Abdallah al-Mahdi Billah

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al-Mahdi Billah
المهدي بالله
Calif al Mahdi Kairouan 912 CE(png).png
Gold dinar of Caliph al-Mahdi, Kairouan, 912 CE
Caliph of the Fatimid Dynasty
ReignNovember 909 – 3 April 934
SuccessorAl-Qa'im Bi-Amrillah
31 July 873 or 874
Died3 April 934 (aged 59-60)
IssueAl-Qa'im Bi-Amrillah
Kunya: Abu Muhammad
Given name: Abdallah
Laqab: al-Mahdi Billah
FatherHusayn ibn Ahmad (Radi Abdullah)
ReligionIsma'ili Shia Islam

Abu Muhammad Abdallah ibn al-Husayn (Arabic: أبو محمد عبد الله بن الحسين المهدي بالله‎) (873 – 4 March 934), better known by his regnal name Al-Mahdi Billah, was the founder of the Isma'ili Fatimid Caliphate, the only major Shi'a caliphate in Islamic history, and the eleventh Imam of the Isma'ili faith.


Shi'ism in the late 9th century[edit]

Ever since the martyrdom of Ali, fourth caliph among the Khulafa Rashidun and the son-in-law of Muhammad, in 661, which led to the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate, a small part of the Muslim community rejected the Umayyads as usurpers and called for the establishment of a regime led by a member of the Ahl al-Bayt, the Family of Muhammad. The Abbasids, who claimed descent from Muhammad's paternal uncle Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, profited from this during their rise to power against the Umayyads; but their claim too was rejected by the Shi'a, who insisted on the exclusive right of the descendants of Husayn and Hasan, Ali's sons by Muhammad's daughter Fatimah.[1] A line of Imams emerged from the offspring of Husayn, who did not openly lay claim to the caliphate, but were considered by their followers as the true representatives of God on earth.[1]

The sixth imam, Ja'far al-Sadiq, had appointed (naṣṣ) his son Isma'il ibn Ja'far as his successor, but Isma'il died before his father, and when al-Sadiq himself died in 765, the succession was left open. One faction of Shi'a held that al-Sadiq had designated another son, Musa al-Kadhim, as his heir. Others followed other sons, Muhammad al-Dibaj and Abdullah al-Aftah—shortly after his death, they went over to Musa's camp—or even refused to believe that al-Sadiq had died, and expected his return as a messiah.[2] Musa's adherents, who constituted the majority of al-Sadiq's followers, followed his line down to the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who vanished in 874.[1][3] Another branch believed that Ja'far was followed by a seventh imam, who also had gone into hiding; hence this party is known as the Seveners. The exact identity of that seventh imam was disputed, but by the late 9th century had commonly been identified with Muhammad, son of Isma'il and grandson of al-Sadiq. From Muhammad's father, Isma'il, the sect receives its name of "Isma'ili".[1][4][5] Neither Isma'il's nor Muhammad's lives are well known, and after Muhammad's death during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–809), the history of the early Isma'ili movement becomes obscure.[6]

Both the Twelvers and the Seveners held that their final imams were not dead, but had simply gone into hiding ("occultation"), and that they would soon return as a messiah, a mahdī ("the Rightly Guided One") or qāʾīm ("He Who Arises"), to usher in the end times.[1][7] The mahdī would rapidly overthrow the usurping Abbasids and destroy their capital Baghdad, restore the unity of the Muslims, conquer Constantinople, ensure the final triumph of Islam and establish a reign of peace and justice.[8] The Isma'ilis in particular believed that the mahdī would reveal the true, "inner" (bāṭin) meaning of religion, which was until then reserved for a few selected initiates. The mahdī would dissolve the outer forms and strictures of Islam, since henceforth the true religion, the religion of Adam, would be manifested without the need for symbols and other mediating devices.[9]

Secret leadership of the Isma'ili daʿwa at Salamiya[edit]

