A Fearless Fidai – The Story of al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi

O towering mountain of knowledge, incapacitating the aspiring climber. You have surpassed the compass of the earlier [da’is]. Your like cannot be found among those that have gone—among all people—nor those that remain.

Imam Mustansir (Qasida)

In a constellation of brilliant philosophers like Hasan bin Sabbah, political geniuses like Rashid al-Din Sinan, and talented philosopher-poets like Nasir Khushraw, al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi is a glittering star. Called a “towering mountain of knowledge” by the Imam of his Time, the incomparable Shirazi was one of the most important figures of the Fatimid period. Considering his reputation for spiritual elevation, intellectual prowess, and unparalleled devotion to the Imam, you could be forgiven for thinking that Shirazi was universally celebrated and invited happily into the highest echelons of religious authority.

Unfortunately you would think wrong.

Shirazi struggled his entire life to bring his unique talents to the service of the Jamat and his adversaries were Sunni, Buyid, and Ismaili alike. His poetry was saturated with weeping lamentations of his talents being wasted and his blocked access to the Imam. Remarkably, despite countless setbacks and challenges, Shirazi never forsook the Imam and never stopped his struggle to serve him – whatever it cost him – and cost him it did. The story of Shirazi is a moving example of the luminaries whose selfless service kept the community intellectually vibrant and should never be forgotten.

Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi was born in 996 or 997 with the name Abu Nasr Hibat Allah b. Abi ‘Imran Musa b. Da’ud. Born and raised in the city of Shiraz in the province of Fars in southwest Persia, he is often called al-Shirazi, meaning “from Shiraz”. Given many titles during the course of his illustrious career, he is more commonly known for the title he received during his appointment as dai of Fars: al-Mu’ayyad fi al-Din (the One Aided [by God] in Religion].

The last in a long line of Ismaili dai’s, his ancestors served the Ismaili Imams even when they were in concealment prior to the advent of the Fatimid Caliphate. Imam Mustansir billah later noted:

…and you [O Mu’ayyad] come from a family of Godly dais, who “spent [their money for the cause] since before the conquest, and fought” before the first heralds of dawn; and they conducted the da’wa for the concealed Imams, forefathers of the Commander of the Faithful [al-Mustansir], when no banner had yet been unfurled for them. And they undertook the establishment of the signposts of their religion when the world was injustice and darkness, following in the best path of piety and right-guidance, and taking the most protective of shields from godliness and appropriate action. You have followed in their traces, and have become the most beauteous of them in deeds, and the most elevated in glory on the occasions of obedience and nobility…

Qutbuddin 21

In Fatimid Ismaili terminology, the Supreme Hujjat or Bab (Gate) of the Imam is like the Pir of the Sathpanthi tradition – he is second to the Imam in terms of spiritual elevation and is the spiritual mother of the Ismaili community, see diagram the below (Virani 75):

His soul is illuminated constantly with the brilliance of the Imam’s and his knowledge comes directly from that source. Shirazi was the Supreme Hujjat or Bab. His devotion to the Ismaili Imams was absolute and he was a fearless warrior in their cause. Surrounded by hostile Sunni and Buyid forces in Shiraz, he was forced to operate in “semi-secrecy”. Nevertheless he attracted an impressive following and converted many people to Ismailism – including, for a time, the Buyid Sultan of Shiraz, Abu Kalijar, himself. But that comes later. Let us begin his story with Idd of 1038 where Shirazi, as head of the Persian Ismailis – simply by following his faith – ended up causing a ruckus that very nearly cost him his life:

Shirazi in Shiraz

It was the very members of his Ismaili following that came on July 7, 1038 to celebrate Idd al-Fitr with him in the courtyard of his house. He had prepared a feast to commemorate the festival marking the end of Ramadhan. In contrast to Sunni custom, according to Ismaili tradition, the end of the month of fasting is determined using mathematical calculations. However, the predominantly Sunni population of Shiraz eschewed the Ismaili method, instead relying on physically sighting a NEW moon.

