FATIMIDS


FATIMIDS, Shi'ite Muslim dynasty which ruled in *Egypt (969–1171), and in other parts of North Africa (*Tunisia, 909–1051), and the Near East (*Syria, 969–1076 and *Palestine, 969–1099). The Fatimids traced their ancestry to Fāṭima, the daughter of Muhammad, and ʿAlī, her husband, who, in their opinion, was his only rightful successor. The Jews enjoyed a reasonable degree of tolerance, security, and prosperity during their reign.

The establishment of the Fatimid dynasty resulted from the efforts of the Ismāʿīli branch of the Shi'a, which sought to restore the caliphate to the direct descendants of the Prophet and to reconcile Islamic religion, based on divine revelation, with Greek philosophy, in order that the ideas of other religions could merge with their own. Hence, the members of this Islamic sect were inclined to be tolerant. Their liberal attitude toward non-Muslim subjects also stemmed from the fact that the great majority of their Muslim subjects remained faithful to orthodox Sunni Islam and hostile to the Shi'ite caliphs who therefore were forced to appoint Christian and Jewish intellectuals as officials and ministers. Christians could build new churches without difficulty and celebrate their holidays with solemn processions, sometimes attended by the caliphs themselves. The second Fatimid caliph of Egypt, al-ʿAzīz (975–996), appointed two brothers of his Christian wife to the posts of patriarch of *Jerusalem and *Alexandria respectively. While Jews did not attain such exalted positions, they mostly enjoyed religious freedom and their civil rights were not curtailed. Usually the authorities did not enforce the repressive laws of the Covenant of *Omar, which demanded that distinctive signs be worn by non-Muslims, and the duties of Jewish merchants were less than those required by Islamic law. Recent research on *genizah documents has revealed considerable data on non-Jews, some from Christian countries, who went to Egypt in the 11th century in order to convert to Judaism (see N. Golb, in Sefunot, 8 (1964), 85ff.; E. Ashtor, in Zion, 30 (1965), 69ff.)

The third caliph, al-Ḥākim (996–1020), however, persecuted non-Muslims during the latter part of his reign. In 1012, he took decisive action to humiliate non-Muslims and segregate them from the "true believers" – the two aims of the Covenant of Omar. Jews and Christians were forbidden to ride horses and to keep Muslim servants. Christian sources indicate that many churches were destroyed, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Many Christians and some Jews embraced Islam or left the country to escape the persecutions. Al-Ḥākim's measures served as the model for Muslim zealots in the future. His successor al-Ẓāhir (1020–34) and the later Fatimids returned to the traditional policy of tolerance. But genizah documents show that on occasion Jews were vic-tims of the hatred of viziers and other dignitaries. Some were Christians who attempted to harass the Jews and bring about their dismissal from government posts. The Jewish officials, called sar ("commander") in Hebrew documents, protected their coreligionists, appointed them to various posts, and gave them government commissariat orders. They never rose to the position of vizier, as some Christians did, but some held important posts at court, thus enhancing the social standing of the community. The first of these dignitaries was the Jewish court physician of Caliph al-Muʿizz, the first Fatimid of Egypt. Some scholars have identified him with the general Jawhar or with Yaʿqūb *Ibn Killis, a Jewish convert to Islam, who became vizier in Cairo. However, B. *Lewis has proved that the Italian Jew Paltiel of Oria who appears in Megillat Aḥima'aẓ was Mūsā b. Eleazar, the court physician of al-Muʿizz. In about 994, Manasseh b. Ibrāhīm al-Qazzāz, praised as a benefactor of Syrian Jewry in Hebrew poems found in the genizah, became head of the administration in Syria when the Christian ʿĪsā b. Nestorius was appointed vizier of the caliph al-ʿAzīz. The brothers Abū Saʿd and Abū Naṣr (Hebr. Abraham and Ḥesed) b. Sahl (Yashar; possibly Karaites) who were merchants from *Tustar, southwestern Persia, and influential at the court in *Cairo in the second quarter of the 11th century, were murdered in 1047. In the early 12th century, the Jew Abu al-Munajjā Shaʿyā, chief minister of agriculture, ordered the digging of a canal which still bears his name.

For various reasons, the economic policy of the Fatimids was very advantageous for the Jews. The caliphs' interest in increasing trade between Egypt and other countries stemmed partly from a belief that they could thus win converts to their religious persuasion. They succeeded in diverting the trade between India and the Near East from the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea which became the main artery of a great international trade. Many Jewish merchants, of varying degrees of wealth, participated in the India trade, as the Fatimids neither created monopolies nor harassed small merchants and industrialists in other ways in the manner of other Muslim rulers.

The Jewish communities of Egypt and Syria were headed by a nagid, who was appointed by the Fatimid caliph (see *Nagid).

Medieval Jewish tradition ascribes the creation of this position to the Fatimids' desire to remove the influence of the *exilarch on Egyptian Jewry. This view has been accepted by modern scholars. S.D. *Goitein, however, holds that the office of the nagid developed independent of the aspirations and the policies of the Fatimids. Apparently the first of the negidim was Paltiel of Oria. Later on other court physicians held this post, including Judah b. Saadiah (1065–79), his brother Mevorakh (1079–1110), and *Samuel b. Hananiah (c. 1140–59).

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Mann, Egypt; Fischel, Islam, 44ff.; S.D. Goitein, A Mediterranean Society, 1 (1967), index; idem, in: JQR, 53 (1962/63), 117ff.; E. Ashtor, in: Zion, 30 (1965), 143ff.; B. Lewis, in: Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 30 (1967), 177–81. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: M. Gil, A History of Palestine (6341099) (1992); M.R. Cohen, Jewish Self-Government in Medieval Egypt (1980).

[Eliyahu Ashtor]


Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.