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Al-Hakim (985?-1021?) ruled as caliph of Fatimid Egypt from 996-1021 C.E. He came to power at the age of eleven when the former caliph died organizing an army to fight the Byzantines. Under his rule, Fatimid power began a period of expansion that didn’t stop until it had blossomed to its fullest extent in terms of territory and influence. And yet, he was about as loony as a loon.

On the positive side, he was somehow still an effective ruler. He is on record as having appointed a Sunni qadi, or judge, simply because he was the best man for the job. The Isma’ili Fatimids had been traditionally Shi’i, as was al-Hakim himself at the time, so it’s not difficult to see why the decision was surprising. Very interested in astrology, he sponsored astronomical scholars like the mathematician ibn Yunus, and he finished the construction of a really, really nice mosque for the study of religious and physical sciences. He consolidated Fatimid power in Syria to its greatest extent, too. His dynasty sent Ismai’ili dais, or missionaries, to the rest of the predominantly Sunni dar al-Islam.

On the international scene, al-Hakim set up alliances with the rulers of the Hijaz, Cyenaica, Kufa, and a number of other minor Iraqi princes and warlords. Eventually these alliances formed under al-Hakim would lead in 1058 to the sending of a great Turkish general, al-Basasiri, to force the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad to submit to Fatimid rule. Although al-Hakim had long since gone by that point, he sowed the seeds that would lead to this, the political high point of Fatimid Egypt.

However, his domestic policies, especially in the city of Cairo itself, revealed his character as a religiously inspired insane demagogue. Even though, as mentioned above, he sponsored ibn Yunus, al-Hakim still ordered the sacking of the city of al-Fustat, in which Yunus kept an observatory. That was the least weird of his many bizarre acts, though. He ordered the extermination of all dogs in Cairo because their barking annoyed him. He also banned shellfish, certain vegetables such as molokia, and chess playing.

Many of his disruptive, strange actions were symptomatic of his desire to be a sort of perfect Islamic ruler. He wanted to dispense justice, at least according to his definition of it, and enforce public morality. He tried to cultivate an image of asceticism, and in spite of his immense personal wealth and power he avoided luxury as much as possible and also rode unescorted on an unadorned donkey whenever he went out. Shoes for women were disallowed under his rule. Women weren’t allowed to go outside, and if one was found in the baths she was walled up there permanently. He also still found the time to fight for social justice, and those who were seen to be taking too much advantage of their wealth and power were often dealt with summarily and harshly.

In the same vein, he ordered the destruction of Egypt’s vineyards in order to eliminate alcohol. Christians and Jews endured a certain degree of persecution under his rule, in contrast to most Islamic states of the day, in which they were merely somewhat governmentally underrepresented. To demonstrate the security of Cairo under his rule, he ordered that all Cairo shopkeepers open only after dark and did his shopping then personally.

Possibly one of the strangest things said about al-Hakim is that he offered a sort of twisted lottery that was supposed to emulate the hand of God. Some of the prizes were incredible wealth or power while others were sudden, horrible death.

Towards the end of his reign, he got into Sunnism, which ironically was the most popular form of Islam in his own domain, and with his usual flair started to get way too into it. He made a lot of trouble for his own administration, which was run by Shi’is. He had his troops attack the bourgeoisie of Cairo in 1021 and after wandering around in the middle of the fighting rode out into the desert alone on his donkey. In the tradition of Clint Eastwood, he rode off into the sunset into the hills of Mokattam and was never heard from again.

After his disappearance, the robust Fatimid administration managed to straighten out the mess he’d made of the city and the status quo ante was effectively restored. That’s not the end of his story, however. A few Isma’ilis were so captivated by al-Hakim’s unique personality that in 1017 they thought he might make a good deity. They regarded his life as an allegory for all of human history and eventually developed into a quasi-Islamic (and on a more subjective note, vaguely scary) religious sect, the Druzes, that still endures to this day.

Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization Book 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Robinson, Francis Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World London: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

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