Map of Iraq and al-Ahwaz at the time of the Zanj revolt.
|Zanj rebels||Abbasid Caliphate|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Ali ibn Muhammad||Abu Ahmad al-Muwaffaq
Abu'l-Abbas ibn al-Muwaffaq
Sa'id ibn Makhlad
The Zanj Rebellion or the Negro Rebellion was the culmination of series of small revolts. It took place near the city of Basra, located in present-day southern Iraq, over a period of fifteen years (AD 869–883). The insurrection is believed to have involved enslaved Bantus (Zanj) that had originally been captured from the African Great Lakes region and areas further south in East Africa. It grew to involve over 500,000 slaves and free men who were imported from across the Muslim empire and claimed over "tens of thousands of lives in lower Iraq". The precise composition of the rebels is debated among historians, both as regards their identity and as to the proportion of slaves and free among them – available historical sources being open to various interpretations.
The revolt was said to have been led by Ali bin Muhammad, who claimed to be a descendant of Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib. Several historians, such as al-Tabari and al-Masudi, consider this revolt one of the "most vicious and brutal uprisings" of the many disturbances that plagued the Abbasid central government.
The Zanj Revolt helped Ahmad ibn Tulun to create an independent state in Egypt. It is only after defeating the Zanj Revolt that the Abbasids were able to turn their attention to Egypt and end the Tulunid dynasty with great destruction.
As the plantation economy boomed and the Arabs became richer during the Muslim Agricultural Revolution, agriculture and other manual-labor jobs were thought to be demeaning. The resulting labor shortage led to an increased slave market.
It is certain that large numbers of slaves were exported from eastern Africa; the best evidence for this is the magnitude of the Zanj revolt in Iraq in the 9th century, though not all of the slaves involved were Zanj. There is little evidence of what part of eastern Africa the Zanj came from, for the name is here evidently used in its general sense, rather than to designate the particular stretch of the coast, from about 3°N. to 5°S., to which the name was also applied.
The Zanj were needed to take care of:
the Tigris-Euphrates delta, which had become abandoned marshland as a result of peasant migration and repeated flooding, [which] could be reclaimed through intensive labor. Wealthy proprietors "had received extensive grants of tidal land on the condition that they would make it arable." Sugar cane was prominent among the products of their plantations, particularly in Khūzestān Province. Zanj also worked the salt mines of Mesopotamia, especially around Basra.
Their jobs were to clear away the nitrous topsoil that made the land arable. The working conditions were also considered to be extremely miserable. Many other people were imported into the region, besides Zanj.
Also around the time of the revolts, the Abbasid caliphate was
mired in a period of financial weakness, both internally and externally… The financial strain imposed on the accession of each new caliph contributed to the ability of the Zanj revolt, which began in 868 AD, to sustain itself for as long as it did.
The rise of the Shīʻa also occurred around this time, so the Abbasid government was fighting on two fronts.
Some scholars believe that the Zanj revolt was not necessarily a slave revolt. In this view, there were also Zanj immigrants in Iraq who were a big part of the revolt. M. A. Shaban argued:
"All the talk about slaves rising against the wretched conditions of work in the salt marshes of Basra is a figment of the imagination and has no support in the sources. On the contrary, some of the people who were working in the salt marshes were among the first to fight against the revolt. Of course there were a few runaway slaves who joined the rebels, but this still does not make it a slave revolt. The vast majority of the rebels were Arabs of the Persian Gulf supported by free East Africans who had made their homes in the region"
The actual revolt started with a descendant of slaves named ʻAlī b. Muhammad. He had grown up in Samarra, and not much else is known about his early life. Eventually, he moved to the "Abbasid capital, where he mixed with some of the influential slaves of Caliph al-Muntasir (861-862 A.D.)”. It was here that ʻAlī b. Muhammad learned the workings of the caliphate and financial differences between the Muslim citizens. From here, ʻAlī moved to Bahrain, where he pretended to be Shīʻī and started to rouse the people into rebellion against the caliphate. "Ali's following in the city grew so large that land taxes were collected in his name." The rebellion eventually failed, and ʻAlī relocated to Basra in 868. Also in 868, a leader of the Zanj Rebellion claimed to be the incarnated form of the former Alid rebel Yahya ibn Umar.
In Basra, ʻAlī b. Muhammad preached at the mosque, advocating against the caliphate and for the people.
His first actual contact with Basra's slaves seems to have been motivated by a vicious outbreak of hostilities between two Turkish regiments, the Bilaliyah and the Sa’diyah, which contributed to the weakening of Basra's political regime. Hoping to exploit the resultant anarchy to his advantage, he tried to win to his side members of one of these groups.
The Bilaliyyah and Saʻdiyyah were described by Tabari as guilds in the town or rivaling quarters.
When he heard news about another scuffle between Basra's factions, he "began to seek out black slaves working in the Basra marshes and to inquire into their working conditions and nutritional standards." He told the Zanj and other slaves that he was sent by God to liberate them from their bonds.
Origins have a large part in establishing oneself in Arab society, especially when dealing with slaves. Initially
‘Ali bin Muhammad's paternal grandfather was said to have been a member of the ‘Abd al-Qays lineage and his paternal grandmother a Sindhi slave woman. His mother, a free woman, was a member of the Asad bin Khuzaimah lineage... later commentators have presumed him to have been of Persian rather than Arab origin.
Sahib al-Zanj [ʻAlī's title] declared his rebellion at al-Basrah, during the reign of al-Muhtadi, in 255 A.H. He claimed that he was descended from ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, but most people recognize this as a false claim and reject it.
