The Fatimids and the Institutionalization of Sunni-Shi’ah Conflicts_3

The Fatimids and the Institutionalization of Sunni-Shi’ah Conflicts

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia


This is one of 25 identical stucco window grills in the al-Aqmar Mosque. The right small circle contains the name “Muhammad” and the left one “‘Ali”.

A Sunni Response


So, therefore, during the lengthy and somewhat ideologically antagonistic Fatimid rule, Sunni-Shi’ah conflicts were intensified more than ever before. Throughout the same epoch, furthermore, modeling Shi’ism in general, and Isma’ilism in particular, as a conglomerate ideology and a comprehensive system of thought was perfected. This, in turn, called for the total crystallization of the concept of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah and the establishment of its exact implications, contents and parameters in the midst of the rife and epidemic sectarianism with numerous protagonists involved. Bringing into the mix the nuisance of Mu’tazilah, obviously, the matter was becoming much like a tit-for-tat tactic, making many impending moves and designs rather predictable. It goes without saying, therefore, that the fall of the Fatimids – as well as the fall of the Buyids – came as a great relief to many Muslims. In their wake, efforts were doubled for the all-embracing explication, propagation and implementation of Sunnism whenever and wherever such was considered necessary and possible. The wounds caused by the Buyids and Fatimids needed a long time to heal, and so, no sooner had they gone than certain measures were taken lest similar tribulations should recur, at least not in a foreseeable future and with the same intensity and scope. Restoring Sunnism, both conceptually and functionally, topped the agenda of everyone concerned.

Thus, for example, it is said about the Ayyubids, who deposed and succeeded the Fatimids, that they embarked on vigorously strengthening Sunni Muslim dominance in the region by introducing into Egypt, Syria and Jerusalem the concept of madrasah. Madrasahs were constructed in all Ayyubid major cities. They functioned primarily as academies of religious sciences aiming to teach and promote Sunnism and to try to convert Shi’is and Christians to Sunni Islam.[1] The Ayyubids built scores of madrasahs in support of all four Sunni madhhabs, namely the Shafi’i, Hanafi, Maliki and Hanbali madhhabs. In the mid-7th AH / 13th CE century, which signified the final phase of the Ayyubid reign, some estimates suggest that in Damascus alone there were 40 Shafi’i, 34 Hanafi, 10 Hanbali, and three Maliki madrasahs.[2] Comparable, or slightly lower, figures, it stands to reason, existed in Cairo, Alexandria, Aleppo and Jerusalem as well. When the traveler Ibn Jubayr (d. 614 AH /1217 CE) was in Damascus in 580 AH / 1184 CE, which was the early phase of the Ayyubid dynasty under Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (Saladin), he commented that there were 20 madrasahs in the city and they all symbolized the pride of (Sunni) Islam.[3] Such was the intellectual climate under the Ayyubids that their rulers’ wives, sons and daughters, commanders and nobles established and financed numerous educational institutions as well. What was really unusual of the time — some accounts reveal — even some common people followed suit. In Egypt alone, about 18 madrasahs, including two medical institutions, were established by commoners.[4]

What is more, there were Ayyubid madrasahs wherein teaching was jointly conducted according to all four recognized madhhabs. Such madrasahs, surely, stood out as the most authentic Sunni establishments where mutual collaboration, acceptance and tolerance among the major Sunni sections and systems of thought were both preached and practiced. One of such madrasahs in Cairo was the Madrasah al-Salihiyyah which was founded by Sultan al-Malik al-Salih Najm al-Din Ayyub (d. 647 AH /1249 CE) in 641 AH / 1243 CE. Al-Maqrizi, while dwelling on this madrasah, observed that that was the first time in the history of Egypt that teaching was performed according to all four madhhabs at one place.[5] Truly, the age of the Ayyubids was the age of Sunni learning and its numerous institutions. Educational institutions were regarded as prestigious institutions in society. In the words of Abdul Ali, “an idea of their importance may be derived from the fact that it was not possible to get a job in the government for anyone who did not receive his education in a madrasah.”[6]

