The mother of Al-Mustansir Billah

If Sitt al-Mulk was a model for a successful Fatimid woman in the political field, the mother of the Caliph Al-Mustansir was her antithesis; a woman who – faced with harsh circumstances that almost led to the destruction of the caliphate – has become synonymous with failure.

In 1035 AD, the Fatimid Caliph Az-Zahir li A′zaz li Din-illah died and his son, Abu Tamim Ma′ad al-Mustansir Billah, was instated as caliph. Since Al-Mustansir was not even seven years old, his mother was his guardian until he reached adulthood.

It is odd that despite all the power and influence that she exercised, we hardly find her name mentioned in the historical texts of the Fatimid era; all of the sources refer to her solely as the mother of Al-Mustansir, without a name or a distinctive title.

In the early period of her rule, the Fatimid state extended its sphere of influence to include numerous countries and regions. The empire included Egypt, South of the Levant, North Africa, Sicily, the Red Sea and the countries of Hejaz and Yemen.

As the years went by, however, the tide began to turn.

The Qibla of the Fatimid caliph al-Mustansir Billah in the Mosque of Ibn Tulun with the phrase ʿalī-un-walī-u-allāh at the end, Cairo (source: Wikimedia Commons; Public Domain)
"The hard years of al-Mustansir": in-fighting between different national factions coupled with seven years of drought and famine brought the powerful Fatimid dynasty to its knees

According to Ibn al-Athir′s Al-Kamil fi al-tarikh (The Complete History), the mother of Al-Mustansir was of Sudanese origin. She sought to raise the status of Sudanese soldiers who were an integral part of the Fatimid army ranks in Egypt. In doing so, she aimed to protect her rule and to create a counterbalance that would limit the power of the Moroccan and Turkish soldiers, who represented the main and fundamental force in the caliphate.

This triggered civil war between the different sections of the Fatimid army and the state deteriorated as a result. The conflict took place as a seven year period of famine and drought laid waste to the empire. The economic consequences in Egypt were dire – and are described by historians as "Al-Shidda al-Mustansiriya" (the hard years of al-Mustansir).

As for the mother of Al-Mustansir, some historians like Ibn Taghribirdi and Al-Maqrizi mention that she had left for Baghdad with her daughters during the famine years. She left her son, the young caliph, behind, hoping he would salvage his rule in Cairo.

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