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The Fatimid Caliphate: Contributions to Arts and Sciences

The Fatimid caliphate was an Islamic kingdom that stretched over North Africa from 909 AD to 1171 AD. The caliphate promulgated the Seveners (or Ismāʿīlism) branch of Shia Islam and its geography spread from the Red Sea (to the East) to the Atlantic Ocean (to the West). It covered a total area of 4,100,000 square kilometers. Its main currency was dinar.

In 969 AD, they founded a new capital “Cairo” by conquering Egypt, which later became a center for their political, religious and cultural activities of the empire. Common languages spoken were classical Arabic (dominant), Berber, Coptic and Judeo-Arabic.

The capitals of the dynasty were Raqqada from 909 AD- 921 AD, Mahdia from 921 AD-948 AD, Al-Mansuriya from 949 AD-973 AD and Cairo from 973 AD-1171 AD.

Abdullah-al Mahdi was the first caliph to establish the dynasty. He soon expanded his area from Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya. This caliph was then replaced by Al-Aim bi-Amr Allah, Al-Mansur Billah, Al-Mu’izz li-Din Allah, Al-Aziz bi Allah, Al-Hakim bi Amr-Allah, Al-Zahir li Izaz Di Allah, Al Mustansri bi llah, Al-Musta’li bi-llah, Al-Amir bi-Ahkam Allah, Al Hafiz, Al-Zafir, Al-Faiz and Al- Adid.

The Fatimid dynasty holds great significance in history and contributed to humanity’s intellectual and cultural evolution. They were extremely ambitious to build academic organizations and libraries. These caliphs encouraged scientific research and philosophy as well. Thereupon, they supported different scholars coming from fields of language, grammar, physics and chemistry.

Arts and jewelry

Cairo was a humungous center of decorative art such as pottery, rock-crystal ewers, metal work, glass, wood carvings and ivory. Government initiated the formation of textile factories, which then created the renowned Tiraz fabrics. The artwork of this empire serves an example of their creativity and brilliance. They originally developed the craft of lustre incised on ceramics and sometimes their craftsmen would mark art pieces with signs. Jewellery fashioning and making wooden sculptures were done with immense skill and creativity. The structures featured geometric designs, vegetation, animals as well human figural forms. They were high-spirited when it came down to maintaining their true essence.

Architectures (Mosques)

The mosques exemplified their Islamic traditions and were significant centres for various activities such as religious, social, political, intellectual and judicial. The Al-Azhar mosque built in the city of Cairo in 969-73 AD, was one of the powerful symbols of Fatimid’s legacy and held divine importance. The mosque of Al-Hakim built in 997-1021 AD, played an important role in performing Islamic rituals and processions.  The Al-Aqmar mosque built in 1125 AD, was a wonderful landmark of that era. It has beautiful inscriptions carved in stone and is an excellent example of architectural skills and decorations.

Learning (Madrasas and Libraries)

The Fatimids collected outstanding libraries encompassing more than million books. The caliphs significantly supported scientific activities and research by building huge public libraries.

Madrasa Dar-al-Ilm (House of Knowledge) founded in 1139 AD served as a centre of education and attracted Muslims who sought knowledge worldwide. It was a profound ground to learn many subjects. The Fatimid libraries owned a very rare collection. They had a precise arrangement of keeping the books in subject-wise categories for easy recognition.

The Old Hospital Library had more than 200,000 books on grammar, hadiths, astrology, chemistry, astronomy, history and spirituality. And, it was observed as one of the wonders of world.

The Al-Azhar library was the most dynamic institution in 1123 AD with treasures such as 200,000 manuscripts and 2,400 bright copies of Holy Quran. It had books of humanities, science, literature and religion. It also had hand-written manuscripts of master Calligrapher Ibn Muglah and many others. Most importantly, it had an autographed history copy of famous historian Al Tabbari. The entry and access to all these books in the libraries were free.

Astronomy and Astrology

The Fatimids achieved great accomplishments in astronomy and building enormous astronomical towers such as Al-Jayush, built in Cairo and Al-Ma-mun. In 1006, a Muslim astronomer named Ali bin Radwan saw a supernova and wrote a book about his detailed observations. This book was translated again into Latin and is considered as an essential reference in Europe.