On the same note, Sunnis were increasingly resorting to idolizing their spiritual and intellectual leaders and heroes, and to architecturally glorify them. A culture of inventing and venerating “Sunni saints” was steadily creeping in. As an illustration, the grave of Shafi’i, at once the symbol and tower of strength of Islamic orthodoxy, became extremely popular for Sunnis in Egypt. Shafi’i’s saintly personality and remarkable spiritual and scholarly legacy were revered, by some even venerated, not only in Egypt, but also beyond throughout the Muslim world. This practice was further popularized by the fact that Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (Saladin), the victor over the Fatimids, founded a madrasah dedicated to the Shafi’i madhhab of the Islamic law near Shafi’i’s grave. Later, a mausoleum with a wooden dome over Shafi’i’s grave was erected in 608 AH /1211 CE by the fourth Ayyubid ruler al-Malik al-Kamil (d. 636 AH /1238 CE), whose grave, along with his mother’s, is also under this dome and a few steps away from Shafi’i’s grave. This “is the first officially sponsored mausoleum to be built for a Sunni theologian after the extinguishing of the Isma’ili Fatimids in 567 AH /1171 CE. It is also the largest detached mausoleum in Egypt. Paradoxically, the Fatimid practice of building domed mausoleums for ‘Alid (Shi’i) saints as a means of promoting their Shi’i agenda and gathering popular support for the Fatimid Imams was adopted by the same leaders who eradicated all signs of Shi’ism in Egypt. In fact, this mausoleum is regarded as the symbol of the triumph of orthodoxy over heterodoxy.”[7] Similarly, a mausoleum and madrasah in the name of Abu Hanifah, another symbol and pillar of strength of Islamic orthodoxy, were erected in Baghdad in 459 AH /1066 CE, approximately 11 years after the Sunni Saljuqs had retaken the ‘Abbasid capital from the Buyids.[8]

Surely, it was not by chance that during the Fatimid period, as well as that of the Buyids, some major works on elucidating, defending and rationalizing Sunnism and its creedal, jurisprudential and ethical beliefs and practices were composed. Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi, who was the first to officially use in academic circles the idiom ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah, died around 24 years after the establishment of the Fatimids in Ifriqiyah, and two years before the emergence of the Buyids.The science of heresiography was basically born during the same period in question. Some of the most celebrated heresiographers, such as Shahrastani (d. 548 AH/ 1153 CE) and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi, lived then. In the same vein, the most eminent speculative theologians, such as Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi, Abu Bakr al-Baqilani and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali also lived during the same critical era. It was thus natural for Abu Hamid al-Ghazali to compose a book against Isma’ilis and the Isma’ili doctrines entitled Fada’ih al-Batiniyyah (Ignominies of the Esoterics). The name of al-Mawardi (d. 450 AH /1058 CE), a jurist of the Shafi’i madhhab, could be mentioned here as well. His significance lies in the fact that he contributed a vital share in philosophically and jurisprudentially reasserting and shoring up the authority of the ‘Abbasid caliphs, and with it the legitimacy and authority of the caliphate as an institution, in the face of the unrelenting Shi’i menace. Al-Mawardi wrote a famous book called al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah (the Ordinances of Government). In it, an influential statement of Muslim (Sunni) political theory was made. Details were also furnished concerning the significance and functions of the caliphate government, which under the Buyids were rendered vague and indefinite. Lastly, that the sixth and final Sunni canonical hadith collection was completed just around the appearance of the Fatimids as a religious and political force ought to be mentioned, too, although such a feat took place in distant Khorosan. The last of the six hadith collectors was al-Nasa’i, who died in 303 AH /915 CE, six years after the Fatimids had established themselves as the overambitious rulers of Ifriqiyyah in 297 AH /909 CE.

Not even the fields of art and architecture were overlooked. After the departure of the Shi’ah nuisance from the scene, many purely religious buildings, erected especially by the Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottoman Turks, were meant to display a Sunni spirit and character. Those buildings often featured, as part of their rich decorative styles and strategies, Qur’anic verses where the Prophet’s companions are recognized and honored. The al-Fath or Victory chapter, or certain sections thereof, was often used for that purpose.[9] A wide genre of verses with general meanings pertaining to the importance of following the Prophet (pbuh) (the Sunnah), unity, cooperation and brotherhood (jama’ah) also featured prominently. Inscribing the names of the four rightly-guided caliphs, plus the names of several foremost companions of the Prophet (pbuh), in particular those most abused and insulted by Shi’is, such as Talhah and Zubayr, was very popular too, principally with the Ottoman Turks. Writing the names of ‘Ali’s sons: Hasan and Husayn, was likewise favored, thereby hinting at the Sunni position towards ahl al-bayt and at the essence of what we earlier called “Sunni Shi’ism”. Even some authentic hadiths (traditions) and those Qur’anic ayat or verses that either explicitly or implicitly refer to the theme of the excellence of ahl al-baytand how excellently they are to be treated, have occasionally been used for the purpose, like, for example in Cairo, in the funerary complex of Shafi’i, in the mosque cum mausoleum of Husayn whose grounds allegedly contain the head of Husayn b. ‘Ali, and in the mosque cum mausoleum of Sayyidah Nafisah who was the great-granddaughter of Hasan b. ‘Ali.Although the last two buildings were initially built by the Fatimids, as part of their booming funerary architecture meant for the members of ahl al-bayt, they were later fully embraced by Sunnis following the demise of the Fatimid caliphate, and were keenly restored and rebuilt several times by members of subsequent Sunni dynasties, especially by the Mamluks and Ottoman Turks. It stands to reason that the Ottoman Turks had an extra motivation for their actions of advocating “Sunni Shi’ism” because they every so often were engaged in military campaigns against Safavids who established the Ithna ʿAshariyyah Shi’ah branch as their official state religion. Some key Muslim territories, including the city of Baghdad, a couple of times exchanged hands between the two arguably most powerful Muslim empires of the day.