In 1038 there was a very significant snag the Sunni denizens came up against: as a wall of clouds obscured the moon, they continued to fast, all the while becoming increasingly angry at the quietly feasting Ismailis. Despite Shirazi’s best efforts – counseling his followers patience and peace in the face of their neighbors’ attacks – the situation escalated to a fevered pitch when at last the wall of clouds dissipated and a CRESCENT moon (and not a new moon) became visible.

As the Sunni population realized that they had fasted a day too long and, in so doing, violated the injunction not to fast on the day of celebration – they became incensed. The Ismailis had been right – but that fact only added fuel to fire. The town judge (qadi) contacted the wazir and demanded a bloody revenge, asking for permission to “destroy [Shirazi’s] house and kill everybody there” (Klemm 21).

The wazir then summoned Shirazi before him and, when Shirazi reminded him gently of the Ismaili Daylami soldiers who would presumably be upset if their da’i was murdered, instead put him under house arrest.

Heartbroken at the arrest of their faultless leader, the Ismaili soldiers marched in protest, handing a letter to the wazir himself. Why could the Christians and Jews practice their faith unmolested while the leader of the Ismaili Muslims is arrested simply for using a different method to determine the date of Idd? The absurdity of the situation was too much to countenance!

Intrigued by the passionate Ismaili leader, the Sultan of Shiraz ordered a debate be held between Shirazi and his Sunni opponents – a disputation on the esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of the Qur’an – a cornerstone of Ismaili doctrine. Shirazi, in his element, handily destroyed both his Sunni opponents (who incidentally held differing perspectives on the same issue) and his brilliance won a prize student: the Sultan himself.

Ecstatic over being able to bring the Sultan over to his faith, Shirazi taught the Sultan the principles of Ismailism, including encouraging him to stop drinking. One formerly Ismaili drinking buddy of the Sultan protested at the loss of his drinking partner and began to turn the Sultan against his new teacher – unfortunately for our harassed da’i – his enemy succeeded.

Shirazi was effectively banished from Shiraz. He fled to the nearby town of Ahwaz.

Even though he had been banished for standing up for his Ismaili faith and teaching others about it, he could not cease these same activities. In fact, when he stumbled across an abandoned masjid, he repaired it – and, in it, inscribed the names of the Ismaili Imams in vibrant gold!

If that was not enough, he asked a team of TWENTY Ismaili muezzins to loudly announce the call to prayer – including the Shia phrase “Come to the best of deeds.” He did not even stop there. To the fury of the Sunni residents he offered the Friday sermon in the name of the Ismaili Imam. The Sunnis of Ahwaz were up in arms – too scared to confront the Ismaili soldiers guarding the masjid under Shirazi’s watchful eye, the town judge (qadi) instead wrote to the center of Sunni power – the Abbasid Caliphs in faraway Baghdad.

The Abbasids sent an emissary and Shirazi was again forced to flee under the cover of darkness and in disguise back to Shiraz. The entire trip he dreaded being caught and executed.

This time the elite of Shiraz had laid a clever trap.

They presented him with a well-respected old shaykh and demand that he debate the elderly gentleman publicly – hoping that he would lose his temper and therefore the respect of the audience. The wily dai, however, turned the entire situation on its head. He kindly, respectfully, and easily defeated the old shaykh who blanched and fled from the hall, literally tripping on his own robe in shame.

But if he thought his exemplary performance would save his life, he was sorely mistaken. The Abbasids demanded that the Sultan of Shiraz turn Shirazi over to them, asking Shirazi to repudiate his Imam and faith under threat of his life. Placed under a seven-month house arrest, he was terrified that any moment would be his last. Despite the hostile environs, Shirazi never wavered in devotion to the Imam of the Time – his poetry full of longing for the safety and succor of the Imam in his palace in Cairo:

It is through you that Ibn Musa asks God for deliverance
from captivity and from confinement in the worst of stopping places.
Entering shade in the courtyard of His elect,
shady, and residing in security in the refuge of the palace

Qutbuddin 48

Finally, the Sultan of Shiraz had enough of the Ismaili firebrand who inexplicably would not abandon the faith of his ancestors and his beloved Imam. Banished from his homeland, at around fifty years of age, Shirazi again disguised himself from detection and became a refugee. The silver lining of his expulsion from his home was his certainty that he will receive deedar, or an audience with the Imam that he and his entire family had served faithfully all their lives.

