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The Theocrat

The Theocrat

Bensalem Himmich
Translated by Roger Allen
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    The Theocrat
    Book Description:

    The Theocrat takes as its subject one of Arab and Islamic history’s most perplexing figures, al-Hakim bi-Amr Illah (“the ruler by order of God"), the Fatimid caliph who ruled Egypt during the tenth century and whose career was a direct reflection of both the tensions within the Islamic dominions as a whole and of the conflicts within his own mind. In this remarkable novel Bensalem Himmich explores these tensions and conflicts and their disastrous consequences on an individual ruler and on his people. Himmich does not spare his readers the full horror and tragedy of al-Hakim’s reign, but in employing a variety of textual styles—including quotations from some of the best known medieval Arab historians; vivid historical narratives; a series of extraordinary decrees issued by the caliph; and, most remarkably, the inspirational utterances of al-Hakim during his ecstatic visions, recorded by his devotees and subsequently a basis for the foundation of the Druze community—he succeeds brilliantly in painting a portrait of a character whose sheer unpredictability throws into relief the qualities of those who find themselves forced to cajole, confront, or oppose him.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-202-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Translatorʹs Introduction
    (pp. vii-xiv)

    I begin this translator’s note toThe Theocrat, the English translation of Bensalem Himmich’s novel,Majnun al-hukm(1989), with what may be a somewhat unusual admission: my reasons for selecting this particular work for translation are, firstly, that my reading of the original Arabic text suggested to me almost immediately that it would pose unusually difficult challenges for the translator, and secondly (as a consequence of those challenges), that the resulting English version would almost certainly confront its readers with a narrative that illustrates some of the particularities of contemporary Arabic novel writing.

    In the context of Western reactions to...

  4. Prelude to ʺThe Smokeʺ
    (pp. xv-xxvi)

    He is: Abu ‘Ali Mansur (given the honorific al-Hakim bi-Amr Illah) ibn al-‘Aziz bi-Llah Nizar ibn al-Mu‘izz bi-Llah Ma‘add (conqueror of Egypt and builder of Cairo and the Azhar mosque) ibn al-Mansur bi-Llah Isma’il ibn al-Qa‘im bi-Amr Illah Muhammad ibn al-Mahdi ‘Ubayd Allah (founder of the Fatimi dynasty in Tunisia).

    He is: al-‘Ubaydi al-Fatimi, of Maghribi origin, but born, housed, and raised in Egypt; third of ‘Ubayd’s descendants as Caliphs in Egypt; the sixth in order of succession from his ancestors in the Maghrib.

    Born in Cairo on Thursday, there being four days remaining in the first month of the...

  5. Chapter 1 On Enticements and Threats from the Ascendants of al-Hakim
    (pp. 1-24)

    Once al-Hakim had killed off Master Burjuwan—the administrator of the state, al-Husayn ibn ‘Ammar—the leader of the Katama and secretary of the state, and others as well, he had exclusive control over power. From then on, barely a year or two went by without him issuing, among a flood of documents and sealed regulations, some compulsory decrees that were both strange and contradictory. One of the first such decrees, issued in the fourth year of the caliph’s quarter century, namely a.h. 390, concerned “the individual nature of authority in both its overt and covert aspects.” After the initial...

  6. Chapter 2 At al-Hakimʹs councils
    (pp. 25-50)

    When it comes to the entire succession of incredible and contradictory actions that al-Hakim took, the root cause of his motivations was a kind of chemical imbalance in the brain. From his youth onward he was afflicted by a kind of melancholia and mental instability. Medical science is unanimous that people so afflicted suffer delusions and imagine all sorts of amazing things. All such patients are convinced that their fantasies are perfectly sound; there is no way of changing their ways or diverting them from their chosen course. Some of them believe themselves to be a prophet or even the...

  7. Chapter 3 The Earthquake Caused by Abu Rakwa, Revolutionary in the Name of Allah
    (pp. 51-106)

    The desert region of Barqa was inured to a life of poverty and hardship, with sparse, sandy terrain stretching away to the south. The tribal oases were sparse and widely scattered—Jafra, Awjila, Jaghbub, and others. Palms only produced dates. Grass only grew thanks to the scant off-flow from a watercourse fed by springs and inaccessible subterranean wells (something that only happened on average every other winter). The tribes of the region, among them the Banu Qurra, had learned to endure this hard existence. With considerable fortitude they would withstand the lethal desert sand storms and the unbearable lack of...

  8. Chapter 4 Signs of Refutation and Merciful Rain
    (pp. 107-148)

    [Al-Hakim] summoned commanders and sergeants. He ordered them to proceed to old Cairo [Fustat] and set it on fire. Anyone they captured was to be killed…. The fighting between slaves and populace lasted for three whole days. Each day al-Hakim used to ride out to the Muqattam Hills, climb the mountain, and look down. From there he could watch the fire and listen to the noise. When he asked about it, he would be told that the slaves were burning and sacking old Cairo. A pained expression would show on his face. “God curse them!” he would say. “Who told...

  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 149-150)
  10. Glossary
    (pp. 151-152)
  11. Qurʹanic References
    (pp. 153-154)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 155-158)