Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

The Madness of Caliph Hakim: An Unlikely Messiah (I)

In the course of history there have been a small number of rulers who, for a variety of reasons, chose to promote the idea of themselves as Godlike (or even as Gods). Obviously from their exalted position these individuals had a head start over any ordinary megalomaniac since, whatever their real motives, and however crazy they were, they were usually in a position to impose any notions of their divine nature directly onto their subjects. In the Roman period both Caligula and Nero, (neither of whom were the most mentally stable of the Emperors) made the most serious attempts to have themselves worshipped as Gods, and there were various other attempts to reintroduce the ancient idea of a God-King. None of these experiments, however, survived the demise of the Emperors involved.

The idea of the likes of Caligula or Nero or Domitian as divine, or even heroic, appeared quite ludicrous to the worldly, sceptical Romans. Once the immediate pressures to pay homage to these living Gods was removed (with their demise), belief evaporated. Hero-worshipping cults, particularly those with religious overtones, are not so easily synthesised. In fact there are few instances in the historical period of a ruler putting it over on his subjects in this way. But there is one remarkable example, from the world of medieval Islam, where a ruler did, albeit posthumously, attain a degree of devotion to his divine nature that quite matched his own convictions in this regard. However, the story is, to say the least, an incongruous one …


In 996, on the untimely death of his father, the tolerant Caliph Aziz, the eleven-year-old Al-Hakim bi-amrillah ('he who rules at the command of God') succeeded to the throne at Cairo. He thus became the third Fatimid Caliph, and the spiritual leader of the Shia branch of Islam. However, because of his youth the government of Egypt was placed in the hands of a capable Regent, one Barjawan, a eunuch. In this way the continuity of Fatimid rule was ensured. But as he grew older Hakim came to deeply resent the constraints placed upon him by the ruling council. At the age of fifteen he seized power and had the eunuch put to death. On some occasion Barjawan had apparently described the youngster as a lizard - now that he had attained power Hakim declared that the Lizard had become a Dragon. Thus began the reign of the most despotic of Caliphs, and one of the most perverse careers of any ruler at any time.

Hakim's reign has been compared to that of the Emperor Caligula, and each was as mad as the other, but the Caliph retained his grip on power for far longer. Caligula's dreadful reputation was largely based on the latter half of his four-year reign, but the citizens of Cairo had to endure Hakim's tyrannical rule for twenty-four years - much of which may fairly be described as a reign of terror. As with Caligula there were early indications of Hakim's impetuosity and cruelty that pointed to serious mental instability. The workings of his mind are unaccountable, but insofar as any general motives can be ascribed to his capricious and oppressive rule they were those of a religious reactionary, probably in response to his father’s relative liberality.

Hakim had a fixation with the Night. Soon after assuming power he established a nocturnal council, made up of various ministers and advisors. But from the beginning the atmosphere of this assembly was extremely uneasy. Hakim was paranoid and intolerant of advisors, and those who were closest to him were most likely to be the victims of his rages. He was suspicious of advice, however reasonable, usually regarding it merely as an attempt to restrain his power. Several ministers of state met with the same fate as Barjarwan, and eventually he dismissed the council and assumed personal control of all affairs of state, devoting his considerable, manic, energies to the task.

It was said of his rule that 'caprice was the sole constant'. One of his more notorious acts was to reverse night and day. This was done by stages. The Caliph at first banned the transaction of any sort of business during daylight hours. This edict was then extended to a ban on men leaving their houses during the day for any reason at all (by this time women had been forbidden to leave their houses for any reason by either night or day). There was, in fact, a strong misogynistic aspect to many of Hakim's acts. Earlier in his career he had ordered a group of noisy women in the public baths to be parboiled. Many other bizarre impositions were to follow - at one time he completely forbade the selling of shoes, on another occasion he ordered the destruction of all the dogs in Cairo.

