Saturday, January 10, 2015


"Islam is a religion adapted to Orientals, especially Arabs, i.e., on one hand to townsmen engaged in trade and industry, on the other to nomadic Bedouins. Therein lies, however, the embryo of a periodically recurring collision. The townspeople grow rich, luxurious and lax in the observation of the "law." The Bedouins, poor and hence of strict morals, contemplate with envy and covetousness these riches and pleasures. Then they unite under a prophet, a Mahdi, to chastise the apostates and restore the observation of the ritual and the true faith and to appropriate in recompense the treasures of the renegades. In a hundred years they are naturally in the same position as the renegades were: a new purge of the faith is required, a new Mahdi arises and the game starts again from the beginning. That is what happened from the conquest campaigns of the African Almoravids and Almohads in Spain to the last Mahdi of Khartoum who so successfully thwarted the English. It happened in the same way or similarly with the risings in Persia and other Mohammedan countries. All these movements are clothed in religion but they have their source in economic causes; and yet, even when they are victorious, they allow the old economic conditions to persist untouched. So the old situation remains unchanged and the collision recurs periodically. In the popular risings of the Christian West, on the contrary, the religious disguise is only a flag and a mask for attacks on an economic order which is becoming antiquated. This is finally overthrown, a new one arises and the world progresses."
F. E.

Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, by Adam Hanieh.

"Conventional accounts of political economy in the Middle East tend to adopt a similar methodological approach, which begins, typically, with the basic analytical categories of “state” (al-dawla) and “civil society” (al-mujtama’ al-madani). The former is defined as the various political institutions that stand above society and govern a country. The latter is made up of “institutions autonomous from the state which facilitate orderly economic, political and social activity” or, in the words of the Iraqi social scientist Abdul Hussein Shaaban, “the civil space that separates the state from society, which is made up of non-governmental and non-inheritable economic, political, social and cultural institutions that form a bond between the individual and the state.” All societies are said to be characterized by this basic division, which sees the state confronted by an agglomeration of atomized individuals, organized in a range of “interest groups” with varying degrees of ability to choose their political representatives and make demands on their political leaders. The institutions of civil society organize and express the needs of people in opposition to the state, “enabling individuals to participate in the public space and build bonds of solidarity.” The study of political economy becomes focused upon, as a frequently cited book on the subject explains, “strategies of economic transformation, the state agencies and actors that seek to implement them, and the social actors such as interest groups that react to and are shaped by them.”
A conspicuous feature of the Middle East, according to both Arabic- and English-language discussions on these issues, is the region’s apparent “resilience of authoritarianism”—the prevalence of states where “leaders are not selected through free and fair elections, and a relatively narrow group of people control the state apparatus and are not held accountable for their decisions by the broader public.” While much of the world managed to sweep away dictatorial regimes through the 1990s and 2000s, the Middle East remained largely mired in autocracy and monarchical rule—“the world’s most unfree region” as the introduction to one prominent study of authoritarianism in the Arab world put it. A dizzying array of typologies for this authoritarianism has been put forward, characteristically dividing the region between authoritarian monarchies (the Gulf Arab states, Morocco, Jordan) and authoritarian republics (Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Tunisia). These authoritarian regimes are typically contrasted with a third category, the so-called democratic exceptions, in which “incumbent executives are able to be removed and replaced.” Israel is frequently held up as the archetype of this latter group—with Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq (following the 2003 US invasion) also included, each with a varying “degree” of democracy.
An entire academic industry has developed around attempting to explain the apparent persistence and durability of Middle East authoritarianism. Much of this has been heavily Eurocentric, seeking some kind of intrinsic “obedience to authority” inherent to the “Arab mind.” Some authors have focused on the impact of religion, tracing authoritarian rule to the heavy influence of Islam, and the fact that “twentieth-century Muslim political leaders often have styles and use strategies that are very similar to those instituted by the Prophet Muhammad in Arabia some 1400 years ago.” Similarly, others have examined the source of regime legitimacy in places such as Saudi Arabia, where the “ruler’s personal adherence to religious standards and kinship loyalties” supposedly fit the “political culture” of a society whose reference point is “Islamic theocracy coming from the ablest leaders of a tribe tracing its lineage to the Prophet.” Other more modern explanations for authoritarianism have been sought in intra-elite division, leaders’ skills at balancing and manipulating different groups in society—so-called statecraft, natural resource endowment, and the role and attitudes of the military. All these approaches share the same core methodological assumption: the key categories for understanding the Middle East—and, indeed, any society—are the state, on one hand, counterposed with civil society, on the other.
This state/civil society dichotomy underlies another frequent (although not unchallenged) assertion made in the literature on the Middle East—that of a two-way, causal link between authoritarianism and the weakness of capitalism. According to this perspective, authoritarianism not only means that political and civil rights are weak or absent but also that the heavy hand of state control interferes with the operation of a capitalist economy. Individuals are prevented from freely engaging in market activities while state elites benefit from authoritarianism by engaging in “rent-seeking behavior”—using their privileged position to divert economic rents that pass through the state for their own personal enrichment and consolidation of power. Authoritarian states seek to dominate and control economic sectors through their position of strength, allocating rents to favored groups in order to keep society in check. In the Middle East, as a result, “private property is not secure from the whims of arbitrary rulers...[and] many regimes have yet to abandon allocation for alternative strategies of political legitimation, and hence must continue to generate rents that accrue to the state.”
Within this worldview, the agency of freedom is neatly located in the realm of the market, while tyranny lurks ever-present in the state. The history of the region is thus characteristically recounted as a long-standing struggle between the “authoritarian state” and “economic and political liberalization.” Told from this perspective, the narrative usually begins with the emergence from colonialism in the aftermath of World War II, when various independence movements sought a definitive end to British and French influence in the area. These independence movements were typically led by militaries or other elites, which seized power in the postcolonial period and began an era of “statism” or “Arab socialism.” By the 1980s, however, these authoritarian states would come under severe strain due to the inefficiencies of state-led economic development and the desire of increasingly educated populations for greater economic and political freedom. These pressures for economic liberalization were compounded in the era of globalization by the ethos of “democratization” that swept the globe through the 1990s. There was—as two well-known scholars of the Middle East put it—a “direct correlation between economic performance and the degree of democracy...the more open and liberal a polity, the more effective has been its economy in responding to globalization.” Authoritarian states that had “waged literal or metaphorical wars against their civil societies and the autonomous capital that is both the cause and product of civil society” might sometimes choose the “right” economic policies, but these were inevitably “dead letters in the absence of implementation capacity, which only a dynamic civil society appears to be able to provide.” Capitalism was, in short, best suited to—and a force for—democracy.
This logic was widely replicated outside of academia through the 1990s and 2000s, forming the core justification for a wide-range of so-called democracy promotion programs. Integral to this was the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED), established in 1983 and funded by the US State Department. NED, in turn, supported other organizations such as the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI)—linked to Democratic and Republican Parties respectively—and bodies such as the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the Solidarity Center (affiliated to the AFL-CIO). A host of other private corporations and NGOs were also involved. Through these institutions, the US government focused on programs that twinned the extension of neoliberal policies with the democracy promotion agenda in the global South. As then president George W. Bush noted in 2004, this policy was based around “free elections and free markets.” It was a form of democracy understood in the narrow sense of regular electoral competitions, usually waged between different sections of the elite, which largely aimed at providing popularly sanctioned legitimacy for free market economic measures. While organizations such as NED, NDI, and IRI were the most visible and explicit face of this policy orientation, all international financial institutions were to employ the same basic argument linking “free markets” and “a vibrant civil society” with the weakening of the authoritarian state.
In this vein, the response of Western governments and institutions to the revolts of 2011 and 2012 was largely predictable. Instead of viewing the Arab uprisings as protests against the “free market” economic policies long championed by Western institutions in the region, they were framed as essentially political in nature. The problem, according to the Western angle, lay in authoritarianism, which stifled markets, and the popular rage expressed on the streets of the Middle East could thus be understood as pro-capitalist in content. US President Obama noted, for example, in a major policy speech on the Middle East in May 2011, that the region needed “a model in which protectionism gives way to openness, the reins of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young. America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy.” Likewise, the president of the World Bank, Robert Zoellick, argued that the revolts in Tunisia occurred because of too much “red tape,” which prevented people from engaging in capitalist markets. This basic argument would be repeated incessantly by Western policy makers throughout 2011 and 2012—autocratic states had stifled economic freedom; “free markets” would be essential to any sustained transition away from authoritarianism."
[Excerpted from Lineages of Revolt: Issues of Contemporary Capitalism in the Middle East, by Adam Hanieh.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Sociologist Has Left the Building

