Al-Hakim Bi-Amr-Illah Abu ‘Ali Mansur


This son of Caliph al-‘Aziz came to the throne on the last day of Ramadan 386/October 996. At first, one of his brothers, Muhammad, had been chosen as heir, but he died before his father. Since the new caliph was so young (born in 986), the Berber Kutamah chief, al-Hasan ibn ‘Ammar, acted as regent. But the Turks, who represented an equally strong section of the army, were dissatisfied with the preferment given to the Berbers. Hence fighting broke out between the different factions, which resulted in the removal of Ibn ‘Ammar and his replacement by the Turk Barjawan in 997.

From the year 1000 onward, al-Hakim himself exercised power, inaugurating his government by killing Ibn ‘Ammar and, a few months later, Barjawan. For the next twenty years, his immediate collaborators, outstanding personalities of the kingdom, and the Egyptian people, in general, were at the mercy of al-Hakim’s changing moods. A series of orders and unexpected, often contradictory, prohibitions came from the palace and had to be carried out without delay or question. High officials, suddenly promoted in rank and loaded with honors and gifts, were disgraced and beheaded a few weeks later. Here we can only give a brief list of these tyrannical measures, treating the caliph’s behavior toward the Christians separately.

In 1004 came prohibition against eating certain green vegetables, such as mulukhiyyah (because Caliph Mu‘awiya liked it); jirjir or rocket salad (perhaps in memory of ‘A’isha, the wife of the prophet Muhammad); mutawakkiliyyah (because Caliph al-Mutawakkil was a Sunni and al-Hakim was a Shiite Muslim); and fish without scales. It was likewise forbidden to drink fuqqa‘ (a drink made of barley that ‘Al detested). It was prohibited to go out after sunset. An order was given to kill all the dogs in Cairo. The traditional celebrations for the Feast of Sacrifices were forbidden. Mourning observed on the day of ‘Ashura’ was forbidden. It was also forbidden to kiss the ground or the caliph’s hand, because this gesture implied shirk (blasphemy) and formed part of ceremonial.

It was prohibited to practice astrology.

Some decisions were part of Fatimid propaganda, such as the multiplication of insulting inscriptions against the first caliphs inside and outside mosques and in other public places. Two years later al-Hakim put an end to this activity and supervised the suppression of these offensive posters himself.

It seems, however, that certain orders were not obeyed, or that they were carried out for short periods only since they were often repeated. Examples are the prohibition for women to go out and the obligation to wear a mi’zar (wrapper) in public baths.

Such behavior sometimes produced tragicomic situations, but often real nightmares, and created around the caliph an atmosphere of terror mentioned by the historians. It is certain that the master with a single word exercised the power of life and death over his subjects. Although it is difficult to give the precise number of executions ordered by al-Hakim, it is possible to state that they were numerous. Historians have mentioned mainly those of important persons. For one year Maqrizi has an incomplete list of twenty-four names and for the following year he speaks of the “execution of more than a hundred persons.” Thus, most of the viziers and chief qadis, as well as a large number of other officials, were assassinated. Others lost one hand or both hands, as happened to ‘Ali al-Jarjara’i.

Besides his odd behavior, what were the outstanding events of the caliph’s reign? Strange to say, al-Hakim’s tyrannical rule does not seem to have been threatened seriously, except for the undertaking of the Andalusian al-Walid ibn Hisham, called Abu Rakwah, who allied with the Zanata and the Banu Qurrah of Barqah to attempt the conquest of Egypt. After threatening the population, he was finally overcome, taken prisoner and executed amidst popular rejoicing (1007). Likewise, the pretentions of the Sharif of Mecca, al-Hasan ibn Ja‘far, allied to the powerful tribe of the Banu al-Jarrah, never endangered al-Hakim’s authority.

