This volume presents to the modern world a new source for the history of the rise of the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa. That work is a personal memoir composed by a scholar from Qayrawan named Abu ‘Abdallah Ja‘far b. Ahmad b. Muhammad b. al–Aswad b. al–Haytham. He called it the Kitab al–Munazarat (“The Book of Discussions”) and he included in it a record of his own conversations as a young recruit with the leaders of the Ismaili mission in Qayrawan in its crucial first few months there. As a document of this kind for a period of that remoteness, it is unique; and it surely deserves a special place in the literature of Islamic revolutionary movements almost as much as it belongs among the most valuable sources for the history of mediaeval North Africa.
Despite the provincial remoteness of the Maghrib, where these events took place, what we know about the advent of the Fatimids comes to us from an unusual array of sources. In the Maghrib itself, which later fell almost exclusively under the control of Maliki Sunnism, the Fatimid caliphate was later remembered as a religious heresy. But, in local histories and chronicles, Maliki writers nevertheless preserved information about the appearance of the new dynasty and, in the literature of the classes of scholars (tabaqat), they related many relevant details. Fatimid sources likewise remembered the same events, although from a decidedly sympathetic point–of–view. For the Ismaili writers the advent of the Ismaili Imam as caliph represented a major defining moment in history. It was the restoration of true religion, the triumph of good over evil, a victory of righteousness, an arising of God’s friends to a position of power and the suppression of those who had unjustly usurped their proper God–given place.
The culminating steps of the Fatimid revolution saw the collapse of the former Aghlabid governorate and the rise of a Shi‘i caliphate in its place. It occurred, from the perspective of the predominantly Sunni inhabitants of Qayrawan, relatively quickly. But, despite lingering resistance, the Ismailis had won and, some 10 months later, their Imam appeared to proclaim his rule in Raqqada, the administrative city–suburb of Qayrawan, in the year 297/910, and to establish a dynastic rule that was to last two and a half centuries.
Up to now Ismaili libraries have produced two highly informative accounts of the Fatimid revolution. One, the work of Qadi al–Nu’man, is a general history of the coming of the movement from the east to the Maghrib and its progress there until finally achieving the victory that subsequently allowed the establishment of the Fatimid state. The other is more personal; it features the story of the Imam’s travels from Syria to Egypt, to the distant Maghribi town of Sijilmasa, and ultimately to Raqqada, as told by the manservant Ja‘far who accompanied him.
All along, however, there existed among the records preserved by the Fatimids and their Tayyibi successors in the Yemen yet a third major source. It is this personal memoir by the North African scholar and da ‘i, Ibn al–Haytham, which he had called with deceptive simplicity the “Book of Discussions” (Kitab al–Munazarat). Although apparently not mentioned by works written during the later Fatimid period, it survived nonetheless and was copied verbatim into a 16th century compilation of texts assembled under the title of Kitab al–Azhar by Hasan b. Nuh al–Bharuchi, a distinguished Tayyibi Ismaili author of Indian extraction.
Ibn al–Haytham’s al–Munazarat has not been consulted previously for the information it supplies about the rise of the Fatimids, nor was it available earlier in any form except in manuscript, and that as one relatively small part of al–Bharuchi’s massive collection of other Ismaili works. It is, however, replete with information about details of events and conversations that took place during the first months of Ismaili rule – the period from the victory of the da‘i Abu ‘Abdallah in Rajab 296/March 909 until the arrival of the Imam al–Mahdi in Rabi‘ II 297/January 910. Moreover, it supplies an insider's view of the thoughts and attitudes of the major players, what they said to each other and how they explained what they did, particularly for the two brothers, Abu ‘Abdallah, who was the architect of the Fatimid triumph, and Abu’l–‘Abbas, who was to govern North Africa for almost seven months, from June until the Imam finally arrived to claim his caliphate.
Detailed information about that particular period has been scarce. With the discovery of these memoirs of Ibn al–Haytham, however, the situation changes dramatically. It is precisely this early phase that he covers in his record of intimate conversations with these leaders and rulers. He thus recounts for us both major events and the words of those who were a part of them. Moreover, he often explains the background to them. A native of Qayrawan and a Shi‘i scholar in his own right, he was an eager convert to the Fatimid cause and the Ismaili da‘wa. His was an uncommon perspective. Having come to the movement from within the previous scholarly milieu, he could offer a uniquely detailed view of how the scholars of Qayrawan reacted to the new power and its religious policies. Ibn al–Haytham's work, thus, provides precious information about his native city and, in general, presents in its various discussions a rare intellectal portrait of a time and place: Qayrawan, the provincial capital of the Maghrib at the end of the third Islamic century. Most revealing are his impressions of each of the two brothers who were to control his life for most of that revolutionary year in 296–7/909. Once the brothers and several of their chief supporters had been accused of treason and executed, later Fatimid tradition was not always kindly disposed to them. In fact it laid heavy blame on Abu’l–‘Abbas, and therefore, one of the most fascinating features of Ibn al–Haytham’s account is its entirely laudatory depiction of the brothers, both of whom impressed and deeply influenced the author, though each for slightly different traits and virtues. And, as a record of the Ismaili da‘wa and its da‘is in action, it is unparalleled. Here is a personal account of a Shi‘i sympathizer’s recruitment, conversion, oath of allegiance, and training as a new da‘i. There are in it, as well, a few highly significant hints and allusions about the author’s own subsequent career in that same da‘wa. All in all, this text adds enormously to our understanding of the Fatimid takeover in North Africa and of the exact role in it of many of its key figures.
Because this text has been, until now, unknown in modern scholarship, the authors have assumed the burden of presenting it and the information in it in as complete a form as possible. It was, thus, necessary first of all to provide a critical edition of the Arabic text of Ibn al–Haytham's Kitab al–Munazarat. They have added to that a comprehensive translation with full notes and an extensive introduction in order not only to explain the technical terms and references in the text, of which there are a great many, but also to link the work to its historical background and the previously known sources about events and individuals mentioned in it.
This book is the first monograph in the Ismaili Texts and Translations Series of publications by The Institute of Ismaili Studies.