The Fatimid period (909-1171) was the golden age of Ismaili thought and literature, when the Ismaili Imams ruled over vast areas of the Muslim world as Caliphs, making important contributions to the Islamic civilization. The Fatimids promoted learning and scholarship, founding many institutions of learning such as the Dar al-Ilm and the Al-Azhar.
The Dar al-Ilm (House of Knowledge), sometimes called Dar al-Hikma, was founded by the Fatimid Caliph-Imam al-Hakim bi Amr Allah (r. 996-1021) in March 1005, in a section of the Fatimid palace in Cairo. A variety of religious and non-religious subjects were taught here, including the Qur’an, hadith, logic, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. The Dar al-Ilm, considered a precursor of the modern university, was equipped with a vast large library which was described by the historian Ibn Abi Tayyi’ as a “Wonder of the world.”*
The culture of unhindered scientific thought attracted the finest minds of the age to the Fatimid court, regardless of their religious persuasions: astronomers like Ali b. Yunus; physicians like al-Tamimi and Ibn Ridwan; mathematicians and engineers like Ibn Haytham who was known in Europe by the Latin name Alhazen. Ibn Haytham’s greatest contribution was in the field optics, for which he is called the “father of optics.” The foundation of contemporary advances in the study of light, optics, and ophthalmology are based upon his observations and findings.
Access to education was made available to the public and many Fatimid da’is received part of their training at this major institution of learning which served the Ismaili da’wa (mission) until the downfall of the Fatimid dynasty. Imam al-Hakim made the education of Ismailis, including women, and the Fatimid da’is a priority. Caliph-Imam al-Hakim established various study sessions (majalis) in Cairo, where he also completed the construction of the Friday mosque that still bears his name. Construction of the Mosque of al Hakim was begun by Caliph-Imam al-‘Aziz in 990 and completed by Imam al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah in 1013.
*Shafique N. Virani The Ismailis in the Middle Ages: A History of Survival, A Search for Salvation, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007
Philip Jodidio, Under the Eaves of Architecture. The Aga Khan: Builder and Patron. Prestel, 2007
Heinz Halm, The Fatimids and their Traditions of Learning, I.B. Taurus, London, 1997
Research by Nimira Dewji
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