Abdullah ibn Saba'

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Abd Allah ibn Sabaʾ al-Ḥimyarī (or Sabāʾ, also sometimes called ibn al-Sawdāʾ, ibn Wahb, or ibn Ḥarb)[1] was a 7th-century figure in Islamic history and often associated with a group of followers called the Sabaʾiyya.[2]

Some modern historical views are not clear what person lay behind this figure.[1] Some believe that Abdullah Ibn Saba may have been actually several figures (e.g. Hodgson), semi-legendary (Caetani, Momen Moojan), or legendary and fictional (Taha Hussein, Ali al-Wardi, Bernard Lewis, Wilferd Madelung, Askari)[3] but the Jewish rabbi and biblical scholar Israel Friedlander and Sabatino Moscati affirm his existence.[3] His Jewish origin has been contested. Some modern historians assert that Sayf ibn Umar fabricated the episode about the killing of Uthman to "exonerate the people of Medina from participation in the caliph's murder" and the movement to support Ali as a successor to Muhammad did not exist in the time of Uthman.[4] With the exception of Taha Hussein, most modern Sunni writers affirm the existence of Ibn Saba'. In a similar vein, Shia writers deny Ibn Saba's historical existence to rid Shi'aism of the accusation by Sunni writers that Shia'ism is originally based on Judaic doctrines.[5]

Modern Views[edit]


According to Sunni and Shia sources, Abdullah bin Saba' was a Yamanite Jewish convert to Islam,[2][6] although M.G.S. Hodgson doubts he was a Jew[2] and actually may have been several figures.[7] He also suggests that Ibn Saba' and Ibn al-Sawada' should be considered as two separate individuals.[1] According to Leone Caetani, Ibn Saba in origin was a purely political supporter of Ali, "around whom later generations imagined a religious conspiracy like that of the Abbasids."[1] Modern Muslim writers tend to discredit Tabari's account of Ibn Saba as "sheer fiction".[4] Taha Hussein and Ali al-Wardi maintain that Ibn Saba' was the creation of Umayyad propaganda.[8] According to Bernard Lewis modern critical scholarship has successfully cast doubt on his historical existence.[9] Ibn Saba is called a semi-legendary figure by Moojan[10] and a legendary figure by MariaMassi Dakake.[11] Israel Friedlander concludes that Ibn Saba' and the Sabi'iyya did, in fact, exist. The episode about his role in killing of Uthman has been fabricated, however. His work has also been attested to by Sabatino Moscati.[3]

Ali Al-Wardi after affirming that Ibn Saba is fictional name, suggests that Ammar Yaser may actually be the historical figure lay behind Ibn Saba figure. He noted at similarities of Ammar Yaser life to Ibn Saba. Ammar was also from Yemen. He was called Ibn Sawda (son of a black woman). He was zealous supporter of Ali's right for caliphate, and went to Egypt to rouse Muslims against Uthman. He also obstructed the peace effort between Ali and Aisha.[4]


M. G. S. Hodgson concludes that he was probably not a Jew.[1] W. F. Tucker suggests that it was possible that the attribution of Jewish ancestry to Ibn Saba' on his parental side and imputation of black descent on his mother's side, was fabricated to discredit his credentials as a Muslim Arab and "thus stigmatize all ideas associated with him".[3] Bernard Lewis states that modern critical scholarship cast doubt on his Jewishness.[9] Bernard Lewis, citing the example of Ibn Saba', states that there is tendency in Islamic sources to attribute subversive and extremist doctrines to Jewish origins, conspiracy or instigation.[9] G. Levi Della Vida also rejects his Jewish origin and maintains that Ibn Saba' was an Arab.[3]

However, according to Hartwig Hirschfeld, Abdullah bin Saba' was a Jew from Yemen who embraced Islam.[12] Israel Friedlander suggested that he may have been a son of an Ethiopian Falasha woman, which explains why he was called "ibn al-Sawdāʾ". W. F. Tucker, after examining the different arguments, concludes that "Whatever is the case regarding his ethnic identity, it is quite probable that Ibn Saba' was a Yemenite, and that he came from a Jewish milieu".[3]


