The Qarmatians: The world's first enduring communistic society

The American poet and critical essayist Kenneth Rexroth describes the Qarmatian’s as having “established what was probably the only communist society to control a large territory, and to endure for more than a generation, before the twentieth century”...

The Qarmatians: The world's first enduring communistic society

Mohanned Rahman

For almost two centuries, from 894 until 1078 CE, the Qarmatians played a significant and menacing role in the heart of the Islamic world. A small Shiite sect, the Qarmatians were relatively few, geographically dispersed, and despised as heretics by both the Sunni Muslim majority and even by most other Shiites. The Qarmatians have largely been forgotten in the annals of Islam, becoming a mere historical footnote when discussing early schisms. Today, most contemporary books on Islamic history provide only a brief paragraph summary referring to them as an extremist Shiite group led by Abu Said al-Jannabi who established a state in Eastern Arabia in 899 CE. However the impact this group had on the collective Muslim consciousness and psyche over the centuries was immense and this article explores their legacy.

The Qarmatians are often remembered for the sacrilege they committed in Mecca which shocked and reverberated across the Islamic world for generations, which will be discussed later in this article. However, sacrilege aside, what may interest readers is the resourceful ways and methods they adopted in organising their independent state and the way they ran their affairs along egalitarian lines. In many ways they were a utopian sect who put their visions and ideals into practice to create a utopian society. At the same time they were prepared to carry out daring and vicious military campaigns to defend and expand their territories and their ability to extract tribute. In his book “Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century” (1974), the American poet and critical essayist Kenneth Rexroth describes the Qarmatian’s as having “established what was probably the only communist society to control a large territory, and to endure for more than a generation, before the twentieth century”.

Their Origins

The history of this sect is obscure; however historians agree that its origin had started out first in southern Iraq during the reign of the Abbasid caliphate (750–1258 CE) as part of the general Ismaili movement of the time. The Ismaili’s are a branch of the imamate Shiism who takes their name from Ismail ibn Jafar. They are also called the Batiniya (inner/hidden) because of their view about the “concealed Imam”. This group believe that Jafar Al-Sadiq (the sixth Shiite imam) designated his son Ismail as imam. This is in stark contrast to the other major Shiite sect known as the Ithnaashari’s (Twelvers) who believe that the imamate passed through Musa Al-Kazem another of Jafar’s sons. From Ismail who had passed away before his father, they believed that the imamate passed to his son Mohammad al-Maktum who spent the latter part of his life in Khuzestan and died sometime during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid (786-809 CE).

Upon Mohammad al-Maktum’s death, the sect split into two groups. One group of which would become the forerunners of the movement led by Ubayd-Allah Mahdi, the future founder of the Fatimid caliphate who openly claimed the imamate of the Ismailis for himself and his ancestors. The second group refused to acknowledge the death of Moḥammad al-Maktum. These sectarians are identified by imami heresiographers as the predecessors of the Qarmatians. They believed that Mohammad al-Maktum, the son of Ismail, to be the seventh and final imam. He was expected to reappear as the Mahdi to fill the earth with justice. The name of the group appears to come from a charismatic Ismaili preacher known as Hamdan Qarmat, a rather shadowy figure who succeeded in winning many converts to the Ismaili cause and were soon designated as Qarameta.

Over time the general use of the name Qarmatians came to be applied to any group of Ismaili’s who refused to acknowledge the Fatimid caliphate ruling from North Africa. Abu Said Al-Jannabi a Persian Ismaili propagandist and agent of Hamdān Qarmaṭ, was sent on proselytizing mission to Bahrain. He arrived in 894 CE and wasted no time in commencing his preaching, building up his principality, and rallied the locals for extensive conquests. Though Hamdan Qarmat appears to have been the Qarmati founder it was Abu Said who built up their state and more than a century later, the Qaramita of Bahrain were still known by the general designation of Abu Saidis.

Transformation from underground sect to revolutionary movement

The sect was a radical revolutionary group with a utopian vision. Perhaps their rise to power ultimately lay in their timing. The power of the Abbasid caliphate after the death of caliph al-Mamun (813-833 CE) underwent a slow decline. Large swathes of territory across North Africa, Persia and Arabia began to fragment and exercise their own independence from Baghdad and thus led to emergence of various local ruling dynasties. Abbasid control was now concentrated mostly around Baghdad and other territories close to their centre of power. The Qarmatians rise coincided with Abbasid preoccupation with various Black African slave revolts known as the Zanj insurrection (869−883 CE). These revolts took place near the city of Basra in Southern Iraq over a period of fifteen years. The insurrection claimed over tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq and enabled many territories to seize the moment to break away.

