By the seventh century, a conflict had developed between supporters of rival claimants to the caliphate that would split Islam into two branches--the orthodox Sunni and the Shia--which continued thereafter as the basic division among Muslims. The Shia (from Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) supported the claims of the direct descendants of Ali, the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, whereas the Sunni favored that of Ali's rival, the leader of a collateral branch of Muhammad's tribe, and the principle of election of the fittest from the ranks of the shurfa. The Shia had their greatest appeal among non-Arab Muslims, who, like the Berbers, were scorned by the aristocratic desert Arabs.
In the last decade of the ninth century, missionaries of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam converted the Kutama Berbers of the Kabylie region to the militant brand of Shia Islam and led them on a crusade against the Sunni Aghlabids. Kairouan fell in 909, and the next year the Kutama installed the Ismaili grandmaster from Syria, Ubaidalla Said, as imam of their movement and ruler over the territory they had conquered, which included Tripolitania. Recognized by his Berber followers as the Mahdi ("the divinely guided one"), the imam founded the Shia dynasty of the Fatimids, named for Fatima, daughter of Muhammad and wife of Ali, from whom the imam claimed descent.
Merchants of the coastal towns were the backbone of the Fatimid state that was founded by religious enthusiasts and imposed by Berber tribesmen. The slow but steady economic revival of Europe created a demand for goods from the East for which Fatimid ports in North Africa and Sicily were ideal distribution centers. Tripoli thrived on the trade in slaves and gold brought from the Sudan and on the sale of wool, leather, and salt shipped from its docks to Italy in exchange for wood and iron goods.
For many years the Fatimids threatened Morocco with invasion, but they eventually turned their armies eastward, where in the name of religion the Berbers took their revenge on the Arabs. By 969 the Fatimids had completed the conquest of Egypt and moved their capital to the new city that they founded at Cairo, where they established a Shia caliphate to rival that of the Sunni caliph at Baghdad. They left the Maghrib to their Berber vassals, the Zirids, but the Shia regime had already begun to crumble in Tripolitania as factions struggled indecisively for regional supremacy. The Zirids neglected the economy, except to pillage it for their personal gain. Agricultural production declined, and farmers and herdsmen became brigands. Shifting patterns of trade gradually depressed the once-thriving commerce of the towns. In an effort to hold the support of the urban Arabs, in 1049 the Zirid amir defiantly rejected the Shia creed, broke with the Fatimids, and initiated a Berber return to Sunni orthodoxy.
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