His poetry expressed his confidence that generations of unprecedented devoted service in Shiraz would finally be recognized in the heart of Ismaili power – Fatimid Cairo. He was convinced that his years of worriment and torment would finally be at an end:

I have [made] a firm resolution—if God brings the matter to completion,
the completion of the
resolution is sufficient healing for the breast!
alighting at the door of the palace, fulfilling my heart’s desire,
and finding near the distant comfort.
Then I shall find the star of my happiness rising,
as I find the rising star of ill-omen falling,
at a door whose elevation resides where Arcturus is,
certainly, rather, it is more elevated than both Arcturus and Spica Virginis,
belonging to the master of the people al-Mustansir, the one who uncovers darkness,
the quintessence of those who walk the earth…
There [will be] no disappointment from God’s [giving of] comfort, for I see
Him very favorable towards my serious resolution.
So that I dust off all care at [the Imam’s] door,
and [there] end the remainder of my days.
O you who gloat over [my] exile, desist, for I have
attained through it honor above [all] honor.

Qutbuddin 53

Shirazi in Cairo

Almost immediately following his arrival in Fatimid Cairo, Shirazi noticed that political power players, whose motivations were not as pure as his own, had overrun the Ismaili capital – drawn to the power of the radiant Imam-Caliph.

His confidence and hopes – dashed.

Conflicted by a certainty that his services were direly necessary and an uncertainty that an honest man would be able to function in such a pernicious atmosphere, Shirazi wrote despairingly to his brother:

…I am informing you O my brother—may God give comfort to your heart and grant you what pleases you in both worlds—that after suffering the appalling events you saw with your own eyes, . . . I reached, with great difficulty, the Pure Door (of the Imam), vacillating between despair and hope . . . hope because of a service whose like no one but me had rendered, . . . and despair because I knew that the one sought was a sun concealed in a curtain, and the face of a day wearing a veil of clouds.

Qutbuddin 57

Of course the “Sun” of Shirazi’s letter was the Imam, who was “concealed in a curtain” of the bureaucrats who restricted access to him and had run amok in his capital. One such bureaucrat was Shirazi’s immediate supervisor, Chief Da’i and Judge al-Qasim, great grandson of the famous Fatimid Ismaili jurist and da’i al-Qadi al-Numan. To his despair, Shirazi found al-Qasim incompetent and patently inferior in every way. It was also clear that al-Qasim was far from elated that the unstoppable force of nature, da’i Shirazi, had come to Cairo and indeed considered it a threat to his position.

After more than a year of pleading with one person and another, and getting a constant run-around, Shirazi finally had enough. Infuriated and frustrated, he wrote to the wazir explosively that he had not come to Cairo seeking a position or material gain but rather he had come only for the Imam. If he could not serve the Imam then he demanded permission to leave and be useful to the Imam elsewhere:

O Shaykh, know that my land has not spit me out from its mouth except for being exposed in the service of the ‘Alawite [i.e. Fatimid] state, for fear from the Abbasid side, and escaping from a sedition whose malice almost killed me, and whose drowning almost overtook me—not because I was stung by the live coals of poverty and therefore took shelter in the antidote of profit and utility. There is no motive to this endeavor of mine except the motive of belief, and the person sought is none but the master of the palace, who is the Imam of the Age, not the viziers or intermediaries or aides.

Qutbuddin 58

The wazir, accustomed to sycophantic panegyric, was angry at Shirazi’s passionate devoted speech and dismissal of his exalted position. He denied him permission to leave and proceeded to make Shirazi’s life very unpleasant – that is – until the wazir was unexpectedly killed.

At the demise of the previous wazir, Shirazi was finally allowed the opportunity he has been longing for – a glimpse of the Imam of his time. Shirazi movingly describes the experience as follows:

My eyes had barely fallen on him when awe took hold of me and reverence overcame me; and it appeared to me as though I was standing in front of the Messenger of God [Mu ̇ammad] and the Commander of the Faithful [‘Alì]—May God’s blessings be upon them!—facing their faces. I tried, when I fell to the earth prostrating for the master of prostration and the one worthy of it, to make my tongue intercede with him in a goodly manner by its speech, and I found it bound by the tonguetiedness of awe, and isolated from the virtue of eloquent speech.

