Abu al-Misk Kafur
Abu al-Misk Kafur (905–968), also called al-Laithi, al-Suri, al-Labi was a dominant personality of Ikhshidid Egypt and Syria. Originally a black slave from Ethiopia, he was promoted as vizier of Egypt, becoming its de facto ruler from 946. After the death of his master, Muhammad bin Tughj, Kafur succeeded the latter to become the de jure ruler of the Ikshidid domains, Egypt and southern Syria (including Damascus), until his death in 968.
Muhammad ibn Tughj, the founder of the Ikhshidid dynasty of Egypt, bought Abu al-Misk Kafur as a slave from Ethiopia in 923. He is recorded as having a dark complexion and being a eunuch. Recognizing the slave's intelligence and talent, Ibn Tughj freed him. The story goes that Kafur was freed because he kept his eyes fastened upon his master, while others kept their eyes on the master's gifts. Thus, historian Philip Hitti notes, Kafur would be generously rewarded for such loyalty.
Ibn Tughj appointed Kafur to be the supervisor of princely education for his two sons. The Egyptian ruler then promoted Kafur as a military officer. As a field commander Kafur conducted a military mission to Syria in 945. He was put in charge of some campaigns in the Hejaz. Kafur was involved in some diplomatic exchanges between the Ikhshidids and the caliph of Baghdad.
Kafur became the de facto ruler of Egypt in 946 (since Kafur was the guardian of bin Tughj's sons, he ruled in their stead upon the death of their father). He died in Cairo and was probably buried in Jerusalem. Though subsequent historians have portrayed him as a just and moderate ruler, he owes a great deal of his fame to the scathing satirical poems directed against him by al-Mutanabbi, a famous medieval Arab poet.
Status as former slave
Kafur's status as former slave did not hinder him from rising to power under the Ikhshidids. In fact, his status helped him, as it had become customary for former slaves to enter the military organization and even reach high positions in it. Kafur's rise to power, from being an African slave to the ruler of Egypt and parts of Syria, is one of the first examples in Islamic history of a sovereign with the lowliest of origins. In Muslim states in general, Africans such as Kafur did not continue to be slaves. They were employed in various occupations and maintained a cohesive culture interacting with that of their hosts.
While Kafur held de facto control over Egypt, he operated behind the facade of Ikhshdid rulers. On his deathbed, Ibn Tughj had appointed Kafur as guardian over his two sons. In 946, Kafur helped Anūdjūr secure the succession to Ibn Tughj. And in 961, he helped ʿAlī ibn al-Ikhshīd, Anūdjūr's younger brother (and his late master Ibn Tughj's second), secure the Egyptian throne. Only in 966, following the death of ʿAlī, did Kāfūr publicly declare himself as the sole master of Egypt.
Kafur, despite tremendous pressure on him, maintained stability inside Egypt. From 947 to 948, he fought and put down the rebellion by Ghalbūn. In 954 he successfully averted an abortive coup d'état by Anūdjūr. He also survived the spread of subversive Ismāʿīlī propaganda against him. His ability to resolve internal political complications is considered as having significantly prolonged the lifespan of the Ikhshidids.
One of Abu al-Misk Kafur's greatest achievements is his successful protection of the Ikhshidid establishment from the Hamdanids (in Syria), Fatimids (in northern Africa, to the west of Egypt), Qarmatians (in the Arabian peninsula), and the Nubians (from south of Egypt).
Very early on Kafur's master, Muhammad ibn Tughj, trusted him to handle the military campaigns of Syria and Hejaz (in the Arabian peninsula). His military and diplomatic measures secured Damascus for the Ikhshidids (from the Hamdanids) in 947. Sayf ad-Dawla, governor of Aleppo, had tried to overrun Syria, but his efforts were frustrated by Kafur, and the former recognized the latter's lordship over parts of Syria.
He was also able to delay the Fatimid expansion into Egypt, frustrating the efforts of the latter's agents. So long as Kafur was alive, the Ikhsidid establishment kept the Fatimids at bay; upon his death, the Fatimids took over.
Kafur generally maintained economic stability in Egypt, despite serious setbacks:
- a fire devastated the business section of Fustat in 954;
- a major earthquake rocked Egypt in 955;
- recurrence of food-price inflation (sometimes resulting in famine), and consequent civil disturbances, in 949, 952, 955, and 963-968.
Excepting the heavy government expenditure, Kafur's administration refrained from extortionate fiscal practices. His gold coinage displayed remarkable stability, though it did fluctuate. Kafur also enrolled the services of competent administrators, and merchants, (such as the famous Yaqub ibn Killis), contributing to his economic accomplishments.
Patronage of the arts
Abu al-Misk Kafur gained popularity by being the patron of scholars and writers. Perhaps the most celebrated patronage, according to A.S. Ehrenkreutz, is that of the great poet al-Mutanabbi. In return al-Mutanabbi praised the former slave. However, after Kafur's failure to reward him with high office that he aspired, al-Mutanabbi ridiculed Kafur. Thus Kafur was immortalized in the poetry of al-Mutanabbi - the greatest poet of Kafur's time, according to historian Hitti.
As he was a pious man, Kafur was more comfortable with the ulema (Muslim scholarly establishment) than the poets. He surrounded himself with religious men, some of whom he showered with gifts. He constructed two mosques in Giza and on al-Muqattam and a hospital. Nevertheless, he still clung to superstitions, abandoning a home once, believing it to be under a jinn.
Kafur also maintained a magnificent and luxurious court. This, however, at times of famine, accorded poorly with the general population. In addition to the mosques and the hospital, Kafur had constructed a number of sumptuous palaces, and the Kāfūriyya gardens in his capital. No archaeological remains of his contributions have been found thus far.
- "Kāfūr , Abu'l Misk al-Ikhsidi." E.J. Brill's first encyclopaedia of Islam 1913-1936. Edited by: M. Th. Houtsma, E. van Donzel. Brill, 1993. p. 623
- Abū al-Misk Kāfūr." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Jul. 2008
- Hitti, Philip K. History of Syria Including Lebanon and Palestine. Gorgias Press LLC. p.562-3
- Ehrenkreutz, A.S. "Kāfūr , Abu'l-Misk ." Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2008. Brill Online.
- Kashif, S.I. Misr fi Asr al-Ikhshidiyin 2 ed. (Cairo, 1970), p. 255
- Jacob F. Ade Ajayi. General History of Africa: Africa in the Nineteenth Century Until the 1880s. University of California Press. p. 749
- Daly, Carl F. The Cambridge History of Egypt. 115-116
Abu'l-Hasan Ali ibn Muhammad
|Ikhshidid governor of Egypt, southern Syria and the Hejaz
(de jure for the Abbasid Caliphate)
January 966 – April 968
Abu'l-Fawaris Ahmad ibn Ali