Challenging the 'Shiʿi Century': the Fatimids (909-1171), Buyids (945-1055), and the creation of a sectarian narrative of Medieval Islamic history



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This dissertation focuses on two Shiʿi dynasties of the tenth century, the Fatimid caliphate (909-1171) of Egypt and North Africa and the Buyid Amirate (945-1055) of Iraq and Iran. It traces their rise to power from eighth and ninth-century missionary movements, the ways in which they articulated their right to rule, and reactions to their authority. By bringing the Fatimids and Buyids into a comparative framework, the goal of this dissertation is to challenge the notion of the ‘Shiʿi Century,’ a term used to describe this era, as a label that has needlessly narrowed analyses of this period into binaries of Sunni versus Shiʿi and privileged the urban, elite, Sunni textual tradition over experiences of medieval Muslims that are often discredited as ‘heterodox.’ This dissertation focuses on three aspects of Fatimid and Buyid history that have never been studied together. First, it explores the role of eighth- and ninth-century non-Sunni missionary movements in the conversion and Islamization of the non-urban peripheries of the Middle East, which led to the rise to power of the Fatimid and Buyid dynasties. Second, it analyzes the pragmatic ways that these two Shiʿi dynasties combined multiple forms of authority to articulate their legitimacy in a way that appealed to the heterogeneous populations of the tenth-century Middle East. Third, it compares tenth-century reactions to the rise of these two Shiʿi dynasties with depictions of them from the eleventh century and later, arguing that it was only in retrospect that the story of the tenth century was rewritten ex post facto as a sectarian narrative. By comparing the Fatimids and the Buyids and focusing on contemporary Sunni depictions of these dynasties, this dissertation concludes that the significance of the Shiʿi identity of these two dynasties has been exaggerated. Rather than being only Shiʿi anomalies, these dynasties fit into existing processes in the development of Islamic society.