Traditionally, Abd Allah ibn Sabaʾ is considered as the first of the ghulāt. He may have been the first to deny that Ali had died and predicting his return (rajʿa), which was considered one form of ghulū. Also, the notion of the absence (ghayba) of an imam seem to have appeared first among the ghulāt.[13]

Concerning Ibn Saba' religious beliefs, particularly that of the Sabaʾiyya, Tucker noted that they are more complete and better recorded in sources devoted to heresiography.[3] But Hodgson states that there are contradictions in what religious views is ascribed to him and his followers.[1]

Heinz Halm records him as a representative of a Ghulat group from the city of Seleucia-Ctesiphon (al-Madā'in) who came to see ‘Alī in Kūfah. When Ibn Saba' proclaimed ‘Alī's divinity, ‘Alī denied this angrily and exiled him back to Seleucia-Ctesiphon.[14] Heinz Halm adds that Islamic writers such as Ašʿari in Maqālāt, Baḡdādi in Feraq have said that Ibn Saba' was the first person who idolized Ali ibn Abi Talib. He preached that ʿAli was God (al-elāh). After ʿAli’s death, he is said to maintain this idea that "a devil in ʿAli’s appearance had been murdered" and ʿAli had ascended to heaven and that his occultation (rajʿa) was imminent.[15]

Examining his roles in Uthman’s Killing and emergence of Shia[edit]

According to M. G. S. Hodgson, "surer sources" than Tabari and Sayf ibn Umar seem to exclude Ibn Sabaʾ from playing any major role in the political events that led to Uthman's killing.[1]

Wilferd Madelung after reviewing the accounts of Sayf ibn Umar on the alleged role of Abdullah ibn Saba' in the rebellion against Uthman and emergence of Shi'a asserts ‘’few if any modern historians would accept Sayf's legend of Ibn Saba’’[16]

Taha Hussein asserts that the "fabrication" of ibn Saba' was done by the enemies of the Shī‘a; that the insertion of a "Jewish element" would discredit the Shī‘a.[17] He noted that the absence of any record of ibn Saba' being present at the Battle of Siffin suggests that ibn Saba' is a fictitious person.[17]

Israel Friedlander, Julius Wellhausen, and most particularly, Leone Caetani, assert that Sayf fabricated the episode about killing of Uthman to "exonerate the people of Medina from participation in the caliph's murder"[4] and as Friedlander adds finding a "scapegoat for the troubles surrounding Uthman" and any complicity in the strife resulting in the death of third caliph.[3] Tucker asserts that although it may have been the case, there is no concrete evidence supporting this theory. They note that sources older than al-Tabari are silent on Ibn Saba' and his role in the agitation against Uthman. "They aver that the movement for supporting Ali as heir and testamentary trustee of the prophet did not exist in the time of Uthman as Ibn Saba' had alleged. Therefore they refuse to accept the authenticity of Ibn Saba's claim that Ali was the heir of prophet".[3][4] Caetani noted that a religious conspiracy may have been created around the person of Ibn Sabaʾ even though he may have been just a political supporter of Ali.[1]

However, W. F. Tucker notes that the suggestion that Sayf is not reliable is no longer sustainable.[3] Tucker and Landau-Tasseron point out that although Sayf may have been an unscrupulous hadith collector, this should not detract from his general reliability as a transmitter of historical information (akhbārī).[3] Tucker also states that even if Sayf's accounts of Ibn Saba' was a fabrication, he appears to be only the transmitter of the story and not the ultimate source. He adds that accusations of bias could equally be leveled at other akhbārīs contemporary to Sayf, including the Shi'a historian Abu Mikhnaf.[3]

Linda D. Lau accepts Sayf's accounts and the role of the Saba'iyya at the Battle of the Camel. She points out that traditionalists other than Sayf did not give an explanation to why the hostilities broke out after the near-settlement. Not only Sayf's account is the sole exiting account with an explanation of what happened, it is also logically consistent.[18]

Sunni views[edit]