Like the legendary Harun ar-Rashid, the Caliph of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’, Hakim took to roaming the streets at all hours, accompanied by an armed guard, checking that his orders were being obeyed. Any infringements were summarily dealt with, and offenders were usually scourged or beheaded on the spot. His justice, in Nerval's phrase, was 'swift, terrible and devoid of apparent motive'. One of his more notorious practices was directed against the sharp practices of the Cairene merchants. Those who were caught cheating were likely to be publicly sodomised by a huge Negro slave who accompanied Hakim on his rounds, with Hakim himself assisting in the task by standing on the unfortunate victims head.

This paranoid and arbitrary rule extended to his own court; anyone, at any time, no matter how high their standing, was likely to be tortured or executed on the merest whim. Hakim also instituted a campaign of persecution against his Jewish and Christian subjects, making them wear distinctive clothing and placing them under an ever-increasingly oppressive series of strictures. This religious hostility was gradually institutionalised into a full-scale program of extortion and expropriation, and was accompanied by the demolition of churches and synagogues throughout the Middle East. Christian pilgrims trying to make their way to Jerusalem were also subjected to restrictions and harassment.

The most appalling aspect of Hakim's behaviour, however, at least in the eyes of his Sunnite subjects, was his frequently declared conviction of his own divine status, an unprecedented and outrageous blasphemy to any Muslim believer. When he went so far as to insist on the substitution of his own name for that of Allah in the weekly address from the mosques there were riots, but these were brutally suppressed. There was a growing opposition to Hakim's religious innovations, and not only from his more pious subjects; but public relations were not his strong suit. He pressed on in his mad, provocative way, even going so far as forbidding the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. By this time he had surrounded himself with a group of sycophants who encouraged him in even his most extravagant fantasies, and in this fevered atmosphere a group of devotees and a new, bizarre, doctrine came into being in which Hakim was a divine ruler sent from God. His new disciples took to addressing the Caliph as 'Our sole Lord, Giver of Life and Giver of Death'. When three of these devotees were assassinated in Cairo's principle mosque (where they were asserting the Caliph's divinity), Hakim unleashed his troops on the city with orders to loot and destroy. A great deal of damage was done in a three-day rampage (which Hakim viewed from the nearby Mokkatam hills), but such was the popular resistance that his troops began to waver and sympathise with the long suffering populace.

In fact these events heralded Hakim's downfall. The end was as violent and unaccountable as his rule. The Caliph failed to return from one of his regular nightly excursions, and although his mount and clothes were recovered his body was never found. His subjects greeted his demise with almost universal relief, but of one the most extraordinary aspect of his story was yet to be played out - and it is one that places a quite different interpretation on Hakim's life and works. This was because a community (whose home-base was far removed from Cairo) came to accept his claims to be the Incarnation of God.

In Egypt notions of Hakim's 'divinity' evaporated with his departure from the scene, and without his patronage his followers, now vulnerable to charges of blasphemy and heresy, scattered. One of the leading figures in this group, ad-Durazi, fled to Syria where he continued to preach the doctrine of Hakim's divinity. Eventually this strange cult found a home in the mountain fastness of Lebanon, where it was adopted by an ethnic group that came to be known as the Druze. For these people Hakim was (and still is) the Messiah that he claimed to be: his body was never found for the good reason that it was transported directly to heaven. In their view Hakim's eccentricities can only be properly understood in symbolic terms. He is the epitome of the divine Unity in human form; he is not dead, but simply waiting to reappear in the Last Ages of the world. This mysterious religion, which still flourishes in Syria and the Lebanon, now claims something in the order of a quarter of a million followers, and continues to play an important role in Middle-Eastern politics.

But it was another aspect of Hakim's deranged policy that was to have even greater consequences for the region, namely his persecution of Christian pilgrims, and in particular his demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. After the years of intimidation (on Hakim's direct orders), the wilful destruction of the most holy of their shrines was felt throughout the Christian world as a final act of intolerable provocation. It was the spark that fired that dreadful conflagration of events that became known in the West as the Crusades.