Meanwhile, the movement’s intense activities still continued to escape the notice of the Abbasids, who had not re-established effective control over southern Iraq since the Zanj revolt. The Qarmatians attempted an alliance with the Zanj leaders. This was not successful, but they were able to pursue a parallel opposition and after the suppression of the Zanj revolt the Qarmatians not only were in secret control of the northern shores of the Persian Gulf, but had organized subversion in Yemen, Syria, and even Baghdad itself.

It was only in the year 892 CE, as mentioned by the historian Al-Ṭabari that the Qarmatians of the villages around Kufa finally intensified their propaganda activity to such an extent that the officials in Baghdad began to realize the danger of the new movement on the basis of some reports dispatched from Kufa. But no immediate action was taken against the Qarmatians who staged their first public protest in 897. However, the caliph al-Mu’tadid (892-902 CE) did not permit any Qarmatian unrest to succeed in Iraq, and he was able to repress three revolts. In 900 CE they defeated the troops of the caliphate at Basra and from then on the Qarmatians controlled Bahrain, Basra at various times, and many other towns between Mesopotamia and Arabia.

Their Communistic Society

The size of their communistic state encompassed Bahrain / Hasa / Hoffuf region of Eastern Arabia though at its height extended out to vast territories across Arabia. The land they ruled over was extremely wealthy and was largely built off the back of slave labour. The Qarmatian state of Bahrain was organised along strong egalitarian principles. It evolved into something like a republic and flourished down to the end of the eleventh century. The state concern for the welfare of the community and the consequential social order in Bahrain evoked admiration and praise from the Non-Qarmatian observers and visitors to eastern Arabia before the demise of the Qarmatian state.

The Ismaili scholar and poet Nasiri Khusrow (1004–1088 CE), who visited Hasa in 1051 CE, recounted that these estates were cultivated by some thirty thousand Ethiopian slaves whose services were utilized for the cultivation of agricultural lands in Bahrain. They undertook experiments of communal ownership of property and pooling resources together. Their territories contained vast fruit and grain estates on the islands and in Hasa and Qatif. Income from grain and fruit estates was assigned to the Qarmatian community (Muminoon), while the revenues from the customs duties levied on all ships passing through the Persian Gulf and the island of Owal were distributed among the descendants of Abu Said Al-Jannabi. No taxes or tithes were paid by the inhabitants. Those who were impoverished or in debt could obtain a loan until they put their affairs in order. No interest was taken on loans, and token lead money was used for all local transactions. Similarly, any new craftsman arriving in Hasa was given a loan for launching himself there. All such state loans were free of interest. Repairs of private properties and mills were undertaken at the expense of the state, while grain was ground free of charge in the state mills.

All this attests to the economic prosperity of the Qarmatian state, which also permitted the financing of large military disbursements and countless series of raiding campaigns and military adventures in distant lands. All other revenues from taxes raised by the state outside the Qarmatian community, tributes, protection fees paid by the pilgrim caravans, and war booties were allotted to different groups by the ruling council on the basis of certain fixed ratios after setting aside one-fifth for the Mahdi. During Nasiri Khusrow’s visit, the Qarmatians of Bahrain were still called Abu Saidis, after their early leader, and the ruling council still included six of Abu Said’s descendants from the Jannabi family and six viziers, all descendants of influential Bahraini families. Furthermore, the community had continued to have easy access to the ruling council.

The Sacrilege

The ingenuity and durability of their egalitarian society was tainted after the sect committed a sacrilege that would remain a dark stain on their record and legacy. It would prove to be an episode that generations of the Islamic world would not and could not forgive. In the year 930 CE, the Qarmatians (under the leadership of Abu Taher Sulayman (923 – 944 CE) the third ruler of the movement), whilst ravaging their way through Arabia launched an attack on Mecca during the Hajj pilgrimage season. This culminated in the massacre of pilgrims and many inhabitants of the city. The death toll was reported to be in the tens of thousands and the number of the people who were enslaved was said to be around thirty thousand. Many of the dead bodies were dropped in the well of Zam Zam and left to rot, thus defiling the well and rendering the water filthy and unfit for consumption.

