The Muslims of Medieval Italy

By Alex Metcalfe | Go to book overview

3
Fatimid rule in Sicily

The Fatimid regime in Ifrīqiya and Sicily

In sharp contrast to the Aghlabids or, indeed, to any Sunnī Muslim regime, the revolutionary Fatimid dynasty pressed a claim to both worldly and spiritual authority drawn from a line of imāms descended from the Prophet Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib. They came to be called after Alī’s wife, Fāṭima, although some Arabic sources preferred the appellation of ‘the ‘Ubaydiyyūn’, or followers of the Mahdī, ‘Ubayd Allāh (more correctly, Abd Allāh). Otherwise, they are generally referred to as Shī’a, being followers of the shī, at ‘Alī or ‘faction of Alī’. The Fatimids were Ism’ īlī-s, deriving their more immediate lineage from Ismā’ īl, the son of the Sixth Imām, Ja’far al-Ṣādiq (d. 765), hence also their designation as ‘Seveners’. The majority of later Sunnī sources speak of the Fatimids from a standpoint of politico-religious hostility. Rare, contemporary works, such as those of the Fatimid qāḍī, al-Nu’mān; the memoirs of the eunuch administrator, al-Ustādh Jawdhar and the Cairo Geniza documents of Jewish merchants thus serve as an important counterbalance.1

The obscure circumstances of the Fatimids’ rise in Syria and their links to other non-orthodox movements of the 800s and 900s need not be explored here. Suffice to note that their ‘missionary’ (dā’ī), Abū Abd Allāh, was operating in Ifrīqiya from the summer of 893, and won the backing of the Kutāma Berbers in the hills of the Lesser Kabylia in eastern Algeria. To these tribesmen, the appeal of the messianic figure of the Mahdī carried more weight than any wider ideological opposition of the aspiring imāmate to the SunnīAbbasid caliph in Baghdad. Kutāma support was not only central to the Fatimids’ initial success in Ifrīqiya in 909, but also to their continued success in Egypt to where both they and the imām-caliph transferred after its conquest in 969. However, in Sicily, their privileged status and military roles marked them out as potential rivals to the old Aghlabid jund.

Fatimid Ismā’ īlī doctrine was not for the masses: on the contrary, it was open only to a select few. Very little can be said about Fatimid recruitment in Sicily itself, but a brief and lacunose entry in the Cambridge Chronicle for the year 960–1 recorded that Sicilian notables (wujūh al-Ṣiqilliyyīn) were taken to Ifrīqiya

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