Memoirs of a Mission: The Ismaili Scholar, Statesman and Poet, al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi – A Review

Memoirs of a Mission: The Isma’ili Scholar, Statesman and Poet, al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi By Verena Klemm (I.B Taurus, London, 2003)
Review by Ahmad Amirali

Al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi (died 1087 CE), was a remarkable and multi-talented Fatimid scholar of Persian origin. He spends his life mostly serving Imam-Caliph al-Mustansir (1036 to 1094 CE) as a chief da’i performing various administrative, diplomatic, military and religious duties. Verena Klemm in her book elaborated a detailed account on the life and achievement of al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din through the lenses of his autobiography Sirat al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din. She believes that this Sira is not only an essential historical source regarding the function of Fatimid da’wa during 11 CE, it also provides a brief overview of Islamic military and political leadership during that time, i.e. Fatimids, Buyids, Seljuqs and Abbasids. The significance of al-Mu’ayyad’s Sira has been highlighted in many forms by Klemm in her book.  She considered al-Mu’ayyad’s Sira as “a masterpiece of medieval Arabic literature” that includes “rhymed prose, interspersed with lively dialogues, self-composed poems, dreams, stories and parables” (Klemm, 2003, p19). 

The first part of the book, al–Mu’ayyad’s Mission in Fars highlights the development and decline of da’i explained by al-Mu’ayyad in his Sira. Klemm briefly explains the accounts from al-Mu’ayyad’s Sira demonstrating the unfavourable events that occurred in his homeland Fars and how he manages to win the heart of then Buyid ruler, Abu Kalijar who at one time mesmerised by al-Mu’ayyad’s knowledge became his student. Buyids, who generally belong to Twelver Shi’i and were able to establish their rule in Kirman and Khuzistan. Although Buyids have a religious and political rivalry with Fatimids, they were much tolerant of Fatimid da’is like al-Mu’ayyad. Klemm reports the entries from Sira that al-Mu’ayyad was much supported by the Daylamis soldiers who defend the Buyid’s family claim to power in Kirman and Fars. One may ask, why Shi’i of Daylam, founded by an Isma’ili opponent Zaydi leader Zayd b. Ali who opposed early Isma’ili Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in 8th CE, supported al-Mu’ayyad’s mission and the Isma’ili movement? Since 9th CE, Isma’ili theologians and philosophers like Abu Hatim al-Razi successfully flourished the Isma’ili da’wa converted many Daylamis amirs in the states of Daylam. As al-Mu’ayyad highlighted the events in his Sira, “it becomes clear that the religious tensions between Daylami Isma’ilis and Sunni of Fars can be understood as a conflict between competing for political interest groups” (Klemm, 2003, p05).

The author also highlighted how this Shi’i-Sunni conflict led to persuade the young Buyid ruler, Abu Kalijar, by the Turkish soldiers, backed by Abbasid caliph, to go against Isma’ilis and al-Mu’ayyad. The situation worsened when Abu Kalijar started to receive threats from the Caliph of Baghdad. Moreover, Abu Kalijar was also accused of “breaking the contract of belief in accepting the religious sovereignty of the Sunni caliph (Klemm, 2003, p39). It could be fair to say that al-Mu’ayyad’s activities in Fars were full of challenges and strain which resulted in leaving Fars and shifting to Cairo.

Klemm (2003) indicated that upon al-Mu’ayyad’s arrival in Cairo, he dissatisfied with his situation. He expresses his dissatisfaction in his memoirs that he “was not even rewarded for his achievements as a da’i. Klemm assumes, analysing the memoir, which the entries were later written in Egypt rather than in Fars. The author further raises some arguments about al-Mu’ayyad’s mentioning of his Fars adventures and events in his memoirs, raising concerns that were it possible for a Buyid ruler to listen to the Isma’ili missionary? And if he did, as al-Mu’ayyad mention in his memoir, then why Abu Kalijar chase al-Mu’ayyad away? In response to these queries, the author discusses another contemporary historical work name Fars-nama the Sunni author Ibn Balkhi.  Through this book, Klemm (2003) explains how Abu Kalijar started using the title “Shahanshah” (King of Kings) between 1038 to 1042 CE and “he accepted al-Mu’ayyad as his teacher” (Klemm, 2003, p48). Further, Klemm also assumes that it was Abu Kalijar’s wazir, al-Adil, who advised Abu Kalijar to “embark on a policy of openness towards Egypt and to establish contact with the local representative of the Fatimids, the da’i al-Mu’ayyad” (Klemm, 2003, p51). However, after the death of al-Adil, the successor of the wazir have taken the allegiance to Abbasid caliph. Klemm (2003) believes that it was the time when Abbasid caliph started promulgating against Fatimid Imam. In conclusion, Klemm (2003) believes that the “al-Mu’ayyad’s mission failed due to the international political dynamic that far outweighed the al-Mu’ayyad influence” (Klemm, 2003, p52).