After ʻAlī's lineage was not accepted, he started to preach the "extremely egalitarian doctrine of the Kharijites, who preached that the most qualified man should reign, even if he was an Abyssinian slave."
This was not the only Kharijite influence in ʻAlī b. Muhammad's campaign. He started off his Friday sermons with the slogan "God is great, God is great, there is no God but God, and God is great; there is no arbitration except by God." "Everyone knew [this] was the war cry used by the Kharijites when they defected from the ranks of Ali during the battle of Siffin." ʻAlī also took on the title Sāhib az-Zanj, which loosely translates to mean "Friend of the Zanj".
However, ʻAlī b. Muhammad was not just the friend of the Zanj but of many other socially downtrodden peoples. This included
[S]emi-liberated slaves, clients of prestigious families, a number of small craftsmen and humble workers, some peasantry and some Bedouin peoples who lived around Basrah. ...Hostilities began in and around Basrah in the area known formerly as Dajlah al-‘Awra’, but eventually spread to the whole area between Shatt al-‘Arab and Waset. Much of this area... was swampland.
Since the revolutionaries were more mobile than the heavily armed caliphate army, it was easy for them to wage guerrilla warfare and overcome most of their former oppressors.
No sooner had they taken up arms against their exploiters that they became adept at night-raids on enemy territory, liberating weapons, horses, food and fellow slaves burning the rest to cinders to delay retaliation.
Over the course of time, the Zanj even
trained expert engineers who blocked the enemy's advance by constructing impenetrable fortresses, cocooned inside layers of water canals or conversely built rapid bridges and communication lines for uninvited courtesy calls to the citadels of the gods.[broken footnote]
They even had somewhat of a navy to take on the caliph's ships. Their ultimate goal, however, was control over the whole Basra area, and they
finally accomplished their objective with a tight blockade that prevented goods and victuals from reaching the besieged inhabitants, and by exploiting the sectarian and ethnic differences among sections of the population. Basra was finally taken in 871 A.D. and totally devastated, then burned.
Mas’udi provides even more gruesome details
Most people hid in homes and wells appearing only at night, when they would search for dogs to slay and eat, as well as for mice. ...They even ate their own dead, and he who was able to kill his companion, did so and ate him.
Ali's soldiers were so outrageous as to auction off publicly women from the lineage of al-Hassan and al-Hussein and al’Abbas [meaning descendants of Ali and the ruling ‘Abbasids] as well as other from the lineage of Hashem, Qureish [the prophet's lineage] and the rest of the Arabs."The caliphate eventually sent out a large military force led by the regent al-Muwaffaq."
After several encounters, the caliphate army started to make examples of rebellion leaders.
For instance, Yahya of Bahrain, a noted leader of the rebel troops, was taken with a small group of men and sent to Samarra. There he was flogged two hundred times while Caliph al-Mu'tamid watched. Both his arms and legs were amputated and he was slashed with swords. Finally, his throat was slit and he was burned.
This did nothing to hinder the Zanjī, and they continued to raid towns and villages. "When the caliphate became preoccupied with the Saffarid secessionist movement in Persia, the Zanjī extended their control further north with the aid of the surrounding Bedouin peoples." It was probably at this time that the Zanjī constructed their capital, which was called al-Mukhtara (the Elect City). The caliph sent vast armies and numerous commanders to suppress the rebellion, but most of them were slaughtered by guerilla warfare waged by the rebels.
The revolt ends
Towards the end of the revolution, most of the former slaves themselves started to turn into the very masters they despised and started to break down as a community.
In 879, after the revolt in Persia was settled, al-Muwaffaq came back and continued to wage war on the rebels. In 881, the better-trained and better-equipped Abbasid army surrounded and outnumbered the Zanj on all sides. With the capture and execution of ʻAlī after the fall of the Zanj capital city of al-Mukhtara, the revolt ended.
In the end, "most of the Zanj joined al-Muwaffaq, but not all. Over 1000 died in the desert of exhaustion and thirst, trying to flee the embattled Iraqi territory. Others remained unsubdued in southern Iraq after their leader was killed; they continued to rob, plunder, and murder throughout Abbasid space until they either joined the Abbasid or died refusing to be anyone's soldier."
By the tenth century, instead of using slaves as a sign of treaty between two cities, private trade was used.
Ghada Hashem Talhami, a scholar of the Zanj revolt, argues that the Zanj rebellion is inaccurately named. In fact, most of the military were not Zanj to begin with. It was only after a time, after most of the other slaves were freed, that the actual Zanj-imported slaves took hold.
Talhami cites from various historians and works to make her point that the rebellion was more of a religious/social uprising made by the lowly classed and suppressed citizens of the Basra area, which included a wide variety of people, including white and Indian slaves. She even says that the most significant element of the rebellion was not the Zanj slaves, but Bedouin from around Basra, who provided regular support throughout the conflict.
"Despite much evidence to the contrary, including the absence of major Arab settlements along the coast, the silence of Arab and Persian geographers on an oceanic trade, and the generalized equation of Zanj with 'black,' it has been used to infer an important commercial relationship between Africa and the Middle East several centuries before such an exchange can be proven to have existed….
The assumption that ‘Abbasid writers used Zanj to mean specifically the East African coast, and that therefore the people they called Zanj originated in a specific part of that region, is completely unjustified."
Sources of information
Much of the current knowledge of the Zanj Rebellion comes from the historian Tabarī's work History of the Prophets and Kings. It has been the subject of research by such famous Orientalists as Theodor Nöldeke (Sketches from Eastern History) and Louis Massignon (The Passion of al-Hallaj); Alexandre Popović has authored a more recent monograph on the subject.
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