When I lifted my head from the prostration and gathered my clothes about me in order to sit, I saw a finger signaling me to rise for some- one present in that place, and the Commander of the Faithful—May God perpetuate his kingdom!—frowned with his face at him in rebuke; I had not raised my head by [the signal] nor accorded it any value. I stayed in his Presence for an hour, my tongue not rising to speech nor finding the way to words, and each time those present tried to get me to speak, I increased in tonguetiedness and in storming up the steep hill of stammering, and he—May God perpetuate his kingdom!— kept saying, “Let him be till he calms down and becomes accustomed.”

Then I arose, took his noble hand and kissed it and placed it upon my eyes and breast, bade farewell and left.

Qutbuddin 61

A couple months after Shirazi’s deedar, the Chief Da’i and Judge al-Qasim, scion of the most prominent Ismaili family, was also removed from his offices – presumably for incompetence. Considering his embarrassment of qualifications Shirazi knew that he was the obvious candidate to be appointed as Chief Da’i. To his utter astonishment, both positions of Chief Judge and Chief Da’i (the titular head of the da’wa – the call to summons for the Ismaili people) would instead be led by the new wazir – a Sunni! This secular position of Chief Da’i, the head of the Ismaili Religious Education at the time, was clearly not given to the candidate with the most merit but rather to the most capable administrator and the most politically astute actor. Still Shirazi’s hopes were dashed.

The newly-appointed Sunni chief of the da’wa and the judiciary, al-Yazuri, strong-armed Shirazi to stay in the city – and not just that – but to ghostwrite his sermons at the majalises that took place multiple times a week! One can only imagine Shirazi agreeing to ghostwrite these sermons out of certainty that his knowledge of Ismaili spiritual truths would still be disseminated to the Ismaili people. To sweeten the bitter pill, al-Yazuri implied to Shirazi that – when he ultimately left his position – it would belong to Shirazi. Shirazi agreed and so received no credit for the da’wa sermons given by the chief da’i for more than a year.

It is obvious that al-Yazuri understood the vast intellectual talents of the da’i Shirazi – why else would he ask that he ghostwrite the sermons? Why else call Shirazi “your da’i and trusted one (thiqa)” to the Imam al-Mustansir? But at the same time, he admitted to his relative in a private letter, that his egregious mistreatment of the learned da’i could be traced to a personal dislike of the man.

Miserable at this state of affairs – so contrary to his hopes – Shirazi poured his despair into his poetry and complained of his presence being wasted:

I made licit the sanctuary
of my blood for their sake, and for their sake
I lost my youth and the spring of my life.
For their sake I became a stranger away from my homeland,

wandering the earth, desert after desert.
And when I came to them, a knowledgeable man, patiently enduring
the good, when it comes to him, as well as the bad,
speaking out and acting for their fealty,
offering good counsel in secret and [in] public,
“they wasted me, and what a youth they wasted
for a day of adversity and the closing of a breach.”

If Fate had not diminished my fortune,
they would not have denied my fortune and my value.
Yes, they know I am one who obeys Religion,
when other[s] obey long robes and rags.
If they had unsheathed my sword, they would have seen it
splitting and cutting the jugular veins of the enemy;

and I would have perfumed on the body of Religion,
garments no perfumer can perfume;
so that I relieve the drought of Egypt—but that is innovation,
when here is Joseph in the land of Egypt!

Qutbuddin 65

Still toying with the aging da’i, the vizier al-Yazuri then decided to send him on a military mission to Syria. When Shirazi refused due to his debilitating ill-health, the sly vizier told him that it was the Imam himself who had made the request.

What could the da’i say to a request from his much-loved murshid?