Unsatisfied with this atrocity they then seized the garment cover and door of the Kaaba. Finally they stole the irreplaceable sacred Black Stone and took it to their new capital at Hasa. It was said that whilst they committed these atrocities they were taunting the pilgrims about Allah’s divine vengeance and why he was not sending flocking birds (tairan ababil) to strike them with stones of sijjil (baked clay) as was revealed in the famous Elephant sura from the Holy Qu’ran. This episode as described in the Qu’ran recounts an act of divine intervention where flocking birds, sent by Allah, carried small rocks in their beaks, and bombarded Abraha al-Ashram army, an Aksumite vicory in southern Arabia for the Kingdom of Aksum who launched a massive attack on Mecca from his base in Yemen in the year of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH’s birth.

Now for the first time since the inception of the Islamic faith, the Hajj pilgrimage (fifth pillar of Islam and duty to all able Muslims from Al-Andalus to China) had to be stopped for years as the heartlands of Islam were no longer safe. The Hajj was not performed for another 8 years as the faithful from across the vast lands of the domain of Islam feared the journey as they had expected the legions of the Qarmatian followers who were by now the masters of Arabia and a scourge to other local rulers to be waiting to terrorise those making the arduous journey by launching attacks on their Hajj pilgrim caravans. Ottoman historian Qutb al-Din, writing in 1857 CE states: “Qarmatian leader Abu Tahir al-Qarmati set the Black Stone up in his own mosque, the Masjid al-Dirar, with the intention of redirecting the Hajj away from Mecca. However, this failed, and pilgrims continued to venerate the spot where the Black Stone had been”.

With no divine intervention directly at hand immediately after their sacrilege, this could only have reinforced the Qarmatian movement’s messianic zeal that they were on the path of truth and their leader Abu Taher Sulayman was now prophesying that the advent of the Mahdi was imminent. It was presumed that their motivation for committing this outrage was to send a message to the world to symbolize the end of the era of Islam and to initiate the seventh, final era of history under the advent of the Mahdi.

A rather bizarre incident

The following year after their Meccan sacrilege a rather bizarre and strange event had occurred within their strongholds which must have dealt a severe setback for the sect’s long term cohesion and morale. In the month of Ramadhan in the year 931 CE, buoyed up after the previous year’s successful Meccan campaign which left them in possession of the sacred Black Stone, Abu Taher Sulayman finally transferred over the rule in Bahrain to a young Persian from Isfahan, in whom he recognized to be the expected Mahdi. This young Persian had appeared to exhibit all the signs the sect had prophesised for the anointed one who would come at the end of the era of Islam to initiate the seventh final era of history. As events unfolded, things began to take a different course from what had been anticipated by the Qarmatians for the advent of this Mahdi.

It was expected that the Mahdi would now reveal the inner truths behind all previous religions. However, this young Isfahani, who claimed descent from the Persian kings and manifested anti-Arab sentiments, began to energetically propagate the Zoroastrian creed and had zealously embarked on restoring this ancient Persian religion. Establishing rituals from the Magian religion, he ordered the worship of fire and the cursing of all prophets, he forbade obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral, also instituting a number of ceremonies that shocked the Qarmatians and encouraged all kinds of debauched behaviour. When the Isfahani Mahdi began, furthermore, to execute many notable Qarmatians of Bahrain, Abu Taher Sulayman had no choice but to have him killed and admitted that this had been a disastrous error of judgement on his part and that he had certainly been an imposter. His reign lasted only eighty days.

After all their stunning successes this obscure episode of the false Persian Mahdi seriously demoralized the Qarmatians of Bahrain and weakened their influence over the Qarmatian communities in other regions of the Islamic world. Many Qarmatians became so disillusioned after what had unfolded that they left Bahrain and abandoned the cause to serve during the following decades in the armies of various anti-Qarmatian rulers. The leading Qarmatian propagandists were also shocked, especially by the anti-Arab and antinomian manifestations of the episode and many of the missionaries of Iraq severed their ties with Abu Taher Sulayman.

According to historian and renowned scholar Imam al-Haramayn Al-Juwayni, the Stone was returned twenty-three years later, in 952 CE. The Qarmatians held the Black Stone for ransom, and forced the Abbasids to pay a huge sum for its return. The Fatimid Caliph al-Mansur also made a formal request for its return. It was wrapped in a sack and thrown into the Friday Mosque of Kufa, accompanied by a note saying "By command we took it, and by command we have brought it back." Its abduction and removal caused further damage, breaking the stone into seven pieces. Its abductor, Abu Tahir Sulayman, is said to have met a terrible fate; according to Qutb al-Din, "the filthy Abu Tahir was afflicted with a gangrenous sore, his flesh was eaten away by worms, and he died a most terrible death." Following his death, racked with internal conflicts and squabbles, especially between Abu Taher Sulayman’s sons, their wealth and influence began to slowly decline.

