The Qarmatians (Arabic: قرامطة Qarāmita "Those Who Wrote in Small Letters"; also transliterated "[C/Q/K]armathians") were a syncretic religious group that combined elements of the Shi'a Ismaili branch of Islam with Persian mysticism centered in eastern Arabia, where they attempted to establish a utopian republic in 899 CE. They are most famed for their revolt against the Abbasid Caliphate. Mecca was sacked by the sect’s leader Ṭāhir Sulaymān, outraging the Muslim world, particularly with their theft of the Black Stone and desecration of the Well of Zamzam with corpses during the Hajj season of 930 CE.
The Qarāmiṭah were also known as "the Greengrocers" (al-Baqliyyah) because of their strict vegetarian habits.
Under the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258 CE), various Shī‘ī groups organised in secret opposition to their rule. Among them were the supporters of the proto-Ismā‘īlī community, of whom the most prominent group were called the Mubārakiyyah.
According to the Ismaili school of thought, Imām Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (702–765) designated his second son, Isma'il ibn Jafar (ca. 721–755), as heir to the Imamate. However, Ismā‘īl predeceased his father. Some claimed he had gone into hiding, but the proto-Ismā‘īlī group accepted his death and therefore accordingly recognized Ismā‘īl's eldest son, Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl (746–809), as Imām. He remained in contact with the Mubārakiyyah group, most of whom resided in Kūfah.
The split among the Mubārakiyyah came with the death of Muḥammad ibn Ismā‘īl (ca. 813 CE). The majority of the group denied his death; they recognized him as the Mahdi. The minority believed in his death and would eventually emerge in later times as the Fāṭimid Ismā‘īlī, the precursors to all modern groups.
The majority Ismā‘īlī missionary movement settled in Salamiyah (in present-day Syria) and had great success in Khuzestan (Southwestern Persia), where the Ismā‘īlī leader al-Husayn al-Ahwāzī converted the Kūfan man Ḥamdān in 874 CE, who took the name Qarmaṭ after his new faith. Qarmaṭ and his theologian brother-in-law ‘Abdān prepared southern Iraq for the coming of the Mahdi by creating a military and religious stronghold. Other such locations grew up in Yemen, in Bahrain in 899 CE and in North Africa. These attracted many new Shī‘ī followers due to their activist and messianic teachings. This new proto-Qarmaṭī movement continued to spread into Greater Iran and then into Transoxiana.
The Qarmatian Revolution
A change in leadership in Salamiyyah in 899 led to a split in the movement. The minority Ismā‘īlīs, whose leader had taken control of the Salamiyyah centre, began to proclaim their teachings - that Imām Muḥammad had died, and that the new leader in Salamiyyah was in fact his descendant come out of hiding. Qarmaṭ and his brother-in-law opposed this and openly broke with the Salamiyyids; when ‘Abdān was assassinated, he went into hiding and subsequently repented. Qarmaṭ became a missionary of the new Imām, Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah (873–934), who founded the Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa in 909.
Nonetheless, the dissident group retained the name Qarmaṭī. Their greatest stronghold remained in Bahrain, which at this period included much of eastern Arabia as well as the islands that comprise the present state, was under Abbasid control at the end of the ninth century, but a slave rebellion in Basra disrupted the power of Baghdad. The Qarmaṭians seized their opportunity under their leader, Abū-Saʿīd Jannābī, who captured Bahrain’s capital Hajr and al-Hasa in 899, which he made the capital of his republic and once in control of the state he sought to set up a utopian society.
The Qarmaṭians instigated what one scholar termed a "century of terrorism" in Kufa. They considered the pilgrimage to Mecca a superstition and once in control of the Bahraini state they launched raids along the pilgrim routes crossing Arabia: in 906 they ambushed the pilgrim caravan returning from Mecca and massacred 20,000 pilgrims. Under Abu Tahir Al-Jannabi (ruled 923–944) the Qarmaṭians came close to raiding Baghdad in 927 and sacked Mecca and Medina in 930. The assault on Islam's holiest sites saw the Qarmatians desecrate the Well of Zamzam with corpses of Hajj pilgrims and take the Black Stone from Mecca to Al-Hasa. Holding the Black Stone to ransom they forced the Abbasids to pay a huge sum for its return in 952.