On my final day in Tehran, I chatted up the obligatory cab driver. Can Rouhani pull it off, I asked? “If his heart is pure, then it will be fine,” the old Turk said. “If the only thing that comes of it is a new group of rich sons-of-bitches, then it is over.” I rephrased the question: Is this the last chance for the Islamic Republic’s elite to reform their own system? “Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.” Iran’s elite consensus may be substantial and its mild aims feasible, but its supporting popular front is fragile. Or, to put it another way, revolutionary states are not “external to the historical system but the excretions of processes internal to it. Hence they have reflected all the contradictions and constraints of the system. They could not and cannot do otherwise.” [12] Iran’s elite may want to read Wallerstein again. Luckily, he’s still in all those Tehran bookstores.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Qarmatians (Al-Qaramita)

Nadeem Mahjoub, 2008

Documentary film-makers G. Troeller and M. C. Defarge once asked a cabinet minister in South Yemen, why socialistic ideas were so readily acceptable in that part of the Arab world. He replied: “Because we have been communists for a thousand years! My mother was Qarmatian.”

Official Muslim scholars and clerics, and many so-called moderates (whether individuals or groups) oppose sedition (fitna). Tensions and contradictions in society should be solved peacefully and even if the ruler was unjust and impious, it is generally accepted he should still be obeyed, for any kind of order is better than anarchy and sedition. “The tyranny of a sultan for a hundred years causes less damage than one year’s tyranny exercised by the subjects against one another.” Revolt was justified only against a ruler who clearly went against the command of God and His prophet.”1

Here we look at not what happened in the minds of people who call for calm, oppose dissent and preach the return to the “real spirit of Islam”, but at what happened in spite of peoples’ will: the material world of people and the inevitable reactions spawned within a class-ridden society.