While the mahdī Muhammad ibn Isma'il remained hidden, however, he would need to be represented by agents, who would gather the faithful, spread the word (daʿwa, "invitation, calling"), and prepare his return. The head of this secret network was the living proof of the imam's existence, or "seal" (ḥujja).[10] The first known ḥujja was a certain Abdallah al-Akbar ("Abdallah the Elder"), a wealthy merchant from Askar Mukram, in what is now southwestern Iran. Apart from improbable stories circulated by later anti-Isma'ili polemicists, his exact origin is unknown.[11] His teachings led to his being forced to flee his native city to escape persecution by the Abbasid authorities, and seek refuge in Basra, where he claimed to belong to the Aqil branch of the Banu Hashim, the clan of Muhammad. Once again, his teachings attracted the attention of the authorities and he moved on to the small town of Salamiyah on the western edge of the Syrian Desert.[12] There he settled as a merchant from Basra, and had two sons, Ahmad and Ibrahim. When Abdallah died c. 827/8, Ahmad succeeded his father as the head of the Isma'ili movement, and was in turn succeeded by his younger son, Muhammad, known as Abu'l-Shalaghlagh.[13][14]

During the late 9th century, millenialist expectations increased in the Muslim world, coinciding with a deep crisis of the Abbasid Caliphate during the decade-long Anarchy at Samarra, the rise of breakaway and autonomous regimes in the provinces, and the large-scale Zanj Rebellion, whose leader claimed Alid descent and proclaimed himself as the mahdī.[15] In this chaotic atmosphere, where the Abbasids were preoccupied with suppressing the uprising, the Isma'ili daʿwa spread rapidly, aided by dissatisfaction among Twelver adherents with the political quietism of their leadership and the recent disappearance of the twelfth imam.[16] Missionaries (dā'īs) like Hamdan Qarmat and his brother-in-law Abu Muhammad Abdan spread the network of agents to the area round Kufa in the late 870s, and from there to Yemen (Ibn Hawshab, 882) and thence India (884), Bahrayn (Abu Sa'id al-Jannabi, 899), Persia, and the Maghreb (Abu Abdallah al-Shi'i, 893).[17][18] The real leadership remained hidden at Salamiya, and only the chief dā'īs of each region, such as Hamdan Qarmat, knew and corresponded with it.[19] The true head of the movement remained hidden even from the senior missionaries, however, and a certain Fayruz functioned as chief missionary (dā'ī al-duʿāt) and "gateway" (bāb) to the hidden leader.[20]

Early life[edit]

The future caliph al-Mahdi Billah was born as Sa'id, the son of Ahmad's elder son, al-Husayn, who died around 880.[21] The official biography gives the date of birth as 31 July 874, although a different tradition gives a date exactly one year earlier.[22] After his father's death, he was fostered by his uncle Abu'l-Shalaghlagh, who was without an heir of his own—his son and grandchild were reportedly captured and imprisoned by the Abbasids. Sa'id was thus designated as his successor, and given his uncle's daughter in marriage.[22] Most of the information about Sa'id's early life comes from the memoirs of the eunuch chamberlain Ja'far, who was a few months older than Sa'id and came with him to the household at Salamiya. The two were reared by the same wet-nurse, and Ja'far became a close confidant of Sa'id until his death.[23]

Sa'id's only child, Abd al-Rahman, the future al-Qa'im bi-Amr Allah, was born in March or April 893.[22] While ostensibly merely the stewards for the absent imam, Ja'far reports that Abu'l-Shalaghlagh—perhaps encouraged by the rapid progress of the daʿwa, now establishing armed strongholds—secretly declared himself to senior members of the daʿwa not as the ḥujja for Muhammad ibn Isma'il, but the actual imam; and that he claimed for his nephew the title of mahdī, and the latter's infant son the title of qāʾīm.[24] Various genealogies were later put forth by the Fatimids to justify this claim (see below). In the most common, Abdallah the Elder was proclaimed to be the son of Muhammad ibn Isma'il, but even in pro-Isma'ili sources, the succession and names of imams who supposedly preceded Ahmad is not the same; for example, Sa'id himself in a letter claimed descent not from Muhammad ibn Isma'il, but from the latter's older brother Abdallah. Anti-Isma'ili Sunni and Twelver sources of course reject any Fatimid descent from the Alids altogether and consider them impostors. The situation is further complicated by the use of the title qāʾīm, normally a synonym for the mahdī, for Sa'id's son. This has led to suggestions (first by Bernard Lewis) of two parallel lines of imams, one public (and of non-Alid descent), serving as trustees of the hidden, real one. In this interpretation, Sa'id was the last representative of the former line, and his "son" was the genuine imam.[25][26]

Leadership of the daʿwa[edit]

