The Qarmatians (Al-Qaramita)
By Nadeem Mahjoub
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 occurred 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-manufacturing 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 Qarmatian as a movement of kufa’r (or heretics).
What distinguishes Al-Qaramita Revolution from the other two (Al-Zanj and Babek), 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 agricultural 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 interpreted 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 alternative 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 openly 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 vengeance, 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 essentially 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.
The foundations of the social system 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 institutions 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 conquerors 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 agricultural 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 exhausted, 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 agriculture. This process was carried out by big merchants who bought land from small farmers, leaving the latter 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 original owner 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., "feudalism"6, which was represented and reinforced by the Caliphate state, the big merchants, besides to 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 aristocracy 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 plundering 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 courtesans, ghilman and clowns, the vast majority of the masses lived in poverty, and even suffered starvation. Heavy and ever-increasing taxes were exhorted from the working masses, which not only hindered 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 characteristics 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, especially in Al-Maghreb (North Africa) and Egypt..
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 that spread throughout early Islam.
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 ‘extremist’ 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 disciplined underground organisation with ‘missionaries’ who had strong connections with the members. Hamdan Qarmat, the founder and the main organiser, was renown for his skills. He was assisted by twelve captains whom Qarmat had chosen among the missionaries following the same Ismailite way. The skilful 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 fieldwork 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 oppressed 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 downtrodden 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 until the year 900. Now the state saw in the movement a social and ideological as well as a political danger and fiercely 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 Bila’d 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.
“After the Islamic conquest and the ascending commercial 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
t 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
Destruction and blood-shedding perpetrated by Al-Qaramita’s republic against Al-Ka’ba, Islam’s most sacred shrine, and the pilgrims was an unsuccessful 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 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 latter 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 until 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 agricultural labourers and peasants who lost their lands to the towns, big landowners desperately 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 fields run by the government.
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 association that resembled the much later and different Masonic 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 feudalism. Islam could not abolish slavery, 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 portrayed 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
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 experiments 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 ideological 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.
Notes and references