AN APOCALYPTIC HISTORY OF THE EARLY FATIMID EMPIRE – Book Sample
Introducing Ismaili Apocalypses
This is a book about apocalypticism, a mode of religiosity so powerful and generative that it has been implicated in a variety of major events across geographies and time periods. Apocalypticism played a significant role in the rise of major religious traditions such as Christianity1 and Islam.2
It is inexorably intertwined with the ‘founding’ of the Americas3 and more recently has been channelled destructively in horrific acts of violence, including the Holocaust.4 As a religionist, I am fascinated by the nature of apocalypticism – its mythic framework and how it is deployed to effect social transformations. This long-standing interest has led me to investigate a host of related questions. How, for instance, are apocalyptic predictions made and then reinterpreted?
Who makes these predictions and where does their authority come from? How do apocalyptic orators describe heaven and hell or the damned and the saved? Why do people believe them? How does time function in apocalyptic contexts? And perhaps most importantly for this study, how does apocalypticism, despite its spectacular failure rate, not only endure, but operate to continuously reorder societies across geographies and cultures?
The rich global history of apocalypticism has been well docu- mented.5 Yet in the Islamic context – where apocalypticism figures quite prominently – only a handful of studies exist on the subject.6 Not for distribution or resale. For personal use only.
These works – many of which are outstanding – reflect the disciplinary conventions of Islamic studies and tend to focus on specific intellectual, philological or historical trends rather than addressing wider social and theoretical questions concerning the nature of apocalypticism more broadly. This book is an attempt to address some of these wider questions using sources from an empire that was, like so many other movements in Islamic history, brought to power on the heels of an apocalyptic revolution.
It examines how rulers of the Fatimid Empire (909–1171) used apocalyptic imagery to establish and maintain a substantial empire in North Africa.
Fatimid revolutionary activity capitalised on the question of Shia leadership after the disappearance of the twelfth imām in 874. From this political vacuum emerged a secret society claiming that the Shia mahdī7 was at hand. Representatives of this mahdī paid special attention to converting politically marginalised communities, particularly in present-day Tunisia and Morocco; those who converted to Ismailism were told that they were the divine’s chosen instruments, entrusted with restoring the leadership of the Muslim community to its rightful custodians, the Shia imāms.8
Like many other apocalyptic movements, the Fatimids employed esoteric interpretation of scrip- ture (taʾwīl), a religious hierarchy and apocalyptic expectation to con- solidate power and build legitimacy. They succeeded in establishing a substantial empire, in the process founding the city of Cairo in 969.
While scholars have acknowledged that apocalypticism served as a motivating force for revolution and the establishment of the state,9 there remains little scholarship on what this apocalypticism actually looked like. First, what were some of the structures of this apocalypticism that helped convince people to join this movement? And second, what were the rhetorical methods that the Fatimids used to reinter- pret the imminence of the end of time while simultaneously building a successful empire?
These questions – concerning the anatomy of apocalyptic propaganda, its persuasive force and the hermeneutics of its reinterpretation – are questions that have cross cultural and contemporary relevance. To briefly cite three examples: messianic or apocalyptic rhetoric
appeared in the 2008 American presidential election of Barack Obama, in which supporters labelled him the messiah and his detrac- tors called him the Antichrist (or the representative of the Antichrist). In 2011, Harold Camping recruited thousands of supporters across the country based on his calculations concerning the imminent end of time (twice); and globally we have recently witnessed predictions of the Mayan apocalypse. These predictions have come and gone – the world is still here – but apocalypticism endures: through a study of the Fatimids I wish to posit why this might be the case.
Addressing these questions from the Fatimid perspective has a number of advantages: the Fatimid vision of Islam represents an interpretation of Islam that is not widely known outside of the world of specialists in Islamic studies;
there are various Muslim communities today, numbering in the millions, who lay claim to a Fatimid line- age and for whom the Fatimid tradition is very much alive in shaping communal memory; and while much scholarly work on apocalypticism has been conducted outside the Islamic tradition, there are only a handful of studies focusing on apocalypticism within the Islamic tradition.
Thus this cross disciplinary engagement not only enriches religious studies with material from the Islamic tradition, it also infuses the study of Islam with perspectives and methods from other fields– heeding a call that many Islamicists have been making for decades.10 There is another more pragmatic reason for studying the Fatimids:
we possess a wealth of extant materials from this period – from mate- rial culture such as numismatic evidence,11 to art and architecture,12 to texts such as historical records and theological works.13 In addressing our tripartite issues of apocalyptic imminence, reinterpretation and relationship with authority, Fatimid theological texts are quite rich in evidence.
It is these texts therefore that will serve as our chief sub- jects of study. As we will soon discover most of these texts are works of taʾwīl (symbolic or esoteric interpretation) that bring us into the world of the unseen, the world that only the initiated or elect can per- ceive. And while this hermeneutical method was certainly not unique to Fatimid exegesis – we see taʾwīl in Sufi and Twelver Shia works as well, for instance – Fatimid exegesis is remarkable for its creativity, its ability to synthesise and integrate an eclectic range of interpretive modalities into its form.14
This book examines three works of taʾwīl in detail: the Kitāb al-rushd wa-l-hidāya (Book of righteousness and true guidance), attributed to Ibn Ḥawshab (d. 914), the Kitāb al-kashf (Book of unveiling) attributed to his son Jaʿfar b. Manṣūr al-Yaman (d. c. 957), and the Taʾwīl al-daʿāʾim (Esoteric interpretation of the pillars of Islam) by Qāḍī l-Nuʿmān (d. 974).