When Abu'l-Shalaghlagh died around 899, Sa'id became the new head of the movement.[27] Soon after, the letters from Salamiya revealed changes in the official doctrine of the daʿwa. This worried Hamdan Qarmat, who sent his brother-in-law to Salamiya to investigate the matter. It was there that Abdan learned that Sa'id claimed that the imam was not Muhammad ibn Isma'il, but Sa'id's father al-Husayn, and now Sa'id himself. This caused a major rift in the movement: Hamdan denounced the leadership in Salamiya, gathered the Iraqi dā'īs and ordered them to cease the missionary effort. Shortly after he disappeared from his headquarters.[28][29]

It was Al-Shi'i's success which was the signal to Al Mahdi to set off from Salamyah disguised as a merchant. In 905 he started proselytising. However, he was captured by the Aghlabid ruler Yasah ibn Midrar due to his Ismaili beliefs and thrown into a dungeon in Sijilmasa. In early 909 Al-Shi'i sent a large expedition force to rescue Al Mahdi, conquering the Ibadi state of Tahert on its way there. After gaining his freedom, Al Mahdi became the leader of the growing state and assumed the position of imam and caliph. Al Mahdi then led the Kutama Berbers who captured the cities of Qairawan and Raqqada. By March 909, the Aghlabid Dynasty had been overthrown and replaced with the Fatimids. As a result, the last stronghold of Sunni Islam in North Africa was removed from the region.


Al Mahdi fled from the Middle East to preach his doctrine, and one of his companions spotted a place far from sunni rule in modern-day Algeria known as Kabylia. Al Mahdi went to Kabylia to teach his doctrine and had great success, after successfully converting the majority of the Kutamas (who were major in establishing the caliphate) to Isma'ilism Islam. He assembled an army to march onto Ifriqiya to drive the Aghlabids out of Ifriqiya. After the successful campaign in defeating the Aghlabids Al-Mahdi established himself at the former Aghlabid residence at Raqqada, Al-Qayrawan (in what is now Tunisia). After that his power grew. At the time of his death he had extended his reign over the Maghreb, but campaigns into Egypt (in 914–915 and 919–921) faltered against the resistance of the Abbasids, with heavy casualties.

The historian Heinz Halm has described the early Fatimid regime as being little more than a "hegemony of the Kutama".[30] The position of these semi-civilized tribesmen as the chosen warriors of the imam-caliph was greatly resented, not only by the other Berber tribes, but chiefly by the inhabitants of the cities, where the Arabic culture predominated.[31] As Halm writes, the situation was similar to a scenario where, "in the early eighteenth-century North America, the Iroquois, converted to Catholicism by Jesuit missionaries, had overrun the Puritan provinces of New England, installed their chieftains as governors in Boston, Providence and Hartford, and proclaimed a European with dubious credentials as King of England".[31] The first years of Fatimid rule in Ifriqiya, Sicily, and Tripolitania were marked by revolts by the local inhabitants against the arrogance and exactions of the Kutama.[32]

Al-Mahdi founded the capital of his empire, al-Mahdiyyah, on the Tunisian coast sixteen miles south-east of Al-Qayrawan, which he named after himself. The city was located on a peninsula on an artificial platform "reclaimed from the sea", as mentioned by the Andalusian geographer Al-Bakri. The Great mosque of Mahdia was built in 916 on the southern side of the peninsula.[33] Al-Mahdi took up residence there in 920.

In 922 the Bulgarian emperor Simeon I sent envoys to al-Mahdi to propose a joint attack on the Byzantine capital Constantinople with the Bulgarians providing a large land army, and the Arabs a navy. It was proposed that all spoils would be divided equally, with the Bulgarians keeping Constantinople and the Fatimids gaining the Byzantine territories in Sicily and South Italy.[34] As a result of the Byzantine–Bulgarian war of 913–927, by 922 the Bulgarians controlled almost the whole Balkan peninsula but Simeon I's main objective to capture Constantinople remained out of his reach because he lacked a navy. Although the Byzantines and the Fatimids had concluded a peace treaty in 914, since 918 the Fatimids had renewed their attacks on the Italian coast.[34]

Al-Mahdi accepted the proposal and sent back his own emissaries to conclude the agreement.[34] On the way home the ship was captured by the Byzantines near the Calabrian coast and the envoys of both countries were sent to Constantinople.[34] When the Byzantine emperor Romanos I learned about the secret negotiations, the Bulgarians were imprisoned, while the Arab envoys were allowed to return to Al-Mahdiyyah with rich gifts for the caliph. The Byzantines then sent their own embassy to North Africa to outbid Simeon I and eventually the Fatimids agreed not to aid Bulgaria.[35]

After his death, Al-Mahdi was succeeded by his son, Abu Al-Qasim Muhammad Al-Qaim, who continued his expansionist policy.

