Abu 'Abdullah al-Shi'i

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Abu 'Abdullah al-Husayn ibn Ahmad ibn Zakariyya al-Shi'i (Arabic: ابو عبد الله الشيعي, Abū 'Abd Allāh ash-Shi'ī) (executed February 28, 911) was a Da'i for the Isma'ilis in Yemen and North Africa mainly among the Kutama Berbers, whose teachings influenced the rise of the Fatimid dynasty.

He was born in Kufa in Iraq (or Sanaa, according to some accounts) and was active in the administration of the Abbasid Caliphate, before he began to associate with Ismaili teachers. At first he proselytised under the guidance of Ibn Hawshab in Yemen and Mecca.

During a pilgrimage to Mecca in 279 A.H./892 CE, he met some Kutama Berbers that boasted of their independence and autonomy from the Aghlabids. Abu 'Abdullah sensed a chance and decided to follow their invitation to the Maghrib where he arrived in 280/893. After successfully preaching the Ismaili doctrine among the Sanhaja, he was able to form a powerful army consisting of Berber peasants. He began conquering the cities of Ifriqiya up to the point where he finally took over ar-Raqqada, the palace city of the Aghlabids near Kairuan in 909.

All this had been done by him to prepare for the appearance of Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi Billah, the imam-caliph of the Fatimids. Al-Mahdi was rescued from a prison in Sijilmasa (present-day Morocco) and proclaimed as caliph, ruling from the former residence of the Aghlabids.

Al-Shi'i had hoped that al-Mahdi would be a spiritual leader, and leave the administration of secular affairs to him, but he was soon disappointed. After being suspected of complicity in a revolt of Kutama leaders, he was put to death in 911.

Abu Abd Allah Al-Shi'i[edit]

Abu Abd Allah al-Husain b. Ahmad Muhammad b. Zakariya was a Yemenite of Kufa. He was also known as al Muhtasib.

He was a dedicated Shi'ite and highly versed in esoteric. Realizing his promise and potential, the Imam sent him to Yemen for apprenticeship at the hands of Abu'l Qasim b. Hawshab, the Ismaili da'i, who had succeeded in establishing a foothold in that country, Abu Abd Allah stayed in Yemen for a year, in close association with Abul Qasim and participated in missionary, administrative and military activities.

The Imam had earmarked Abu Abd Allah for conducting missionary work in the Maghrib. At the end of his term of apprenticeship, which coincided with the Pilgrimage season, Abu Abd Allah accompanied by a Yemenite assistant, left 'Adan-La'a, Abu'l Qasim's headquarters, for Mecca.

During the Pilgrimage, he contacted the Kitama pilgrims at Muna and he impressed them with his thorough knowledge of the attributes of the Ahl Al Bayt. Accompanying the Kitama caravan to Egypt, he captured the admiration of his fellow-travellers, with the unmistakable skill and craft of an Ismaili da'i. When he revealed that he intended to stay in Egypt in order to undertake teaching for a living, he was conveniently prevailed upon by the Kitama to accompany them to their country. Abu Abd Allah avoided Ifriqiya (Tunisia) by taking a route to the south and he arrived in the Kitama country in the middle of 893.

He chose as headquarters lkdjan near Satif, a mountain stronghold that dominated the Pilgrimage route. He started to teach the attributes of 'Ali b. Abi Talib and his descendants, the Imams, and tribesmen began to trek to lkdjan. It was during this period that Abu Zaki Tammahi b. Mu'arik, a member of the Kitama clan of Idjana, arrived at Abu Abd Allah's headquarters. From that moment he was to become the Da'i's right-hand.

Abu Abd Allah set about organizing his followers whom he called lkhwan i.e. brothers. To the Berbers he was known as al-Mashiriqi, i.e. the Easterner, and his followers as the Mashariqa.

Abu Abd Allah organized classes - Majalis and collected a fee from students - this was probably the fore-runner of the Najwa.

The activities of the Da'i alarmed the neighbouring governor of Mila. In vain he urged the Kitama to hand him over. The autonomous governor, wary of Aghlabid intervention, belittled Abu Abd Allah when lbrahim b. Ahmad, the Aghlabid ruler of lfriqiya, enquired about the Da'i's, activities. Eventually Ibrahim entered into correspondence with Abu Abd Allah, courting his friendship at first and ending with threats. Recognizing his vulnerable position at lkdjan, the Da'i retired to Tazrut under the protection of al-Hasan b. Harun, the powerful leader of the Ghashman clan.

A number of Kitama sheikhs wary of Aghlabid inroads into their country, sought to banish the Da'i, and in the ensuing battle, Abu Abd Allah gained the upper hand. After his resounding victory, the Da'i built himself a palace in Tazrut and his followers built living quarters around it. He embarked on a career of conquests that brought the Kitama country under his control. Immediately, he set on laying the foundations of administration for his principality. He divided the Kitama into seven units, each with its own army, commanders and sheikhs whom he gave wide powers, a measure that sowed the seeds of a power struggle under the Mahdi and in which the Da'i lost his life. Closely following the activities of his Da'i from his retreat in Salmiya, the Imam 'Ubayd Allah al-Mahdi, decided to leave for the Maghrib in 289/902. Failing to join Abu Abd Allah the Imam took refuge in Sidjilmassa where he was detained by its ruler lbn Midrar. The Da'i's brother, Abu'l 'Abbas Muhammad, who accompanied the Imam in his journey, fell into the hands of the Aghlabids.

After consolidating his position in the Kitama country, Abu Abd Allah embarked on his second phase of conquests. After a short siege he took Mila. The new Aghlabid ruler, Abu'l 'Abbas b. lbrahim, promptly sent his son Abu Hawwal with a strong army against the Da'i. Abu Hawwal defeated Abu 'Abd Allah in the country of the Matusa, advanced on Tazrut which he took and burnt the Da'i's palace. He took Mila and Abu Abd Alla fell back on lkdjan. Regrouping his troops the Da'i inflicted a heavy defeat on Abu Hawwal. A counter-attack by the Aghlabid general was repulsed. The Da'i then marched on Satif and took it. He inflicted a series of defeats on the Aghlabdis, notably those at Kabuna, Darmalul and Darmadyan.

On March 19, 909, Abu Abd Allah decisively defeated the Aghlabid near Larybus. Six days later he entered the Aghlabid capital, Raqadda.

After establishing a new fabric of administration in Ifriqiya, he left for Sidjilmassa in order to liberate al Mahdi, leaving Abu Zaki as his deputy. After a short siege, the Da'i took the town by storm and liberated al Mahdi and his son.

Back in Ifriqiya Abu Abd Allah fell under the influence of his brother Abul Abbas who, exploiting the discontent of the Kitama Sheiks who were losing power under the Mahdi's set-up, urged rebellion. When the plot became known he was put to death on Monday 15, Jumada al-Ukhra 298\18 February 911. Wrote Ibn Khalikan, "He was one of those sagacious men who knew what they were doing."

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