This month in history: Imam Mustansir bi’llah succeeded to the Imamat

Coin with the name Imam al--Mustansir bi'llah, dated 1074-75. Image: David Collection
Coin with the name Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah, dated 1074-75. Image: David Collection

Imam Mustansir bi’llah succeeded to the Imamat and the Fatimid caliphate in June 1036 at the age of seven, and reigned for fifty-eight years. During his reign, the Fatimid domain underwent an economic crisis marked by famine and food shortages due to the low level of the Nile for seven years (1065-1072). Furthermore, the political tensions at the time due to the constant plundering by the Turkish troops resulted in the disruption of the country’s agriculture as well as the destruction of the Fatimid treasury and library.

Although peace and stability were eventually restored, the extent of the Fatimid domain began to decline subsequently reduced to Egypt proper.

Marble panel bearing the name of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir, in kufic script, dated 1084–5, Egypt. Image: British Museum
Marble panel bearing the name of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir, in kufic script, dated 1084–5, Egypt. Image: British Museum

Upon Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah’s death in 1094, the dispute over his successor split the community into the Nizari Ismailis (supporters of Imam Nizar) and the Musta’lian Ismailis (supporters of Imam Nizar’s younger brother Musta’li).

This marked the end of the ‘classical’ period of Fatimid history when Ismaili thought and literature attained their peak. “Modern recovery of Ismaili literature attests to the richness and diversity of the literary and intellectual heritage of the Ismailis of the Fatimid period.”1

About the Fatimids, Daftary states:
“The doctrines of the Fatimid Isma’ilis, as elaborated by gifted theologians and da’is, represent a high level of intellectual accomplishments. In their treatises, not only theology but complex metaphysical and philosophical doctrines, drawing on Hellenistic and other traditions, are discussed in an Islamic perspective…Scholars generally agree that the success of the Fatimids were in large measure due to the remarkable ethnic and religious tolerance of the dynasty and the administrative stability of the Fatimid state.

The Shi’i Fatimids did, indeed, have a special talent for utilising the services of capable individuals and groups, regardless of race or creed…. their intellectual achievement and contributions had already forever enriched Islamic thought and culture.”2

Some prominent da’is of the ‘classical’ Fatimid period:
Abu Hatim al-Razi
(d. 934) and Muhammad al-Nasafi (d.943) – the earliest da’is developing a “unique intellectual tradition of philosophical theology within Ismailism, expressing their theology in terms of then most modern and intellectual themes, without compromising the essence of the religious message that revolved around the doctrine of Imamat.”2

Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani (d. after 972) – a philosopher and exponent of the intellectual understanding of Islam; his doctrinal works influenced subsequent generations.

Qadi al Nu’man (d. 974) – a jurist who served the Fatimid Caliph Imams as chief judge. He was commissioned by Imam al-Mu’izz (r. 953-975) to codify Ismaili law, which was compiled in the Da’a’im al Islam.

Al-Naysaburi flourished during the reigns of Imams al-Aziz and al-Hakim. His Ithbat al-imama is a central work in medieval Ismaili thought. Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History
Al-Naysaburi’s Ithbat al-imama. Image: The Ismailis: An Illustrated History

Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Naysaburi (d. 996) – flourished during the time of Imams al-Aziz (r. 975-996) and al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah (r. 996-1021). A formidable scholar of Ismaili theology, his works provide information about the early da’wa activities, and were also an “intellectual demonstration of the imamate as a rational necessity.”3

Nasir-i Khusraw (d.1004)  – one of the greatest Persian poets and a prominent da’i in the development of Ismaili philosophy.

Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani (d. 1020) – a philosopher and a prolific writer, he was one of the most influential da’is who flourished during the reign of Imam al-Hakim.

Al-Mu’ayyad fi’l Din al-Shirazi (d. 1078) – devoted his life to administering the affairs of the da’wa, teaching and composing theological works. He authored 800 lectures prepared for delivery at the majalis al-hikma (‘sessions of wisdom’), weekly sermons held in the Fatimid capital. He also authored more than 60 Arabic qasidas, many in praise of Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah.

Intellectual Traditions in Islam, Edited by Farhad Daftary, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd, London, 2000
Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge University Press, 1990
3Arzina R. Lalani, Degrees of Excellence, I.B. Tauris, London, 2010
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis, An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions, London, 2007

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

One thought

  1. 1] Good article. Would have appreciated some more historical events which took place during his 58 years of reign of Imamat.
    2] Request for similar articles on other Imams.


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