He wrote a letter to the Imam himself protesting this appointment and describing his age-induced infirmities – but after the Imam acknowledged receipt of his letter – all he could say was Ameen. Prior to his departure to Syria he questioned the choice of campsite and expressed his misgivings to the Imam himself. When the Imam responded, saying the choice had been his decision, Shirazi immediately accepted it, saying: “ma wara’ hadha al-ikhtiyar ikhtiyar” (there is no choice better other than [your] choice.) But he did not leave without spilling his heart to his Imam, expressing his pain and disappointment at the treatment he had received and his limited access to the object of his devotion – the Imam himself:

Our Master—May God preserve your kingdom!—it was not the habit of your fathers and grandfathers—May God sanctify their souls and bless them!—to cut off the established practice (rasm) of their servants [appearing before them], or to change a ruling regarding [their appearing before them]. Why then do you cut off your servant’s practice of presenting [himself ] in this noble place and standing in this great station?

Qutbuddin 68

The Imam smiled in response and wished him luck – “express[ing] confidence in victory” (Qutbuddin 68). Shirazi left, his heart lighter.

The Imam’s confidence in Shirazi was not misplaced. He did momentous work, convincing multiple parties to fight in the name of the Fatimid Imam and – as a result – pro-Fatimid forces marched into the heart of Abbasid power: Baghdad. The khutba was delivered there in the name of the Imam al-Mustansir and the call to prayer in the Shia style. Strangely, despite the landmark event, the vizier ordered no victory celebrations in Cairo and, on Shirazi’s return, he entered the city unsung, uncelebrated.

Shirazi described his disappointing homecoming after his incredible service and victory:

Thus I entered [Cairo] like one vanquished, not one who has vanquished, one broken, not one who has broken, one defeated, not one who has defeated; and I received the opposite and inverse of what I had hoped for in terms of advancement and enhancement and elevation to the loftiness of the Pleiades.

Qutbuddin 77

Still, even after momentous achievements both in the realm of da’wat and in the unfamiliar (to him) realm of military success, his achievements remained unrecognized and his access to the august person of the Imam – denied.

As expressed by the later Imam Shah Gharib Mirza in the Counsels of Chivalry (Pir Pandiyat-i-Jawanmardi), the believer “must be sincere and patient, exercising restraint and patience in all his actions… except in two cases in which patience is improper… even… a nefarious step and a sign of unbelief: …first in the case of deedar… second in the following of the command and instruction of God… one cannot exercise patience in these two matters and must never do it.” Shirazi followed this guidance to a t – impatient for an audience with the Imam – unwilling to delay deedar even an hour, for all the kingdoms of the East.

Bewildered. Passionate. Like a lover, begging for an impatient glimpse of his hidden beloved, Shirazi wrote a qasida addressed to the Imam:

I swear that if you were to crown me
with the crown of Khosroes, King of the East,
and if you were to give me [charge of] all the world’s affairs,
of those people who have departed and those who remain,
while saying, “We shall not meet for another hour,”
I would rather, O my Master, we meet.
For your keeping me away for an hour
has grayed my heart along with my head.

Qutbuddin 78

To his immense joy, the Imam responded in kind – and how!

The Imam wrote and even recited an eight-verse qasida matched in meter and rhyme with the one written by his ardent da’i, expressing his admiration and love for his follower:

O ̇hujja, famous among all people,
O towering mountain of knowledge, incapacitating the aspiring climber.
Our doors were not locked to you
except due to a hurtful, disturbing cause,
and we have not veiled ourselves from you from loathing, so trust
in our affection, and return to the worthier [ path].178
We were worried for your heart if you heard it, and our shunning was the
shunning of a concerned parent.
Our followers have lost their right guidance,
in the West, O companion, and in the East.
So spread among them what you will of our knowledge,
and be for them the concerned father.
Even though you are the last in our da’wa,
you have surpassed the
compass of the earlier [da’is].
Your like cannot be found among those that have gone
—among all people—nor those that remain.

Qutbuddin 78

Finally, in 1058 – more than twelve years after his disappointed move to Cairo – al-Yazuri was imprisoned on charges of embezzlement and Shirazi finally reached the position he knew he belonged in and was eminently qualified for. No longer a ghostwriter for the position – he became the titular head of the da’wa: the da’i al-du’at.

