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  The Return of the Fatimids

Thursday 26 March 2009

By Mshari Al-Zaydi



According to Colonel Gaddafi, who believes in establishing a United States of Africa, the only way to solve the problems of the Islamic nation is by bringing back the Fatimid Caliphate – a state of culture, art and development.

Gaddafi, who brought together a group of African heads of state and some Arab and non-Arab journalists in Mauritania last week on the occasion of Milad an Nabi, the Prophet’s Birthday, said, “Division plagued Islamic political history. The solution lies in reviving the Fatimid state that served as a foundation for the Islamic renaissance.”

The Libyan and African Union leader also spoke of other theories and said that coups and elections are not suitable for Islamic and Arab societies. But let us look at his theory regarding the Fatimid Caliphate.

Despite the Colonel’s acknowledgment that sectarianism and religious differences have destroyed the Islamic social fabric and Arab and Islamic unity, the question is: wouldn’t a new Fatimid state merely end up being another division in addition to those that already exist? That is if it is received well and transformed from being one of the Colonel’s ideas into a tangible cultural, intellectual, social and political reality.

Colonel Gaddafi informed us that “There is work being carried out by intellectuals, legislators, writers, journalists and members of the general public to reestablish the Fatimid state in North Africa and to eliminate any existing division in a peaceful manner.”

But what is it that will make these intellects succeed this time in changing social and cultural realities that have existed for hundreds of years? Do they have superpowers?

This fixation with the Fatimid state among Gaddafi and his comrades is nothing new; in fact, it coincided with the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution led by Khomeini and his Mullah companions back in 1979. Abdessalam Jalloud, a close friend and adviser to Gaddafi, visited Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution and welcomed and supported it. Jalloud said to the Mullahs in Iran: “We, in the Jamahiriya, are impressed by the Fatimid state, even though we are not Shia,” (Al Watan, June 1, 1979).

Anybody who knows Islamic history will know that the call for establishing a Fatimid state emerged from the city of Mahdia in Tunisia. Gawhar As-Siqqili, the Fatimid commander, entered Egypt and was followed by the Fatimid Caliph Al Moezz lih Din Allah. The Fatimid Caliphate ruled most of North Africa including Libya; however, it fell at the hands of Salahuddin al Ayyubi, who reestablished the Abbasid Caliph in 1171 AD.

The Fatimid Caliphate ruled North Africa including Egypt. This might account for Colonel Gaddafi’s attraction to this historical unified era. However, the current state of affairs is one thing, and ancient history is another.

According to the Sunni belief, the Fatimid Caliphate is an entity that deviated from Islam simply because it is a sub-state. Therefore, it would never have gained approval in the Sunni mindset, which makes up the majority of Muslims. Nevertheless, specialized historians, who are distant from any sectarianism, believe that the Fatimid Caliphate set excellent examples and served Egypt, especially regarding architecture. According to Islamic architecture historian, Zinat Al Baitar, who I met on the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair a few days ago, architecture and arts during the Egyptian Fatimid era have had a profound impact, which can be seen through the palaces of Druze princes in Lebanon. Fatimid architecture also had an impact on European buildings. In addition, we only need to look at Al Azhar mosque and others to see the influence of Fatimid architecture.

This, and other aspects of the Fatimid Caliphate, represents the bright side of that era. But we must not forget that a key reason for the fall of the Fatimid state was the doctrine that it followed that was rejected by most Sunnis. Consequently, when Salahuddin al Ayyubi entered Egypt, he eliminated all features of the Fatimid state and ever since, Egypt has represented a Sunni depth that has had a profound impact on the Islamic nation.

Calls to revive certain parts of Islamic history have little influence but are not completely devoid of influence. Our heritage contains many currents, sects and figures that could be utilized to create a legitimate, historical profoundness to some contemporary calls. But these calls must be handled with extreme care and should not be confused with fads. It is also important to look at the fate of similar calls that focused on breaking down the doctrinal infrastructure and the barriers of sectarianism between Muslims. Some sultans and figures that sought to create a new Islamic nation tried their luck but the results were disappointing.

The ambitious Shah of Iran, Nadir Shah, realized that Sunni-Shia contention was the main obstacle to expanding his Persian Empire and that the Ottoman Empire was not only depending on military power to spike Persian ambitions, but also on the spiritual and religious Sunni force. The Shah convened and supervised the famous Najaf conference in 1743 for reconciliation between the Sunnis and the Shia. Sunni and Shia scholars were summoned from Iraq and from outside Iraq as well. As a result of the conference, the Shia Jaafari school of thought was adopted. The name was derived from Imam Jaafar Sadiq in the same way that the main Sunni Islamic doctrines were named after Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafii and Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbali. The Shia, therefore, were considered a school of law attributed to Imam Jaafar Sadiq and a fifth school of law in Islam.

Unfortunately however, the results of this bold and early conference failed to have any effect on the social reality. Sectarian conflict and defamation continued to prevail. Perhaps one of the reasons for its failure was that the calls for reconciliation derived from political agendas for some ruler or another rather than from a genuine concern to make the concept of humanitarianism more important than anything else.

In our contemporary era, we have seen attempts to create a “religion of humanitarianism,” and to abolish all sectarian and religious differences that divide the members of one society and bring about religious hostilities between societies in general. It is sad that these divisions persisted.

Sectarianism is a chronic illness and it is spreading and becoming stronger among people of the same city or even village in Iraq, Lebanon, the Gulf states and Pakistan.

I believe that we have to get rid of the political “anti-sectarianism” call. We must return to the struggle of creating a new definition of citizenship to counter fanatic sectarianism. The bodies that should advocate humanitarianism and citizenship are the ministry of education and the media. Through education and media work, we would battle the roots of fanaticism. Then comes the role of politicians and others to purify this objective of the ruling authorities’ self-interests.

If we want to make our dream come true, let us focus on the concept of coexistence. We, the citizens of Arab and Islamic societies, are still far from reaching tolerance and citizenship. It would be enough if people realized that a Sunni can be a Sunni without having to fight or insult a Shia and that a Shia can be a Shia without having to insult or fight a Sunni. Are we really asking for too much? Coexistence isn’t a negative concept. Through coexistence, one learns how to listen to the other, who shares the same nationality and homeland as you, without seeing him as a member of a different sect. When we learn to look at each other in that way, vicious illusions will fade away.

At the end of the day, we are all the same. We share the same dreams and the same fears. We all want to give our children a good education, a healthy environment and somewhere safe to live. We have simple dreams and they deserve to be given our time rather than taking instructions from those who incite hatred.

We do not need to bring back the Fatimid state or the Ottoman Empire to recreate ourselves in this world. The return of history is an example of failure to see reality as it is, or perhaps even an example of a disheartening act of absurdity. 




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