The first social explosion took place during the third Caliph, ‘Uthman Ibn Afa’an. It was in fact the first social revolution in Islam2. While the Ridda (‘apostasy’) movement (which sparked the Ridda wars) was a counter-revolution to Islam, the revolution on the third Caliph was in tunes with the tenets of Islam as the agents of that revolution understood and interpreted them. Soon other revolts and uprisings broke out.

The 9th-century Arab-Muslim society witnessed popular uprisings and revolts. Even though some of those uprisings and revolutions had religious or philosophical characteristics, “scientific” historical studies reveal that social causes were the dominant factor in most of the uprisings and revolutions that occured at the time.

The Qarmatian Revolution (887 –1067) was one of three revolutions that shook the Abbasid State and even threatened its very existence3. It followed Al-Zanj Revolt and preceded the revolt of Babek. In the same period Coptic workers in the small textile-manufatcuring towns of the Egyptian Delta rose up, only to be defeated and sold as slaves.

Some called the Qarmatians the “Bolsheviks of Islam”. Others described the movement as the “first socialist movement in Islam”. The German scholar of Islam Wilfred Madelung wrote that Al-Qaramita established a more egalitarian social system than was normal in the tenth century Middle East. Most Sunni authorities, however, have always denounced the the Qarmatian as a movement of kufa’r (or heretics).

What distinguishes Al-Qaramita Revolution from the other two, however, was that it had an ideological and theoretical programme which opposed the State ideology and the ideology of the conservative clerics. Historical sources assert that the social base of Al-Qaramita movement consisted predominantly of large groups of small peasants and agricultuarl workers in the country and artisans, toilers and poor people in the towns between Basrah and Koufah in Iraq, Bahrain, Al-Shaam (today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine) and some parts of southern Yemen.

The ferocious repression inflicted on the Qarmatians and the Ismailites as well as the repression of anyone who attempted to write about them during that period and even later, resulted in falsification and ambiguities about that revolutionary uprising in the Arab history in particular and in Islamic history in general. Thus most of what is known about the Qarmatians comes from the writings of their enemies. The movement of Al-Qaramita was given the most hideous names and interepreted in the most erroneous ways in order to pervert its real ideas (or ideals) and programme.

In fact, most Sunni sources, and some Shiite ones, show a strong hostility towards the Qarmatian movement and portray it as a movement of a bunch of renegades, criminals, promiscuous, etc. who had to be crushed and exterminated. It is then a challenge to construct an alernative picture of Al-Qaramita movement, for most of what has been written reflects the views of its opponents. “The Qarmatians of Bahrain came to be regarded as the most heretical group, bent on destroying Islam from within, by the Sunni authors of the medieval times, who are our main source of information on the sectarians.”4

This is not of course a unique incident in history. “In every civilisation there are certain movements of social and intellectual revolt, indicative of the reaction of the suppressed and dissatisfied elements in that civilisation to prevailing conditions.The history of these movements, usually written exclusively by their opponents, is at once of peculiar difficulty and peculiar value to the historian.”5

This essay openely adopts a class analysis of the period that empregnated the Qarmatian movement. Founded on religious, social and political bases in an epoch of social and political turbulence, in a society rife with injustice, repression and terror and dominated by religious fanaticism and political vengance, the Qarmatian movement became a popular movement with a class character and an ideological programme, that, despite its use of terror and harsh methods, appealed to the downtrodden and to vast social layers throughout the Arab-Mulsim world.

As important as the religious component of the movement was the esssentially social one, based on labour grievances manifested by strikes and revolts. Indeed, Qarmatism took in Jews, Christians, and heretics of one sort or another. The secret writings of the movement reveal a particular concern with working conditions and a particular emphasis on the dignity of labour.

Historical context

The foundations of the social sysem of the Islamic Caliphate State since the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate (660-750) was characterised by the merge of agriculture and trade, feudal exploitation of the land by its direct owners and an absolutist ruling elite that governed in the name of Islam. And as the landed aristocracy became the dominant social force, they formulated their own version of interpretation of Islam and appropriated istitutions to serve their interests. Those interests, in turn, required a military administrative system, iqta’ (land grants) to defend them.

Initially, the Arabs showed no interest in the land as a means of production in the territories they had conquered. They basically kept the socio-economic relationships as well as the forms of ownership in those conquered lands untouched. The local landowners had to pay taxes to the Ummah (the Mulsim Community) and the conqueros merely became a ruling elite imposed on the local feudal society.

But during Muawiya I’s rule, in particular in Al-Shaam and then in Iraq, the feudal relations of production under the Islamic state began to experience a certain dynamism which rejuvenated Roman and Sassanid feudalism that had been suffering a sharp decline and contradictions with the productive forces (both slaves and freemen). From now on the Islamic ruling elite became a direct participant in agriculatural production, not only as a political power representing the feudal elite but also as the main owner of land and the biggest exploiter. Thus the Umayyad reigned during an era where feudal relations triumphed among all the peoples of the Caliphate, including the Arabs, where a transformational process from a slave-holding tribal society to one dominated by a class of feudals was taking place.