Genealogy of the Fatimids[edit]

According to ʿAbd Allāh al-Mahdi Billah[edit]

In a letter sent to the Ismāʿīlī community in Yemen by Abd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, which was reproduced by Ja'far bin Mansūr al-Yemen, ʿAbd Allāh al-Aftah ibn Jaʿfar al-Sadiq was referred to as Sāhib al-Haqq or the legitimate successor of Imām Jaʿfar al-Sadiq. According to ʿAbd Allāh al-Mahdi bi'l-Lāh, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Ja'far had called himself Ismāʿīl ibn Jaʿfar for the sake of taqiyya, and each of his successors had assumed the name Muhammad. ʿAbd Allāh al-Mahdi Billah explains the genealogy of the Fatimid caliphs and he claims Fatimid ancestry by declaring himself to be ʿAli ibn al-Ḥusayn ibn Aḥmad ibn ʿAbadullāh ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Jaʿfar al-Sadiq. But the Imamah (Ismaili doctrine) had later been formulated in a different manner since ʿAbd Allāh's explanation of his ancestry was not accepted by his successors.[36]: 108 

The genealogy of the Fatimid caliphs according to Abu Muḥammad ʿAlī / ʿAbd Allāh al-Mahdi bi'l-Lāh

According to Bernard Lewis, Hamdani, de Blois and the letter of ʿAbd Allāh al-Mahdi Billah[edit]

According to Bernard Lewis there were two lines of Mustawda‘ – Qaddāḥid Trustee Imāms and Mustaqarr – Alid Imāms; Hamdani and de Blois constructed two parallel lines of descendants of Jāʿfar al-Sādiq.[38]: 115  Maymūn Al-Qaddāḥ was the chief da'i and the guardian of Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘il and ʿAbd Allāh ibn Maymūn Al-Qaddāḥ[37] who succeeded his father as the chief da'i in trust and bequeathed it to his own descendants and to ʿUbayd Allāh al-Mahdi bi'l-Lāh. These were Mustawda‘ or Qaddāḥid Trustee Imāms. There was a second line of Hidden or Mustaqarr Alid Imāms starting with Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘il and ending with the second Fatimid caliph Al-Qa'im Bi-Amrillah.[38]

The genealogy of the Fatimid caliphs according to Bernard Lewis, Hamdani, de Blois, and ʿUbayd Allāh al-Mahdi bi'l-Lāh

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Brett 2017, p. 18.
  2. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 88–89.
  3. ^ Daftary 2007, p. 89.
  4. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 27–28.
  5. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 89–90.
  6. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 90–96.
  7. ^ Halm 1991, p. 28.
  8. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 28–29.
  9. ^ Halm 1991, p. 29.
  10. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 29–30.
  11. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 16–18.
  12. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 17–20.
  13. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 22–24.
  14. ^ Daftary 2007, p. 100.
  15. ^ Brett 2017, p. 17.
  16. ^ Daftary 2007, p. 108.
  17. ^ Halm 1991, p. 47.
  18. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 108–110.
  19. ^ Daftary 2007, p. 116.
  20. ^ Halm 1991, p. 61.
  21. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 23–24, 62–63.
  22. ^ a b c Halm 1991, p. 63.
  23. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 61, 63.
  24. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 61–62.
  25. ^ Canard 1965, pp. 850–851.
  26. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 100–107.
  27. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 63–64.
  28. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 64–65.
  29. ^ Daftary 2007, pp. 116–117.
  30. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 162, 293.
  31. ^ a b Halm 1991, p. 158.
  32. ^ Halm 1991, pp. 158–162, 187.
  33. ^ Hadda 2008, p. 72.
  34. ^ a b c d Fine 1991, p. 152
  35. ^ Fine 1991, pp. 152–153
  36. ^ Daftary, Farhad (1990). Cambridge University (ed.). The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 108. ISBN 9780521429740.
  37. ^ a b c "Encyclopædia Iranica, ʿAbdallāh bin Maymūn Al-Qaddāḥ". Archived from the original on 2018-05-16. Retrieved 2018-05-15.
  38. ^ a b Daftary, Farhad (1990). Cambridge University (ed.). The Isma'ilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 115–116. ISBN 9780521429740.


Abdallah al-Mahdi Billah
Born: 31 July 874 Died: 3 April 934
Regnal titles
New title Fatimid Caliph
Succeeded by
Shia Islam titles
Preceded by 11th Isma'ili Imam
Succeeded by