According to Tabari, based on traditions collected by Sayf ibn Umar, Ibn Saba' was a Yemenite Jew who embraced Islam[citation needed]. During the time of Ali ibn Abi Taleb, he introduced a number of concepts that later were ascribed to more extreme factions of Shia Islam, or ghulat. According to these traditions, the exaltation of Ali, his divine appointment by the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a successor, the concept of ghayba and return (rajʿa) were first formulated and expressed by Ibn Sabaʾ and his followers (the Sabaʾiyya).[1][5][19] He and his followers are sometimes said to be the ones who enticed the Egyptians against Uthman on the ground of Ali's special right of succession, and participated in further instigation at later conflicts.[1] Historically, Sunni theologians have not only upheld Ibn Saba's existence, but used evidence from the historical works of the Shi'a in order to support their claims.[20]

In Sunni polemics, ibn Saba' plays the same role of seeking to destroy the message of Islam from within (by introducing proto-Shi'ite beliefs) as Paul would play in seeking to deliberately corrupt the early teachings of Jesus.[21][22][23]

Shia views[edit]

In Shia' views, the claim that Ibn Saba' as the founder of Shia Islam is considered propaganda. Although the existence of Abdullah Ibn Saba' is seriously under question, even if such a person existed, the stories propagated about this person are legendary, false, fabricated, and fictitious.[24][neutrality is disputed][better source needed] In traditional Shi'a sources, he is sometimes viewed as an extremist Shia (ghulat), himself cursed by Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq. Nevertheless, Ibn Sabaʾ became the subject of a tradition used by different Shia factions to both attack and defend extreme Shia groups.[1] According to this tradition, and depending on the different interpretations, Ali either burned or exiled him and his followers for declaring Ali as God.[1][20]

However. It is noted that earliest Shiite scholars(mutaqaddimiin) was also described Abdullah ibn Saba' as a real person, which is.[25] Another Shiite scholar named Al-Maamiqaaniy was found out also confessing the existence of Abdullah ibn Saba'[26]

It is true that in Shia' traditions Ali ordered Abdullah Ibn Saba' and his followers burned because they assumed Ali God.[1] But Shī‘a views believe that fabricated stories around the character of Abdullah Ibn Saba' are the malicious production of Sayf ibn Umar.[24][neutrality is disputed]He was a story teller who shaped his fictional stories based on primary facts he found in the documented history of Islam available at that time. Although this view only shared by contemporary Shiite historians[24][better source needed][neutrality is disputed]

In traditional Shi'a sources, Ibn Saba' sometimes figured as an extremist (ghali)). It is said that Jafar Sadiq, the sixth Shia' Imam and the founder of Shi'a Islamic fiqh, cursed him. Shī‘a scholars such as Abu Muhammad al-Hasan bin Musa al-Nubakhti,[27] Abu Amr bin Abdul Aziz al-Kash-shi,[28] Al-Hasan bin Ali al-Hilly,[29] al-Astra Abadi,[30]Al-Sadooq,[31] and Al-Nawbakhty.[32] gave the stories and narrations of Ibn Saba.

Other sources on Ibn Saba[edit]

The Shia believe that the fabricated stories around the character of Abdullah ibn Saba' are the malicious production of Sayf ibn Umar al-Tamimi.[24][neutrality is disputed][better source needed]

Multiple Sunni scholars state that Sayf ibn Umar, who wrote extensively about ibn Saba, was unreliable on matters of Prophetic Hadith. For example, al-Dhahabi (d. 748 AH) has quoted from the book of Sayf in his History. In "al-Mughni fi al-Dhu'afa'" al-Dhahabi wrote:"Sayf has two books which have been unanimously abandoned by the scholars."[33] However, some modern historians have pointed out that this view of Sayf should be limited to his Hadith scholarship, and thus it does not detract from his general reliablitiy as a transmitter of historical information.[3][18]

Tabari narration on Ibn Saba' goes back to Sayf ibn Umar. There are two other historians mentioned Ibn Saba' accounts which is said to have independente sources. However, it can be shown that their chains of isnad go back to Sayf Ibn Umar.[34]

The contemporary Shī‘a believed that both works are fabricated and a number of prominent Sunni scholars concur regarding his narration of Hadith,[35][36][37][38][39][40][41][42][43][44][45] including al-Hakim,[46] Abu Dawud,[47] al-Suyuti[48] and al-Nisa'i.[49] The Shī‘a point out that although al-Dhahabi mentions Sayf ibn Umar as a weak narrator, stating "Sayf has two books which have been unanimously abandoned by the scholars",[33] he also accepts the story of Abdullah ibn Saba' relayed from Sayf ibn Umar in his book.