Each of these works was penned by an influential member of the Fatimid hierarchy. The first two texts concern the anticipation of the mahdī as it relates to the Fatimid revolution and provide us with insights into the interplay between the dissemination of hidden knowledge and preparation for the mahdī’s advent, while the latter illustrates some of the hermeneu- tics of this reinterpretation.
The Kitāb al-kashf, for instance, reinterprets the Quranic narrative through taʾwīl to construct new meaning, framing the eschatological figure’s imminent arrival as the definition of utopia itself.15 The duali- ties undergirding the Quranic narrative16 become refashioned here as well. They become refracted through the prism of walāya, a term con- noting spiritual inheritance, divine friendship and love for the imām.17 Those who do not possess walāya for the proper religious authority
– here the Fatimid mahdī – can never obtain salvation. The refashion- ing of the Quranic narrative through taʾwīl makes the preservation of secret knowledge – as well as absolute obedience to the mahdī’s cause – true Islam. For those who believe in this true cause the revolu- tion signals nothing other than an imminent and permanent restora- tion of true leadership of the community to its rightful custodians, the Shia imāms, as well as the vindication and eternal salvation of the oppressed throughout history.
As the Fatimids translated expectations of the mahdī into a successful empire, this imminence had to be reinterpreted. Taʾwīl once again served as a vehicle for expressing narratives linking theology and his- tory. Here I examine the Taʾwīl al-daʿāʾim, the esoteric analogue to a book of Fatimid laws penned by one of the most important ideological architects of the Fatimid Empire, Qāḍī l-Nuʿmān. The Taʾwīl al- daʿāʾim is remarkable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it illustrates how the taʾwīl of regularly performed rituals such as Friday prayers and fasting during the month of Ramadan tell a deeper story of the messianic figure’s new place in sacred history.
Other Fatimid authors, those contemporary to al-Nuʿmān and those who came after him, spent much time writing about the escha- tological figure of the mahdī, indicating that the apocalyptic and messianic impulse was very much alive and in some cases difficult to contain.
Indeed messianic claims and counter claims punctuated early Fatimid history, finding powerful expressions in events such as the rebellion of Abū Yazīd, a Khārajī who invaded the capitol city of al-Mahdiyya in 332/943, and in the founding of the Druze tradition in 1017 during the reign of al-Ḥākim. While this book does not trace the rich apocalyptic history of these or other Fatimid-era movements, it does examine in detail another major apocalyptic event in Ismaili history:
the Nizari declaration of the qiyāma or resurrection. In a dra- matic event that took place on 8 August 1164, the leader of the Nizari Ismaili community publicly declared the qiyāma, signalling the end of the world. Through an examination of ritual and textual evidence from the period, I argue that the qiyāma was a potent manifestation of apocalypticism that served to powerfully reify a major shift in the leadership of the Nizari community.
The application of the terms ‘apocalyptic’ or ‘apocalypticism’ to a modality of religiosity operating outside the Christian context will no doubt cause some readers pause. This is understandable, as the inter- disciplinary study of apocalypticism remains constrained by the con- cept’s continued tethering to its theological and disciplinary origins.
To cite but one example: the editors of the invaluable three-volume Encyclopaedia of Apocalypticism state that apocalypticism is a recent term which ‘refers to the complex of ideas associated with the New Testament Apocalypse,’ especially the imminent end of the world and its associated events. They state that the term is multivalent – it ‘is an analogous term, and it admits of different emphases.’
The editors write: ‘In these volumes we have not attempted to impose a strict definition, but rather to include a broad range of materials that may be regarded as apocalyptic in various senses.’18 While the editors allow for definitional latitude – indeed, the volume contains essays on everything from contemporary secular apocalypticism to apocalypti- cism in the classical Islamic context – the paradigmatic apocalypse still appears to be the textual and theological Book of Revelation. This paradigmatic apocalyptic construct has also influenced scholarship on apocalypses in the Islamic tradition.19
Following the work of religionist Bruce Lincoln, I consider apoca- lypticism not as a theological category but as a type of myth, a mode of authoritative discourse by which actors may construct society through the evocation of certain sentiments.20 Using data from Christian traditions, Stephen O’Leary has shown that time, evil and authority constitute the three ‘essential topoi of apocalyptic discourse.’21
Examining apocalypticism as a mythic construct whose rhetorical force is mediated by certain topoi allows us to consider diachronically the evolving structures of Fatimid apocalypticism with a concomitant concern for the persuasive aims of this discourse.
To capture the apocalyptic narratives embedded in these works, I focus on reading my sources with a modified conception of O’Leary’s topoi in mind, particularly on discussions of temporality; descriptions of the identity and advent of the eschatological figure; and correlations between the construction of communal boundaries with depictions of heaven and hell.
In casting such a wide taxonomical net for apocalyptic phenomena, I frequently use a number of terms interchangeably throughout this work – in particular apocalypse, apocalypticism and mahdism.
This rhetoric-based analysis of apocalyptic data has a number of advantages. First, it allows us to consider the various media through which apocalyptic sentiments are conveyed: whether that is through numismatic materials, rituals, theological texts or sermons.
This more composite view of apocalypticism allows us to gain a fuller picture of not only how the phenomenon was expressed but also how it evolved. Second, this approach allows us to interface our findings with wider conversations occurring in the field of religious studies. Much work has been done on the nature of apocalyptic prophecy and the hermeneutics of reinterpretation outside the Islamic context.22 It is hoped that this book will encourage new comparative trajectories….
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