In the third chapter of the first part of the book The Self-Portrayal of a da’i, the author suggests that the memoir should be treated with caution due to the absence of verifiable sources. As she states that “the Sira does not correspond to the western understanding of a biography or an autobiography, in fact, it is a biographical work that only covers those events and character traits of a person which have political or religious significance” (Klemm, 2003, p57). The author asserts that this Sira is the official report written by al-Mu’ayyad elaborating his talents, devotion and inspiration towards the Imam and da’wa. Also, Klemm elaborates that in the self-portrayal, al-Mu’ayyad explains how he “constantly striven to prove and fulfil the ideals of his mission portraying the qualities of taqwa (piety), siyasa (authority) and ilm (knowledge) which da’i should possess” (Klemm, 2003, p59).

In the second part of the book, Al–Mu’ayyad in Egypt and Syria the author highlights on al-Mu’ayyad’s Sira the events and activities of over twelve years starting from his arrival in Cairo to the Fatimid expansion in Aleppo Syria. In his Sira, al-Mu’ayyad mentioned that these years were of ultimate disappointment for him as he was unable to meet Imam al-Mutansir and instead of becoming da’i he appointed to a chancery. Klemm (2003) believes that it was that time when al-Mu’ayyad started to write his Sira. He wrote some poems expressing his “frustration and misfortune”, or he might want to win the “attention of the Imam” to convince him that he is competent and loyal enough to “lead the sacred da’wa” (Klem, 2003, p76-77).

In the second chapter of part two of the book, Al-Mu’ayyad’s Political Mission in Northern Syria highlights the triumph and impediments of al-Mu’ayyad as he started to the established Fatimid coalition against of Seljuqs. Moreover, he also tried to stop Seljuqs entering into Fatimids lands in Egypt and Syria. Klemm (2003) asserts that how al-Mu’ayyad convince Syrian Bedouin amirs and princes to “form a common alliance with Fatimids and al-Basiri (leader of the Turkish troop in Baghdad) to restrain Seljuq-Turkomen leader Toghril Baig entering Syria” (Klemm, 2003, pg81).

In the last part of the Book, Al-Mu’yyad at the Pinnacle of his Career Klemm referred to the work of Yemeni historian and da’i Idris Imad al-Din’s Uyun al-Akhbar. Through this source, Klemm (2003) elaborates that soon after returning to Egypt, al-Mu’ayyad were admired by the Imam, and his competency and works were eventually appreciated and recognised by the Imam and other da’is. Moreover, Imam composed a qasida (devotional poem) in praise of al-Mu’ayyad, and later he was appointed as a bab al-abwab (Supreme Gate).

Al-Mu’ayyad’s one of the principal duties was to train the da’is through the various stages of da’wa. Al-Mu’ayyad trained significant da’is and poets like Nasir-e-Khusraw. Nasir-e-Khusraw much admired Al-Mu’ayyad’s quality as a teacher that in his one poem he called al-Mu’ayyad as an “Instructor of Humanity” (Klemm, 2003, 101).  Al-Mu’ayyad’s role in the Tayyibi Isma’ili da’wa was also remarkable by training the Sulayhid dynasty’s qadi and supreme leader Lamak b. Malik al-Hammadi in Cairo. Al-Mu’ayyad instructed al-Hammadi in Isma’ili doctrines in the Dar al-Ilm. Upon returning to the region of Yemen, al-Hammadi appointed as a head of da’wa in that region.

The life of this remarkable scholar, statesman and poet came to an end in the age of eighty-three or eighty-four in the first ten days of Shawwal (1078 CE). Throughout his life, al-Mu’ayyad receives three honours. He was the last great religious scholar and grand chief da’i of the Fatimid State. He was buried in his working place and residence at Dar al-Ilm in Cairo. The Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah personally led his funeral ceremonies.

Verena Klemm in her book Memoirs of a Mission cogently elaborated the account of the remarkable life and work of the chief-da’i al-Mu’ayyad fi’l al-Din Shirazi. He faced many challenges and hardships. However, he always remained loyal to the Imam and the to the Fatimid da’wa, placing an example for the future Ummah as a role model.

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