The new economic and political power demanded more work and imposed more taxes on the productive forces (farmers and agricultural workers) which, felt exhautsed, either left the land to the towns or became unemployed. Then, with the prosperity of trade during the first period of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, a new element joined the agricultural production: the investment of profits generated by trade in agriculure. This process was carried out by big merchants who bought land from small farmers, leaving the latters landless and in miserable conditions. Thus a merchant feudal elite emerged and from within that very elite sprung an elite of usurers.

Another important element that also had a significant effect on the productive forces was that in order to escape the heavy taxes and the cruelty of the tax collectors, many landowners were compelled to register their land in Diwan Al-Kharaaj, the Registry of Land-tax, in the name of a man in power in return of some of the production of the land of the opriginal owner to to that man. Lands of that type often ended up as property of the ruling elite and their original owners became mere agricultural toilers or were driven out to seek another means of existence.

Because of the general feature of the social system, i.e., feudalism6, which was represented and reinforced by the Calipahte state, the big merchants, besides to the the small ones, were considered part of the commons class (or the populace) by the feudal ruling aristocracy despite the important social position occupied by the merchants and the effective role of the big merchants in political activities. Thus a contradiction often manifested itself between the feudal aritocracy and the big merchants. However, that contradiction was only a contradiction between two layers from the same class, the dominant economic class in society, whose interests as a whole conflicted with the interests of the agricultural masses and the toilers in the countryside, the small artisans and the small farmers.

It is worth mentioning that the Abbasid Caliphate ((750-1258) itself was a result of a revolution in which Alawit (named after Ali Ibn Abi Talib) and Persian political elements, and Arab and non-Arab masses were the main actors. That revolution sprang up from: 1) The traditional conflict between the Alawits and the Umayyids, 2) The “national” resentment the non-Arabs, and especially the Persians, had towards the Umayyids who imposed the Arab “kinship” (Asabiyya7) as a doctrine in their state policy, and 3) The social resentment in large layers of the masses towards the Umayyids for their cruel rule and the free hands their governors in the provinces were given in pludering and exploiting the material goods from those social layers.

The Abbasid revolution then came to abolish the Umayyid kinship. However, the Abbasids used their family lineage to the Prophet as a cloak to reinforce their rule, and hence their political dominance took a theocratic cover where the Caliph is “the representative of Allah on earth.” Those”representatives of Allah on earth” (the Caliphs) were the ruling elite of the dominant social and political class and the “theocratic” character was merely the historical and ideological form of that dominance. While their lives were a life of extreme wealth and lavishness, surrounded by courtisans, ghilman and clowns, the vast majority of the masses lived in povery, and even suffered starvation. Heavy and ever-increasing taxes were exhorted from the working masses, which not only hindred the development of the productive forces but also productivity itself and mainly agriculture.

Those were the general socio-economic features of the Caliphate in its various provinces in the 9th century. Local areas had their own charateristics and so did local uprisings and revolutions. However, they all had common social causes as well as socio-economic factors which gave birth to those revolts.

Generally speaking, uprisings of the working masses against feudal exploitation were local and were easily crushed by the mercenary army of the Caliph. During the first century and a half of their rule the Abbasids were unable to maintain control over all the territories of the Baghdad Caliphate; independent dynasties grew up, especialy in Al-Maghreb (North Africa) and Egypt..

Al-Qaramita: a formation of a movement

What is important to underline at the outset is that “the history of Al-Qaramita in Iraq is undoubtedly the history of the formation of Al-Qaramita” and that the movement was an offshoot of Ismailism. Ismailism is the second largest part of the Shia community: it emerged during the succession crisis tha spread throughout early Islam.

“The Ismailist doctrine aimed, first and foremost, at creating a social revolution with the Islamic religion as its system. So, it attempted through interpretation, and in an atmosphere of cooperation and freedom of thinking, to unite the disgruntled among all ethnicities and religions in order to overthrow the system and establish a society free of exploitation and ruled by no religion or ethnic group.”8

What interests us here is that Ismailism was, on the one hand, a moderate dawah (‘call’ or ‘mission’ to Islam) and Al-Qaramita was the most radical and revolutionary section within the Ismailite movement, and comprised the most ‘exremist’ elements who held to the fundamental principles of Ismailism. On the other hand, Al-Qaramita movement entered the lives of vast layers of social groups and appealed to the toiling and oppressed masses who were receptive to calls for relief from their heavy burdens.

The historians of sects and doctrines in Islam do not agree on the link between Al-Qaramita and Ismailism. We tend to agree, however, that A-Qaramita movement sprung from the Ismailite movement. The causes of disagreement and split between the two movements were practical and political more than doctrinal and ideological. Although the Qarmatians sometimes followed Ismailite imams’ orders and formally recognised them in some regions, they used their religious affiliation to Ismailism as a cover with a social and political content. How else could it be? Many revolutionary movements throughout history carried a religious tone to express a political and social programme.

