Shainool Jiwa: Muslim-Christian Engagement in early Fatimid Egypt
The Fatimid conquest of Egypt in 969 CE placed the Ismaili Imam-caliphs at the helm of its diverse ethnic and religious populace. The Christians of Egypt constituted a sizeable proportion of the Egyptian populace, with Copts forming the majority and Melkites and Nestorians constituting significant minorities. The tolerant attitude of the Fatimid Imam-caliphs to their Christian subjects has been long noted in the sources as well as in contemporary scholarship. However, the presumptions underlying the Fatimid attitude have oftentimes been premised on the view that as Shia Ismaili Imams, the Fatimids were a minority regime who had little recourse but to bolster their authority by seeking rapprochement with other significant constituencies, such as the Christians. It is generally held that this was primarily driven by the need to offset the influence of the Sunni majority and to curb the influence of the Abbasid regime, which had previously governed Egypt and continued to exert its influence in the region.
An examination of historical sources on early Fatimid rule in Egypt provides a more informed and nuanced picture. Through a review of the reign of al-‘Azῑz bi’llah (344-386/955-996), the first Fatimid Imam-caliph to begin his rule in Egypt, this lecture will seek to elucidate early Fatimid policies regarding their engagement with the Christians of Egypt. It will illustrate that the Fatimid administration sought to establish a model of governance where the rule of (Fatimid) law was paramount in the public sphere. Within that ambit, all confessional communities could negotiate their involvement in the polity as well as benefit from state-protection regarding their communal functioning, so long as they abided by the norms established by the Fatimids.