From 1017 onward, an idea spread that the caliph was divine. This idea could have originated with al-Hakim himself or he could have left those who preached his divinity at liberty to do so. It is certain that several persons appeared in Cairo at this time announcing a new era, among them Hasan ibn Haydarah al-Akhram, who was killed but was buried wrapped in the palace shroud. Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-Darazi and Hamzah ibn ‘Ali al-Zawzani, whose conduct caused an insurrection in a district of Old Cairo and among the Turkish soldiers, managed to escape under al-Hakim’s protection. Then the caliph took revenge by loosing his bodyguard on Old Cairo, where they looted, pillaged, and burned as they liked.

Al-Hakim’s sister, Sitt al-Mulk, realized that her brother’s excesses risked bringing the Fatimid family to ruin. Already disturbed by the naming of a distant cousin, ‘Abd al-Rahim Ilyas, as heir to the throne, she decided to take action when the caliph menaced her personally on the basis of suspicions about her private life. Sources here are contradictory, but it seems likely that Sitt al- Mulk conspired with the chief of the Kutamah to bring about the murder of her brother. He disappeared during one of his customary night walks in the Muqattam hills in 1021.

It is not easy to understand al-Hakim’s personality or to explain his behavior. It would be too simple to suppose he was insane. His varying moods, his change of tastes, sometimes for luxury and then for asceticism, his frequent night walks, and his insomnia, all seem to point to a nervous temperament. Perhaps in his adolescence, this had been exacerbated by the contemptuous way he was treated by his tutors, Ibn ‘Ammar and above all Barjawan. Our sources for the study of this caliph are almost exclusively Sunni or non-Muslim. Even these authors are often nuanced in their judgment of al-Hakim, noting his generosity, for justice, disinterestedness, and the favorable way he received complaints. But these attitudes, worthy of a model monarch, were succeeded by fits of incomprehensible cruelty. Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa‘ compares him to a “rearing lion in search of a prey,” echoing Ibn Zafir’s judgment that he “was in the midst of men like a savage lion.” Ibn Zafir also notes that “he was very careful to find out details on the life of each person: nothing that any of his servants or his subjects did, whether men or women, was ignored.”

In his more anxious periods, al-Hakim had resorted to astrologers. It is well known that he favored certain extremists such as Hamza al-Zawzani and Muhammad al-Darazi, who openly preached his divinity. This attitude is not as novel as it would seem since it was fully within the framework of the Ismaili doctrine professed by the Fatimids. In the Ismaili system, the imam is the incarnation of the universal intellect, which receives attributes that, in Sunni Islam, are reserved to God alone; for the Ismailis, however, God has no attributes. The first Fatimid caliph, ‘Ubaydallah al- Mahdi, let the poet proclaim when speaking of the caliph’s residence in Raqqadah, “There the divinity resides, decorated with his high attributes.” And al-Mu‘izz even accepted Ibn Hani’ al-Andalusi’s bold verses, “Thou art the light and all other light is darkness . . . . What thou wilt happens . . . . Thou art the unique, the irresistible.”

Without wishing to exculpate al-Hakim of his tragic and undeniable excesses, we have to recognize that hyperbole was common in the Fatimid entourage, which made its significance relative.

We have relatively precise information on the relationship between the caliph and the Christians, especially the Copts. In this matter, we must distinguish different groups.

Palace officials and more or less close collaborators of the caliph. The chroniclers have recorded the names of a number of Copts who often held very important posts in the central administration, especially at the head of the divans. It is likely that there were many more since the head of a divan tended to choose his subordinates and colleagues among his fellow religionists. These important functionaries do not seem to have been treated otherwise than their Muslim colleagues. They too had to put up with al- Hakim’s moods. ‘Isa ibn Nasturus, who had acted as vizier under al-‘Aziz, continued for a few months under the new caliph, but he was removed from office and beheaded in 997. A few months later the post was given to another Christian, ABU AL-‘ALA’ FAHD IBN IBRAHIM, who died by assassination. A short time afterward the same fate befell his brother, Abu al-Ghalib, who was head of Diwan al-Nafaqat.