According to Al-Maqrisi9, for example, Al-Qaramita’s mission in Kufa, Iraq, spread among the different Arab tribes that lived there at the time. It also appealed to the Nabatineans agricultural workers in Al-Kufa. The movement had a very desciplined undergound organisation with ‘missionaries’ who had strong connections with the members. Hamdan Qarmat, the founder and the main organiser, was reknown for his skills. He was assisted by twelve captains whom Qarmat had chosen among the missionaries following the same Ismailite way. The skillful organisational work was accompanied by a good financial management that was also vital in expanding the Qarmatian mission among the poor farmers, the toilers in the countryside and the small artisans in Iraq.

The Qarmatians imposed taxes on the followers of the Dawah and distributed the money they got from taxes, and properties which their owners gave up for the mission, among the members and followers according to their needs. Some of that money was invested in building a strong fortress in Kufah and arming the followers in preparation for the revolution.10

Dr. Mutapha Ghalib gives a summary of the way the Qarmatian began their movement: “The leadership of the Qarmatian mission found in every village a trustworthy among its followers whom people would keep the money of the village, the cattle, the jewellery and properties with. He would clothe those who needed clothes, feed the needy and leave no one poor. Every Qarmatian would do his best in his fieldword and earn his bread from the sweat of his forehead and hence would become worthy of his position. A woman would earn money out of her loom, a boy a wage out of capturing birds. No Qarmatian owned more than a sword and a weapon.”11

Giving its programme social and economic meaning, Al-Qaramita movement was able to spread in both the countryside and the towns throughout Basrah and Kufah in Iraq, Bahrain, some parts of Al-Shaam and Yemen in southern Arabia, and it organised large numbers of the opressed masses into an army that fought the Abbasid Caliphate armies and established a republic in Bahrain. That republic was “the expression of class, but unclear, objectives of the downtroddden and it survived as an independent republic for decades and as an extraordinary historical experience for its time and place and its revolutionary content.”12

The Caliphate state did not give any attention to the Qarmatian movement untill the year 900. Now the state saw in the movement a social and ideological as well as a political danger and fircely began to hunt down the Qarmatians. The extent of this danger was expressed by Ibn Al-Athir in an account about how one of the Caliph’s army chiefs surprised some of Al-Qaramita in a base of theirs in Kufah, beheaded some of them and took others prisoners, but was compelled to release them for they were farmers and imprisoning or killing them meant paralysing agricultural production in the area. That incident was quite revealing of the class nature of Al-Qaramita’s rank and file, many of whom were farmers.

From now on, successive armed operations by Al-Qaramita defied the Caliphate armies without the latter being able to put them down. During that bloody conflict in Iraq, a Qarmatian leader managed to sneak into Bilad Al-Sham (the Levant) where he established a new stronghold for the armed movement. Thus the conflict with the Caliphate state was prolonged and caused the state to lose control over many provinces.

The Qarmatian Republic

The Qarmatian advance took a higher precedent when another leader sent by Hamdan Qarmat reached Bahrain and found a great response among the population for his mission. Abi Saiid Al-Janabi successfully preached for brotherhood regardless of religion, ethnicity or regional background. More importantly, he promised his followers happiness on this earth and in this life, not in the afterlife.

“After the Islamic conquest and the ascending commerical role of Mecca and Medina, Bahrain lost its commercial and industrial position and agricultural activities confined to the remote areas and nearby villages. Bahrain’s loss of her commercial significance and which led to her economic decline, the terms and conditions imposed on agriculture, and the tax (al-jizya) imposed on the non-Muslims formed the main factor behind Bahrain joining the oppositional and rebellious camp against the Calipahte from the early times.”13

Between the end of the 9th century and the beginning of the 10th century, armed confrontation between the Caliphate state and Al-Qaramita was on Bahrain front. The forces of the Qarmatians’ front in Bahrain were becoming so strong and more difficult to be subdued by the Caliphate armies. Eventually, Bahrain broke away from the Caliphate central authority and became independent during Abi Tahir’s rule, one of Abi Saiid Al-Janabi’s sons, in the second decade of the 10th century. “Thus the first Arab Republic in the Middle Ages, and in Arab history, came into being. It was a republic that had her own ideology and her social, economic and political programme; it was a state of a new kind and not based on religion. In fact, it was very close to the modern form of a secular state.”14

It is true that the Qarmatians’ mission during its struggle in Iraq raised slogans which had religious and sectarian tones, especially the slogan of obedience to the Hidden Imam, but after the etablishement of the Republic of Bahrain, the idea of the Imam turned to be no more than a social idea with a religious form. This was highly reflected in their interpretation of the verse 5 of Surah Al-Qasas in the Qur’an: “And we wished to bestow a favour upon those who were deemed weak in the land, and to make them the Imams, and to make them the heirs.”15