It is noteworthy that the Fatimids were also inclined to decorating their buildings with the same al-Fath or Victory Qur’anic surah or chapter. Each one of the al-Hakim, al-Azhar and al-Aqmar mosques features that chapter or some of its sections. However, the Fatimids had their own Shi’ism and Isma’ilism-loaded interpretations of the notions of victory (al-fath) and sahabah or the companions of the Prophet (pbuh). Needless to say that the victory meant the victory of Isma’ili Shi’ism in territories that at one point stretched from North Africa and Sicily to Palestine and Syria, as well as to Yemen and Hijaz, with the two holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, and hopefully one day elsewhere not only in the Muslim world but also in the world at large. That is why, in the same way, one of the gates of the Fatimid Cairo was called Bab al-Futuh or the Gate of victories, and another Bab al-Nasr or the Gate of (divine) help. Whereas the idea of the companions implied those companions of the Prophet (pbuh) who after the Prophet’s death stayed the course, did not deviate from the right path, nor became hypocrites or apostates, and did not let down those subsequent Shi’ah Imams whose contemporaries they became. For the same reason, on the face of it, the mosque of al-Hakim repeatedly used for its numerous stucco window grills these Qur’anic words as an informative decoration component: “And certainly We wrote in the Book after the reminder that (as for) the land, My righteous servants shall inherit it.” (Al-Anbiya’, 105). Parenthetically, as a small digression, the mosque of al-Azhar had a significant portion of the al-Fath chapter engraved twice on it: firstly inside a praying arcade as part of the Fatimid al-Azhar, and secondly on the outside facade of the ‘Abbasi riwaq and madrasah (1315 AH / 1898 CE) built as a part of the ever expanding Sunni al-Azhar as a social, political and educational center. This is yet another piece of evidence accentuating a segment of the perennial Sunni-Shi’ah struggle for one’s ideological legitimacy and supremacy at the expense of the other, and how, at times, similar ways and means were resorted to, albeit with different intensities, interpretations and ethos.

The complex of the Mamluki Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri (d. 922 AH / 1516 CE) could be taken as an interesting illustration. The complex contains a portion of the al-Fath or Victory Qur’anic surah or chapter both on the inside and outside facades of some of its component buildings. The complex likewise contains inside as well as outside a proclamation that in a way represents the core of the Sunni creed. The proclamation asserts the unity or tawhid of God, the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh), and then implores God to bless and protect the family of the Prophet (pbuh) (ahl al-bayt) and all of the Prophet’s companions (sahabah). The complex of al-Ghuri and its decorative aspects become all the more significant on account of its strategic location. The complex buildings flank the street of al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah, the main artery of the Fatimid Cairo. The complex is also in the vicinity of the al-Azhar mosque. It consists of a mosque-madrasah, a Sufi khanqah, a caravanserai, a mausoleum, a sabil (public fountain) and a kuttab (school for beginners). Similar assertions of Sunni faith – albeit only once – are found inside the madrasah of the Mamluki Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay (d. 842 AH / 1438 CE) as well, which lies just a stone’s throw away from the complex of al-Ghuri, on the western side of the al-Mu’izz Li-Dinillah street.

[1] Ayyubid Dynasty, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, (accessed November 30, 2013).

[2] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, (New Delhi: MD Publications PVT LTD, 1996), p. 39.

[3] Ibn Jubayr, Rihlah Ibn Jubayr, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), p. 221.

[4] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, p. 39.

[5] Al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah, vol. 4 p. 217.

[6] Abdul Ali, Islamic Dynasties of the Arab East, p. 39.

[7] Qubba al-Imam al-Shafi’i, (accessed November 30, 2013).

[8]Ibn Kathir, Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p.101.

[9] These are some examples of the buildings in old Cairo which make use of different portions of the al-Fath or victory chapter as an aspect of their decoration: the madrasah of Sultan al-Ashraf Barsbay, the complex of Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri, the funerary complex of Sultan Qaytbay, the mosque of Muhammad ‘Ali, the mosque cum mausoleum of Husayn b. ‘Ali, the mosque of Nasir b. Qalawun, the mosque of al-Azhar, the mosque of al-Amir al-Mas al-Hajib, the public fountain of Ummu ‘Abbas, and the mosque cum mausoleum of Sayyidah Sakinah.

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