World History 1 205 - 13.2.2 The Fatimid Caliphate and the Seljuk Sultanate

The Abbasids had overthrown the Umayyads with support from non-Arabs who felt cheated of the spoils of conquest, and from Shia Muslims who were opposed to the Umayyads for religious and political reasons. The Abbasids then worked to address the grievances held by different sections of Islamic society. Despite their best efforts, however, the size and complexity of the empire and the various political, ethnic, and religious tensions within it blunted the caliphs’ effectiveness. Power often rested in the hands of local governors, who exploited regional tensions or weaknesses to establish their own dynasties and even their own rival caliphates, as in Al-Andalus. In Persia and on the eastern frontiers, dynasties close to Baghdad threatened the Abbasids themselves.

This process of political devolution became critical in the rise of rivals who seized Abbasid territory. Muslim factions also sought to wrest power from the caliphs or replace them altogether. Two of the most important rivals for control were the Fatimids and the Seljuk Turks.

The Fatimid Caliphate

Observing the challenges the Abbasids faced on the eastern frontier, and the success of the Umayyad Caliphate in Spain, the early tenth-century Shia leader Abu Muhammad Abdullah declared himself the proper leader of the Shia and successor to Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali. Not all Shia agreed; Abdullah’s claims to be descended from Ali were questionable. His leadership and charisma, however, along with the support of dedicated Amazigh soldiers, helped him establish the first and only Shia caliphate in North Africa in 910, which challenged the political power of the Abbasids and their religious influence.

The state Abu Muhammad Abdullah established is called the Fatimid Caliphate because his dynasty claimed descent through Ali’s wife and the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima. The Fatimid caliphs also claimed to be imams, Shia with spiritual authority over Muslims, based on either their biological descent from Ali or their manifestation of God’s will on earth. In 969, the Fatimids conquered Egypt, which became the center of a powerful state that controlled most of North Africa. Then they began to threaten the Abbasid heartland by taking Syria and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, including the holy city of Mecca (Figure 13.12).

A map of the northern portion of Africa is shown with the Mediterranean Sea highlighted blue to the north as well as the country of Syria to the east. The Red Sea is labelled between Egypt and Syria. Unlabeled land highlighted beige lies north of the Mediterranean Sea and Syria, and the Atlantic Ocean is highlighted blue in the western portion of the map. An area highlighted pink runs along the Mediterranean coast in north Africa, highlights the country of Egypt, and highlights the western slice of Syria along the Red Sea. It is labelled “Fatimid Caliphate.” An area in northwestern Africa is labelled “Maghreb, with some of it highlighted beige and some highlighted pink. The Nile River is labelled in Egypt as well as the city of Cairo. Mecca is labelled on the east side of the Red Sea in the lower right of the map.
Figure 13.12 The tenth-century Fatimid Caliphate (in pink) was based in North Africa with its capital of Cairo in Egypt, but it managed to take control of the holy city of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Shia believed their caliphs held not just secular authority but also spiritual power and insight as imams. This concept was different from the Abbasid view in which the caliph was meant to lead the faithful but was not a spiritual guide. Thus, in the Fatimid Caliphate, the ruler’s religious view could lead to arbitrary (or eccentric) leadership. For example, Abu Muhammad Abdallah encouraged the Fatimid concept of caliph by taking the title of al-Mahdi, denoting an apocalyptic figure who would vanquish evil and usher in the end of time. Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah intensified preaching against the Sunnis and instituted restrictive measures on Christians and Jewish people. Rumors persisted that he considered himself divine, and his sudden disappearance at age thirty-five added to his religious mystique. Despite their religious view of the caliph, the Shi‘ites were tolerant of other faiths, and Christians and Jewish people occupied important administrative posts (Figure 13.13).

An image of a round gold coin is shown. The coin is uneven around the edges. Script is seen around the perimeter of the coin with raised writing. Inside the middle are six lines of script and long lines with raised writing.
Figure 13.13 This tenth-century gold coin from the rule of Abu Muhammad Abdullah was issued under his royal name of al-Mahdi. Coins were an important way of ensuring his subjects understood his claims to spiritual authority. (credit: “Calif al Mahdi Kairouan 912 CE” by “PHGCOM”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

As a powerful state and religious rival, the Fatimid Caliphate posed an existential threat to the Abbasids. Seeing how powerless the Abbasids were to prevent the loss of North Africa, the Umayyad emir of Al-Andalus declared himself to be caliph of a third state, the Caliphate of Cordoba.

The Seljuk Empire

The devolution of Abbasid authority under the Fatimids and the Umayyads at Cordoba is striking because both dynasties had rival claimants to the title of caliph, and the Fatimids established a state that threatened Sunni Islam. This breakdown of central authority was not limited to distant regions, however. By the late ninth century, the Abbasids permitted, or were forced to accept, the establishment of emirs within their territory. A dynasty called the Samanids controlled the regions of eastern Persia called Khorasan and Transoxiana, and the Buyid dynasty took control of Abbasid territories in Persia and Mesopotamia in the early tenth century. Although they did not claim the title of caliph for themselves, they paid only minimal homage to the Abbasid state and forced its rulers to recognize their independent authority. The dynasty that benefited most from this chaos was an outside group called the Seljuks.

The Seljuk Turks were a branch of the Oghuz Turks, a confederation of Turkic clans. These seminomadic clans could form larger confederations or leave them at will, a type of organization much like that of the Mongols. The Oghuz had migrated from central Asia after surviving conflicts with other Turkic confederations in the eighth century and displacing various pastoral groups. Like many steppe peoples, they practiced a polytheistic religion, with a hierarchy of gods and spirits headed by Tengri the sky god. Specialists called shamans were believed to possess powers to negotiate for favor and fortune with these deities.