Destrcution and blood-shedding perpetrated by Al-Qaramita’s republic against Al-Ka’ba, Islam’s most sacred shrine, and the pilgrims was an unsuccesful attempt to combat what the Qarmatians considered paganism (wathaniya) and weaken the authority of the Caliphate state in the eyes of the Muslims by showing the Caliphate’s inability to protect the sacred areas and ensuring the safety of pilgrims. The same to be said about the horrific attacks waged by the Qarmatians of Bahrain on Kufa and Basrah more than once. “We do not believe,” writes Hussein Mrouah, “that plunder and killing was an aim in itself, but means used by the Qarmatian Repulic and exploited by the conservatives and the representatives of the Caliphate state ideology to present a barbaric face of the Qarmatian movement.”16

The founders of the Qarmatian Republic of Bahrain did have have a philosophy, but not a faith in the religious sense. Their philosophy consisted of “divining” reason and “reasoning” the divine. They speak of “the Supreme Reason”,i.e., Allah or the Supreme Wisdom. They completely abolished religious rituals and customs. As the Persian taveller Naser Khusrow reported, “there was once no Friday mosque in Lahsa’, and the sermon and congregational prayer were not held…They did not prevent anyone from performing prayers, although they themselves did not pray.”17

The Muslim scholar Al-Baghdadi informs us that the Qarmatians “denied all the prophets and laws.”18 In Lahsa all kinds of animals such as dogs, cats, donkeys were sold and eaten. A custom which had been forbidden by Islam. Wine, however, was not indulged in. The Qarmatians also prohibited visiting tombs and kissing them.

As of the political system of the Qarmatian Republic, it differed fundamentally from the oligarchical political systems of the middle ages. The fact that Al-Qaramita government was headed by individuals from Abu Tahir Al-Janabi’s family, led some to think that the government of Bahrain was a tyranny rather than a republic. “However, those individuals were not distinguished from other ministers and members of the consultative council…except with regard to specific matters, such as leadership of the army and the leadership of the council of distinguished ministers over some of the secondary administrators. Thus they were more like the leaders of the South American republics of this century [19th century] than Arab and Persian princes at that time.”19

The republic had a form of “a collective leadership”. The government was presided by six ministers who formed the consultative council (majlis) known as Al-Akdaniya (‘those who bind’). The ‘citizens of the republic’ elected the members of the Council from Sulaymman Abi Tahir and his aides or others who were trustworthy and occupied high positions in the movement organisation. There were also six deputies who replaced the Council members if for some reason the latters were unable to attend the sessions. Al-Akdaniya Council took decisions related to the republic by consensus. And it seems that that form of political system continued to exist in the Republic of Bahrain when Naser Khusrow visited the country in 1052.

According to Dr. Farhad Daftary, there is a historical evidence that “communal and egalitarian principles seem to have played an important role in the organisation of the Qaramatian state of Bahrain, especially in terms of the ownership of property, cultivation of agricultural land, collection of taxes, distribution of public expenditures, and various types of state assistance to the underprivileged.”20

Among the early legislations of the governing council in Bahrain were: the abolition of the land taxes, the abolition of tariffs, enacting a new tax system that did not burden the citizens. Among the new taxes were: a tax on the boats that passed through the Gulf, taxes on the people of Oman, a tax on the pilgrims on their way to Mecca and Medina and a tax on the fishermen of pearls. Other financial revenues came from annual taxes imposed on some of Iraq’s towns and villages in addition to revenues generated by internal sources from the land of Bahrain and Oman, both of which were the most fertile lands in the Arabian Peninsula. Thus revenues from taxes amounted to one million dinars per year. External and internal commerce was run by the state and carried on with token money that could not be exported.

Through Naser Khusrow’s records, it is possible to shed some light on the type of ownership in Bahrain of the time. There were “thirty thousand black slaves working in the fields at the expense of the council. Those were fields bought with common funds. The people there did not pay taxes to the government, nor did they tithe. If one of the poor suffered a loss or was burdened with debts he had no way of paying, the council loaned him the money he needed to correct the situation. And if someone incurred debts, when they were due he paid only what he owed, i.e. without interest”21 untill no one was left poor.22

At the time of the Muslim traveller Nasir-i Khuraw’s visit to the Qarmatian state thirty-thousand African slaves were employed by the ‘Iqdaniyya. Because of the migration of agriculural labourers and peasants who lost their lands to the towns, big landowners desparately needed a new labour force. They found in Al-Zanj (black slaves from Eastern Africa) a perfect cheap labour. In Bahrain, however, did not belong to landowners, but worked on fileds run by the goverment.

Khosrow also mentions that there were public mills in Al-Ahsa, which ground wheat for people free of charge because the government paid the workers and the expenses of the mills. The Qarmatians “stressed tolerance and equality, organised workers and artisans into guilds and in their ceremonial had the ritual of a guild…This trade guild movement, in the opinion of Massignon, reached the West and influenced the formation of European guilds and Freemasonary.”23

The independent trade guilds soon came into conflict with authority and suffered intermittent persecution. They protected themselves by forming an asssociation that resembled the much later and different Mosonic movement elsewhere, “with initiation rites, secret oaths, elected leaders known as ‘master’, councils composed of these leaders, and a doctrine with both mystical and social elements.”24 The trade guilds were officially recognised by the Fatimid state two year after the foundation of Cairo in 970.

