.(4) Here and elsewhere in the book, Halm also presents valuable archaeological and architectural details, based on modern studies, on the Fatimid capital cities of Mahdiyya and Mansuriyya in north Africa, as well as Cairo itself. The final chapter ends with sections on the Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 358/969 and the transference of the seat of the Fatimid state to the newly founded city of Cairo in 362/973, marking the termination of the north African phase of the Fatimid caliphate.

The value of this book, now made more widely accessible in Dr. Michael Bonner's excellent English rendition, is enhanced by its numerous maps, illustrations (including many Fatimid sites photographed by the author himself), and an annotated bibliography of the sources. However, the book is not free of production shortcomings, which are particularly related to its copyediting and proofreading. For instance, certain Arabic technical terms such as da i and da wa are treated throughout the text as familiar words in the English language and are, therefore, not italicized, while some of the geographical names are italicized. The general index, too, lacks subject entries as well as cross references. But these are all relatively minor shortcomings which can readily be corrected in future reprints. All in all, Halm's The Empire of the Mahdi is a masterly treatment of a crucial and complex early phase in the long history of the Ismailis and as such it represents a major contribution to modern Ismaili studies in general and Fatimid studies in particular.

1 H. Halm, Das Reich des Mahdi: Der Aufstieg der Fatimiden (875-973) (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1991).

2 H. Halm, "Die Sohne Zikrawaihs und das erste fatimidische Kalifat (290/903)," Die Welt des Orients 10 (1979): 30-53.

3 H. Halre, "Der Mann auf dem Esel: Der Aufstand des Abu Yazid gegen die Fatimiden nach einem Augenzeugenbericht," Die Welt des Orients 15 (1984): 144-204.

4 See H. Halm, "The Isma ili Oath of Allegiance (ahd) and the 'Sessions of Wisdom' (majalis al-hikma) in Fatimid Times," in Mediaeval Isma ili History and Thought, ed. F. Daftary (Cambridge, 1996), 91-115, and his The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, Ismaili Heritage Series, vol. 2 (London, 1997).

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Author:Daftary, Farhad
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1998
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