However, as W. F. Tucker argued that Sayf is not reliable is no longer sustainable.[3] that although Sayf may have been an unscrupulous hadith collector, this should not detract from his general reliability as a transmitter of historical information (akhbārī).[3] Tucker also states that even if Sayf's accounts of Ibn Saba' was a fabrication, he appears to be only the transmitter of the story and not the ultimate source. He adds that accusations of bias could equally be leveled at other akhbārīs contemporary to Sayf, including the Shi'a historian Abu Mikhnaf.[3] The similar case was.[50] although Waqidi was criticized as not reliable in narration chains transmission but non narration historical information was accepted.

Moreover, apart from the polemical chains of narration Sayf there are consensus among earliest historians both Sunni or Shiite scholars(mutaqaddimiin) from another chains of narrations was also described Abdullah ibn Saba' was exist as a real person, which.[51][52] Another Shiite scholar named Al-Maamiqaaniy was found out also confessing the existence of Abdullah ibn Saba'[26]

Some early Jewish literature also exists on Ibn Saba. He was largely regarded as an apostate from Judaism.[53][54][55][56]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Hodgson, M. G. S. (1960). "ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sabaʾ". Encyclopaedia of Islam 1 (2nd ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. p. 51. ISBN 90-04-08114-3. 
  2. ^ a b c Abd Allah b. Saba, M.G.S. Hodgson, The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. I, ed. H. A. R. Gibb, J. H. Kramers, E. Levi-Provencal, J. Schacht, (Brill, 1986), 51.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Tucker, William Frederick (2008). Mahdis and millenarians: Shī'ite extremists in early Muslim Iraq. Cambridge University Press. pp. 10–12. ISBN 978-0-521-88384-9. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Moosa, Matti (1987). Extremist Shiites: the ghulat sects. Syracuse, New York, USA: Syracuse University Press. p. 580. ISBN 978-0-8156-2411-0. 
  5. ^ a b Al-Samarrai, Qasim (2000-09-19), "Sayf ibn ʿUmar and ibn Sabaʾ: A new approach", in Tudor Parfitt, Israel and Ishmael: studies in Muslim-Jewish relations, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 52–58, ISBN 978-0-312-22228-4 
  6. ^ Anthony, Sean (2011-11-25). The Caliph and the Heretic: Ibn Saba' and the Origins of Shi'ism. BRILL. p. 71. ISBN 9789004209305. Equally impressive, perhaps, is the sobriety with which Imami sources confirm the heresiarch's Jewish identity, as well as how salient this datum persists through the heresiographical literature, and this despite Sunni polemics against Shi'ism as being polluted by Judaic beliefs. Indeed, of all the components of Ibn al-Sawda's identity proffered by Sayf, that he was a Jew enjoys the broadest attestation elsewhere by far. 
  7. ^ Robert L. Canfield, Turko-Persia in Historical Perspective, Cambridge University Press, 2002, Page 159, ISBN 978-0-521-52291-5
  8. ^ Bernard Lewis; Peter Malcolm Holt (1962). Historians of the Middle East Volume 4 of Historical writing on the peoples of Asia, University of London School of Oriental and African Studies. Oxford University Press. 
  9. ^ a b c Lewis, Bernard (2002). Jews of Islam. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 103. ISBN 978-1-4008-1023-9. 
  10. ^ Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi`i Islam, Yale University Press, 1985;p. 46