“Undoubtedly the state of the Qarmatian Bahrain implemented a system of a socialist type,” states Sulayman S. Alamuddin, “the only gap in this system, however, is the slavery problem for that the state maintained slavery and made the slaves a productive force. Two social classes formed Al-Bahrain: the freemen, most of them of whom were soldiers, and the slaves. The freemen divided the state resources among themselves.”25 “While there is no reason to assume that these slaves were mistreated,” comments Tamara Sonn, “slave labour of any sort is clearly not in keeping the principles of equality and social solidarity. Therefore [Bandali] Jawzi presents the Qarmatis as not fully ‘communist’ but as a community that implemented, at least to a limited extent, principles of distributive justice.”26

The exploitation of slaves continued, but slavery was diminishing as society was moving towards feaudalism. Islam could not abolish salvery, neither could Al-Qaramita. As a mode of production slavery had to exhaust itself and be replaced by a superior mode of production. It was not up to morality and the will of people or rulers to end slavery with a stroke of a pen (as some people today think about Britain and the slave trade). That was the material and historical reason behind the Qarmatians maintaining the exploitation of slaves though in a different way under different social relations.

Most traditional and contemporary Muslim scholars and historians have denounced and vilified the Qarmatians (and all rebellious movements in Islam) as a bunch of kufa’r (heretics), murderers and looters whose mission was to destroy Islam. Al-Qaramita are protrayed in orthodox Islamic (mainly Sunni) literature as people who lived “a promiscuity that went beyond money and land to include women”.27

In the words of Suhayl Zakar, “What interests the researcher and historian today when writing about Al-Qaramitah is their revolutionary features as well as their economic and social solutions, but how could one devote himself to accomplish such a mission and write without being bound to the nightmare of halal and haram (what is allowed and what is forbidden), heresy and belief when the difference between a researcher in history and a man of ‘religious science’ is so vast?”28

There is evidence that Qarmatian women were not veiled. The Qarmatians rejected concubinage and child marriage. They went further in rejecting polygamy and the veil. Generally, both sexes in the Qarmatian society practised monogamy, and both men and women socialised together. Well-known travellers such as Nasr-Khosrow, Ibn Hawqal, and Al-Maqdisi visited or lived among the Qarmatians, observed their daily lives and studied their system. If there had been anything at odds with the general moral principles, it would been mentioned in their travelogues. However, that did not prevent a prominent historian like Philip Hitti to claim that Hamdan Qarmat, one of the first leaders of the movement, prescribed “community of wives and property (ulfah)” [!].29

Decline and fall

Divisions and conflicts among the Qarmatians after the death of Abu Saiid Al-Janabi (the founder of Qarmatian Bahrain), hostility and threats from the surrounding states, external wars with the Caliphate armies, the Fatimds and neighbouring tribes all were factors that contributed to the weakening of the Bahrain state. The fighting with Abu Tahir (Abu Saiid’s son)’s house and his relatives…the dying out of the council of ‘old gentlemen made the Qarmatian a weak and easy prey to their neighbours and enemies.

By mid-eleventh century Bahrain “gradually traded the radical, egalitarian Ismailism of the …Qarmatian movement for a more quietiest version of Shi’ism the Twelver or Imami branch which Sunni rulers considered less objectionable.”30

On the whole, a form of “public ownership” existed in Qarmatian Bahrain and was the dominant feature of the socio-economic institutions of the country. The experiements of ‘communal’ and ‘egalitarian’ ownership of property was a short-lived experiment, but that was exactly what gave the Qarmatian movement a revolutionary face and made it one of the extraordinary movements in Islamic history. That form of ‘public ownership’ was in fact the water spring that allowed the experiment to last for decades despite hostile class and ideoligical forces which were at work to strangle it, for the dangerous example it represented to the general social system of the Caliphate state. Today, distortions and lies prevail in the history of that revolutionary experiment, an experiment that had its mistakes and drawbacks and which were grave indeed.

Although many social experiments in history did contain socialistic or communistic elements, it is un-scientific, however, to call those societies socialist or communist societies as Bandali Al-Jawzi and some modern Araba and Muslim writers have argued in their writings about the Qarmatians.

1 Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), Iranian theologian and one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Islamic thought, quoted by Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, Faber and Faber Ltd., London, England, 1991, pp. 144-45. “There are those who hold the imamate (caliphate, higher legitimacy) is dead, lacking as it does the required qualifications (consensus of the community, righteous caliphs). But no substitute can be found for it. What then? Are we to give up obeying the law?...Of those that contend that the caliphate is dead for ever and irreplaceable, we should like to ask: which is preferred, anarchy and the stoppage of social life for lack of a properly constituted authority, or acknowledgement of the existing power, whatever it be?” Quoted by Reuben Levy, An Introduction to the Sociology of Islam, Williams and Norgate Ltd., London, England, 1930, p. 306

2 Islamic Sunni sources call it ‘the Great Sedition’.

3 “During the central period of Medieval Islamic history, the lands of the Caliphate were convulsed by a movemnet [the Ismailite] at once religious, philosophical, social and political, which, for a time, threatened the very existence of Islamic civilisation, and which at its height, succeeded in establishing a schismatic anti-Calipahte which was at least the equal in power and prosperity of the orthodox Caliphate of Baghdad.” Bernard Lewis, The Origins of Ismailism, Cambridge, 1940, p. 1