The initial contact between the Oghuz and the world of Islam was not peaceful. Raids between the two became the source of enslaved men who served the Abbasids as mamluks. The Seljuk dynasty is named for the clan leader Saljuq, who moved south from the Oghuz state in the tenth century and came into contact, often violent, with other Turkic peoples and Abbasid emirs. The leaders of the Seljuks converted to Islam, a development that may have been a source of conflict with the Oghuz but drew them into the orbit of the Abbasids. Under leaders like Tughril, they began to establish their own state within and beyond the Abbasid domains in the eleventh century. They drove off other Turkic peoples in Afghanistan, pushing them toward India. They fought successfully against the Byzantine Empire and some of its client states, especially the Kingdom of Georgia. Under Alp Arslan, they seized Anatolia from the Byzantines and posed an existential threat to Constantinople. By the middle of the eleventh century, the Seljuks had created an empire through conquest that extended from India to the Mediterranean (Figure 13.14).

A map of land highlighted beige and water highlighted blue is shown. The Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea, Aydar Kul, Ysyk-Kol, the Syr Darya River, and the Anu Daryu River are labelled in the north. The Aegean Sea, the Sea of Marmara, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Dead Sea are highlighted in the west while the Nile River, Lake Nasser, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf), the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman, and the Arabian Sea are labelled in the south. In the middle of the map Van Golu (Lake Van), the Tigris River, and the Euphrates River are labelled. In the eastern part of the map the Indus River, the Chenab River, the Sutlej River, and the Helmand River are labelled. In the northeastern section of the map an oval area is highlighted light green with no label. A large area of the map from the Aegean Sea in the west to east of the Caspian Sea, south to the Persian Gulf (Arabian Gulf) and along the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea is highlighted green and labelled “Seljuk Empire.” Within this area are three sections, from west to east, labelled: Constantinople, Manzikert, and Baghdad. An area west of the Red Sea is labelled “Cairo” and another one labelled “The Fatimid dynasty.” At the southeastern portion of the Red Sea an area is labelled “Mecca.”
Figure 13.14 The Seljuk Empire (in green) extended from India to Anatolia, taking territory away from the Byzantine Empire and ruling over Persia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and much of Anatolia." (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

The Seljuk leaders did not take the title of caliph from the Abbasids but instead adopted the name sultan, meaning “the authority.” Because they were new converts to Islam who were not Arabs and had no connection to the family of Muhammad, the title of caliph seemed out of their reach. They acknowledged the position of the caliph, but real authority was in their own hands. Eager to show their zeal by fighting against Christians and Fatimids, the Seljuks now controlled the heart of the Islamic civilization, and considerable Byzantine territory.

The Seljuks built their legitimacy by defending Sunni Islam and investing in cultural and artistic projects. They built mosques and supported the work of religious scholars and missionaries. The famous philosopher al-Ghazali served in the courts of Seljuk sultans. Despite his opposition to the way Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna) had applied Greek logic to matters of faith, he nevertheless worked in natural sciences and mathematics. Like the Abbasids before them, the Seljuks patronized the arts and built mosques, madrasas, and palaces. They supported the work of scholars like the mathematician and poet Omar Khayyam. Like the earlier Arab conquerors, they also adopted Persian as a literary language and embraced urban living.

They participated in the exchange of culture, and the promotion of Islamic cultural institutions revolved around the courts of the aristocracy, mosques, and madrasas. The Seljuks also stand out as promoters of the caravansaries, inns along the trade routes that had long offered a safe place to stay for those traveling long distances.

Link to Learning

Caravansaries were an important element of travel and trade in the medieval world, serving merchants, diplomats, and pilgrims as hubs for news and rest. In this video, more information about caravansaries is presented, including their architecture and the services they offered.

Strict Sunnis, the sultans pushed back the Shia Fatimids and took control of Jerusalem and eventually Mecca. While they were still generally tolerant of other religions like Judaism and Christianity, they ensured that Sunni Islam was dominant by insisting on regular payments from non-Muslim communities and by refusing to permit Shia in high offices. The Seljuks’ success in fighting against Christian states fueled claims of religious oppression in western Europe.

In many ways, the arrival of the Turkic peoples and their conversion to Islam helped to revive the fortunes of Sunni Islam and the fight against Christian states. Despite the victories of leaders like Alp Arslan, however, by the end of the eleventh century, conflicts over the succession were taking their toll. Members of the dynasty began to fight each other and break the empire into smaller states. One of the most important successor states was established in Anatolia, near the Byzantine Empire, and was called the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, a name that reflects the region’s past as part of the Roman and then the Byzantine Empires.

The infighting among the Seljuks, their conflict with the Fatimids, and the rival caliphate in Spain fragmented the Islamic world. Attempts by the Abbasids to take effective control of their empire led to more complications for Seljuk rule. Fatimid power was threatened by internal instability when the caliphs incorporated Turkic cavalry, alienating traditional Amazigh cavalry. The Islamic world continued to produce brilliant scholars and poets who engaged with Persian, ancient Greek, and Indian ideas. Politically, however, the Islamic kingdoms were divided and weak. This fragmentation enabled Christians from western Europe to establish their own colonies in the Islamic world by means of the Crusades.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 1: to 1500 textbook by Openstax