Two weeks after the conquering of Baghdad under the Imam’s name, Chief Da’i Shirazi not only received deedar of his Imam, was not simply given the position of da’i al-du’at, but was acknowledged as the spiritual wife of the Imam, the mother of the Jamat, Salman al-Farsi to the Holy Prophet, the hujjat-i-akbar, the bab al-abwab, the Gate to the Imam. His status was proclaimed officially on February 9, 1059, for all to see and hear. Unsurprisingly, given the obvious venal machinations of the bureaucrats of the Fatimid Ismaili state, this was not the end of the story for the poor beleaguered Ismaili dai, his honeymoon was not to last.

Although the Imam had publicly proclaimed his spiritual status and the love he held for his da’i, the constant politicking of Fatimid Cairo was unstoppable. From 1061 to 1062 the new vizier Ibn al-Mudabbir exiled him – purportedly for having a stutter – and took his exalted Chief Da’i position for himself.

A year later, when yet another vizier was removed from office, the Imam al-Mustansir himself called his da’i Shirazi back and, on his return from exile, Shirazi resumed his position of Chief Da’i until two months before his death in 1078, at age eighty-three or eighty-four when another Sunni, Badr al-Jamali took his position in addition to the vizierate, the head of the military and the Chief Judgeship. Not long later, Badr al-Jamali’s son al-Afdal instigated a coup against the Ismaili Imams, resulting in the Nizari/Tayyibi split. After funeral prayers conducted by Imam al-Mustansir himself, Shirazi was buried at the Dar al-‘Ilm where he lived as Chief Da’i.

Shirazi left behind an extensive and profound corpus including an autobiography (sira), a diwan (book of poetry), a Persian translation of one of Qadi al-Numan’s Arabic books, and most importantly his al-Majalis al-Mu’ayyadiyya, composed of 800 of his sermons full of Quranic exegesis and Ismaili theology. Additionally, his most famous student, Nasir Khushraw’s writings are full of praise and learning’s from Shirazi himself.

Though his life was not easy (to say the least), far from being bitter about his long years of hardship and mistreatment, Shirazi viewed these trials as tests and as a force that actually strengthened him and his faith:

I have become gold for the sun of right guidance,
and far be it from fire to consume gold!

Qutbuddin 100

echoing the words of a previous Ismaili dai:

The hardship with which [believers] are afflicted in this world is the lighter punishment. There is no way other than purification. Have you seen impure gold? Is there any way other than purification by fire, so that impurities burn off and pure gold remains? Such is the example of believers.

Qutbuddin 100

In the more than 1400 years of Ismaili history – from the horrific murder of our first Imam ‘Ali to the attempted murder of our Imam Shah Sultan Muhammad Shah by German Nazis, Ismaili Imams and their followers have been subject to brutal conditions. It’s only very recently that a significant proportion of Ismailis have lived in relative safety. But throughout our history, we have been fortunate to have Ismaili da’i’s and fidai’s who have devoted their lives to the betterment and education of the Ismaili community, and who have fought – despite all the odds – fearlessly for not just it’s survival but it’s spiritual edification. As Pir Pandiyat-i-Jawanmardi says: ​

Therefore, O, believers, see God in your own hearts, keeping your hearts well-polished, removing rust, dust, doubt and hypocrisy from the mirror of your hearts by the brush of firm faith (yaqin), and wash it with the water of religious knowledge, so that you may see God in that mirror of your hearts.

Al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi was at the forefront of the fight to give Ismailis the “religious knowledge” with which to wash their hearts and fulfill the Imam’s guidance. As the Imam himself told us, Shirazi was a “mountain of knowledge” and his immense contribution to the religious knowledge of the community should never be lost to time. And his story of struggle against forces who attempted to marginalize him – from both within and outside the jamat – should be remembered and honored by we, his inheritors.

  1. Klemm, Verena, Memoirs of a Mission
  2. Qutbuddin, Tahera, Al-Mu’ayyad Al-Shirazi And Fatimid Da’wa Poetry- A Case Of Commitment In Classical Arabic Literature
  3. Virani, Shafique, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages
  4. Pir Pandiyat-i-Jawanmardi, trans. Ivanow

8 thoughts on “A Fearless Fidai – The Story of al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi

  1. Thank you so very much for this article, and all your other articles. The knowledge and happiness I get from reading them, I hope it comes back to you and your families tenfold.

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