The revolution and desecration shocked the Muslim world and humiliated the Abbasids. But little that could be done; for much of the tenth century the Qarmatians were the most powerful force in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, controlling the coast of Oman and collecting tribute from the caliph in Baghdad as well as from a rival Ismaili imam in Cairo, whom they did not recognize.
The land they ruled over was extremely wealthy with a huge slave-based economy according to academic Yitzhak Nakash:
The Qarmatian state had vast fruit and grain estates both on the islands and in Hasa and Qatif. Nasiri Khusru, who visited Hasa in 1051, recounted that these estates were cultivated by some thirty thousand Ethiopian slaves. He mentions that the people of Hasa were exempt from taxes. Those impoverished or in debt could obtain a loan until they put their affairs in order. No interest was taken on loans, and token lead money was used for all local transactions. The Qarmathian state had a powerful and long-lasting legacy. This is evidenced by a coin known as Tawila, minted around 920 by one of the Qarmathian rulers, and which was still in circulation in Hasa early in the twentieth century.
The sack of Mecca followed millenarian fervour among the Qarmatians (as well as in Persia) over the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in 928—an event which the Qarmat leader Abū Ṭāhir al-Ḏj̲annābī believed indicated the end of the epoch of Islam and the beginning of the final religious era. The year 931 was also highly important for the Qarmatians' mahdi fervor, as it was 1,500 years after the prophet Zoroaster's death and the end of the epoch of Alexander, which predicted the reign of the Magians. Therefore, in 931 Abu Tahir handed over power to a young Persian man whom he believed to be the awaited mahdi. This new Persian Qarmatian leader acted unexpectedly, forbidding Islamic law and prayer, ordering the cursing of many imams and Muslim prophets, supported the worship of fire, killed prominent Qarmati leaders, and proclaimed a religion centered on Adam, the first man. The expected mahdi ruled only 80 days; Abu Tahir had no choice but to kill him, though his bizarre rule severely destabilized the Qarmatian movement.
After defeat by the Abbasids in 976 the Qarmatians began to look inwards and their status was reduced to that of a local power. This had important repercussions for the Qarmatians' ability to extract tribute from the region; according to Arabist historian Curtis Larsen:
As tribute payments were progressively cut off, either by the subsequent government in Iraq or by rival Arab tribes, the Carmathian state shrank to local dimensions. Bahrain broke away in AD 1058 under the leadership of Abu al-Bahlul al-Awwam who re-established orthodox Islam on the islands. Similar revolts removed Qatif from Carmathian control at about the same time. Deprived of all outside income and control of the coasts, the Carmathians retreated to their stronghold at the Hofuf Oasis. Their dynasty was finally dealt a final blow in 1067 by the combined forces of Abdullah bin Ali Al Uyuni, who with the help of Seljuk army contingents from Iraq, laid siege to Hofuf for seven years and finally forced the Carmathians to surrender.
In Bahrain and eastern Arabia the Qarmatian state was replaced by the Uyunid dynasty, while it is believed that by the middle of the eleventh century Qarmatian communities in Iraq, Iran and Transoxiana had either been won over by Fatimid proselytising or had disintegrated. The last contemporary mention of the Qarmatians is that of Nasir ibn Khosrau, who visited them in 1050, although Ibn Battuta, visiting Qatif in 1331, found it inhabited by Arab tribes whom he described as "extremist Shi`is" (rafidhiyya ghulat), which historian Juan Cole has suggested is how a 14th Century Sunni would describe Ismailis.
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There is a general tendency in the Sunnite and Shiite sources, when referring to the Ismailis, often erroneously call them Qarmatians without perception of the distinction between them.
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- History of Bahrain
- List of extinct Shia sects
- List of Shi'a Muslim dynasties
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