One of ‘Isa ibn Nasturus’ sons, Abu al-Khayr Zur‘ah, acted as vizier for two years, from August 1010 to September 1012. He died a natural death while still in office, and it is said that al-Hakim regretted being unable to put him to death as he had planned. Another of ‘Isa’s sons, Sa‘id, was also vizier for a short period. He was appointed in 1018 and dismissed four months later and executed. Three of Zur‘ah’s brothers also occupied important positions in the diwans. Abu Mansur Bishr ibn ‘Abdallah ibn Surin, secretary to the Diwan al-Insha’, who transcribed the caliph’s orders, seems to have given complete satisfaction, since he remained in office until his natural death in October 1009. We also know of two of al-Hakim’s doctors who were Christians: Yaq‘ub ibn Nastas and Abu al-Fath Mansur ibn Sahlan, who intervened with the caliph to obtain the liberation of the Coptic officials who had been imprisoned after the of the vizier Fahd ibn Ibrahim.

Security measures. Many security measures decreed by al-Hakim concerned Jews and Christians and were particularly irksome. In October 1004, an edict was read in the mosques obliging Jews and Christians to wear black clothes and to carry special badges (particularly the zunnar, a servant’s belt). Later, Christians were obliged to wear a wooden cross around their necks, and they were forbidden to ride horseback, having to be satisfied with mules or donkeys. They were to use undecorated wooden saddles. In addition, they were not allowed to have a Muslim as a servant. It seems that these discriminatory measures caused many Copts to become Muslims.

The Christians were ordered to keep their cross on even in the hammam or public bath (the Jews wore a small bell). Al-Hakim allowed those Christians who wished to do so to leave Egypt for a territory or Nubia. It seems that many Christians preferred to go into exile rather than put up with these annoyances.

Christian worship. In 1007, the Copts were prevented from decorating and illuminating their churches for Palm Sunday. There were imprisonments and many crosses were burned in front of the mosques. Three years later, it was forbidden to celebrate the Ghitas (Epiphany), a feast that included illuminating the streets and bathing in the Nile at nightfall. This prohibition had already been made by the caliph al-‘Aziz, who forbade celebrations on that day. In 1011 the feast of the Holy Cross (17 Tut) was forbidden.

Taken separately, these decisions do not necessarily mean an anti-Christian attitude on the part of the caliph, for at the same time he had forbidden public festivities for the feast of Sacrifices and the mourning of ‘Ashura’. Other measures, however, were clearly directed against Christians, for example, the destroying of churches and replacing them with mosques. In 1005 the Rashida mosque was built in place of a new church that had been built without the caliph’s permission. The year 1008 was marked by the destruction of many churches, beginning with that of the in Jerusalem, which al-Hakim ordered to be completely destroyed.

In 1010 the Melchite monastery of al-Qasir (near Cairo) was destroyed and its cemetery profaned. Finally, in 1013-1014, numerous convents and churches met with the same fate. It would be difficult to make an even approximate guess as to the number of buildings destroyed, but it seems there were many. The caliph ordered the confiscation of church property and the transfer of their administration to the financial divan.

One disconcerting point in al-Hakim’s treatment of the Copts was that his own mother was a Christian. This woman was not without influence on the caliph al-‘Aziz, since she had two of her brothers appointed to high positions in the ecclesiastical hierarchy: one, Aristis, patriarch of Jerusalem; the other, Arsenius, Metropolitan of Alexandria. Arsenius was one of al-Hakim’s victims, while Aristis was imprisoned.

From 1014 on, the anti-Christian persecution slackened. According to some sources, it ceased completely.

Generally speaking, Muslim historians condemn these anti- Christian decrees, above all because they caused many Copts to become Muslims without being truly converted. When the authorities became more favorable to non-Muslims, many of these Copts reverted to Christianity and were considered by the Muslims to be guilty of apostasy.

Relations with the Byzantines. Relations with the Byzantines remained tense as in the times of al-‘Aziz. Early in the reign, Barjawan obtained a few military successes, such as the victory of Tyre and the taking of Apame. He then sent an embassy to the emperor Basil II, in which Aristis of took part. The exchanges produced a truce in 1001 that was supposed to last ten years. The treaty required greater liberty for Christians in the Fatimid territories, especially the permission to rebuild their churches, and to supply wheat for Egypt. But very soon the treaty was broken on account of al-Hakim’s persecution and above all the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.


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