A great mathematician Ibn Yunis Al Misri built a watchtower “Al-Muqattam” to observe sun and many other planets. Al-Hasan bin Al-Haytham, a famous person in astronomy, is known to be the real inventor of modern optics. The Fatimid caliphs were very much interested in astrology also. They believed that this information about planets’ orbits and its various effects would be very beneficial.

Most of the Muslims in this era, translated prior works and books of astronomy from Greek, Roman and Persian languages. Which later, became very useful to European countries as the original ones were lost. In addition to this, they also corrected errors in these books and added some more discoveries. The approach of the Muslims was more inductive in a way, rather than theoretical. They basically found out the difference between astronomy and astrology.

Military structure

The Fatimid military structure mainly consisted of men from the Kutama Berber tribe. Later other North African groups were also added into it, by the time of the conquest of Egypt. At the time of Al-Hakim bi Amr Allah and Abu Mansur Nizar Al-Aziz Billah reign, a large amount of Turkman’s and black Africans were added to the troop because of insufficient numbers of military men. The Fatimid military system was extremely defensive and during the wars the whole military power would strongly defend the empire, especially during the ruling of Al-Muizz.

 Missionary Movements

1) The Dawat movement:

This movement was the backbone of Fatimid state, enabling it to expand rapidly into an empire. It is based on Islamic beliefs and was coordinated as a branch of the administration having its own operation, format and order. It was guided by a chief missionary but the power to rule the empire rested with the main Caliph. The main responsibility of Dawat was to systematically specify the Islamic beliefs for the public and to get their full loyalty to the Fatimid cause. But this was not enough, so they appointed highly knowledgeable and trained preachers to different areas. The Da’is were trained to further approach the new converts and properly guide them.

2) The Druze Movement

By the efforts of the Dawat movement, the Fatimid authority began to expand and this made them biggest rivals of existing monarchs such as the Abbasids and the Seljuks. Later it was badly affected by droughts and there were also disputes among the army. In 1021 AD, after the death of Imam Al-Hakim, a troop of people left the Dawat movement but remained faithful to Imam Al-Hakim’s memories and this was the beginning of the Druze Movement.

3) The Musta’li section

In 1094 AD, after the death of Imam Al-Mustansir, there was a serious clash between his two sons. The elder one, Nizar, was supported by Ismailis and was nominated as their heir in the parts of Syria and Iran, while the younger one Al-Musta’li may have been appointed new Imam by his father on his deathbed. Al Musta’li was nominated by Ismailis as their heir in the Sind, Yemen and Egypt. These groups were known as Nizari Ismaili’s and Al-Musta’li Ismaili’s, respectively. Both of them shared a common Fatimid culture but their histories and expansion went in separate directions. This division disintegrated the rule of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt.

Medical Research

During that era, there was a common belief in the Western church that a disease was punishment from God and they rejected the medical system. At that time, Islamic science was considered innovative and they started an analytical method of treatment.

The caliphate rediscovered the medical disciplines of ancient and classical Egypt and added to it. There were some great Muslim doctors who practiced frequent surgeries for various conditions and even established hospitals.

The Fatimid era saw a huge medical revolution and it became one of the main hubs for doctors all across the world for researching work. Al Razi and Ibn Sina were very known doctors and they taught at Islamic medical institutions for a long period of time. The Fatimids had surgeons, gynaecologists, ophthalmologists and cupping specialists.

Decline

After the death of last powerful Imam Al-Amir (1102-1130), the Arab Ismaili’s and Ismaili’s around the Indian Ocean coasts rejected Al-Musta’li as their ruler because he was very young. There was a separation between the Ismaili’s and the state people.  The base of Fatimids Caliphs establishment was to spread Islamic ideology but without any support of its community followers, it crumbled down. Al-Afdal, a strong leader, again claimed Islamic authority over the world but the influence of the Fatimid caliphate over the Muslim world was cut short in 1171 AD by Saladin, of the Sunni Ayyubid dynasty.

Conclusion

The Fatimids Caliphs era was one of the most outstanding historical periods due to its many cultural, architectural and scientific achievements. They had a significant contribution in astrology and astronomy. They found many well-proofed astronomical theories and built many observatories. The Fatimids physicians introduced many medicinal herbs and drugs to the world. They renovated and built several hospitals for medical and research purposes. Fatimids were ambitious supporters of scientific research and fellowships. The Caliphs considered mosques as a principal institution to support Islamic notions and encouraged intelligence. They also had a special interest in literature and languages. That’s why, they built schools, institutions, libraries and also owned a huge collection of books.

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