Yaqub ibn Killis
Yaqub ibn Yusuf ibn Killis was born in Baghdad in 930 in a Jewish family. After his family moved to Syria he came to Egypt in 943 and entered the service of the Regent Kafur. Soon he controlled the Egyptian state finances in his capacity as household and property administrator. Although he converted to Islam in 967, he fell out of favour with the successors of Kafur and was imprisoned. He was able however to purchase his freedom and went to Ifriqiya, where he put himself at the service of the Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz.
After the Fatimid conquest of 973, led by al-Mu'izz's son, the fifth Fatimid Caliph, ibn Kallis returned to Egypt and was put in charge of the economy, where he was able to regularise the state finances. After the dismissal of Jawhar as-Siqilli in 976 Yaqub ibn Killis was appointed Vizier by al-Aziz, a position he held until his death in 991. He was a patron of culture and science. One of his most prominent achievements was the establishment of al-Azhar University in Cairo in 988. An institution that soon became the most important centre of scholarship in the entire Islamic world.
Fatimid Wazir, Abu al-Farj Yaqub bin Yusuf known as Ibn Killis, was born of an honorable family of Baghdad. By birth he was a Jew, born in 318 A.H./930 C.E. At the young age he came with his father to Egypt where he started his political life at the court of Kafur. He was very intelligent, hard working and honest. Very soon he secured an important position in the Court of Kafur as an expert in economics. In 356 A.H./967 C.E., he embraced Islam by which Kafur was highly pleased and appointed him as his courtier. By this promotion of Yaqub, Wazir Ibn Furat of the court of Kafur got excited with jealousy and was searching a cause to fall against him.
Incidentally in 357 A.H./967 C.E. Kafur died and Wazir Ibn Furat arrested all his companions including Yaqub bin Killis. It is said that Yaqub bribed the jailor and absconded to the West where the Fatimid Caliph Mu'izz was in power on the throne of Imamat and Caliphate.
The Fatimid Caliph Mu'izz, assigned Yaqub the responsibility of country's economy. Through his past experiences he carried out his work with great efficiency. Thereafter at the time of conquest of Egypt, Hazrat Imam Mu'izz, deputed him with Jawhar as-Siqilli for the management there. According to another version, Yaqub accompanied the Fatimid Caliph Mu'izz to Egypt in 362 A.H.
In the beginning, Ibn Furat was continued in the office of Wizarat at Egypt but in 363 A.H./974 C.E. he resigned and Hazrat Imam Mu'izz handed over the administration to Yaqub bin Killis.
During the last period of Mu'izz, and the first two years of the period of the Fatimid Caliph Aziz, (365-386 A.H.), due to toil, honesty and intelligence of Yaqub bin Killis, this position became firm and stable, so much so that in 367-68 A.H./977-78 C.E. Imam Aziz, appointed him as Wazir al Adjall (Chief Minister). Prior to this, in the Caliphate of the first four Imams, an assistant was called 'Wasta' and in this way Yaqub bin Killis was the first Wazir-i-Adjall (Chief Minister) of the Fatimid Caliphate.
During his tenure as vizier, Yaqub bin Killis established various departments anew for the administration of the state - promoted agriculture, reformed trade and stabilised currency - by which country began to flourish and revenue of provinces increased. In this very period Central Exchequer was so much solid in wealth that neither before nor afterwards such a wealth ever accrued. In 373 A.H. he had fallen from his office and it is said that Imam Aziz. had penalised him with the fine of 200,000 dinars. The actual cause of his removal is not known.
Dr. Zahid Ali assumes that because Ibn Killis had treated badly one of the court prisoners of al-Aziz to whom Imam had promised all honours, therefore Ibn Killis had to pay a fine. All the same within a lapse of few months, in 374 A.H., he was reinstated in the office and was also forgiven.
Sickness and Death
It is said that Yaqub bin Killis fell seriously ill on the 21st of Shawwal 380 A.H. the Caliph Aziz visited him and said: "O Yaqub! If your recovery is to be gained through spending wealth then I am prepared to give away the whole wealth of the state. And if your life is saved by sacrificing any life, I am ready to sacrifice my own son". By this it is understood what position Yaqub bin Killis held with the Caliph Aziz. Sickness of Yaqub began to worsen day by day and on the 4th of Dhul-Hijja 380A.H./991 C.E. he succumbed to death.
His death was mourned throughout Egypt. His shroud was decorated with 50 pieces of clothes of which 30 were embroidered with gold thread. According to Ibn Khallikan, 100 poets composed lamentations and every poet earned his reward from the Caliph. In Cairo a place was named the Vizier's Quarter in his honour.
With the political sciences Yaqub bin Killis was also endowed with a thorough knowledge of religion. He was a great scholar and was fond of literature. It is said that he wrote many books in which Mukhtasar-ul-Fiqah' (Risalat al-Waziria) is worth mentioning. This work is on theology and 40 theologians participated in its compilation. Besides, he was at his palace lecturing every Friday night on different subjects, where judges, theologians, grammarians, traditionalists and poets used to gather to hear him.
At Al-Azhar he gave vent to religious education and upon his instructions a University was established in Jama-e-Azhar, which exists until today.
The story of his wealth
Yaqub bin Killis was an efficient wazir and through his efficiency introduced many reforms, as a result of which public was very much at ease, wealthy and treasury was full of wealth. Hazrat Imam Aziz, had given him wide powers and he was also drawing a good remuneration from the Treasury with a high position in the government.
Consequently, he was in possession of the force of 4,000 young men. The uniform of his guards was, similar to that of the guards of Hazrat Imam Aziz, that is silky. Yaqub bin Killis had formed a private force, commander of which was called 'Qaid'. Courts were established for different jobs.There was also a well equipped dispensary in his palace. In the month of Ramadhan besides judges and prominent persons, nominal and general public also used to take advantage of his favour. His annual income was 100,000 dinars, i.e. more than 50,000 guineas. At the time of his death he left property valued forty lakh dinars, this amount was exclusive 200,000 dinars kept aside by him for the dowry of his daughter. He also left a piece of land worth 300,000 dinars. Besides there were 4,000 male and 8,000 female slaves.
- Marius Kociejowski The Pigeon Wars of Damascus" [Biblioasis, Emeryville, 2010] contains a chapter on Yaqub ibn Killis "A Golden Platter of Cherries"
- Cohen, Mark R.; Somekh, Sasson (1990). "In the Court of Yaʿqūb Ibn Killis: A Fragment from the Cairo Genizah". Jewish Quarterly Review 80 (3/4): 283–314. JSTOR 1454972.