4 Dr Farhad Daftary, Carmatians, published by Institute of Ismaili Studies,

5 Lewis, preface, v., my emphasis.

6 I am not suggesting here that ‘feudalism’ of the Arab society of the time was the same feudalism that Europe had. Some speak of an Asiatic mode of production, others speak of a particular type of ‘feudalism’. This could be the subject of a separate essay. However, we may say that feudalism, the mode of production which is based on the ownership of the land by landlords and the exploitation of peasants who are tied to the land, was at that time the dominant mode of production in the Arab-Islamic State. However, Oriental feudalism is significantly distinct from European feudalim because the largest part of the land belonged to the feudal Islamic state represented by the Caliph. See Tadrous Trad, Al-Harakah Al-Qarmatiya fil Iraq, Al-Shaam wal Bahrain was Ahamiyatouha Al-Tarikhiyah, Dar Ashtarut, Damascus, Syria, 2002, pp. 13 – 34

7 The Prophet had condemned Al-Asabiyya as contrary to the spirit of Islam.

8 Abd Al-Aziz Al-Dawri, Dirasa’t fi Tarikh Al-Iraq Al-Iktisa’di, p. 155, mentioned in Trad’s, Al-Harakah Al-Qarmatiya fil Iraq, Al-Shaam wal Bahrain wa Ahamiyatouha Al-Tarikhiyah, p. 84

9 Taqiyou Al-Din Al-Maqrizi (1364 - 1442) was an Egyptian and Sunni histroian who wrote mainly about the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt.

10 See Al-Tabari, Tarikhoh, Leiden, 1879, vol. 8, p. 230

11 Dr. Mustapha Ghalib, Al-Qaramita bayna Al-Medd wal-Jazr, Dar Al-Andalous, Beirut, Lebabnon , 1979, p. 7

12 Hussein Mrouah, Al-Nazaa’t Al-Madiya fil Falsafa Al-Arabiya Al-Islamiya, Beirut, Dar Al-Farabi, 2002, vol. 3, p.18

13 Sulyman Salim Alamuddin, Al-Qaramita, Naufal, Beirut, Lebanon, 2003, p. 216

14 Ibid., p. 20 (emphasis in the original text)

15 There is more than one translation of the verse: “And we wished to be Gracious to those who were being depressed in the land, to make them leaders (in Faith) and make them heirs.” “And we desired to show favour unto those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them examples and to make them the inheritors.” (Surah Al-Qasas, Verse 5) Compare this Quranic verse with the Biblical one: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5)

16 Mrouah, Al-Nazaa’t Al-Madiya fil Falsafa Al-Arabiya Al-Islamiya, p. 21

17 Naser-e khosraw, Book of Travels (Safarnama), translated from Persian, New York, USA, The Persian Heritage Foundation, 1986, p. 88

18 See Al-Baghdadi (d. 1038), Al-Farq bayn Al-Firaq, Cairo, Egypt, Ed. Al-Maarif, 1948 and Ed. 1910, p. 277

19 Tamara Sonn, Interpreting Islam, Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 155

20 (Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Britain, 1990, p. 119

21 Tamara Sonn, Interpreting Islam, Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History, p. 157 and Naser-e khosraw, Book of Travels (Safarnama), pp. 87-88

22 Khusrow, mentioned in Tadrous Trad, Al-Harakah Al-Qarmatiya fil Iraq, Al-Shaam wal Bahrain was Ahamiyatouha Al-Tarikhiyah, Dar Ashtarut, Damascus, Syria, 2002, p. 325 and Hussein Mrouah, Al-Nazaa’t Al-Madiya fil Falsafa Al-Arabiya Al-Islamiya, Beirut, Dar Al-Farabi, 2002, vol. 3, p. 23

23 Philip K. Hitty, History of the Arabs, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1970, 10th ed., p. 445

24 See Ronald Segal, Islam’s Black Slaves, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002, pp. 28-9 and Maurice Lombard, The Golden Age of Islam, Amsterdam and Oxford, North Holland Publishing Co., 1975, pp. 154-56)

25 Sulyman Salim Alamuddin, Al-Qaramita, Naufal, Beirut, Lebanon, 2003, p. 217

26 Tamara Sonn, Interpreting Islam, Bandali Jawzi’s Islamic Intellectual History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, p. 50

27 Mohamed Al-Sabbagh in his introduction of Al-Qaramitah, Al-Imam Abd Arrahman Ibn Al-Jawzi, Al-Maktib Al-Islami, Beirut,Lebanon, 1968, 2nd ed., p. 20

28 Dr.Suhayl Zakar, Al-Jamie Fi Akhba’r Al-Qaramitah, Dar Hassan, Damascus, Syria, 1987, p. 8

29 Philip K. Hitty, History of the Arabs, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 1970, 10th ed., p. 444

30 Juan Cole, Sacred Space and Holy War – The Politics, Culture and History of Shi’te Islam, I. B. Tauris Publishers, London, UK, 2002, P. 2