  11. ^ Massi Dakake, Maria, The Charismatic Community: Shi'ite Identity in Early Islam, 2007, 978-0-7914-7033-6, page 262
  12. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia; Abdallah ibn Saba. retrieved April 19, 2014
  13. ^ Hodgson, M. G. S. (1965). "GHULĀT". Encyclopaedia of Islam 2 (2nd ed.). Brill Academic Publishers. pp. 1093–1095. 
  14. ^ Heinz Halm, Shi'ism 2nd Edition p 155, (1987) 2004 Columbia University Press ISBN 978-0-231-13587-0
  15. ^ Halm, Heinz (December 15, 2001). "ḠOLĀT". In Ehsan Yarshater. Encyclopedia Iranica (Online ed.). Retrieved October 20, 2011. 
  16. ^ The Succession to Muhammad p. 2
  17. ^ a b al-Fitnat al-Kubra, Vol. II, p.90
  18. ^ a b Landau-Tasseron, Ella (January 1990). "Sayf Ibn ’Umar in Medieval and Modern Scholarship". Der Islam 67: 1–26. doi:10.1515/islm.1990.67.1.1. ISSN 1613-0928. But Linda D. Lau and A. R. Armush, in what seem to be independent studies, reached the conclusion that Sayf's explanation is not only the sole existing one, but is also governed by inner logic so that there is no reason to reject it. 
  19. ^ Bibliography: Shatrastani al-Milal, pp. 132 et seq. (in Haarbrücken's translation, i. 200-201); Weil, Gesch. der Chalifen, i. 173-174, 209, 259.
  20. ^ a b Zubair Ali Zai, Who was Abdullah Ibn Saba? Birmingham: Maktabah Imaam Badee ud Deen, 2011.
  21. ^ Ross Brann (21 Dec 2009). Power in the Portrayal: Representations of Jews and Muslims in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Islamic Spain. Princeton University Press. pp. 65–6. ISBN 9781400825240. 
  22. ^ Zoltan Pall (31 Jan 2013). Lebanese Salafis Between the Gulf and Europe: Development, Fractionalization and Transnational Networks of Salafism in Lebanon. Amsterdam University Press. p. 55. ISBN 9789089644510. 
  23. ^ Sean Anthony (25 Nov 2011). The Caliph and the Heretic: Ibn Saba and the Origins of Shi'ism (illustrated ed.). BRILL. p. 68. ISBN 9789004209305. 
  24. ^ a b c d Abdullah Ibn Saba, Al-Islam.org
  25. ^ Asy-Syii’ah wat-Taariikh; Muhammad Husain Az-Zain ; page. 213]
  26. ^ a b Tanqiihul-Maqaal fii ‘Ilmir-Rijaal, 2/183-184
  27. ^ Book Firaq al-Shi'a: Nubakhti, pp.43,44
  28. ^ Rijaal al-Kash-shi: Abu 'Amr bin Abdul Aziz al-Kash-shi, p.101 al-Mamaqaani, author of "Tanqeeh al-Maqaal", who is an authoritative Shi'i biogrophist quoted the like in his said book, p.184
  29. ^ Kitaab al-Rijaal: al-Hilly, p.469, printed in Tehran, Iran 1383 h. From Ash-Shi'a wat-Tashayyu', p.56
  30. ^ Manhaj al-Maqaal: al-Astar Abadi, p.203, from: Ash-Ashia wat-Tashayyu', p.56
  31. ^ Man la yahduruhu al-Faqih1/229
  32. ^ [1] page 19-20.
  33. ^ a b al-Mughni fi al-Dhu'afa', by al-Dhahabi, p292
  34. ^ Fischer, Michael M. J.; Mehdi Abedi (1990). Debating Muslims: cultural dialogues in postmodernity and tradition. Univ of Wisconsin Press. pp. 124–25. ISBN 978-0-299-12434-2. 
  35. ^ Yahya Ibn Mueen (d. 233 AH) wrote: "Sayf's narrations are weak and useless."
  36. ^ Abu Hatam (d. 277 AH) wrote: "Sayf's Hadith is rejected."
  37. ^ Ibn Abi Hatam (d. 327 AH) wrote: "Scholars have abandoned Sayf's narrations."
  38. ^ Ibn Habban (d. 354 AH) wrote: "Sayf attributed fabricated traditions to the good reporters. He was accused of being a heretic and a liar."
  39. ^ Ibn Abd al-Barr (d. 462 AH) mentioned in his writing abut al-Qa'qa: "Sayf reported that al-Qa'qa Said: I attended the death of the Prophet Muhammad."Ibn Adb al-Barr continued: "Ibn Abu Hatam said: Sayf is weak. Thus, what was conveyed of the presence of al-Qa'qa at the death of the Prophet is rejected. We mentioned the Sayf's traditions for knowledge only."
