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  • 5/15/2005

Fatimids and Their Traditions of Learning

Heinz Halm

pp.120, 1997; ISBN: 1 85043 920 6 (HB);ISBN: 86064 313 2 (PB)


Since the emergence of modern Ismaili studies in the 1930s, there have been many scholarly investigations of different aspects of Fatimid history and thought. This book by Professor Heinz Halm is the first publication to focus mainly on the Fatimids’ varied contributions to Islamic culture and civilization and their patronage of learning. It examines in a historical perspective the intellectual and learning traditions among the Ismailis from the rise of the Fatimid state in North Africa to the cultural brilliance of what the author calls "one of the great eras in Egyptian history and in Islamic history in general".

The primary vehicle of this cultural renaissance was the Ismailida‘wa or mission. Professor Halm devotes a good portion of his text to examine the institutional features of theda‘wa which contributed to its creativity and dynamism, such as its structure and organization, its pedagogy of instruction and training, the personal and intellectual qualities required of individualda‘is, as well as the duties and responsibilities they were called upon to perform in remote areas of the Muslim world. In his portrayalof theda‘i as “the most characteristic figure of the Ismaili movement”, the author gives interesting vignettes of prominent Ismailida‘is, theologians and philosophers such as al-Qadi al-Nu‘man, Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani, al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi and Nasir-i Khusraw, and scientists such as Ibn al-Haytham.

Another important aspect of Fatimid intellectual life considered by Professor Halm is that which centered around its academic and educational institutions such asal-Azhar and thedar al-‘Ilm or the “House of Knowledge.” The former was concerned mainly with the religious sciences, in particular the teaching of the Shari‘a according to Ismaili law, and offered free public education to all Muslims, including women for whom special classes were held; the latter provided research facilities for scholars in the non-religious sciences, such as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, philology, logic, and the like. Both institutions were liberally endowed by the state and their teaching staff received regular remuneration. Another, more exclusive form of organized education was represented by themajalis al-hikma (sessions of wisdom) on Ismaili philosophy and esoteric thought, which were reserved for members of the ‘and held weekly under the personal supervision of the chiefda‘i in the palace of the caliph-Imam.

In this short but highly informative assessment of Fatimid intellectual traditions, it becomes clear that the promotion of learning and scholarship was a planned, premeditated policy which the Fatimids pursued vigorously from the onset of their rule inEgypt. In fact, many of their cultural policies and educational institutions introduced in Egypt were prefigured on a smaller scale during the early period when the Fatimids were based in north-westAfrica. Furthermore, the priority accorded to the intellect by the Fatimids was intentionally pluralistic and meritocratic, open equally to all Muslims, Ismailis and others, Christians and Jews, enabling the original thinker, creative scientist or talented poet, as much as the astute politician and military strategist, to rise high in the offices of court and state.

Professor Halm has produced a study based on original sources of information, some of it appearing for the first time in a Western language. Its value is further enhanced by the highly lucid and readable style in which it was written in German and translated into English. As such, this work will appeal to the specialist as well as the general reader, and it will undoubtedly prove to be an invaluable reference source for all teachers and students concerned with Ismaili history and thought for many years to come.


1-The Ismaili Mission and the Fatimid Caliphate
2-The Mission of theda‘is and the ‘Teaching Sessions’
3-The Fatimids in Egypt
4-Ismaili Teaching and Learning:zahir andbatin
5-The Organisation of theda‘wa
6-Al-Hakim’s ‘House of Knowledge’
7-Scientific Institutions under the Fatimids
Select Bibliography

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