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Religion Library: Shia Islam

Missions and Expansion

Written by: Anna Akasoy

The Fatimids first established their rule in modern-day Tunisia in 909-910, when their Mahdi revealed himself as such and claimed the title of Caliph. Baghdad remained the aim of the movement, and it was only logical that Egypt was the next step. It is here where the Fatimid Empire took shape. Cairo was founded in 970 as the new center for the mission, with the Azhar mosque as an important institution. In the modern period it is known as the university of Sunni learning with the highest standing in the Islamic world. The Ismaili mission continued, albeit not on a popular level, and would eventually lead to both Sunni and Ismaili counter-reactions. Thus, they were able to win Ismailis in Iraq and Iran as supporters. In the 1090s, as the political power of the Fatimids was waning, a group referred to as Nizaris broke away. The main aim of these "Assassins" under their leader Hasan-i Sabbah in the Iranian fortress Alamut was to attack the Seljuks as the leading force of the Sunni revival. In Ramadan 1164, Hasan-i Sabbah's great-grandson, Hasan II, led a notorious 'Great Resurrection,' during which the outer form of Islamic law (Arabic: zahir) was abolished in favor of its inner (Arabic: batin) dimension. After a celebration where wine was served and the fast violated, this antinomianism continued in a mild form for another fifty years.

A second golden age was granted to the Shiites by an unlikely force. Starting in the early 13th century, the Mongols under Chingiz Khan's generals and descendants invaded the Middle East. For some Shiites, these conquests were disastrous. Thus, in 1256, Alamut, the fortress of the "Assassins" in Iran, was handed over to the Mongols, mediated by the scholar Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Modern scholars speculate on the extent to which the removal of this more extreme sect made the Mongols more welcome to the Sunnis. Given the extent of destruction in Iran and Iraq, this would have been a high price to pay. Imami Shiites too had to suffer; Qom, for example, was destroyed in 1224. Yet, especially for minority branches of Islam, new opportunities arose during the period of the Ilkhans, the Mongol rulers over Iran who eventually converted to Islam. Sufi orders blossomed, one of which eventually gained control over Iran as the Safavid dynasty. Shiite learning flourished as well. For a short time it looked as if Shiite fortunes were even better when the Ilkhan Öljeitü (reg. 1304-16) converted to Shiism under the influence of the scholar the Allama al-Hilli.

Study Questions:
1.     When is the apex of Shiite culture, and what were the dynasties that led it?
2.     Name some of the geographical areas where early Shiism thrived, and how the dynasties there justified their leadership.
3.     What role did Chingiz Khan play in the development of Shiite political power?


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