  40. ^ al-Darqutini (d. 385 AH) wrote: "Sayf is weak".
  41. ^ Firuzabadi (d. 817 AH) in "Towalif" mentioned Sayf and some others by saying: "They are weak."
  42. ^ Ibn al-Sakan (d. 353 AH) wrote: "Sayf is weak."
  43. ^ Safi al-Din (d. 923 AH) wrote: "Sayf is considered weak."
  44. ^ Ibn Udei (d. 365 AH) wrote about Sayf: "He is weak. Some of his narrations are famous yet the majority of his narrations are disgraceful and not followed."
  45. ^ Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (d. 852 AH) wrote after mentioning a tradition:"Many reporters of this tradition are weak, and the weakest among them is Sayf."
  46. ^ al-Hakim (d. 405 AH) wrote: "Sayf is accused of being a heretic. His narrations are abandoned."
  47. ^ Abu Dawud (d. 316 AH) wrote: "Sayf is nothing. He was a liar. Some of his Hadiths were conveyed and the majority of them are denied."
  48. ^ al-Suyuti (d. 900 AH) wrote: "Sayf's Hadith is weak."
  49. ^ al-Nisa'i (d. 303 AH) wrote: "Sayf's narrations are weak and they should be disregarded because he was unreliable and untrustworthy."
  50. ^ Waqidi regarding Maghazi
  51. ^ al-Kaamil of Ibn Adiyy 6/2128, its chain is authentic and in another edn 7/275; adh-Dhu’afa al-Kabeer of Uqailee 4/77; al-Kaamil of Ibn Adiyy 6/2128, its chain is authentic and in another edn 7/275; Musannaf Ibn Abee Shaybah 11/299-300 no.31227, no.31761 in another edn. and its chain is authentic; al-Maqaalaat al-Islaamiyeen pg.86; ; 13th Juzz from the Hadeeth of Abu Taahir Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Nasr adh-Dhuhalee no 157, its chain is authentic, Taareekh Ibn Abee Khaithamah no1398, Taareekh Dimishq 31/6
  52. ^ Asy-Syii’ah wat-Taariikh; Muhammad Husain Az-Zain ; page. 213]
  53. ^ History of the Jews: From the Roman Empire to the Early Medieval ..., Volume 2 By Simon Dubnov page 330 where it talks about Abdala Ben Saba [2]
  54. ^ Jewish Literature from the Eighth to the Eighteenth Century: With an ... By Moritz Steinschneider, William Spottiswoode page 59 [3]
  55. ^ history of the jews, Volume 2 By Ernst G. Maier Page 330
  56. ^ There is also other non Muslim literature from near that time like The Chronography of Bar Hebraeus By Bar Hebraeus [4]


  • Tucker, William Frederick (2008). Mahdis and millenarians: Shī'ite extremists in early Muslim Iraq. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-88384-9. 
  • Halm, Heinz (2004-07-21). Shi'ism. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 978-0-7486-1888-0. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Anthony, Sean (2011-11-25). The Caliph and the Heretic: Ibn Saba' and the Origins of Shi'ism. BRILL. ISBN 978-900420930-5. 
  • Sulaymān ibn Ḥamad ʻAwdah (1985). ʿAbdullāh bin Sabaʾ wa atharuhu fī aḥdāth al-fitna fī ṣadr al-islām. Dār Ṭayba. 
  • A paper about a favorable Isma'ili legend formed around the figure of Abdullah ibn Saba': Anthony, Sean W. (2011). "The Legend of ʿAbdallāh Ibn Sabaʾ and the Date of Umm Al-Kitāb". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. (Third Series) 21 (1): 1–30. doi:10.1017/S135618631000060X. 
  • Halm, Heinz (1982). Die islamische Gnosis: die extreme Schia und die ʻAlawiten. Artemis Verlag. ISBN 978-3-7608-4530-2. 
  • Moscati, S. (1955). Per una storia dell'antica Shi'a. RSO. 

External links[edit]