Downfall

In the year 976 CE the Qarmatians suffered a military defeat by the Abbasids and from that point on they were never really able to recover. In the subsequent decades they were reduced to a local principality within the Bahrain / Hasa / Hoffuf region of Eastern Arabia. With their enemies slowly beginning to reassert their authority their ability to extract tribute from the region took a setback. Gone were the days where they could terrorise at will or seize vast territories and their influence was confined locally.

In 1058 CE under the leadership of Abu al-Bahlul al-Awwam, Bahrain was the first of their territories to revolt and break away from the Qarmatian state. Abu al-Bahlul had called for an end to Qarmatian rule on the island and expressed allegiance to the Abbassid Caliph by calling for the Friday Khutba to be read in his name across Bahrain. The Qarmatians had attempted to retake Bahrain later but their seaborne landing on the island was quickly repulsed in 1066 CE. Not long after Bahrain was able to break away a similar revolt in Qatif also resulted in the loss of this vital territory from the Qarmatian state.

The state’s ability to extract tribute from both land and sea was severely curtailed so in their final act of survival they retreated to their stronghold in the Hoffuf Oasis. Their dynasty was dealt a final blow in 1067 by the combined forces of Abdullah bin Ali Al-Uyuni a local Arab sheikh, who with the help of Seljuk army contingents from Iraq, laid siege to Hoffuf for seven years until the last remaining remnants of the Qarmatians were forced to surrender. There were still a few followers of the Qarmatian doctrine in Syria and Iran but over time they dwindled away or were absorbed into other Ismaili Shiite movements.

Coinciding with the crushing of the Qarmatian state another small radical Ismaili Shiite sect was to emerge known as the Order of the Assassins that would create havoc and terror across the Islamic world from their base in Alamut in northern Iran for the next two centuries afterwards. It is interesting to note that some 250 years after the collapse of the Qarmatians the famous medieval traveller Ibn Battuta visiting Qatif in 1331 CE states “we went to the town of al-Quthayf [Qatif], a fine large town inhabited by Arab tribes who are extremist Shiites and openly proclaiming it, fearing nobody”. By this point in time Ibn Battuta had intermingled with many Shiites especially of the Twelver variety during his travels to Iraq and was quite familiar with their beliefs. Scholars have speculated that many of the populations of these areas had remained true to Ismaili Shi’ism which is precisely how a Sunni of Ibn Battuta’s time would have described them. Today much of the historic heartlands of the Qarmatians still have strong Shiite presences though the orientation of contemporary Shiites living in these regions is not Ismaili but that of the Twelver sect.

The Qarmatians are the first example in history of a communistic mutual benefit society that was able to endure for many generations. Though their state had its own sources of wealth they also lived on the plunder of other communities. The Qarmatians it would seem will be forever associated with the sacrilege they committed in Mecca which shocked and repulsed the Islamic world. They were ultimately a messianic zealous utopian sect who put their visions and ideals into practice to create their utopian society.

Bibliography:

Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century (1974) By Kenneth Rexroth, Seabury, p 159-62

Islamic Thought: From Mohammed to September 11 2001 (2011), Xlibris , By I. M. Al-Jubouri, p 99-101

http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/carmatians-ismailis

http://ismaili.net/histoire/history05/history510.html

The Travels of Ibn Battuta (2000), Goodward, By H.A.R. GIBB, p 121-122

The Four Imams (2001), Dar Al-Taqwa, By Muhammad Abu Zahra, p 196

The Islamic Dynasties (1967), Edinburgh University Press, By C.E. Bosworth, p 69-70

Reaching for Power: The Shi'a in the Modern Arab World (2007), Princeton, By Yitzhak Nakash

Mecca: a literary history of the Muslim Holy Land (1994), Princeton. By Peters, Francis, p 125–126

Islam: Origin and Belief (1998),Texas, By Emory C. Bogle, p 82-85

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PVG1rv1XQ3I - The stolen Black Stone, al-Hajar-ul-Aswad, Qarmatians, Bin Hassan Al Qurmuti, Imam Al-Juwayni

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